Casting fire

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost; Proper 15C (RCL); Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18; Hebrews 11:29 – 12:2; Luke 12:49-56.

Passages like this one in Luke’s Gospel don’t square well with our picture of gentle Jesus, meek and mild. Jesus is certainly supposed to be concerned with justice issues, but the idea of casting fire on the earth doesn’t seem particularly helpful. Where is the non-violent Jesus? And isn’t it Matthew who has Jesus talking about people being thrown into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, and their fire never goes out?

Growing up in Colorado, we were certainly always aware of the risk of forest fires. In the 1970s, we also became aware of the pine beetle that was killing off vast tracts of Ponderosa pine forest. What we didn’t immediately see was the connection between the two. Beginning in the 1930s, the US Forest Service began a policy of suppressing forest fires. As a result, the mountain forests became over populated. Before the 1930s, a Ponderosa forest would have had about seven trees per acre. By the 1970s, that figure was closer to 40 trees per acre. The soil can’t really support that many trees, and at that density, the trees are not healthy, and therefore susceptible to the beetle infestation.

Also, once a fire gets going, it spreads far more rapidly in a dense forest, than in a sparse forest. And Ponderosa cones eject their seeds in fires, seeding the next generation. In other words, a Ponderosa forest needs a good fire every five to ten years. The policy of fire suppression in fact damaged the Ponderosa ecosystem. Now, with vast stands of Ponderosa killed or weakened by the beetle infestation, the risk of catastrophic fire skyrockets.

We are living in an age of division, three against two and two against three. The questions of race and immigration, foreign policy, policing, and a hundred others, have deeply divided us. I’m not sure a fire would be particularly helpful, but there are times when it seems like we’re heading that direction. I suppose if we take Jesus’ message seriously, we are going to find ourselves from time to time in the “two against three” circumstance.

On the other hand, the image of the vineyard in Isaiah, is one of the most important images in biblical literature. Over and over again, God’s people is imagined in terms of a vineyard. Even the Gospels use the image in the parable of the wicked tenants. Viniculture requires patience. Varietal vines grafted on to species (wild) roots. Training the vines along trellises, thinning, trimming. All time-consuming. But the results are well worth the time. Wine, to make the human spirit glad. The vineyard is a rich and complex image for God’s relationship to God’s people. Rather the opposite of fire.

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