Words Become Flames

Luke 12:49-56 – The 13th Sunday after Pentecost – for Sunday, August 14, 2016

“I came to cast fire upon the earth. How I wish that it was already ablaze . . .” (Luke 12:49)


On the morning I started writing about Luke’s hot passage, the outside temperature was 75 degrees.

My clock read 4:05am. Yeah, I start working in the darker part of the morning.

According to the weather-guessers, the heat here in lovely Fresno, California will reach 99 degrees by noon. Within a few hours past midday, as the earth lurches around the sun, 108 degrees is the predicted high.

I read Jesus’ warning:

I came to cast fire upon the earth. How I wish that it was already ablaze.

Come to Fresno, Jesus. You’ll get your wish.

Here, in the middle of the golden state’s Central Valley, sidewalks can serve as short order cooks for fried eggs.

Here, between the cool ocean beaches to the west and the cool higher elevations of the Sierra Nevada to the east, we bake. We broil. We wither and wilt. With the sun slamming Fresno during the summer, I wonder if some residents wear Ray-Bans to bed. I don’t take my dog out for a second walk of the day until 8:00pm or later when it’s “cooled” to the high nineties.

We are ablaze.

It’s worse.

Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, I have come instead to bring division . . .

Thanks, Jesus.

You were right.

Here in Fresno, and all across the merry-go-round globe, there is division among fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, neighbors and strangers, and between friends.

We are ablaze with it. Like the heat visibly shimmering off the midday sidewalk, it is easy to witness the heat of hate. Of anger. Of despair.

Back in June, a Fresno man strolled towards a home and aimed a gun toward a porch . . . and toward several people. Split seconds later, a 20-month old boy had died. A single tug on a trigger caused the final flame a baby saw.

A young disturbed Muslim opens fire against gays in an Orlando nightclub. Bullets become flames.

In Dallas—and other places in the past and future—a lone, angry, troubled man puts the blue uniform of a cop in his sights and shoots. Again and again. Hate flares on the dark Texas streets.

On social media, people bully and badger people with their “right” ideas in this trembling season of politics. Words become flames.

I hate Hillary Clinton. Don’t some say even worse than that? I hate Donald Trump. Don’t some say even worse than that? We rage with accusations and insults, with par-boiled opinions and cherry-picked facts. Feel the Bern?

No, feel the burn.

God, Jesus’ Abba, seems distant in the fire of the summer and the flames of our divisiveness. If I can imagine what Jesus felt, how could he not—on the worst of the days, on the hottest of the days—bemoan the world he longed to bring peace to? Then as now, it was neighbor against neighbor, families torn asunder, empires crushing peasants, the wealthy hoarding gold in their air-conditioned homes while the poor begged for food in litter-strewn streets.

I despise this passage from Luke, from Jesus, for its searing honesty.

Years before, I served a smallish, isolated church in a different corner of California. There were divisions there. Anger sometimes. Finger pointing. One of the long-time church members, a World War II veteran, was prominent in local conservative politics. He let people know what he thought. He loudly let people know what they should think. Another church member, a soft-spoken young husband and father raised in the rollicking free-to-be-you-and-me 60s, was new to the community. On one Sunday, recently released from jail, the young man approached the railing near the altar where communion would be served. Jail? He had been growing marijuana . . . only a few plants, only for personal use. But he’d broken the law, and paid the price. Now he knelt, head bowed.

The conservative . . . the liberal.

The law and order guy . . . the law breaker.

The old . . . the young.

The loud one . . . the quiet one.

communionIn the odd ways of this broken world, too blazing with distrust and animosity, the long-time church member moved forward a step behind the younger man. Slowly bending his knees, he settled beside the person just out of jail. Also bowing his head, he prepared to receive the sacrament.

Two generations, two men, close enough to hear the other’s heartbeat. They waited.

I served them, one after the other: the broken bread, the symbolic blood. How different they were, and yet how much the same.

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 knew. We are arrogant. We are stubborn. We prattle about humility but act with hubris. In the heat of the day and in the heat of anger, we create “the other” and then blame them. We completely agree with Jesus about loving the neighbor, unless the neighbor doesn’t agree with us.

Still, there are moments. There are glimpses.

If Jesus sensed the division his message of love could bring, I believe—I truly believe—he also knew it was the same love that would win out, that would cool the heat and soothe the anger.

Or maybe I’m just a faithful fool, a purveyor of frail hope in an era promoting strong hate.

The divisions continue to tear us apart.

But I can still picture those two men settling onto their knees, shoulder-to-shoulder, longing to receive the gift of grace.


(Picture is from July 9, 2016 protest about deaths in Louisiana and Minnesota . . . taken on Interstate 94 near St. Paul)

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  1. Larry,

    I plagiarized your text, I copied it, I want to own the material. I desperately desired to send to my FB friends and my email list, to faxed it to my dentist, pharmacist, physicians, mail it to my relatives who have put me on probation. I even wanted to send it in to my local newspaper as an op-ed piece. But I didn’t. It was just a fantasy.

    This was good news, food for my starving body, bread for the road, water to cool my anguished soul. I have put some of my thoughts on FB, I have written to some folks, I have talked to my relatives but it has not been satisfying. Many can see though my naiveté, my lack of clarity, my failure to respond as they want me too. The division is so deep at this point nothing works. Those who agree do not have any answers or are so angry they will hear no words of gentleness. No one is changed, only gone deeper into their holes.

    “Do you think I have come to bring peace on earth; No, I tell you I have come instead to bring division.”

    1. Well, I don’t think you have too much naiveté! National political campaigns sure make for a tough season of divisiveness. These days it seems too many are always angry, always blaming . . . and “supporting” one candidate over another adds to the grim mix. But, I for one will try to stay out of those “holes” you mentioned and claim a little hope!

      Thanks for reading and responding, John.

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