Cantor Jennifer Rueben was recently in El Paso. On the trip she used $2,000 from her Norfolk, VA Synagogue to purchase $50 gift cards for Walmart. She donated them to an El Paso shelter that serves immigrant families. Her congregation wanted them to know they were glad they were here and that they were cared for from afar.
Four days later, that Walmart was where a gunman killed twenty-two people. The shooter admitted to driving ten hours to target Mexicans. Imagine the cantor’s anguish as she contemplated some of those cards being present that dreadful Saturday morning.
My summer in a National Park in California taught me that firefighters refer to trees and underbrush as “fuel.” As dry as it gets in parts of the country, it only takes a lightning strike or an electrical spark to set off a raging fire.
This moment in our nation’s history feels ominous, as if we’re living in a parched forest. In politics we can’t imagine wider dissatisfaction- or greater gaps in perception. Presidents and candidates for the presidency garner the highest ever unfavorable ratings. Partisan animosity runs at historically high levels: Republicans and Democrats regard one another more negatively than they have in a generation. Each passing day we refer to “unfriending” a friend, leaving a church, or changing our coffee gathering over political disagreements. This combustion is stressing us out.
Into this parched landscape racial animosities like El Paso, Charleston’s Mother Emmanuel Church, the murder of police in Dallas, Pennsylvania and Baton Rogue and Tree of Life Synagogue have only increased our suspicion of “others.” Research indicates we as Americans are less optimistic about racial progress than we have been in a generation and a half.
And just when we think we can use a healing word from the Prince of Peace, Jesus drops division on us and disturbs the peace. “I have come to bring fire to earth,” he claims. “I have come,” not to bring peace, but to bring division. If you, as I have, have ever been alienated from a parent or a sibling over your differences, you have a sense of what Jesus is talking about you. “Father against son…mother against daughter…” And so on. If our lives resemble California underbrush, Jesus brings the match.
But let’s be clear about the peace Jesus is disturbing, the fire he is starting. We have seen lots of folks turn Jesus’ words into an excuse for their own murderous behavior. Zealots who push their fanatical agendas, in Charlottesville two years ago, Texas two weeks ago, Poway last fall. In manifestos, and dark sites on the internet, they announce their cause as righteous and the plight of their perceived persecution.
The more insidious, however, are those who incite such hatred, claiming a scriptural warrant. Fred Phelps and his followers at Westboro Baptist Church created a ministry that protested gay rights, picketed funerals for victims of anti-gay violence, and even rejoiced in the deaths of American soldiers. And when they themselves were protested they gleefully claimed the righteous are always persecuted. Didn’t Jesus say he came to bring division?
The rest of us try to wiggle out of Jesus words. My first thought this week was to reach for the Hebrews text to preach. An itch told me to check what I did the last time this cycle came through. Sure enough, I preached the great cloud of witnesses. Something told me not to go back the cycle before that one.
So here we are with Jesus lighting a fire and disturbing the peace. And we want to say, how can this be. Jesus tells us to love our enemies, do good to those who hate us. He blesses the peacemakers.
This peace disturbing agitator setting the world ablaze doesn’t look like the fairest Lord or the friend I have.
But you know what, that always-nice Jesus, whom the Bible tells me loves me so, means we have ignored a significant hunk of the gospel. Jesus does bless those who endure persecution; he does tell the disciples to shake the dust off towns that reject them. And he says, “I come to bring division.”
The thing of it is, apocalyptic thought shaped Jesus’ vision of his ministry. That is, when he announced the kingdom of God, he meant it. He understood his ministry as God’s intervention in human history. Especially now, as Luke tells the story, with the confrontation in Jerusalem looming, he envisioned a decisive moment that forced people to accept or reject what God was about.
Yes, he is the Prince of Peace, and he does bring peace. But it is within the apocalyptic framework. Peace in this scenario follows intense conflict. That is the story of the gospels. Group after group oppose or reject Jesus and his teaching until the conflict rises to the point of crucifixion. Jesus saw conflict as essential to his ministry, a ministry of peace and reconciliation.
Again, the gospels tell of Jesus’ ministry as both peace and conflict. The task of disciples, you and me, is to discern the path he sets for us in the tension of his teachings. Jesus calls us to lives of peacemaking, mercy and justice. People like Cantor Rueben and her synagogue demonstrate such grace.
Yet as you can imagine, such a call can lead to rejection. So we are to discern when our commitment to follow Jesus requires us to take a firm stand and risk everything, even relationships with people we love. It is the hope that such crisis occurs only in extreme situations.
If our world were nothing but a place of created goodness and profound beauty, a place where all flourish, in just and life-giving environments, then Jesus’ words have no meaning. On the other hand, in a world deeply marred, parched and arid for many, where millions are scarred by systems that exploit and consume, then the redemption Jesus brings can only be the disturbed peace of fire.
This is the conflict Jesus envisions. He didn’t come to disturb a nice, rosy world, but to shatter the disturbing and death-dealing systems that stifle life.
Lisa Fithian understands Jesus’ call to embody such crisis. Fithian is a grassroots activist in the global peace-oriented movement for social justice. She has been arrested 30 times for intentionally creating crises, that is, situations that force the powers that are – transnational corporations, the media, security forces, consumers- to cease doing business as usual, examine the inequities that they may be perpetuating, and change policies
In a recent interview she explained: “When people ask me, ‘What do you do?’ I say I create crisis, because crisis is that edge where change is possible.”
Is this not what Jesus meant when he spoke of bringing fire to earth? Did he not seek to bring crisis as “that edge where change is possible?” Was he not saying, I have come to bring crisis because business as usual means injustice and death?
Jesus is not talking about conflict for conflict’s sake. He is speaking of fragmentation for the sake of wholeness. This is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer came to understand. As he struggled through the challenges of his own life faithfully, he wrote from his prison cell in 1944 that he saw his life “split...into fragments, like bombs falling on houses.” The violence of an inhuman war that he witnessed had shattered any sense of wholeness in his life.
Yet out of his painful experience came a profound insight: “This very fragmentariness may, in fact, point toward a fulfillment beyond the limits of human achievement.” As the world around him descended further into chaos, Bonhoeffer wrote:
“The important thing today is that we should be able to discern from the fragment of our life how the whole was arranged and planned and what material it consists of. For really, there are some fragments that are only worth throwing into the dustbin…and others whose importance lasts for centuries, because their completion can only be a matter for God, and so they are fragments that must be fragments.”
In the end, Bonhoeffer’s own life became a fragment, abruptly broken off yet pointing to the wholeness. As Bonhoeffer had understood in his prison cell, if brokenness and crisis were to become “that edge where change is possible,” this crisis would have to be sustained by something stronger than the human. In a world whose systems of meaning do not bring life and flourishing to all, the disturbance of the peace, the fire, that Jesus brings, is good news. This gospel word calls us to witness to the good news as disturbers of the peace that is the status quo. And to keep the fire Jesus started, burning until he comes again.