Proper 15(C): Compression
By: The Rev. Cn. Lee Curtis
I fully recognize that I’m out of line with many in my generation in saying that I’m going to mourn the (good, right, and necessary) loss of the internal combustion engine. As we move away from storing the potential energy in our vehicles in gas tanks and move it into batteries, there is a mechanical poetry that starts to disappear. Bruce Springsteen is never gonna write a song about a 188 kilowatt motor under the hood, or the limited freedom that 200 miles to a charge provides.
It’s a small price to pay for avoiding climate catastrophe, but still, it’s a price.
Much of the poetry of internal combustion rests in the pure simplicity of what it does. At its core an IC engine takes an explosion and directs it. Small explosions thousands of times a minute. Sips of refined hydrocarbon, puffs of air, flashes of spark pushed into an airtight chamber and changed into a rotational force that will take you as far as you want to go—as long as you keep that trinity of fuel, air, and spark running through pistons.
More and more I find my life in ministry to be wrapped up in essentially the same task. Take small explosions, and channel them into forward motion. Into movement.
When Jesus says to the crowds “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” (Luke 12:49 NRSV) Our first instinct, many times, is to recoil. Many of us in pastoral work are conflict averse by training and inclination. We fall into a binary categorization of peace and conflict, to the point where many of us will dive to prevent any form of conflict, even if it has the potential to be generative, even if it has the potential to call us further into mission, and into line with where Christ is calling us in the world.
The snapshot the lectionary provides us for this Ordinary Sunday brings us in at the beginning of a long string of parables after Jesus has left a rather tense dinner at a Pharisee’s house. Standing nearly on their doorstep, Jesus opens his dialogue with this beautiful and inviting line “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees, that is, their hypocrisy.” (Luke 12:1 NRSV)
It’s not hard to see how, through a line of parables about attentiveness and diligent work, we get to a place where households are set on edge and the kingdom appears yet again at hand.
Jesus is making movement. In every sense of that word.
There is an invitation here, difficult as it might be to see it. To live into the call of Christ is to enter into patterns of behavior and belief that will require change, movement, and motion from us. And that movement is going to cut to the core of our households and our families. Christ didn’t come to bring a false peace. Christ came to move us into liberation, to call us to fullness of life.
Our hope and our joy, then, is that Christ doesn’t call us into a vain hope. Christ doesn’t call us to work that Christ will not see to completion.
That’s the promise for us who are about the work of tending the Lord’s sheep. We are held, supported, and sustained in the work. We have already won, because Christ has already won. We are held together, even in the midst of conflict; of explosion.
We have compression.
Anyone who is familiar with the words “you blew the head gasket” can tell you why compression is important. Compression is the key that enables those thousands of small explosions to move the force of the piston down through the rods and into the driveshaft. If you don’t have compression all you have is a small explosion with nowhere to go.
So many of the conflicts that we fear the most are just that. Small explosions without direction. Conflagrations that burn through our energy and our effort with no tangible result in the life of a community. It’s one of those aspects of community life that is as frustrating as it is inevitable. Thanks be to God, then, that this kind of conflict isn’t the only kind. Those conflicts that stem from a frank, honest, and charitable conversation around value, around priority, around mission can, with careful guidance, bring about the kind of movement our world is so hungry for. The kind of movement worthy of the mechanical poetry of Springsteen and Pirsig. The kind of movement worthy of the Saints and Martyrs cut down so that the work of Christ may continue. The kind of movement that knows peace precisely because it knows conflict.
The Rev. Canon Lee Curtis, Florida native and graduate of the Candler School of Theology at Emory Univeristy, serves as Canon Missioner at Christ Church Cathedral in Indianapolis where he works on integrating the life of the Cathedral more deeply with the life of the City. He and his wife Hannah are the exhausted parents of two remarkable boys and two very good dogs. You can find pictures of those dogs on Instagram @thebrokechurchman