Sunday, September 29, 2013

Restoring the goodness in us

Assuming you know something about the prophet Amos and his passion for justice and depending on your status in the community, you either love and idolize him or develop an utter dislike of him or even hate him.

There’s something quite unique about prophets like Amos especially because they’re considered saying stuff on behalf of God. It is this particular connection that they have with the Almighty that makes them the windows through which we feel what God feels.

Applying the term “pathos” as understood and popularized by the great Rabbi Abraham Heschel, prophets were the ones who kind of felt the “feelings” or “pathos” of God; especially in the sadness of the Creator as His creation turns from the goodness of the heart into paths of reversals.

Now, these are kind of “loaded” statements but let me work on that a little bit.

I believe that God expects of His creation, the manifestations of what He saw at creation. Recall that after viewing the works of creation, Holy Scriptures tells us that God saw them to be good.

In other words, God was pleased with the “goodness” that He saw in them. This was taken a notch higher when, after God had created Adam and Eve, and after He had seen all that He had done, God was extremely pleased and saw them to be “very good”.

It must have been a divine “Happy Hour” for God; unwinding after some hard work! It was short lived, though! The bible tells us that something wrong happened; something that impinged on that beauty and goodness that God first saw in Creation.

There was the Fall of Man; there was disobedience, there was Sin and the “goodness” that God desperately wanted to see flourish in His creation get interspersed with an opposite ugliness. At times mild, but every so often, just too radically ugly! And when such “falling on the way side” takes place, God gets upset, I suppose, but then quickly supplants it with pleadings for reconciliation as well as tempered yet blunt reminders of what is expected of His creation. God, I believe, is quite persistent in this regard mainly because of his penchant for righteousness!

Among the ways God had employed in bringing about this much sought after change of heart from those who had “fallen by the wayside” were the Law as handed down through Moses; and then later on, with prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea and of course from the one we heard today, the Prophet Amos.

And so, when you hear the words coming from the prophets of old, with them becoming the “voices of God” as God reaches out to His creation, you somehow get into the “pathos” or the feeling of God, of the sadness that comes out from God. And with the words of God spoken through the prophets; words that “disturb” the placid waters of indifference and apathy, the listeners, as I’ve said earlier, either would love them or put forth a strong dislike of them.

It is with this frame of mind that I now invite you to revisit the words of the prophet Amos. Listen now to God’s words.

“Alas for those who are at ease in Zion, and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria
Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oil, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!”  Amos 6:1a, 4-7 (NRSV)

For us to fully appreciate the point I raised about either liking or disliking the prophets, and in this particular case, Amos, we need to remind ourselves that as Sin or the “falling by the wayside” had continued through the years, the once unified, strong, stable United Kingdom that David and Solomon started, eventually split into two; the Southern Kingdom of Judah, with its capital in Jerusalem and the Northern Kingdom of Israel, with its capital in Samaria.

As it turned out, those northern kingdom of Israel became inwardly preoccupied; meaning their source of pride of being “The Chosen” has profusely become almost irreverent. They had little concern for God and His people. There was lessening of sincerity in their worship. Their concern was more about themselves. They have turned indifferent to the plight of the poor and their isolation was becoming more pronounced in the chasm between the rich and the poor. And this was no longer pleasing in God’s sight. In other words, there was the diminishing of the “goodness” that God expected to see from His Chosen People.

And so, what did God do? He called on the Prophet Amos and used him as His spokesperson to make His intent known.

Here again are the words as written by Amos but this time I will use the Common English Bible (CEB) version.

“Doom to those resting comfortably in Zion and those trusting in Mount Samaria who lie on beds of ivory, stretch out on their couches, eat lambs from the flock, and bull calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and, like David, compose tunes on musical instruments; who drink bowls of wine, put the best of oils on themselves, but who aren’t grieved over the ruin of Joseph!  Amos 6:1a, 4-7 (CEB)

God is somehow saying: “How dare you just lie in comfort on your ivory beds, stretching on your couches and fattening yourselves? How dare you indulge in libation and do nothing while your fellow creatures around you are in want? How dare you flaunt yourselves in complacency and indifference and be purely nonchalant about all this heap of misery?

Thus God decided to give, what I call, a “holy jolt”. He says, again through the prophet Amos the shepherd from Tekoa: “Therefore, they will now be the first to be taken away, the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away.”

And so, if you were to virtually go back in time, how would you regard Amos? If you were one of those wallowing in the lavishness of pomp and circumstance, of course, you would dislike him big time! But what if you were among those who had been less fortunate? Hooray! You have someone to champion your cause!

This may sound so far distant and perhaps, nothing more than just an historical view of the circumstances of the time and a good biblical reminder. I beg to differ, of course. In fact, the way God used the prophet Amos in reaching out to the indifferent and complacent gets repeated in the story told by yet another great prophet, no less than God’s Son, Jesus Christ.

And this is where we take another look at the gospel lesson for today (Luke 16:19-31); another shot of the “holy jolts”, if I may say so.

Jesus, who has assumed a similar role of being a harbinger of the disturbing but “good news”, tells us that there was this unnamed “rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day”.

Notice the similarity in the description that Amos had once used. But instead of the community-oriented apathy described in the passages in Amos, the rich man’s “distancing” or “self-imputed isolation” in the parable, involved someone named Lazarus. He is described as being “covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores”.

Now, that is some “disturbing” description! “Satisfying his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table”! This means that the rich man totally ignored Lazarus, and with him at the gate of his property, the rich man could not have missed this pathetic sight of dogs licking the sores. And yet he did nothing to him except deny, reject, ignore!

Perhaps, the action of this rich man, sometimes referred to as “Dives” (which is Latin for “rich man”) is so symbolic of the willful ignoring that some of us may be guilty of. I know I’ve been!

 Almost on a daily basis, I’d see a contemporary version of the Lazarus and Dives story. I hate it when the traffic lights at the Redwood Parkway/Admiral Callahan turn red and I had to stop. Reason? There’s usually this “homeless” panhandler who carries a “will work for food” sign or something of that nature, who approaches me and won’t move until the light turns green.

And the guilt trip gets aggravated especially when I’d be wearing my clerical collar. He probably thinks, “Hey, the Padre is here and he’ll give me a buck. Tough luck! I don’t and I usually justify my indifference by saying he’ll most likely spend the money I’d give just for booze or even drugs.

In some sense, I share with those Northern Kingdom folks near Mt. Samaria, enjoying their tokens of affluence and with those who had affinity to “Dives”, in their dislike to their prophets who called attention to the utter indifference against the disadvantaged and those living on the margins of society.

Those calls made by God through the prophets are calls for amending ways of disregard for the less fortunate and they get re-echoed again and again.

We are fortunate that, in some sense, we have “Moses and the prophets” and even more importantly we have Christ Jesus who has modeled for us how those who have “fallen by the wayside” get reconnected with the One who has promised life eternal to those who truly turn to him.

In that house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens, all those who had been fortunate and less fortunate irrespective of the material comforts they’ve enjoyed or not, join hand in hand in breaking bread at that heavenly banquet.

I invite you, dear friends in Christ, to take a closer look at the readings we have for today. In your spare time during week, read, mark and inwardly digest the passages and ponder on what they mean to you as you continue to walk your faith journey.

Try and see whether your initial dislikes for the disturbing message of the prophets Amos and that of Jesus could transition to an appreciation that our different and sometime divergent stations in life do become tools of isolation, not only from our fellow creatures but also and more importantly, from our great Creator.

May we then realize that there are ample opportunities given and offered us to bridge back the distance that was forged because of those isolations.

May we appreciate even more that being in the “bosom of Abraham” is something we can have, for as long as we continue becoming closer to what God created us to be and by restoring the “goodness” that may have fizzled away as we walk our journey of faith.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Pliable Clay That We Are

While it is true that the images contained in some passages in the Holy Bible maybe difficult to understand, there are more of those that are not. I mean, there are those that may sound very deep, like some of those in the Pauline literature or in the Johanine material but there are more of those that look very ordinary and common and yet, are very effective medium of describing God.

Among the images employed are those of God as a king or a shepherd, or as a sower in the field or as being the Way or the Gate.  Another image is that of God as a Potter. In the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 45:9), we read: "Woe to you who strive with your Maker, earthen vessels with the potter! Does the clay say to the one who fashions it, ’What are you making?’ or ’Your work has no handles’?"  Then in Isaiah 64:8, we read: "Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay and you are the potter; we are the work of your hand."

We get reminded of this very same image upon hearing today’s Old Testament Reading (Jeremiah 18:1-11).

In this passage, we learn that Jeremiah was commanded by God to go to a potter’s house and while there, God would speak to him His words. When Jeremiah got there, he noticed that the potter was working on a piece of clay. He also noticed that as the potter turned the wheel, there was some flaw in the pot he’s working on – perhaps one that only the potter could see. But instead of throwing it away as “rejects”, the potter took the clay, worked on it again and eventually reshaped it into another one, perhaps a better looking pot.

 It was at this sight that the Spirit of God spoke to Jeremiah’s heart and gave him this message for God’s people. God said, “Can I not do with you what the potter has done? Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand.”

God is the potter; we are the clay. Now, that’s not too deep to understand, right? In fact, it is a simple yet very beautiful imagery to depict what God can do to His creation! We are the clay in the hands of God, the Potter. And the great truth is that despite our flaws, God spins us on His wheel again and shapes and reshapes us into something new and better.

I am just fascinated with this imagery and I’m sure Isaiah’s and Jeremiah’s people must have felt that way too. I love the idea that we are likened to clay – soft and pliable and unpredictable and God, the Potter, relentlessly reshaping our lives. In his “spinning” he allows the crude and raw clay to evolve into a beautiful piece of art that everyone could behold.

It is this process of “spinning” that we need to pay more attention. As the “spinning” entails constant change in the process of becoming, so it reminds us to look at change from a different perspective.

Change elicits from us two opposing responses. While there are those who display a positive attitude, still, many resist change and are afraid of it. Change is something we don’t like or want. But in the life of faith, change could be a gift from God.

It is a gift that helps us discover more of our potentials and capabilities as people. It is a gift that may initially appear scary as in sailing on unchartered waters. It may also present itself as something bland and void of excitement or something challenging and unwelcomed. And yet, change could, indeed, what God is doing as He spins us in His wheel; getting rid of the flaws He alone must have noticed.

I know of this lady who dreaded the biggest change that could happen in her life; the unwelcomed change resulting from the passing on of her beloved husband.

For the many years they’ve lived as husband and wife, theirs was the sweetest relationship one could imagine. She claimed that her husband was the most loving person who ever lived and she dreaded the idea of them not being together “for ever and ever”.

Well, the dreaded day came; quite unexpectedly in fact. And her “world” came to an abrupt end. As it turned out, she became recluse and hated everything and everyone. She even questioned how God could allow that to happen to her; taking away the very embodiment of a partner in life; snuffing the life of her soul mate. This “clay” ceased to be pliable and she became hardened as a rock. This “clay” seemed to catch self-imputed flaws.

But something close to a miracle took place. God, the Potter took this “clay” into His hands and “spun” her again and again until the clay began to look like a magnificent piece of art. This lady once told me: “I never knew I was capable of taking care of myself,” then she added, “I think my husband would be proud of me.”  And I told her: “I’m sure he is”.

That dreaded change, difficult as it was, freed her from her former preoccupations and now has all the time to share the skills and talents she never thought she had and became a dedicated volunteer at the church she goes to.

Some changes could be viewed as a God-ordained fact of life, and they introduce us to greater gifts and capabilities within us. I am sure you all have your stories about changes that have enveloped and touched your lives and the people you care about!

Talking about change, we have seen changes in the life of our parish. There had been changes we wish didn’t have to happen. Unfortunately, we have a number of members whose physical limitations on their mobility prohibit their physical attendance at our regular Sunday services. And of course there were those who had to literally and physically move on to other places as well as those who have finally moved to their resting places. So in a sense, these are tokens of the little “flaws” that are beginning to be noticeable.

But just like in the “re-spinning” of the wheel, the Almighty has added new “clay” to help reshape our “pot” called Ascension.

We are indeed so grateful for these new “clay”; newcomers who have decided to make Ascension their home parish. Some of the new changes we begin to notice include their eagerness and enthusiasm that would hopefully get translated in full participation in the leadership of the parish as well as the upgrading of the fabric on the affected parts of the church.

The “re-spinning” of the clay of Ascension continues on. We have started a few events in the life of the parish that will hopefully get followed up.  We will also launch our Year-Round Stewardship wherein we will manifest our gratefulness for things we would not have otherwise thought to be thankful for. We will also have a head start on our budget thereby giving us ample time to clearly look at the financial impact of what the other changes have on our parish.

Changes are coming our way! And as we begin to take note of them, the usual questions may arise and the most important question is, “What are we capable of?” Following the imagery of the clay, what can become of Ascension, if it were to be spun again and again, removing the flaw that may ruin its beauty?

The analogy comes short knowing that we have the ability to stay hard and un-pliable; after all, we are an aggregate of individuals with differing opinions and passions. And yet, as God once told Jeremiah, “can He not do with us what the potter does to his clay”? Of course He can and He makes it possible for us to “allow” ourselves to be shaped by Him again and again.

My friends in Christ, there will be more changes that’ll come your way. While there is that usual negativity toward it, you should remember that change is often the instrument by which God exposes the tremendous potential He has created in you and could also lead you to discover more of the beauty and mystery and magnificence of this world and the Great Architect who created it.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Straightening that which is bent over

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!”
that one day (right there in Alabama) little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today!”
“And when this happens, and when we allow freedom (to) ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

The above quoted words are segments of the great “I Have A Dream Speech” by The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., heard by about quarter of a million civil rights supporters; spoken in the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., back in August 28, 1963.

They were powerful words, very apropos in a time that reeked with bigotry, racism and social injustice. They were words of yearning and of hope, coming from a people whose preoccupations in life seemed to hinge on the hope that some form of recognition of their human dignity would be the norm of the day.

Those were very “prophetic” words that continue to find relevance in our time and are so reflective of our calling as a church being sent into the world to bring the gospel of salvation. Those are words that need to be re-echoed in our time and in the spirit of our missional character in order to bring about a paradigm shift from an assault to human dignity into an appreciation of the image of God that is in all of us.

It is with frame of mind that I now invite you to consider two of our lectionary readings for this 14th Sunday after Pentecost and look at a way where we can possibly relate to it.

Our Old Testament Reading (Jeremiah 1:4-10) talks about the calling of Jeremiah to be a prophet for God. Prophets, as a distinctly “gifted” people, are erroneously thought of as the ones who could see what the future looks like. A good example is Nostradamus and his predictions or “prophesies”. This is a common misconception that continues to be coaxed in the world of entertainment and superstition.

They are not, however, what biblical prophets are supposed to be. In the Old Testament sense, prophets were individuals who had a divine calling; called by no less than Yahweh and whose intended mission was to speak on God’s behalf.

By Jeremiah’s time, there had been several prophets and each had a remarkable, challenging career. Their vocation as medium of God’s prophecies was a tough calling, so much so, that Jeremiah didn’t think he qualified.

Notice where he based his hesitation to heed his calling; it’s on his young age – Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” Perhaps Jeremiah had seen how the prophets in his time faired in their special calling on God’s behalf and how they would get in harm’s way and that just scared him. Or perhaps, Jeremiah had, indeed, quite a limited understanding of who were qualified to do such a huge task. He most likely have thought that only the seasoned ones could do it; only those whose lives were impeccable. This might have been a plausible basis for his refusal – but not with God. God didn’t buy it.

Here’s what God, instead, said: “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’ for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.”

These words must have been the turning point for Jeremiah’s paradigm shift. God assured Jeremiah that there’s more to it than just his youthful appearance. After all, God does not look at the external qualifications when He makes His call.

Jeremiah was called by God not only to be a spokesperson for God’s good news but also “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” His mission included that of being the carrier or messenger of God’s corrective measures; to do what it takes so that something right can begin to happen. It could be a painful tearing down or a plucking up so that something new and something fresh can begin to happen; so that a new life could be had, however high the cost might be.

It is in this juncture where the main character in our Gospel lesson takes it to a higher level.

Jesus, according to our Gospel for today (Luke 13:10-17), was teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath. It was one of those gatherings where people listened to what someone had to say about the Scripture. It was there that a “bent over” woman appeared and Jesus noticed this woman. She didn’t ask for anything but Jesus went up to her and spoke the words of healing: “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 

And then he touched this woman. Immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. She was freed from her 18 yr. old ailment; freed from her limited vision, considering that she was constantly looking down at her feet for all those years. She was liberated from a form of social oppression as she ranked among others whose physical deformities were thought to be the outcome of their sins or their utter disobedience from God.

Not everyone present, however, viewed with gratitude such a remarkable restoration not only in terms of posture but also of gaining a new perspective. Unfortunately, It was viewed from a very myopic lens. This was demonstrated in the protest of the synagogue leader, who, in his overindulgence on the man-made interpretation of the Mosaic Law on Sabbath, failed to see the bigger picture of how a new life has just been awarded. The synagogue leader needed to have his paradigm shift; to broaden his interpretation of the Mosaic Law away from the rigid and almost absolute stance. His protest that “there are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day” needs to shift to an affirmation that the bent over woman’s healing and restoration could happen, as it did, even on a Sabbath day.

Lest we get judgmental on the religious leader, it should be noted that he was not really mean-spirited; he was just trying to champion his cause for obedient faithfulness. But so was Jesus. They both wanted the Sabbath to be observed, but they were not on the same page on how to keep it. Jesus says the time for salvation isn't tomorrow; it's right now, no matter what day it is.

Notice that in the call of Jeremiah, God said: “See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” God did not say: “OK, Jeremiah, you’re going to do all this but make sure you don’t do it on the Sabbath.” Also, notice that in the case of the bent over woman, it took place in a synagogue and on a Sabbath.  So, just maybe, the Sabbath might be the perfect time for healing and the church become a good place from which to initiate such healing.

My dear friends in Christ, we are the church and we have a mission; we have a ministry to do. It’s our “Prophetic Ministry” and as in Jeremiah’s case, we too are “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”

If we are called to be engaged in our prophetic ministry, then we need to do it the way Jesus did it. Both the stories of Jeremiah in his call to be a prophet and the one concerning the bent over woman give us a model of what it means to be the church - the Body of Christ.

We profess that we are the church, the body of Christ that God uses to further His ultimate wish for the Creation He has made.

Our mission then should include the plucking up and the pulling down, the destroying and the overthrowing, in order to build and to plant.” Our mission should include the straightening and the aligning of things that had been bent over by human sin. Our mission is to be the hands and arms of the Great Physician Jesus Christ, the Lord. We become the medium or the conduit through which some restoration and new beginning could take place. Our mission should include looking around us for those who are still “bent over” and pressed down and there are more than a few out there. All we need is to open our eyes and more importantly our hearts for though we may see something worth our attention sometimes our hearts prevail in our denying of them the healing so badly needed.

Let us remind ourselves that our mission should not be bound by man-made parameters, even by those made in the name of religion.

 It is also my prayer that the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. would find fulfillment and complete realization. Until that happens, we, through the exercise of our prophetic ministry, ought to promote such dream until all God’s people shall have been freed from their seemingly endless “bending over”. Then shall that song resound once more: “Free, at last. Free, at last.”

Sunday, August 18, 2013

"Division. Division. Division."

Almost always, whenever we read passages or parables from the Gospels, we come away feeling uplifted, inspired or comforted.

Whether it would be Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount where he says “Blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” or one of his incredible miracles like the healing of the leper or when he wept upon learning of the death of his friend Lazarus or of the embrace of the loving father in the story of the Prodigal Son – these texts and many more like them usually make us feel good about being followers of Jesus, and consequently make us hopeful that in the end, everything will be ok, that the world will be ok, that we will be ok.

That’s the common feeling we have when we leaf through stories in any of the four canonical gospels. But then, every once in a while, we encounter a passage that is quite unsettling – almost puzzling, just like the one we just heard proclaimed.

Regardless of the theological stance that attract us; meaning, whether we tend to be traditional, bible driven and evangelical as opposed to being progressive, radical or liberal, to say the least, quite often, the image we have of Jesus is one of peace, love, compassion, forgiveness, etc.

This image of kindness and love and mercy gets translated in Hallmark images, for example, as the Jesus whose eyes, often blue in color, penetrate your inmost being; an image often used to portray what a loving son of God we have. The Good Shepherd, particularly the Mormon version, is a good example of what I am talking about. And as I said, this is what we commonly imagine Jesus to be.

And yet, in today’s Gospel passage, Jesus is being portrayed quite differently especially in line with the unsettling things that come out of his mouth. He appears to be mean-spirited.

“Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division.”

And then he continues on citing personal instances on how that “division” is played out. “Father against son, son against father; mother against daughter, daughter against mother; mother-in-law against daughter-in-law, daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.

Although, that last one we can all understand. Right? Just kidding. But seriously, those are some pretty serious and disturbing things coming from the mouth of Jesus.

And so we wonder what exactly is Jesus talking about, and why does it not sit well with us if it is really what God wants to reveal to us?

I don’t know about you folks but I like an “Amazing Grace” kind of moment; comforted with the assurance that a “wretched” like me is saved. It’s the kind of assurance I get when He tells me: “Come to me all you who are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” I’m sure you too would like a happy and joyful and serene kind of relationship when you attempt to commune with the Holy.

Obviously that’s not the feeling I get in seeing Jesus paint a much different picture of how things are going to be. And if I’m being totally honest, I must say that I really don’t like the image Jesus is placing in my mind.

But that’s just me. I know that Jesus uses a variety of means in calling people to holiness with which he instructs his followers in ways where to base their discipleship. Sometimes he chooses stories or parables. At other times, he teaches through concrete examples of forgiving, feeding, accepting, understanding, and healing.  Often, he simply uses words of comfort and kindness and mercy. But once in a while he says the tough things to his disciples; giving it to them “straight” to their face and probably so they won’t misunderstand what he is saying. And I think, this passage is a good example.

“Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division.”

Division! What a negative word! Indeed, it usually conjures a lessening of number; a disharmony of relationships; an inducement to the setting of barriers and walls and its derivative, exclusivism.

Quite often, we get tempted to follow this line of reasoning and simply focus on the “division” aspect of this passage. When we do that, we miss out on what might be the main theme of Jesus’ message. We eventually become a bit unsettled on how to reconcile these two camps. On the one hand, we dismiss it as simply too “un-Jesus” like. On the other, we end up wondering what really is this all about.

So, here’s my take on that. Early in this passage, Jesus tells his disciples something that can help shed light on what this saying is all about.  He tells them: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!”

Setting the earth on fire! Wishing it’s ablaze! It’s no longer just merely “kindling” but “blazing”. Think about that for a moment.  Jesus wants to set the earth on fire. What in the world does that mean?

When we think of fire, many of us see it as a tragedy, as something having gone wrong, as a destructive force that leaves virtually nothing in its path.

Those of you who had been to Reno or parts of Colorado and Arizona, must have seen grim reminders of the devastation that fire has caused in those areas. There were huge losses, acres and acres of land and countless property structures destroyed including human lives. Indeed, fire could visit us as a destructive force that renders those in its path devoid of forms of life.

I’m sure Jesus knew what havoc fire could cast upon us. But he saw something else that made him declare he wanted to set the earth on fire. He knew that fire not only destroys but it also has a transformative character! 

It is a fire like those forest fire in parts of the Sierras or Colorado or Arizona that clears out old growth and decaying trees but then, it also makes room for new ones.

And it is a fire like the fires deep within the earth of the Big Island in Hawaii which burst from the earth with terrible force and fury, but which also ultimately brings about new land, new life, and new possibilities.

It is like the fire used in metallurgy that wonderfully transforms seemingly useless fragments of ore into things of great beauty and usefulness. And it is like the fire within each human heart, a fire that is fueled by the living God within; a fire which continually creates anew every person who is open to it.

However, like the forest fire, the volcano, and the forge, the transforming fire of God does not always manifest itself in calm, gentle, soothing ways.  It’s quite the opposite. When Jesus calls us to follow him, he’s not calling us to something static or some kind of a detachment from the world. He calls us to something very demanding!

You see, when Jesus calls us to discipleship he calls us to a very arduous, taxing and challenging venture. There is always a cost to discipleship, always something that we need to let go of in order to live a life of faith – a life in which God’s Spirit continually pours forth from all who respond to the grace God so freely gives.

When we talk of how “costly” discipleship could get, we only have to look at the cross to know that doing the right thing, doing the loving thing, does not mean that life will be easy or simple or without difficulties.

In our Old Testament from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, we read of the Lord’s vineyard and His frustration about its harvest; producing wild grapes rather than the best. After all, God has set up His vineyard with all the best that He could think of. This passage alludes to the challenges needed to be met in order to produce the much-desired harvest. That, as the image suggests, needs a lot of work!

And that’s just but one image of the challenge of discipleship. And yet, if we think about what is possible when we open ourselves up to the transforming fire of God, we most certainly will come to realize that it far outweighs whatever the cost; far outweighs whatever it is that we must surrender for the sake of God and his kingdom.

Jesus has come to “set the world on fire”. He wants us to “burn” off the decaying and dead brushes of our life. He looks forward to our new state of transformed life. But that might be a bit more than difficult to do. And this is where the division will definitely come to play.

In the interplay of human relationships, as in between father and son, mother and daughter, including the extended relationships with in-laws, in all the interplay, there will be “division” especially when the demands of discipleship come into play. Responding to its demands would mean letting go of the decaying brushes and trees and Jesus wishes it’s already happening in your lives. He is wishing it were already ablaze!

My dear friends in Christ, are we ready to face the challenges of discipleship? Are we ready to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us”? Are we ready to let Christ “set on fire” the earth we have been grounding ourselves so there could be growth and new life and new opportunities? Are we ready to face “division” and are we willing to stir the seeming placid waters of indifference and isolation?

These are scary personal questions but that’s what we get by claiming to be disciples of Jesus. That’s what the sign of the cross on our forehead at our baptism demands of us.

Fellow Christians, it is my prayer that each of us become the fuel God uses to make the world the beautiful place he created it to be.  And may we never fear the fire of God, but welcome it with open hearts.