Health, Fire, and Salvation

A Sermon for the 10th Sunday After Pentacost, Proper 15, Year C

I have a friend who sets forests on fire. He works with others, a team of arboreal arsonists, lighting grassy fields, stands of pine, and oak savannahs aflame. He does this not because he wants to destroy the landscape, he gets no thrill from the fire and char itself. His motivation is the health of the land and the diversity of its ecosystems. This friend is then no vandal, he works for the Nature Conservancy and he uses fire to fulfill the mission of his organization--to conserve and restore the forests and prairies of Arkansas.

For many years fire was seen as the enemy of good ecology. Fires were prevented when possible, suppressed whenever they appeared. Smokey Bear became one of the most popular figures in American culture, offering the slogan that we can all easily repeat: “only you can prevent forest fires.”

But our understanding has changed. We’ve realized that forest fire prevention was often about saving human landscapes rather than wild ones. Forests and prairies need fires for their health, they are necessary to preserve the cycles of regeneration that restore their flourishing. When we don’t allow small fires, the risks rise until they break out into catastrophes like we all saw last year in California.

So, what of the fires of our faith? The fire Jesus says he brings in our Gospel reading?

That fire is a fire of judgement and that can make us squirm. We don’t like to talk about fire and judgement in the Episcopal Church. We certainly don’t like to entertain thoughts of divine fire coming down upon us or even our enemies. Many of us have seen the damage that can be done from hellfire preaching and we are good to distance ourselves from such messages.

Yet, however uncomfortable we are with the language of fire, if we are to be People of the Book, people who believe that the scriptures must be wrestled with, we must deal with passages like those we read today. And though we may want to simply create a nice, palatable reading that keeps us comfortable, we would be doing our own violence to gloss the texts or write off their language.

I want us to take these texts seriously, but to do so I also think we need to reexamine our thinking about fire, our conceptions of judgement. What if we have been like those forest managers who thought that fire was always destructive and not a source of healing? What if the fire that Jesus brings is like the controlled burns carried out by the Nature Conservancy that make space in the understory for new growth and supply the soil with fertilizer for its flourishing?

To begin to unravel the answers to these questions let us start with Isaiah. We must start there because, as our reading in Hebrews reminds us, we can never really understand the Gospel until we understand the story of which the Gospel is only a part, which is to say, the story of Israel.

The story of Israel is the narrative of God working through one people to bring all humanity and all creation back into full communion with God; it is the people through which God seeks to exercise judgement over the whole world. But that judgement is not the kind doled out by the nation state, retributive punishment of wrongdoers. Instead the judgement of God is aimed at putting things right and restoring the world into the fundamental relationships of human life, the love of God and neighbor. Israel was to be a people through which God carried out that mission. They were, as Isaiah says, planted like a garden to give both delight and good fruit for the world.

But clearly, the whole reason for Isaiah’s work as a prophet, is to tell Israel that they have failed in their call. Instead of being a vehicle of God’s restoration of the world, they had fallen into the violent exploitation of the weak and vulnerable. Just after where our reading cuts off today, Isaiah says that the reason for God’s anger is that the people had “joined house to house, field to field.” They were more interested in the extension of their own property than ensuring that there was enough for everyone. And so God sent his prophet to call the people back to their vocation, and renew his promise that through them, God would indeed bring a restorative justice for all creation.

Isaiah believed that while God would continue to work through Israel, that God would also bring them a person, a Messiah, who would embody the vocation of the people faithfully, that through him Israel would become “a light to enlighten the nations.”  That person would be God’s justice and that person, Christians have always held, is Jesus.  It is through Jesus that Israel has fulfilled its vocation and it is through Jesus that the work of being God’s justice in the world is now extended to all of us. 

When Jesus says that he has come to bring fire, then, it is not the fire of destruction but rather the fire of an ecologist aimed at bringing the world back to its wholeness. The only fire Jesus brings is the fire of the Spirit that moves in us and enables us to join him on the way; the baptism Jesus longs for is his crucifixion, death, and resurrection through which a new humanity is formed through his humble faithfulness.

The justice that is Jesus is a judgement that moves far beyond getting our due, mine and yours, the borders of nations and family. Because of this those who join with Jesus will move out of step and out of pace with a world that demands its rights and fears its neighbors and needs violence to keep its peace. To follow Jesus in his way of mercy and reconciliation will challenge our egos and our sense of safety and it will challenge the egos and sense of safety of those around us.

Conflicts will come with those closest to us as we move closer to Jesus, unless they are on the same journey into the same justice. Those conflicts may be large like St. Francis and his father, the wealthy merchant who brought all the power he could muster to stop his son from living into the simple of way of Christ. But more often those conflicts will be the small, daily opposition between a society that values getting what’s owed to us and Jesus’ way of merciful generosity.

We cannot predict the ways that the justice of God will show up in our lives or the conflicts that will result from its appearance. All we need to know is that the time for God’s justice is now, the task is urgent, and we need to live into it by becoming daily students of Jesus and his way, whatever resistance we might meet from far or near. By being Jesus’ disciples we will be led, not into the defense of our rights, but into the creation of a new community, formed in the fire of the Spirit and lived out through the works of mercy. If we want justice we must understand that justice has a name: Jesus. His judgement is working throughout the world, and will one day blaze in fullness, bringing health and wholeness to all creation—God’s healing fire that is being kindled in our hearts, even now. Amen.

Ragan Sutterfield