Fire, Ashes and Spirit

SERMON – Fire, Ashes and Spirit – Hebrews 12:1-29

Cláudio Carvalhaes – Union Theological Seminary, NYC / November 4, 12


Gratitude. Union and my shoe shining box.

Today, I will speak of fire (light the candle), ashes (drench my hands in ashes) and Spirit (raise my shoe shining box). But mostly fire, to help us prepare for the Advent, a time where we share the fire around a manger, trying desperately to keep warm like shepherds or immigrants finding shelter in a place of animals; maybe also finding heat and sharing it with others; being cautious with it—for it burns… and yet being proactive in tending it—for it can cast light and warmth in harsh places. Knowing the passion, love, beauty, and danger that are part of fire, we enter this place with awe, trepidation, vulnerability.


To talk about fire today will be to talk about “the infinity dwelling within us that survives at the level of ashes (recalling the fire), ruin and mourning”[1] around the world. And in this precise work, discovering the Spirit who gives itself to us, as the oil of our lamp, burning like a blazing fire, how do we deal with the ashes and fires of our time—the things that conceal, that burn, that damage? To these places, then how do we bring the fire that is our love and passion, the ashes that are our wounds perhaps now transformed into wisdom, to tend this smoldering world?

What do I love when I love my God? Asked Saint Augustine at book 10 of his confessions. We might now ask: where is the fire when my fire is lit? What is this fire I have when I shine and burn?

To begin with, as theologians, we start with ashes. Our theologies start where it hurts, where ashes are just a memory of a fire that once was. At these forgotten places where none of us are allowed. A no-people’s land, declared as states of siege, exception, constant emergency, where the non-existents, those who do not belong to the market, make their living, where mourning around the ruins of life is endless and life is always at the cusp of disappearing without a trace, without a memory. Places where people are abject, garbage, disposable pounds of flesh and skin.  Non-existents. Nobody touches their bodies, nobody hear their words, nobody pays attention. But where the fire burns vividly under the ashes of death.

Where is the fire brothers and sisters? Can we find it, can we blow on the ashes to let some fire leap forth, to bring light and warmth to the forgotten and at the same time to challenge those who forget, to make them see and feel and never more ignore these lives? What do I love when I love my God?


In very different ways, we are mourning the passing of Sandy, the perfect storm. We sit in ashes, mourning, as we hear of two kids swallowed from the hands of their mother…

Last time I read, 80 people died around the East Coast and 67 in the Caribbean.  And we remember the words from the inscription in the tablet held in the lady Liberty’s hands:


Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free;

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,

Send these, the homeless,

Tempest-tossed to me


Where is the consuming fire brothers and sisters? Where is my passion, my love for which I am willing to risk danger, to stand in cold places, to give shelter to the disgraced? What do I love when I love my God?


And then in the newspaper in Brazil yesterday: “White males are buying the virginity of the indigenous girls in the Amazon for a piece of cloth, a box of chocolate or 10 dollars. “He took me to the room and took off my cloths. It was the first time, I was sad.”


All around the world, lives interrupted, words begging for more words… Like endless prayers, more and more words trying to convey that which cannot be spoken, where too many words that are neither enough nor sufficient. At these absurd places, to die or to live is the same. Ashes and ruins recalling the fire… raging fires hiding old ashes…. Cycles of violence or injustice, sometimes blaring, sometimes smoldering.

Where is the fire buried under the ashes brothers and sisters? A fire that will unleash power and healing? What do I love when I love my God?

Don’t we want to avoid these people, flee from these places, dodge from these disasters, run away from the flip side of the “ardent flame of the Spirit”?[2]

We can’t. When we try to run away, we are reminded of Psalm 139: ‘Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?” If I speak a thousand words or become mute you are there, if I make my bed in the Sheol of that mother who lost her children, or in that bedroom with that indigenous girl at the Amazon, you are there.”


Anywhere we go, there is a maddening fire around us trying to turn us into ashes, burning the skin of our souls, trying to put down our hope, our joy, our ability to speak and to shine and to give warmth to somebody.


It is so terrifying that Moses speaks everywhere: “tremble with fear!” And sometimes we do!


We do when our theologies are always with and for the poor, and we do not turn a revolutionary gospel of blazing winds into soft blow that sustains the powerful.


We do when we our reading of the gospel is attuned with the suffering of the least of these and do not turn the gospel into what we want or can, so we can manage the void, quiet the vortex of that small voice, handle easily the unimaginable sense of the disaster, and mute the noise of so many screams.


22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering


Ahh… when we come to Mount Zion, and to the city of the living God, we see the fire! YES! There, we see angels ruffling their wings turning ashes into fire, a fire that is not consumed. This, this is a different kind of fire. Force and power and yet one that is fire of life, justice and mercy. At that place, which is whatever place where there is a manifestation of life burning, we find the Spirit! Our bodies tremble with fear and awe when we feel the presence of the Spirit opening the conditions of possibilities for new life to appear!  Ahh, we live the Spirit of Fire…


When we give conditions to a shoe shining boy to get a PhD!

When we turn non-existent people into existents.

We love our God and live this fire when we, together, shut down that bedroom in the Amazon and put in prison child molesters!

We do tremble with fear and fire when we, filled by the Spirit, occupy the streets of the world with a gospel of justice;


We love our God and shine this fire when the Spirit of fear and trembling makes us wake up every mourning and say: I am going to be a fire today! I am going to vote and serve the 99%, or better, the 47%, of this country or even better, all of the destitute in our world.


We do tremble with the Spirit of God, fear, fire, awe and ashes when are able to walk in the midst of the ashes of the world, burning cars, debris of hurricanes, states of famine, refugee camps and states of siege…


A woman asked the cloud:

please enfold my loved one

My clothes are soaked with his blood

If you shall not be rain, my love

Be trees

Saturated with fertility, be trees

And if you shall not be trees, my love

Be a stone

Saturated with humidity, be a stone

And if you shall not be a stone, my love

Be a moon

In the loved one’s dream, be a moon

So said a woman to her son

In his funeral

He goes on to add:

During the siege, time becomes a space

That has hardened in its eternity

During the siege, space becomes a time

That is late for its yesterday and tomorrow[3]


24and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant,

So Jesus becomes the mediator between the consuming fire, the states of siege and our own fire. Jesus, who knows the ashes, was born in them, who feels the burning flames of injustice, and yet lives a fire of love that shines life into the world.


But when we thought we got it figured out…

Yet once more, you will (not) be shaken

The enemy will yet once more,

come and pluck your berries harsh and crude,

And with forced fingers rude

Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year.

Like a sandy storm bruising unshakable reigns[4]


27 This phrase ‘Yet once more’ indicates the removal of what is shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain.


Yet once more… we cry out around the world, hoping to create things by the work of our hands that hopefully, will not be shaken anymore! The staunchly stubborn work of our hands and faith, believing that yet, once more, the coming of a new heaven and a new earth is about to happen. A fire around us, helping us to say yes, life again, yes, life again, yet once more, life again…


“Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe;”


Yet once again a work of thanksgiving! In the midst of disaster! Can you say thanks to God in the midst of pain and hurt and loss and no meaning? We have no choice… so let us offer an acceptable worship, a yet once more shout of gratitude! Right now! Fire, ashes, fear and awe! By the power of the Holy Spirit! Yes, the Spirit! Always the Spirit!


29 for indeed our God is a consuming fire. / 1 Let mutual love continue.

For this fire is either a mutual fire or it isn’t. Unless you help light my fire I won’t be able to survive on my own… I will run out of charcoals and my flame will lose its strength if I am a charcoal away from the warmeth of yours. For love to continue, we must light each other’s fire, otherwise we will die together in the cold. In the losses of Sandy, in the amazon, in survivors’ homes, your ashes are mine, my fire is yours.  I won’t leave, I will be here with you.


Now that I am filled with all the possible

Reasons for departure –

I am not mine  

            I am not mine                                    

I am not mine…


Let love continue


Whenever I search for myself I find others

Let love continue! Let the mutual fire continue!


What do I love when I love my God?


What do I burn for, when I receive this fire from God and from you? May God bless us all.

[1] Gideon Ofrat , The Jewish Derrida

[2] Trakl, in Derrida, Of Spirit, 86.

[3] Mahmoud Darwish (A State of Siege)

[4] Jon Milton

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