When the World’s on Fire

(Luke 12:49-56)

I had a baseball game that day, beginning and ending my career as a catcher for Dog 'n Suds at the tender age of nine. I was nearsighted and my glasses didn't fit beneath the mask. Every time I turned my head, the mask moved slightly, as did my black nerd glasses, which made every pitch a funhouse adventure.

After I got home, following yet another losing game, and parked my orange Huffy with the black and orange striped banana seat, my mom met me outside and said, "There's been an accident."

Not knowing quite what to say, I said, "Who?"

"Jamie," she said. "He and Michael were playing with lighter fluid out in the woods, and Jamie was burned badly."

I remember wondering how it might be possible to be burned "goodly." But all I said was, "What happened?"

"I don't know, honey. His mom just called. I think he'd like to see you."

Jamie was a fairly good, if suggestible kid, who lived across the street from me. We were the same age, but we were in different third grade classes, and didn't hang out much together at school. At home, though, we roamed the neighborhood, built ramps to jump our bikes, played sandlot baseball and kick the can, and traded baseball cards.

Michael, who was a year older than we were, lived two doors down from me. And though my parents never said so explicitly, I got the impression that they thought Michael was a "bad kid." He always seemed to be in trouble, picking fights and swearing at adults. Last I heard he was serving time for attempted murder in Indiana.

On the way over to see Jamie, I kept thinking about the bodily implications of being burned. I'd played with matches myself before, so I knew that fire hurt in an intense and special way. And the thought of someone close to me experiencing such pain not on a tip-of-the-finger scale, but on a life-altering scale seemed incomprehensible to me.

When I saw him, his leg was bandaged all the way up to his hip. He was whimpering. I didn't know what to say. Nothing seemed right. But his look said that he wanted something from me, some word, some bit of human contact from someone who didn't yet shave and who still wasn't allowed to swear in public. So, I said all I could think to say: "I'm sorry, Jamie."

I’m not entirely sure what it means when a nine year-old, in the face of tragedy, says, “I’m sorry”—but I suspect it means something about the recognition of the terrible forces at work in the world, which sometimes jump up out of nowhere to make us question the safety of the world.

I know one thing for sure after seeing Jamie’s leg, I’ve always a healthy respect for the profound damage fire can do. Once fire gets loose, it feels like nothing in the world is safe. I have a picture in my mind right now of western states ablaze during wildfire season—hundreds of thousands of acres consumed in flames. Nothing’s safe. Businesses. Houses. Wildlife. Human beings.

So, I’ve got to be honest, when I hear Jesus say, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” I don’t get warm fuzzies.

Right? I mean, when fire shows up in the Bible, it feels like something really bad is going down.

When I think about fire in the Bible, I automatically associate it with the apocalypse, you know, the end of the world: “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed” (2 Peter 3:10).

But even worse than apocalyptic fire raining down from heaven is the imagery of hell—with its burning lake of fire, which burns with sulphur.

In the words of George Orwell, that’s “double plus ungood.”

Yeah, so when Jesus talks about bringing fire to the earth, maybe I’m just sensitive, but it makes me a little nervous.

But then I have to stop and remember that fire in the Bible isn’t always a harbinger of doom. Sometimes it’s just the opposite. For the Israelites escaping the Egyptians, and then wandering in the wilderness—God’s presence among them was manifested as a pillar of fire.

Fire in the Bible also acts as a purifier. John the Baptist says that Jesus will go to the threshing-floor, gather up the wheat and burn the chaff—that is, get rid of the bad stuff.

We know that fire purifies things, allowing growth. Nature needs fire, for instance, to burn off the bad dried up scrub, making way for new growth to flourish.

In an attempt to reduce the damage of those huge wildfires in the west, authorities often use what’s called, a “controlled burn.”

Here’s how it’s described:

>Hazard reduction or controlled burning is conducted during the cooler months to reduce fuel buildup and decrease the likelihood of serious hotter fires. Controlled burning stimulates the germination of some desirable forest trees, and reveals soil mineral layers which increases seedling vitality, thus renewing the forest. Some cones, such as those of lodgepole pine and sequoia, are serotinous, as well as many chaparral shrubs, meaning they require heat from fire to open cones to disperse seeds.

In other words, some forms of life literally cannot endure without fire. Fire as a purgative, a preparation for new life to flourish—that feels like what Jesus is talking about in our Gospel this morning.

Taken this way, the fire in this passage is the way God transforms the world—rendering it fertile for new life and new possibilities. It’s God’s way of laying the groundwork for a whole new world.

So, you can begin to see why it is that Jesus wished this fire were already kindled—because this fire is the necessary work God is doing to prepare the world for transformation. This isn’t Jesus waiting to lower the judgmental boom, raining down the fires of hell on an incorrigible world. This is Jesus desperately yearning for the sweeping change necessary for a new world.

But, we have to be honest, this new world, this new growth doesn’t come without cost. The pinecone has to die, after all, to make way for new life.

And Jesus is realistic about the hardships this transformation will cause:

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 be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son    and son against father, mother against daughter    and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law    and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law (51-53).     Now, don’t lie, when you hear that, it’s hard not to think that Jesus is the one who’s causing the division, isn’t it? I mean, he comes right out and says just that, “Do you think I’ve come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

What are we supposed to do with that? What are we supposed to make of a Jesus who causes division?

Obviously, we have enough of that already, with at least one person in Washington who’s more than satisfied to play the role of divider-in-chief. Shouldn’t Jesus be the one that brings us together?

Excellent question!

This question actually comes up regularly.

Say, there’s an abusive situation—it can be substance abuse related; it can be emotional, physical, or sexual abuse; it can be a toxic boss or a destructive friend; it can be just life with a narcissist. In these social systems, what happens when somebody threatens to tell the truth about the system?

What happens when one member of the family says, “I’m not going to remain silent any longer?”

What happens when one employee member says, “I’m not going to be bullied any more?”

What happens when one of the kids refuses to act like there isn’t a huge problem?

Well, most of us know by experience—if not by training—what happens when someone challenges a system built on lies, violence, manipulation, greed, and intimidation. All hell can break loose, can’t it? The whole thing, which is held together by a tissue of normalcy can come completely, irredeemably, apocalyptically undone—as if somebody walked up and lit the whole thing on fire.

All right, so let me ask you: Is calling attention to injustice the same as setting the system on fire?

In other words, is it divisive to speak the truth?

Stop to consider: Is it the truth itself that’s divisive or the underlying injustice that’s divisive?

In other words, is telling the boss he’s a bully what causes division in the ranks—or was the division caused by having a bully for a boss?

You see what I’m saying, right? Jesus isn’t telling the truth in order to set father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, and so on.

No. When Jesus calls out injustice, people take sides. So, when Jesus says, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” he’s saying that his very presence in a world of division and injustice will reveal where it is that people already stand.

When Dr. Martin Luther King helped organize the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, the ensuing violence and hatred weren’t things he caused by getting African Americans to refuse to use the buses; because of the injustice of Jim Crow laws, the division that gave rise to the violence and hatred was already there. Dr. King just help to shine a light on it.

Later, as Dr. King sat in jail in Birmingham, he wrote his now famous, Letter from a Birmingham Jail, arguing that, though speaking out seemed to lead to problems, he couldn’t keep quiet—because keeping quiet, not speaking out, allowed the injustice to continue. His white clergy colleagues weren’t pleased with Dr. King. They argued that the civil rights movement invited violence. But Dr. King scoffed at the charge that what the civil rights movement was fighting for was causing the violence. He said that such a charge is “like condemning the robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery.”

In essence, King offers a very polite, though sarcastically prophetic, eye-roll: “Yeah, this is our fault. The nightsticks, the dogs, the firehoses, the cross-burnings—that’s totally on us. If only our people wouldn’t act so needy, demanding to be treated like human beings, peace could at last be restored to our land.”

And as painful as it is, Jesus says that in order for the fire of transformation to be kindled—that is, the fire of God’s change in the world—we have to speak the truth about the new world God desires.

We live in a world where division feels inevitable; but Jesus announces a world where divisions are healed—not by passively ignoring injustice, but by shining a light on it.

We live in a world where the poor have to prove their worthiness before they receive what they need to live; but Jesus announces a world where our responsibility to one another isn’t dependent on whether we think people deserve it, but on the fact that Jesus loves everyone, and wants them to flourish.

We live in a world where so many go to bed terrified—parents for their children’s safety, and children that their parents won’t be targeted and rounded up just because of the color of their skin; but Jesus announces a world where everyone has a place to go to feel safe from harm, a sanctuary from the hatred and violence.

We live in a world that feels like it needs the fire of God’s transformation, a new way of living together.

I buried a man a long time ago, I’d known him for years—Roy Shelby. He’d been in the navy in the South Pacific in World War II, and he’d seen some pretty horrific things. It affected him for the rest of his life.

Roy used to say something I’ll never forget. Whenever things got to feeling out of control, he said there’s one thing you be sure of: The truth will stand when the world’s on fire.

And for a man who’d actually seen the world on fire, Roy knew what he was talking about.

I suspect that in Jesus’ mouth, however, in the midst of telling the truth about the world that is and the one that’s coming through the cleansing flames of God’s transformation, he might have said: “The truth will stand because the world’s on fire.”