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Hoosier Musings on the Road to Emmaus

Sunday, June 06, 2004

Summer preachin' begins

Trinity Sunday, Year C
Isaiah 6:1-8

A steel mill is an amazing, fascinating place. If your only acquaintance is the view from the expressway, honestly, you’ve missed out-- and if you ever get a chance to tour an operating mill, take it.

All right, I’ll admit it-- I’m biased. I’m trained in the industry-- my undergraduate degree is in metallurgical engineering-- and I’ve worked at two different plants as a steelmaker. Further, I’m the third generation in my family to have done so, following my father and grandfather into the mills.

The culture is in my bones. I grew up listening to stories of shop floor triumphs and tragedies, crazy melters and stubborn foremen. My dad’s hard hat, his “metatarsals”-- protective leather boots, with a steel plate covering the top of the foot-- and his “greens”-- the heat-resistant jacket and pants that went on over his clothes at work-- were as much a fixture at our back door as my snow pants and boots in the wintertime. The terms of the trade (blast furnaces and casters; ingots and blooms, billets and coils) were part of the background noise of my life from the very beginning. Doesn’t every child know that it takes iron ore, coke and limestone to make steel? I don’t remember not knowing.

Now, you might think that’s the reason for my taking that path; but it takes more than family background to pull someone into a career. My brother and sister grew up in the same environment, and never showed any interest. But I did, and I can tell you very precisely when I was hooked.

I was 12, and in the 7th grade, when the mill where Dad worked offered the opportunity for “Family Tours.” They would tour around the husbands and wives, sons and daughters of employees, letting us see “live” where our loved ones worked, and showing us how the place operated. One of the places we visited when I went was the #2 Open Hearth. Now, an Open Hearth is a very old-fashioned sort of steelmaking; the basic process dates back hundreds of years. It’s not in much use these days. But back then, Inland still had one open hearth furnace operating - #2. And it just so happened that, the day I toured the mill, our tour group got to the shop just as they were about to “tap a heat.” This is the term used to describe emptying the furnace. A “heat” is simply a batch-- the amount made at one time, usually somewhere between 200 and 400 tons. “Tapping” means pouring the molten steel out of the furnace into a ladle, a huge pot hanging from an overhead crane, for distribution into ingot molds that stood waiting nearby on flatbed train cars.

Now, the design of that old furnace was such that in order to tap the heat, someone literally had to blow a hole in the side of it. The same spot is used for this each time: an explosive charge is placed in the hole, and detonated; the steel pours out, and then the hole is bricked up and the manufacturing process starts over again.

So, there I was, standing with the rest of the families, waiting. And as I stood there wide-eyed, hard hat on my head, safety glasses slipping down my nose, there was first this tremendous explosion, that shook the ground beneath my feet. Then, against a backdrop of black and gray, the monochromatic patina of dust and dirt that covered every open surface, there suddenly burst this glowing orange ribbon, streaming and roaring into the ladle. It was loud, and hot, and filthy, and dangerous... and I had never in my life seen anything so absolutely mesmerizing. In that instant, I was hooked. My background may have prepared me, may have made me more receptive to the magic; but it was the sudden reality that grabbed me, and changed me, forever. As a result of the actions and decisions that stem from that day, and even if I never step foot into another mill, part of me will always see the world through the eyes of a steelmaker.

In fact, this is the lens through which I understand Isaiah’s story this morning. In a single visionary moment, Isaiah sees something overwhelming. Something profound. He is touched by a glowing ember, and his life changes, forever. He doesn’t understand, doesn’t know where it will take him; all he knows is that he has been invited beyond the limitations of his sinful, inadequate world, to follow a single, defined, luminous path. He does not know the destination, but still he eagerly volunteers for the journey. It’s wondrous; he can’t do anything else.

It’s not as though there’s a promise of a pleasant journey. We don’t ever hear it in the Sunday lectionary readings, but the message that God calls Isaiah to bring to the people is a hard one, of judgment and desolation.

No sweetness and light promises, here.

That’s the first lesson of the day: nowhere in the Christian handbook does it say that discipleship is easy.

Standing with the marginalized, when the world would rather ignore problems of poverty and homelessness, even when they are nestled at our doorsteps...

Pointing out and refusing to participate in bigotry, in all the evil “isms” that are pervasive in our culture, our community, and yes, even our church...

These are not works and actions designed to win popularity contests. And yet, that’s our call, as Christians. That’s the coal burning in our mouths. That’s the molten orange fire pouring into us, ready to be poured out again.

No, God does not promise to make our journey easy. But the good news is that we are promised something else, as well. In today’s Gospel, Jesus terms it “the Advocate,” or “the spirit of truth.” Usually we simply call it the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity that we celebrate today. God who is present with us at every moment, in every breath; strengthening us, like Isaiah, to walk the rocky road “into all truth.”

That’s the second part of the lesson, today: yes, the work is hard. Sometimes incredibly hard. It can be loud, and hot, and filthy, and dangerous... and absolutely mesmerizing. And best of all, it is not ours alone. We are never, ever alone.

So, set the charge, brothers and sisters, and let the steel pour forth.

Thanks be to God.


Blogger Reverend Ref + said...

Well done. And I'll return the favor, "You can preach in my pulpit anytime."

June 06, 2004 8:39 AM  

Blogger Jane Ellen+ said...

Thanks, bro. But be careful what you offer. I do not willingly turn down preaching gigs. (^_^)

June 06, 2004 10:06 PM  

Blogger Reverend Ref + said...

Yeah, well, considering my pulpit is now in Montana, it's a pretty safe offer ;-)

June 07, 2004 7:51 AM  

Blogger Jane Ellen+ said...

Honey, that just means it takes a little more effort to arrange. Just wait-- one of these days I'll show up on your doorstep, even in Montana. Count on it.

June 07, 2004 7:28 PM  

Blogger Clueless Christian said...

Good sermon. I disagree with it, and think TEC would be much better with more sheperds and fewer "prophets" but good sermon anyway :)

And I do agree about "isms". Nihilism, Narcissism, Individualism...Yup, maybe we could use a few prophets after all!


June 15, 2004 1:56 PM  

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