Proper 20 Year C
Mary Holmen

My neighbour supplies me with back issues of McLean’s Magazine – an issue devoted to Fort MacMurray wildfire this spring. Stories of awe at the speed with which the fire grew, terror in driving through an alley of fire and smoke to evacuate, heroism in saving most of the town, and questions about the role of climate change and the future of the oilsands. Amid all these stories the truth that fire is necessary for the health of a boreal forest. Fire clears out old, dead vegetation which, if it accumulates, provides fuel for worse fires. Fire clears out the old trees and brush so that more light can reach the forest floor to allow new plants to grow. Fire provides nutrients to enrich the soil. If you’ve ever driven past an area that has been burned out, you know how quickly life returns. New vegetation is growing within a matter of weeks.

Jesus longs for fire to be kindled on the earth, a fire of cleansing judgment. The cleansing fire reveals that we need God. Human effort alone cannot quench or even control a wildfire. The Fort MacMurray fire was left to burn itself out in the wilderness away from the town. Fire burns away our illusions of control and self-sufficiency. Some of the most inspiring stories from Fort MacMurray are of the massive response by communities and individuals to meet the needs of the evacuees.

Although the reign of God is characterized by reconciliation and peace, the announcement of that reign brings division because it demands that people decide and make a commitment one way or the other. Jesus’ own ministry brought division and conflict, and he says, “Let it begin now!” Let’s kindle that fire, because then we will know that God’s reign is really coming. And Jesus himself is the first casualty – or is he? He suffers a fate similar to the long list of heroes of faith enumerated in the reading from Hebrews. All of them died, were martyred in fact, without receiving what had been promised. Jesus is the first to finish the race so that they, in company with believers who come after, may reach the finish line together (think of the Olympic games going on now ).

We live in a broken and divided world. People were divided over the proclamation of the gospel, some choosing to accept and others to reject it. Those who wished to commit themselves to Jesus had to prepare themselves for the opposition that would come their way, even from within their own families. Luke is painting a realistic picture of the situation in which the infant church actually found itself.

Wherever the word of God has been heard, division has occurred among those who heard it. Everything good has a price, including peace. There is a tendency among many church people to believe that “good Christians don’t fight”, that it’s wrong or bad to be in conflict with each other. While it is never very pleasant to go through, conflict does clarify what is really important. We should only fight about things that really matter. The problem may be not so much the division as how we respond to it.

Jesus addresses our inability to realize what is happening around us and calls it hypocrisy. That might seem harsh. It might be more a case of poor vision. Are there ways in which we behave like hypocrites? Well, we might be hypocrites if we believe that we have a monopoly on truth about God, ourselves, and our world. A hypocrite thinks they have everything figured out, but it’s really an exercise in maintaining control and power. Or, picking up on the first reading from Isaiah, we might be hypocrites if we remain wilfully blind to the injustices around us. Why do we do that? Most likely because we don’t really want to see, and to acknowledge our role and responsibility in them. Or perhaps because we have bought into our culture’s focus on winning as the only measure of success. Winning is vindication. Winning conveys worth. Second place is...second place. How many times have we heard that an athlete or team has “settled for silver”, as though being second best in the world is something of which to be ashamed? We are a culture of winners and losers, and there is nothing in between. So where does that leave the great majority of us? Kind of stuck in limbo.

Jesus names the truth of the human condition – that awful tendency to compare, to judge, to harbour suspicions about the integrity and motives of others, especially those with whom we disagree or who disagree with us. In contrast to human nature and the culture in which we live, Christ offers another, different, radically counter-cultural way. It is the way of community and communion. And the writer to the Hebrews reminds us of the breadth and depth of that community of witnesses who are cheering us on. The runners will need to lay aside everything that slows them down and impedes their way. And this race is not a sprint. What is needed is not speed, but endurance. To reach the finish line is to win.

The readings for today do not solve the problem of evil, injustice, and division. That is ultimately in God’s hands, not ours. But the readings do give us a perspective. Corruption and betrayal lead to inescapable suffering. That is part of God’s righteousness. The word of the Gospel and our response provoke unavoidable division and hostility. God’s promises to us call for perseverance even in the face of suffering. We cannot remove the cross from the gospel, not can we treat the gospel as a magical defense against life’s problems. On the contrary, the gospel treats suffering as inevitable and even an inherent part of God’s redemptive work. It is part of the brokenness, sinfulness, and incompleteness of the world in which we live.

Today’s readings offer no platitudes, only the assurance that God is sovereign and the encouragement to persevere. Thanks be to God that we run in the company of all the holy people of God who have gone before and those who run now beside us.