By Bill Carroll
"By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace. And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets-- who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented-- of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect. Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God." (Hebrews 11:29-12:2)
"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)
On the twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (August 15), we heard a harsh Gospel at the Eucharist. So harsh, I nearly punted and went running to Hebrews for cover. But, after talking to our Thursday Bible study, I decided to give it a go. I started with something our deacon suggested in a conversation at the Bible study, and began with the image of fire. Before Jesus talks about his role in creating division--about setting family members against each other--he says he came to "bring fire to the earth."
Preaching on the difficult sayings of Jesus is like playing with fire. True, fire is quite useful. It warms us, cooks our food, and, for good or ill, liberates much of the energy that powers our civilization. Fire also cleanses, purifies, and refines. But fire is incredibly dangerous and destructive. If you play with fire, so the saying goes, you're gonna get burned.
But Jesus isn't speaking of just any fire. "I came to bring fire to the earth," he says, "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!" This calls to mind John the Baptist, screaming at the crowds on the banks of Jordan: "I baptize you with water, but one who is more powerful than I is coming. I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire."
Throughout the Scriptures, fire is a symbol for God. In particular, it points us to God's purity, power, and freedom. On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit falls on the disciples in tongues of fire. A pillar of fire leads God's ancient People out of the house of bondage. Among the prophets, Isaiah's lips are cleansed with a coal of fire, while Jeremiah burns with a hidden fire, buried deep in the marrow of his bones. God appears to Moses in the burning bush. Fire falls from heaven to consume Elijah's offering. Fire and smoke cover the heights of Sinai as God gives the Law. As the letter to the Hebrews insists, "our God is a consuming fire."
In the mystical tradition, St. John of the Cross speaks of the "living flame of love." In the liturgy for ordinations, we pray "Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire, and lighten with celestial fire." But it all comes down to baptism, where we are washed outwardly with water but inwardly with the Holy Spirit, as Jesus plunges us into his death and resurrection and fills us with the fire of his love.
Like fire, LOVE is dangerous. Here too, experience teaches, we may well get burned. Following Jesus is not safe, for his love carries us out of ourselves. God calls us to risk ourselves--to put ourselves on the line for love. It is indeed a "fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God." For the fire of God's love burns wild and out of control. If we give ourselves over to God, we do not know where God will lead us. The fire of the Spirit burns away much that we have come to depend on, including those sinful patterns that have become second nature to us--those "disordered loves" that have come to define our lives. Love can plunge us into deep darkness, where all the familiar landmarks are gone.
God's love is powerful. Powerful enough to tear families apart. But God's love is for our good. God is strong to SAVE. And God will save us, if need be, through fire. But we need to trust Jesus and let him show us the way. For he is the "pioneer and perfecter of our faith." He is the one who traces out the path we are to walk in. And he stands at the summit of that great cloud of witnesses, who faced death and the sword, who wandered the earth "destitute, persecuted, and tormented," for the sake of their witness to the God of righteous love. For this, Jesus endured even "the cross, disregarding its shame."
Over the past few weeks, I've found myself drawn to other stories of suffering. Back on August 6, which was Hiroshima Day and the Feast of the Transfiguration, National Public Radio ran a story about a horrific event that took place eighty years ago.
On August 7, 1930, two African American men were lynched in the middle of town in Marion, Indiana, with a white crowd looking on and pointing. They were photographed hanging dead from a tree in what has become one of the most enduring emblems of racist violence in our country.
You've probably seen the photo, which inspired the song "Strange Fruit," sung most famously by Billie Holliday. Perhaps you've heard her sing poignantly about "black bodies swinging in the breeze." The song concludes as follows: "Here is fruit for the crows to pluck, for the rain to gather, for the wind to suck, for the sun to rot, for the trees to drop. Here is a strange and bitter crop."
This crop was sown in hate, and it will choke anyone who tries to swallow it. Even today, we find the same perverse violence alive and kicking in our nation. We see its hideous, Satanic smirk in the use of President Obama's likeness in a carnival shooting game. We see it in recent death threats against black students at our local community college. And we see it, tragically, in a sign at a rally, quoting Leviticus, displaying two nooses, and announcing "God's solution to gay marriage."
As I meditated on these expressions of hatred in the shadow of Hiroshima and the Cross, I came across the following observation on Cornel West's Twitter feed, "The black freedom struggle is the key that unlocks the door to America's democratic future." I would add (and I think West would agree) that this struggle is also a test for the credibility of the Gospel, for it is here that we find the preeminent North American martyrs--members of the great cloud of witnesses who shed their own blood in service to God and humanity. The election of President Obama, hailed by politicians of both parties as a sign of how far we've come, does not mean the freedom struggle is over, any more than the important victories of the 1960's did. In recent months, West has been quite critical of Obama, asking how his administration measures up against the movement politics of Dr. King. Fair enough, since Obama has invoked the memory of Dr. King time and time again.
And so, at the risk of dividing the household, we dare to ask the kinds of questions Dr. King might ask us today. We might even dare to imagine the president standing, as we all must, before the great judgment seat of Christ. Why, Jesus is asking him (and us), did the first military tribunal convened by your administration rule that a confession obtained under the threat of rape was admissible as evidence? Why did you seek to silence whistleblowers who expose some of the costs of your policy in Afghanistan? Have you done enough to create justice, especially for poor people, immigrants, and people of color? We can imagine Jesus asking more pointed questions than these.
Without necessarily having the answers, we must keep such dangerous questions alive. This is part of our own witness as followers of Jesus. For, in this way, we tend the fire that smolders within us. In this way, we keep hope for justice and human dignity alive. As I scan the horizon and try to read the signs of the times, I sense a great welling up of rage, looking for a target to land on. I see this all around, from one end of the political spectrum to the other. Many believe that the fix is in, and the dream has died. We only differ about who's to blame.
As Christians, we know that hatred can only destroy; it takes LOVE to build.
And so, we turn to Jesus for mercy, and we bid him light his fire. For he is eager that this fire be kindled. It brings with it love, justice, and freedom. It is the same fire that consumed the prophets--the very same fire that burns within his own Sacred Heart.
Come, Lord Jesus, and light your fire.
May it cleanse us from all violence, greed, and fear.
Come, Lord Jesus, and light your fire.
Let it burn. Let it burn. Let it burn.
The Rev. Dr. R. William Carroll is rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio. He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. His sermons appear on his parish blog. He also blogs at Living the Gospel. He is a member of the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis.