Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost – August 25, 2019
I have recently found myself thinking quite a bit about fire. It started a few weeks ago when all the smoke detectors in my house went off one morning soon after I arrived at work, necessitating a visit from the fire department who informed us that while our house was safe, this was the detectors’ way of informing us that they needed to be replaced, a last hurrah, if you will.
The second reason I have been thinking about fire lately is out of concern for the Amazon rainforest, which is burning at an alarming rate. There are currently nearly 40,000 fires burning across the Amazon, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, the most rapid rate of burning in the last six years, since record-keeping began. The toxic smoke from the fires is so thick that the sky grows dark hours before the sun sets in São Paulo, Brazil, the largest city in the Western Hemisphere. The Amazon is the Earth’s largest tract of rainforest, featuring millions of species and billions of trees, and storing vast amounts of planet-warming carbon dioxide while producing 6 percent of the planet’s oxygen.[i]
All of this thinking about fire led me to learn about what are called pyrophytic plants. Pyrophytes are plants that have adapted over long periods of time to tolerate fire. They fall into three major categories: passive pyrophytes, active pyrophytes, and pyrophile plants.
Passive pyrophytes can resist fire due to adaptations such as thick bark, tissue with a high moisture content, or underground storage structures. The Giant Sequoia and even the humble Venus fly trap fall into this category. For some trees in this category, moderate amounts of fire can help pinecones to burst, dispersing seeds.
Active pyrophytes are trees and shrubs that actually encourage the spread of fires because of the inflammable oils they produce. Their resistance to fire is an adaptation which allows them to keep other species of trees from invading their habitat.
Finally, there are the pyrophile plants. As you tell by the -phile suffix, these plants rely upon fire in order to reproduce. As is the case with these plants, the increased temperature from fire as well as the releasing of smoke is required to raise seeds from dormancy. The Eucalyptus tree falls into this category.[ii] Pyrophiles have “have serotinous cones or fruits that are completely sealed with resin. These cones/fruits can only open to release their seeds after the heat of a fire has physically melted the resin.”[iii] In fact, the Australian grass tree has adapted to flower prolifically after a fire, so much so that if you are growing them in a greenhouse, you will find yourself blowtorching them to encourage them to flower. [iv]
So then, what has any of this to do with your life, my life, or our life together, and what has it to do with this morning’s “fiery” text?
In today’s reading, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews writes at the very end “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire.” Writing this sermon, I realized how it is true that, although fire is a common and potent image and metaphor in the Bible, we seldom use it. Of course, we use it on Pentecost Sunday, fifty days after Easter, as we retell the story of the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples waiting for a sign in Jerusalem, as “tongues as of fire” descend upon each of them.
The only reason I can imagine that we eschew this rich biblical image is because we misunderstand it. Too often we assume that fire in the Bible is punishment, although the authors of Hebrews, Exodus, the Book of Revelation, even Christ himself would claim otherwise, for in holy scripture, fire is not a means of torture but of purification. As the Episcopal priest Gray Temple writes, “Fire is used to refine metals. The smelter melts and pours off the gold or silver, then skims off the dross until he can see his own face reflected in the molten metal—not a bad metaphor for God’s judgment, now that we consider it. In the book of Revelation, the devil is thrown into a fiery lake. That looks to us like punishment. Yet more likely the writer thinks the lake of fire is a sterile environment in which to prevent the devil from polluting the earth.”[v]
So how does this all work? Temple continues: “Suppose, for example, you are gossipy…or an embezzler, or a tax cheat. How would God’s fire make you different? You would simply be the same old rascal with third-degree burns. No, to be a cogent image, the fire of God must consume something in each of us that goes deeper than our sins. God’s fire must purge away the false self from which our worst sins arise. The self that God created can emerge only as the self that I construct to retail to others is consumed.”[vi]
The problem with all of this, it turns out, is that it is impossible for any of us to lose the old self without pain, without grief, without loss. I have spent almost half my life in ordained ministry, and this life has taught me many valuable lessons about what it means to be alive. One such lesson is that there is very little so detrimental, so painful, so toxic, or so evil and destructive that the person losing it will not somehow grieve its passing. Humans are creatures of habit, addicts of the familiar, servants to what is known, a people whose tendency is to flee commitment to anything truly new, no matter from whence it came or the promises that accompany it.
Even if those promises of new life come from no one less than the one who designed, created, and redeems us.
Human beings have an incalculable propensity to resist positive transformation in our lives. Sometimes we are like Moses, whose greatest fear was failure. Other times, we are like Jonah, whose greatest fear, it turned out, was actually success. Through it all we cling so tightly to the familiar, to “the devil we know” over and above the new life offered by God, the holy life, the adjustments to the life we are living today, the purification of our souls, all out of the fear of one thing: What if the new life is actually worse than the life we are living today?
This fear is the only reason I can conceive why people stay in degrading, abusive relationships, why a doctors’ orders for new, healthy habits and practices go unheeded, why grand new possibilities go untried. “What if,” we think, “What if I chose differently and the choice yields less than what I have now? Then what? Perhaps in this case, it is indeed best to cling to the devil I know.”
Also, this is why when people leave behind an old life, risking everything – life, family, liberty, and home – they need our prayers, our mercy, and our grace, for it tends only to be when things are inexpressibly bad, when it feels there is nothing, nothing left to lose, that people set out away from the familiar to walk through the fire to what they hope and they pray will somehow in some way be a better life for themselves and their families.
How then, can you and I submit to God’s fire? How can we allow God to purify us, to shape and mold us into something beautiful, purified, and new?
I can remember a time several years ago when my life, the world, and the church I was serving at the time was not towing my line the way I thought that it all should. That congregation had among its members a man and his wife and their two teenage children. This mother and father were from England, as was their family of origin. The man who was a member of my church was a preacher’s son; his father’s name was Ray and he was a retired pastor in the British Methodist Church.
Every time Ray and his wife Peggy came for a visit, I would have Ray preach for me. He would sing in the choir, and at some point, he would generously allow me to take him to lunch. I can remember one such lunch, as he and I sat in a small, rural diner and I told him in detail how things were not going according to my plans and my wishes and my desires, and how I was frustrated and out of ideas and ready to give up.
Ray was a diminutive man in his late seventies, with glasses, a full head of white hair, and a strong and beautiful English accent. And after hearing my litany of woe, he looked at me and asked, “Do you believe God has called you here?”
And I thought about it for a moment, and I knew that no matter what I wished to believe, God had.
“I do,” I replied.
With that, he rose out of his seat, looked me in the eyes, and said, “Well, then you’re stuck with it, lad!”
Too often, we believe that faith and faithfulness is all about knowing all the right answers. Twenty-three years of ordained ministry has taught me otherwise. Faithfulness, it turns out, is willingness and persistence to stick with it while God burns away everything except that which truly matters. Faithfulness is not about being right. It is about the faith it takes to surrender to the purifying fire all those things within us that are truly wrong, trusting in God’s word that we will persist, endure, and come out better for it all on the other side.
The author of Hebrews writes, “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire.” At another particularly low point in my life, a time several years ago when my life, the world, and the church I was serving at the time was not towing my line the way I thought that it all should, I found myself considering all of this, and I found myself wondering what was wrong, with me, with the church, with the world, with all of it.
And then I found myself wondering this: What if the struggle in my life was not struggle at all. What if this pain, the real pain I was feeling was not God’s absence but God’s presence? What if what I was feeling and experiencing was actually the heat of the fire of God burning away my impurities, enabling the sacred gifts in me to disperse and bear fruit? What if my discomfort was a holy discomfort like losing a baby tooth so a permanent molar could grow in, like the pangs of labor that precede new birth and new life in our very midst?
In other words, what if the pain we are feeling, you and I, is not a sign of God’s absence or abandonment. What if the pain we are feeling today, right now, is the feeling of God’s abundant presence, doing a new thing in our midst, and what if faithfulness in this context meant nothing less than trusting the process, trusting what God is doing, and holding on, submitting to God’s wisdom and not our own, as God burns away the dross from our lives?
Pyrophytes are plants that have adapted over long periods of time to tolerate fire. Passive pyrophytes can resist fire due to adaptations. Active pyrophytes are trees and shrubs that actually encourage the spread of fires because of the inflammable oils they produce. And then there are pyrophile plants, plants that rely upon fire in order to reproduce. As is the case with these plants, the increased temperature from fire as well as the releasing of smoke is required to raise seeds from dormancy.[vii]
This sermon series is titled “What is Faith?” and this sermon title is one of our answers to that question: “Hope for a better world.” Pyrophile means “a lover of fire,” and it is my belief that this morning’s text is calling you, calling me, and calling Christ’s church to learn to love God’s flames of purification for in them, God burns away all of those things that steal from us what Paul calls “the life that really is life,” the life Christ gave his life to bring to bear for you, for me, and for this world. This morning’s text is a promise that there is a better life and better world out there if we are willing to partner with God, trusting in God’s work to bring it to bear, and it is a promise that pleasure in this life is not necessarily a sign of God’s presence and pain is not necessarily a sign of God’s absence.
The promise, therefore, is that God is with us, come what may, bringing to bear new life in our midst, even as the fires of this life burn around us. God is with us. Come what may, in life, in death, in life after death. Thanks be to God
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.