“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? / The world would split open.”
Poet Muriel Rukeyser

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Passion Like Tongues of Fire

A reflection on Jeremiah 23:23-29 and Luke 12:49-56

Erin Gruwell was a high school English teacher for 9th and 10th grade students. She taught at Wilson High School in Long Beach, California, in the 1990’s following the worst outbreak of interracial gang fighting in that area.

A few days into the school year Gruwell and her students got into a discussion about racism, spurred on by a caricature of a black student with big lips, drawn by one of the kids in class. Gruwell compares this caricature with what the Nazi’s did to Jews, a degradation which led to the Holocaust.

Eventually this kind of discussion in her class helps Gruwell understand how these kids feel abandoned by adults and society, and how deeply fearful they are of one another, blacks of Hispanics, Hispanics of whites, and so on. The efforts to manage desegregation, balance school enrollment, and expand education opportunities have led to only deeper rivalry and anger. In large part this is because the school administrators are angry that they have lost their status as a school of overachievers. By taking in these underachieving kids the school is more diverse, and theoretically the underprivileged kids will have a better shot for a good future. But none of the teachers or administrators really understands these kids, nor knows how to work with them where they are in their lives.

It reminded me of church summer camp. This diocese is pretty diverse socially, politically, economically, and ethnically. So, church camp gets suburban kids, rich kids, inner city, poor kids, kids of all sizes and colors. One year when the Bishop was at camp he was startled to witness some kids punching each other. Startled because this is not how we work out conflict. But for these kids it was. The ones involved were inner city poor kids and the way they knew to work out conflict was to punch each other. Eventually one of them would win. Conflict over. It became the task of the counselors to help all the kids get along, and to teach these kids to find ways to manage and work through conflict with out hitting. It was an eye opening experience for everyone and took a lot of diligence and creativity.

The administrators at Gruwell’s High School aren’t interested in creative responses. They have decided to just warehouse these kids until they graduate. And the kids are just trying to live long enough to turn 18, no other goal in mind.

But Gruwell won’t settle for that. She takes on two part jobs in order to buy the kids what they need to learn the way she wants to teach. She helps them understand what each of them has in common, and how they are a part of the brokenness of the world. She connects them to the Holocaust to help them learn the depth of ethnic and racial violence in a global context. They go to the Holocaust Museum. They meet with Holocaust survivors. They read, “The Diary of Anne Frank”. They raise the money to bring to their school the woman who tried to save Anne Frank and her family. They become a class united by what they have in common.

Gruwell approaches her teaching with a deep passion. She is determined to change the lives of these kids. She is determined to not write them off, as the school has done, but to reach them where they are in their lives. And she succeeds at this. You can read about her work in the book, “The Freedom Writers Diary”, or see the movie, called, Freedom Writers starring Hilary Swank. From this experience Gruwell, and this class of students, have created an approach to teaching racially diverse classrooms with the intent of bringing about unity not division, hope not despair, success not failure.

There’s a scene in the movie where Gruwell realizes that, because of her dedication to these kids, her marriage has fallen apart. She comes home from work one day to find her husband at the table, his bags packed. He was her biggest supporter at the beginning of the movie, but at this point, about 2/3 of the way into it, he has decided to leave her. It’s not the life he wants. He can’t support her passion and her dream. It’s ok that she has it, but he wants a different life.

That scene, I think, helps us see what Jesus is saying in our Gospel reading this morning: “From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two, two against three; they will be divided…”

Because passion is like that. When we are filled with a driving passion to make a difference in the world around us some will get it but others will not.

Jeremiah the prophet is filled with the passion of God. But he does not want to be a prophet. Jeremiah is a reluctant prophet right from the beginning of the book. The opening verse, often used in ordination services, has Jeremiah saying “no God you can’t choose me, I am only a child.” In the 20th chapter he says, “within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot!” (Jer 20:9). Called by God to warn the people that their behavior was leading them down false paths Jeremiah was beaten and rejected by the people. Yet, inside of Jeremiah a fire burned, God’s words resonated in him, and had to be spoken. Jeremiah did his best to push God’s words away, to tuck them deep inside, to refuse to say them. Who wouldn’t feel this way, if being God’s prophet meant beatings, abuse and rejection. The pull of God working inside Jeremiah was so powerful he could not contain it, though he tried.

Many people, when they experience God’s call resonating in them, find comfort and reassurance in the words of Jeremiah especially his desire to stifle the call. Recognizing that God is calling us to a certain kind of life, a ministry, a work, whether it is a lay ministry or an ordained ministry, a call to social justice or proclaiming a spiritual truth; the call from God nudges and nags and will not be ignored. Its passion builds and eventually it must be expressed. It is not always easy to live into what God calls of us. Which is obviously why people fight against it.

Jesus has a similar sense of burning and pulling in him. God resonates powerfully in Jesus. But unlike Jeremiah Jesus does not try to contain God. Jesus is filled with a passion, a fire, and it must be expressed. He uses the words, “casting fire on the earth,” to express this. To our modern ears, with the influence of 21st century apocalyptic literalism, we think that this means destruction and death. But for Jesus it may also mean that the Holy Spirit is pouring out from him.

First, in the Incarnation, born into this life as a human, Jesus brings the Holy Spirit to earth through his ministry of healing and reconciliation. Even John the Baptist proclaims that the one who is to come after him will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. Fire – passion. Fire – a flame that burns inside.

Then, following Jesus’ death and resurrection he releases that same Holy Spirit as a gift given to us in baptism. Why? The answer lies in God’s actions. The greatest sin of humanity is to reject the love of God given to us in life. For Christians this means, in particular, the life of Jesus. Jesus bears within his life the fullness of God’s love. But humanity rejected that love; crucified and killed it. Sadly, humanity continues to do this, over and over…

In an unbelievable act of mercy and love and forgiveness, God brings that love back to life in the resurrection. God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s grace, cannot be killed by any act of humanity. It lives on in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The passion, God’s passion, which gives life to the Holy Spirit, is experienced by us as fire.

Later in the Acts of the Apostles we hear that the disciples have been filled with the Holy Spirit through tongues of fire. Our scripture points us to see that the casting of fire is the Holy Spirit being released into the world, filling all creation with God’s passion, empowering people to do God’s work.

The passion of God, the flames of the Holy Spirit bring action: people are stirred into action to do God’s work. And that work is all about bringing forth justice, healing, mercy, and forgiveness.

The problem with passion, as it lives in human beings, is an inability to sustain it. Eventually passion fades, our energy wanes. Perhaps we think this means its time to give up, move on. And sometimes that’s correct. Everything has a life span. Things do die: ministries, people, institutions, even countries can die. But the end of passion is not necessarily the end of life. Often an ember remains softly glowing. This ember, any fire fighter will tell you, can re-ignite and the flame can start all over. The really critical time in life is how we mange to sustain the ember days, the days when the flame is just a glow. Do we rally forth and do something? Blow on the ember? Fan it with our lives, our hopes, our dreams?

The question for us as Christian communities today: are we going to live as a house divided, our passion waned or split? Or will we live as a house united, passionate about the work God has called us to do – Loving God, loving self, and loving our neighbor? Will we claim the passion given to us in baptism and work to make a difference in the world?