"Return to the Fire," by Claire Helton
Matthew 10:24-27, 34-39
A student is not superior to the teacher; the follower is not above the leader. The student should be glad simply to become like the teacher, the follower like the leader.
Don’t let people intimidate you. Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, and nothing is hidden that will not be made known. What I tell you in darkness, speak in the light. What you hear in private, proclaim from the housetops.
Don’t suppose that I came to bring peace on earth. I came not to bring peace, but a sword. I have come to turn
‘a son against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
in-law against in-law.
One’s enemies will be
the members of one’s own household.’
Those who love mother or father, daughter or son more than me are not worthy of me. Those who will not carry with them the instrument of their own death – following in my footsteps – are not worthy of me.
You who have found your life will lose it, and you who lose your life for my sake will find it.
But then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones;
I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.
In the ancient kingdom of Judah, the prophet Jeremiah had made a name for himself as a prophet of lament. It’s often how he’s referenced even today – the weeping prophet – but his outcries are more than just the weeping and wailing of a man overcome by sadness. Jeremiah’s book of laments is the testament of a man possessed by a message for his people that he knows they do not want to hear. His anguish is born of his very human fear about what will happen to him if he says the thing he knows he has to say. He’s kept his eye on the times and his heart attuned to the spirit of God, and he knows he’s going to hit some resistance when he speaks the truth God has given him. This is where we meet him in Jeremiah 20, verse 9, where he bemoans that every time he decides, Enough, I’m done with this, I’m throwing in the prophetic towel, he’s overwhelmed with the sensation that even if he really could keep this truth locked up inside, it would burn him up from the inside out. “I say, I will speak the word of God no more, but then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.”
There’s a fire shut up in my bones. Maybe this sentiment rings true for you, lately. Because there’s a lot going on in our world, a lot to get burned up about, a lot of truth that needs telling. Poverty and unemployment rates are soaring, and with this sustained hit not only on our own economy but the economies of the whole world, the virus is not the only threat to the lives of the most vulnerable; for many, the greater and more certain fear is the hunger that inevitably comes when the paycheck is late, or nowhere to be found. And there’s truth that needs telling about what we can do to alleviate that pain, about our responsibility to do our part.
And then, there’s fear, real and unavoidable fear – especially in an epidemic – that causes people all over the world to uproot their families, their entire lives, and take on the label of immigrant. And while the news this week brought at least a temporary hope for DACA Dreamers in the US, there’s truth that still needs telling about the status of immigrants in our nation and especially those who are still in detention today.
Race is at the forefront of our consciousness in a way we have been able to avoid as a society for decades, requiring us to examine the realities of white privilege and white supremacy, what they actually are – what they actually mean – and to deal with them in a way we’ve been able to avoid, as a society, for the last 400 years. And there’s truth that needs telling if we’re ever going to bring about meaningful change at the systemic level where racist ideology has been self-perpetuating unexamined, untouched for centuries.
And if all that weren’t enough, there’s the roller coaster the LGBTQ community has been on in the last week as the nation continues to debate their right to equal standing under the law. There’s truth that needs telling when, in the same week one branch of government can affirm the full protections of the law for all people, and another can deny healthcare coverage to transgender children of God. In this season when healthcare coverage is the last thing anyone wants to be worrying about, there is truth that is burning to be told.
And that’s just the headlines this week.
It’s a lot. And taken all together, it’s overwhelming. But probably, there were some parts of that litany of injustice – and it was by no means complete – that set a fire in your bones more than others. Don’t let shame creep in – this is right; this is how it should be. This is why we need each other to spur one another on toward right action in the name of love.
Our work is to find the thing that lights us up, that lights us on fire. It’s the thing that we cannot get off our chest, the thing that gnaws on us and will not let us go, but might consume us if we try to hold it in. It’s the thing we’re willing to suffer for. There is enough injustice in this world to go around; there is pain and there is need, and you have gifts that can meet that need somewhere – let’s find that intersection.
Because here’s the thing: we’re going to need that fire when we start taking action. It’s a hard road to walk, seeking God’s justice. And it’s not like the One we follow promised us any different. Following Jesus, telling the truth of justice burning within us, is going to lead to conflict. The way of Jesus may be nonviolent, but he also warns his disciples that he has come not to bring peace, but a sword. We do not seek the “negative peace which is the absence of tension,” as Dr. Martin Luther King put it in his letter from Birmingham Jail, not the absence of tension, but rather “a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” Not peace, but a sword. And though we may not be the ones wielding the swords, swords will come. And tear gas. And legislation. And when the road grows long, and the night grows dark, it will be the fire shut up in our bones that lights the way forward.
There is a temptation to look at the world, to read the headlines, and to give in to the overwhelming weight of it all, to be overcome by the sheer number of fires that need putting out, out there. Is the whole world on fire? But in truth, the only way we’ll ever be able to do anything about any of those fires out there is if we’ve continued fanning the flame within, the one deep in our bones. That’s how we’ll find the wisdom to know how to spend what energy, what knowledge, what compassion we do have to give.
Now, to drop the metaphors, this does not mean that if the thing that lights you up is the fight for justice for immigrants, or LGBTQ inclusion, that you’re then off the hook for fighting back against, say, racism. The wounds of the world are interconnected. When one of us gets knocked down we all suffer. And so, we have a responsibility to do our part – at least internally, but better yet – in open solidarity and support of the struggle for justice wherever it is found. For the wounds of the world are interconnected, but so, too, is its healing. And when the cause of justice prevails in any quarter, we all rise.
Jesus teaches that in order to be his disciple, we each must take up our own cross and follow him. “Those who are not willing to carry with them the instrument of their own destruction have no part with me,” he says. And when we do pick up the cross, our fathers and mothers, daughters and sons, nosy or compassionate or practical in-laws are going to say, “What do you think you’re doing? Put that down, it’ll kill you.” Or worse: “If you don’t put that down, I’ll kill you.” And in order to keep from being consumed in that moment, to remember why the thing was worth doing in the first place, we will have to return to the fire. Return to that place of knowing we have done the work of discerning where our deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet, and this is it, and it is worth the cost.
People of God, what is the Spirit of God igniting in you? What is the thing that won’t let you go? And how can your gifts meet this need in the world, bringing light, bringing justice, bringing the fire? May God’s Spirit grant us the gift of discernment, and the courage to follow where it leads.