Pastor Greg Schaefer, University Lutheran Church
“Was it smoky?”
That’s a question I find myself asking a lot lately as people talk about their summer trips. “Was it smokp there at Tahoe?” Was is smoky out there at Yosemite?” “Was it smoky up by Clear Lake?”
Fire is, of course, a part of the natural ecology. It clears undergrowth so that trees don’t have to compete with shrubs and so that the sun can reach the forest floor. It burns out disease from the ground and opens up pine cones so they can spread their seeds. Fire is a necessary part of the health of the ecosystem.
In scripture, fire is also an expression of God: to Moses in a bush that burns but isn’t consumed, in a rain storm as in today’s Psalm (29), in today’s lesson from Acts (the Pentecost story), fire represents a new beginning, refining, guiding (as when God’s people are led by a pillar of fire), Holy Spirit (Acts), and God’s power (Psalm). And, in today’s gospel, John the Baptizer promises a “bapt by fire” – actually, by “Holy Spirit and fire.” Scholars question whether this is a pairing of two positive things, a pairing of two negative things, or one of each – Don’t worry; G is coming with Holy Spirit, but beware because God is also coming with fire. The latter seems to be the majority opinion, especially when we consider that, in Matthew, fire tends to mean judgment. Well, it doesn’t ‘tend to’ – it does. John the Baptizer seems to be announcing two coming choices.
California has had 6390 wildfires this season, which have burned 1.5m acres, which is more than 2300 square miles. If you add up the area of Santa Cruz, Santa Clara, San Mateo, and San FRnacisco Counties, that still isn’t 2300 square miles. This season saw the largest single fire in modern Califronia history, and the largest complex fire in our recorded history.
Partly because of a little critter called the Bark Beetle, there are a record 129 million dead trees in California, fueling these fires. But, lest the Bark Beetle take all the blame, note that drought has also contributed to these 129m dead trees. This season has been dry and hot and, as a professor from across the street (Stanford University) warns, because of climate change, we can only expect fire seasons to get worse. These fires are fueled by climate change.
Fire is an expression of nature; it’s an expr of G; and it’s an expression of us. California’s wildfires are not similar revelations or judgments of God as we see in the scriptures. It’s important to me that you hear that, so I’m going to say it again. California’s wildfires are not similar revelations or judgments of God as we see in the scriptures.
The image of God as a tyrant has not helped us to be more knowing, trusting, or loving of God. The idea of “hell” and a quid-pro-quo God is based more on Dante’s Divine Comedy than on scripture. (One theologian says the Divine Comedy is good poetry but not very good theology.) The word “hell” isn’t mentioned in the Torah, isn’t mentioned in Paul’s writings, isn’t mentioned by John. Most of what-we-call the Eastern Church Fathers, and many of the Western mystics, didn’t believe in a literal hell.
Why do I mention all of this? Because images matter. They shape us, all of us, as theologians. (All of us are theologians. If you have a word to say about God, you are by definition a theologian.) The images we have, even in the backs of our minds, shape our theology. Bad theology can lead people to say things like hurricanes or fires or AIDS are caused by God to punish people. And, I feel obligated to say out loud to you that that is not true.
I had to write a paper in seminary on an atonement theory and I chose something called apocatastasis, a word from a little-referenced passage in Acts (3:21) that is usually translated “universal restoration” – God drawing all things into wholeness and reconciliation. The idea of a geographic hell is destructive, compared to the restorative idea of the Gospel. God is about the business of restoring the creation, not destroying it. Are there things the Reign of God wants to destroy? I think so. Just like there are things that, to use that extreme image, we’d like to destroy about ourselves. (I’m thinking of the weeds and the wheat growing together in each of us.) But, the God revealed to us in Christ is not a God of wonton destruction, punishment, or disregard for the Creation.
So, why are we?