By: David H. May, Rector
This time of the year, churches large and small are all suddenly feeling under the gun to get it together. The new ‘program year’ is just around the corner so we all want to be ready for things like signing up children for Sunday School and having our calendar of events ready to go. We all want to be able to show you what we do and how you can be a part of it too. We all are working to recruit volunteers to fill out ministry groups. We all want to do a better and better job of giving people new to our churches just what they need so they won’t go shopping for a new church someplace else next Sunday. And for sure, all of us churches are working on how we can make our annual giving programs the most successful and best ever.
If this all makes you feel like vines are climbing up on you and threatening to pull you down into the overgrown brambles and be lost in the undergrowth, well you’re not alone. And it’s not just churches. All kinds of organizations are working on the same things too. And honestly, plenty of them do a much better job than churches in stating their mission and giving people a real sense of purpose and making them a part of a community where they know they belong and are deeply valued.
The truth is, we live in a thoroughly consumer-driven culture and churches aren’t immune to the message that comes with that. And that message is to figure out what people want and give it to them, because if you don’t someone else will. Which is why we’re all trying to ‘get it together’ so that people find our church or any other church an easier place to be, more convenient, more responsive to their needs.
Now there’s not necessarily anything wrong in all of that and probably much that does good. But I do find myself wondering sometimes if the reason we are all so passionately working on these things can’t get obscured sometimes.
Jesus words for us this morning are a powerful, clarifying word not only for us super high-functioning churches but in all the rest of our lives. He says to us, “I came to bring fire and how I wish it were already kindled!” It is a fire, he says, that will send us scurrying this way and that and drive some of us together and set others of us apart from each other. And none of that sounds like a very effective plan for competing in a consumer-driven culture. But maybe that’s the point.
A good friend of mine works for the U.S. Forestry service. One day when he was driving me around the county, he showed me something about fire that I’d never thought of. We came to a place where fires had been set in the forest. We stood well back from where the fires were raging, but it was still terrifying. I asked him to remind me why it was a good idea to set a forest on fire. He talked about how what they were doing was just something that happens naturally like when lightning strikes. He said when fire happens in a forest, it clears away all the heavy underbrush and debris and dead or weak trees. What this does is clear the way for sunlight to reach the forest floor and make way for young healthy trees which usually survive fire and encourages growth from native species. The ashes make an easy way for nutrients to penetrate into the ground which makes everything thrive. And all of that sets the stage for supporting all of the wildlife that make the forest their home.
‘Yeh,’ I said, ‘but that’s pretty scary’. ‘It is,’ he said, ‘but it’s how life can go on’.
That fire that Jesus casts on the land is that same healthful, scary, life-giving force. It is the very Spirit of God that sets the blaze roaring to burn away all that is not of the Father’s love begotten.
One of the most incendiary and holy moments I ever saw was in about the most unlikely place you can imagine. It was in a nursing home. I was taking my turn with other area clergy teaching a monthly Bible Study series. It was the season of Lent, so I thought I’d do a series on sin. Our first meeting we took a look at the third chapter of the book of Genesis so we could talk about where all the trouble had started. One of the women who was there was particularly talkative. She talked about how sinful we all are and how sinful she was, how far she was from God’s ways. She had a lot to say about how sinful and wicked we human beings are and provided a lot of examples. There were plenty of heads nodding around the table at her words, but in a very sort of dutiful way – like its what was expected of them.
But then another woman there said during a pause, ‘I’m sorry may I speak now please’. Her name was Beryl Dunning. She was a 96-year-old English woman. She was tiny, with a small, beautiful little voice speaking the Queen’s English and she sat sort of bent over in a wheel chair. She couldn’t fully lift her head, but she looked up and said again, ‘I think I’d like to say something, if I might.’ She looked at the woman who’d been speaking such volumes on human sin and wickedness and said, “oh, I don’t think it’s as bad as all that”. The woman said, “what do you mean?” And Beryl said to her simply, “oh Sylvia, honestly, the Lord loves you anyway, too, isn’t that right?
The woman, Sylvia, who’d spoken such volumes on sin and wickedness sat there speechless under the impact of such grace. Like she’d just heard it for the first time. You could tell she wanted to speak, but nothing came out. I don’t know for sure, but maybe something she hadn’t realized had grown up over her spirit was being burned away making way for something new and flourishing.
There was a long, long silence we all just sort of rested in. No one tried to fill the silence with anything else to say, because it was already full. Finally, Beryl said, “Good, shall we have lunch.”
What I love so much about this parish is how much we long to live from that place of grace given when God’s word of love is heard again, where fire has burned away a clear place for our lives to be renewed in a holy hope. This is where the love of Christ is spoken. And isn’t that what needs to be heard most now in this beautiful and troubled world of ours, up to its elbows in brambles and briars. Isn’t that why so many of us are doing so much to ‘get it together for the program year that is upon us?: to speak a word of grace too? And isn’t that what we’re here for, after all? Amen.