Pentecost +10C - Friction makes fire
Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.
And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
and people of Judah,
judge between me
and my vineyard.
What more was there to do for my vineyard
that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?
And now I will tell you
what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds
that they rain no rain upon it.
For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;
but heard a cry!
[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?”
Both of our texts are pretty wild today.
The temptation to tame them runs high. And yet, this is exactly what both texts warn against: taming faith and toning down our convictions, in order to serve our own comfort, our own desires, or our own fear of ruffling too many feathers.
Our texts are wild today, and they resist taming. They speak with both truth and urgency about the need and responsibility of God’s people to live faithfully for the sake of the world.
Faithful living, for Isaiah and for Jesus, is based on a clear set of convictions: Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly. Be generous. Show compassion. Trust God. Reject selfishness. Resist the empire. Seek the kingdom.
We’ve been hearing Jesus and the prophets repeat these messages all summer. We’ve been looking for new ways of understanding these convictions, new ways of exploring how we might live these values in this present time.
But today, Jesus is no longer trying to sell us on why we should live these values, or even how we should go about doing it. Today, Jesus describes the hazards of living according to these values, and he prepares his disciples for continuing his work after he is gone, in a world that will be difficult and chaotic and divided.
Jesus knows that his time on earth is limited. He knows that, just as he will suffer and die for his message of love of and justice, so also will his followers face challenges in continuing this message.
He has already asked them to give up their lives for this message, spiritually and physically. He has encouraged them to keep a very very loose hold on their possessions, their homes, their livelihoods, and even their relationships, encouraging them all the while by saying things like “do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or what you will wear; strive for the kingdom.”
Jesus has never sold the idea of being a disciple as anything other than a division, or a separation. Because pursuing the values of the kingdom means saying “no” to other values. Living a life faithful to God means saying “no” to other allegiances.
And so here we have a gospel reading today where Jesus names, very clearly, the unsettling power the gospel has to put us at odds with one another, and to put us at odds with empires and governments, and even to put us at odds with those whom we love or those to whom we are intimately connected by blood or marriage or workplace or neighborhood.
It takes very little effort to translate Jesus’s words into our present time.
We are living in an incredibly divided time. Friction abounds. Our political rhetoric is a mess of epic proportions. We are divided on any number of social issues, and every faction is further divided into sub-factions. Hostility between races and ethnic groups runs high.
Church and society are at odds. The church is divided within itself. We have weird and troubling occurrences like an uncharitable and inaccurate Fox News take on the ELCA becoming a sanctuary church body; reporting which is fueling divisions between denominations and within.
It feels like everyone is angry. Everyone is anxious. Everyone is ready to fight. Conflicts and potential conflicts abound.
Jesus tells us, plainly, that this friction is normal. It is to be expected and anticipated. It is to be lamented. And it is to be harnessed.
When we consider any one of the values of the kingdom - true forgiveness, lasting justice, unhindered generosity - there is no way for these values to come into being without a fair amount of upheaval to the way our world works; without an honest rejection of systems and structures and habits and traditions that have evolved to favor strength, power, wealth, and privilege.
The assurance in our gospel today is a sideways one, at best. Jesus doesn’t follow up his dramatic words with any sort of pastoral silver lining. He doesn’t go on to promise us that divisions will easily be mended, or that the people who reject us now will one day wake up and suddenly appreciate us. He doesn’t even give us a shallow, “take heart, it’ll all be okay.” He just keeps on teaching and preaching, continuing to lay out the vision for his reign and the necessary demands of the kingdom, and he expects his disciples just to keep up with him as he goes.
So I don’t want to sugar-coat the gospel reading today. I don’t want to give you the false impression that following Jesus makes everything okay. And I don’t want to make a promise that whatever hardships you face for living your faith will always get easier, or that faith will make your journey toward redemption prettier or more predictable.
We certainly continue to cling to the promise given to us in baptism - that we belong to God, that the universe, held in God’s hands, is ultimately destined for redemption and resurrection, and not for destruction.
But right now, in this moment, in the daily struggle to seek and create blissful glimpses of the kingdom, Jesus doesn’t try to minimize or smooth over the struggle.
He instead brings us the reminder that friction makes fire.
“I came to bring fire to the earth,” he says.
Fire is all over the Biblical story. It is a symbol for the light and warmth of God’s presence in our world. It is a symbol both of holy guidance and holy destruction. Fire burns away chaff, leaving behind the grain; fire burns away impurities, leaving behind gleaming silver; the fire of God in our hearts purifies us and strengthens us. The baptism of fire that John and Jesus both preach is a baptism that destroys the old to make way for the new. The Holy Spirit is fire, something good and useful, but something that cannot be tamed, something that can spread on the wind, something that provokes both appreciation and reverence.
A couple weeks ago, Sam was helping me put out the candles after church, and we were talking about what a fire needs in order to burn.
To make a fire, you need fuel, and air, and enough heat to get a spark lit.
Nearly a decade ago, traveling in Tanzania, we gathered in the desert under the setting sun with a handful of Maasai tribesmen, who were building a fire for cooking. They gathered a stone, some brush, a few sticks, and set to work, seeking to make a spark only through friction. It took experienced hands to roll the sticks together with enough force and energy to turn heat into ignition. They caught the spark in a nest of dry grass, blowing and fanning it to turn it into a flame.
It was proof before our very eyes: Friction makes fire.
The fire that Jesus brings - the passion in our hearts, the reckless warmth and heat of love and justice that he ignites in our world - this fire, too, needs fuel and air and heat to grow and spread. And sometimes, friction makes the spark.
That’s one peculiar thing about living a life of faith. When faith puts you at odds with the world around you, that friction can help you burn even brighter in the world.
So if you are hunting down some glimmer of true good news in today’s gospel, something that will put your heart at ease, even just a little bit, it is this: that the forces of conflict and resistance that you fear might extinguish the light of Christ in this world are the very forces that can keep the fire burning in your heart.
Friction keeps the urgency of God’s love in front of our eyes. Friction reminds us why our faith matters and why hope and resurrection are essential truths for the world to hear. Friction makes us burn brighter and stronger. Like forests that spring to renewed life after wildfires, like seeds that can only burst open in the heat of a flame, the friction that leads to fire in our hearts can unleash growth and beauty and renewal that might not have been possible otherwise.
And so we keep striving for the kingdom that has been planted freely in us and among us. We keep seeking to live out the promises of our baptisms, worshiping, talking about Jesus, serving others, working for justice and peace - and we do this when it is hard, and we do this when it puts us at odds with the world, and we do this imperfectly, and we collide and we pray and we learn and we refine. In the process, we burn away whatever is holding us back from serving Christ, because in the conflict, in the friction, in the fire, we are being purified and refashioned, molded and broken open, in every moment, becoming truer and deeper reflections of God’s word and God’s will in this world.
May God grant you courage in the midst of struggle, to pursue lives of generous love, holy resistance, and deep empathy to the cries of humankind and all creation.
May God grant you humility in the midst of argument, to discern the Spirit and to seek truth with earnest curiosity.
May God turn friction to fire, that you may burn ever more brightly in this world, as the wild flash of light and heat that unleashes seeds of a new world beginning.
May God bless you, strengthen you, and shine through you, with hope and with mercy.