Fire and water

A sermon for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, 12 February 2023, at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio

I heard something phenomenal this week. It was on a call with the folks who’ve taught me this business of turning guns into garden tools, helping our little congregation run buybacks for our broader community. 

One district, far from here, has had trouble with youngsters, teens and preteens, bringing guns to school. We know the problem. We’ve seen it here, too. Children who are afraid of their peers on the walk to and from home, those with scores to settle, those too young and too foolish to differentiate between bravado and brazenness, those whose hearts harbour violence too big for their bodies, too advanced for their age, who have inherited dangerous ideas from those around them. Those whose adults have failed them.

Anyway, in this other district, the discovery of a firearm in a student’s possession means immediate and irreversible expulsion from the school system. Leaving troubled teens to work it out for themselves is not everybody’s idea of wisdom, so someone got a grant to put together a diversion program that teaches these very children who have transgressed to beat guns into garden tools. The ones found with the firearm in their locker are now forging a new future, for the weapons and for themselves. The ones who may have been sorely tempted to choose death have been given a chance to grow a new life.

Of course, it’s not going to work for everyone. But for those whose lives are changed by the program, it’s not just about the lessons, or the forge, or the little bit of money they earn from working the metal. It’s also, of course, about the relationships that they are forging with mentors devoted to life, to peace, to them. Like I said, it sounds phenomenal.

Because the phenomenon of forgiveness, of second chances, of investment in those who have little enough to offer, on the surface, is not widespread enough, not commonplace enough in our culture and society. It’s certainly something I could work on, too.

Ben Sira writes, “He has placed before you fire and water; stretch out your hand for whichever you choose.” (Sirach 15:16)  Do we choose to baptize, or to burn, those who come before us in dire need of a good word? And again, “Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given.” (Sirach 15:17)

We can choose how to deal with one another, in which currency we barter: life or death.

Even when it seems as though all agency has been taken away, when the very earth turns on its inhabitants, and death chooses all too many, thousands upon thousands; still, we see the response of those who choose to spend their lives rescuing, helping, uplifting others, where they can, as they are able, and we recognize in their service something of God, who is compassion, and mercy, and the Creator of love.

The thing about pursuing an ethic of life, an ethic of love, is that it’s going to take a lot of work, a lot of humility, a lot of patience, and a lot of forgiveness. Jesus sets out the barriers of perfection, the impossibility of consistent and undeviant adherence to the code: never get angry, never desire, never despair. Even Jesus got angry. The psalmist calls people fools left, right, and centre.  Who among us has never made a promise we couldn’t hope to keep?

The image Jesus sets out of the person approaching the altar, who remembers suddenly the person they offended, or defrauded, or damaged, and runs out of the church to track them down and fall at their feet with an apology; it’s very dramatic. Maybe sometimes it is within our power to make things right with those we know hold us to be in the wrong. More likely, each of us approaches in the knowledge of our sin, in the sorrow of the things done and left undone that cannot be made right, because it’s too late or too little or we don’t even know who we hurt. 

So we come with our feeble promises: I will do better, I will love more, I will live more faithfully, more humbly, more mercifully, I swear … Oh, swearing was off the table, too.

God knows how many chances we will need, how many dead-ends we will choose, how often we will have to return, to leave our souls at the altar and hope to have them returned in a better state than we left them, before we are ready to go into the world to make right what we have gotten wrong, to forgive others before ourselves, to humble ourselves before the image of God among us. 

“For great is the wisdom of the Lord;
he is mighty in power and sees everything;…
and he knows every human action.” (Sirach 15:18-19)

“He has placed before you fire and water;
stretch out your hand for whichever you choose.
Before each person are life and death,
and whichever one chooses will be given.” (Sirach 15:16-17)

We come again and again because we choose life, the one who gives us life, the one who saves our life. The one who forgives us, and gives us every chance and opportunity to forgive ourselves and others. The one who shows us the way into life. The one who sets before us fire and water: Spirit and baptism; the pillar of fire and the divided waters of the Red Sea; the light of the world and the waters of creation. It’s a trick question, you see: in the end, there is no direction in which we can turn where God is not waiting for us, patient and long-suffering, waiting for us to choose to see Her.

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
This entry was posted in lectionary reflection, sermon and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s