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Sunday, December 06, 2009

Refiner's Fire and Fullers' Soap: A Sermon

A Refiner’s Fire and Fuller’s Soap
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

December 6, 2009
Second Sunday of Advent

Malachi 3:1-4
Luke 3:1-6


During the Fall we have been exploring the via negativa, the way of letting go. This is one of four spiritual paths in Creation Spirituality. The others are the way of awe and wonder or via positiva, the way of justice-making or via transformativa and the way of creativity or via creativa. These four paths as Matthew Fox puts it are “like a spiral danced.”

I have decided to focus on one path per season during worship. The season of fall as the leaves turn, as the light of the day shortens, and as Earth (at least in the northern hemisphere) gets ready for sleep is a season of letting go. Beginning with the Winter Solstice we will explore the path of creativity. At the darkest, the light comes into the world, the creativity of the Incarnation opens us to possibilities that we had not imagined. This next path may be welcome after a season of letting go.

The via negativa acknowledges that God, whatever it is we might mean by that term, is in the dark places as well as the light places. God is in the grieving as well as in the celebrating. As the psalmist writes to God, “Where could I go from your presence? If I go to Sheol (the Pit) you are there.”

The psalmist is not necessarily wanting God to be around. The experience of the Divine is one of intensity, unbearable intensity and the psalmist wants to be left alone. But God won’t have it. For those whose spirituality feels like tangling, wrestling, or struggling with the Divine, you know what the psalmist is feeling.

In Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus experiences the Divine Spirit not as a gentle dove but as a raptor with talons piercing his skull and lifting him by the head. In Kazantzakis portrait, Jesus just wants a normal life. He wants to marry Mary Magdalene, settle down have kids, a mortgage, be normal, but this Divine Hawk has other plans for him.

What is being acknowledged here is that the experience of life is not always fluffy or easy or normal. Thinking of life and our experience as a way, a path, or a via, is in part how to cope with all of that. We may discover that our life is not “normal,” but perhaps we shouldn’t try so hard to make it so.

One of the distinguishing marks of the prophet (that is a person called out to speak a particular word) is that the prophet doesn’t want the job.
I don’t want to speak this. Get somebody else. Get someone with more skills, someone who is better with words, I just want to be left alone.
Moses and Jonah represent those who don’t want this role and yet it is given to them by the sheer force of Divine presence.

Jeremiah speaks of the humanity of this. Listen to the pathos of this prophet who is taken over, possessed by Yahweh:

O Lord, you have enticed me,
and I was enticed;
you have overpowered me,
and you have prevailed.
I have become a laughing-stock all day long;
everyone mocks me.
For whenever I speak, I must cry out,
I must shout, ‘Violence and destruction!’
For the word of the Lord has become for me
a reproach and derision all day long.
If I say, ‘I will not mention him,
or speak any more in his name’,
then within me there is something like a burning fire
shut up in my bones;
I am weary with holding it in,
and I cannot.

Jeremiah goes on and on cursing the day he was born because of his role. He has been given this job and he doesn’t like it but he can’t resist it. Like Moses and Jonah and the other prophets, like John the Baptist we read about today, like Jesus, what they did was not easy, pleasant, or normal. What they did ended up being life-giving for others.

Martin Luther King, Jr. could have decided to stay home instead of going to Memphis. But staying home would have gone against his character.

Rachel Carson could have done something besides writing Silent Spring. She could have. But she wouldn’t have done her part in raising awareness as to how we were poisoning our planet.

Harvey Milk didn’t have to run for city supervisor in San Francisco. He didn’t have to lead marches and be outspoken. But he knew he had to give people hope.

All of them experienced the Divine like a Refiner’s Fire and Fuller’s Soap.

These images of Refiner’s Fire and Fuller’s Soap found in Malachi illustrate the intensity of the experience of letting go.

A refiner’s fire would be used purify metal. It was about as intense a fire as ancients could make. You didn’t want to get near it. It needed to be hot and intense to purify or refine the metal.

Fullers were those who bleached and cleaned wool before it was made into clothing. They had to practice their trade outside of the city because of the stench. The soap would be lye, white clay, urine, and ashes of desert plants.

The author of holy scripture, the prophet we know as Malachi tells us that a refiner’s fire and putrid smelling soap is an image for God.

Here is a children's sermon. What is God like kids?

God is like stinky soap made of urine.

That was the point that these ancient authors were making.

The messenger, the prophet, the one who tells the truth, is one who is repulsive as fuller’s soap and a refiner’s fire. Because that is what it will take to wake us up.

The via negativa is emptying, refining, cleansing, purifying.

The prophet of the via negativa, John the Baptist, calling out for a change of heart, is calling for us to face some painful truths. It is up to us as to how to respond.

These past few weeks during the Adult Forum we have been watching a film entitled Home. It is a film about Earth’s history and the human impact on Earth. It spares us little in describing the crises we are facing in terms of ecology. The mood upon watching the film has been sobering, almost despairing. In response to that we feel a need to avoid despair at all cost.
Give me some good news so I don’t have to feel this way.
It will come. But first we have to live with it.

Matthew Fox in his book on the four spiritual paths, Original Blessing, writes of the via negativa:
By the very acknowledgment of our darkness and of our pain we are saved, that is, healed. By refusing to cover up the cosmic despair and the cosmic anguish that life rains on us we make healing possible. We allow an entrance into the wound to take place. By letting pain be pain we allow healing to be healing, and instead of healing our projections or our imaginary darknesses we heal what is truly in pain, what is deeply and irretrievably dark. p. 163
Salvation comes through the via negativa by going into the dragon’s lair and facing the beast. It is embracing the fear and entering the darkest of the dark. This is what it may mean to love our enemies. We embrace that which wants to destroy us.

When we too soon jump to a solution or a platitude for our cosmic anguish, it feels trite. It isn’t real. It isn’t real hope or faith, it is like giving someone a Wal-Mart smiley face after she has lost a dear friend. It is almost insulting. We want to say:

Please don’t, just let me be.

The cosmic anguish is not the end. It isn’t the final answer. But we have to get to zero point first. It is like the alcoholic who has to hit bottom and that bottom can seem bottomless before the creative power of healing can happen. It is a constant return to honesty. You can’t heal unless you are honest.

The Alcoholics Anonymous book, known as the big book says:
Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty. P. 58.
The via negativa or the way of letting go is rigorous honesty.

With the via negativa we are going back to our source or our origins. We are going back to our nothingness. There we find the strength underneath the projections and the masks and the fake answers.

That is what this refiner’s fire and fullers’ soap thing is about. It is an unbearably hot and smelly honesty. If we are wise, we won’t hide from it. We will let it purify us. In so doing we will find who we are really are as individuals and as a species.

Langston Hughes, in his poem Mother to Son speaks of the strength of the via negativa:

Well, son, I'll tell you:
Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
It's had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
Bare.
But all the time
I'se been a-climbin' on,
And reachin' landin's,
And turnin' corners,
And sometimes goin' in the dark
Where there ain't been no light.
So, boy, don't you turn back.
Don't you set down on the steps.
'Cause you finds it's kinder hard.
Don't you fall now—
For I'se still goin', honey,
I'se still climbin',
And life for me ain't been no crystal stair.

We will find that we have strength within that we had never thought possible. We will find our voices and our courage. We will find our joy, our purpose, our meaning.

Or as John the Baptist put it nearly two millennia ago:

Then the whole human race will see the salvation of God.
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