In the movie Strictly Ballroom, Paul is a dancer in his early twenties who lives in Australia. He is the oldest child of former competitive ballroom dancers who own and run a school for ballroom dancing. Paul is his parents’ most cherished hope; he will succeed where they failed, wipe away the family shame, and win the Pan-Pacific Gran Prix ballroom dancing competition. For this destiny, Paul has trained since he was six. Neither he nor his parents have questioned his path–until now. In a room full of trophies, won by Paul, his mother, sobbing, expresses her bewildered shock. The cause of her grief? Paul wants to do his own steps.
Sick of the standard ballroom routine, Paul has his own dream: to dance in the Pan-Pacific Gran Prix doing his own steps. Ballroom Dancing Federation President Barry Fyfe says that if Paul deviates from the standard routine he cannot win. If Paul does not win, his parents–actually–his mother, will be crushed. She believes that her life depends upon Paul winning the competition, and she is determined that nothing and no one will stand in his (her) way. Paul’s father is a passive figure who spends evening hours in the studio dancing alone to old records. When the conflict erupts over Paul’s new steps his father tries to talk to him, but Paul’s response is always, “Not now, Dad.”
Fyfe says that the Dancing Federation, which includes ballroom dancing schools all over Australia, has too much invested in the old routine to let anyone, including Paul, do new steps. As Fyfe explains, “If you can’t teach it, you can’t stay in business.” Paul retorts: “You’ll be out of a job.” The movie portrays Paul’s struggle: do what his parents and the ballroom dancing experts want him to do, or follow his heart and take the consequences? It seems that any choice will result in betrayal. If he follows his heart, won’t he betray his parents? And what about his partner, Fran, a relative stranger, who has learned the new steps with him and believes in his dream? If he gives up the dream, won’t he betray her as well as himself?
In the gospel reading, we see a side of Jesus that can be hard to reconcile with our image of him as the Prince of Peace. He says:
I have come to light a fire on the earth. How I wish the blaze was ignited! Do you think I have come to establish peace on the earth? I assure you, the contrary is true; I have come for division.
Isn’t Jesus the Good Shepherd who has come for all, even those not of this flock, so that one day, there will be one flock, one shepherd? Did Luke catch Jesus on a bad day, or is there something very important here, something inextricably part of Jesus’ work, something we need to know in order to follow him more closely?
And what about Jesus’ statement that father will be set against son and mother against daughter? What happened to “Honor thy father and mother”? In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says that he came not to destroy the Law of the Hebrew Bible, but to fulfill it. Did Jesus come in order to divide families? We might wonder how the one who showed us how to love could speak this way. What could be loving about the desire to divide people, to “light a fire on the earth?” We know that at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. What could he mean now when he says, “I have a baptism to receive. What anguish I feel till it is over!”?
The prophet, Jeremiah, took the consequences of preaching an unpopular truth. Princes in the City of Jerusalem complained to the Israelite king that Jeremiah was demoralizing the people with his exhortations to leave the city and go into exile in Babylon. Like Jesus’ words, Jeremiah’s words, were hard to reconcile with the prevailing wisdom at that time. Leave Jerusalem? After all that God had promised and done for the Israelites? Hadn’t the prophet Isaiah told them that Jerusalem was indestructible? Didn’t God save the Israelites from the Assyrians at the very gates of the City, as Isaiah had foretold? In preaching repentance and warning the Israelites of the imminent destruction of the City, Jeremiah was not merely speaking nonsense, he was betraying his people and therefore deserved death as a false prophet, so the princes reasoned with the King. The King, persuaded, let them have Jeremiah lowered into an empty water cistern, where he sank into the mud and was left to die.
With Hananiah preaching as Isaiah had, that Jerusalem could never be destroyed, how were the Israelites to know whether Jeremiah was a true or a false prophet? When Hananaiah told them what they wanted to hear, and Jeremiah preached the very reverse, how could they know who to believe?
The reading from the letter to the Hebrews gives us an insight into Jesus’ motivation for speaking so shockingly of his own mission: “For the sake of the joy which lay before him he endured the cross, heedless of its shame.” Somehow, Jesus could see beyond the agony and shame of the cross to the joy that God had in store for him. Jesus must have had a glimpse of a joy far beyond the joys we often look for in life: family peace and harmony, truths that don’t disturb us, work that is more immediately rewarding. Could Jesus have tasted this overpowering joy during the Transfiguration, or during his baptism when God called him his beloved son? We know only that for the sake of this joy he endured the opposition of sinners, and did not abandon the struggle.
When we talk about “the cross,” we are talking about the entire work of Jesus’ death and resurrection: his Passion. The crucifixion was the culmination of three years of struggle by Jesus: struggle against the authorities, and also against his disciples and even his own family who thought he was preaching nonsense. To them it might have seemed saner to quit preaching what so many people, especially people in power, did not want to hear. When Peter said to Jesus that surely Jesus was not serious when he spoke of being crucified, Jesus’ retorted, “Get behind me Satan!” Who but Jesus could have persevered against such opposition? Could his passion to “light a fire on the earth” have been a gift given him by God to enable Jesus to endure the Passion?
Jeremiah did not abandon his struggle. God interceded through Ebed-melech, a Cushite, not an Israelite, who persuaded the Israelite king to have Jeremiah lifted out of the cistern, and save his life. At this point in their history, Israelites were beginning to see that God could work through people who were not Israelites–a previously unthinkable truth–and that God would be with them wherever they went, even into exile in Babylon. Contrary to the Israelites’ belief, God was not tied to the Temple in Jerusalem. Similarly, those who followed Jesus learned that Jesus’ presence was not dependent on his being alive, that his risen life would be with them always.
The missions of Jesus and Jeremiah seem very far away from what most of us face each day. What message do they carry for us today? Let’s go back to Paul, the dancer. He felt within himself a kind of call, a passion for dancing, that burned within him to the point at which winning did not matter to him anymore; what mattered was showing what he felt within him about dancing. It was a message about a truth, and Paul had the courage to tell it in spite of tremendous opposition and duplicity, even from his friends and family. When Paul didn’t take time to listen to his father, he deprived himself of an essential source of support. In the end, it was the faith of his father and Fran in Paul’s dream that enabled him to persevere and not abandon the struggle.
In our own lives, God calls each one of us to consciously cooperate in the bringing of God’s reign “on earth as it is in heaven.” We may not think about it much or we may struggle to know what God wants us to do. Nevertheless, all of us who are baptized Christians are, in the words of the letter to the Hebrews, “running the race.” Where do we get the strength to embrace our passion, and not grow despondent or abandon the struggle? Like Paul, the dancer, we may struggle more than we need to because we are unaware of, or think we don’t need, the help that God wants to give us and will give us, if we only stop a moment and listen. We also have Jesus, the Bread of Life, who offers himself to us in many ways, but especially in the bread and the wine. When Jesus said, “Do this in memory of me?” did he mean only the sharing of the bread and the wine, or did he have more in mind?
Just as Jeremiah’s words to the Israelites didn’t fit their idea of God, Jesus’ words in Luke’s gospel may not fit into our pre-conceived notions of a loving Jesus. If the gospel message is disturbing we might be tempted to dismiss it as not relevant to our lives, yet something within us seeks the overpowering joy of following Jesus and doing our own particular work to help bring God’s reign on earth. That something is our passion. If we follow it, if we are true to ourselves, we may question what our true mission is; we may say or do things that don’t make sense to others. We need to remember that support is available to us wherever we are, right where we are: God, our loving Father and Mother, is waiting for us to stop and listen in prayer. And Jesus, the Bread of Life, awaits us at his Table, to strengthen us so we can run the race.