Monday, September 2, 2013

From Damp Wood to Ashes and Rubble

The Rev. Leah Schade
Texts:  Jeremiah 23:23-29; Luke 12:49-56
Aug. 18, 2013

[The video of this sermon can be found here:]

Last weekend at our family camping retreat I tried to start a fire at our campsite.  I gathered sticks, piled up the wood, and lit the newspaper on fire.  At first I got excited because the flame seemed to really catch.  But then I watched it grow smaller and smaller until it was just smoke sputtering around the edges of the wood.
It took three or four tries to finally get a good fire going.  The reason it took so long, I realized, was because the wood was damp. All the kindling I got from the ground had been rained on the day before and was wet.  But with my kids all whining about how hungry they were I knew I had to start a fire.  Eventually I had to send Rachel up to the Shearers to ask for some of their nice dry kindling.  And then we were able to start a fire.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus wants to start a fire, but not the campfire kind.  He’s trying to get people fired up.  He knows things need to change.  He knows people are stuck, complacent, lazy.  But Jesus is filled with a sense of urgency.  He wants to light a fire, but the wood is damp because people keep dousing the flame.  Everyone from his own family to the religious authorities to the Roman government and military officials are trying to do everything keep the wood damp. 

Oh, you don’t want to do that.  Don’t rock the boat.  Don’t draw attention to yourself and the family.  Don’t embarrass us.  Keep a low profile.  What will people think? Mind your own business.  Who do think you are trying to start a fire here?  We don’t want change.  We want nice damp wood.  Sure we’re shivering in the cold, but fire is too dangerous.

Jesus gets angry by these attitudes and responses to his mission.  In fact, so does God.  The readings today are filled with words that tell us how angry God can get with us. 

We don’t like to hear this.  We like Jesus to be our friend, comforter, a warm blanket, not an out-of-control fire.  But the Bible is very clear that there is an aspect of God and Jesus that is not the cozy teddy bear we want them to be.  In Jeremiah God pulvarizes like hammer to a stone, burns hot with judgment that sears through us.
Why?  Because we let ourselves get lulled into a state where we’re nothing more than damp wood.  We douse our creativity with video games and screens that sap our energy and make us obsessed only with our own pleasure.  We believe the false prophets talked about by Jeremiah who seduce us into thinking that everything’s fine.  Don’t worry, be happy.  It doesn’t matter how you’re  conducting your life; God’s going to bail us all out in the end.  You don’t need to change.  You don’t need to stop smoking or start exercising or eat healthier food or confront your addiction to alcohol.

As a society: you don’t need to change.  God’s going to clean up our messes like a good daddy should.  It doesn’t matter how you conduct your economy.  You don’t need to stop polluting, or start conserving or change how you produce food, or confront your addiction to fossil fuels.  Don’t you worry about a thing. 
In our relationships: we get lulled into damp wood.  Some of us have serious issues in our families but we try to ignore them in hopes that somehow God will just make them go away or resolve them without any effort on our part.  The mental or physical abuse keeps happening, but we just grit our teeth and hope it stops.  The addiction has taken over the whole family system but everyone tries to cover for it rather than confront it.  The unfaithfulness or cheating with pornography is going on right under our noses, but we turn the other way and hope it just ends without our having to say anything.

But here’s the painful truth.  God’s got a hammer and is about to shatter our illusions.  Jesus has a pack of matches and is about to light a fire that will burn away the layers of denial.  We are stressing Jesus out – he says it right here in Luke.  And he’s not going to sit idly by anymore and let our damp wood just sit there and rot. 
I know that’s hard to hear from a pastor who wants nothing more than to bring a word of comfort and peace and good news.  But part of a preacher’s job is to tell the hard truth, especially when the Bible compels us to do so.  And believe me, pastors have to be just as honest with themselves and be willing to hear the hard truth from others just as much as the ones we preach to.

And the truth is, families are being divided whether they like it or not.  The truth is burning through us like a fire whether we’re ready to face it or not.  Big changes are coming in your life, in your family, in our society, and in our planet and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.  Some of it we brought on ourselves.  And some of us are already dealing with the fall-out from the explosions that have blown up in our faces.  We’re surrounded by the broken pieces of relationships and social structures we thought were so strong and secure.  We’re sitting in the ashes of fires that have ripped through our lives, our health and our emotions that have left us with nothing but smoldering coals. 

I could take the easy way out here and say – don’t worry.  God’s going clean up your mess for you.  Something good will come out of this.  Everything’s going to be okay.  But I don’t want to be one of those false prophets.  I think sometimes we just need to sit in the rubble and take stock.  Sit down in the ashes and just wait.  We can’t move too quickly to rainbows and daisies when God’s Word is putting a hand on our shoulder and saying, just sit down.  Turn off the screens.  Turn down all the noise from all those false prophets.  Just sit and be quiet.
Next week we are having a healing service.  It will be a time when you can bring your broken pieces, your ailing bodies, burned out emotions, and pulverized lives to God.  Or maybe you know of someone else who is sitting in ashes and rubble and needs you to “stand in the gap” for them, as the saying goes. 

Maybe that’s the best thing we can do it those situations.  When we are filled with remorse for not taking the steps we should have when we needed to, and are now paying the price.  When we tried to put a damper on the sparks of change and found that we just made the situation worse.  When we ignored the signs and denied the truth and now are left with nothing but regret.  Sometimes the best we can do is just hold the hand of that person, or accept the hand of the one who has come to be with you, and sit quietly with them in the ashes and rubble.  It’s a hard, painful, awkward place to be.  It’s not the way I like to end a sermon.  But that’s where God wants us.  So, for the time being, that’s where we’ll stay.  Amen.

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