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Sermon for Sunday October 26, 2008

Our Core Values: Dealing With Differences
James 4:1-12

What is causing the quarrels and fights among you? Don’t they come from the evil desires at war within you? You want what you don’t have, so you scheme and kill to get it. You are jealous of what others have, but you can’t get it, so you fight and wage war to take it away from them. Yet you don’t have what you want because you don’t ask God for it. And even when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong—you want only what will give you pleasure.

Don’t you realize that friendship with the world makes you an enemy of God? I say it again: If you want to be a friend of the world, you make yourself an enemy of God. What do you think the Scriptures mean when they say that the spirit God has placed within us is filled with envy? But he gives us even more grace to stand against such evil desires. As the Scriptures say, “God opposes the proud but favors the humble.”

So humble yourselves before God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come close to God, and God will come close to you. Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world. Let there be tears for what you have done. Let there be sorrow and deep grief. Let there be sadness instead of laughter, and gloom instead of joy. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up in honor.

Don’t speak evil against each other, dear brothers and sisters. If you criticize and judge each other, then you are criticizing and judging God’s law. But your job is to obey the law, not to judge whether it applies to you. God alone, who gave the law, is the Judge. He alone has the power to save or to destroy. So what right do you have to judge your neighbor?

James can be difficult. He’s so confrontational. He knows us too well. He understands that humans stumble through life, make mistakes, and behave sinfully. If you question this fact, James says, then just listen to your words. What if I asked you to carry a voice recorder with you and to record every word that you speak in the next week, and then bring the recording here next Sunday so we can replay your words for everyone to hear? I wouldn’t do it. I’d be ashamed at what you might hear. Every fault of my life would be revealed in my words. James says that our words express our thoughts and the true feelings of our hearts. As James laments earlier in his letter, “We can tame all kinds of animals, but we can’t tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”

Mark Twain agreed. In one essay he wrote the about an experiment he performed. “In an hour I taught a cat and a dog to be friends. I put them in a cage. In another hour I taught them to be friends with a rabbit. In the course of two days I was able to add a fox, a goose, a squirrel and some doves. Finally a monkey. They lived together in peace; even affectionately. Next, in another cage I confined an Irish Catholic from Tipperary, and as soon as he seemed tame I added a Scotch Presbyterian from Aberdeen. Next a Turk from Constantinople; a Greek Christian from Crete; an Armenian; a Methodist from the wilds of Arkansas; a Buddhist from China; a Brahman from Benares. Finally, a Salvation Army Colonel from Wapping. Then I stayed away two whole days. When I came back to note results . . . there was but a chaos of gory odds and ends of turbans and fezzes and plaids and bones and fleshnot a specimen left alive. These Reasoning Animals had disagreed on a theological detail and carried the matter to a Higher Court.”

Twain concluded that we fight because we have, what he calls, a Moral Sense that actually enables us to do wrong. In other words, because we know the difference between right and wrong, because we have consciences, we will always tempted to do wrong and live in a state of conflict.

We tend to think that all conflict is bad. But that’s not true. Living together as a church family does not mean there will never conflict. But there is healthy conflict and unhealthy conflict – words that hurt and words that heal. Healthy conflict is the responsible exploration of our differences. In fact, we can thrive on differences of opinion, differing approaches to life and different ways of thinking. It is possible to courageously learn what makes us different from one another and then recognize how these differences can be used to serve God. Being human means that we will face times when we are angry, confused, or blind. When we are faithful to God, opposition can be turned into collaboration.

As we think about our core values here at TCC, we affirm that we are a congregation of people who want to listen attentively, seeking others’ opinions and understand that differing values do exist within our church family. We deal with disagreements constructively, communicating with others in a direct, caring, and responsible manner. The good news for us today is that while disagreements can hurt, disagreements can also bring us together. Remember that next time you are locked in a conflict with someone. Words can hurt, and words can heal.

Let’s think about the three qualities of how to disagree constructively. First of all, we must deal with conflict directly. James puts it this way: Don’t speak evil against each other, dear brothers and sisters. That means facing a person one-on-on without dragging others into the dispute. Let me ask you, do you have a problem with someone you know? Does this person have bad manners, bad hygiene, or annoying habits? How about inconsiderate neighbors with noisy pets? Do your pleas to get help for alcoholism, smoking, drug abuse or other addiction? Wouldn’t you love to tell off your tyrant boss without him knowing who did it? Now your confrontation problems are over. I once found a website called SincereSuggestions.com. For $5, Sincere Suggestions would send a politely written letter to notify people about their problems while you will remain completely anonymous. The sender would just choose a topic, fill out the information and an anonymous letter would be sent right away. I don’t recommend this approach, of course. I believe if you have something to say about someone, than you should say it to his or her face. But we live in a society whose rules say that direct confrontation might hurt another person’s feelings. So instead of being honest, we will find a third person and tell her everything wrong with another person. Now I don’t know about you, but I’ve never heard a person say, “You know, I wish someone would trash talk me around town today. I wish someone would call me a crook, or a liar or a weirdo behind my back because confrontation makes me uncomfortable.” Nope, I’ve never heard it from one person. So let’s do everyone a favor. If you have a problem with someone, go deal with it directly with that person alone.

Another quality of healthy disagreement is caring. This means that we use words express high value. Healing words say, “Even though I don’t agree with you, you are important to me. You are a person of worth and I’m not going to cheapen you with bad thoughts or careless words. I value you as a person, and I will honor you by what I say.” The theologian and activist Thomas Merton once wrote these words. They come from the book entitled Seeds of Contemplation. I offer them for all of us to contemplate.
“Do not be too quick to assume that your enemy is a savage just because he is your enemy. Perhaps he is your enemy because he thinks you are a savage. Or perhaps he is afraid of you because he feels you are afraid of him. And perhaps if he believed you were capable of loving him he would no longer be your enemy.

“Do not be too quick to assume that your enemy is an enemy of God just because he is your enemy. Perhaps he is your enemy precisely because he can find nothing in you that gives glory to God. Perhaps he fears you because he can find nothing in you of God’s love and God’s kindness and God’s patience and mercy and understanding of the weakness of men.

“Do not be too quick to condemn the man who no longer believes in God. For it is perhaps your own coldness and avarice and mediocrity and materialism and sensuality and selfishness that have killed his faith”

Our job is to see the face of Christ in those with whom we disagree. Until we can look at the most revolting members of the human species and see the face of Christ, we are imprisoned by prejudice and hatred. And that’s not the way Christ wants us to live.

Healthy disagreement is also responsible. We grow together when our differences are valued and when people learn to practice civil and patient boundaries with one another. We use our words to express a special future. We encourage an atmosphere where every person here can talk honestly about his or her convictions. When we take time to listen to everyone, even when we disagree, we will find shared meaning together. And the more shared meaning we find, the deeper our relationships will become.

I read a story about a grandmother who cuddled her new grandson in her arms. The new father was grinning by her side until the woman looked at her son and said, “How could anyone as dumb and ugly as you have such a good looking child?” Her words might have been brushed aside as a bad joke, but they instantly brought tears to the new dad’s eyes. He replied, “It’s taken me years to believe I’m not ugly or dumb. Why do you think I haven’t been home for so long? I don’t ever want you to call me dumb again.” The woman sat in stunned silence. She had meant her words as a joke. For years, without realizing the impact of her words, this woman teased her kids about being stupid, fat and ugly, just as her mother had teased her. How often have we said something without thinking, not realizing the harmful impact of our words? Healing words picture a special future for others. I’m not just talking about sappy sentimentalism here. I’ve seen the power of words. I’ve said things I regret, and I’ve been on the receiving end as well. I suspect most of you are the same. We need to remind ourselves that people have a deep need to know they are loved, accepted, and created by God for a purpose. God can use our words as a source of encouragement and new beginnings for others.

So, how do we do it? How do we speak directly, caringly, and responsibly? James says pray for wisdom that comes from heaven, wisdom that is pure, peace-loving, considerate, sincere, and full of good fruit. Ask God to make you aware of your harmful words and thoughts. As they come to mind, confess them, ask for forgiveness, and walk in step with the Holy Spirit. Make amends to those you’ve hurt. This week, before you open your mouth, ask yourself, “Does God want me to say what I’m about to say?” If the answer is no, then show some self-control, and make a choice to honor others with your words. May God help us control our tongues. May God forgive our sinful thoughts and words. May God empower us to use our words to depict high value and special futures to others.

Our goal is to be at peace. Peace is not the absence of conflict. It is a way through it. Peace is not the absence of conflict. It is the presence of Christ in our midst. Because we humans are always going to be in conflict in some form or another, making peace means actively addressing conflict and injustice – not running away from it — using nonviolent methods. So remember, words can hurt and words can heal. Disagreements can tear people apart, or they can help us work together for a shared future. The choice is up to us.

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