Sermon: Bonfire Kindling

Scripture: Matthew 21:23-32

It’s the third of July.

Bonfires blaze around Conesus Lake
as everyone celebrates the holiday.
Fireworks boom in the sky,
their light crackling into cascading chandeliers.

As I stand on the dock, water laps beneath me.
A bonfire on the other side of lake
catches my eye as it does every year.

A mile across the lake, this bonfire blazes tall:
the optics make it look as high as a house.

Every year, I wonder:
What are they putting in this fire?
Is it safe?

This much is true:
It’s the biggest campfire
I have ever seen.

As the temperatures drop
and my hands turn icy,
I treasure time around the campfire
in my own backyard these days:
its warm flicker on my face,
its dancing tongues of fire,
its illumination of the night’s secrets.

Crack.
Snap.
Roar.

Fire awakens me to ancient treasure.

Just this July,
I backpacked through
the tangled forests of New Hampshire.

With my friend Janel,
I discover the secrets of the land,
one lunch time stumbling upon
Trapper John’s shelter.

A lone chimney greets us,
its mantle crowned
with a rusty sewing machine.

Beyond that, the lean-to lay, inviting,
as the land tells stories of Trapper John.

The chimney is all that remains
of Trapper John’s cabin,
as moss hugs the stones,
and ferns crowd its base.

All else passes away,
but the hearth persists.

Persists as the center of
heat, home, and hospitality.

This week I find myself wondering,
do we listen to the fire of our desires,
or do we simply spend our time rearranging
the stones on the pathway there,
forgetting that which stirs our imagination.

What do you desire?

What does God desire?

What does Jesus desire?

I think about that question
as I read the Scripture this week.

Jesus enters the temple and begins teaching.
This, on the Monday of what we now call Holy Week.

In the words of Biblical commentator Debie Thomas,
“Jesus has just spent the weekend
entering Jerusalem on a stole donkey,
receiving the adoration of the crowds,
cursing a fig tree,
and slinging a whip round the temple
to cleanse it of corruption.”

And, NOW, Jesus is teaching?

The religious authorities reply:
Who you think you are?

Jesus responds with a question,
and then a story.

Speaking to those with power,
Jesus tells the story of a landowner
who had two children. The landowner
approached the elder and asked them
to go and work in the vineyard.
The first child responded, “No, I will not,”
but later regretted it and went.
When the parent asked the second child to go,
the second child replied, “I’m on my way,”
but never went.

“Which of these two,” Jesus asks,
“did what was desired?”

Which one tended their inner hearth?

I imagine the vineyard to be a place
of beauty: where golden sunbeams
streak through branches, greenery shines,
and sweetness blossoms into grapes.

I’m thinking, now, of that first person
who never went.

Why didn’t they make it?

Did they try, and get lost?
Did they intend to, but then got distracted?

Biblical commentator Douglas Hare writes,
“Although the context applies this parable of judgment
to … religious leaders, Matthew probably intended
it to have a wider application as well.
How easily ‘church work’ degenerates into
little more than simply maintaining the institution,
with no excitement concerning
what God’s active grace is doing and
consequently no enthusiasm for
evangelism and renewal. We say that
we are going to work in the vineyard,
but instead of harvesting grapes
we spend our time rearranging
the stones along the path!”

Suddenly, my entire understanding
of the story shifts, as I wonder:

Which child did what was desired?
Which child listens to their desires?

My mind flashes back
to the forest fireplace:
the hearth that birthed
nourishment, comfort, and light.

Without that hearth,
that cabin of long ago
would never have been a home.

Jesus continues speaking to the religious leaders,
“John [the Baptist] came … [and] you didn’t repent.”

You did not change your life.

All you say, Jesus critiques,
is what you think God wants to hear.
You are fluent in religious language,
but like the second child, you refuse to act.

Like the religious leaders, we, too, know
which child did what the landowner desired.

Yet we, too, struggle to bridge the gap
between what we believe and what we do.
Sometimes its not even a struggle.

It’s easier to tell ourselves words are enough.
Action, after all, is just too hard and disruptive.

Those you deem the worst, Jesus continues,
the tax collectors, who rip people off,
and the prostitutes,
who are denied forms of gainful employment,
will enter the kindom of heaven ahead of you.

“Those you speak ill of?” Jesus explains,
“They are like the first child.”

When John offered them the gift of repentance,
they responded immediately. They knew they needed God,
and so, they flocked to the waters,
which set their inner flame alight like gasoline.

You, Jesus continues, on your moral high horse
stood aloof with your walled-in heart, unmoved.

Thus, all those whom you look down on
will enter the kindom ahead of you.

Ouch.

In her commentary, “Words Are Not Enough”,
Biblical commentator Debie Thomas writes that
it doesn’t do us any good to shake our heads
at the religious authorities.

This story, and message, she writes, is for us.

We, too, must wrestle with the question:

Which child am I?

Thomas asks,

“Am I the [one] who makes promises I fail to keep? Am I the [one] who talks the talk, and sincerely believes that my sacred-sounding words are enough?”

“Or am I the [one] who says the wrong thing, but finally repents and obeys, anyway? … The [one] who might not sound all spiritual and sanctified but still does the work of love and mercy when the rubber hits the road?”

Words are not enough.

I imagine again the fireplace in the woods.
It remained while everything else had disappeared.

What do we desire?
What does God desire?

Are we accessing both heart and hearth?

Do we want God to see our heart?

In my spiritual direction class last year,
my teacher, Br. Don Bisson,
said to me, God doesn’t want goodness.
God wants realness.

God wants unfettered access
to our hearts.

Relating, now, to the second child,
I wonder:

What is keeping me from
going to the vineyard of beauty?

Why am I so focused
on those pathway stones?

I think I would
rather focus on those stones,
because it is terrifying to offer God
our soft and fleshy heart.

Somedays, I want to say,
Please God, ask anything of me,
but that.

Somedays, my soul wants
to fortify like a medieval castle,
with battlements, moats,
and drawbridges.

Brother Bisson says, this, too, is normal.
He calls it resistance, and adds,
the greater our resistance to God,
the deeper our desire of God.

How do we protect ourselves
from intimacy with God?

Bisson notes we usually use the same
patterns that we use with others.

Human conditions set us up
for conversation with God.

Poet Rumi writes, “Your task
is not to seek love,
but to find all the barriers
you have build around it.”

What is keeping you from going to
the vineyard of love?

Jesus’ story illuminates for me that
our journey begins not with menial tasks,
but with fire kindling.

Br. Bisson notes that a
volcano of longing lives within us.

Like a volcano, our lava of longing
plunges us from the ego,
the self-preserving part of our crust,
to our heated core: the true self.

This energy allows us
to see God.

Bisson asks:

What is your desire?

How do you listen to it?

How do you channel it?

Likewise, Bisson notes that
prayer begins with fire of desire.

God’s desire for us.
The desire God gives us for God.

Crackle.
Snap.
Roar.

After all,
nothing satisfies but God alone.

When discussing prayer,
Br. Bisson makes a distinction
between two types of prayer:
translational prayer, and
transformational prayer.

We might use either type
at a given time.

A translational prayer is when
we pray to God for help
on our journey.

We might think of God
more as a vending machine
for this kind of prayer.

There’s nothing wrong with this,
but it does have certain limitations.

We don’t have to change
with this kind of prayer.

In contrast,
transformational prayer
comes from our deeper self.
A dangerous type, this prayer
makes the self available
not just to adjustment
but to God’s desire.

It makes the self available
to be dismantled.

Bisson asks:

Why do we prayer?

Do we want God to
conform to our desires?

Or do we want to
conform to God’s?

The two children in our story today
model two different ways of relating to God.

Do we have:
A desire to look good.
To say the right things.
To have the right religious language.

Or.

Do we have:
A desire to be real.
To share with God
the bonfire blazing in our hearts.
The depths of our longings and shadows,
that our lives might be transformed by fire.

Suddenly,
I want fire.

I have spent years ignoring this longing;
scrolling endlessly through internet pages,
safe in my well-guarded castle.

Now something in me blazes,
like that bonfire on Conesus Lake,
as I watch others live,
giving their whole being to God.

I wonder:
What am I spending my life on?

Do I want pebbles on a sidewalk?
Or the vineyard of beauty?

Crack.
Snap.
Roar.

Amen.

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