A consuming fire

Baptism at All Souls, November 30, 2008

A sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 22, 2010. The lectionary readings are Isaiah 58:9b-14, Psalm 103:1-8, Hebrews 12:18-29, and Luke 13:10-17.

Last month when I was on retreat with some other clergy, we realized on the first day that the retreat center had evidently been talking to the fire inspector.

Last year, when we were together, each small group of us, when we got together to pray and talk about things, had a “group candle” we would light. It was a reminder of the Holy Spirit’s presence among us. Of course, the Holy Spirit doesn’t vanish when the candle isn’t lit, but it remained an important symbol of the Spirit. It was light. It was warmth. It was flame. It connected us to those biblical passages in which God’s Spirit is likened to fire. Before Jesus, John the Baptist explains that while he baptizes with water, one will come (the Messiah) who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. There is fire, too, at that first Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit makes herself known to the disciples by appearing as flames of fire, dancing over their heads, and the fire burns away confusion and difference, ignorance and misunderstanding, so that all understand each other. All of that comes to mind when one lights a candle, especially when one lights a candle among other believers, friends in the faith, with whom one has been praying, for whom one has been praying. But not this year at our retreat. This year, the candles were electric. They had a battery somewhere in them. And they had an “on/off” switch. It was different, this year.

One of my group, Christina, who is an Episcopal priest in Cuba, refused to look at the candle, “that thing,” she called it. At each of our small group’s meetings, I would playfully offer her the candle-thing and ask if she would like to “be our acolyte.” “No,” she said, “get that thing away from me. It’s horrible. It shouldn’t be.” Christina had no time for fake candles, fake-fire, or fake flame. I think she probably associated it with fake faith.

I suppose there might be a faith equivalent for an electric candle. It might look like someone whose practice of faith is artificial—it is “turned on” perhaps for Easter and Christmas, but otherwise the batteries can be removed for safekeeping. Or an electric candle faith might be like the kind of person who keeps his or her faith on a shelf. It is so private, so personal, so individual as never to risk – certainly never risking causing a fire, but also never risking helping another warm to the flame, helping another see by the light, helping another burn with the love of God.

But when we’re open to it, that’s what the Holy Spirit does within us. The flame offers warmth, light, and love.

In Isaiah, we’re told just that, that if we can just stop pointing fingers at each other and speaking in (what Isaiah calls) “evil ways,” then all kinds of things are possible. Our “light shall rise in the darkness, and our (previous) gloom, be like the noonday.” Through our faithfulness, others are blessed—they find food and have their needs addressed. Water comes to the parched, and keeps on coming. Old divisions are healed; separations overcome. When the fire of God burns within us, it spills over onto others.

In Jesus we see the light of God’s love burning brightly, so brightly that it attracts people from all over. When people see him, they want to follow wherever he’s going, because it seems to lead toward increasing light. When people meet him, they want to become different people, more like him, more like God. And when people feel him, they are healed. That’s what happens in today’s gospel reading with the poor woman who is bent over, who’s been crippled for some eighteen years. Jesus looks at her and refuses to see someone who is limited, someone who’s old, someone who is pitied, someone who doesn’t matter. Instead, he sees her as the child of God that she is. With his whole treatment of her, he loves her. The light of God shines on her like the light of the sun on a seedling, and love (and life itself) calls her to grow taller and stretch high so she can come to touch even God.

Whenever God burns within us there is warmth for others, there is light for others, and there is love. And when we’re open to it, there’s no risk of its being artificial, or temporary. There is no on/off switch. Instead, the fire of God that burns within us is a consuming fire.

The Letter to the Hebrews reminds the faithful of the way God’s fire went before the people of Israel, illumining the way, keeping them from stumbling. That same fire burns brightly in the Heavenly Jerusalem, the symbol of our meeting place with God, where the light is thick in its strength, amid innumerable angels feasting and celebrating, with the spirits of all those who have tried to live faithfully finally fulfilled, made holy, and made one with God. This is no flicker of a candle. It’s an eternal flame, so bright that is even gives light to those of us still on earth. We notice its glow. We move in its warmth. We are made holy by its light.

In just a few minutes, we will baptize James Raymond. We offer him a little of that heavenly, eternal, consuming fire as a symbol of the Holy Spirit’s dwelling within him. We baptize with water. We anoint with oil that seals with God’s spirit. And we offer a lighted candle. Some like to bring their candle out on the anniversary of their baptism. Others like to put it away with baptismal keepsakes. Either way, the real message is that God’s light burns within James, and from this day forward, God through him will continue offering light in the world.

A parishioner recently reminded me of a wonderful story that comes from the early years of Christianity, when women and men would go to live in the desert as a means of purifying and strengthening their faith. The desert itself was a bright place, but these people were looking for the light of God. They were looking to increase their own burning to be as much and as pure as possible. These desert fathers and mothers were called abbas and ammas. And so, there’s a story about Abba Lot, who goes to see the older and wiser Abba Joseph.

Abba Lot says, “Abba Joseph, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?”

And then, Abba Joseph, the old man, stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”

May the Holy Spirit quicken the flames that burn within each of us. So that we might be consumed in the fire of God’s love.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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