Sunday, February 2, 2014

Like A Refiner's Fire

Sermon for February 2, 2014

Lessons for the Presentation of Jesus in Year A
Malachi 3:1–4
Psalm 84
Hebrews 2:14–18
Luke 2:22–40

“Well if he’s gonna be there, then I don’t want to be there. I don’t care, that’s just the way I feel!”

Wow. Strong feelings there. This other person must be pretty bad. Who is this guy that’s being talked about, and where is it that our friend doesn’t want to be if he’s there?

It’s everyone’s favorite whipping boy. Everyone’s first choice for the worst person ever on the face of the earth…Hitler. And I’m not talking about Chris Hitler of Chicago. (Can you imagine having to go through life with that last name?) I’m talking about the one, the only, the unforgettable personification of pure evil… Adolf Hitler.

And where is this place that our friend doesn’t want to be if Hitler might be there too?


I’m not making this up. I’ve actually heard this from a fair number of people who are totally scandalized by the Christian idea that Jesus came to save all of us, and not just those who are somehow “deserving.” That’s actually funny, since those who would be most in need of being saved would be those who were the least deserving. These people are scandalized by the idea that this man who was the cause of so much death and destruction, could possibly have any kind of a shot at Heaven as the result of a last minute conversion experience.

They figure that if he’s there, then there’s something wrong with “the system.” And they figure that if he’s there, then they don’t want to be.

And yet…many of these same people have absolutely no problem with the idea of Darth Vader, who ordered the destruction of an entire planet, being redeemed by his actions of killing Emperor Palpatine and saving his son, Luke Skywalker, in the last minutes of The Return of the Jedi.

Go figure.

For he is like a refiner’s fire…

I hear that line and I’m more likely to think of Advent than of Epiphany. That’s because I think of it as being a passage of Handel’s Messiah, which I listen to every year around Christmas time.

But here it is today, on the 4th Sunday of Epiphany, also celebrated as the Feast of the Presentation. And when I saw it, I immediately thought of some of my friends…and the party that they wouldn’t want to go to if a certain other person was there.

For he is like a refiner’s fire…

Now I’m not a metallurgist, and I don’t play one on TV either, but thanks to the kind people at Wikipedia, I now know just enough about smelting, and refining, to be dangerous.

Most of you probably know that the metals that we use in our everyday life: iron, copper, tin, and so on, aren’t just found lying out there in the ground in their “finished” form. They come in ores, which are combinations of the metal that we want with metals that we don’t want. In order to get the metal that we want, you can either smelt the ore or refine it. Smelting is a process that’s used when you need to separate the metal you want from the other impurities that it’s chemically combined with. Usually this involves acid baths, electrolysis, or both.

Refining, on the other hand, is used when the metal you want is simply lumped in with other, unwanted stuff, but has not made any chemical bonds with it. This process involves heat to melt down the ore, since the wanted metal and the unwanted one melt at different temperatures.

In short, smelting and refining are ways of getting rid of the impurities, and retaining the metals that we’re looking for.

With that in mind, the line “for he is like a refiner’s fire” refers to us as being the impure ore that has some trace amounts of a precious metal in it.

In ancient Rome, the process of refining silver from lead was considered economically viable if you could get eight ounces of silver from a ton of lead.

Let me say that again…the process was economically viable if you could get eight ounces of silver from a ton of lead. If you have no idea of the scale we’re talking about here, let me break it down for you. At 16 ounces to the pound, and 2000 pounds to the ton, we’re talking about refining 2000 pounds of lead in order to get a half pound of silver. That's one part in 4000.

Kind of boggles the mind, doesn’t it?

For he is like a refiner’s fire…
Now, if we’re willing to take the effort to find the half pound of silver in a ton of lead, then how much more willing might God be to extract what little is good in any of us from all that isn’t?

All of which brings us back to our unwanted party guest.

The people who say that they wouldn’t want to go to Heaven if Hitler were there make three very big errors. The first is that they assume that the Hitler who somehow managed to get in would be the same as the Hitler that the entire world suffered through for 12 years. They don’t take the time to consider the refiner’s fire. After the refining process, how much would be left of him after the evil, and there was much of it, was melted, or burnt, off? If we compare him to that ton of lead, what would be left after he went through the refining process? An ounce? A half ounce? A molecule? Is the one good molecule of Hitler too much for you to deal with? Would the few good molecules of Robert Chambliss, Thomas Blanton Jr, Herman Cash, and Bobby Frank Cherry; the men behind the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four girls getting ready for Sunday School be too much for me to deal with? I like to think that if any of them did make it to the party, they’d be all of about a half inch tall.

The second error they make is assuming that they’d make it through the refining process themselves relatively whole.

Come on now…really, how much of any of us here is gonna make it through the refiner’s fire? Surely we all have our flaws and imperfections that need to be taken care of. Surely we’re not all as wonderful as we think we are. Surely we’re aware of the fact that a lot of us is gonna have to be melted off before we get to the party.

And I’ll tell you of a guilty little fantasy I have…I want to see those self-righteous people who are so sure that they’re right, while everyone else is going straight to Hell, have all that smugness burned away, and come through as just a thimbleful.

Oh, but darn! That just made me one of them, and now I only get to make through in a thimble…or less.

But really…none of us should expect that we’re gonna make it through whole.

The third, and most glaring mistake these people make is assuming that after they’ve been through the refiner’s fire themselves, they’re still gonna care! Maybe this is one of those things that we’ll all be purged of…the desire, the need, to keep score from our lives here.

And who knows…if this is true…if it’s true that our need to keep score from our lives here is one of the first things to be burned away in the refiner’s fire, then perhaps, just perhaps the very first people to greet what’s left of that unwanted guest will be the people whose deaths he was responsible for.

Scandalous? For those who expect an exact tit for tat accounting of everything, yes, it certainly seems so. At least it seems so from our limited perspective. Perhaps that accounting is being done in ways that we can neither see nor understand from where we are now.

Instead, however, I see this as good news. I see the refiner’s fire as good news…because the refiner sees us…each and everyone one of us…as someone worth refining and getting to the crusted-over heart of, even if it is three…or 300…sizes too small. The refiner sees each and every one of us as someone worth redeeming.

Which leads me, on a lighter note, to a story from my past, and one that I love to tell.

29 years ago I went to Wilson’s Jewelers at ShoppingTown to place a deposit on an engagement ring for the girl I was dating at the time. But things didn’t work out as I had hoped, and she turned me down. Now, as if that wasn’t bad enough, when I went back to Wilson’s they told me that they couldn’t give me my money back because it was a sale ring. The best they could do was to give me a credit slip that I could use at some other time.

“A fat lot of good that’ll do me!” I thought.

But then a year later I met another girl, and as this girl and I were getting to know each other, she heard a lot of stories about my past…including the story about the ring and the credit slip.

Eventually, we decided to get married, and we went to look at wedding bands. As we walked into the mall and I was heading for Zale’s, I felt a tug on my arm pulling me in the other direction. When I asked her what she was doing, she said, “You have a perfectly good $200 sitting at Wilson’s, and just because that other girl was too stupid to want to use it with you doesn’t mean that I am. We’re using it for our rings.”

Funny…had I gotten the money back and been able to put it in my savings account, I would’ve had no problem with taking that same amount out two years later to buy wedding bands for someone else with. I guess mixing that money in with the rest of my money would've been like money laundering, and it wouldn't have been tainted. But somewhere the rules say that thou shalt not buy the new girlfriend a wedding ring with a credit slip from money meant for the old girlfriend’s engagement ring.”

Apparently this girl didn’t know that rule. Or if she knew it, she thought it was a stupid one.

The word redeem can have a number of meanings. It can mean something as simple as “to cash in” – like an iTunes gift card. And that day, Cheryl and I redeemed that old worn out credit slip in my wallet for two wedding rings.

But it can also mean to rescue, to make right, to restore to honor. And when Cheryl decided that the credit slip in my wallet was not something tainted that belonged to the old girlfriend, but something that belonged to us, she redeemed it in all the other meanings of the word.

We have often heard Jesus referred to as our redeemer, and quite frankly, that doesn’t mean that he’s cashing us in for something. It means that he has redeemed us along the same lines as the way that Cheryl redeemed that credit slip, claiming us as his own, when others might think that we were too tainted to be worth considering.

Well, on this Feast of the Presentation, when we also celebrate the presentation of the infant Jesus at the temple, I’d like to think that when we are presented to God, he doesn’t just look at us, say “not good enough,” and give us the old heave ho.

He decides to redeem us. He sees something in each of us that is worth keeping. He knows, with eyes better than ours, that even the best of us has stuff that needs to be burnt off, and even the worst of us has some tiny little something worth saving.

But if you’re still uncomfortable with the idea of even one good molecule of a person like Hitler making it to the party, let me give you the perspective of Sister Mary Catherine Hilkert, a professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, who was interviewed on NPR as part of its series What ComesNext.

She says, and I knew this, but had forgotten about it until I heard the interview, that while the Catholic Church has made public proclamations about saints, and who it is confident enough to think they are, it has never…not once…officially declared anyone as definitely being damned for all time.

That leaves the door open for a few good molecules of even the worst of us, which are worth more to God than 8 ounces of silver, to make it through the refiner’s fire.

And really…if you can believe that Anakin Skywalker, who destroyed a planet with billions of people on it, can be redeemed and bring balance to the Force for one merciful act near the end of The Return of the Jedi, then there’s no reason not to believe that God can’t redeem even the worst of us, and have us all at the party.

After all, that’s what the refiner’s fire is all about.

This is most certainly true.