notes from a small curate
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK
I came to bring fire
Good Shepherd 15/8/2004 (Communion Service)
Isaiah 5.1-7, Luke 12.49-56
"I came to bring fire to the earth" said Jesus. Not one of his better-known lines; and not one you hear preached about very often in the polite environment of the Church of England.
If we'd been in a different kind of church, of course, you might be expecting to get a firey sermon - some preachers thrive on fire: always preach fire and brimstone, the burning flames of hell which are reserved for those who do not believe.
Maybe they're right, but some of us flinch from using that sort of language too easily today. And instead, want to ask the question, what did Jesus mean when he said "I came to bring fire to the earth"?
Fire can be all sorts of things; it can be used for good and it can be used for bad ... can we think of a few together now ...
You may not know this, but - I am a welder. I spent the first four years of my working life learning how to make fire work for me, using intense heat and concentrated flame to mould pieces of heavy metal together, creating pieces of machinery for various kinds of industry. An artist with a welding torch and fireproof gloves. A heavily-masked man.
No-one knows better than welders the power and the potential of fire - its ability to destroy in seconds or to help to mould something solid or beautiful, or to join together metals to form something substantial like a chair or a suspension bridge.
Jesus saying "I came to bring fire to the earth" reminds me of another verse in the bible which is perhaps better-known. It comes from the book of Job and I think of it as the welders' verse: "Man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward."
No-one knows better than welders that "sparks fly upward." - there is no welder in the world who has not been caught out by this anti-gravitational force. So many times in my welding days I flinched as sparks hit my neck or my face; so many times I went home with far fewer hairs on my arms than I'd had before, sizzled away by sparks; so many times I was castigated by my mother (who I still lived with then) for turning a perfectly good working shirt or sweater into something full of holes, looking like I'd been attacked by a swarm of hungry moths, where in fact all I'd done was some arc-welding without wearing protective overalls.
The worst spark-flying incident in my life led to half a day at St Paul's Eye Hospital where staff carefully plucked out a tiny piece of molten metal which had burned itself into the surface of my left eye. I've got a tiny scar there to show for it.
"Sparks fly upward." They're small, but unstoppable, beautiful to look at but brutal on impact, they hurt, they're dangerous, they're inevitable, we create them.
That famous phrase from Job has another half: "Man is born to trouble."
"Man is born to trouble as sparks fly upwards," it goes. And we all know how true that is, we all know the trouble we get ourselves in, it's inevitable; we all know the hurtfulness and the danger that lurks around in human relationships.
We welders knew all about that, too. Working in a hot, sticky environment, doing heavy, tiring work under strict orders and tight schedules, it wasn't unusual for tempers to fray, for people to lash out in self-defence or attack others verbally, when they felt got-at.
In a workplace which relied heavily on teamwork and cooperation sparks flew when people stepped out of line, did their own thing, let the side down.
And, just like in any other human community, among the welders the inevitable cliques formed, scapegoats were created, people became the object of others jokes, you were either in or out, tensions mounted, misunderstandings happened,
gossip grew, sparks eventually flew.
It was like this from where Jesus was standing when he said, "I came to bring fire."
He would see his disciples - always squabbling with each other, jostling for the best position at the table alongside Jesus, putting each other down, criticising, very likely forming cliques and talking about each other behind each others backs.
And Jesus would see sparks flying between those who followed him at a greater distance - the troubles in their country, an occupied territory then just like it is now, a country divided by class and caste just as it is now, just as ours still is.
"I came to bring fire," he said.
Not, I think, to keep those sparks flying; not to fuel the flames of human anguish which already burned so bright.
"I came to bring fire," he said.
Not to destroy in seconds those who would disagree with his way, but to help people to mould something solid or beautiful, something substantial with their lives.
This new way would be wonderful, Jesus was saying, but it would not be easy.
"I came to bring fire."
Like welders being struck by sparks his followers would find his new way uncomfortable. It would hurt. It might divide them from those who don't believe, even loved ones. That's the sort of fire he came to bring. A living fire, carrying with it difficulty and discomfort along the way, but with all the potential to make things new.
So this morning I invite you to think about Jesus' kind of fire as it burns in our world today.
Think about the sparks flying in our world, our society, among people like us, in our own lives. Think about our need of Jesus' fire to mould us into something new.
As we come up to the communion rail and see the altar candles above us, perhaps the odd spark will fly from a flickering flame. And we might picture Jesus then, like a holy welder, flinching, sizzling, allowing his best work shirt to become mottled with tiny burn holes, taking the sparks from us regardless of the pain it causes him, while all the time working with fire to create something beautiful for us, something solid and whole, inviting us to feel the heat of that fire which discomforts and enriches us.
Borrows heavily in parts from a previous sermon, Sparks fly upward (Holy Trinity Wavertree, 13/7/03)