Jeremiah 23.23-29; Hebrews 11:29-12.2; Luke 12.49-56
+ This past week on Facebook, I saw a great little photo. It shows a young kid with his face in his hands, looking as though he were despairing. The caption to the photo was, “When I was young, I thought everyone in the Church got along with each other.”
Uh-huh. So did I, Kid.
Any of us who have been in the church for any period of time, know that is not quite the reality of the Church. Every day in the Church is definitely not a love feast. We don’t all sit around agreeing with each other on this and that. In fact, it’s almost never like that.
I’m sure, this afternoon at our Vestry meeting, your vestry members and wardens will no doubt be reminded that the Church is not a love feast all the time. Though there’s nothing to terrible planned for our meeting today either.
I remember the first time I realized the Church can be fickle place. I sort of knew about it before, but the first time it happened was shortly after I had returned to Church and was intent on pursuing my calling to be a priest. As I stepped up to the plate, trying to do what I thought needed to be done, I found I was stepping on the toes of none other than the formidable Emma Ness. Some of us remember dear Emma. She was a force to be reckoned with at Gethsemane Cathedral for several years. I am not speaking negatively about her and if she were alive and with us this morning, I would remind her of this story. Of course, as happens times in my ministry, I believe without a doubt that Emma is, in fact, with us this morning. And many other mornings too.
Anyway, back then, I realized very quickly that there were certain responsibilities Emma had in the Church that she was not content in letting me, the young upstart—or anyone else, f or that matter—ado. At first, she defended what she did with an iron will. And I was on the receiving end of that iron will. Not a pleasant place to be.
Later, when I realized I had crossed the boundaries with her, I found the way to soften those iron boundaries. I became her friend and confidant and supporter. She needed love in her life and, I can say, I loved Emma. We ended up being very close and dear friends. I was with her when she died and I preached at her funeral.
But Emma taught me a lesson about those divisions in the Church. They exist and they can be difficult to deal with. Difficult, but not impossible.
And, in her way, Emma was like a fire. (I think she’d love to be compared to fire) A fire that burned away some of that innocence and naivety of what it means to work in this human-run (though divine-inspired) organization called the Church.
Yes, there are divisions in the Church. There are divisions among us, even in this congregation. Those divisions, at least here at St. Stephen’s, are, for the most part, little ones. Minor ones.
In the larger Church, they are much bigger ones. Issues of interpretation and personal convictions continue to divine the Church.
I get pretty firm about such things, as many of you know. Although I am patient when it comes to people telling me there are certain things about the Church they might not like personally—trust me there are many things I too personally don’t like about the Church and the way things are—but even then, you have no doubt heard me say, “this is not an issue of any one of us.”
We, as the Church, are a collective. And when one of us stiffens and crosses our arms and stands aloof off to the side, the divisions begin, and the breeches within the Church widen, and the love of God is not proclaimed. And the rest of us, in those moments, must simply go on. We must proclaim what needs to be proclaimed. We love what needs to be loved. We move forward. And when it happens to me—and it happens to me quite a lot—I will occasionally speak out.
But for the most part, I realize: this is the Church. And we must plow forward together because that is what Jesus intends us to do as his followers. He makes this quite clear.
Jesus tells us today that he did not come to bring peace, but rather he came to bring division. Not a nice thing to hear from Jesus. We want Jesus to bring peace, right?
Well, his message, of loving God and loving one another, is a message that does divide. We, who rebel against it, who inwardly stiffen at it, we rebel. We say, “no.” We freeze up.
But, Jesus makes this very clear to us. It is not our job, as his followers, to freeze up. It not an option for us to let our blood harden into ice. For, he came to bring fire to the earth. To us, his followers. When we were baptized, we were baptized with water, yes. But we are also baptized with fire! With the fire of the Holy Spirit that came to us as we came out of those waters. And that fire burned away the ice within us that slows us down, that hardens us, that prevents us from loving fully. That fire that Jesus tells us he is bringing to this earth, is the fire of his love. And it will burn.
Now, for most of us, when we think of fire in relation to God, think of the fires of hell. Ah, but not so. Again and again in scripture, certainly for our scriptures for today, fire in relation to God is seen as a purifying fire, a fire that burns away the chaff of our complacent selves. Fire from God is ultimately a good thing, although maybe not always a pleasant thing. The fire of God burns away our peripheral nature and presents us pure and spiritually naked before God. And that is how we are to go before God.
But this fire, as we’ve made clear, is not a fire of anger or wrath. It is a fire of God’s love. It the fire that burns within God’s heart for each of us. And that fire is an all-consuming fire. When that consuming fire burns away our flimsy exteriors, when we stand pure and spiritually exposed before God, we realize who we are.
The fact remains, we are not, for the most part, completely at that point yet. That fire has not yet done its complete job in us. While we still have divisions, while we allow ourselves to stiffen in rebellion, when we allow our own persona tastes and beliefs to get in the w ay of the larger beliefs of the Church, we realize the fire has not completely done its job in us. The divisions will continue. The Church remains divided.
For us, as followers of Jesus, we are not to be fire retardant, at least to the fire of love that blazes from our God. As unpleasant and uncomfortable it might seem at times, we need to let that fire burn away the chaff from us. And when we do, when we allow ourselves to be humbled by that fire of God’s love, then, we will see those divisions dying. We will see them slowly dying off. And we will see that the Church is more than just us, who struggle on, here on this side of the veil. We will see that we are only a part of a much larger Church. We will see that we are a part of a Church that also makes up that “great cloud of witnesses” Paul speaks of in today’s Epistle. We will see, once our divisions are gone and we have been purified in that fire of God’s love, that that cloud of witnesses truly does surround us. And we will see that we truly are running a race as the Church.
Paul is clear here too: that the only way to win the race is with perseverance. And perseverance of this sort if only tried and perfected in the fire of God’s love.
Yes, this is the Church. This is what we are called to be here, and now, as followers of Jesus. These is what we, baptized in the fire of God’s love, are compelled to be in this world.
So, let us be just that. Let us be the Church, on fire with the love of God, fighting to erase the divisions that separate us. Let us be the prophets in whom God’s Word is like a fire, or a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces. And when we are, finally and completely, those divisions will end, and we will be what the Church is on the other side of the veil.
We will be the home of God among God’s people.