When I was a kid, every summer around this time of year my dad would leave for long stretches of time, often a week to 10 days. I remember waiting for him to come home the way children often wait for their parents to return. I have one memory in particular, playing out in our front yard, when my dad came around the bend in our little subdivision in our old 1970-something VW camper van. His hair was a mess, his face was covered in grime and soot. I ran to the edge of the yard with excitement and waited for him to get out of the van. When he picked me up, he smelled like smoke. He had been away fighting wildfires.
Every summer since he moved to New Meadows, ID, my dad has worked for the Forest Service doing wildlife surveys. Most of the summer he spends looking for Goshawks, or Barn Owls, or Pileated Woodpeckers. But often, towards the end of the summer, wildfires start up. And if they get bad enough, the Forest Service pulls workers from other departments to fight wildfires. (I actually went through the training and was available to fight forest fires the two summers I spent working for the Forest Service, but those two summers were mild fire years and I was never needed.) When he was younger, my dad would jump on the chance to make some good money – firefighters get hazard pay in addition to the overtime they accrue while out in the field for up to 10 days.
Wildfires and the fire fighters who battled them were a common part of my childhood. In late summer it wasn’t unusual for the air over Payette Lake to become hazy and gray from a nearby forest fire. One of the only Smoke Jumper bases in the country is in Brie’s hometown, McCall, ID (smokejumpers are the firefighters who jump out of planes). When I got into my early twenties, I had a number of friends who would fight fires all summer, and then spend their winters skiing or snowboarding. Actually, I still have friends who do this.
With the rise of global warming, wildfires are becoming more and more common and more and more destructive. In college, I had a friend whose home in Lake Tahoe was consumed by a wildfire. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland is considering changing its dates, due to outdoor shows being cancelled due to smoke from wildfires. Of course, we all remember the Eagle Creek Fire from 2017, which burned 50,000 acres over the course of 3 months, forever changing some of the most popular hiking trails in the Gorge.
For most of us, our only association with wildfires is one of destruction. We see pictures and video of acres upon acres ablaze, smoke billowing upward and filling the air. But the truth is, wildfires are good for the environment. They’re necessary for life to continue. Without fire, the foliage becomes too thick, blocking the sunlight. Diseased plants and harmful insects are allowed to persist. Some pinecones need fire in order to open up and release their seeds. And when fires are suppressed, dead wood and foliage accumulate along the floor of the forest, creating a tinderbox that, once ignited, creates a blaze far bigger and more destructive than would have taken place if the fires were simply allowed to burn when they started.
But even severe burns can be good. Some species depend on total burns. Various birds, insects, amphibians, and plenty of plants flourish in the aftermath of extreme wildfires.
Sometimes things need to burn in order for new life to grow. Some old, diseased undergrowth needs to be set ablaze. The foliage of yesterday must be kindled in order for the morning sun to break through.
This seems to be what Jesus is saying in our reading from Luke this morning: “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” He goes on to say that he hasn’t come to bring peace but division, which is pretty unsettling and sounds contradictory to what we’ve heard elsewhere in Luke’s Gospel.
According to Jesus, too many people are in the business of fire suppression. They’ve become comfortable in the shade of the overgrowth. They’ve made their home out of the skeletons of dead trees. They’ve become accustomed to the flora and fauna of the forest, diseased as it is. To burn it down would be to destroy everything they know.
Isn’t this the world we live in, the country we live in? Where people cling so tightly to what they have, to the way things are – or more accurately, the way they perceive things to be – that they will fight tooth-and-nail against anyone or anything that says differently. And if we follow in the way of Jesus, if we set ablaze the diseased ways of thinking, the dead and dried out justifications for violence, and the falsities that have covered the truth like thorn bushes along the forest floor, then people who’ve made their homes in those woods will hate us – and some of them may be our family and our friends.
You see, there are two kinds of peace: false peace and true peace. Jesus is all about true peace, but the world is generally all about false peace. False peace says let things stay as they are, don’t challenge the status quo, things aren’t that bad. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t start a fire. But true peace is unafraid of conflict. It names injustices that continue to persist like weeds among our society. It says things must change. It’s unwilling to accept the world as it is, and longs for a better world. It longs for the kingdom of heaven. True peace lights our false sense of peace on fire and promises that we’ll create a better home in its ashes.
Jesus isn’t the first prophet to rally against false peace. Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel rebuked false prophets who cried “Peace, peace,” when there was no peace. Ezekiel goes on to say, “…when the people build a wall, these prophets smear whitewash on it. Say to those who smear whitewash on it that it shall fall. There will be a deluge of rain, great hailstones will fall, and a stormy wind will break it” (13:11). The façade of American peace is currently crumbling like the wall Ezekiel speaks of.
In the past few years white Americans have been awakened to the reality that racism is still very much alive and well in our country, not only in the upsurge in hate-crimes and the emboldened zeal of white supremacist groups, but subtly working within our institutions, our churches, and our very selves. (Of course none of this is new to People of Color).
On the border, we’re tearing families apart and making kids live in cages – something we never would’ve dreamed of only a few years ago.
We’re seeing the outcome of our love of guns and our infatuation with violence, as terrorist after terrorist attacks innocent people in stores, shopping malls, schools, fairs, concerts, and workplaces. On August 3rd, after the shootings in Dayton and El Paso, there had been 251 mass shootings in 216 days.[i] There had been more mass shootings than days in 2019.
All the while the icecaps are melting, sea levels are rising, and temperatures are getting hotter.
I’m sure there’s more I could say about the wage gap, homophobia and transphobia, sexual violence, etc., but you get the picture.
These things – these diseased systems, these ideologies of death – need to be burned to the ground.
A racist system where unarmed black men and women are killed and their killers, often police officers, go free, where the mass incarceration system – which is literally slavery – is disproportionately targets people of color, where black women are 3 times more likely to die of pregnancy related causes than white women,[ii] needs to be burned to the ground.
A cultural identity that is so reliant on fear of the other that we scapegoat the most marginalized among us – immigrants and refugees, families fleeing violence, poverty, and corrupt governments – and separate parents from children, spouses from one another, needs to be burned to the ground.
A culture that cares more about its right to own assault rifles than it does about the lives of the innocent, who can’t go to school, can’t go to work, can’t go to church, can’t go shopping, without fear of being caught in a hail of gunfire, needs to be burned to the ground.
An economic system that prioritizes monetary profit over environmental sustainability, that cares more about instant revenue than the world we leave for our children, needs to be burned to the ground.
A culture that disbelieves survivors of sexual assault and blames the survivors instead of the perpetrators for the violence done to them, a culture where women have to be afraid to walk alone at night for fear of being attacked, needs to be burned to the ground.
We are sorely lacking in true peace. And yet, there are people who don’t want to believe it, because the world as it is is working out alright for them, even if others are suffering. They continue to paint whitewash over a falling wall, they’ve made their home in a forest that’s become overgrown and diseased and needs a good burning. But the truth of these corrupt systems, these diseased ways of thinking, is, to them, like a match lit over a pile of dried up pine needles. And, as followers of Jesus, we should be the ones holding the match, because that’s just what Jesus did.
He came into a society that was working out alright for the elites. Romans were ruling but all-in-all the Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes had carved out their home in the dominant culture. They had their clearly defined groups of insiders and outsiders. For them the outsiders were the sick, the demon-possessed, the poor, the tax collectors, the sex workers, and the Samaritans and Gentiles. For us it’s much the same, the sick who don’t have insurance, the mentally ill, the poor, the sex workers, the queer, the immigrants, refugees, and people of color who don’t assimilate to white culture.
But when Jesus came along, he burned it all down. He ate with the sex workers and tax collectors and said they were getting into heaven ahead of the pious and devout religious leaders. He touched the sick and healed them, raised the dead, and cast out demons, which made all those who were formerly outsiders into insiders again. How could the former boundaries of them and us continue to exist if Jesus kept creating pathways for the outcasts to be integrated back into society? Those in power hated him for it. He was starting a fire. He was disrupting their false peace, their façade, the wall they’d built and layered with whitewash.
There’s a story a little later in Luke where some Pharisees come up to Jesus and say, “Herod’s looking for you and he wants to kill you, you better run away!” They’re trying to get rid of him, he’s upsetting the nice little illusion they’ve built for themselves.
We know enough of the rest of Jesus’ ministry, and we know from the writings of the early church, that the aim of the Gospel isn’t division but reconciliation. Jesus did come to bring peace, but he came to bring true peace, where every life flourishes, where everybody is cared for, where every soul is seen as holy, where people can go about their day without fear of being shot or assaulted, where white people and people of color are treated the same, where women have the same rights as men, where the poor still have food in their bellies, a roof over their head, and the worth and respect all people deserve, where families seeking refuge are greeted with open arms, not tear gas and guns. But the world Jesus entered was nothing of the sort, and so Jesus came to burn it all to the ground. “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”
The same is true of our world. It’s not what it should be. Many are holding on to a false sense of peace, terrified that it will fall around them. I’m sure all of us are holding onto a false sense of peace in one way or another. We all become comfortable and it can be hard to see the ways our own assumptions and outlooks are diseased. But Jesus wants to set all that’s false in us aflame, so that we can be healthy, so that we can flourish.
And in turn we are given the ministry of Jesus, which is a ministry of fire. But we should remember that his ministry led him to the cross – that’s the “baptism” he speaks of in our passage today when he says, “I have a baptism with which to be baptized and what stress I am under until it is completed!” His message of reconciliation was met with divisions, his peace with violence. We should expect no less for ourselves.
But you never know what new life is waiting to emerge from the ashes. I heard an encouraging story from one of my new friends from the Living School last week. A few years earlier, he and his dad had gotten into a huge fight over Black Lives Matter. But that past weekend his parents had been in town and helped them move into a new house. Outside their house was one of those signs that says, “We believe: black lives matter, no human is illegal, love is love, women’s rights are human rights, science is real, water is life, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” And to he and his wife’s surprise, his dad took a picture of it, posted it on Facebook, and said how a few years ago he would’ve hated that sign, but now he’s changed and he’s proud of his son. We never know how those divisive conversations might produce fruit down the road.
Sometimes truth rips through our false sense of peace like wildfire. Sometimes it leaves us missing the cool shade of overgrown forests, even if the shade came from diseased trees. But we never know what life is waiting to rush in in the wake of God’s all-consuming fire. Come spring, we’ll be surprised to see what eggs hatch in the hollows of burned out tree trunks, what flowers bloom out of the charred earth, what peace emerges from the cracks that previously divided us.