A sermon for August 14, 2016:
So . . . I come back from vacation, and God says that God’s word is like fire, and like a hammer, and Jesus is talking about bringing fire, and division . . . Couldn’t we have a nice sermon week, with peaceful sheep beside still waters and admonitions to love one another, and reminders that blessed are the peacemakers? But wait – maybe we do have these things, in disguise? Maybe not the sheep. But let’s not dismiss these hard texts too quickly.
Let’s start with the prophet Jeremiah, who tells us that God’s word is like fire, and like a hammer that breaks a rock into pieces. That God’s word is challenging and dangerous.
I have a special place in my heart for Jeremiah. Jeremiah, we remember, is the prophet who was “forbidden by God to marry or to father children,” whose life which included “imprisonment, death threats, violent beatings, abandonment in a cistern, confinement in stocks, internment in a dungeon, persecution by family members, and confrontation by a false prophet.” That’s not how we imagine that a life lived faithfully should turn out, is it? And yet many, many people find that, no sooner have they turned their lives over to God that things start to fall apart, at least from a human point of view.
But this message of fire and rock? Fire means many things in the Bible. Fire is a symbol of God’s presence and leadership – think about the Israelites in the desert being led by a pillar of fire. Fire is a symbol of the Holy Spirit – think of the flames appearing above the heads of the people on Pentecost. And fire is a cleansing agent – think of the words of the prophet Malachi, which most of us know from Handel’s Messiah: “But who may abideth the day of his coming? And who shall standeth when he appears? Because he is like a refiner’s fire . . .” – cleansing, purifying, leaving nothing of sin in his wake?
And a hammer – a hammer that smashes rock into pieces – a hammer which breaks apart the institutions, the political and social structures which oppress and destroy, a hammer which sends the bits and pieces of our priorities flying — until what is left is God alone – is this perhaps the hammer of which Jeremiah speaks?
Perhaps Jeremiah had been meditating upon today’s Psalm, Psalm 82. The setting is an ancient one, with its Hebrew idea of God sitting in God’s council of lesser gods, but the searing judgment God proclaims applies to the people of Jerusalem during the time of Jeremiah 400 years later and to the people of the world in our own time. Listen to these verbs and to their objects:
Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.
How are we doing with all of this? Are we spending our days giving justice and maintaining the right and rescuing and delivering? Are we? Are we looking to the weak and the orphan and the lowly and the destitute and the needy? Are we even imagining the Kingdom of God which Jesus came to inaugurate – the kingdom, the new creation, when, as another prophet tells us — when “justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” [Amos]? There might need to be a lot of purification and breaking apart before that can happen.
Can we imagine clearing – purifying – the world of the practices of big agriculture, trade deals gone wrong, markets structured to make the wealthier wealthier – so that the abundance of food produced on this planet can reach all the people who need to eat?
Can we break apart the school funding laws in Ohio, deemed unconstitutional three times by our state’s highest court, so that all of our children, those in the most affluent suburbs and those in our inner cities and those in our Appalachian foothills – all of our children will know what excellence in education means?
Can we even clear our homes of stuff that we don’t use but other people could, and can we even free our own families from the sins of the fathers and mothers, the arguments and grudges so longstanding that we don’t even know what they are about anymore?
No wonder Jesus says that he comes to bring fire and division to the earth. No wonder! We cannot have those gentle sheep wandering around in peaceful green pastures and we cannot experience genuine love for one another and we cannot known the blessedness of the peacemakers until the things which divide us are brought to the surface and addressed and until the fire of the Spirit’s presence takes hold and brings justice to the earth.
You know about fire in nature, right? Years ago, our family took a trip out to Yellowstone, a couple of years after the big fires out there. We were dismayed, of course, to see huge strands of burnt skeletons of trees where two years earlier we might have viewed vast green forests. But so many of the exhibits we saw and the books we picked up taught us about the refining power of fire – about the need for forests to be cleared so that soil and grasses and meadows could be regenerated, so that new life could be born. If Jesus came to bring fire, it could only be the fire of resurrection, because resurrection is what Jesus is all about. And if Jesus came to bring division – well, we know that only too well, don’t we? But we are assured that even in our divisiveness – so painfully experienced right now in our own election cycle, in Israel and Palestine, in Afghanistan and Syria and Iraq, on the borders of Russisa – God is working to create a new thing. And Jesus came to expose it — so that God can be at work to resolve it.
So what do we do? Paul tells us to turn to the cloud of witnesses – to turn to our foremothers and forefathers in faith, and to take them as our models of courage, of obedience, of steadfastness, of loyalty, of perseverance – in the face of refining fires and rock foundations breaking apart. We all have those people in our lives – not only the figures of the Bible, but the great figures of our own lives. The aunt of one of my friends, a Catholic nun, died a few days ago, and my friend said that “so much of the woman I am today is because of her.” Isn’t it interesting that this passage, about “running with perseverance the race set before us” should come up today, in the middle of the Rio Olympics? We are reminded every day of what it takes to run – and to dive, and to tumble, and to swim – with perseverance, whether we are talking about literal Olympic competitions or about the races of our own lives. The Olympians themselves, witneses in the diversity of their power and strength and dignity, show us what happens when barriers are broken down and the best of humanity emerges.
We have been presented with a cascade of images today: fire, both destructive and purifying; a hammer splitting rock into pieces; a court of judgment and justice, fire scorching the earth and households divided, a cloud of witnesses, and a race to be run. It’s a lot to take in. And in today’s world, as in the worlds of the Bible, some of those images would be dangerous in the hands of people who would hear in them justification for physical violence and destruction. But in the end, all of these metaphors are about the same thing: the love of God, which demands from us clarity, and justice, and engagement, and, ultimately, love for another.
The title of today’s sermon comes from a song which most of you probably know well. The folksinger Pete Seeger was a prophet for our time, and we might recognize his song, “If I Had a Hammer,” as a recapitulation of today’s readings. It popped into my mind as soon as I read Jeremiah –
And God’s justice, God’s love, is a dangerous hammer, isn’t it? God’s love splinters and burns and breaks apart our complacency, our institutions, our attitudes that further racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, poverty, violence. We are all complicit, says Jeremiah, we are all attached to the rocks that we hold sacred – and Jesus tells us that he will destroy them, and that where the old festers, he will create anew, in the name of justice and love and peace.
By the end of his song, Pete Seeger is proclaiming that he’s got the hammer of justice, the bell of freedom, and a song about love between my brothers and my sisters all over this land.”
And so, my friends, do we. So do we. Thanks be to God.
 Alphonetta Wines, Working Preacher. August 14, 2016. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2949.
 David Lose, Working Preacher. August 15, 2010. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=733.