8/14/22 Sermon: Is Not My Word Like Fire?

Sunday, August 14, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Preacher: Pastor Day Hefner
watch this service online (readings start around 14:46; sermon starts around 21:11)
image source

Back when I was in college, I spent two summers working out at Camp Carol Joy Holling in Ashland. My first summer on staff there, I worked with kids as a regular counselor – but the second summer, I decided to apply for a position as the “Creative Arts Specialist.” I’m sure you’re all *shocked* that I had a job where I did crafts with kids all day, every day. 😜

By far the most ambitious craft project that kids got to do at camp was make pottery. If you have any experience at all with pottery, you probably know that it’s a process that tends to take a long time. First, you take your lump of wet clay and mold it into the shape you want, whether it’s a vessel of some kind, or a sculpture, or whatever. Then, before you can do anything else with your piece, you have to let it sit and dry out as much as possible – at least a day or two. And then you fire it in the kiln, which takes a good ten-twelve hours. Then you have to let it cool down. And then if you want to glaze it, that’s even more drying, and an even longer firing in the kiln, followed by an even longer cooling.

Thankfully, we didn’t do the full on glazing at camp – those kids are only out there a week at a time! But we did allow campers to paint their pottery after firing. So the whole week had to be timed just right – campers made their clay items first thing on Monday, and that left just enough time for them to dry out enough to be fired, and then juuust enough time for them to cool down enough that kids could handle them and paint them on Friday, right before they left.

Unfortunately for me, in order for the timing to work with the drying and the cooling, pottery absolutely *had* to be fired Wednesday night, overnight. And since the camp’s old kiln had manual controls for the heat, it meant that every Wednesday, I got to babysit the kiln aaalllll night, getting up every hour and a half or two hours to adjust the temperature up or down. 

But despite all the sleep deprivation, it was a really fun job. I loved being able to help the kids create things out of clay – and I enjoyed seeing their pieces transformed by firing in the kiln. It was work in which I took a lot of care and pride. 

Not totally sure why I’m wearing a towel as a cape in this pic, but sometimes that’s just what it takes!

The one part of the job that wasn’t so much fun was what sometimes happened when I opened the kiln on Thursday mornings. Even after staying up all Wednesday night, carefully monitoring and adjusting the kiln, it seemed like almost every Thursday morning I’d open the kiln to find at least one piece that had exploded sometime during the night. 

Explosions in the kiln often happen when air bubbles somehow become trapped in the clay before it gets fired. It might be because someone wasn’t careful enough or didn’t follow instructions when joining two pieces of clay together; or maybe someone accidentally made some kind of dent or mistake in their project, and they tried to slap some more clay on and smooth it over. 

From the outside, it’s hard to tell whether any unfired piece of clay has bubbles in it. But once the piece goes inside the kiln, the truth comes out. The heat in there is intense – it gets cranked up to around 2,000°F. The air trapped inside any bubbles heats up and expands a lot faster than the clay around it, so before too long you get: kaboom.💥 Whatever flaws a piece might have, sooner or later the heat of the kiln will reveal all. 

Pottery and clay are images that show up in the bible fairly often – especially of God as the potter and us as the clay. I realize that none of our readings for this morning actually use these images directly. But I found myself thinking of all those broken pieces of pottery from the kiln at camp when I read through our first reading from Jeremiah, especially the last verse: “Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?”

It struck me that God’s word can be kind of like that kiln, revealing the truth of what’s underneath the surface. As God says at the beginning of this passage, “Am I a God near by… and not a God far off? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them?” Much like the kiln, God’s word has a way of bringing out the truths we try to smooth over and hide – the truths we’d rather not deal with because they make us so uncomfortable.

And speaking of discomfort, how about this gospel reading?? Yikes. This is such a hard passage for us to read. Reading it together with this text from Jeremiah, it seems like Jesus is bringing that exact same word of fire that Jeremiah is writing about. He’s heating things up until stuff starts exploding. Jesus even literally exclaims at the beginning of this verse, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”

And then Jesus says one of the most discomforting verses in all of scripture: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” Wow. What do you make of a verse like that? How does it make you feel to hear these words of Jesus? Why do you think he would say that he has come to bring division rather than peace?

(I know, I know – that’s what you came here hoping that I would tell you, right?)

I think the key to understanding what Jesus says here lies in a question about how we think about peace. 
What is peace? How would you describe it?
I can imagine the words that come to mind are words like: quiet, no violence or conflict, people getting along and not fighting, calm, tranquil, etc. Peace is life that is calm and normal.

For most of us here, peace means more or less maintaining the status quo. But for Jesus, the true meaning of peace goes quite a bit deeper than this. I feel like I have quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail in my sermons at least a dozen times – but his words so perfectly capture this distinction between the peace of Christ and the peace of the world. He contrasts “negative peace, which is the absence of tension, to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” To go back to the image of pottery and clay, we could think of “negative peace” like that sculpted piece of clay that only looks smooth on the outside, while beneath the surface there are problems. “Positive peace” is solid and well made and won’t blow up under fire.

It’s a weird analogy, I know. So what does this “peace” actually look like in real life? I see lots of examples in the ongoing aftermath of the pandemic. For instance, I’ve noticed economists and politicians have been celebrating our country’s quick economic recovery in the wake of the pandemic – and from a broad, macroeconomic perspective, it does look pretty good: economic output is up, the stock market is doing well, corportations are raking in record profits, and the unemployment rate is around the lowest it’s been in 50 years! But down here, on the ground, things don’t seem to feel nearly as “recovered.” Between inflation and stagnating wages, our dollars just don’t seem to stretch as far as we need them to. The drought brought on by a changing climate is killing our crops. Many people are struggling to find affordable housing – or around here, any housing. Lines at our food pantries are still so long. And those low unemployment numbers fail to reflect the many people who are underemployed, the ones struggling to make ends meet in the gig economy.

In a similar way, the CDC announced this past week that they’re no longer recommending that people who test positive for Covid should self-isolate or practice social distancing. They estimate that by now about 95% of the population has some level of immunity to the virus, especially due to the vaccines, so it no longer poses as much of a threat. And Americans are able to travel without restriction to pretty much anywhere in the world. But for people in many other countries, especially in the global south, just accessing the vaccine is a struggle. For them, this pandemic is still far from over.

These are all issues of justice, much like the injustices that Jesus called attention to in his own life and ministry. These issues are like air bubbles hidden beneath the smooth, peaceful surface of society at large. When you put them in the kiln of God’s word of fire, that’s when you start to get explosions and divisions. 

So what does this all mean? Is God some kind of divine pyromaniac who just likes making us uncomfortable and blowing stuff up for the fun of it? Of course not. When the word of God brings about division and discomfort in our lives, we can trust that it is ultimately part of the path toward true and lasting peace – the path toward positive peace and the presence of justice. God’s word can indeed be like fire, but that fire isn’t necessarily always destructive. Like the fiery heat of a kiln, God’s word shapes us and transforms us. God’s word is a fire continually bringing beauty, peace, and justice to life.

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