Fire: 13th Sunday after Pentecost: Luke
“Jesus said, ‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled’.”
I’ve been chewing over this passage from Luke since 1974 when Bishop Burgess of Massachusetts asked me to write a sermon on it. I didn’t have a clue how to approach it and I suspect now almost forty years later the old anxiety about it still rises.
What could I say to a congregation or to the bishop who had taken me as a young deacon under his wing? I could start with the fact that the whole dang city seemed to be burning down around me. Fires from the matchstick wooden tenements stuffed with émigrés and refugees, were burning daily and at night.
We were planning to ride the busses with the little Black children in a few weeks into South Boston as the Court attempted to solve racial separation in its schools.
Then it was August 15th the day, when nine years before, Jonathan Daniels was killed in Alabama while trying to register Blacks to vote and desegregate Episcopal churches.
And it was also the month when in 1945 we dropped A Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and forever redefined the following generations.
Not to forget the gas ovens of Europe that claimed 9 million Jews and others who did not fit into the Nazi scheme of things.
And what can I say… 56,000 of our youth never returned from Vietnam. How may other non-combatants died to napalm and other fire, approaches hundreds of thousands.
And it’s hot, the dog days of August, and if Jesus was saying these words at the same time of year he probably had a list of his own of fires of his lifetime. I was a hot and angry young man. And my anger included a grief over the monumental losses we had experienced in our world since my birth up until that time. Anger and grief are twin children and their faces are two of the faces of our age.
And yet did these fires have any relation to the fire Jesus said he sought to kindle?
Yes and no.
Each of the fires that flooded into my mind were fires that consumed and destroyed. Yet these fires also cause one to raise questions about what it means to be human.
Why were our cities burning?
Why was (and is) racism so endemic and what can we do about it?
What greed or desperation compels humans to accommodate the entire destruction of cities, or a people, or a species or an environment?
As we ask those and other questions, we allow our consciences to be scorched and fired up. These openings are some for the first kindling of fire that lead men and women like Jonathan Daniels to try to do something to turn the tide of ignorance and violence; to out of love stand in the path of the gun.
Jonathan was raised in Keene, NH. He was a poet and a dreamer who once penned this line, one that has been etched in my memory because I so loved its language and lilt.
“Somewhere a tenor sang of valleys lifted up and hills made low,
Death at the heart of life,
Life in the midst of death.
The tree of life is, indeed, a cross.”
Jonathan was to enter his last year of seminary at the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, MA, when he burned with a fire to register Black Americans to vote in the south.
He and a Roman Catholic priest were jailed in Hayneville, Alabama. Mysteriously let out of jail, Jonathan, the Priest and Ruby Sales, a pre-teen whose family Jonathan stayed with while in Alabama, were walking across the street to get an ice-cream cone. It was then that Jon saw a shot gun. Quickly he moved to shield Ruby and his body absorbed most of the force of the blast. Ruby was spared physical injury. The priest may still have pellets from the blast in his leg.
Ruby, fifteen or twenty years later became a priest and the last I heard she was raising alarms about the misuse of the Patriot Act.
Partly because of Jonathan I arrived at the Theological school the next year and wonder of wonders, they let me in.
John and Jesus knew something about kindling a fire.
I think one way a fire starts is when one becomes aware of the yawning abyss of hurt that is in the world. A wise monk once said to me, “So many of us like to get close to the fire and feel its warmth, but few want to be incandescently burned by the love of God.”
It’s the burning with the heart and love of God and neighbor that Jesus is talking about. But it’s not a fire that consumes and destroys, it’s not the fires of the holocaust, it’s the fire which burns but does not consume, that burns with the white heat of the Holy Spirit.
It’s like the burning bush that Moses encountered as he walked in the desert. It burned but was not consumed.
Another image of the fire that burns but does not consume comes from my Roman Catholic neighbors. Aunt Peg had such an image in her living room. As a child I thought it was odd: it was the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a beautiful Jesus who pointed to a heart in his chest surrounded by flames of fire. In retrospect it was a very good representation of what Jesus and Jon were about. The fire to be kindled is the transformation of the heart and mind and body to God.
Anyone who has lived through these times and has tried to stay awake understands the vital necessity of the fire which doesn’t burn you up and out.
Aunt Peg had a fire. It was a fryer and she would turn that baby on and make the most delicious donuts that made my nine-year-old heart sing. At four in the afternoon she would turn on the radio and listen to Cardinal Cushing in his nasal South Boston accent recite the rosary. One learned the rosary almost by osmosis whether one wanted to or not. Now in these later years I think of that voice and that time and that home as a place where the fire of God’s love did not burn us out, but built us up, energized, consoled and taught us the other lesson about fire.
That what we do here Sunday after Sunday is light the fires, kindle the hearth, so that we can hear the stories repeated over the years and remember how in our impassioned youth we dreamed and acted because someone else showed us it could be done and ignited us enough to live through our fears.
Now we keep the hearth fires lit so that any who would drop by may also be enlightened by the brilliant light and love of God. So they would know that the sorrow of the world is also a torch to move us to action as well as consolation. So that the bruised and “abused and so confused” as Van Morrison so eloquently sings, may have a hearth to come where they can be safe among the family of the “People of the Book”, people who have been set on fire for the love of God and his son, our brother, Jesus.
(Here’s a song that doesn’t fully capture the kind of trouble the fire of God’s love can get you into, but it still captures the fire and the beauty of God’s sustaining love for us. It’s entitled: Pass It On, written by Kurt Kaiser) I sang it accompanied by my pedestrian guitar playing in a Roman Catholic Church with a largely Episcopal congregation of eight people on Peaks Island in Maine. I thank these good folks for helping me resolve my anxiety about this text. Here’s to you dear Bishop Burgess.