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Burning Alive

Updated: Aug 14, 2023

This past Sunday I preached a sermon over Matthew 7:15-20, the latter part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount where he proclaimed that “you will know them by their fruits… Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” I reflected on Rachel Held Evans' words regarding her practice of “fruit inspection,” where she would discern the quality of others’ fruit by their actions and beliefs. She wrote that this process was “seriously hampered by the massive log stuck in [her] eye.” I stated that I was struggling with my own grief at the state of the world and my justification in believing that there were plenty of trees that needed to be thrown into the fire, yet perhaps this deforestation process produces the logs we often find in our eyes.

I’ve struggled with the notion of throwing trees into the fire because I recognize the universal inevitability that we all fall short. I had also assumed that being thrown into the fire meant that the tree would be destroyed entirely. However, after the service, I was approached by someone who offered another, most welcome, challenge to my perspective. This person reminded me that there is reclamation in burning. Sometimes it is fire that awakens the most transformative growth.

Jack pine trees require heat to release their seeds, and it has been noted that forest fires have aided in the growth of jack pines. Howard Thurman wrote a meditation about these jack pines:

The seed of the jack pine will not be given up by the cone unless the cone itself is subjected to sustained and concentrated heat. The forest fire sweeps all before it and there remain but the charred reminders of a former growth and a former beauty. It is then in the midst of the ashes that the secret of the cone is exposed. The tender seed finds the stirring of life deep within itself–and what is deepest in the seed reaches out to what is deepest in life–the result? A tender shoot, gentle roots, until, at last, there stands straight against the sky the majestic glory of the jack pine.

Perhaps another way to think about being thrown into the fire isn’t to be destroyed entirely, but rather reclaimed. Perhaps it is a call to accountability, to break open so fiercely that something life giving can grow from it. I have been rethinking the text in Matthew since this conversation. What if Jesus’ declaration about rotten trees being thrown into the fire wasn’t a call to cut each other down, but rather to break open the walls around our hearts so that the seeds of God’s love which reside in each of us might have a chance to thrive?


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