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Sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA August 14, 2016.
13 Pentecost; Year C (RCL): Isaiah 5:1-7; Ps. 80:1-2, 8-18; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56.
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts,
be always acceptable, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.  Amen.
         
         What is going on with Jesus in this reading today?  Is he having a really bad day?  He is bringing FIRE to the earth?  He is bringing DIVISION and not peace?  What happened to the Prince of Peace?  After I read this and said, "The Gospel of the Lord," I half expected your response to be "What?"  For what Jesus says today hardly seems to be or sound anything like the Gospel we know.  But when you hear them in the proper context, they might make more sense BUT that doesn't make them any less challenging.       
         Again, as has been true for most of the Gospel readings this summer, they come from the part of Luke's story of Jesus where he is traveling from his home in Galilee to Jerusalem.  This will culminate with his death on the cross.  Along the way, Jesus did a lot of teaching as well as deeds of great power.  Today Jesus addresses these words to his followers and the crowds.  I believe Jesus is telling the crowds not to have false expectations of what Jesus is about.
         So Jesus talks about bringing fire to the earth and having a baptism with which to be baptized.  Normally I think most people tend to understand fire as judgment.  That Jesus is coming to burn up the wicked.  Judgment is one image associated with fire in the Old Testament and again in the New.  There is the reality that Jesus does strip away of our pretenses and fallacies and selfishness and everything else that we use to prop ourselves up with.  Jesus does expose the unbelief of many.  So judgment is certainly part of this fire.  But I really believe there is more.
         When Jesus was baptized in the river Jordan, John the Baptist talked about Jesus as the one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.  There the image is more the empowerment of God so that we might believe and become followers of Jesus - so that we might both love and serve.  This fire comes in the person of Jesus and continues with the gift of the Holy Spirit.  I mean, without the fire of our Lord Jesus Christ, would any of us be here?  Would any of us be believers?  Would any follow him?  Would there ever be such a thing as the Church, had not the fire of our Lord burned in people throughout the centuries?
         The baptism Jesus speaks of is not just his going into the water of the Jordan River - that did begin his public ministry - but even more, the baptism Jesus speaks of is his death and resurrection.  This is his destiny in Jerusalem and he knows it.  He speaks about being under stress until it is completed but that can also be translated as "being governed by it."  The whole of Jesus' life will be fulfilled in his obedient death and his glorious resurrection and later ascension.  And by that, God gives life to us and to the world through faith.
         It all sounds so good.  But there is a reality and we all know it well.  A life of faith in Jesus Christ does not bring peace, perfect peace.  That is why Jesus talks about bringing division instead of peace.  I don't think Jesus desires division but knows that it is a reality for those who believe in him and follow him.  Because when you follow Jesus, it means that your priorities: your self, your substance, and your service, are all used differently.  And that can cause trouble.  I have had friends who have come out of unchurched backgrounds, but they came to faith in Jesus at some point in life.  The fire of our Lord had grasped them and they were now different.  And in some cases it caused all kinds of difficulties within their families and among their friends.
         But you know that even within the family of God, there is division - it's sad but it is a reality.  I suppose that is why there are so many different expressions of Christianity - each one believing they are the 'true church' and not all the others. 
         Within denominations, there are divisions which either lead to splits or if not splits, then to factions within.  We know this in the Episcopal Church which is part of the worldwide Anglican Communion.  We have seen factions, rifts, and schism in our church.  There can be divisions in dioceses, congregations, and parishes.  Many of us have different visions for even how Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill will honor its worship of God while working for mission and ministry in this world.  We are not all on the same page, but we are all in the same boat.
         Having said that, it could sound as if we should just close up shop and go home.  In spite of whatever division that might be part of the church ever since Jesus rose from the dead, it is the love from God shown in our Lord Jesus Christ that does hold us together.  And in spite of any division caused either by sin or by earnest differences in how ministry should be done, our Lord calls us to love one another and to share this life we have in the Church called the Body of Christ.
         That leaves us with quite a paradox - on one hand, we share in the unity we have and on the other hand, we know quite well our divisions.  Our Lord obviously is not naive about them either.  I do wonder - how do we live together as God's people with one foot in his grace for all of us and one foot in division however that is rightly or wrong formed?  How do we as a church serve the world around us and at the same time know the rejection that comes often from an unbelieving world?
         Certainly I don't have all the answers and sometimes the divisions can lead to a despair that might overshadow all.  But I always have to remember that it does not depend on me or you or all of us to get it right or make it perfect.  We never will.  But the fire of our Lord Jesus Christ still burns within and among us to root out our sinfulness and to empower our faith.  The fire is what drives us – gives us fuel.  What is it that burns in me?  Lately, for me, it has been speaking out against gun violence and calling for common sense gun reforms in this country.  I have spoken in public gatherings and been part of intimate prayer circles with citizens and other faith leaders on our city streets, remembering victims, comforting families, and praying for peace.  If you’re like me, you’re watching the Games in Rio. Olympic greatness shows us the power of passion. Swimmers, runners, athletes of all kinds from many nations unite for games and competition.  We don’t share the same passions, but we better ourselves by paying attention to others.  And the Holy Spirit will guide and lead us and ultimately to use our passions and divisions to fulfill God's will for this parish church, this community, and this world that God loves so much.  In spite of division, the baptism of Jesus was fulfilled and the fire of our Lord burns bright. 
         In dramatic language, Jesus says he came to cast fire on the earth.  Fire does more than one thing: Fire destroys the temporary, while it hardens or refines the durable.  Too often our lives are devoted to things that are temporary, those things which the fire will devour and erase.  But his fire will make that which is of worth in you and me - our identity and our souls - endure forever.
         So we remember the righteous fury that Jesus brought in this Gospel, an impatience with our unwillingness to hear what he has to say to us, his frustration that sometimes we choose to only see and hear what is comfortable to us, and we ask ourselves: "Can I open my ears and my heart, in fact, my whole life, to hear the ENTIRE Gospel, not just the portions that we can easily accept?"
         If we fail to ask ourselves that question, we are falling short in our following of Jesus.  And if we ARE asking ourselves that question, what are we going to do about it?  If Jesus came to bring fire, how do I show that?  What burns in my belly and drives me to act as we have said regularly of late: Do Justice, Love Mercy, and Walk Humbly with our God.
One of the things that burns in MY belly is to help make new disciples and to help parents know how to raise children in our faith. Today (at 10:30 a.m.) we use water and chrism to wash and bless a new child of God and follower of Jesus Christ.  Anna Judith Akins becomes the latest and newest member of the Body of Christ in the household of God known as this Episcopal Church and our parish church, Immanuel. May the fire that our Lord brings into the world to refine the hearts and minds of us all burn brightly in Anna, and through her that others may come to know and believe in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
          In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.