Proper 8 / Year C
“Do you want us to call down fire?”
The people of a Samaritan village will not welcome Jesus because “he has his face set toward Jerusalem” – in other words, he is in a somber, serious, and perhaps surly mood as he begins the grim task of journeying toward his crucifixion. James and John, brothers with the nickname “the Sons of Thunder”, are indignant and want to smoke the entire region. “Let’s just keep walking,” Jesus says to them. “There is no time to waste being sore.”
Righteous indignation is what we suppose to be God’s anger manifested in and through us. And there is plenty in our world that makes God angry, to be sure. Simon Longstaff, the Executive Director of The Ethics Centre, observes how people who act out of righteous indignation often begin with a virtuous response to an injustice, but drift into excessive behavior. He states it can lead good people with good motives in the service of a good cause to abominable things.
C.S. Lewis was even more skeptical of those who rail from an ethical high ground:
“It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth.”
There have been a handful of times in my life when I have called down fire. Some of you witnessed one of them several years ago right in very this room. Two of our Food Pantry clients, waiting at a table, erupted in a loud, profanity-laced verbal argument. Without even thinking, I moved toward them. “What is going on here! You,” I thundered at one person, “Sit down and be quiet.” My voice boomed throughout the Parish Hall. “You,” I said to the other, “Grab your things and come with me. We are going to get you your food and then you are going to leave.” Everyone in the room was stunned by my display, especially our volunteers. But it worked. Order was restored and from that point forward people knew not to act out for fear of eliciting what became known as the “The Godman Voice.”
The other times I called down fire did not go as well. Two times I lost it over how a person was treating my daughters. Once, when I lived in a community of townhouses, the person in the unit next to mine lit into my girls for having their play spill over into what he deemed to be his yard, but was in fact common property. I told him in no uncertain terms he was not to speak to my daughters again and if he had a problem with something they were doing he should knock on my front door, talk to me, and I would handle it. A heated exchange ensued and our relationship was irrevocably damaged. This, in my experience at least, is the most likely outcome of calling down fire, even if your indignation is justified.
In today’s New Testament reading, St. Paul offers a different approach. Rather than calling down fire, he suggests we manifest fruit; the byproduct of allowing God’s Spirit to dwell within us. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. These virtues, these qualities are to reign in us rather than what we think to be God’s wrath.
Fire or fruit? I sometimes ponder the instances when I called down fire and wonder what might have happened if I had allowed God’s fruit to reign in me rather than reacted out of what I thought to be God’s wrath. One thing I know for sure, God’s fruit will never take us by force. Always we must cultivate it in order for it to grow and flourish.
Fire or fruit? Certainly, one of the most consequential things to happen this past week (and for some time) is the Supreme Court’s ruling on Roe vs. Wade. Even though we have had some time to prepare ourselves for it, the decision handed down was joyous for some and jarring for others. I image some of you are unhappy enough with it to call down fire. If so, I invite you to pray over what it might look like to respond with the fruit of God’s presence in your life instead.
You may have noticed when Paul lists the fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control – there is not an “and” between gentleness and self-control; something you typically find at the end of a list such at this. I once heard sermon where the preacher explained the reason is because each the fruits of the Spirit are to be present in each of us. When Paul describes the gifts of the Spirit – things like teaching, evangelism, healing, and speaking in tongues, he includes an “and” before the last gift. Here, he expects each of us will manifest only one or two or perhaps three of the gifts, but not all. But with the fruit it is different.
This being said, I think for those of us unhappy with the Supreme Court’s decision, as well as how it has signaled an intention to revisit other rights we have come to expect, I think it is critical for us to cultivate the Spirit’s fruit in our lives, especially patience, gentleness, and self-control. As I understand it, the rights communicated through Roe vs. Wade are not banished from our land. They now fall to individual states to impart or to deny. Those who have worked to overturn Roe have exhibited incredible faithfulness to their convictions. I never thought we would see this day, but they have worked for it for five decades.
If you are unhappy with the result of their effort you have two choices. Either you can rant and rave and essentially call down fire. Or, you can a nurture the Spirit’s presence and thus it’s fruit in your life. I invite you to mull this over because conversations with family members, with friends, and with associates are going to happen. I would hate for them to create irrevocable damage when God’s Spirit within us attempts to provide a way forward into mutual understanding, respect, and unity in the midst of diversity.
As I said, I have spent a great deal of time considering how I might have reacted differently when I acted out of what I thought to be righteous indignation and, as a result, ruptured forever a precious relationship. What will it be for you? Fire or fruit?