Sermon: Burned in the fire

Delivered at Saint Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco on the seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Proper 11A • Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

A few months ago, Larisa and I were vested, getting ready for the 8:30 service, when it started to rain.

We both stood at the front doors of the church and just stared out at it, a little be stupefied.

Larisa turned to me and said that it’s easy to spot native Californians by their response to the rain.

As some of you know, I am going to be starting a PhD in England this Fall studying theology and the imagination, and the most frequent comment I get when I tell people where I’m moving is, “Ohh, but what about all the rain??” and the question is ususally accompanied by a worried expression, or a sad face, as though if I live there long enough I’m either going to be drowned by all the water or I’m going to become so depressed by the wet weather that I’ll give up and come home.

But what the people asking this question never realize is that having grown up in San Diego, where it is always dry and it only rains ten or fifteen days out of the year if we’re lucky, I always experience rain as a kind of stupefying miracle. “Wait?? This water is just falling out of the sky??”

When I was a boy growing up in the countryside north of San Diego, I remember standing outside behind our house late in the summer, looking out across the valley and seeing towers of smoke rising from the other side of the hills. On the underside of the clouds, I could see a red glare from the flames of the brushfire that was burning away all of the grass that had grown during the spring rains. Occasionally, even though the fire had not yet reached the top of the hills, I could see a red tongue of flame reach up above the crest of ridge, the flames were so tall.

This is the fire that I see in my imagination whenever I hear Jesus speak about fire, and when I hear him speak of wailing, I hear the sirens of the fire engines.

I don’t remember being afraid that the fire would reach our house, but I do remember being impressed by the power of the flames and how hot they burn.

I think a lot of us get uncomfortable when we hear Jesus talking about fire.

Jesus parables of Judgment have been used for too long to draw lines between “us” and “them”, between those who are saved and those who aren’t, and I don’t doubt that many of us here this morning have run up against one of those lines at some point in our lives, and as many of us have, at one point or another, drawn a line, or tried to find one, so that we could know where was the right place to be, and where was the wrong place.

• •

Another of my earliest memories, even before the fire on the hills, is of my mom and myself in the kitchen, listening to the radio report about fighting somewhere in the world. Hardly understanding what I was hearing, I was able to gather enough to know that at least two sides were fighting, and I remember asking my mom who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. I think I was in kindergarten at this point.

Wise woman that she is, I remember my mom telling me that there aren’t really such things as good guys and bad guys. And then she then did her best to explain civil war in Nicaragua at the 5-year-old level.

And she is right, of course, even though it is usually hard to admit it.

It’s just so comforting getting to know who is a stalk of wheat *points at self confidently* and who is a weed… It’s so comforting to know that the people I despise and who despise me are eventually going to receive the punishment they so dearly deserve.

What else is going to church for, right?

Only we don’t actually get it that easy. Not that it’s really easy. Because however these parables of Judgment, that end with wailing agrinding of teeth and being cast into the ourter darkenss, however these parables have been used over the centuries, they have been co-opted into our perennial desire to be right and to be pure, and we have forgotten or refused to remember the much harder teachings: that the one who is speaking spent his days with sinners and tax collectors, and he ate with them.

Jesus, our teacher, our brother, our God, went out into the field and found us each both wheat and weeds.

When we hear Jesus speak of fire and we see in our imaginations the angels of the Lord throwing with weeds to be burned, generations of interpretation have taught us to hear Jesus speaking of punishment and retribution from God.

And for years I was uncomfortable about these stories for just that reason: this is not the God I had come to know.

Until a friend pointed out to me that fire means one thing to our imaginations, and something quite else to people raised in the imagination of the Torah and the Prophets. Because throughout the Hebrew Bible, fire is almost never associated with punishment: it is almost always a sign of God’s presence and when fire is painful, it is not the pain of annihilation but the pain of purification: the pain of letting go of that which is not needed: the pain of becoming fully ourselves, free from the lies sown in our hearts and in our bodies by the enemy.

The fire of God is the fire of love. It is the fire of love telling us the truth about ourselves and saying you are beloved: now be all of yourself.

• •

It’s hard to think about fires and Judgment without thinking about Dante. So much of our imagination has been filled with half-remembered or rumored images of all kinds of creative suffering in the Inferno.

But I don’t think that Dante is shown amopng the dancing saints because he had such vivid things to say about how he imagined the afterlife or what he believed happens to us when we die.

Dante’s Divine Comedy is mostly about what happens to us when we are alive. It begins midway through Dante’s life and it traces the route that he must take as he seeks after a life unburdened by the lies that he has come to believe about himself and about the world and about God and about love.

As Dante understood, before we can get to the freedom and celebration of Paradise, we have to go through the hard work and painful burning away of what we thought must be true about oursleves: Dante himself is transformed by his journey through the Inferno as he gives up his need to see vengeance on his enemies and as he lets go of his ambition and pride and need to be right, and as he comes more and more to see the world clearly through the eyes of God’s love.

• •

However much we would like it to be, the parable of the wheat and the weeds just doesn’t let us divide the world into the good ones and the bad.

Because what Jesus leaves unspoken, what he seems desperately to hope that we have gathered or will one day come to understand, is that when he speaks of the righteous and the unrighteous, he always speaking of each of us. And when he points us to judgment it is not toward vengeance or punishment but toward how drawing ever closer to God always means having burned away what we don’t need, so that we are left free to love and to create beauty and to serve the world as his hands and his feet and eyes and his voice raised in song.

The fire burns away the brush and the dry grass. And then the rains come, and something new and beautiful and long-desired is made able to grow.

• • •

Sermon: The Feast of the Strangeness of God

Trinity Sunday, Year A • Preached at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco • 11 June 2017

Genesis 1:1-2:4a • 2 Corinthians 13:11-13 • Matthew 28:16-20

Make disciples of all nations; baptise them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe all the commands I gave you.

Love is strange.

It is beautiful and it is painful and it is glorious and it is dangerous.

If you have ever been in love, you will know why so many songs and poems and novels and movies and works of art have been made in the hope of expressing some small fraction of the experience of love.

If you have ever loved a parent or a child or a friend, you will know how powerful and demanding and rewarding and exhausting and necessary love can be.

Love is strange.

It is all these things at once, and it is unforgiving in this insistance on being unwilling to be reduced and unwilling to be understood in the conventional way that we understand.

This is Trinity Sunday, or as we might call it: the Feast of the Strangeness of God.

From Advent through Christmas and the season of Epiphany, we experienced the birth of Jesus, our friend and God taking on a human life. Through Lent and Easter, we walked with Jesus through his life, death and glorious Resurrection.

This is the story of God drawing close to our life. It is the story of God becoming known to us in ways as familiar as speaking and eating and drinking and laying his hands on our heads.

Last week at Pentecost, we returned with Jesus’ first followers to the day on which we received God’s Holy Spirit, as close to us as our breath, when God’s own self filled us with her fire and her power.

For five seasons of our year we remember and rehearse God’s drawing near to us, and then today, after it seems as though the story is finished, we are reminded that though God is with us always, she is never just as we imagine.

On this day of the year, the week after Pentecost, we sit in wonder as we contemplate the mystery of God’s revealing herself to be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: three in one and one in three.

If this does not make sense to you, then I would like to congratualte you on your skills of observation and your unwillingness just to believe what you’re told.

Because whatever else we learn as we contemplate the Trinity, we learn that God is strange. God does not fit neatly into our understanding or our categories.

The passage we just heard comes at the very end of Matthew’s Gospel. It is the last thing Matthew wants us to know about the story of God’s revelation of herself in Jesus. Mark’s gospel leaves us wondering what it means that the disciples find the tomb embpty. Luke leaves us wondering what it could mean that Jesus has ascended into heaven. But Matthew leaves us with this: everything I have told you about Jesus is true, and yet there is more.

Jesus’ final instruction to his disciples is to continue his work and to go out into the world not only proclaiming the good news of his life, death, and resurrection, but to do it in the name of the Trinity, to enact that good news in the name of of God revealed not as a solitary self, but as a relationship.

This would have been especially strange to Matthew’s community. The community for whom Matthew was writing were predominantly Jewish in outlook: he spends the most time of any of the four Gospel-writers relating Jesus to the prophecies and expectations of the Hebrew Bible. And so as the Jewish imagination more than any other culture of the ancient world was focused on the singular one-ness of God, it is remarkable that Matthew of all writers would be the first draw our gaze to the relationships within God’s single identity.

In the light of the Trinity, God is not a remote figure locked in his unknowable singularity.

In the light of the Trinity, God is in his very identity a relationship. And like all relationships built on love, it is a relationship of vulnerability and sharing. It is a relationship that has the ability to surprise and always, always the promise of new depths.

Within God’s one-ness we find many-ness, and within God’s many-ness there is always one-ness.

This is only the beginning of the strangeness of God.

My students at Stanford ask me about the Trinity a lot. Bright as they are, they want to *understand* this central claim of Christianity.

And in the end, after I have pointed them to the controversies of the third and fourth centuries in which our beloved Gregory was an active participant, in the end all I can tell them is that whatever else the Trinity is, it is a revelation of love.

Whever else was going on in the incarnation, it was a revelation of God’s love for her creation. Whatever else it is that we mean by the Holy Spirit, it is a manifestation of God’s love for her people and the power of the Father’s love for the Son.

When Jesus tell his disciples, there at the end, that they are to baptise the world in the name of the Trinity and that those who are baptized are to observe the commands that he gave, it is easy for us, who love our egalitarian ideals and resist hierarchy on principle, to bristle at this call to obedience.

But then we remember that Jesus’ really only gave one command: love on another.

To be his disciple is to learn how to love the world. To be a follower of Jesus is to learn how to love one another and to love what we have been told is unlovable.

This is the obedience to which we are called.

The strangeness of God points us toward a love that is unburdened by any sense of deserving or merit: the love of God revealed in the Trinity is unearned and always flowing.

And we who would be Christ’s followers are invited into nothing less than that strange, dancing love so that we might share it and be it everywhere.

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