Frankenstein is afraid of fire. In every incarnation, no matter who is portraying the first man created by man the creature, monster, victim depending on your perspective, is always afraid of fire. Since the story, the original story, not the one in I, Frankenstein-the latest installment, is all about the process of becoming human, of learning what it means to be human, the original state of man is what you start off with.
And not afraid in a fun Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein way; that deep, visceral, rats clawing at the base of your brain kind of fear, panic inducing, spawning of wild gyrations in an effort to escape.
Since the book and the movie are both placed in a simpler time before the easy access to electricity, fire is everywhere in the movies. It is in hearths warming the characters and in sconces providing light from guttering torches. You can smell the dankness of damp stone walls underground, the flickering light of the torches along the walls sparkling against the wet, rough stones.
And yet the character always remains afraid, shocked and terrified by a candle’s flame.
We are programmed by genetics and by a loving God who wants us to prosper and live to be afraid of things that will or might harm us and it is in harnessing those things, coming to grips with the fear we have, that is a sign of our maturity. We have the fire that we fear but we make use of it, it warms us and lights our way and cooks our food and we have harnessed it and made it serve us.
So why is Frankenstein still afraid of it? Why show us both ends of the spectrum? The newborn human and the so called civilized doctor are there to teach us a number of lessons, but chief among them is that as far as we have gotten as a society, we have not yet reach the point where we can ignore God, where we can surpass God in the mastery of the world and even the mastery of ourselves.
Dr. Frankenstein can create the creature but cannot rein in his own pride, he has mastered fire but cannot master fear.
The creature on the other hand is as simple as anything, as simple as a child and as unassuming, as unaware of his power as a child is when playing with a butterfly. He is tender and he in innocent until he is acted on by the world, the so called advanced, modern, mature world.
The creature doesn’t stumble into a big pile of fire and get scared, the world thrusts fire at him, swinging torches into his face and setting fire to the building in cruelty and in defiance of their own fear, trying to conquer the humanity among them so that they will no longer need to be afraid.
The creature, to them at least, is like fire and despite their advances, despite their maturity, despite what they tell themselves in the dark at night, they are still afraid of fire.
Fire burns and consumes and destroys, fire is implacable and cannot be reasoned with, fire has to be defeated, not appeased and fire leaves scars that will not fade for a long, long time.
Just as Frankenstein fears fire because of what it might do to him, the townspeople fear as well, they fear the thing that has been made, an imitation that cannot, it simply cannot be the same as them because if it is the same as them then they are no longer special, the unique and beloved creation of their God. They can be replaced by something that was made in a lab. Being human is no longer something that they can count on as their qualification, there are imitation humans.
And they are nicer than we are. No matter how the movie ends, the creature begins as children begin, simple and kind, innocent and good. But fire soon consumes that and everything comes apart.
The creature fears fire because fire consumes us. Even before it knew how terrible actual humanity could be, I knew to fear fire.
We fear it too.
But the fire we fear is not simply the flame that we have harnessed, focusing it into a little blue light on our stoves, not the wildfires that occasionally ravage the hillsides around Los Angeles and points north. We still fear those, but we have become somehow accustomed to them. We are pretty safe around here from that kind of fire, we have a fire station right down the street from my house and all is right with the world.
The fire we are often afraid of is the fire that the disciples walking along the road to Emmaus feel in this morning’s Gospel reading. It is the fire of faith that is not warming and comforting, like the tame and obedient fire in my furnace, it is the consuming fire of faith, the fire that burns hot sometimes, but that we shrink from so very often.
The two disciples this morning feel that fire within them as Jesus opens to them the scriptures, living Word speaking living word to them, making the truth of God’s word live in front of them even though they could not or would not see that it was Jesus, raised from the dead who spoke to them.
They felt the fire.
It seems odd that we would fear something like the fire of faith, doesn’t it? I get these calls from this evangelical organization that hosts these huge Christian Youth concerts called “Acquire the Fire” based on this scripture here this morning. I’m not really a fan of their message to be honest, it isn’t very Lutheran so I usually pass.
But it seems that there is a hope that our children will have the fire of faith, that they will acquire it at one of these events and thereby be changed.
But for ourselves, we’d like a measured does of that fire please, not enough to harm us or scare us, maybe just enough to light a lighter, a match’s worth of fire, that’ll do us because after all, we are a little mature to be running around proclaiming Christ, we don’t want to get all flame-ish about the whole thing, we are respectable adults after all.
Like the ones who chased the creature around with torches and pitchforks, no doubt.
We fear this fire for one reason. It is the same reason that we fear the fire that warms is and lights our way and cooks our food but also consumes our hillsides and occasionally blackens our forests.
We do not want to be consumed.
We have things to do. We have relationships to tend. We have campaigns to run and fund and win. We have mortgages to pay and children to raise and lawns to mow, who am I kidding, we have other people to do that, but we do have clubs and organizations, Chamber Singers and Children’s Chorus and Travelling Soccer teams and Kiwanis and Lions and Tigers and Rotary, Oh my!
I don’t have time to be on fire, to feel the words burning in my heart right now. I do not have time to be consumed.
Frankly, this is where the metaphor breaks down. Our experience with fire is often a pleasant one, we build a fire in the fireplace or wood stove or the chimnea outside and enjoy the crackle, the flicker, the warmth coming from the flames. The n in the morning we have to scoop up the ashes, the remnants of what the fire consumed, wood reduced to powder by the flames.
It is an enduring idea – flames consume, fire eats.
So when we think of someone on fire for the Lord, as they say in more enthusiastic churches, we think of someone who is having the life he is leading slowly consumed by this fire of Christ, the fire of faith, after all, that is what fire does, right?
We imagine people shying away from activities they might enjoy, or not going after a deal that might be an ethical challenge because of their faith. We think of them as maybe having boring social lives, where all they do is study the Bible and talk about the Bible and discuss the holy book with the learned men seven hours every day.
Don’t get me started on what we imagine to be true about their intimate lives; this is neither the time nor the place.
In short we think of Jesus eating up the rest of a person, the holiness encroaching on the fun, the scriptures overwriting the dirty jokes, even the funny ones until all that is left is the pure disciple, the holy man of God.
I think I scared myself. Who wants that?
Besides, you’d think we’d see more holy men of God and holy women for that matter if this was what was meant by having our hearts burn within us, what with all the loud proclamations of fervor for the cause of Christ coming from the 24 hour a day religious channels, you’d think the world would be lousy with the pious, don’t you?
And that is what it would be, too. Lousy.
But take heart, and have no fear. The fire within you, the burning of faith will not consume you, it will not eat away at the things that you love until all that is left is the holy husk of a person.
The burning within you is not the flame, the flame was there always, it is what moves you and inspires you to move others, it is what drives you and fills your eyes with wonder and makes dirty jokes funny and clean ones too. It is what turns a job into a vocation and a marriage into a lifetime of discovery and joy in communion with another.
Faith is not the fire within you.
Faith is the fuel.
The paltry flame we all have, that makes us go to work and pay our bills and get the dishes done, that is what consumes. It makes the young grow old before their time and makes the old yearn for younger days instead of just living them.
Without the fuel that is the faith in God your efforts are like an unfinished symphony or an uncooked steak, they are incomplete, unable to move you, without purpose or direction or power. You will slowly burn up the vessel that you were born into and make your way to the grave at the end of a slow and steady decline because the fuel we are born with is insufficient to the task.
We need not fear this flame because it is not what eats our life it is what gives us our lives. Each taste is sweeter because of the fuel of faith feeding the fire of our appetite for life. Each scene is more beautiful because we can see God’s hand at work in the world when our eyes are lit by the fire within, fueled by the love of God.
Jokes are funnier, love is sweeter, life is filled with joy when the fire within us is fueled by faith because that is the will of God for us, that we live fully, abundantly in Jesus name and enjoy the fruits of that faith.
We know not only what we do, but why. We know that even if the fire should dim it is easy to rekindle, to find the words of scripture or the sermon or the Bible study that will feed us and make us whole again, stoking the fire and enlivening us once again.
We are not better, or wiser or the masters of this flame, we are its vessels. We shine with the light because we are to make others see, to show them what a life fully on fire could look like, could feel like as we sing and dance and revel in each and everything we do and say because we know, we burn with the knowledge that we are the children of God, that we are loved and that the world is here for us, tailor made and ready for our lives, lived fully, not consumed by the flame, but emboldened by it to truly live.
We are not Frankenstein. We are not slaves to our fears we are the inheritors of the Kingdom of God. We are on fire and we are free.