49 “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52 From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53 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.”
54 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. 55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. 56 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?
When Jesus describes himself as bringing the fire, not the bringer of peace, but the sword, I wonder- Did I miss the memo about this part of Jesus? When did sweet baby Jesus, asleep on the hay, no crying he makes, become such a rabble rouser? I’m not sure we are ready for Jesus, the fire breather.
Fire is a frightening force. The New York Times Magazine recently featured on the Paradise, California fire, following the journey of Tamra Fisher through the inferno. This harrowing article reads like a wake up for global warming. I thought of Jesus words in our text:
“When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, ‘It’s going to rain,’ and it does. ….You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?” Luke 12 :55-56
We don’t know. We like things to stay the same, to be predictable, so we can stay in our comfort zones, and we filter out information essential to our future. The article gives deep insight into the emotions in play in any social conflict, and what it takes to be aware and take action.
Tamra woke that morning feeling hopeful, ready to move on with her life. She was moving past her divorce, getting a handle on depression, figuring out what’s next. She lived at the edge of town known as “Poverty Ridge.” Life was not easy in Paradise. Lumberjacks moved there when the Diamond Match Company built a logging road into the hills to harvest trees which were perfect for being matchsticks.
As Tamra brushed her teeth, the fire was growing at the rate of one football field per second. She smelled smoke in the air, and saw drifting ash, covering her yellow Volkswagon. She texted her sister, Cindy, who had lived through the fires and evacuation in 2008. “WTF is going on?” Cindy had already left town, cruising an open highway. Her texts saying “Leave T! Leave! Paradise is on fire!” were not getting through due to poor reception. Tamra thought Cindy was alarmist, always reliving the past, so she didn’t pay attention.
Is she that different than us? She is doing the best she can to put her life together, recovering from past hurt. This takes great strength. Who has time to be fully informed? Who has the stamina to support human rights for refugees at our borders, deal with climate change, detoxify our racism, and fight for a fair wage? It’s overwhelming, so it we push uncomfortable thoughts away. I say this not to condemn, it is a challenge of the human condition. We muster our energy to live our lives, and then one day we look up, and our yellow Volkswagon is covered in grey ash. Now what?
Tamra knew it was time to act when the mid-morning sky grew orange in the west. She wrangled her three dogs, grabbed a few haphazard possessions, some water and her Raggedy Ann doll from childhood. 40 precious minutes later she was on the road. Within blocks she was in a traffic jam. The sky darkened and people turned their headlights on. It was 9:45 AM. The smoke cover was pierced by a blood red plume of flames, reaching 35,000 feet in the air. It looked like Hell on earth. So people began to honk their horns at the cars in front of them. Many of the 80 people who died in the fire, incinerated on that road, honking their horns.
Tamra honked too, then realized it was crazy. Having lived through suicidal depression, she now clearly knew she did not want to die, and she turned her car around. She retraced her path, past her neighborhood where houses were already burning, looking for another path out of town. She noticed flames dancing across the hood of her car. She stopped and looked for a way to put them out. Embers burned holes in her leggings. A truck pulled up and she shouted, “Do you have water?” The driver yelled, “You need to get out of your car and get into my truck.” She grabbed her three dogs, while her rescuer, Larry, made room. She left behind the last things she owned. As they drove away she took a video of her burning car.
I keep thinking about people honking their car horns as the Inferno overtook them. Philosopher Thomas Hobbes said, “Hell is truth seen too late.” But that is not really quite right. Hell is being confronted with the truth, and blaming someone else, honking your horn at the driver in front of you, who is honking their horn at the next driver, and on down the line. Hell is blaming instead of acting. Why are we in trouble? It is the fault of immigrants taking our jobs. It’s the Muslim terrorists, it’s the socialists, it’s the gay agenda. Honk, honk, honk with the grievance-fueled politics. It may feel good to honk at Trump, but you might as well be honking at a forest fire. But the problems go much deeper in our souls and in the soul of the nation. Our social wildfires have burned for decades.
Imagine the courage it took Tamra to turn her car around. She got off the known, well-traveled road. She went back through the path of the fire, courageously turning from what was known, safe and familiar, and move on. But she wasn’t out of danger yet. She and Larry soon were stuck on a road blocked with abandoned burning cars. They pulled up next to a fire engine, which seemed the safest spot. They could see they were being surrounded by the fire. The steering wheel getting too hot to touch, plastic bumpers starting to burn. They wondered when the flames would find the gas tank. Suddenly, the flames broke apart, burning debris scattering as a bulldozer started moving burning things out of the way. He plowed an opening, and everyone drove through, searching again for a safe place.
The bulldozer picked up a few people who were on foot and kept moving flaming debris, creating a fire break to protect the 50 or so cars trapped in town. Inside the cab, he had his GPS on, to find a safe passage. Someone bumped it, moving it to satellite view of the area. He saw an open parking lot in a neighborhood already burned over in the eye of the fire. Word spread to follow the bulldozer to a safe place. The caravan arrived at local hospital, which had enough open space around it to be spared. They sat in the middle of the fire, alive and well.
This story is harrowing, but also hopeful. Hope is possible when we realize we are in this mess together and help each other. We won’t survive disaster alone. It takes someone brave enough say, “Get in my truck now.” It takes a guy who drives a bulldozer, who doesn’t call in sick and drives into the fire to clear the path. It takes people staying at their posts in the hospital to tend to the injured. And it takes some random events and the creativity to realize that sometimes the safest place might be in the eye of the fire.
I am not a prophet of doom. You will never see me with a sign saying, “The end is near.” Civilization is only possible through relentless hope. But this requires taking real problems seriously. We are well past the stage in our nation where evacuation plans will save us. We are in a new normal, and we are in this together. We must adapt to live.
Ironically, one of the best ways to stop a fire is to have a well-timed, controlled burn to get rid of the undergrowth which fuels the fire. Fire is natural, and part of nature’s cycle. The pine cones of the Giant Sacoya are activated by the heat of the fire. Nature renews itself through fire.
When Jesus said, “I came to bring fire,” he was bringing renewal, not the end of times. When he said, “I am bringing conflict, not peace,” I hear a call for a controlled burn. All social organizations-nations, churches, families, marriages; have a degree of necessary conflict. If we can honestly face and discuss these conflicts, we can create renewal. A controlled burn prevents the greater conflagration.
So many of our challenges today are made much worse by years of ignoring conflict. We have not listened to minority voices, we have ignored the cost of greed, corruption, pollution. When we prefer calm in our churches to truth, we are creating the conditions for a megafire. What I hear Jesus saying in these verses is this: “You have to take on your problems, have the necessary healthy conflict, or you will end up with destructive conflicts. Problems don’t fix themselves.
Many communities, including Northampton, are planning for resiliency in the midst of climate change. Communities in the fire belt are not just settling for evacuation plans, they are building different kinds of buildings, landscaping, changing water use and forestry practices, cutting down fossil fuel use and hundreds of things that add up to hope. This is a metaphor for all the things we care about: climate change, racism, equality for women and LGBTQ people, or the future of the church. We still have the space and energy and time to be creative and resilient. We don’t have to solve the whole problem by ourselves. Just don’t be one of the people honking their horns in the traffic jam. Be willing to try a different route. Sometimes we may even need a bulldozer. Friends, stay hopeful, cultivate resilience, and stick together. We can all make it through.