Aug. 18, 2019 – sermon

Posted by on Sun, Aug 18, 2019 in Season after Pentecost, Sermons

The 10th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 15C)

August 18, 2019

The Christfire

This month marks the 75th anniversary of Smokey the Bear, that cordial Forest Service mascot who’s famous for chiding, “Remember, only you can prevent forest fires!”  Smokey first lumbered into our lives in 1944, when the Forest Service was seeking an iconic guardian of the American wilderness, and flames were the only foe in sight.

Today a good deal more is known about what it takes for forests to thrive. Researchers have discovered concentric rings of charred bark in old growth timber, spaced roughly at 5-10 year intervals.  The rings signify a recurrent pattern of brief, self-limiting flames, which healthy, established trees easily survived. The pattern fades early in the 20th century, as the Forest Service starts suppressing these spontaneous burns. No longer are surplus seedlings naturally razed, nor breathing room renewed between trunks. Meanwhile nature-loving homeowners are pressing deeper and deeper into the thickening forests, even as searing summer droughts are turning the undergrowth into tinder. In 2018 the inevitable happens: the Paradise wildfire roars to life in California, and devours an entire town.

Human judgment can be accidentally self-defeating like this.  There is always far more going on around us than we realize, and when we encounter something that troubles us—like a wildfire disrupting our hunting and camping—we seek a ready solution to the disturbance. We manage the situation, as we like to say, and time goes by.  Over the century of fire suppression, forest liabilities silently mounted.  Not only was each square acre turning into a tinder box, but mineral-sloughing surface rocks, that fragmented under fire, stopped sloughing. Heat-dependent native seeds ceased germinating, and heat-driven soil renewal halted.  And nobody noticed. But as a consequence, under well intended but misguided human watch, the grace of fleeting, healing flames morphed into a devastating inferno.

Sobered by this story, we might hear today’s Gospel with new ears, as Jesus proclaims, “I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” Honestly, on a Sunday morning, wouldn’t we all prefer to hear about Jesus the loving Shepherd, who guards us from harm? or Jesus the forgiving Savior who accepts us just as we are? But human judgment can be accidently self-defeating, and today’s portentous cry of Fire! reveals a dimension of Christ’s mission we need to notice. Behind, beneath and beyond the gentle, loving, and comforting Jesus there burns a divine desire for God’s will to be done on earth, for Christian lives to mirror God’s life, for each of us to burn as a flame in the darkness, that renders God’s Kingdom visible and real.

Divine fire is a recurring presence that erupts throughout the Bible.   When noticed altogether, the sporadic flares are seen to illuminate the other chapters and verses all around them. In the Old Testament, Moses is shocked to encounter God in a burning bush, rooted in sanctified ground, and he rips off his desecrating sandals. Moses later is entrusted with the Ten Commandments, atop a volcano belching sulphury smoke and flames; he descends to camp so incandescent that he must veil his face from his neighbors.

Moving into the New Testament, as Mary carries Jesus toward birth, John the Baptist proclaims this holy child will bring unquenchable fire into the world, burning away its hopeless chaff. Following Christ’s Resurrection, a Pentecost fire envelopes the apostles and shoots spirals of flame around their heads, even as God’s Spirit gusts through their souls. Finally, at the culmination of all scripture in the Book of Revelation, Christ reigns over the beginning and the ending of all that has ever been and will ever be, and his eyes literally blaze with fire.  In the centuries since the closing of scripture, divine flares continue to be reported, such as those witnessed by a mystic reading scripture alone into the night, who scribbles in his journal, “From 10:30 p.m. until 12:30 a.m. FIRE!  

The fiery Christ we encounter today bursts forth as circumstances force him to stand up tall and tell it like it is. In such tense moments his warnings shoot forth as swiftly as cleansing wildfires, reproving and stripping away all that threatens Kingdom living. And then, quick as they flared up, the flames subside behind his comforting tenderness and care…until circumstances press again, and again as they do today, and he impresses on us how totally pro-Kingdom he is.  His bursts of divine energy compel our attention, and as we listen and heed his words, his flames prove themselves to be healing. They correct our faulty vision, and set us drifters back on track. It is only if were to heedlessly dismiss the fire’s stringent blessing, only if we were to foolishly try to suppress its correction, that his presence would become for us a devastating inferno.  Such is his passion not to lose us.

Jesus is that holy man, eternally on fire for God, who so captivated author Niko Kazantzakis that he wrote: “Jesus’ eyes flashed…’Brothers,’ he shouted, ‘open your ears, open your hearts…I ran here to announce that the Kingdom of God has come!’ And the people listened to him, and the clay within them turned to wings.  The entire time this betrothal lasted, if you lifted a stone you found God underneath, if you knocked on a door, God came out to open it for you, if you looked in the eye of your friend or your enemy, you saw God sitting in the pupil and smiling at you.” Such is God’s Kingdom that comes through the fires.  So may it be with us.  Amen.

© 2019 The Rev. Dr. Ann P. Lukens. All rights reserved.