Think back to Christmas Eve.
We were here in this church,
and the lights were turned way down.
We held our little candles in the dark
and we sang:
Silent night, holy night…
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Today’s gospel is certainly not one of heavenly peace!
It’s as if Jesus has turned the spotlight on us,
and all we hear ringing in our ears is “You hypocrits!”
Jesus is shouting,
I came to bring fire to the earth
And how I wish
it was already kindled.
What happened to sweet baby Jesus?
What did we do?
In today’s gospel, it sounds like Jesus wants to torch us all!!
Jesus is not talking about hellfire and damnation.
Jesus is referring to what his friend and cousin John the Baptizer said,
predicting that one would come
who would baptize not with just water,
but with the Holy Spirit and fire.
Remember the day of Pentecost?
When the Holy Spirit arrives
and flames shoot out the top of the disciples’ heads?
Just take a look at the painting hanging over our retable!
Do you see the fire?
Jesus does not want to throw us in a burning fire pit.
He’s just wondering what happen to our flames?
Where’s the Spirit now?
Jesus came to kindle love, to set our hearts on fire
with the love of God and the love for one another.
This is the fire that Jesus sees lacking, missing, absent.
To be absolutely blunt
Jesus is disappointed in the disciples—and in us.
Because instead of love,
Jesus looks out over the world, over his disciples,
and what he sees is conflict.
Not love-- but hatred and division.
Even over issues of religion.
This was not God’s hope, not God’s dream.
We take the gift of unconditional love
and we feed it into the shredder
like it’s junk mail.
In today’s gospel Jesus is asking us,
What on earth do your think you are doing?
Conflict and division abound.
Listen to some of these headlines and stories
from The New York Times this week:
Hospitals are battlegrounds of discontent
…patients or their relatives attacked more than 5,500 medical workers [in one year]
…[NY Mets baseball player]Francisco Rodriguez was charged with third-degree assault early Thursday morning after assaulting his father-in-law at Citi Field..
…Her parents began having screaming arguments, complete with shattering glassware.
…Bloody protests in Kashmir have led India to one of its most serious internal crises and signal the failure of decades of Indian efforts to win peace in the region.
That’s just a taste of the conflict on the national and world scene.
Many of us also know too well
what conflict in a family looks like, sounds like, feels like.
Conflict at work, conflict at school.
Conflict with our neighbor.
Jesus knew that loving one another was not going to be easy.
Jesus knew that there would be divisions and there would be disagreements.
But Jesus also knows we received the power
to work these things out.
Remember the Holy Spirit?
It landed on us, too!
It is much more difficult to face and work through a conflict,
than to just punch someone, or write a nasty letter,
or to just walk away and avoid someone.
We are often willing to talk ad infinitum with everyone around us--
EXCEPT the person that we are criticizing, judging, raging against.
We’re on fire alright—but not with love.
Jesus tells us in this gospel passage what to do:
what to do before things get so out of control:
Make an effort.
Make an effort—those are Jesus’ exact words—
Make an effort to settle the case.
We can’t settle things if we don’t talk to one another.
We can’t settle things if we don’t listen to one another.
I have recently discovered
that you can turn on the television
almost any time of day or night
and find a courtroom reality show on some channel—
Judge Judy or Joe Brown or People’s Court.
These shows are everywhere.
And if you watch them
you quickly see how ridiculous most conflicts are.
People don’t talk to one another.
People don’t listen to one another.
People certainly haven’t even crossed the threshold of loving one another.
People certainly made no effort to take Jesus’ advice and try
to settle things before they arrive in the courtroom.
They take someone’s clothes and throw them into the yard or out a window.
They key someone’s car or slash their tires.
They take someone to court over a frivolous incident.
It never seems to cross their minds that they could be wrong,
and the other person could be right.
It never seems to cross their minds
that there are ways to settle disagreements
without someone having to be the loser.
I think Jesus is trying to teach his disciples something
that we still need to learn.
It is absolutely impossible to be on fire with the love of God
if our daily practice is to throw a bucket of cold water—
on our neighbor.
in the world.
in the community.
in the church.
In the family
In our soul.
Conflict only breeds more conflict.
Not a pretty picture.
No wonder Jesus is so fed up at the moment.
I think Jesus also knew that real love is a difficult journey.
The letter to the Hebrews says,
Let us run with perseverance
the race that is set before us.
It doesn’t take perseverance to run an easy race, a short race.
We have to want to love God so much
that we don’t give up on trying to love other people.
What does it mean to really love?
There is a children’s book called The Velveteen Rabbit
by Margery Williams.
Some of you may know it.
It is the story of a cloth—a velveteen—rabbit.
The rabbit asks another stuffed animal, “What is real?”
The other stuffed animal, the Skin Horse, replies,
“When you are loved,
really loved, for a long time,
then you are real..
it’s not how you are made…
it’s a thing that happens to you…
it takes a long time…”
God really loves us
and God will keep loving us for a long time.
We are called to that same long term love.
God deeply desires for us to grow in love with one another.
This type of “real love” requires us, as the psalmist wrote,
“to behold and tend this vine.”
Tom and I tried a new form of gardening this year.
We have not weeded our garden at all.
We have not pulled one single weed.
We decided to that if we don’t care how the garden looks,
then weeding doesn’t matter.
The vegetables will grow
just as the weeds grow.
And there will be plenty of produce,
Plenty of “good fruit.”
What we have learned this summer is this:
We were wrong!!
Very, very wrong!!
If we don’t care enough to tend our gardens,
the weeds will choke out the good plants.
Weeds will suck up all the energy
that could be producing all that is good to eat.
This is what Jesus was trying to warn his disciples about.
Don’t let the weeds choke out what really matters.
Don’t let your harsh words and conflicts and divisions
choke out the love and grace that has been given to you--
and is so eager to grow---
but only if you tend it.
Love takes much more perseverance,
much more creativity,
much more patient-kindling of the fire
than abandoning ourselves
to the fast-growing weeds
of conflict and division.
Dorothy Day said,
“I really only love God
as much as I love the person
I love the least."
We can walk away and slam the door
or we can offer our neighbor a key.
We can build walls
or we can build bridges.
We can join the criticizers and complainers
or we can join the joyful cloud of witnesses.
Conflict or communion?
You may have read the book
Or seen the movie that is recently out in theatres—
Eat. Pray. Love.
This is what Jesus is asking us to do.
Not to re-enact the story in that book or movie
but the title is a fine guide to how we can make the effort
to settle our divisions and our disagreements.
Eat. Pray. Love.
Come to this table and share the feast.
At God’s table
we receive food for the journey,
sustenance for running the race with perseverance.
Prayer opens us in ways that are hard to believe
and impossible to understand.
Prayer is not a means of controlling the world,
prayer changes and transforms us.
Love God. Love one another.
Be prepared for the long haul.
Leave this place and go out into the world and love.
Give love away abundantly.
We have been given the power, given the fire.
We can choose to torch the world and one another—
or we can choose to use that fire to spread the good news
and to share the light of Christ.