Week of Sunday August 18
Gospel Luke 1:49-56
‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53they will be divided:
father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.’
54 He also said to the crowds, ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain”; and so it happens. 55And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens. 56You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
Knowing the abuse implicit in the image of a violent, judging God, we can be discomforted and embarrassed by Jesus saying "I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!" (12:49)
The context of the saying rescues us. "Do not be afraid, Little Flock, or it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the Kingdom." (12:32)
Anything worth having is costly.
A colleague is the child of a priest of another religion, absolutely disowned for a long time. This is a reality we forget, or one which we pervert to our own purposes, claiming the bigotry of others while we ignore our own. Should it not be inevitable?!
When we are surprised that there would be division in the lives of Jesus' followers, or when there is none caused by own religious adherence, is this itself a kind of judgment upon us? How much is it a sign that we have lacked passion, and stayed comfortably connected to family and status quo, rather than being properly joined to the Christ; immersed in his baptism?
Those who lightly reject the claim that we are living in a deterministic world, without free will, sometimes seem to me too easily claim the notion of freedom. We live driven by scripts.
My own life is constructed of a twisted chemistry. I grew up suffering pervasive abuse; bullying at school, and alienation in my home town. In my family; blessedly sane, as my sister puts it, we were not angry. We endured, we were gentle, we always did what was right, we did not complain, or so I learned. I grew up conforming, polite, emotionally repressed, and as an angry underdog, full of scorn for those who are different, and highly reactive against authority which does not protect against abuse.
This is my script. Even now I can barely imagine a good future. Life is to be endured. Comfort and success is to be suspected as compromise and selling out.
My childhood, my genes, early isolation on a farm, the early solace of a retreat into books, all fostered a deeply introverted personality. It was almost foreordained; that is, determined! Add that to all the other stuff, and you have a minister who has buttons on his back; invisible to himself, some still undiscovered, which when his back isagainst the wall, wail with all the discord of a dropped piano accordion.
Bill Loader says, marvelously, that "liberation will come" as we "learn to say no to family authorities, whether in real life outside or in the real life of the mind." This liberation, this being freed, demands an intense fire of purification that cannot be tritely burned through by a few quick prayers and proclamations of freedom. It is a constant refining struggle—lifelong.
The divisions within family can be life threatening. Luke's "father against son and son against father "is expanded in Matthew 10.
21Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; 22and you will be hated by all because of my name.
But the "real life of the mind" may be the greatest enemy of freedom and conversion.
Povel, Kurt Wallander's father painted the same picture over and again for half his life.
When you were a boy you used to ask my about my work, the painting. "Why are they always the same, Dad?" "Why don't you do something different?" I could never explain. You see, each morning, when I start, I think I'll do something else. This morning I'll paint a seascape. This morning I'll do a still life, maybe an abstract, just splash the paint, see where it takes me. And then I start, and every time, I paint the same thing. The landscape. Whatever I do, this is what comes out. What you've got is your painting. I may not like it, you may not like it, but it's yours.
We are doing the same, trying to see the script, purify it, and be free of it all at once. And it will always be there in some muted form.
Loader says of the context of Luke 12, "Jesus is walking into disaster and taking others with him." We recognise this discipleship and its cost. But at a more personal level, freedom requires a clear eyed walking into Jesus' fire of purification.
There was a parishioner as needy as me. This person was adept at saccharine emotional blackmail underlain by deep violence. They would lie; call white black to your face even when you had both just agreed—with witnesses—that it was white. The witness would usually side with them on this because of the great cost of disagreeing!
With my script to be patient, to do good, not to be violent at all costs—a great fear of what would happen if I allowed myself to verbalise my anger—we were a toxic pair. How I needed to be fired and burned clean of my beginnings. I could never overcome the illness of the situation as I was!
On a smaller scale the same whinge about petty nothings each month at parish council, is the re-running of scripts of anxiety over possessions; this is my place; nothing must be touched; I must maintain control.
In churches, so called unity and "peace is often a shallow calm of suppressed fears and conflicts which are bound to emerge from under their marshmallow captivity." ... I do not want this. Such peace can never be deep enough to keep the fears and conflicts of life suppressed. They fester and brew, and finally rise up with even more fury.
This kind of peace that Jesus decries, and has come to destroy, even to put to the sword in Matthew, is a disaster. Bill says "That kind of harmony gilds oppression with respectability and rewards wrong. Instead we face a full scale conflict, taken right into the heart of human formation: the family." And then deeper, into our own heart, which must be reformed and modelled after the Christ.
Wendy and I once spent a glorious week at McLaren Vale in our decaying campervan. Close by in the caravan park stood a gleaming, 'optioned up,' four wheel drive and luxury caravan which I suspect were worth more than our house! Each morning the retired man would wash, dry and polish the 4WD, which had been driven nowhere for days. He was living his script, which seemed to me hell on earth.
It is not that there is no peace to be gained in life, but the place of the battle inside changes. The fire burns us somewhere else. If it is not burning, are we alive? Can our refining ever stop this side of heaven? What has happened in a church that has no conflict? Has the fire gone out?
If there has been no fire; if there is not, at least, smoke in the air, we are not free. We are determined by the forces around us and by our history. Our life will be channeled by the contours of complacency and the convenience of others. We will feel no burning, perhaps, but we will not be free. We will live in "marshmallow captivity" and be known by, and subjected to, petty outbreaks of pique—controlled by them even, as the ashes of our lives shoulder and gasp for the air of freedom. God help us!
Freedom means fire. There is no freedom until the burning away of dross has begun and we begin to see the gold we have been given and grasp only that; the real treasure. Before then we are carrying fool's gold which, when our life is demanded of us, (12:20) will prove to be moth eaten and rusted.
Can we interpret the signs of our times; how we are surrounded by dross that insulates us from the core of the kingdom of God. God help us if we do not let ourselves be burned.
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