Fire and Life

A Sermon for the 13th  Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 15 – Year C – August 18, 2013 

Kim Baker Glenn, Master of Divinity, Union Presbyterian Seminary

Loving God, Give us the grace to know your Son such that our words and our ways may be daily more like His. Amen


Jesus said, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 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.”

He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, `It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, `There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”
                                                                                                                          – Luke 12:49-56

Those were unsettling words that you just heard in the Gospel reading this morning. Words about fire and division are not the kind of words we like to hear in church, or anywhere else for that matter. But those words take me back to some words that I heard recently from Father James Martin. Father Martin is a Jesuit priest who is fairly widely known for his column on religion that he writes for the Huffington Post Online. I heard him interviewed one morning a couple of weeks ago on a morning news show. The co-hosts had asked him about the new Pope, Pope Francis. They wondered whether Father Martin thought that Pope Francis might have stirred things up when he announced his inclusive feelings about homosexuals. Pope Francis had said about them, “Who am I to judge?” Father Martin said on the morning show that he personally hoped Pope Francis was indeed stirring things up. After all, he said, that’s what Jesus did. Father Martin went further and said that all of us need to be stirred up by Jesus -every day!

 I agree with Fr. Martin. So my job this morning, as I see it, is not to smooth over the words we just heard from Luke’s gospel but to unpack those words so that you might understand just where Jesus was coming from when he said them.

So let me start unpacking that scripture by saying that in his gospel Luke has been strategically building up this point. He has been taking his audience on a life-changing journey with Jesus and his disciples. This journey has been an instructive one so far, offering parables and teaching moments for the disciples to learn just what Jesus expected of them. Just as Luke’s audience of first century hearers heard the teachings as guidelines for following Christ, we hear it similarly today.

Since we are stepping into the disciples’ journey, albeit from a distance, we should consider all that a journey can be. I have learned from experience that it is wise to sit back and stay alert when I am on a journey. There is likely to be a lot to take in along the way. To get the most out of this journey with Jesus, I’ve been thinking about some journeys I’ve taken in my life. Pictures that a friend posted recently of her trip to Glacier National Park reminded me of my own journey their a few years ago.

 The mountains of the northwest United States were a complete mystery to me until I went to Glacier Park. Being more used to exploring the Blue Ridge and the Appalachians, I found the scenery of the Glaciers breathtakingly stunning. Especially on the Going-to-the Sun-Road. If you haven’t been there, that is a road inside the park that takes the traveler from the base of the mountains to the top of the peaks. It is utterly unbelievable. It is so beautiful that you feel inspired to pull over every hundred or so yards just to look at the unusual flora and fauna more closely. It’s slow going because you just have to pull over and stop so many times! The only way to do a journey like that justice is to intentionally slow down and try to absorb each moment.

Most journeys are not as extraordinary as that trip was. Most “journeys” are frankly very mundane and take place in our daily routines. When traveling or doing errands around town, it is easy to set one’s sites on point A and point B and just get the job done. I think we all tend to either ignore or try hard just to tolerate the stuff in between. We run into traffic, rude people, waiting lines, stoplights – they can make traveling a nuisance. Or we might run into people we know and start chatting and find ourselves way off of our schedules. In our culture today, every minute counts! We have tight schedules to keep.

It was different for Jesus’ disciples on this journey. They wanted to go with him even though they didn’t know where it would lead them. When they started, they did not know where Point B was or when they would get there. That was not their concern. Their concern was spending time with this rabbi, this teacher who seemed to know so much about life.  Along the way they would learn a new way of living. Or, at least, that was the hope.

 The journey they were on with Jesus was disguised as a hike, a trek from place to place, village to city in Palestine. And they did actually walk and talk and meet people along the way. But this journey was a whole lot more than going from Point A to Point B across Palestine. Instead of going in one direction towards Point B, they were growing in many dimensions between Point A and Point B. Each of the disciples was growing in faith, love and knowledge on their way to Jerusalem. On this journey they were being transformed. They were being changed from people who struggled to adhere to laws and legalisms into people who strived to create and sustain relationships – with each other, their neighbor and God. Point A, where they started on this journey, is the Law of Moses, Point B, where they will arrive on this journey, is a full life in Christ.

 The disciples were called to follow Jesus one by one. They were not all assembled together, like we are assembled in this place, when he called them. But if they had been, he could have prepared them for what lay ahead saying, “Now listen, guys, have a seat. I’m going to take you on a journey. It is going to be the journey of a lifetime, so pay attention to everything and I do mean everything along the way. Notice the people I introduce you to, put some thought into figuring out why I’m introducing them. Notice everything I do and everything I say. Think about it at night before you go to sleep, think it about it when you wake up and carry the thoughts with you throughout the day. This is important stuff we are doing here. We are going to change the world!”

Some of us, too, have chosen to follow along on this journey by studying scripture. Some of us follow by trying our best to lead a good life, an ethical life that takes into account “what would Jesus do?”. Wouldn’t it be nice if all of us could be told at various stops along our journeys to “listen up!,” “Pay attention!,” “This is something you need to really take in!”?

Apparently, the disciples were not given cues like these either. As the story has been given to us in the Gospel account, each important lesson that Jesus taught seemed to catch the disciples off guard. They did not know what to make of the teachings or Jesus at first. They had to learn to pay attention; with open eyes, open ears and open hearts. In each teachable moment, the disciples had a chance to visualize more clearly what God’s kingdom, the coming kingdom, would look like.

But even though the opportunity to see more clearly was right in front of them, they vision remained vague. They did not comprehend what Jesus was trying to teach them. They really wanted to understand what was happening, but the parables that Jesus used to teach them were not working. The way the disciples communicated ideas was like the way children express them in our culture today. Hebrew language and Hebrew context is literal with a sense of “that’s all there is.” You know how it is. You might say to a child, “The future is like blue skies.” And the child says, “Why?”

Kind of a conversation stopper isn’t it. Every thing you say prompts another, “Why?” And it goes on and on. Well, in the same way, the disciples’ persistent failure-to-perceive wore on Jesus’ nerves. He was human just like you and me! He was vulnerable to the same kind of frustrations that we are. And so when he reached the end of his rope and they got on his last nerve, he said to them in complete exasperation, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled.”          

You might remember that John the Baptist forewarned that Jesus would baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit. But why fire? Fire can be destructive and devastating. It can hurt! Don’t we have a merciful and good God, one who would want us to be safe and not suffer?

I believe that our God is merciful. But God is also omniscient. God knew his people and God knew, as the prophets of old had said, that these people were stiff necked and had hearts of stone. God sent Jesus in order to transform them. He sent Jesus because he wanted them to know that he wants a relationship with his people now; he wants us to know that he is with us now – in this earthly realm. Jesus needed fire because fire was what was required to get the job of transformation done. Fire could melt stone cold hearts and allow them to be re-formed.

Of course, we know that at the end of this journey Jesus was headed for his own fire, of sorts; a baptism of fire that would come when he faced the rulers who feared his power. The rulers in first century Palestine feared Jesus’ power because it was power that came from within. It was not the kind of power they had expected that came from wealth or weapons. Jesus had the power of authentic and audacious love. The rulers knew the only way to annihilate Jesus’ power was to take his life – or at least that is what they thought. What a surprise it must have been for them when they took his life that day on the cross. What they had actually done by ending his earthly life was to set Jesus’ power free. They unleashed his power from the bonds of his human body so that through that power he became Christ – a power greater than ever before.

 Before all that happened though, Jesus had some teaching to do. He accused his followers of being hypocrites because he saw that they could accurately analyze things like the weather but seemed completely unable to perceive the signs of the spirit.

 What about us? Are we hypocrites too? Do we pay more attention to our mah-jong or bridge games; our soccer or golf games than we do to prayer? Do we give as much time to our spiritual discipline as we give to our work or social schedule? I think if we are honest, we have to admit that none of us gives God enough of our time. We are not yet fully the people that God longs for us to be. But we have a way to become that people; God’s people. We need to start at Point A, who we are today, and then grow in faith, love and knowledge in order to arrive at Point B, the people that God desires for us to be. Like the disciples, we too can be transformed.

  What Jesus knew but couldn’t seem to get through to the disciples needs to be made clear to us this morning. Jesus IS the fire of transformation. We all need to rekindle that fire in our lives and allow it to refine and reform us. Join me on the journey where the disciples left off. Let’s start today at Point A. Amen.