Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 15C), August 18, 2013. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.

Jeremiah 23:23-29Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Psalm 82Luke 12:49-56

Fires of Love

Today’s Gospel is one of those startling passages that practically grabs you by the lapels and shakes you awake.  Forget about sliding into the pew on a quiet August morning and cruising through church half-asleep – Jesus’ words are urgent, edgy, and unsettling.  “I came to bring fire to the earth,” he cries, “and how I wish it were already kindled! … 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 her mother-in-law” (Luke 12:49, 51-53).

“Hey, what a sec!” we may be saying to ourselves.  “What’s going on here?  Isn’t Jesus supposed to be the Prince of Peace?” And if we’re thinking of dismissing this passage as something that the historical Jesus couldn’t possibly have said, we may be chagrined to learn that some contemporary New Testament scholars argue that the pointed sayings of Jesus – the ones we want to set aside because they make us uncomfortable – are often the very ones that are most historically accurate. 

Still, on the face on it, this is quite a prickly passage.  Heaven knows the earth already has enough fire to go around!  We see fire everywhere we look, and also within ourselves: fires of anger that can consume the soul, fires of lust that can fuel infidelity, jealousy, and revenge, fires of hatred that can tear communities and even entire nations apart.  Nearly every family I know has enough conflicts of its own without wanting Jesus to fan the flames of division. 

So what is this fire that Jesus longs so ardently to bring to the earth, and what sort of division does it bring?  It’s not the fire of anger, lust, or hatred; it’s not the fire of greed, possessiveness, or jealousy.  It’s the fire of divine love.  Jesus is on fire with the love of God that alone can quell the fire of hatred and that alone can bring true peace.  Jesus’ mission and quest and deepest longing is for God’s peace, God’s shalom – that Hebrew word that means not just the absence of strife or war, but well-being, wholeness, reconciliation with one another, with God, and with the whole creation.1 

“Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9).  At the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, Zechariah recognizes Jesus as the long-awaited peacemaker, as the Savior who came “to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:79).  Near the end of Luke’s Gospel, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus stops those who are reaching for their swords.  When someone strikes the slave of the high priest and cuts off his ear, Jesus declares, “No more of this!” (Luke 22:51), a cry for peace that echoes down through the centuries.

The early church carried forward Jesus’ message of shalom.  Paul wrote in one letter, “Be at peace among yourselves” (1 Thessalonians 5:13), and in another, “Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual up-building” (Romans 14:19), and in another, “…agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you” (2 Corinthians 13:11).  Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy is as timely now as it was then, when he advises his readers to “have nothing to do with stupid and senseless controversies: you know that they breed quarrels” (2 Timothy 2:22b-23).

At the heart of Christian faith is a quest for peace, but what Jesus makes clear in today’s Gospel is that dedicating our selves to God’s peace, to God’s shalom means becoming a people of fire.  Fire is an ancient symbol of God’s presence and power (Gen 15:17, Ex 14:24, 19:18, Deut 4:11, 5:22-24, Isaiah 30:27), and Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit and fire (Luke 3:16).  At Pentecost, when the disciples receive the Holy Spirit in all fullness, “tongues, as of fire” (Acts 2:3) appear among them and rest on each of them.  Divine love is like fire: it warms, it illumines, and it also purifies, burning away everything that is false, deceitful, and impure, everything that is less than love.

How do we tend the divine fire that we received in baptism and that longs to blaze up within us?  Tending the fire of divine love has an inner aspect and an outer aspect, and I’d like to say a word about each. Inwardly, we tend the fires of love by cultivating a loving awareness of ourselves.  For instance, we try to become more mindful of our motives: what was it that impelled me to say that thing just now?  Was I motivated by love or by something else?  Cultivating the fire of loving awareness leads many of us to take time to sit in quiet prayer.  If we want to strengthen the fire of awareness, we’ll need stretches of time in which to steady our busy minds and to notice more accurately the whole drama that is going on inside us – the stories that we’re telling ourselves, the thoughts that preoccupy us, the often harsh judgments we make against other people and ourselves.  We’ll need time to listen for the inner voice of love that is always sounding beneath the surface, time to feel the holy love that burns in our hearts like a gentle fire. 

As we sit, we will probably notice all kinds of unhelpful attachments – maybe a need to be praised and liked, a fear of being criticized or found lacking, or an incessant comparing of ourselves to other people, to see how we measure up.  I wonder how many social situations look outwardly peaceful because so many of us are trying so hard to look good, to fit in, and to be accepted, and are so afraid of speaking about our vulnerable places, and about what really matters to us.  In our families we may be so eager to get along “peacefully” with each other that we never face the hard truths of alcoholism or abuse or betrayal. We may avoid speaking our truth, for fear of upsetting those who are closest to us.  Or we may try to fit in by joining the complainers, the ones who tend to look for what’s wrong and who’s wrong.  We’ll join in criticizing someone else to show that we’re angry, too!

But if we want to live with integrity and to love ourselves and others well, we’ll have to quit being so invested in what other people think of us.  We’ll have to quit comparing ourselves to other people, quit being so enmeshed in their opinions.  We’ll have to grow in detachment.  We’ll have to stop as we enter the door of relationship, and to reflect on our intentions, needs and motives. 

There is a wonderful story about how the early Desert Fathers trained their students to love wholeheartedly by learning to die to self and to neighbor.2  A seeker came to Macarius the Egyptian, the great abbot of the monastery at Scete, and asked him how to become holy.  The abbot told him to go to the nearby cemetery and to hurl insults at the dead, to yell at them for all he was worth, even to throw stones at them. “The young man thought this strange, but did as he was told and then returned to his teacher. ‘What did they say to you?’ Macarius asked. ‘Nothing,’ the brother replied. ‘Then go back tomorrow and praise them,’ answered the abbot, ‘calling them apostles, saints, and righteous men.  Think of every compliment you can.’ The young man once more did as he was told, then returned to the cloister, where Macarius asked, ‘What did they say this time?’ ‘They still didn’t answer a word,’ replied [the seeker]. ‘Ah, they must indeed be holy people,’ said Abba Macarius. ‘You insulted them and they did not reply. You praised them and they did not speak.  Go and do likewise, my friend, taking no account of either the scorn of [people] or their praises.’”

That’s what holy detachment looks like, when we’re set free from the ego’s anxious impulse to make an idol of being recognized or praised, of belonging or of fitting in. When Jesus speaks of coming to bring not peace, but division, I interpret that as Jesus coming to root out or burn away everything in us and between us that is false and unjust, everything that inhibits real love.  Upheaval of the old order can be divisive, messy, and painful, but out of that holy disruption, God’s shalom — a deeper, more inclusive peace – is born.

The same holds true in the outer world, as well.  We tend the fire of divine love when we are faithful to God’s longing for the flourishing of life not only within ourselves, our families and our immediate communities, but also in the wider world.  Often enough, standing up for God’s shalom means going against the grain and provoking controversy.  It means refusing to settle for a status quo in which the poor go hungry, landfills overflow, lakes die, entire species disappear, gas-guzzlers foul the air, and the global climate is scorched.  Many of you are engaged in that shared struggle for shalom.  I see it in your witness against drone violence and excessive militarism, in your service to the homeless and the hungry, your search for a just peace in the Middle East, your support of a school in Haiti, your quest to save farmland and open space, your opposition to casino gambling in western Massachusetts, your effort to raise your children in an atmosphere of kindness and respect.

And here is Jesus, living for us, dying for us, rising for us, standing with us and calling us to a life of fire, to a life of inner and outer transformation dedicated to the healing and wellbeing of all, even when such a life creates division and disrupts the powers-that-be. 

John of the Cross, a sixteenth-century mystic, wrote a poem that begins with these lines:

O living flame of love
That tenderly wounds my soul
In its deepest center! 

I invite you in the silence to sense that living flame of love within you, to let it tenderly wound your soul in its deepest center.  Among all the fires of this world, only one can redeem us, the fire of love.3

1. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, abridged in one volume by Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1985, p. 209.

2. Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 169, citing Apophthegmata Patrum, The Sayings of the Fathers, Macarius the Great, 23, in Patres Graeci 65.272C.

3. T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” The Four Quartets: “The only hope, or else despair/ Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre — /To be redeemed from fire by fire.” Also: “We only live, only suspire/ Consumed by either fire or fire.”

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