August 18, 2019 at Oklahoma City, OK
Jeremiah 38, 4-10 + Psalm 40 + Hebrews 12, 1-4 + Luke 12, 49-53
It does not take much time to look at the world today and think that Jesus was very successful. There is division everywhere. Where there is not actual fire, there is fiery language of retaliation, revenge, and threats with missiles and weapons that can obliterate any opposition with fire. However, sometimes these Gospel images given today are used to justify all sorts of behavior Jesus would abhor, and I am puzzled by people who cause trouble and justify it with pious and religious excuses. These words from the mouth of Jesus are not given to us as a go-ahead for divisive behavior and causes that need not cause hurt and division. These words, as Luke recalls them, are to offer comfort to those who have been pushed aside because of a faith that is rooted in reconciliation, forgiveness, love, and peace. We are not called to and expected to scorch the earth and destroy those who oppose or disagree with us.
It can be tough to make Jesus Christ the center of your life. It may bring pain and alienation, because it is tough to be merciful and kind in a world more interested in retribution and revenge. It is tough to be forgiving and work for and live for peace, a kind of peace that means more than an absence of actual military war. That’s not peace, it’s just a pause. At the same time, the Gospel and mission of Jesus has so often been dumbed down, and “Hallmarked” into cheap sentimentality that has no fire, no passion, and little worth dying for. Too often our faith is sanitized beyond recognition. Christmas is the perfect example. That baby was born homeless, and that couple became refugees fleeing from danger and tyranny. Somehow, we have failed to connect all of that with the Incarnation and where and how God chose to be revealed.
In our time, facing the growing reality of secularism, which is more indifferent than hostile to our faith, we grow defensive, and instead of a self-critique that might lead us to wonder how this has happened, we play the victim and it only gets worse. We are a prophetic people as a Catholic Church, and prophets are trouble makers, but the trouble is not their doing. It is the response of those who are troubled. There is no greater disturber than the person who preaches justice and speaks the truth. Take Martin Luther King as an example. He was a man of peace. Yet by speaking about injustice against his race, there was more trouble than anyone could have imagined. He only spoke the truth. The trouble came from those who denied the truth.
Sometimes what we call peace is not really peace at all. There is a phony peace and a phony unity that tolerates discrimination and inequality. The abnormal has become accepted as normal. For instance, the inequalities in society and the gap between helpless poverty and insolent wealth. This is not normal, but many just shrug and say: “That’s the way it is.” Jesus says he came to kindle a fire upon the earth. It may be only a metaphor, but it’s a powerful one. Fire is not something one can remain indifferent to. It’s not a weak, pale, lifeless thing. Fire warms and comforts, but it also burns up what is useless, and refines what is impure. It was justice and integrity that brought Jesus into conflict with those who exploited the weak and the poor. His integrity brought him into conflict with the dishonest. His tolerance brought him into conflict with the narrow-minded and the bigoted.
A South American Bishop once said: “When I give bread to the poor, they call me a saint. But, when I ask why the poor have no bread, they call me a communist. Go figure that one out!