I saw a meme on Facebook this week that was a shout out to tonight’s epistle, in which Paul writes, “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength.” The meme said, “God gives us only what we can handle. Apparently God thinks I’m a bad-ass.” The sermon tonight is not about Paul’s epistle, but I thought in the midst of whatever challenges life and the semester have given you, you’d be happy to know how highly God thinks of you.
Johnny Cash was born in Arkansas, not Texas, but it still feels like something of a Texan’s unofficial obligation to be a fan of Johnny Cash. In any case, I count myself a fan without need of external persuasion. So when the Rector of St. Dunstan’s recently asked what could be done to enhance the Easter Vigil worship at her parish, my answer came with confidence and like instinct: “Ring. Of. Fire.” I told her.
Truthfully, it was not an original idea. When Rebekah and I were dating, both in grad school, we began a six month course of instruction at our church in Chapel Hill. I prepared to renew my baptismal vows; she prepared to be confirmed. Some sixty to sixty-five others were likewise prepared by the community for either baptism, confirmation, reception, or the renewal of vows, all of which was to take place in the presence of the bishop at the Easter Vigil, that marvelous evening service celebrated in the late night hours before Easter morning.
When the night finally came, we gathered as the Assembly inside the nave, all in darkness. Only the Great Fire was lit - in a fire pit on the edge of the garden, just outside the red church doors. All else was darkness. Indeed, the sun had long since set. From the Great Fire, the Paschal candle was lit in turn and slowly processed into the Assembly. “The Light of Christ,” the cantor sang. “Thanks be to God!” the people responded.
And in that moment, that candle in the midst of us was the pillar of fire that led Moses and the Hebrew people out of their slavery in Egypt. In that moment, the light, that candle, stood as the flaming torch and fire pot that split the terrifying darkness - remember from last week - solemnizing God’s covenant with Abrahm. In that moment, the light, that candle: shining as the answer to the anguish of Good Friday: Jesus, betrayed, crucified, and buried, now risen from the dead. The Light of Christ.
The congregation slowly filled the pews with light, each one lighting candles lit from candles lit from the Pascal candle, lit from the Great Fire.
We read the readings, lots of them, still in relative darkness. The preacher, likewise, preached in darkness, candle in his hand. We baptized in darkness, then made our way outside into the night. More darkness. And there, on the brick courtyard, I saw it for the first time: flickering, haunting, leaping; the bishop’s seat all surrounded by a tremendous ring of fire.
As we gathered in the midst of the fire, each candidate was led by her sponsor around the perimeter until, in her turn, she found her place before the bishop. And Rebekah was confirmed as a member of this Church.
Moments later, we returned to the red doors of the church, and the bishop rapped his crosier on the doors. No answer. He peered inside the empty building, meant to symbolize the empty tomb. He is not here. “He is risen!” the bishop shouted. Floods of light as the church lights came on now, no darkness at all, and the celebration was begun.
Impossible light. New fire. The presence of God. Freedom from sin, death, and the worst part of ourselves. The victory of God. Creation’s restoration to God. Light, life, and laughter for the People of God.
All around this fire.
Surely, I think, the joy of that Great Fire of the Easter Vigil, even the ring of fire around the confirmands that night, is prefigured, anticipated, by the fire, the burning bush, which signals the presence of God to Moses on the hillside; which signals encounter with God; the miracle by which humanity meets God and we, like the bush, are not destroyed.
Understanding the moment, Moses, we're told, hides his face. Hide and seek with God, and, somehow - I bet you’ve noticed - somehow, God always wins that game. Moses had killed an Egyptian whom he saw beating a Hebrew. Word about the murder had threatened to get out, so he took to the hills, this hill, even, where God comes to him, says he has a call, a plan, to bless God’s people through him.
Scripture tells us that seeking the Lord, we will find him. But what do we make of God’s regular practice of showing up uninvited, to the uninviting? What do we do when the biblical witness gives us Paul, met by the risen Jesus, while killing the Christians; or Jonah, a reluctant prophet actively attempting to sabotage God’s call. Or the disciples, who spend the better part of three years not understanding a word of what Jesus says; who leave him at what looks like the end. Or Peter, who denies him, becomes the rock on which God builds the Church. Or even the women - that first Easter morning - who come with no faith, but to wrap up the body, who become the first witnesses of the empty tomb and Jesus’ resurrection.
I was taught in Sunday school that God comes to the godly, the polished, and competent, but what when God comes to me and the floors are unmopped, and the trash is still in the can and smelly? If I could believe that God’s presence was conditioned upon those times when I am on my best spiritual behavior, I might be ready, might be looking, might know when and where to expect God. But with the biblical witness and examples like Moses, who knows when God will break in?
I used to worry about not being good enough for God. It was easy to worry about not being good enough for God because I had lots of practice worrying about not being good enough for all kinds of people. Parents. Teachers. Friends. I hope you have had better luck than me in not worrying about your not being good enough. But if you haven’t, at least you know the feeling in the pit of Moses’ stomach as he stares at the flame. On the edge of becoming the greatest leader in Israel, Moses stares at the flame, doubting God and himself.
Moses pipes up: “Lord, there’s been a mistake. Who am I to free your people?” God’s answer is telling: There’s been no mistake, Moses. Who are you to free my people? You are the one I am with.
That’s what this plant on fire means to tell Moses. The fire is God’s saying to Moses: “Moses, you are the one I am with.” And my being with you will be the most important thing about you. More than what you did or you didn’t do or what you fear. Moses, I am with you. And, when you are ready, I will bless my people through you.
Moses stares again at the flame. Impossible light. New fire. The presence of God. Freedom from sin, death, and the worst parts of himself. Years later, smiling at the memory: the victory of God. Light, life, and laughter for the People of God.
The Light of Christ, the cantor sings. And the children, adults, gathered for baptism, those God-troubled waters, splashing their way into the death and resurrection of Jesus, shout their answer, “Thanks be to God!” The confirmands, too, destined for the ring of fire, take their part. The entire assembly, trembling with expectation and joy. God’s being with them the most important thing about them.
Impossible light. New fire. The presence of God. Freedom from sin, death, and the worst parts of themselves. The victory of God. Light, life, and laughter for the People of God.
Thanks be to God, they sing.