Refiner’s Fire and Laundry Soap

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Advent II, December 6, 2015

Morning Star, my soul’s true light, tarry not, dispel my night:
Jesus mine, in me shine, fill my heart with light divine.[1] Amen.

Advent begins in the dark. In this holy season we light one extra candle each Sunday on the Advent wreath as we walk together through that darkness. What we want is for God to shine as a light, dispelling disappointments and diseases, suffering and sorrow, and the unending violence that humanity has unleashed in this world.

“Do something,” we pray.


Wednesday’s massacre at a county health department holiday party in San Bernardino, California, is evidence enough of the darkness that surrounds us. Images of the couple who committed that act of terrorism — a bearded Sayed Farook and a head-covered Tashfeen Malik — filled the screen of my computer as I read some of the news reports about it. Much later I read about the 14 victims.

Among the dead from that tragedy were several women in their 20s; a gay man with “a larger-than-life personality” who loved to talk to strangers; a mother of three who “moved to the United States from Iran to escape religious persecution;” a father who came to California from Mexico in his 20s and put himself through college in this country; a man who shielded one of his younger co-workers from the bullets and told her, “I got you;” a daughter whose parents fled Vietnam when she was a child and whose large extended family gathered together for dinner every Sunday night; and an immigrant from Eritrea who “loved his new life in his new country.”[2]

On Thursday, as the daylight slowly began to fade away, I drove to Rice University’s BioScience Research Collaborative Building. As many of you know, every now and then I invite you and anyone else who wants to go “On the Road with the Rector” to join me in hearing a speaker or a panel discussion on something that might either strengthen or challenge our Christian faith. One of those events was Thursday night — a presentation and discussion of the largest multi-national study to date of scientists’ attitudes towards religion. There I would meet old and new friends alike.


I parked in the underground parking garage of the same building where that study was being presented. As I walked from my car to the elevator, I got closer and closer to a woman who was wearing a hajib — the same head covering that I had just seen in photos of the female terrorist in California. She and her friend took the same elevator with me to the first floor. Soon after its doors opened again and we walked into the lobby, this woman in Muslim clothing extended her hand to me in greeting, introducing herself. We shook hands, and I mentioned that I was an Episcopal priest at the church down the street next to the university and the medical center.

That’s when she recognized me. It turns out that she belongs to the Turquoise Center here in Houston. A group of folks from Palmer, including me, had attended a friendship dinner there in order to learn more about that community’s Turkish culture and Muslim faith. And then we invited them to a dinner at Palmer to learn about Christian worship and how our Christian faith shapes our day to day lives.

Without-Apology-coverAfter I was seated in the auditorium for the presentation about scientists and religion, an older couple sat down in the row above and behind me. The wife noticed a book of sermons by the Christian ethicist Stanley Hauerwas that was on my lap. So we talked about him and introduced ourselves. They’re Methodists, and she wanted to know about our ministries to the homeless and how the context for those ministries had changed over the summer.

Another Christian, someone from India, came into the room and started talking to that older couple. He explained to them that his wife couldn’t make it because the Green Bay Packers were playing football. Well, I couldn’t stay out of that discussion. One thing led to another, and we discovered that we had both married women from Wisconsin. So we bonded over the devotion of Packers fans. “It’s amazing how loyal those people are,” he exclaimed. I assured him that I fully understood his situation.

I had a different connection to everyone that I talked to that night. But all of us looked to Abraham as our ancestor in faith, and most of us looked to Jesus as the one who reveals most clearly what God is like and is, indeed, Emmanuel, God-with-us. I drove out of the parking garage later into the darkness of a winter night. It was an unsettling reminder of Advent, and I longed to take with me some of the light that I had encountered inside that building in rich conversations and new friendships.

Surely everyone I had met on Thursday night would want God to appear in the darkness and right all wrongs in this world. That’s what the people to whom the Old Testament Prophet Malachi spoke wanted. They had returned home from exile, rebuilt the temple,  stone by stone, and renewed worship at its altar. Like them, we want our offerings to be pleasing to the Lord. We want the day of the Lord to appear — soon — to fix things. But the Prophet Malachi brings them a word that’s surprising, perhaps even offensive to those who think of themselves as devout:

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. . . . But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?[3]

Malachi sees what the people have chosen not to see — neglected widows and orphans, workers robbed of a fair wage, marriages rocked by infidelity, and refugees cast aside because the people fear strangers more than they fear the Lord.

Yet that same Lord does not wish the death of these sinners. In spite of their mistakes, Malachi assures them that they have not perished. He tells them that the coming of the Lord will be “like a refiner’s fire and a fuller’s soap.”[4] Those images suggest God is not only strong but also tender. Those mistakes, those wrongs can’t survive in God’s refining presence. As one biblical scholar has noted, however:

. . . our sins and faults are part of us. We want to be pure, but we are not sure we want to be changed. . . . A refiner’s fire is terrifying and untouchable, but [the other image used by Malachi, laundry soap,] is close and personal — touching me and my most intimate clothing. . . . Malachi suggests that God is like the tribal mother washing the family’s clothes in a stream; she won’t rest until everything is clean and fresh. Hers is a hands-on labor of love, working to make sure that those she cares enough about to touch the dirt on their bodies can be clean and presentable to the world. God is like that, says Malachi — a washer-woman, bent on cleaning up her family.[5]

As Christians, we believe the messenger sent to prepare the way for this God was John the Baptist, son of the priest Zechariah. And we believe this same God suddenly came to his temple in the person of Jesus Christ, who is both strong and tender, washing us in his forgiveness and love, embracing us with his compassion and grace, accepting us in spite of our worst selves, our most hateful thoughts, our most exclusive actions. In him, we have been made worthy to stand before God.

One of my old parishioners, a former federal prosecutor in the City of Detroit who is now a professor of criminal law, wrote a brief reflection about the violent events of last week. It’s something that continues to haunt me. “[I]n many minds,” he said:

. . . terrorism of this sort is committed by people with names like “Syed,” not by people with names like “Tim,” or “James” or “Adam.” Which is true, until Tim blows up a federal building, and James shoots up a theater and Adam kills people in a church in Charleston.[6]

We could add the name of a woman named Tashfeen and too many others to that list. It would quickly represent a cross-section of humanity. There was also a cross-section of humanity among the victims last Wednesday and the people I met on Thursday. I don’t know how to right those wrongs for all of humanity. I want God to come here and do that soon. But I do know that the refiner’s fire and the fuller’s soap must first go to work on my own heart. And I believe that after that, love wins, even if the facts on the ground testify otherwise. History can be read more than one way, but I believe that Christ’s love, not Constantine’s sword, conquered the empire.


And I believe that Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, in the words of our mission statement, will continue to “know and share the love of Jesus Christ” — ministering to people from all walks of life and all corners of the earth who come in search of healing at the Texas Medical Center; helping, as we have done for many years, to resettle those who come to the City of Houston as refugees from war-torn lands; and keeping our doors open for those who long for God to come suddenly to his temple, making right that which is amiss, beginning with their own hearts.


 1 BACK TO POST It was only after I had preached this sermon that I thought of this prayer as the right introduction to the words that follow. Revelation 22:16, among the Bible’s last words, refers to Jesus as “the bright morning star.” In the Moravian Church, “Morning Star, O Cheering Sight!” is a beloved Christmas hymn that traditionally features a child soloist who sings antiphonally with a choir or a congregation. This prayer comes from the words of the final verse of that hymn.

BACK TO POST Faith Karimi, “San Bernardino shooting: Who were the victims?” CNN website, December 5, 2015.

BACK TO POST Malachi 3:1-2.

BACK TO POST Malachi 3:2.

BACK TO POST Frederick J. Gaiser, “Refiner’s Fire and Laundry Soap: Images of God in Malachi 3:1-4,” Word & World, Volume XIX, Number 1, Winter 1999, 88.

BACK TO POST Mark Osler, “Trump, and then another mass murder,” Osler’s Razor blog, December 3, 2015.

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