Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Transforming Fire: Seminary Chapel Sermon

Jeremiah 20: 7-9
Luke 24: 13-16, 28-35

Toward the end of March, a friend of mine watched in horror as fire engulfed five of the houses across the street from his.

When he and his wife were looking, several years ago, for a home to purchase, one of the requirements on their list was a front porch. They found what they were looking for in an enclave of row houses in a small town outside Philadelphia. Every house had a porch, and so people got to know one another a bit. There was the lady who read on her porch all summer, and the family with the three kids who played on theirs. My friend teaches horticulture, and so he loves living in a place where being outdoors is important to everyone. He is also a stained glass artist, and so he knows quite a bit about fire that creates as well as fire that destroys.

The night of the neighborhood fire, he heard some commotion across the street and, when he looked out, somewhat irritated by the late night noise, he saw a scene which almost stopped his heart.

The pictures he posted on Facebook are dramatic and terrifying; you can practically feel the heat and hear the crackling flames and falling timbers.

The photos reminded me of another fire, one many years ago, when the church behind our house burned to the ground.

That event, too, happened late one spring night, and I watched from my kitchen windows, mesmerized, as flames poured out the windows of the church and burst through its roof. When the smoke began to drift through our own windows, I realized that we probably needed to get out of there. My husband was out of town on business, so I got the baby out of her crib, and sort of pushed and pulled my two sleepy boys out the front door and over to our neighbor’s on the other side. We stayed there for an hour or so, until things appeared to be under control, and then we went back home. The firefighters were starting to take some breaks and they looked completely exhausted, so I urged them to rest on my front steps when they wanted to, and began to take pitchers of water and lemonade out to them.

I didn’t do anything else.

I didn’t even write a note to the fire department later to thank them for saving the rest of our block. I was a young mother with three-year-old twins and a newborn, and a husband who traveled frequently, and so I went back to my very busy life without much thought to the ways in which other lives had been affected by the fire while ours had been left intact, even though there was a big black spot out behind our house where the church had been.

And that brings me to something that my friend wrote after his neighborhood fire.

The next day, people returned to collect what little was left of their possessions and take them back to the hotel in which the Red Cross has put them up. One woman invited him into what remains of her house, but he declined. “I’ve got this,” she said, holding up a tie rack, and as he walked back across the street, the words to a Lyle Lovett song echoed in his head:

“Step inside my house …

I'll tell you 'bout where I've been …

I’ll show you all the things I own,

My treasures you might say..”.

How might a tie rack salvaged from the rubble of a fire be a treasure? What memories are attached to it? A husband long gone? Happier times when they passed summer evenings together by reading on the porch?

My friend resolved that the next time that someone invites him to share something of her life, he will not say no.

There are fires all around us.

Some of them are not visible, not unless we know to look for the telltale signs of smoldering loss, frustration, anger, or despair.

Sometimes they erupt from the embers of disagreement, over issues in our neighborhoods, our schools, our churches.

Sometimes, they are much more apparent: the explosion in the West Virginia coal mine, for instance, or the volcano in Iceland. (This morning I saw online that there are eight million travelers with nowhere to go. I’m sure there’s a sermon in there somewhere!)

Some involve neighborhoods not literally on fire, but burning to the ground just as surely as if they were, fanned by the flames of the drug trade, of an educational system in disarray, of an economy that offers no hope of employment.

Some involve families imploding from within or besieged from without.

There are fires all around us, and so many opportunities for us to respond.

We could express our gratitude to those who do the heavy lifting for us.

We could look for ways to talk with one another, to encounter one another with reverence instead of with anger and hostility over our disagreements.

We might honor losses by taking the time to be present to those who have nothing but a tie rack to show for decades of living.

“Were not our hearts burning within us?”

Might we pause, when we are surrounded by destructive fire, when the lives of our friends and neighbors are engulfed by flames, to remember the fire glowing in our hearts?

Might we remember the one who causes that fire to burn when he walks alongside his friends and offers them a new interpretation of the events they’ve just experienced?.

We might remember that when Jesus sees the despondency in the eyes of his friends, and hears the heartbreak in their voices, he journeys with them, and he shares a meal with them.

Such little things, but such very large acts of compassion and friendship:

A walk and a conversation that acknowledge the effects of great and unwanted change.

The breaking of bread that tells us that shared memory is essential to transformation.

Acts that respond to bewilderment and confusion by recreating community and offering new vision.

What Jesus does in the world is what we are invited to imitate, to share, in this already-not-yet kingdom place which we inhabit.

Do we do that? Do we take a detour to walk with someone whose life has been singed by fire? Do we act upon the knowledge that Jesus shared with us, that community is created, and recreated, and reconciled, when we share our stories and our bread?

Jeremiah says that he is weary of holding in the fire burning in his bones; well, we should be weary of the same thing!

Jeremiah was compelled, by the brokenness of his people and by the irresistible fire of God burning within him to proclaim what he saw; we, too, are called to say out loud what we see.

We are called to resist the fires that destroy by making ourselves present -Present to those who long for the fire that creates, present as witnesses to their experience, and present as companions willing to walk straight into their charred lives.

It’s Easter, and we have been given the gift of the fire that cannot be contained, that burns within us so that we can carry it wherever it is needed, wherever there are people who need to be heard, people who need to share what once was, people who need bread broken to reveal a future.

Walter Brueggeman says that the Eucharist is one of the most countercultural things we can do: The sharing of bread and cup is an identity-shaping re-enactment, an antidote to loss. It says we’re not alone. It says that the holy power of God is in this place

When Jesus walks with the unidentified disciples on the road to Emmaus, they recognize in the breaking and sharing of bread, who he is, and who they are – and who we are: His beloved people.

And they are able to comprehend the sense of encounter with love that enveloped them as they walked with him and that caused their hearts to burn.

We, too, have been given the gift of fire that goes wherever love calls. We, too, have been given the gift of fire that consumes and transforms all potential for destruction.

It calls us to turn toward one another: to write the thank you note, to step inside the remains of the house, to walk through our neighborhoods, and to explore our differences together.

My Philadelphia friend hesitated in response to a fire that seemed only to destroy. But he knows well the fire that creates. He wrote this week that he counted 38 candles in his church last Sunday morning, and he said,

"Fire can be so beautiful."

Thanks be to God.

(With thanks to Stratoz, and apologies for any misrepresentations.)


  1. Your reflection is both intimate and universal. Thank you.

  2. So beautifully told. Such stories are the true building blocks of a faith-filled life. And you give them so freely.

    Thank you.

  3. We're all living in the Refiner's fire, aren't we? You did a wonderful job using the fire metaphor in different ways in this sermon--and providing immediate and practical ways to act in faith towards others. Amen .

  4. yes, lovely, Robin...the fire that takes and the fire that gives.

  5. Thanks for the compelling reminder to enter in with others, even if we've got our own fire burning. It's a shared human experience and yes, transforming.

  6. beautifully woven sermon. Thank you.

  7. In my 38 years within this, I've heard many the sermon preached on "fire", but you have found an anointing with this one and it "connects" as well as, if not more so, than any or all of them....

  8. wow. I wandered here via stratoz...I think I'll stay awhile.

  9. This is simply one of the best sermons I've ever read.