Thought you would appreciate this sermon for Pentecost XII, preached Aug. 19 by the Rev. Canon Tom Miller at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine.
There is a new production of Bernard Shaw’s St. Joan at the National Theatre in London. I attended a preview performance when I was there last month. The play received glowing reviews and has been hailed by one critic as a “potent political masterpiece.” While other writers have told the story by focusing on Joan of Arc as a saint and martyr, it is Shaw’s genius to tell all sides of the story with understanding and surprising impartiality. In Shaw’s treatment, we have some sympathy for church and state in what they perceive is a war of terror that challenges their authority. Then, too, we also get a critical look at Joan’s unbending individualism that threatens anarchy and raises legitimate questions about whether she is prophetic, obsessive, or possibly psychotic. At the very least the play offers a caution about people who claim to have private lines to God.
The play has been called a tragedy with no villains. But then there are no real heroes or heroines either. Despite efforts all round to avoid Joan’s legendary fate, every one, including Joan, is complicit in the outcome of the story – and that outcome is fire, the consuming fire that kills Joan but which also brings everyone to contrition by the final scene. And the cynic might well ask, what has been achieved in the end? Church and state dominate to survive and Joan only eventually becomes a saint as a kind of cosmic consolation prize. And the pattern will continue down to our own day.
It is no great surprise that the National Theatre decided to revive this particular play at this particular time in history. Once again we are playing with fire: nations reacting against threats to their security; religious authority in much of the world colluding with the state to preserve the old order, or at least the order in power, and actors on the world stage, in both leading and supporting roles, getting their instructions directly from God. And it all inevitably ends with fire.
The reality of that fire is all around us: in the flames of war, in flames fanned by fanatics on a mission, in flames ignited by reactionary forces bent on controlling others. And then there are the metaphorical flames to consider: flames of jealousy and insecurity that lead to abuse and murder; flames of hatred and self-righteousness that lead to exclusion and suppression and often enough to actual cruelty and murder; flames of rage and revenge. No wonder hell is pictured as a fiery furnace waiting to consume the sinful. We know that version of hell right here on earth.
And yet, fire is also central to our faith tradition and how we understand God to be with us and working for us. The pillar of fire that led the Hebrews through the wilderness by night is a majestic and reassuring image. Moses encountered the bush that was burning but was not consumed. In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus speaks of bringing fire to the earth through the Passion about to be played out, and as a result of his death and resurrection, the Apostles received the Pentecostal tongues of flame, that fire that burns within the human heart and mind but does not destroy us, but rather continually inspires us to let God guide us, reveal divine reality to us, and to live in us and through us.
As much as we fear the fires set off by our worst excesses, we welcome the kindling of the spirit we call divine. As we often sing, “Come down, O love divine, seek thou this soul of mine, and visit it with thine own ardor glowing.” And the hymn continues: “O Comforter, draw near, within my heart appear, and kindle it, thy holy flame bestowing.” What a contrast the holy flame offers to humanity’s flirtation with the flames of destruction. From Moses to Jesus, the holy fire burns but does not consume. Holy fire enlivens us and fuels desire for God and for God’s righteousness on earth and in our lives. As William Blake envisioned a new Jerusalem even in the midst of a growing industrialism, the poet cried out, “Bring me my bow of burning gold! Bring me my arrows of desire! Bring me my spear . . . Bring me my chariot of fire!”
And so, when Jesus declares, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” we might well imagine that he cries out in reference to the holy flame of desire that is already burning in his heart and which will burn with its true brightness only when his own baptism of fire is complete. And the passion with which these words are recorded in Luke’s Gospel is profoundly powerful not only for the souls of the righteous, but for the sake of the world as well. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” Divine passion is too powerful not to challenge the established order. Divine passion is bound to unsettle those who experience it and unsettle those who feel terror at what may be prophetic witness but that might all too easily be psychotic delusion. Without such divine fire we would be lost in the flames of our own destruction.
And all this time you thought Jesus was the Good Shepherd, or perhaps you are a devotee of the Suffering Servant, the Teacher or the Great Physician. For you he is the Prince of Peace, Redeemer, or Christ the King. Yes, all right, Jesus is all of these things, but Jesus is also the one who tells us, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” We are given a picture of Jesus as the fire-bearer, the one who brings passionate desire to the earth so we can see what God’s passion looks like. We have seen the presence of God in the burning bush; the persistence of God in the pillar of fire, and now we witness the passion of God emerging from the sacred heart of Jesus, who understood that nothing of the story can be left out. Powers and principalities will play with fires that lead to death and destruction, but God offers flames of holy desire that bring us to life. As many seek glory in the fires of war, it is in the sacred flames of holy desire that we find the true mark of greatness in the world.
Stephen Spender wrote, “I think continually on those who were truly great – The names of those who in their lives fought for life, Who wore at their hearts the fire’s centre.” We have been given God’s holy fire to wear in our hearts, to let a holy flame burn at the center of our being. This is not fire to be played with, but fire to kindle and keep a continuing flame burning for the peace and justice of God to prevail in the world.
Bernard Shaw had it right, I think. We are all players in the affairs of the world, we are all complicit in the vain and foolish games we play with fire, and certainly no one is exempt from the destruction that ensues. The whole world suffers when the powerful in either church or state make security or certainty their idol. We suffer too when we keep our faith private and exempt ourselves from the sins of the world.
God does not keep to private places. As Gerard Manley Hopkins reminds us, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out like shining from shook foil.” That shining, that spectacular illumination of God, is the fire Jesus brought to earth. We see it before us, and we have it within us. And nothing can put out that flame except that our indifference can divert our attention from it, our arrogance can blind us to it, and our fears can mistake it for destruction.
The second verse of the hymn “Come down, O Love divine” goes like this: “O let it freely burn, till earthly passions turn to dust and ashes in its heat consuming; and let thy glorious light shine ever on my sight, and clothe me round, the while my path illuming.” May we have the wisdom to distinguish the flames of destruction from the fires of passion for life, and seeing the difference, may we not fear the fire of Love divine, and may the glorious light of that burning Love shine on the path before us and make a dwelling in our hearts forever.