Several years ago my husband and I took a trip to Yellowstone National Park. As we drove through the park listening to an audio tour, we came upon an area filled with the remains of burned blackened trees, clearly the result a forest fire. It was disturbing, to say the least. Then we heard the guide speaking through our car radio inform us that fire is not always bad for a forest. In fact, he continued, fire is actually a necessary part of the forest. Apparently, the heat from fire is required so that the seed pods break open and release the seeds needed for regeneration. Without fire, some types of trees and plants would reach old age with no new generations to carry on their legacy. In other words, some trees and plants would become extinct. And as Scott and I looked around the desolate area, sure enough, we saw many small trees sprouting. To our great surprise that day, we learned that day that fire can actually benefit our wildlands and, in fact, is vital to the survival of several species of trees.
This experience came back to me as I prayed with what I consider to be one of the most difficult passages in the gospels. I mean, surely Christ calls us to peace and unity, right?! Luke introduces Jesus as the Prince of Peace. In John’s gospel, Jesus prays that we all may be one as he and his father are one. Paul tells us we are members of one body. And during each liturgy, the priest prays that Christ “graciously grant [us] peace and unity in accordance with [his] will.” Scripture and Tradition tell us that peace and unity are clearly God’s will for us!
Yet here, in today’s Gospel, we have Jesus oh-so-clearly and oh-so-disturbingly speak of division, of disturbing the peace. We may think he came to establish peace on earth, he tells us. But, like Jeremiah and the prophets of the Old Testament, Jesus actually came to disturb the peace, to bring about division. Just like prophets of today disturb the peace. Do you remember the words often spoken by the recently deceased Congressman John Lewis? “Speak up, speak out, get in the way,” he urged us. “Get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble…”
Jesus, and the prophets before him, as well as prophets today seem to be telling us that we sometimes have to disturb the peace in order to find peace. Sometimes we have to light a fire so that new life can emerge.
Jesus was a visionary and an idealist. Yet he was also a realist. He saw the world as it could be, and he saw the world as it was. By the time Jesus uttered the words, “I have not come to bring peace, but division,” he had lived and walked among us for around thirty years. He knew our human potential and he lived amid our human woundedness. Time and time again Jesus called attention to our human quest for power, esteem, and security. Because he knew that these tendencies keep us self-centered, focused on our individual good rather than the common good.
So while Jesus longs for us to live in unity, longs for us to love one another, longs for us to experience the Kingdom of God in our midst, he also knows our struggle. He knows that in our efforts to call out evil when we see it, and yes, misinformation, we will rattle a few bushes, shake a few trees. In other words, we will get into “good trouble.” Because Christ knows that before true communion can occur, we must first seek justice. And inclusiveness. And forgiveness. And healing. Not just for some, but, indeed for all. That is the work before us today. Just as it was the work before those who lived in Jesus’ day.
True peace is not the absence of conflict. Contrary to “peace at any price,” true peace and communion demands a price: we must lean into necessary conflict, and sometimes even foster it. Because while conflict may sometimes seem contrary to unity, contrary to new life, and may even look like death as it divides us for a time—ultimately, if we are open, and patient, conflict can lead us to new life, lead us to true peace and unity.
Because you see, each of us, are prophets! And when we use our voice to insert Christ’s voice into our real-life situations, we shake things up a bit. When we see something that is not right, we speak up. Whether that is around the family dinner table or in a difficult conversation with a friend, writing a letter to the editor, or commenting on a Social Media post, making phone calls to our elected officials, or marching in non-violent protest, we speak up. We speak up when we ask probing questions. We speak up when we think critically rather than blindly believing what we read or hear. We speak up when we faithfully, hopefully, lovingly, seek truth. And when we speak up, we often light a fire. We get into trouble. Good trouble. Necessary trouble. As only from speaking up and speaking out, along with prophetic action, willtrue peace and communion ever be achieved.
Today’s gospel tells us that Jesus came to set the world on fire. And he calls us, his disciples, to continue the work he started. He never told us working toward peace and unity would be easy. Or immediate, as much as he wished it was so. Jesus had to trust that new life would emerge from the conflict that led to his passion and death. So too are we called to trust—that when we set a fire for justice, inclusiveness, and radical love, new life will emerge. Just like new life emerges from the charred ruins of the trees in Yellowstone.
The second reading today tells us that we do not do this work alone. There are a cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Witnesses who have predeceased us—whom we can call on in prayer. And witnesses who walk among us today. Witnesses who may even help us start a few fires. Good fires. Necessary fires.
And in so doing bring us closer to the true peace and unity that God desires for us.
Karen Seaborn is a member of the retreat team at King’s House Retreat Center in Belleville, IL, where she preaches quiet retreats, serves as Spiritual Director on directed retreats, and presents weekend retreats for married couples with her husband, Scott. Additionally, Karen offers parish workshops and days/evenings of reflection throughout the greater St. Louis metropolitan area. She is an adjunct professor at Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis, Mo.
Prior to her preaching ministry, Karen enjoyed twelve years as Pastoral Associate for Adult Faith Formation at Ss. Peter & Paul Catholic Church in Waterloo, IL. She and Scott presented Worldwide Marriage Encounter weekends and experiences for more than twenty-five years, holding a variety of leadership roles, including United States leaders, North American Secretariat leaders, and a seat on Worldwide Marriage Encounter’s World Council.
Karen lives in Waterloo, IL. She holds a Doctor of Ministry in Preaching degree, a Master of Divinity degree, and a Graduate Certificate in Spiritual Direction from Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis. Prior to her career change, Karen was a registered nurse working in Emergency Medicine and Behavior Health and addictions.
She and her husband, Scott, have been married for 38 years. They have four children and four grandchildren.
Karen enjoys learning, writing, and traveling with Scott in their RV. Her greatest love, however, is spending time with her precious grandchildren.
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