Conflict in life, in families, in institutions like churches, across nations, is inevitable. Indeed, there can be no growth without conflict. One of the questions Jo and I have generally asked when considering a call to a new parish is ‘what has been your most recent conflict and how was it resolved?’ And if we were told there had been no conflict, we generally did not go to that place. Because conflict, however uncomfortable, is actually a sign of life. However, it can of course also be deeply destructive. So how conflict is handled – preferably with gentleness and wisdom - is also very important.
You may like to think of times in your own life when you have experienced conflict that led to something new and better. It may not have felt that way at the time, but with hindsight it is clear that the conflict was necessary and led to growth in yourself and others.
Within the gospel text itself conflict and division are part of the story of Jesus from the very beginning. I am not
quite sure how we arrived at any kind of notion of gentle Jesus meek and mild from the text of scripture, because it is simply not there. He is depicted as not infrequently incandescent in his condemnation of those who lay heavy burdens on the vulnerable.
This week past we have celebrated the feast day of the Virgin Mary. If we think of Mary’s song, the Magnificat, we can see that dramatic social upheaval in the cause of justice is the expectation of the child Jesus, even before he is born. He is expected to cast down the powerful from their thrones and lift up the lowly; to feed the hungry and send the rich away empty. This is an agenda calculated to cause problems, for the powerful have never been known to give up their power without a struggle. Similarly, when Simeon took the infant Jesus in his arms and blessed him, he warned Mary that he was ‘destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be opposed – and a sword will pierce your own soul also.” From the very beginning, Jesus seeks a justice that is always likely to cause division, even as it seeks to make whole. Jesus challenges his hearers to interpret their times in the light of his message, encouraging them to judge for themselves what is right. This is not a popular message among those who prefer people to do as they are told and not think for themselves, whether in church or state.
Yesterday Josephine and I attended the rally to oppose religious exemptions and Jo spoke. As clergy within the rainbow community we sit in a challenging spot. The political narrative of choice at present opposes queer people to people of faith, seeking to create conflict between the two. But what if you are both, or at least sympathetic to both, as are we and many of you here? Then be sure you are likely to receive brickbats from both sides. But if you speak the truth, then others respond.
One lady, a veteran of many such rallies, approached us. She told us that she was not religious, but that she was ‘in love with Jesus, because how can you not love someone who is willing to speak up for the poor and vulnerable and to resist the rich and powerful?” Quite so. But for us, who are proud to take the name Christian, and who seek truly to love Jesus, there are many conflicts and divisions to be faced, as we seek to read our present times in the light of the gospel. There are signs we would rather not read – signs of climate crisis; signs of human trafficking and slavery here in Australia as well as overseas; signs of the ongoing mistreatment of refugees and of Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander peoples; signs of the continued prejudice against LGBTIQA+ people – we heard yesterday for example the truly appalling statistic that 75% of our rainbow young people between the age of 12 and 25 have been undergoing homelessness as a result of their gender or sexual expression – 75%!
Now this does not by the way necessarily mean that things are getting worse (though sometimes it does indicate that). Rather it may mean that things are getting uncovered as the #metoo campaign for example has done. And that is a good thing. It is a painful, difficult thing that often leads to divisions among us – but it is a good thing; something that leads to growth and freedom.
Jesus was sometimes inflammatory. Sometimes He needed to be. Sometimes we need to be, if we are to respond to the longing of God in Christ for change that leads to justice. So, in your own ways, and in the just causes of the gospel, go light a few fires. In the name of Jesus, who came to bring fire to the earth. Ame
by Penny Jones, for Sunday 18 August 2019, Pentecost 10 Year C