Are We Kindling a Fire or Burning a Bridge?

Today’s reflection is by Bondings 2.0 contributor Michael Sennett, whose brief bio can be found by clicking here.

Today’s liturgical readings for the 20th Sunday of Ordinary Time can be found here.

During the evening of this past Easter Vigil, I waited excitedly for the lights to dim. I held my breath in anticipation as I peered over the balcony of the choir loft. My eyes had barely adjusted to the total darkness when I noticed the tapers approaching the flame of the paschal candle. Parishioners solemnly kindled the candles of their neighbors. Pew by pew, the light grew brighter. Soon the nave was illuminated by the tapers—the Church ablaze with fire—a congregation unified in the light of Christ.

This memory of peace and unity seems somewhat at odds with today’s Gospel reading as Jesus enthusiastically announces to his disciples that he has come not to bring peace to the earth but that his mission is one of division. Even families, he says, will be divided. How can it be that Jesus, described as the prince of peace, is focused on being divisive?

Usually, we chalk up Jesus as gentle and mild, and for good reason. Our encounters with him in scripture are primarily based on love, forgiveness, and justice—and there’s nothing wrong with this image.

Jesus, however, also flipped tables. He also challenged the rules of the hypocritical religious leaders. These are examples of righteous anger from a passionate Savior. Even throughout the agony of the Passion, he remained passionate.

The desire of Jesus to set the earth on fire is an invitation for us to share his fervor. Families will not always be in agreement, but Jesus sets fire in spite of this, so that parents, children, cousins, grandparents, and other relatives can kindle their relationships to each other with the light of Christ.

Stories of queer Catholics and their families at the beginning of the AIDS crisis stick out in my mind. Devoutly religious people caring for ill family members faced a challenge to their faith and were ostracized for their interaction. Some experienced a conversion of heart by tending to their sick child or parent, realizing the person was a beloved child of God and did not deserve condemnation. Today, we hear of people leaving the Church in support of LGBTQ+ family and friends, or participating in ministries that uplift the queer community. The lives of LGBTQ+ Catholics are kindling their neighbors and encouraging them to act in love.

Jesus does not seek to deliberately cause conflict. His preaching repeatedly assures us we are one in the Lord. Yet he understands that his message of love is radical in comparison to societal mores, which will undoubtedly cause some degree of division.

Conflict is unavoidable, but Jesus further instructs us to love. Time and time again, he meets people where they are while sticking to his mission for justice. He walks with the excluded and affirms their place at the table. Through the tension Jesus creates a greater peace. Catholic leaders who serve the excluded, especially LGBTQ+ people, are living examples of this idea.

God summons us to join Jesus in spreading the fire of justice. Accepting this Christian passion comes with great responsibility—to love above all else. Amid conflict, though, we can easily lose sight of this commandment. I’m certainly guilty myself. At times I get so caught up in my passion for social justice, especially for LGBTQ+ issues, that my attitude toward others can be harsh.

For example, a cousin I am particularly close with does not see eye to eye with me on many issues. We’ve had our arguments over the years, but none quite as intense as in 2020. We clashed frequently and I was relentless in my shaming of her positions. Our bickering was mainly about racism, but also included anti-transgender bathroom laws. It wasn’t until in a moment of vulnerability that she admitted the toll it had taken on her and our relationship. I never considered her perspective or why she had her own opinions. In our disputes, I was not kindling her fire but instead burning our bridge.

In last Sunday’s scriptural reflection Mark Hakes discussed this kind of polarization. They wrote “We are so focused on who is right that we often forget to simply do what is right.” Meeting others where they are is a critical part of discipleship. Instead of focusing all our energy on the conversion, we need to concentrate on the encounter itself and open our own hearts as well.

Consider the passion of the advocates who secure LGBTQ+ equality, those who help refugees and migrants find shelter, the people who work tirelessly teach others to be anti-racist. These folks are often met with anger toward their work but still manage to have fruitful conversations and serve the communities that need them. They blaze the earth with the fire of Christ.

The gathering hymn at Mass last weekend was “I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light.” I sang along enthusiastically, albeit off-key. One verse stuck in my head: I want to follow Jesus. Following Jesus, as a child of the light, means opening ourselves up to conflict and responding in love, especially when we disagree. We need to share the flame with our neighbors, not to burn them but to kindle their own fire. Taper to taper, person to person. The question in times of conflict is not who agrees with us, but rather asking ourselves this: am I a lukewarm Christian or someone who is blazing with a passion for justice to serve the excluded?

Michael Sennett (he/him), August 14, 2022

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