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    Feb 02, 2020

    The 4th Sunday after the Epiphany

    Passage: Luke 2:22-40

    Preacher: The Rev. Canon Patricia Grace

    Series: Year A 2020-2021

    Category: Epiphany

    Detail:

    For he is like a refiner's fire; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver                                                                                                        Malachi 3:1

               

     

    Gracious God, take our minds and think through them; take our lips and speak through them; take our hearts and set them on fire with love for you.

     

    I was raised in Western Pennsylvania,

    in a little town about 12 miles northwest of Pittsburgh.

    Pittsburgh – known as the Steel City –

    and when I was coming up,

    every little burg along the three rivers that meet in a point in Pittsburgh –

    was also a steel town…

    each one boasting a prosperous mill on the river banks.

     

    My dad worked for United States Steel –

    not in the mill, but as a cost accountant.

    And when the little Grace girls visited Dad

    his rather common looking office building,

    we stood, mesmerized,

    looking out of the huge windows in his office,

    across the river right into the belly of the mill, itself.

    And what a sight it was.

    Steelmaking is a wondrous thing –

    you take unrefined iron ore, scrap metals and other alloys,

    then heat them up together at a tremendous temperature –

    upwards of 3000 degrees Fahrenheit.

    The now liquid concoction is then poured into molds,

    or other containers to be made into beams or rolled into sheets.

    The steel is then used in fabricating homes, shopping centers,

    skyscrapers, hospitals, bridges, airplanes, ships, rail road cars…

    and even tiny pieces of shaped metal

    that could then be turned into highly technical instruments,

    all kinds of tools and many other useful things.

    The result of this process is a sturdy, foundational element

    that can withstand lots of pressure and can hold up under stress.

     

    Now we could see into the mill,

    because for most of the year,

    the doors to the mill were opened to give some relief to the workers

    from the intense noise and heat of the production floor.

    Steel mills were dirty, loud and often dangerous places to work.  

    The work did not happen fast – it could not be rushed –

    should not be rushed, that is.

    Making steel was undertaken

    with thoughtful planning and patience –

    there was too much at stake –

    faulty products could result in the collapse of significant structures,

    and consequently the death or disfigurement of people who prepared the steel and those who depended on it for daily life;

    a host of terrible tragedies could ensue,

    if time and adequate care were not taken.

     

    We girls would watch transfixed, at all that heat and power.

    We watches as a glowing, red hot ribbon of liquid

    snaked its way along a trough in the plant,

    bound for different kinds of molds at the end of the process

    determined by the end use of the steel.

    We knew that human skin would disintegrate

    if it came in contact with that molten substance –

    as the impurities in the ore and scrap were burned away

    in favor of strength and resilience, as well as a measure of flexibility.

    Steel must be study and reliable,

    but also can be engineered to adapt to a wide variety

    of conditions – like high winds or other atmospheric challenges.

    So, that is steel – common, less than perfect elements

    refined and purified by fire to be strong, resilient and malleable.

     

    The prophet Malachi whom we read in our Old Testament lesson today

    had no knowledge of steel mills – of course –

    he was writing sometime around 500 BC.

    But the analogy he does use

                seems compatible with our modern day example.

    The Messiah who is coming, says Malachi,

    will be like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap.

    Our refining God will take everyday, less than perfect elements

                and through a process involving fire or soap,

                            will render them stronger and more useful –

    will render them pure and clean.

    Fuller’s soap, incidentally,

    is an especially harsh combination of chemicals.

    It was used by fullers –

    the folks who shear sheep and get their fleeces ready to sell or trade – to clean the fleece.

    The process was difficult, dirty

    and required incredible upper body strength and tenacity

    to render the wool of the sheep to the right hue of white.

    So Malachi was saying that when the Messiah comes,

    he will be about refining things and making them pure –

                about removing impurities and cleansing.

    The everyday, common, less than perfect elements of our human selves

                will be refined and purified by the fiery and cleansing work of God…

    refined and purified to be strong resilient and flexible;

    refined and purified to be made sturdy

               and able to stand up to pressure;

    refined and purified to be able to hold up under stress.

     

    And the Messiah, it seems, will take his time about it.

    He will sit, says the prophet,

    as a refiner and purifier of silver sits –

    Malachi uses a word that means to sit a good spell –

    the Messiah will abide, will dwell on the task, in other words,

    and take his time to make sure the impurities are burned away

    and the result is clean and white and ready.

     

    So Malachi is also suggesting that the process

    will not be without a measure of discomfort and inconvenience.

    The Messiah comes to refine and purify –

    and it is not always a day in the park.

    I think modern day Christians often forget

    or want to gloss over the truth of this statement.

    Jesus comes not only to comfort the afflicted,

    but to afflict the comfortable.

    We’d rather deal with a more domesticated Lord, if you will –

    like the Jesus we meet as a sweet little baby in the manger,

    as the teenager who gets lost and found and talks back to

    his confused and worried parents;

    as the young carpenter, rabbi, storyteller and healer;

    as the devoted shepherd who will stop to find even just one lost sheep. It’s more difficult to imagine him as the man

    so overcome with righteous indignation,

    he tears up the synagogue,

    desiring to do more than just turn over some tables –

    he wants to turn over the whole world

    and will bring some heat to it, if necessary.

    We shy away from the leader who chastises Peter -

    “get behind me Satan” –

    or the truth teller to power who has the courage

    to look the lawyers and Pharisees in the eyes

    and tell them they’re destined to be devil’s food,

    if they don’t change their ways.

    Jesus comes, yes, to bring health and wholeness,

    to preach and teach a way of love –

    the unconditional love of God for everyone.

    But he also comes to change the status quo,

    to push us to stretch and to grow,

                to be better than we ever thought we could be.

    He comes to take a scrub brush and some caustic soap

    to that which has become soiled or damaged by sin,

    by arrogance, by neglect and apathy…

    He has come to set us on fire –

    to refine our minds and lips and hearts

    that we might love more fully and completely

    with our whole hearts and minds and souls.

     

    This kind of refining and purifying takes time…

    Consider Simeon and Anna –

    spending the whole of at least their adult lives,

    watching, preparing, believing

    in the assured appearance of the Messiah.

    Hearts set on fire at some earlier time,

    they remained faithful,

    waiting years and years and years

    for just a glimpse of the promised one –

    in the meantime, living lives that were righteous and devout – opening themselves to be prepared,

    to be refined and purified,

    for the moment they would see the savior.

    The good news is that although this process takes time, ‘

    we are not alone in it.

    With God, this is a matter of abiding, of dwelling, for a while…

    rather than a quick visitation

    or a one time, magical, or instant transformation,

     

    The French Jesuit, paleontologist and philosopher,

    Teilhard de Chardin, speaks of this process

    as the slow work of God.

    In a prayer he entitled, Patient Trust, he says this:

    Above all, trust in the slow work of God. We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new.

     

    And yet it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability— and that it may take a very long time.

     

    de Chardin goes on to say,

    Don’t try to force on your ideas, your goals, your desires… as though you could be today what time will make of you tomorrow.

    That is to say, he adds,

    as though you could be today what grace and circumstances acting on your own good will make of you tomorrow.

     

    Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be.

    So, de Chardin advises,

    Give Our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.

     

    Accept the anxiety of being in a time of refining and purifying,

                in other words.

    These words seem especially relevant to us

                as we move through this time of transition at Holy Trinity.

    We’re about at the half way mark

                and today, we will begin a new phase

                            in this journey of transition.

    Today is the day we ask you to gather

    with your brothers and sisters

    to begin to articulate the hopes and dreams we have for the parish;

    to identify those skills, attributes and experiences,

    will make for a good and holy choice in a new rector.

    The heat’s getting turned up as our Search Committee

    gathers this critical information in order to craft a profile

    that describes this community of believers,

    who are in the midst of a time of waiting, watching and preparing..

    a time of God’s refining work.

    God is working out God’s purposes

    in this time of change and transition –

    inviting us to refine our vision;

    encouraging us to open our eyes to what might be

    God’s will for this place.

    God is calling this congregation to the next phase of life together

    on Greene and Fisher – and well beyond.

    And through each and every one of us,

                initiating the process of refining and purifying…

    so that we might get clear about what needs to happen next.

     

    God is taking the everyday, less than perfect elements of us all

                and working the process of fiery refinement.

    There is optimism, concern, anxiety, impatience,

    trust, fear, love, hope and joy all mixed up in the midst of all this – ready to be combined and subjected to the refiner’s fire –

    all of it, ready to be made whole and pure

    through the action of God…

    who is here to sit with us, to dwell with us –

    to abide with us, for as long as it takes….

    as we move through the chances and changes of this particular time.

     

    Like in making steel,

    a bit of uncomfortable heat is needed to insure a good product.

    Like in making steel, the work cannot – should not – be rushed,

    but undertaken with thoughtful and prayerful

    planning and patience.

    There is too much at stake,

    too much can be lost if time and adequate care are not taken.

    So we are on God’s time table or sure

    we’re being refined and purified for the work God

    is setting for us to do –

    and like steel, the end product will be something sturdy,

                foundational,

                that can stand up to pressure, hold up under stress

                            and provide a measure of flexibility.

    The prophet’s words echo through the ages

    and invite us, here, in 21st century America,

    to embrace the fire that shapes and forms.

                To trust in our God’s refining fire,

    that burns brightly but does not destroy or consume.

    Trust in the slow work of God,

                who dwells, abides with us.