God of Fire
When I was a child we learned some physics principles through music. One song, that I remember hearing on a record at another family’s house, taught about the sun. “The sun is a mass of incandescent gas, a great big fiery furnace!” (Of course, I had to do a You Tube search and I found a version—dated 1993 – that is slightly different from the one I remember. Instead of a fiery furnace it declares that the sun is a gigantic nuclear furnace. However, the version, from my childhood, that speaks of the fiery furnace, connects with today’s image for God.)
Lauren Winner begins her chapter titled “Flame” using the passage from Luke’s Gospel. “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled.” One of her friends suggested that the image of fire referred to Jesus’ crucifixion, that Jesus was wishing that the crucifixion with its suffering had already taken place so that redemption could come. This interpretation is not new. Some early church theologians understood the saying in this way. Winner said that she hears it quite differently. She muses that Jesus was saying, “I have come to set alight your ardor for Me and for all things good and lovely, and I wish that fire were already lit.” She remembers the disciples on the road to Emmaus who said, “Were our hearts not burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” We could remember the story of Pentecost when the Spirit descended like tongues of fire. We might remember the words in the Revelation to John where God judges Laodicea because it is neither hot nor cold – but lukewarm. The judgment is close to Jesus’ words in Luke: How I wish the fire were kindled in you!
The You Tube version of “The Sun is a mass of incandescent gas” went on to speak of the necessity of the sun’s fire – that fire makes life possible. It also says that it would not be possible for any human being to exist close to its nuclear furnace. Winner says the two different interpretations of the words in Luke’s gospel are a reminder of “fire’s paradox.” “Fire is essential for life and civilization, and fire is a threat to both. Fire warms but can blister; fire heats but can consume.”
Fire has been in the news this summer. Just a few weeks ago a family died in a house fire in Tampa. We’ve seen fire’s destructive power as we read about and see the pictures of the wildfires in the western regions of this country. We hear stories of those who barely escaped – and stories of those who didn’t. We see the pictures of devastation –houses reduced to piles of ash, forests reduced to blackened tree stumps.
Years ago, a church member and his wife went to Yellowstone. They went just after devastating wildfires had blackened many parts of the park. The man was angry. “They should have done something to stop those fires,” he said to me. “The park was ugly!”
We see the destructive power; the aftermath, to our eyes, is ugly. Yet, biologists tell us that such fires are a necessary part of the cycle of life. One list said fire:
1. Reduces excessive amounts of dead vegetation. Without natural fire, such materials build up to levels high enough that eventually a fire would burn through with unnaturally high intensity that would seriously harm the forest ecosystem.
2. Exposes mineral soil, which many plants (including giant sequoias) need for reproductive success.
3. Opens up the forest so that sunlight can reach the ground, which many small plants need for reproductive success.
4. Recycles nutrients into the soil.
5. Helps control diseases and insects in both soil and plants.
Winner looked to Hazel Rossotti, a chemistry professor at Oxford, for a definition of fire. “We can define fire as a self-sustaining, high-temperature oxidation reaction which releases heat and light; and which usually needs a small input of heat to get it going.” Winner notes the idea of fire as “self-sustaining.” “God is,” she said. “And I am not…[we] cannot always summon a sense of God’s presence, even when we do the things we were taught in Sunday school…in other seasons, God roars into our lives in ways we wish we could avoid, tamp down, and put out entirely.”
National Public Radio had an interview with Nadia Bolz-Weber, an unorthodox Lutheran Pastor. I had to laugh at her response to someone who asked how to get closer to God. She responded that she didn’t work at trying to get closer to God. God came after her. Her faith was not her own doing. Faith, in fact, was a gift of God. I think she has experienced God as the “fire” that swept into her life and took her in directions she could never imagine. Winner speaks of practices that can “help keep the flame of God’s presence near:” prayer, attending church, practicing patience, practicing penance, practicing generosity. But, maybe we’re most comfortable with the fire that is lovely and contained – the flame of a candle – something small, something we can control.
Years ago, I helped plan worship for the annual meeting of the Synod of the Northeast. Each year, the Synod gathered for several days on a college campus. This particular year we were meeting at one of NY State’s colleges. There was no chapel, so worship was going to be in the theater. We met, in advance, with the college employee responsible for the theater and talked about what we would need – especially on the stage – chairs for participants, a table for communion, a lectern of some sort, and microphones. I don’t remember what the theme for the annual gathering was that year, but one of the Biblical stories we used was that of the pillar of fire leading the Israelites out of Egypt. When the service was over, the campus employee almost ran up to us. “I wish you had told me about the pillar of fire!” he said. “I could have given you a pillar of fire!” I’ve always thought we missed a wonderful opportunity. How awesome it would have been to have a pillar of fire erupt on that stage. Of course, it might also have frightened everyone! In worship, we would have been confronted by the potential for destruction.
I was thinking about that pillar of fire image this week. We just read the story. But I wonder – was it a scary image for the Israelites? Did they see in that pillar the possibility of destruction as well as a promise of new life? Maybe the pillar of fire “cleared” the way for the Israelites – burning a path for them.
What we perceive as destruction may be part of God’s redemptive presence. Fire can rage out of our control. But God refuses to be controlled by our expectations, by our traditions, by our hopes, by our fears, by our sense of decorum or theological correctness. God is, sometimes, the fierce fire that appears to destroy – in order that new life may emerge. Handel’s Messiah has a wonderful aria that picks up imagery of fire found in the book of Malachi. “For he is like a refiner’s fire!” the song powerfully declares. “A refiner’s fire.” Fire is used to purify metals. The unwanted, poorer, elements are burned off or melted away so that the expensive, rarer elements can emerge. The fire is necessary. The fire is part of the purifying process.
Back to the wildfires – some trees need fire to survive. Certain firs open their pinecones only when exposed to the intense heat of a fire. The seeds then germinate in the ashes.
Winner asks, “Could the Bible’s fiery imagery suggest that God’s destruction is regenerative? That God destroys not me but my sin, my hardness of heart, my fear, precisely so that I might be renewed?” She quotes English mystic Walter Hilton. “God is love and charity. Fir as fire wasteth all bodily things, that can be wasted, even so the love of God burneth and wasteth all sin out of the soul and maketh it clean, as fire cleanseth all manner of metals.”
The story of the Exodus has the story of the pillar of fire. In the book of Acts we have the story of the Spirit descending on the disciples at Pentecost like “tongues of fire.” There was a tradition in Italy of throwing rose petals from the church ceilings on Pentecost to commemorate the flames of the Spirit. That story of Pentecost reminds us that the church needed to be set “aflame” with God’s Spirit to find the courage to take the good news of the resurrection into the world. Winner says that “God’s flame also wants to focus our attention on the world.” We see that in the story of Moses and the burning bush. God spoke to Moses saying, “I have seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have seen their suffering, and I have come down to deliver them.”
“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled,” Jesus said. We know the need for the fire that purifies, the fire that redeems, the fire that raises up voices of courage who speak out against injustice, who do mercy, who proclaim God’s love and God’s goodness and God’s intent. It is God’s invitation to us to draw near to that fire – that we might be caught up in its purifying blaze and set alight to be bearers of its light and ardor.
God Who Laughs!
A friend told me a story. When his daughter was a teenager, she did something sort of irresponsible that caused damage to her father’s car. When he heard about it, he was ready to let her experience his righteous anger. “Boy, was I mad!” he said. But he was with a friend who said, “Tell me. How important is this? Is this the kind of thing that you’ll be mad about in a year or two? Or will you laugh and say, ‘Guess what my crazy daughter did!’?” “I realized,” he told me, “that it was the kind of thing that I would, eventually, laugh about. So, I was able to react to her more calmly.”
Perspective. That’s what his friend gave him. He saw her irresponsible behavior in a larger context – the context of teenagers learning by making mistakes.
Laughter is a hard image to use in connection with God. We know that sometimes laughter is used in ways that hurt and destroy. How many children are damaged by the derisive laughter of classmates? Who wants to be scorned? Who wants to be the inadvertent object of belittling laughter? No one! No one!
Lauren Winner notes that the Psalms tell us about God’s laughter. And, when we encounter God’s laughter, it can be disturbing. Winner describes God’s laugh as menacing. The psalms paint for us an uncomfortable image of God. God seems “harsh” and “hard.”
In Psalm 37, parts of which I used for the call to worship and the response after the sermon, speaks of God’s laughter. “The wicked plot against the righteous, and gnash their teeth at them: but the Lord laughs at the wicked, for he sees that their day is coming.”
Psalm 59 speaks of enemies. But God responds with laughter. “They return at evening, snarling like dogs, and prowl about the city. See what they spew from their mouths—the words from their lips are sharp as swords, and they think, ‘Who can hear us?’ But you laugh at them, Lord; you scoff at all those nations.”
The Christian Church has struggled with the idea of laughter. In Jesus’ sermon on the plain (in Luke’s gospel) he says that those who laugh now will weep later. Those who weep now will laugh later. Some theologians, through the centuries, said that this meant Christians should not laugh now. Benedict of Aniane said, “Since the Lord condemns those who laugh now, it is clear that there is never a time for laughter for the faithful soul.”
Is that what Jesus intended?
Years ago, I went to a study led by theologian and Biblical scholar Walter Wink. His scholarship had led him to a new interpretation of parts of the Sermon on the Mount. He said that parts of this sermon would have had Jesus’ listeners laughing – even rolling down the “mount.” He pointed, in particular, to the three vignettes that are our gospel lesson for today.
“You have heard it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”
We hear the proverbial call to be the world’s doormat. But, Wink says, that interpretation doesn’t take the context into account. “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Wink tells us to picture being struck on the right cheek. That would have been a backhanded slap (since only right hands were used for public acts.) In other words, it was a dismissive slap – that of a “superior” slapping and “inferior.” By turning the other cheek, one was silently asserting one’s equality. The slapper would have been made uncomfortable by this “nonviolent” assertion of equality.
“If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.” It was law that a coat could be taken as payment – again, this would have been demanded by a wealthier person. But, it was illegal to take another person’s cloak. We miss the context that these two pieces of clothing would have been all the clothing that some individuals would have had. Jesus is suggesting that the person “strip naked.” And, in that culture, it was not illegal to be nude – but it was a sin to look on another’s nudity. His hearers may have been picturing the one who had demanded the cloak suddenly stepping back in horror. “No. No. I don’t want your cloak!”
“If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” This may have been connected to the Roman occupation. Roman soldiers, by law, could force anyone they encountered to carry their packs for one mile. That was the limit – one mile. Offering to go the second mile changed the relationship. The soldier would have been forced to acknowledge the other person as a person.
Jesus used humor. That humor is evident in his parables that drew from everyday life. Somehow I think that a world without laughter would be a world without joy. And, I would guess that if Jesus had been a man who didn’t laugh, he wouldn’t have attracted followers.
Winner says, “…the laughter of God is inseparable from God’s justice.” In the here and now, the kind of laughter that friends of God pursue is laughter that is proleptic—laughter that hints at, or partakes of, the world to come. The best laughter now is laughter that bespeaks a heaven in which those who have been made to weep by earthly rulers will, in the fullness of time, heartily laugh. In other words, laughter is political. Laughter arranges power, and God provokes us to laugh as testimony – testimony to our belief in a God who is ruling over a calamitous or oppressive situation, despite all signs to the contrary.”
As I was thinking about God’s laughter, I pulled up some videos of Jon Stewart when he was doing “The Daily Show.” A comic, who started out just trying to be funny, moved into laughter that called attention to the injustices in our world. He invited people to laugh because he helped us to see the gap between what is and what could or should be the reality in our own nation and in the world. It wasn’t a humor whose goal was to hurt, to injure, or to destroy. It was a humor whose goal was transformation, justice and healing.
God’s laughter proclaims that the injustice in the world is not ultimate, that those who cause harm and destroy will not have the last word. Winner tells of reading Psalm 37 as she sat in her car in front of a house where a friend barely escaped death at the hands of her husband. She says that she couldn’t imagine laughing at the horror – but began to picture God weeping with her friend and laughing at the man who abused her. The psalm began to feel more like a prayer.
Maybe our discomfort with the words in the Sermon on the Mount have led us to a Christianity that embraces an “eye for an eye” and a “tooth for a tooth.” Militant Christianity is all around us. We don’t see value in being the doormats of the world. But, Walter Wink’s interpretation suggests there is a different way. Winner points out that laughter has been used by political activists to “ridicule their enemies and sustain their own spirits.” She tells of English suffragette Annie Kenny who said, “[We] were taught never to lose our tempers; always to get the best of a joke, and to join in the laughter with the audience even if the joke was against us…[The] speakers that an audience took a delight in listening to, even though they did not agree with them, were those able to make them laugh.” A man threw a cabbage at suffragette Mary Gawthorpe who remarked, “She had been afraid that the gentleman would lose his head at some point.”
Winner, who lives in North Carolina, reflected on the humor in more recent political demonstrations in her state. People came to a KKK gathering dressed as clowns. While Klan members chanted, “White power,” the clowns chanted, “White flour” and “Wife power.” One of the clowns remarked, “You look silly. We’re dressed like clowns and you’re the ones who look silly.” The Clown Army states, “Nothing undermines authority like holding it up to ridicule.”
Winner says, “Clowns are not just funny – they try to jolt observers out of their unreflected assumptions and habits. Because clowns mock the order of things, they can prompt the rest of us to consider whether a reordering might be possible…[Laughter] is also a sign of defiance, a sign that the ruler who rules unjustly is not ultimately in control…If those who laugh now will weep later, and those who weep now will laugh later, then saying that God laughs and provokes laughter is synonymous with saying that God overturns the hierarchies of the world. That overturning will make you laugh or cry, depending on where you sit.”
In my early years of ministry, Christian clowning was quite the thing. I still have the books on “clowning ministry.” That ministry draws on a long tradition of seeing Jesus as a clown. When we learned about putting on our “clown faces,” we were taught that the white was the sign of death. The new face was the sign of resurrection. Some look back to Paul’s words that speak of being “fools” for Christ. French artist Georges Rouault painted clowns – and his paintings of clowns resembled his paintings of Jesus. He had seen a clown, an old clown, mending his gaudy costume. He also noted the clown’s marginal place in society. “I saw quite clearly that the ‘Clown’ was me, was us, nearly all of us. This rich and glittering costume, it is given to us by life itself, we are all more or less clowns, we all wear a glittering costume,” he wrote.
“Jesus is the marginal wayfarer,” Winner reflects. “And Jesus specializes, as clowns do, in interruptions, in behavior that violates etiquette and social norms, in impropriety, surprises, and mockery of convention.”
The story from Genesis is one of my favorite – the story of Abraham and Sarah laughing when told that they would have a child. Abraham’s laughter comes in the 17th chapter. After being told that Sarah would have a child, “Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’”
Winner notes that Abraham and Sarah laugh in different ways. Abraham laughs out loud. Sarah laughs inwardly – and then is embarrassed by her laughter. Sarah, a Biblical interpreter said, was “laughing to herself, but she was also laughing at herself, at her dried up inner parts.” This scholar, Rashi, suggests that Abraham’s laughter was joyful and Sarah’s scornful. Another scholar says, “Abraham’s laughter invited God into that laughter. Sarah kept her laughter to herself.” For these reasons, God had problems with Sarah’s laughter. But, later, after Isaac was born (Isaac whose name means Let-Him-Laugh), Sarah declared, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me…Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have born him a son in his old age.” Sarah’s initial laugher lacked the perspective that God could act in ways that would create new life where human reason said there could be no life.
Perspective. God’s humor is born of God’s perspective on what is just, what is merciful, on what God’s vision is for the creation and its inhabitants. God’s laughter calls attention to the divide between what is and what God intends.
I’d like to close with prayers from the book Common Prayer: a Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals. “Lord, to laugh in the midst of trial and to rejoice in the darkest valley is another way of saying, ‘Our hope is in you.’ Fill us with laughter and joy while we work for peace and strive for justice…Help us to live so foolishly for you that we draw onlookers and those who would deride us. And while they watch and mock, change all our hearts that we might learn to laugh at the foolishness this world calls normal and run away with the circus that is real life. Amen.”
God: Bread and Vine
Lauren Winner begins her chapter on Bread and Vine as an image for God saying, “It would not be a gross exaggeration to say that the Bible is a culinary manual, concerned from start to finish about how to eat, what to eat, when to eat. Food is the first way the Bible shows that God intends to provide for humanity: all those seed-bearing plants and trees with fruit in the garden of Eden given to Adam and Eve to eat.”
It’s amazing, when I think about it, how much of our attitudes toward God become an intellectual exercise that doesn’t connect with the everydayness of our lives. We’re not accustomed to thinking about God in the everyday minutia of our existence. Maybe grace gets said at some meals – but do we think about God when grabbing a cup of coffee? Do we think about God and what it means to be God’s baptized children when we wash our hands? Do we think about God when we get dressed in the morning?
“The Bible is a culinary manual,” Winner says. Now the Bible comes from a time when food was much more a central issue in people’s lives. There was no such thing as fast food. There wasn’t refrigeration. There weren’t restaurants. Meals were gathering times for families and communities. Winner points out that even though there were dietary restrictions, God offered an abundance to the people. The Bible speaks of “figs and apples and raisins and vinegar and cheese and wine.” Hospitality was extended by providing physical sustenance. In that wonderful story where the angels visit Abraham, Abraham and Sarah provided hospitality by preparing a meal. When I was in seminary, a professor noted that Luke’s gospel portrayed Jesus eating with others – over and over again. Even Jesus’ parables were connected with food and drink. There’s the parable of the wedding banquet, the parable of the yeast in the bread, and the parable of the laborers in the vineyard.
“Food carries memory and food becomes sacramental vessel,” Winner says. Think of the Passover Meal, that central sacramental rite in the Jewish tradition. The meal, with its liturgical elements, carries memory and shapes the community. That Passover meal shaped the central sacrament of the Christian faith – the Lord’s Supper. In this meal we remember that God has offered God’s very self to us as food. “I am the bread of life,” Jesus said. “I am the vine, you are the branches.” Now, we may not eat the vine—but we eat and drink its fruit.
This imagery, this concept, that God offers God’s very being to nurture us, to feed us, to satisfy our thirst is baffling. In the early days of Christianity, outsiders who heard these words repeated assumed that Christians were cannibals. At the same time, the imagery is almost, as Winner says, unremarkable. “Wine and bread. The fruit of the vine; the staff of life.”
There’s a powerful story from World War II that was retold by Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn and Matthew Linn in their book Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life.
During the bombing raids of World War II, thousands of children were orphaned and left to starve. The fortunate ones were rescued and placed in refugee camps where they received food and good care. But many of these children who had lost so much could not sleep at night. They feared waking up to find themselves once again homeless and without food. Nothing seemed to reassure them. Finally, someone hit upon the idea of giving each child a piece of bread to hold at bedtime. Holding their bread, these children could finally sleep in peace. All through the night the bread reminded them, “Today I ate and I will eat again tomorrow.”
“I am the bread of life. I am the true vine.” Winner notes that most of us take our provisions for granted. Stories like the one from World War II – or perhaps the powerful, painful images of today’s refugees – remind us of our own need for God. She also says we can look deeper – broadening our image of what it means for Jesus to be our bread. She asked a question that I will put to you. “If Jesus is the bread of life, what kind of bread is he?” No one gave the answer that Jesus was like the little communion wafers her church uses. They named all sorts of breads. She says the list she got became a reminder that God is about delight as well as sustenance. Bread should contain “enjoyment and necessity, sustenance and pleasure.” (We should invite her to come and taste the communion bread that Maureen or Gail makes!) Take a few moments. Think about the breads that are or have been a part of your life. “If Jesus is the bread of life, what kind of bread is he for you?”
It was interesting to read about the evolution of our obsession with white bread. Food activist Michael Pollan suggests that “the prestige of white flour is ancient and has several sources, some practical, others sentimental.” White flour has been accessible to the masses only since the middle of the 19th century. In the 20th century, bread became something that was purchased because there was an appeal in its uniformity. “The housewife can well experience a thrill of pleasure when she first sees a loaf of this bread with each slice the exact counterpart of its fellows. So neat and precise are the slices, and so definitely better than anyone could possible slice by hand with a bread knife that one realizes instantly that here is a refinement that will receive a hearty and permanent welcome.” So wrote a reporter in 1928. Winner sums up our obsession: “The history of the lovely white loaf may be found in America’s optimistic quest for scientific perfectibility and in America’s history of shaming immigrants and shaming women.” And that obsession with “white” bread crept even into our observances of the Lord’s Supper. “It seems an odd genealogy,” she says, “for the bread that week in and week out, Christians name as Jesus. Jesus, who consorted with shamed women. Jesus, who is neither orderly nor predictable. Jesus, who, with his parents, became a migrant (I might say refugee) to Egypt when his own country turned inhospitable to him. Jesus, who makes possible our immigration to the Kingdom of God. Jesus, whose skin was darker than the flour we prize.”
When Jesus spoke of himself as the bread, he reminded his hearers of the bread God had provided in the wilderness – the manna (the “what is it?”). Rabbis said that this bread was not uniform. It tasted like “whatever the Israelites wanted it to taste like.” Isn’t that a neat concept? An 11th century Rabbi said there were a few exceptions. It “could not taste like leeks, onions, cucumbers, watermelons, or garlic, because those five foods might hurt nursing mothers!” It strikes me that this interpretation of manna honors both the individual and community. The individual is given what she or he needs – within the larger context of what is good, overall, for the community.
Winner says if Jesus is the bread of life, he tastes for us like what we need. But, that cannot be an anything goes approach. We are given what we need in ways that strengthen and support the whole Body of Christ, in ways that bring life to our communities, in ways that promote the healing of the world.
I admit to coming to this “celebration” of God as Bread and Vine with mixed feelings. The doctor ordered me to cut back on carbs – so there go the breads! (And I love bread.) Winner wrote of people with eating disorders who refuse to come to the Lord’s Table because they fear the calories – even in communion wafers. She notes that many fad diets take aim at the staples of life – at the very foods that the starving in our world would crave. She wonders if Jesus could have imagined the people of this age who respond to bread and wine with fear and self-disgust. Then she states, “Maybe one of the invitations He was making at the Last Supper was an invitation to anxious middle-class women [and men] two millennia in the future – the invitation to let His bread and His wine and His [Table] reshape the way we hold and eat and sip and feel about all bread and wine.”
Now, this chapter in her book is so full that I’ve left out many of her reflections on bread. And I’ve barely touched the image of God as Vine. It’s a powerful image of connectivity. It also leads to thinking about the cup, about the wine that comes from the grapes of the vine. We know the difficulties in our world in relating in healthy ways to alcohol. The Bible does speak of drunkenness. Sometimes God punishes with drunkenness. There is also a Biblical invitation that uses drunkenness as a metaphor. The Song of Songs encourages lovers to get drunk on love – to allow themselves to become fully focused on each other. Winner suggests this is a metaphor for us. “Perhaps, if I received Jesus as wine, I would know divine intoxication again. “Would that be bearable?”
Today, we celebrate God who desires that we feast on God’s very presence, on God’s very self. God is both the provider and the meal. God comes to us as bread, the very basic staff of life, and God comes as the wine that invites us to joyful living.