Staying in the hard stuff
Clare L. Hickman
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Ferndale
Aug 18, 2019—Proper 15C
Heb 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56
I’m never quite ready for this particular Jesus: "I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” (Lk 12:49). His fervor unsettles me: I’m sure I’ve been convicted, but I’m unclear about my fate or role in what is to come. Things just get worse as he speaks about division and swords and people set against one another.
It’s my discomfort in the face of his declaration that strikes the chord, reminding me of a friend who, when confronted with egregious examples of racial injustice, is prone to say, “Burn it down. Salt the ground.”
Full of fury. Resolute in the face of evil. A bit off-putting, if I’m being honest. But also just a little bit like Jesus. Jesus, who didn’t create division and injustice; he just lived and taught in such a way as to make them impossible to ignore. Jesus, who is calling us into this same work, and knows how unenthusiastic we will come to the task.
He’s not sugar coating anything today. He wants to be sure we know how hard it will be. Not to scare us off, but to prepare us. Because the mission will bring us into conflict with the world. Because kingdom values do not always match up with societal values. And because following Jesus always, always comes first. It comes before your family relationships. It comes before your social standing. It comes before peace and harmony and getting along.
Because the mission of the church is not harmony, it’s reconciliation. And while that might sound like peace, it actually requires work that feels like division. It’s scary, hard, vulnerable work. Because it requires the courage to admit the damage we do to each other (how I hurt you; how you hurt me), and then do the long, slow work of repentance, atonement and (to whatever extent possible) making things right.
Frankly, we might sometimes wonder if it is all worth it. We get tired, and begin to lose hope. That’s when we can summon the strength of our forefathers and foremothers, highlighted in Hebrews, who fought so long to bring us where we are. Who trusted in God and did not give up. Who allowed the power of God to align them with that arc of justice, to root them in wholeness and holiness, and trusted that their work would bring the kingdom a little bit closer.
As followers of Christ we are called to persevere. To keep at the work, to stay in the conversation, even when it’s uncomfortable. Even when it threatens our livelihood, or the peace of our household. Even when we ourselves find ourselves uncomfortably convicted by the calls of righteousness and compassion. Even when we have to question our previously held beliefs, or challenge those of our friends and family. Because it’s hard. Because Jesus warned us, promised us it would be hard.
We must persevere. And we have to be willing to love and trust each other enough to endure the pain of the conversation. Bishop of Indianapolis, the Rt. Rev Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, calls this relational courage. When asked why it’s so hard to have helpful conversations about race, she answers: “I think it has to do with people not having enough trust to talk about difficult things or vulnerable things. … When we share things that are sensitive, things about who we are, what makes us who we are, we tend to do that with our own kind. Talking about the differences is hard and as soon as you bring in, ‘Oh, now we need to admit that some people are not treated the same or some people have actually been killed in the name of color preference,’ then we bring in guilt, and guilt that may not necessarily be first-person owned but systemic guilt. And we are not equipped to deal with it, never having had even the most basic conversations. And so we don’t go there. … When you get into a heated place [like that], there’s got to be an understanding that ‘Well, at the end of this we are actually still going to be in relationship because we really want to be in relationship,’ and you can’t always assume that, because blacks and whites historically have not easily been in relationship.”[i]
She’s right. We aren’t equipped, and we are scared. Scared that we will be rejected, scared that we will be blamed, scared that we will be hated. This stuff isn’t easy. In fact, it’s hard as hell. So it’s tempting to walk away. It’s tempting to claim that there isn’t actually a problem, or if there is a problem, it’s not with me, so I’m out!
But Jesus didn’t come so that we could opt out of things because they’re difficult. He didn’t come to pretend that there isn’t sin and injustice in the world. And sadly, he didn’t come to wave a wand and make us all magically get along. He came, if the early church is any proof, to bind us into a community that learns about love and service by jostling and disagreeing and breaking bread and not quitting on each other.
It is our mission, this brave and reconciling life, and it is one of the great gifts we can give the world. Grant us the courage, O Christ, to follow your lead into difficult conversations and transformative relationships. May it be so, Amen.
[i] The Rev. Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, “Enough Trust to Talk: How to Discuss Race in Church” in Thrive!: the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago Magazine, Fall 2015; https://www.episcopalchicago.org/files/8414/4620/5891/Thrive_F2015_FNL_Single.pdf