August 14, 2016
by Emily Rowell Brown, Associate Rector
Fire holds memories for us all. Maybe, like my husband, you remember fondly your Boy Scout trips, gathering kindling and just the right mixture of small sticks and thick wood to make a fire by your campground. Fire was adventure, a tangible fruit of hard labor, and excitement, all in one.
Maybe you have lost your treasured belongings in a fire. Your house, your dearest recollections, and the wretched wallpaper you kept meaning to replace have all been consumed by flames. You realize both how much and how little possessions mean.
Maybe you watch the flicker of the candle flames on the altar each week at church and almost feel the spirit’s breath making the light dance and the wax trickle elegantly down the candlesticks.
Maybe you have traveled to a place very unlike most places in the States and witnessed the live-giving capacity of fire, how citizens of this globe depend on fire to warm, to sterilize, to cook, and to illuminate. Of course, we all rely on fire, but with increasingly advanced technology, we create layers which remove us from its centrality to our survival.
Then there is the fire of the Bible. We may think about how God chose to appear to Moses in a burning bush, or of the many times fire is invoked as a part of God’s judgment: the wicked will be burned. We may think about the fiery gates of hell or about the fire of the Holy Spirit, which purified and enlivened the first Christians.
Fire: it illuminates, but it also consumes. It gives life but it also destroys. It cannot be easily touched or contained.
We hear God likened to fire again and again, and today’s texts prove no exception. What does it mean to follow a God of fire?
This imagery holds dimensions at once positive and negative, reassuring and frightening. Lest we imagine that hearing God’s voice is an easy endeavor, the depiction of God’s word possessing the power of fire and the reality-smashing capacity similar to a hammer taken to rock lets us know otherwise. Be careful, these texts seem to say. Be sure that you know what you are doing. Do not take someone who claims to speak God’s word at face value. Do your own discernment.
Ultimately, that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? How do we know what God is saying in the here-and-now? Whom do we believe and whom do we follow? Which voices command our attention, and which are noise, or worse, antithetical to God’s wishes?
As we see in Jeremiah, and still often is the case, communities can lift one another up, and call each other to be better (as we pray we do here week after week), but so also can their bad behavior be mutually reinforcing. In other words, there are not simply bad leaders who lead people astray, or bad people who reject their righteous leaders, but there are people who want affirmation of their destructive habits and leaders who will say what the crowds want to hear to gain and remain in power. False prophets are more popular.
When we listen to the true prophets in the midst of us, we face decision. Today’s gospel contains some of Luke’s most challenging content. Jesus calls for division, not peace, struggle not reconciliation. Before God’s kingdom comes to fruition human beings must make the commitment to follow Jesus above all else. Because Christianity is still a dominant part of our culture, the repercussions of acting on faith are not severe or disruptive for most of us, but for the first Christians, Jesus’ message was not met with majority approval. To side with Jesus was to side with risk and danger, and to potentially face such circumstances alone, if your loved ones did not choose your path. Still today, depending on where you live, consequences for professing and following a particular Lord can prove deadly.
If we think about it, even Jesus faced this intense separation. He was the first to be divided from his family, for he was separated from his Father and mother in death. This is not to glorify suffering and martyrdom as constitutive of faith but it is to recognize that God has the power to unify and divide.
We will take a side whether we realize it or not. Not making a decision is a decision. We decide every day whether we are listening to the genuine prophets among us or if we are following paths leading further away from God. How we know whether something is the word of God or not is tricky business. May we not forget that God is not a force we can domesticate; God is likened to fire for a reason! Be suspicious of anyone who claims to speak for God (myself included!). That said, the next time you are convinced–or not–that God said so, of course turn to the Bible and prayer. But also try the following:
- Pay attention to what garners our attention. What we give our time and money tells us about our priorities. For the crowds surrounding Jesus, their God was weather and harvest and ultimately money, for these things ensured that they would eat and survive another day. They paid more careful attention to the sky than to many of their relationships or other spiritual concerns because first and foremost, they sought to meet their basic physical needs. We need continually to ask ourselves whether we are we paying attention to the right things, whether God is likely to show up in the company we keep.
- Don’t be afraid to get rattled. God disrupts. God surprises us, showing up in all the places we never expected. If you feel too secure in your relationship with God, seek out a little discomfort. God pushes us so we will grow.
- Go elsewhere. Sometimes the spark of our faith diminishes. What worked in the past no longer works, and words that we once lived by, we now find devoid of meaning. Try painting instead of praying or join a new community. Sometimes different experiences allow us to return with fresh eyes to see, and sometimes we find that we need to appreciate our old places for the role they once played and embrace the ways God is showing up to us now.
I am fascinated by the recent surge of ex-evangelical Christian memoirs on the market (and, not to toot our own horn too much, but many of these writers have since become Episcopalian). They describe the intensity of their fervor and devotion to their brand of religion only to find that it didn’t hold up; it broke.
But what is courageous about these stories of burnout and evolving faith is that these individuals all kept searching for God, and they were not afraid to change their minds. They admitted that they did not have direct access or insider knowledge to God’s will more than anyone else, but they kept seeking–still seek–moment by moment, day by day, praying that they move where God’s spirit blows.
May God’s fire keep burning within each and every one of us.
 One writer Addie Zierman even goes so far as to say that I wrote When We Were On Fire because somewhere in the growing up, the flame flickered out, and I thought it was because I had failed somehow. I struck myself like a flint against church after church, trying to ignite some kind of spark. Instead I ended up angry, hurt, bitter, broken. She invites others to post their own burnout stories on her blog, and she received more than one hundred contributions. Clearly she is not alone in her experience.