Sermon For Sunday, March 2, 2014

Exodus 3:1-10 & T.S. Eliot’s poem, “Little Gidding”

“The Mystery Of Fire”

Today is the final sermon of a four-part series:

“On The Journey With Faith & Poetry: A Faith-Based Study Of

T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” (Twitter: #TSE4quartets)

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~ http://www.FranklinCircleChurch.org

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher

Twitter: @FranklinCircle ~ Pastor’s Blog: https://nearwestclevepastor.wordpress.com

To hear T. S. Eliot read his poem, “Little Gidding,” go online to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ghM1cL4OFt4

To watch Pastor Allen’s sermon, go online to:

 

ClevelandSteelMillNortheast Ohio is known for many things these days: world-class healthcare, arts and culture, sports teams that break the hearts of tens of thousands of fans in a single play, the quirky nature of “Rust Belt Chic,”… But it was not too long ago that this region was known first and foremost for its primary product: steel.  The steel mills that filled the industrial river valley here in Cleveland and were a fixture in Youngstown held in them fiery blast furnaces where thousands of pounds of steel f18steelwere refined and pour into ingots or sheets or rods or slabs.  There is an enormous amount of heat that must transform the raw materials of the earth into something we moderns can use for our many purposes.

I have never witnessed a steel furnace firsthand, although I’ve lived it through the stories of some in this congregation.  Even so just this past week, while visiting the Toledo Art Museum’s stunning Glass Pavilion, Craig and I had the privilege of once again witnessing the furnaces used for glass blowing.  We had previously been to “The Glass Bubble” over by the West Side Market and so we knew the fascinating process of creating glass IMG_5281products through intense heat and blazing fire.  The Toledo artist explained that the primary furnace, in which the melted glass was held prior to its use, had to be kept at extremely hot temperatures all the time, or the glass would solidify and be useless.  I suspect steel furnaces are maintained in a similar fashion.  Glass blowing furnaces are kept this way for up to 7 or 8 years at a time before they have to be turned off for cleaning and repairs.

Fire has always held a deep fascination for us earthly creatures, whether it be from a raging wildfire sparked by errant lighting bolt in the middle of the wilderness, or a small flickering flame on a candle in our hand in the darkened sanctuary of a Christmas Eve Service at Franklin Circle Christian Church.  We are drawn to fire and the mystery fire represents.

T.S. Elliot’s poem, “Little Gidding,” in his “Four Quartets” masterpiece is lit brightly by fire.

The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,

In windless cold that is the heart’s heat,

Reflecting in a watery mirror

A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.

And glow more intense than blaze of branch, or brazier,

Stirs the dumb spirit: no wind, but pentecostal fire

In the dark time of the year.

IMG_5120

From the first lines that hearken the glare of the sun to the flames that flickered over the faithful at Pentecost (an image he flirts with throughout the poem), to the reference to the ashes left after a fire has consumed and exhausted itself, Eliot sees and explores both the redeeming qualities of fire as well as its destructive qualities, and all the possibilities between.

As do many of us – especially the young – I find fire absolutely fascinating!  I can stare at a roaring campfire or a candle’s flickering flame for what seems like hours.  Quite frequently I have said that part of the brilliance of

Torch at Camp Christian

Torch at Camp Christian

former Ohio Regional Minister Harold Monroe’s grand arching program for the youth camp and conference program he crafted in the 1950’s and 60’s was that he integrated fire throughout the camp experience.  Symbolic candles are lit at key points in the week.  Every night ends at vespers with sacred stories told only by the flicker of a campfire.  Torches are held at the final consecration service by those who have returned enough years to have earned the privilege of doing so.  In fact the motto of Camp Christian is a quote by Jean Jaures: “Take from the altars of the past the fire – not the ashes.”

Our lives have become too bereft of mystery I maintain.  Fire is only one way the incomprehensibility of life emerges from within us, but it certainly is a powerful way.  For some of us it is looking into the eyes of a newborn babe, and for others it is gazing into the face of a lover.  For some the unfathomable aspects of life waft over us when we are in nature – on a mountain, by the lakeshore, in the desert.  For others, like myself, mystery is made real when I am in the middle of the city and the dynamic pulse of diversity and energy beats around me in the crowds on the sidewalks, the skyscrapers towering overhead, and the taxicabs beeping their horns.  As ubiquitous as mystery can be, we do not open ourselves to it nearly often enough.

Elliot takes us into his experience of mystery by describing a shadowy, almost ghostly figure he encountered:

“And as I fixed upon the down-turned face

           That pointed scrutiny with which we challenge

           The first-met stranger in the waning dusk

           I caught the sudden look of some dead master

           Whom I had known, forgotten, half recalled

           Both one and many; in the brown-baked features

           The eyes of a familiar compound ghost

           Both intimate and unidentifiable.”

Old Marley's Ghost appears to Scrooge, in Charles Dickens "Christmas Carol"

Old Marley’s Ghost appears to Scrooge, in Charles Dickens “Christmas Carol”

Such mysterious figures play a critical part in our collective human memory, from voices that come from burning bushes, to angels that appear giving news of miraculous pregnancies, to mountain-top encounters with ancient prophets, to radiant figures proclaiming good news from broken-open-tombs, our sacred scriptures are abundant with such messengers.  Great literature, also, finds such ethereal specters powerful truth-tellers, with the three ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future in Charles Dickens “Christmas Carol” a supreme example.

I am not one to lay the blame for the lack of mystery in our modern world at the feet of science and technology, as some are prone to do.  In fact, were one to really read and understand the greatest scientists of the world, they each acknowledge in some way the limitations of the human mind and the power of the unknown.  No less a scientist than Albert Einstein, acknowledged this when he wrote:

Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible concatenations, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable.  Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion.  To that extent I am, in point of fact, religious. (1)

To pit science and the scientific method against religion and spirituality is a false argument and used mainly to provoke folks for someone’s personal gain or to raise money.  I, along with many other theologians, believe that science and faith can be complimentary and mutually fulfilling. (2)  Both can expose us to the great enigmatic unknown of life.

So, if it is not the scientific method that has diminished our sense of mystery, what has?  I believe this is due to our having slowly but surely substituted sensationalism for mystery.  Just looking at the synonyms for “sensationalism” on my computer offers a laundry list of contemporary culture: exaggeration, overstatement, luridness, scandal, melodrama, and shock tactics.  We’ve been lulled into thinking that that which is sensational is all we can hope for in seeking the mystery of life.  Well it’s a lie!  Mystery exists and it is beyond human control!  And there is no better place to call this lie out for what it is and offer another way back to the great mystery of the unknown facets of existence than here: in the Church!

My pastor friend, the Rev. Mary Kay Totty, who shaped this T.S. Elliot “Four Quartet” study and sermon series, offers a wonderful way to tell the difference between sensationalism and mystery.  She writes:

I believe the answer lies in the results of the experience.  Does the experience lead to action for the common good?  Does the experience call one to one’s own best self?  Does the experience increase the fruits of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control; Galatians 5:22-23)?

"Mount Of Transfiguration" by Edward Knippers

“Mount Of Transfiguration” by Edward Knippers

When we think of those great mystics of life, whether it be biblical figures such as Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, Mary, or Peter or mystics from the annals of post-biblical history, such as Gregory of Nyssa, Julian of Norwich, Rumi, Lao Tze, Theresa of Avila, to folks I consider modern mystics, including Howard Thurman, Matthew Fox, Pablo Neruda, Maya Angelou, Anne Lamott, Robert Fulghum, and our own James Daryl Schimmel we become aware that their connections with something beyond common knowledge and experience is never selfish nor self-serving, but always able to bring life to the whole of creation.  And while the mystical most certainly can be a highly individualized occasion, it rarely speaks only to that one individual.  In fact, such experiences almost always have to be shared!

And the other litmus test for any mystical experience takes us back to Eliot’s central image in today’s poem: fire.  Fire illuminates.  Fire refines.  Fire can be as devastating as it can be transforming.  So is mystery: illuminating, refining, devastating, transforming.  Sensationalism burns off like dross in the face of all of these properties.

So we come now to the end of our exploration of T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets.”  My colleague and friend, Mary Kay, concludes her study with some wonderfully encompassing words, that take us through the four weeks and themes of this series.  She writes,

God’s persuasive presence works in mysterious ways.  Our faith journeys are shaped in many ways – through silence & meditation (week 1); through ritual & sacrament (week 2); through spiritual disciplines (week 3); and possibly through mystical encounters (week 4).  All these various and diverse means of grace enable us to draw closer to God and closer to one another.  Our faith journeys teach us to be ever more loving, ever more compassionate, and it is through love and compassion that we find meaning in life.

T. S. Eliot

T. S. Eliot

And so it is only fitting that we conclude with the loving and compassionate words of T.S. Eliot himself, the final lines of “Little Gidding,” words which I have used again and again to evoke the mystery of the divine and of life itself.  I am hard pressed to find words better than these to lay bare my soul to you and to God.  Eliot writes,

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling

 

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

Through the unknown, unremembered gate

When the last of earth left to discover

Is that which was the beginning;

At the source of the longest river

The voice of the hidden waterfall

And the children in the apple-tree

 

Not known, because not looked for

But heard, half-heard, in the stillness

Between two waves of the sea.

Quick now, here, now, always–

A condition of complete simplicity

(Costing not less than everything)

And all shall be well and

All manner of thing shall be well

When the tongues of flames are in-folded

Into the crowned knot of fire

And the fire and the rose are one.

Amen.

(1) Albert Einstein, Response to atheist, Alfred Kerr (1927), quoted in The Diary of a Cosmopolitan (1971) found online at: http://atheism.about.com/od/einsteingodreligion/tp/EinsteinMysteryReligion.htm

(2) For a great article on exactly what the “Scientific Method” is, go online to: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_method

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