“Smooring the Fires”
a sermon by Rev. Dr. Thom Bower
All Saints Sunday 2015
Based on John 11:32-44
So often, when we think of Jesus, we focus on the fact that Jesus dies. But Jesus also mourned as his close friends died. Pay attention to how Jesus responds to the death of his friend Lazarus.
32 When Mary arrived where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her crying and the Jews who had come with her crying also, he was deeply disturbed and troubled. 34 He asked, “Where have you laid him?” They replied, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to cry. 36 The Jews said, “See how much he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “He healed the eyes of the man born blind. Couldn’t he have kept Lazarus from dying?” 38 Jesus was deeply disturbed again when he came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone covered the entrance. 39 Jesus said, “Remove the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said, “Lord, the smell will be awful! He’s been dead four days.” 40 Jesus replied, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you will see God’s glory?” 41 So they removed the stone. Jesus looked up and said, “Father, thank you for hearing me. 42 I know you always hear me. I say this for the benefit of the crowd standing here so that they will believe that you sent me.” 43 Having said this, Jesus shouted with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his feet bound and his hands tied, and his face covered with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.”
Some of my ancestors are Irish, so Celtic ways, Celtic Spirituality makes a lot of sense to me. In Ireland, Scotland, Wales, there is a very old tradition called smooring. Think back to when a fireplace was the center place of a home – not only did it provide light and heat, but it was the place where all the cooking was done. This was known as a hearth.
A hearth fire was kept lit all year long. Each night someone, usually the woman of the house, would bank the embers, surrounding them with ash so they would stay hot all night long. Then in the morning those coals would be given some new fuel and stoked into a flame. This is one kind of smooring: dampening down the fire so it would not need tending.
There is a second kind of smooring. When a couple was married and moved from their family’s homes into their own home, a fire would be smoored for them: coals would be placed into a smooring pot and carried from one household to the new household. These coals would then be fed and stoked into a flame. Because the fire was smoored, it was not considered a new fire but a continuation of the previous fire. And so today some households in Ireland, Scotland, Wales claim to have fires that have lasted generations – perhaps centuries of legacy of a fire in the hearth.
I have inherited a few items that connect me to previous generations of ancestors. The items I have of theirs are mostly tools: an antique level, a fencing tool, hammers, squares, scratching awls. From what I can discern, the oldest item is about 100 years old. While I treasure these for the ways they connect me to my ancestors, this idea of smooring is very different. The possibility of a flame that has lasted centuries is fascinates me.
Fire is vulnerable: there are so many possible ways that the fire can be extinguished. And fire has a life to it. It is one thing to have a level that used to be a workman’s tool but has set protected on a shelf for the past 50 years; it is something very different to have something like a fire that has been nurtured, tended, fed, sustained through centuries of ancestors.
The early generations of Christians used the imagery of fire to describe faith. Certainly, Christianity is not the only faith tradition to have used that imagery. But for Christians the flame of faith combines both the power and fragility of faith. Fire provides light and warmth, transforms a variety of ingredients into a meal, and reshapes raw materials into tools, instruments, and works of art.
Faith also transforms our daily living from the routine mundane existence into artful, meaningful purpose. But like fire, faith can be fragile. If a flame is not nurtured, tended, fed, sustained even protected, then it may become extinguished. If our faith is not nurtured, tended, fed, sustained and at times protected, then it too can be extinguished.
That is why this imagery of smooring a fire is so powerful for me. What does it mean to care for a fire – especially when it has been banked into embers – so that the fire can be transported and shared with another? What does it mean to care for a fire that has been gifted to you by your relatives, your friends, your community – and which has been alive for centuries of generations? What does it mean to keep the flames of our faith alive, banking the embers so it can be gifted to relatives, friends, community for generations who follow us?
Some of these Gaelic communities developed smooring pots – metal containers in which to place embers so they can be carried to a new locale. Native Americans also carried embers from locale to locale; some used gourds to carry the embers, some used birch baskets lined with wet grass. Mongolian nomads crafted a leather case to carry embers from campsite to campsite. While these other cultures did not use the word smooring, they had similar practices – but the shape of those practices reflect the particular resources and lifestyle of those transporting the fire.
I think the ways Lyonsville Church can pass its flame to future generations will have to reflect this faithful lifestyle, and it will be different than the ways another congregation – say Northfield Community Church or Westminster Orthodox Presbyterian Church – passes their faith-flames.
We have some clues on how to do that. We remember how faith was passed along to us. We remember stories of how faith was passed along before us. We share the stories of faith of others, the saints who have gone before us, the saints that have surrounded us, so that future saints can receive the warmth of faith and learn to nurture, tend, feed, sustain and even protect their faith.
This is a day of remembrance – in our prayers, in recalling those who have died, and in the acts of Communion. May our remembrances smoor the fires of faith so we and future believers may have useful hearths.
MORNING PRAYER / REMEMBERING SAINTS
For all the saints, gracious Lord, we give thanks. They have passed along living embers of faithfulness for us to nurture into living flames of faith. They have provided witness to your presence in their lives so that we might recognize your presence in our lives. Their testimony helps us discern you at work in the events of our lifetimes.
We pray for the people of Mexico, Pakistan, and Afghanistan as they recover from nature’s fury.
We pray for many individuals undergoing medical treatments – continued healing from heart transplants and cataract removal to cancer treatments and chronic pain.
We pray for Lyonsville Congregational Church as we engage change and transition, seeking your revitalizing presence for a new generation of faithful servants.
We pray for patience, peace, diplomacy – in our homes, in our church, in our neighborhoods, in our country’s politics, in international relationships.
We pray for wisdom to discern your call to us to live faithfully, and we pray for wisdom to accept the cost and joy of discipleship.
Today we remember those who have died in the past year. We celebrate their lives, even as we continue to grieve.
We remember family and friends who died in previous years and whose imprint on our lives is still evident.
We remember events that cause us to continue to grieve: the loss of employment, the closing of congregations, the conclusions of marriages, the dissolution of friendships.
With thanksgiving we also remember teachers, pastors, mentors, and others who shaped our life of faith.
For all the saints who have shaped the faith we have inherited, we give thanks to you for their witness and gifts of faith. Amen.