Homily for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
Theme: “Jesus said, ‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!’” (Luke 12:49, 51)
By: Fr. Robert deLeon, CSC
Homily for Sunday August 18 2019
The brochure distributed by the Pine Bush Nature Conservancy describes a landscape that sounds far more exotic than my childhood playground. The brochure reads: “The formation of the Albany Pine Bush is an ancient story; here, the tale of the Ice Age is written in the landscape for all to read. When the last glacier in New York receded 15,000 years ago, its melting waters created a massive lake that contained deposits of glacial sand. The lake drained and winds swept the glacial sand into dunes. Today, less than 6,000 acres remain. [It] is one of the best existing inland pine-barrens ecosystems in the world.”
Of course, I knew nothing of this when, as a six year-old, our family moved out of the city of Albany to the suburb of Westmere, our brand new housing development abutting the southern edge of the Pine Bush. Before homeowners could plant lawns in those mid-1950s days, the landscape was all blowing sand, mammoth tumbleweeds gliding over the dunes and scrub pines anointing everyone with gooey sap. It seemed an ideal playground for the scores of us kids who’d moved out of the city to find ourselves suddenly encamped in the desert. And summertime only increased opportunities for adventure, excitement peaking when, on a scorching day, the neighborhood fire siren would begin blaring. Dashing out our front doors, we kids would look for billowing white smoke by day or orange sky by night. The annual fire season had begun.
Back then Westmere was an infant community where everybody seemed to know everybody else, and all the volunteer firemen were our fathers. In the hot summer when the siren began its blare, Dads throughout the neighborhood would rush to the fire station to retrieve the tanker trucks as we neighborhood kids dashed on bicycle toward the fire, screaming to moms as doors slammed behind us, “Gotta go! The Pine Bush is on fire!” It was exhilarating!
The air thick with the smell of burning pine, our dads raced fire trucks into the woods, sand and dust thrown skyward, sirens screaming, red dome lights on the fire trucks scanning the smoky horizon.
It was only years later, talking with my father, that I learned that the dads looked forward to these summer adventures almost as much as did we kids. For young fathers job-bound weekdays and otherwise house-bound with burgeoning families to care for, the summer fires in the Pine Bush were a welcome opportunity for male bonding. After all, Dad hinted, they got to be community heroes!
Of course, a bunch of rookie volunteer firemen with 2 fire trucks couldn’t do much to put out the massive fires that annually cleared the Pine Bush of detritus; the firemen really just contained the blaze, assuring that no neighborhood homes were threatened. And year after year they did just that, gathering afterward at the firehouse to share a keg and weave tales of imagined heroism at having saved our community once again from blazing disaster. Yet even before these laughing young men could return home to anxiously waiting families, the Pine Bush had already begun its regeneration, fire the essential catalyst for the new growth already budding green from the scorched ground.
In the gospel passage we hear today, “Jesus said to the disciples, ‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!’” (Luke 12:49, 51) Indicating that he will be the cause of upset in family relationships, these are unsettling words, seeming to contradict the message of peace and harmony that we usually associate with Jesus’ saving mission. In fact, though, Jesus offers us the promise of new life through the very fires that would seem to be more destructive than regenerative.
Family fires: who has not experienced the heat of such a confrontation? Who has not known the kind of interchange that leaves one red in the face and heart-pounding angry? Who has not experienced that sickening confusion when long-throttled self-control is lost in a blazing flash? But even as tempers flash and words never before spoken are hurled like darts, something new and green is often pushing its way up through the smoking embers. Even before the blood pressures of the quarreling parties return to normal, green-budded truth, perhaps never before expressed, begins to make its appearance. Fire has cleared away the detritus so that truth may bloom.
These days, with the Pine Bush of my childhood now under government management as a nature conservancy, there are no more spontaneous summer fires that set off howling sirens in Westmere. Gone are the thrilling summer days when little kids jumped on bicycles and dads on fire trucks as the Pine Bush burned. These days, with the woodland managed so carefully, professional foresters must ignite planned burns so that life can burgeon in the woods. Indeed, these forestry experts who today manage the Pine Bush know what a blessing is fire.