Grace to you and peace, from God our Creator and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ, Amen.
Two weeks ago my family and I were finishing up our family vacation, and we went to services at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Manhattan. St. Peter’s is a gorgeous piece of contemporary architecture, designed and built within a skyscraper in midtown Manhattan. It has the quality of being in the world, but not of the world, on the corner of 54th and Lexington. It is built down below ground level, and high windows reveal passers-by on the plaza.
Later that day, as we sat in the airport awaiting our flight home, we learned that the Citicorp Building in New York, where St. Peter’s Church is located, was the focus of a new security alert. The rest of the country was still on Yellow Alert, but the Citicorp Building, where we had just worshiped, was on Orange Alert—along with a couple of other key buildings in New York, New Jersey, and here in Washington, D.C. In the days following the new alert there was much confusion. It was new information. It was old information. It was new information. It was a muddle.
It was such a muddle that the New York Times called for an abandonment of the color coded alert system, suggesting that no one knows what to do with the information anyway.
In the West, in Montana, where I come from, we are used to color-coded alert systems. But it is not about terrorism. And it is not about the threat of nuclear war, although it could be. Our beautiful countryside is dotted with Minuteman Missiles, and at least in the Cold War, we were considered a prime target with relatively little collateral damage. (Our entire state population is still under a million.) But our alerts are not about that.
The color coded alert system that we live with in the west is about fire. Everywhere you drive in the state of Montana you will see a sign by the side of the road that says: “Today’s fire danger is:” And then there are 5 options: Low (which you almost never see); Moderate; High; Very High; and Extreme. It is interesting, my daughter pointed out to me, that the middle option is “high.” It is kind of like coffee shops, where the smallest thing you can order is “tall.” In Montana, the middle range option in fire season is “high danger.”
So, when I read Jesus’ opening words in Luke’s Gospel today, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” I get a little nervous. Fire is not something that most of us welcome, whether we are urban dwellers or drought-weary westerners. Fire is something that we have learned to fear. Fire is dangerous. Fire is destructive. We consider as heroes and heroines those who put out fires. I work in the Bishop’s office, and when people ask what we do, we say, “Well, we spend a lot of time putting out fires.”
And now here is Jesus saying, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” Here I am patting myself on the back for my work putting out fires in the church, when Jesus, the one I have promised to follow, is setting them! Whoa! Talk about a disconnect! I guess that I am probably as guilty as the next person of making God in my own image, of designing a Jesus whom I can fully comprehend. A Jesus who puts out fires sounds pretty sweet to me, pretty compatible, pretty comfortable, pretty useful. But that’s not the Jesus of the Gospel.
Richard Wrightman Fox has written a very interesting book called Jesus in America. Rather than following the tracks of the quest for the historical Jesus or embracing the conclusions of The Jesus Seminar, Fox looks at how different interpretations of Jesus have both shaped and been shaped by different parts of American culture. Part of what we learn from this book is that cultural baggage very much shapes our religious understanding, and our perception of who Jesus is and was. And, of course, the reverse is also true. In discussing H. Richard Niebuhr’s critique of Americans and our Jesus, Fox writes:
“The ironic fate of Jesus in America, or in any culture, was to end up being worshiped by many Christians who thought they were solely submitting to his authority when they were actually subjecting him to the authority of their personal obsessions or their culture’s norms.” (p. 399)
The Jesus of the Gospel, at least of today’s Gospel, is no wet blanket, no soothing peace maker. He is a bringer of fire, a divider, a threat to family values!
“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”
“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided.”
It’s really rather dismaying, isn’t it? It kind of give new meaning to the popular song , “Let there be Peace on Earth and Let it Begin with Me,” doesn’t it? And yet this is the Jesus of Luke’s Gospel. “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”
There’s a famous First Amendment case in 1919 that decided it is not an unconstitutional breach of free speech to forbid someone for shouting “Fire!” in a public building that’s not on fire. In some ways this saying of Jesus is like shouting “Fire!” in a crowded building. It seems to have no purpose but to upset. But the fire that Jesus promises is something different.
So what does it mean that Jesus talks about himself as a bringer of fire? Is he some kind of Jewish Prometheus, stealing the life-giving substance from the gods, and paying for it through the rest of eternity? You could argue that. You could argue that Jesus as Son, Jesus as Savior, Jesus as both human and divine one incarnates the divine gift on earth. You could argue that Jesus the crucified Lord pays the consequence of this interaction of the divine and the human on behalf of the human.
But I don’t think that is what this is about, some attempt to portray Jesus as a Jewish version of a Greek superhero. Hebrew legends have not preserved a story about the origins of fire. We don’t have Biblical references to God creating fire and giving it to humankind. And that is interesting, because so many other cultures do have origin of fire stories. But when you look in the Book of Genesis, the book of the Bible that has most of the origins stories the people told each other in the oral traditions in the centuries before they were written down, you don’t see any stories of why we have fire, or how we have fire.
What you do see is stories of fire that represent God’s relationship with humanity. God appears to Moses in a fire—a burning bush, and transformed an adopted prince in exile with an identity crisis into a liberator of slaves, and a leader of the Exodus. How did the ex-slaves and their leaders know where they were going once they left Egypt? God provided a pillar of fire to lead them at night, as well as a cloud pillar in the day.
John the Baptist, in both Matthew and Luke, tells his crowds that even though he baptizes with water, Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. And the Pentecost story is a story of fire, of tongues of flame descending on the believers as part of the manifestation of the Holy Spirit. Certainly fire in both the Old Testament and the New Testament is used to demonstrate God’s presence. And I think that is part of what is going on in Jesus’ words today. To say, “I have come to bring fire to the earth,” means, in part that he brings the presence of the almighty, the presence of the Holy, the presence of God into our very midst.
But it means more than that, too. Fire is a powerful symbol of both life and death. It is a symbol of transformation, of purification. Ancient Hebrew religious customs called for animal sacrifices, which, when burned completely, were reverently referred to as “holocaust.” Now, after Auschwitz, Holocaust has a new, demonic meaning of total destruction without redemption. The sacred, the life-giving, it seems, can be easily twisted into something that is life-denying.
Fire is natural. And like all things natural, it both creates and destroys. One of the great problems in the west is that after a disastrous fire season in 1910, we adopted a national policy towards forest fire that was an all out war. As one retired forest service researcher put it, “[The position was] We are going to do our best to eliminate fire from the forest.” And so generations of kids like me grew up listening to the story of Smokey the Bear, orphaned and made homeless by a forest fire, and concluding that all forest fires were bad, that all forest fires should be put out.
But understanding of fire’s role in the entire ecosystem has evolved since the days when the only good fire was a “dead” fire. Fire is a natural part of a forest’s life, clearing underbrush, making way for mushrooms and smaller trees. Suppression of all fires, not just the ones that are caused by humans, disrupts a forest’s life cycle. There are even trees that cannot reproduce without fire. The stately lodgepole pine has a pine cone that can only release the seed for a new tree if it is exposed to the intense heat of fire. Fire really gives life.
And ironically, artificial suppression of fire is largely to blame for the huge fire crisis we are now facing in the west. Too many years of putting out natural fires, of protecting homes in the path of fire, and the result is forests more volatile and far more dangerous than they would have been if nature has taken its course. Recently the World Wildlife Fund has joined many other environmental groups in addressing the crisis of fire in the west. Dr. Dominick DellaSala, in a recent radio interview, noted that while “fires routinely make the headlines in Montana as ‘bad news,’ fire is not an ecological catastrophe, it performs many beneficial services to ecosystems.”
“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” I think that the kind of fire the Jesus is talking about is transformative fire. The Gospel of Luke is full of parables. But although Jesus doesn’t use the language of parable here, it almost seems as if this could be a parable, too. “The Kingdom of God is like a fire.” “The Kingdom of God is like a household divided, father against son, daughter against mother.” What kind of comfort is that?
Not much. Nor is it intended to be. The fire that Jesus brings is the fire that transforms, the fire that clears the forest of what needs to go, and makes it possible for new life, healthy life, productive life, changed life. When John the Baptist talks of Jesus baptizing with fire, this is what he means. Jesus’ baptism, the baptism into which Christians are baptized, is not only a cleansing. It is not only an invitation into the water of Jesus’ birth. It is also an invitation into the fire of his death, into the transformative power of the cross, where evil is reforged into good, where sin is confronted, and where love prevails over hatred.
The Kingdom of God is like a fire. And how do we respond to this kingdom? As we would to fire. And so we would do well to learn from the fire ecologists how best to deal with fire, how to live with fire, in tension, in readiness, in awe of its power both to destroy and to create. There isn’t just one way to respond to fire. Sometimes it has to be contained or diverted, sometimes it has to burn its course. But always fire transforms.
People who are prepared for fire have to know when to evacuate, and when to hold their ground. They have to know when to help a neighbor douse his house, when to help her rebuild. They have to know what to leave behind and what to take with them. And they have to know that their lives will be transformed by this awesome power.
Preparing for the Kingdom of God has some of the same elements—attentiveness to the immediacy of neighbor’s need, while being cognizant of the bigger picture. Living in the here and now, preparing for the long term.
When I get back to Montana I’m going to re-evaluate my understanding of my work as “putting out fires,” in light of the fact that Jesus says he’s doing some of the lighting. I am going, instead, to be attentive to the “forest management,” taking more seriously the role of fire in its life and health. Jesus said, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”
We can color code for fire alerts, and we can color code for terror alerts. What Jesus was doing was putting us on Kingdom alert. In today’s passage he likens the kingdom to fire, in others he compares it with a thrifty housewife, a forgiving father, a mustard seed, redemptive nagging. The color coded terror alerts have created an ongoing debate about how you can be prepared, how you can live the different colors of alertness. And in some ways a similar debate has been going on in Christianity since the beginning. How do we prepare for a Kingdom that is coming and is here? How do we wait for a second coming that our forbears in faith anticipated almost 2 millenia ago? How do we live in constant readiness without high anxiety?
Kingdom alert is not intended to frighten or paralyze us. The different parables of the kingdom give us pieces of wisdom, facets of the kingdom that is already and not yet, a hope and a promise for us and for all creation.
Thanks be to God.