Storms and Firenadoes

Luke 12:49-56

“I came to cast fire upon the earth. How I wish that it was already ablaze! I have a baptism I must experience. How I am distressed until it’s completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, I have come instead to bring division. From now on, a household of five will be divided—three against two and two against three. Father will square off against son and son against father; mother against daughter and daughter against mother; and mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” Jesus also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud forming in the west, you immediately say, ‘It’s going to rain.’ And indeed it does. And when a south wind blows, you say, ‘A heat wave is coming.’ And it does. Hypocrites! You know how to interpret conditions on earth and in the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret the present time?"

Today is one of those days when I struggle with being a lectionary preacher. Considering the difficulty of this text, it would be easy to make a sharp turn toward another sermon series. Or maybe I should have paid closer attention to the scriptures for today when we set our vacation schedule– that way a guest preacher could have handled this text! But I made a plan, and I have to follow that plan, even when–especially when–I’d rather cut bait and jump to a less challenging text.

In recent sermons, we’ve been looking at the needs of those seeking to grow in discipleship. Sometimes those are voiced as needs: “Teach us to pray.” Others are meaningful advice gleaned by Jesus from others’ questions: “Be on guard against all kinds of greed.” Last week the admonition for would-be disciples was, “Don’t be afraid. Sell your things, give away the proceeds, and accumulate treasure in heaven.” Then today, Jesus comes out of left field not to offer help or spiritual practices; instead the Lord shares the sometimes bitter inevitability of discipleship: families will be torn apart because of Jesus. Instead of being on guard for all kinds of greed, it’s be on guard for conflict and brokenness. Because it will happen.

Now, this reality is troublesome. Many of us are, to put it nicely, conflict-averse. And the last thing any of us wants is Jesus to inspire conflict. We want Jesus to be a holy fire extinguisher, not a fire accelerant! A close reading of the Gospel of Luke, however, reveals that we shouldn’t be surprised at all. When Jesus was a newborn, his parents brought him to Jerusalem for circumcision. Simeon, who had received word from the Holy Spirit that he would not die until he saw the Messiah, was there. Taking the child into his arms, looking in Baby Jesus’ eyes, Simeon saw the whole picture. Turning to the infant’s mother, he said: “This boy is assigned to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that generates opposition” (Luke 2:34). Jesus will cause the rising and falling of people? Jesus will generate opposition?? I don’t remember ever hearing that proclaimed at a Christmas pageant! A chapter later, John the Baptist, when thinking of the coming of the Messiah, forecasted Jesus’ ministry in this way: “I baptize with water; he will baptize with fire” (3:16). So even before his public ministry began, people were using words to describe Jesus and his ministry in ways that very, very few of us think about.

Now Jesus says ministry alongside him will mean fire on earth. Not peace, but division. Brokenness among even the closest relationships. Fathers vs sons. Mothers vs daughters. I mean, mothers in law won’t get along with daughters in law? This is serious business! “You see the storm clouds coming and pack your umbrellas,” Jesus said. “You feel that southern breeze coming and break out the sunscreen and the loose fitting linen or cotton,” Jesus says. “Good for you! You can use the weather app on your phone or watch tv. Hypocrites! Pretenders! You can read the weather forecast but can’t interpret what’s going on around you!” One commentator described Luke 12:49-56 as, “a disturbed and disturbing present with even more unsettling events on the horizon.” You got that right, pal.

If I had chosen to avoid this week’s difficult gospel lesson, I would have gone with today’s assigned epistle text. It ends at the beginning of Hebrews Chapter 12: “So then, with endurance, let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter. He endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him, and sat down at the right side of God’s throne” (verses 1-2). It’s a much more encouraging, upbeat, confident text! Look to Jesus as the Pioneer and Perfector of faith– instead of the One who brings division. Later in the chapter is even more encouragement: “So strengthen your drooping hands and weak knees! Make straight paths for your feet so that if any part is lame, it will be healed rather than injured more seriously. Pursue the goal of peace along with everyone—and holiness as well, because no one will see the Lord without it. Make sure that no one misses out on God’s grace. Make sure that no root of bitterness grows up that might cause trouble and pollute many people” (Hebrews 12:12-15).

The other night, a buddy sent me a late night text, and although I almost never engage with my phone after dark, like an idiot, I read the post, written Bishop Bob Hayes. For nearly 30 years, Bob Hayes has been my mentor and friend. He was my District Superintendent when I was called to ministry. He laid his hands on my head at my ordination. He baptized our son Linus, whose middle name is Hayes. Bob served for 12 years as bishop in the Oklahoma Conference. When Bob retired a few years ago, he took a position as Bishop in Residence at The Woodlands UMC north of Houston. That congregation has been a leader in the movement to split, or disaffiliate from, the United Methodist Church for many years. His post was dated July 7, a month before a church vote to disaffiliate from the UMC. The church voted to do so last Sunday. I was not surprised by the vote, knowing the church’s history.

Storm clouds have been forming literally since the birth of the United Methodist Church in 1968. People saw the storm clouds of division, the fire of theological difference, and instead of addressing it in meaningful ways applied expired sunscreen, magnifying the sun’s rays, or opened the flimsiest umbrellas, which were soon overwhelmed by the winds. And now two generations of clergy and laity who kicked the can down the road are at or near retirement, leaving the work of rebuilding after the storm to my and younger generations. Thanks alot. In the coming months and years I’ll learn of clergy colleagues and churches within our connection who have discerned their best path forward is outside of the United Methodist umbrella. I will mourn and grieve their departure. SueAnn Spencer, Grace’s Lay Leader, and I were both recently invited to serve on discernment teams to help churches work through the process. I hope there is no more bitterness and pollution of people. Enough of that has already happened.

Jesus will cause the rising and falling of people? Jesus will generate opposition?? Jesus will baptize with fire? Households will be divided against each other? Father will square off against son and son against father? Mother against daughter and daughter against mother? “I came to cast fire upon the earth. Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, I have come instead to bring division.” Jesus said those things to the disciples– and the crowds who had checked the “we want to know more!” box. Who would want to be a part of that hot mess?

Fire is scary. We see out of control forest fires happening around the world almost every day. Exacerbated by climate change and human negligence, wildfires erupt  and damage life and property. I saw footage the other day of a firenado–exactly what you imagine–in Los Angeles county. Horrific.

'Firenado' sparked by hot winds and wildfires burns in California

At other times, naturally occurring forest fires make the renewal of the ecosystem possible. I learned the other day about pinecones which only open up to release their seeds at enormous temperatures–150* or more. Fire is both a destroying and a purifying force. When one is caught in the path of a blazing fire, or the immediate aftermath, the destruction is overwhelming. It is difficult, if not impossible, to see the possibility of renewal brought by the flames. 

But for me, that is the key question of the entire text is verse 56: “How do you not know how to interpret the present time?” We are in the firestorm of broken relationships, struggling marriages, the beginning of a new school year, unsure future at our places of employment. A culture of violence, greed, indifference to human suffering, rampant injustices around the world. Struggles and challenges everywhere we look. What if we interpreted our current firenadoes and storms as the possibility of renewing fire? Re-litigating the past will not help today. It’s what got us here, sure, but what have we learned? How can we grow from it? How can we encourage others to not make the same mistakes again–or worse? Disciples take inventory of their needs- teach us to pray- and the demands of being in relationship to Jesus: being on guard against all kinds of greed, selling what we have to give to the poor. We also take inventory of our relationships, because deepening one’s commitment to Jesus inevitably brings its own challenges- as well as blessings. When was the last time you paid as close attention to your relationships, your finances, your spiritual practices- as you do the weather forecast? When we see darkening skies there, threats of wildfire, what do we do about it? It’s too late to stamp out a spark after the forest is already ablaze.

There can even be a sense of comfort in the midst of our struggles, knowing Jesus saw it coming beforehand. These things will happen–they will even happen because of me. They are part of our growth in discipleship. There is some comfort, even in the midst of the storm, that nothing about the chaos is new or unexpected. Jesus predicted brokenness within the family on account of him, and I felt that deeply this week. Whether it’s temporary or permanent I do not know. After reading Bishop Hayes’ post I was hurt, but I felt like I owed it to the  relationship to respond. I spent much of Friday afternoon writing a letter to him, editing the letter late last night, and when I mail it tomorrow I will include this manuscript of my sermon as well. All an effort to pursue peace and holiness, seeing the clouds on the horizon, feeling the hot breeze, but doing something to make an effort before the relationship is permanently impacted.

I concluded my letter to Bishop Hayes with this prayer of John Wesley:

O Lord Jesus, I give you my body, my soul, my substance, my fame, my friends, my liberty, and life: Dispose of me, and all that is mine, as it seems best to you. I am not mine, but yours; Claim me as your right, keep me in your charge, love me as your child! Fight for me when I am assaulted, heal me when I am wounded, and revive me when I am destroyed.