Dead. The towering pitch pines were dead.
It surprised me as I ran through the pine barrens
in the Myles Standish Forest in Massachusetts.
I jogged slowly. Sand cushioned my feet as I moved;
sand anchored the shrubby oaks and blueberries around me,
which looked black.
In this oasis, pitch pines rose high like sentinels,
scattered 20 – 30 feet from each other.
Pine needles hung sadly from the branches, brown and dead.
As I looked at the trees’ scorched black bark,
I realized, There had been a fire there! Ohhh!
It all clicked into place.
I knew that fire was vital to the ecosystem of the pitch pine.
Its bark is fire-resistant, and its seeds open in the heat of flames.
I looked closer at the adolescent trees I passed.
Already, some soft green branches poked out of the trunks,
and others sprouted directly from the earth.
Baby trees! They were alive!
I stopped and stared.
“I came to bring fire to the earth,
and how I wish it were already kindled!”
Jesus declares passionately.
This fire burns away the thick brush;
it clears the way for the saplings of our soul to sprout up.
It is true, fire can wreak havoc and destruction.
Yet a cleansing fire can also ignite the natural order of life and death,
clearing away the old, and making way for the new.
Fire can burn hotly with God’s presence.
Like the burning bush in the backcountry of Canaan.
The burning bush danced for Moses;
its flames licked the branches but never consumed them.
With this hot flame, God ignited Moses’ heart.
Later, in a fiery pillar God’s presence burned hotly
as it led the Israelites from Egypt to freedom’s land.
Fire represents God’s strength and wisdom that leads us.
Fire also reveals what is in our hearts.
It marks what is real among us.
It is the light of God which illumines what is true.
The illuminating light of God is like a fire that blazed recently
when lightning struck an empty eastern white pine.
The fire showed that this eastern white pine was hollowed out,
though from outside it had seemed robust.
There had been a mismatch between the tree’s appearance and its insides.
The fire revealed what was true about the pine.
The same can be said about the human experience.
We appear to be very nice.
We curate swell stories about our lives,
but inside we are empty and in desperate need of fire
to purify us, reveal us, and help us move toward new growth.
Jesus gives a fire as a gift that brings flourishing.
Fire is not a judgment; it is a gift.
There is dead weight that is not serving us.
We would not get rid of that dead weight on our own,
but the severance from it sets us free.
What is Jesus revealing to us
that needs to be burned away?
“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?
No, I tell you, but rather division!”
Jesus declares passionately.
Jesus is warning us that when we speak the truth,
when we seek to heal and live with integrity, there will be conflict.
The powers that be will become defensive.
I haven’t come to bring peace but division.
Division over what?
There are two ways we can live.
We can live a self-centered life,
or we can live a God-centered life,
which is an other-centered life.
The division concerns whether
we are oriented to that love of neighbor,
or oriented to a love of self.
What centers my life? God, my neighbor, and the earth?
Or my concerns about myself?
Jesus’ language of division forces us to make a decision.
How will we live?
How will we encounter others?
Jesus’ division line runs through the human heart.
Each heart is divided between love of others and love of self.
It runs through our communities, too.
Will we circle the wagons or will we open ourselves up?
We are called not to bring false peace, but true peace.
We are called to ignite the holy fire of wholeness.
This church ignited that metaphorical fire when
you started the soup kitchen
and nearby social service departments said,
“There’s no need here.”
Community members did not like what you were doing.
They told you that you were
attracting the wrong element into this area.
Still, the First Baptist Church in Essex hosted meals.
Still, Pastor Erica Wimber advocated for rural communities
like ours to take care of those in need in the area
so that they would not need to move away from their support system,
because once they went to the city,
removed from their family and community,
they would be at a higher risk for becoming chronically homeless.
Months after the soup kitchen started,
a local alcoholic and homeless man was encouraged
by someone in the community to leave the area
and go to New Haven, where there were more services.
The local police in this area knew the man
and would seek him out on cold nights and let him sleep in a cell.
In the morning, they would let him go and he would start drinking again.
This man took their advice and went to New Haven.
On a cold winter night, he went to a shelter,
and the shelter refused to let him in because he was drunk.
That night, the man died on the streets. He froze.
Everyone at the soup kitchen felt that had he been here,
he would not have died.
Pastor Erica wrote an op-ed that said, “His blood is on our hands.”
It was a galvanizing moment.
Our church set fire to the hollow cries of “not in our backyard”
and burned them to ashes.
From those ashes of compunction
arose the Shoreline Soup Kitchen and Pantries,
which is a strong web of compassion centering the other.
Our church plays a critical role
in disturbing the false peace of our community
and bringing our community well-being and wholeness.
What is our role now?
How are we invited to tell the truth?
When skies are gray, we know the storm is coming.
Thus, God invites us to read the stormy signs of the times in 2022.
Signs of loneliness and increased isolation.
Signs of climate crisis and dying species right here in Essex.
Signs of racism on the Deep River town sign
and incidents of islamophobia and homophobia in our own state.
You are prophets. Like Moses.
You are fire.
The fire of God is in you.
Burning hotly and brightly.
Crackling and popping.
Fire starters, what is God inviting you to kindle next?