Isaiah 5:1-7, Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18, Hebrews 11:29-12:2, Luke 12:49-56
The Rev. Bradley Varnell
Merciful God – grant that only your word would be proclaimed, and only your word heard. Amen.
During my first year at Duke Divinity, where I went to seminary, there was a protest organized by the Black Seminarians Union against the Dean and Administration of the Divinity School to raise awareness of the institutionalized racism of the school, it’s anti-blackness, it’s lack of commitment to the needs of students of color and to call attention to the need for change. It was going to take place outside of the chapel during the closing worship service of the school year. A friend invited me to attend. It was an opportunity to show the administration how many students recognized the problems at the divinity school and wanted something done about them. It was also an opportunity for white students to come alongside students of color and physically show our support for them, it was a chance for those of us to take a stand with people who were suffering, who were fed up, to stand with people who wanted a change.
I declined. I was happy for other people to do what they needed to do; I just didn’t want to join.
I had plenty of reasons why I didn’t go – I wasn’t on campus that day, I didn’t know if I thought this was the best method of addressing concerns, it seemed mean to the dean who really was trying her best. The real reason, though, was that the idea of standing out there protesting in front of the chapel, as guests, and faculty, and fellow students walked by sounded stressful.
It wasn’t that I didn’t support the issues they were raising awareness about, I just didn’t want to support them in that way. I’m not, by nature, a “protester,” I’m not by nature someone who wants to hold up a sign, and chant, or be a part of a crowd like that. Stuff like that makes me uncomfortable. Joining the protest would have meant giving up my peace and I just wasn’t interested in that. And I want to be clear – it wasn’t that I risked arrest, or expulsion, or any sort of repercussion really. It wasn’t that there was a danger to me being there. It just would have been outside of my comfort-zone.
So, I didn’t go. I didn’t stand with the protesters.
Afterwards there was some tension on campus, as you can imagine, between those who attended the protest and those who hadn’t. I was annoyed that there was any sort of problem. I didn’t know why couldn’t people just accept that protesting isn’t for everyone. A friend of mine, who I was in a few classes with, had been at the protest. She’s a woman of color, wonderful, brilliant. She was one of the most vocal advocates for African American and Queer students at Duke. It was relayed to me through the grapevine that on the day of the protest, outside the chapel, she asked where I was and was told that I wasn’t there. And y’all that got me. God convicted me, like God often does. I was her friend, I knew her story, I knew all the crap she had to deal with as a woman of color and LGBTQ person at Duke and I didn’t show up. I wasn’t there. In one swift moment this protest, this amorphous, abstract protest became concrete. I had chosen to be comfortable, instead of showing up and supporting a friend. I chose my peace at the expense of a friend, instead of choosing my friend at the expense of my peace.
So much of what we call peace in our lives is like this - an attempt to avoid those things that make us uncomfortable, so we avoid saying or doing those things that might disturb our spiritual, emotional, physical, economic equilibrium, and we call that peace. In this peace, though, we can forget about the pain and suffering of others. That’s what happened to me, I forgot that real people at Duke, people I knew and loved, were suffering and asked for support.
But this also cuts the other way – we can so value other people’s comfort that we avoid our own pain and suffering. We don’t bring up how another’s words or actions hurt us or we don't talk about the ways our needs aren’t being met. Our goal becomes keeping the peace at our expense.
All of this is normal. We live in a world that is hurting, that is broken, that is suffering. Our lives are affected by that, we have to find a way to deal with it. We can’t spend every hour glued to the news absorbing the tragedies in around us. And we can’t spend every hour ruminating on our own hurt. We have to live at some point. In talking about the peace we often pursue my point isn’t how bad we are that we do this, it’s that whether we’re focused on our own peace or another’s the basic issue remains the same: the comfort of peace rests on the avoidance of someone’s pain and suffering, on someone’s discomfort. And our own peace or another’s doesn’t actually heal the hurt around us.
I think this is what our Gospel is all about today: the way in which the peace we seek in our world, the peace we try and secure for ourselves or others, is disrupted by Christ, who offers us something far better, but far more challenging. When I hear Jesus say that he has not come to bring peace, this is the peace I think of. The peace that ignores and avoids, peace that doesn’t offer healing. Jesus doesn’t have any of that. Today we hear that all Jesus has, all Jesus brings with him is fire.
Now this sounds pretty bad. Fire, in almost any religion but especially Christianity, often conjures up images of hellfire and brimstone. It’s true that in scripture “fire” serves as a sort of shorthand for judgement or punishment. But “fire” in scripture, can also serve as a shorthand for revelation and exposure. Fire in a lamp casts light in dark places exposing what’s hidden, fire in a refiner’s furnace brings impurities to the surface showing what’s precious and what’s not. Jesus comes bringing this kind of fire – not fire of judgement or punishment, but fire that shines light in our world, that exposes those things we want to keep hidden – like our pain and suffering and the pain and suffering of others.
Where we want to avoid the places of discomfort, Jesus seeks them out. Where our attempts at peace ignore, Jesus’ ministry acknowledges. Jesus has come into our world bringing the fire of God’s love. And God’s love exposes everything in our world that is hurting, that is suffering, that isn’t as it should be. And God’s love heals, it liberates, it renews.
Jesus invites us to experience the fire of God’s love. To experience the power of the love of God to heal and transform the pain and suffering in our own lives. But we can’t embrace the love of God and then hope for a peaceful, tranquil life afterwards. When we are touched by God’s love we are called to pay it forward, to follow Jesus into uncomfortable spots, to spread God’s love to the places of pain and suffering in the lives of others. This will make our lives hard. Jesus talks about bringing division today not because he like stirring up drama for the sake of drama – but because living out of the love of God, sharing the love of God in a world that’s dedicated to keeping peace at the expense of acknowledging pain and suffering will require we take a stand, maybe even against our own families if our families would rather keep the peace instead of experiencing healing and transformation.
The greatest example of the cost of sharing God’s love is Jesus’. Jesus comes bringing the love of God to our world and he’s killed, killed by those who prioritized their own peace, who were threatened by the way Jesus made the pain and suffering around him unavoidable. But the pain and suffering of the cross didn’t stop the love of God. The love of God overcame death, transfiguring the tragedy of Good Friday into the joy of Easter Sunday.
The same love that brought Jesus back from the dead is with us as we go out into the world. As we go about our lives this week, I hope we’ll all keep this Gospel in mind. As followers of Christ we aren’t promised peace, instead we’re invited to share the love of God with others. As we try and share God’s love we’ll be met with opposition sometimes, and we’ll encounter hard moments. It’s ok to be scared or nervous. It’s ok to fumble. There will be times when we won’t take a stand, when our nerve will fail us; times when we seek our own peace at the expense of sharing God’s love. That’s ok too – there’s always grace, there’s always forgiveness. And in our world, there’s always another opportunity to share God’s love. The challenge isn’t to be perfect, it’s to be ok with being uncomfortable, because Jesus didn’t come to bring us comfort. Jesus came to bring us God’s love. Amen.