Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 15, Year C
Almighty God, you have given your only Son to be for us a sacrifice for sin, and also an example of godly life: Give us grace to receive thankfully the fruits of his redeeming work, and to follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
O God, take our minds and think through them; take our lips and speak through them; take our hearts and set them on fire. Amen.
Set our hearts on fire …. Did you feel any twinges of unease when I opened my sermon with this prayer, a prayer that preachers like to use on Pentecost? Do you think that it’s safe to have a bunch of burning hearts in here this morning? Won’t all that heat lead to chaos, maybe to an argument or two over coffee in the narthex? Won’t it lead at least to more emotion than is comfortable? Do we really want to ask God for “heartburn” on a Sunday morning before lunch?
And what do you make of Jesus’ fire-talk in today’s Gospel? Isn’t it a little over the top, too? I was sorely tempted to preach on Hebrews this morning, entertaining you with heart-warming stories about the Olympics and “running the race with perseverance.” But then I thought, “What kind of a ‘priest for family ministry’ ignores Jesus telling us that our families are all going to fall apart!” When Jesus starts sounding like our most brash and scare-mongering political candidate, then it’s time for the preacher to step up and take a closer look!
Before I get into the shocking family references, let’s concentrate on this “fire” for a moment. On the one hand, fire can be beautiful, right? It dances and leaps in silken oranges and glowing reds; it grills up a delicious smoky piece of meat; it warms us to the bone on a chilly night; it calms and centers us in a flickering candle flame. But fire also rages through forests and homes, unstoppably destructive, reducing everything in its path to a dead and blackened crisp. Fire is powerful; it is not something that is easily controlled. I can still remember the first time that I watched my father put a cardboard milk carton into our fireplace at home. As it melted and shriveled to nothing in the blink of an eye, I vowed then and there to keep a safe distance from things that burn. I kept to that vow pretty well, cajoling classmates into lighting the Bunsen burners for me in chemistry lab, until I was a single mom trying to grill hamburgers for her kids. Then one night in early spring, a winter’s worth of cobwebs had blocked the gas tubes of my grill, and fire suddenly shot out of the “off switch,” only inches from the flammable canister below. There was nothing that I could do to prevent a disastrous explosion except to stick my hand into the flames to turn the melting plastic knob. Thank goodness for good barbecue mitts. Yes, worst of all, fire explodes.
I wonder which kind of fire Jesus is so eager to throw down upon the land in today’s Gospel? Is it the all-powerful fire of God’s mysterious Love? Beautiful flames that burn without consuming, like the pillar of fire that leads the people of Israel through the desert, dances on the heads of the disciples at Pentecost, and causes Moses to fall on his face before the burning bush? That kind might not be so bad …
Or is it the scary and destructive fire of judgment—the fire that the prophet Elijah throws down from God onto the idolatrous prophets of Baal and the opposing armies of King Ahaziah in the Hebrew Scriptures? Is it the unquenchable fire of divine wrath with which John’s Jesus curses the barren fig tree? The devouring, dramatic fire into which he will toss the useless chaff from the harvest on Judgement Day? Episcopalians don’t like to talk about that kind of fire.
Or maybe it’s God’s purifying fire, just as hot as the fire of divine judgment and just as alluring as the loving fire of God’s presence? The “refiner’s fire” that the prophet Malachai describes—the one that burns away impurities to create precious silver and gleaming gold out of heaps of ugly rock? The fire of struggle and crisis out of which something new and exquisite emerges? There’s a story about a woman who visits a silversmith. She asks him how he knows when the silver is ready, when it is refined. He answers, “when I can see my face in the silver.” One preacher writes about this story, “God is the refiner, carefully holding his gaze on each of us as he refines precious metal until it reflects his own image back at him.” That is the glory of the refining fire.
All of these images from scripture have one thing in common, though: fire, like God, cannot be ignored or easily controlled. Fire’s burning heat demands our attention, and yet it escapes our control. The flames are too quick for us, even when we try to manage them. God always comes to us like a lit match in the midst of a dry prairie.
Jesus’ words to us today are indeed urgent words, as urgent as a spreading fire. He is speaking to his followers as he approaches Jerusalem and his arrest and crucifixion. Each step is bringing him closer to his second “baptism,” a baptism of fire, a baptism through the hard wood of the cross. The fulfillment of this baptism is going to change the world. It will place his followers before a decision—a decision which cannot be ignored, an urgent decision. The refining, judging fire of God’s love is about to sweep down into their lives with a force that they have never felt before. Just like the Holy Spirit sweeps into ours. Will we let the fire of God’s dawning Kingdom change our lives, our world, our community, our church? Not deciding is not an option.
Of course Jesus isn’t telling us in these verses that he wants us to go out and make war on our mothers, our brothers, our sisters. Jesus isn’t teaching us how to act in this passage at all. Jesus is telling us that the effect of his presence in our lives is going to place us in a burning meadow, and we will have to decide which way to go. When the father welcomes the prodigal son with extravagant love, doesn’t the elder son create division in refusing to join in the party? When the vineyard owner pays the late workers in the vineyard the same salary as the workers who were there at dawn, doesn’t the indignation of the early-birds cause a huge rift? When the Bishop of Tennessee raised the processional cross and followed a beckoning Jesus out of Eucharist at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Memphis, in order to join the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in a demonstration for civil rights, didn’t his congregational family splinter to shreds? When our General Convention felt the urgent call of the Holy Spirit and made the choice to ordain Bishop Gene Robinson, wasn’t the Episcopal household divided? God doesn’t bring division. God forces decision! When we’re afraid to stand up for love and justice out of fear of upsetting someone, whether it be our brother in Christ or our brother-in-law, Jesus says that we’re as false to our beliefs as the hypocrite of a meteorologist who knows that the big storm is coming but refuses to make a forecast.
Understanding Jesus’ words in this difficult text are important, but what I’m wondering right now is what kind of fire Jesus wants to send into my life today? And into yours? What kind of fire does he wish were already blazing? Where do you feel Jesus’ burning urgency of decision nipping at your toes? Is it a decision to love more fully—to let myself be lit from within by God’s grace? Is it a decision to stand up for justice in my world, to speak God’s burning truth even when others might turn against me? Is it a decision to step today into God’s purifying fire so that all of the busyness, or all of the fear, or all of the shame might be burned away, so that God’s face might shine clearly in the silver of my soul? Whatever it is that speaks to you, trust the urgency. O God, right now, today, take our minds and think through them; take our lips and speak through them; take our hearts and set them on fire. Amen.