29 Aug Sermon: Trinity 9/Proper 15, Year C
14th August, 2022
Today’s Gospel reading is precisely the sort of passage that makes us shift a little uncomfortably in our seats. It certainly does me. How can the words Jesus speaks today be reconciled with his title of ‘Prince of Peace’? And where does this rhetoric of familial division fit into our own foundation as a community to pray for the unity of the church?
Tomorrow we celebrate the Blessed Virgin Mary, and so I was reminded of Mary’s great hymn of praise, the Magnificat. She describes a God who brings down rulers from their throne and lifts up the lowly, who fills the hungry with good things, but sends away the rich empty: this just sorting of power and privilege – this judgement and division – is described as a manifestation of God’s faithfulness to his people.
Then we remember too when Simeon said to Mary that, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
This sword piercing Mary’s soul has often been taken as referring to Jesus’ crucifixion, but I wonder how it must have been for her and for Jesus’ siblings when they came looking for him, only to be rebuffed by Jesus’ redefinition of his family as “those who hear the word of God and do it”. All her life, it seems that Mary keeps being called to give away her firstborn son. What must this have been like for her? Perhaps for her, the cost of her discipleship was her role as mother, the words and actions of Jesus ruthlessly filleting out her motivations and her desire. A constant call to reassess her love of her son and her love of God. This discernment must have been costly indeed, as even the hallowed category of ‘family’ was rearranged in the light of God’s larger priorities. And hardly a ‘peaceful’ process.
And likewise for Jesus’ disciples. Peaceful would have been staying at home fishing, caring for family, earning a living. And again for Luke’s contemporary readers. How many of them, I wonder, had families who begged them to give up this new ‘Way’, to offer that pinch of incense to the Emperor? Serving the Prince of Peace put them at odds with the Pax Romana, creating a division plain for all to see.
There’s no point either in pretending that there are not divisions in our society, or in our world. Jesus’ promise of peace is not a peace at any cost. It is not achieved by ignoring injustice. While I think fighting for peace is something of an oxymoron, there are times when standing firm in the name of Christ will require confronting the ‘powers and principalities’, will require that we say a loud and clear ‘no’ to forces that dehumanise, that impoverish, that systematically grind people up in the name of profit. And this may place us apart from those we love. A somewhat facile example: as the community will know, my parents are both committed left-wingers, politically. Yet my dad’s mother was, as he put it, “somewhere to the right of Ghengis Khan”, to the point that my mum told her that she would not bring me and my sister to see her any more if she continued to use racist language around us. My gran chose to temper her language, at least around us, and so the visits, and the relationship, could continue.
What about the bigger picture? The various crises in which our world is engulfed are complex, but that is no reason to avoid naming their consequences. It is I believe a scandal when shareholders enjoy ever-growing payouts while various organisations are making plans to have ‘warming centres’ for people who cannot afford to heat their homes this winter. The world can produce enough calories to feed its population, and yet there are people who while we are here worshipping will starve to death. Looking away from this, for whatever reason, is monstrous.
Standing up to racism, or fighting against hunger, is a bit of a no-brainer, but what about the times when the discernment is less clear cut?
There is, you will be unsurprised to hear, no easy answer. It’s easier to describe unproductive courses of action here. One is to pretend that divisions do not exist among us. Another is to cut off from those with whom we disagree, which is kind of the same thing. The church, and society, has been guilty of both of these, many times over. Yet neither approach is consistent with Jesus’ life and ministry.
In this passage, Jesus speaks of a baptism that he is waiting for, and while the details are opaque, it is clear that this baptism places him in solidarity with a world on fire—not standing over against it. That is, he engages. He does not walk away, or cut himself off, or surround himself only with the likeminded, or ignore injustice. He calls for the kindling of God’s purifying, holy fire.
And he calls for this fire to be kindled in full knowledge that he too will be burnt up by it. He does not lead us anywhere he himself is not willing to go, and it is this solidarity that makes all the difference: we see something of this in that glorious passage from Hebrews that we heard this morning. It’s an interesting roll call; several of the characters named are not straightforward heroes. Samson, seduced into giving up his secret. Jephthah, sacrificing his daughter. Gideon, who was not exactly raring to go when God called him. They show us that perfection is not a pre-requisite. What is, though, is faith. All of them believed that a world ordered according to God’s priorities, God’s love, was possible. This is the story which we, in all our missteps and mistakes, are grafted into, a story that has as its end Jesus, lifted high on the cross that he might lift us all into the Father’s presence. Jesus doesn’t come down and scoop us all up to glory; he joins in with us, he shows us with his life, with his death and with his resurrection that he stands, lives, dies and lives again with us, and we with him. He enters the fire of which he speaks, he steps into the baptism that he describes, a baptism that is already tearing him apart, burning him up, changing those around him as the flames lick at their lives.
If this fire sounds threatening, scary, then, yes – that’s not an entirely inappropriate reaction. This fire will judge us, it will winnow out the chaff, the rubbish, all that is not of God within us.
And yet fire is not wholly negative. For every fiery conflagration of sin, there is a burning bush of revelation. In our day, catastrophic wildfires, exacerbated by rising temperatures and drought, bring devastation. But wildfires can also lead to new life, creating the conditions for habitat diversity and helping plants adapt to novel climates. There are some trees whose seeds are surrounded by a resin that can only be melted away by fire; without the heat of a wildfire the tree cannot reproduce. Such fire, like the fire Jesus describes, is costly, but it ultimately serves the purpose of life and love.
What should be clear by now is that what this fire does not serve, is the purpose of comfort. Jesus’ fire is not like the fire of a hearth, safely controlled and tightly bound for the cosy pleasures of a single household, in much the same way that the Aslan of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia is not a tame lion.
This fire of life and love comes to so enflame us that our obsession with self-preservation, our false sense of control, our desire to continue living as we have always lived: all this and much more becomes fuel that we willingly give in the service of love. It might hurt; fire does, sometimes. Perhaps always.
To return to Mary’s Magnificat: we are in so many ways the rich, the mighty, the privileged. There is so much in us that impedes God’s purpose of love. There is so much that we would do well to consign to the flames, in order that the fire of the Father’s love, the fire of Christ’s redemption, the fire of the Spirit’s power, might burn more purely and brightly within us, and so enflame our lives that all those who come here can carry it away with them, to a world that so badly needs it.
Mary Oliver gets to the nub of things in her poem, “What I Have Learned So Far”:
“Can one be passionate about the just, the
ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit
to no labor in its cause? I don’t think so.
All summations have a beginning, all effect has a
story, all kindness begins with the sown seed.
Thought buds toward radiance. The gospel of
light is the crossroads of —indolence, or action.
Be ignited, or be gone.”
Image: Photo taken by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P. at a church in Mexicali, Mexico. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)