The Real Gift of the Fire

Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 12/21/2014


“Circle of Wonder: A Native American Christmas Story,” by N. Scott Momaday

What is the real gift of the fire, the gift that lonely, voiceless Tolo asked the animals for, the gift that his grandfather prepared him for?


What is the gift of the fire that filled Tolo with unimaginable joy and wonder, the gift that stole his loneliness away, the gift that let his voice ring like a bell over the mountains and the meadows?


Isn’t it interesting that the answer to Tolo’s question didn’t come in words, but came in the form of an experience?  But he was answered just the same.


Not enough just to find an astonishing warm fire burning bright in the mountains, when you’re feeling cold and lost and lonely.  Not enough to sit by a fire and be comfortable.  What is the real gift of the fire, on that Christmas eve?


To be joined by friends who are also miracles, is that the real gift of the fire? To feel in communion with the water, and the wind, and the creatures of the wood, and one’s loved ones who have died: is that the real gift of the fire?


Partly so.


There is a similar story to this one that Roy has told in the Hebrew Bible, in the book of Isaiah.  Isaiah was a prophet, meaning a special sort of wise person who talked a lot about how to make the world better, how to make people safer and happier and nicer to each other.  In chapter 11 of Isaiah’s book, he talks about a new sort of kingdom.  Not the sort of kingdom that Isaiah’s listeners were used to, the kind with one person who was king and the rest of the people who paid the king and served him.  Isaiah talked about a different kind of kingdom, a new kind of kingdom that didn’t give most of the good stuff to just a few, leaving the rest out.  Isaiah talked about a peaceful kingdom.


He described the kingdom like this.  See if you notice anything unusual about the scene he’s describing:


 6 The wolf shall live with the lamb,
    the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
    and a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze,
    their young shall lie down together;
    and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
    and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
9 They will not hurt or destroy
    on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be [as] full of the knowledge of God
    as the waters cover the sea.


There’s a lot of uncommon images in this idea, and I’m going to ask some questions, not for you to answer now but for you to think about.  We live in a big city, without a lot of direct experiences with the sorts of animals Isaiah is talking about.  Still, isn’t it a little unusual to say that in the new kingdom, the wolf and the lamb shall live together, and their babies will play together? Isn’t it a little weird to say that a lion will eat straw, instead of other animals like lions do now?  And what do you think about the leader being a little child?


What would it be like if no one were to hurt or destroy anyone else, if we were all perfectly safe?  Would that bring heaven to earth?  Would we be filled with joy?  Would our voices ring over the hills?


I’m asking a lot of questions, and for an answer, let’s go back and see what happens with Tolo and his fire. 


In the story, the real gift of the fire doesn’t seem to be that it appeared when Tolo was lost and cold.  And the real gift of the fire wasn’t that all these amazing animals came out of the dark to join Tolo by the fire, although that is surely extremely cool.


Remember, when the elk heard the wolf, he shivered a little, and suddenly Tolo noticed the long scar up his back, a scar made by the teeth of a wolf long ago. You might think that the elk would run off, given that sort of history, or would complain that the fireside felt much less safe, now that a known attacker had joined the party.


But instead, the wolf came anyway, and the elk stayed, and they sat by the fire together. 


And then, when the eagle flew overhead, it was then that Tolo noticed the ragged edge of the wolf’s ear, where the sharp talons of the eagle had long ago drawn blood.  Again, you might think that would mean that the wolf would want to take off, or complain at least about this ear grabber joining the fire.  But instead, the eagle settles down and joins them, and the wolf stays put too.


And that is when Tolo sees that the eagle’s leg had once been broken by a trap, a tool that human beings use.  Tolo probably didn’t set that trap himself, but maybe he did, and either way, it would be understandable if the eagle wanted to keep his distance from any person who could cause such hurt. But he doesn’t keep his distance.  All those creatures come to the miracle fire, each one with scars caused by another, each one with a history of hurting each other and being hurt by each other.


No-one shall hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, said Isaiah.  The wolf shall live with the lamb,
    the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
    and a little child shall lead them.


This is what the peaceable kingdom looks like.

This is what heaven on earth could look like.


This is the time of year when we consider a world that could be vastly different than the one we have now.  We are creeping up on a new year, 2015, a year where we can begin again.  Do we like the world where we keep on fighting and hurting each other, where we wound and scar each other, where we keep those who are cold and lonely away from the fire? Or do we want something different?


I want circles of wonder and goodwill, in my heart and in my life and in my church and in my world.  I want circles of healing fire after healing fire, all the voices and all the silences in the world. I want the scars that each of us bears to be healed, especially the ones inside of us, so that we are not afraid.  I want the wounds that we have caused each other to be forgiven. I believe that hearts can be full of joy, and there can be so much knowledge of love that it rivals the waters in the seas.  I want of the world a single fabric, proud flesh, that nothing can tear.


And I wouldn’t mind if a little child would lead us.


This holiday time, as we move along to our new year, let us remember to let everyone by the fire, no matter what has happened in the past. 


You can think about what that might mean in your own life.  Let us be patient with those who have hurt us and with those we have hurt. 


And let us remember the ultimate lesson that Tolo brings us today.  Experiences of wonder and connection and peace can heal us and make us whole on more levels than we can ever imagine.  Let us keep our eyes open for all the opportunities that life presents us to bring in a new kingdom, a new kingdom infinitely richer than our own.