Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Sermon for September 18, 2011

Patrons, Peasants and Pastors

Listen here

Let’s begin with a quiz. Are you ready? We’ll begin with a practice question:
Q. How many animals of each type did Moses take on the ark?
A. Zero. Moses didn’t have a boat, Noah did!

OK, how did you do? Are you ready for the real test?
Q. Is there a Fourth of July in England?
A. Yes, it comes after the third of July!
Q. Some months have 31 days; how many have 28?
A. 12, all of them!
Q. Is it legal for a man in California to marry his widow’s sister?
A. No - because he is dead!
Q. A rooster sits on the VERY TOP of a barn roof. If he lays an egg, which side will it roll off?
A. Roosters don't lay eggs.
Q. You have a match and you go into a house and there is an oil lamp, a stove, and a fireplace all ready to be started. What do you light first?
A. The Match!

And now for the math portion of our quiz:
Q. Divide 30 by 1/2 and add 10. What is the answer?
A. 70, (30 divided by 1/2 equals 60! Takes some thinking . . .)
Q. If there are 3 apples and you take away 2, how many do you have?
A. 2. You took them, remember?
Q. How many two-cent stamps are there in a dozen?
A. Twelve, there are 12 two cent stamps in a dozen!

Did anyone get a perfect score? Sometimes we assume we know the right answers to questions. But our assumptions can betray us. This was just a practice exercise to get us ready to hear a parable.

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like the landowner who went out early one morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay the normal daily wage and sent them out to work. At nine o’clock in the morning he was passing through the marketplace and saw some people standing around doing nothing. So he hired them, telling them he would pay them whatever was right at the end of the day. So they went to work in the vineyard. At noon and again at three o’clock he did the same thing. At five o’clock that afternoon he was in town again and saw some more people standing around. He asked them, ‘Why haven’t you been working today?’ They replied, ‘Because no one hired us.’ The landowner told them, ‘Then go out and join the others in my vineyard.’ That evening he told the foreman to call the workers in and pay them, beginning with the last workers first. When those hired at five o’clock were paid, each received a full day’s wage. When those hired first came to get their pay, they assumed they would receive more. But they, too, were paid a day’s wage. When they received their pay, they protested to the owner, ‘Those people worked only one hour, and yet you’ve paid them just as much as you paid us who worked all day in the scorching heat.’ He answered one of them, ‘Friend, I haven’t been unfair! Didn’t you agree to work all day for the usual wage? Take your money and go. I wanted to pay this last worker the same as you. Is it against the law for me to do what I want with my money? Should you be jealous because I am kind to others?’ So those who are last now will be first then, and those who are first will be last.”

When we listen to the parables of Jesus we need to be in touch with our assumptions. The lesson from Matthew 20 is a case in point. We meet a vineyard owner, and some day laborers who get the same exact wages for varying amounts of work. Centuries of commentary tell us that the moral of the story is about the grace of God. The vineyard owner seeks to include everyone by freely giving equal wages to all the workers so that they have what they need. In the same way, God gives equal access to the Kingdom to all humanity. This makes sense. It sounds nice, mostly because it fits our freethinking assumptions about justice and equality and solidarity.

But, what if our assumptions are wrong? What do we know about peasants, really? Most of us have everything we need and want. What do most of us know about the lives of migrant workers and day laborers? What if I were to change the context on you and ask you to listen with new ears? As I retell the story, I invite us to take everything we know about the parable and turn it on its head. Maybe we can hear a fresh word from God’s Spirit.

God’s kingdom is like an estate manager who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. The vineyard owner had great wealth. When he first invested in his vineyard, he pumped money into the operation for years. It took five years of outlay for the vineyard to bear fruit good enough to make wine. He had plenty money to pay mangers and servants and to hire day laborers to work in his fields. He was a good man. He saw himself as a fair man -- even a moral person. So when it came time to hire workers, he paid them a denarius -- a dollar a day. It was not generous. It wasn’t stingy, either.

Some workers took the job in the vineyard. What else could they do? They needed the money and unemployment was high. Day laborers were vulnerable people. Their survival was a bitter struggle. During planting and harvesting seasons, the work was plentiful. But in the off-season they faced malnutrition, starvation, and disease. The laborers gladly took the work and began harvesting the vineyard first thing in the morning. A buck a day was the most they could expect with the oversupply of workers.

At about 9:00 AM, a manager saw some more unemployed men hanging around the town square. He told them to go to work in the vineyard and he would pay them a fair wage. The manager did this every three hours. Right before sundown, the vineyard owner went to the marketplace to find even more workers. At 5:00, he saw some unemployed men who were older or infirm – less capable of manual labor. He asked them, “Why have you been standing idle here the whole day?” The laborers replied, “No one has hired us” So, the landowner hired them and promised a fare wage.

When the day’s work was over, the owner of the vineyard instructed his supervisor, “Call the workers in and pay them their wages. Start with the last hired and go on to the first.” The landowner was, after all, a law-abiding citizen. He followed the expectation that workers were to be paid in the evening after they worked. Those hired at 5:00 came up and were each given a dollar. When those who were hired first saw how much the old guys were paid, they assumed they would get far more. But they got the same paycheck – one dollar apiece.

Remember, the landowner saw himself as a law-abiding, compassionate, and charitable man who hired the unhireable. Not to brag or anything, but he prided himself on being a just and righteous person. The problem is something unfair just happened. The wages were not equally distributed. The workers became irritable. One group of workers began to resent the others. Some of the laborers muttered against landowner. In equalizing the payment, the landowner devalued the work of those who labored longer and under conditions that were more difficult. True equality and right relationship had not been achieved. The landowner kept his great wealth, and even benefited from the work of the peasants as he paid them with a subsistence-level wage.

Taking their dollar, the workers complained angrily to the manager. “These last workers put in only one easy hour, and you just made them equal to us, who labored all day under a scorching sun.” The owner of the vineyard replied, “Friends, I haven’t been unfair. We agreed on the wage of a dollar, didn’t we? So take it and go. I decided to give to the one who came last the same as you. Can’t I do what I want with my own money? Are you going to get stingy because I am generous?” And so, many of the first ending up last, and the last first.

So, let’s question our theological assumptions. All theology serves someone. The question is whom does it serve? Who benefits and at whose expense? When we are finished cooking up our interpretations of the text, who reigns and who suffers? If we question our assumptions, then the parable of the vineyard owner challenges us to identify with the wealthy landowner -- to realize our own blindness, our own participation in the injustices of our day, our own self-deceptions that tell us that we are good, just, and righteous before God. In this case, the landowner retains his wealth, the peasant workers are destabilized, and biblical justice is not achieved.

At one time in my life, I thought I had Jesus all figured out. I thought I knew whom God loved and whom God rejected. My system went something like this. Jesus loves straight people who go to church; and people who don’t lie, steal, or cuss, or do drugs. Jesus loves people who pray and suffer silently. Jesus tolerates gays who don’t ask and don’t tell, Baptists, Methodists, and a few Pentecostals, and people who don’t come to church because they have to work on Sunday. Jesus also tolerates pastors who cuss occasionally and vegetarians. Jesus detests openly gay people, Muslims, Catholics, and people who don’t go to church, addicts, nonconformists, and everyone who is different than the rest of us. And telemarketers. Basically, Jesus loved everyone like me. I was privileged to be a white, upper-middle class, educated, straight, married family man. Of course I was blessed. Of course Jesus loved me and my kind -- those who saw ourselves as good, righteous, holy people.

Have I offended anyone? I hope so. That’s the point. It is offensive. It’s as offensive as a vineyard owner in complete control of resources who chooses self-righteousness over human dignity. I once believed that God receives some and rejects others. But let’s question the assumptions. Somewhere in the midst of all this junk is the real Jesus, and I suspect we are most likely to meet him where we least expect him. I know as I opened myself up to Christ’s message of inclusive love, and as I questioned my assumptions, I was able to let go of my false and dangerous beliefs and live more fully into God’s compassionate love for all people.

The Jesus I’ve come to know told us to love God with all our heart and strength and to love your neighbors as ourselves. The Jesus I’ve come to know reminded us that the neighbor was not always who we would like her to be. He taught that the one non-negotiable thing was forgiveness. He taught that tolerance of enemies was not sufficient: they must be loved. He taught about money more than anything else, about the fair and just redistribution of wealth. The Jesus I’ve come to know touched the untouchables. The Jesus I’ve come to know ate with the sinners. The Jesus I’ve come to know argued with the religious leaders when they put principles before people. He welcomed strangers, valued the lower classes, and made ordinary moments holy. The Jesus I’ve come to know trusted God’s promises, even when all he could experience, as he was being tortured as a traitor, was silence in the face of great injustice. Any theological interpretation that suggests God receives some and rejects others does not reflect the ministry of Jesus Christ. Our message is not that God brings instability and chaos, pitting people against each other by withholding blessing. This is something people do, but not God. No, our message declares that Christ brings down the dividing walls of oppression.

To all of us gathered here today, this is my charge: Always question the assumptions. Always question the assumptions. We need to live a parabolic lives in which we challenge the status quo. Our job is to remind each other that sometimes we look for God in all the wrong places. We look for God among the privileged and the proud. God also dwells with the invisible people on the margins of life. God is the beggar, the nuisance, the exile and the refugee. We need to remind one another to question our assumptions so that we can read life around us with new eyes, flee from self-deception, and cherish all people as equals in God’s new world.

Sources:
Murray Bodo, The Way of St. Francis: The Challenge of Franciscan Spirituality for Everyone (Cincinnati OH, St. Andrews Press, 1995).

Mary Kay Dobrovolny, “Who Controls the Resources? Economics and Justice in Matt 20:1-15” presented to the Society of Biblical Literature, San Antonio, Texas, November 20 – 23, 2004.

Yvette Flunder, Where The Edge Gathers: Building a Community of Radical Inclusion (Cleveland OH: Pilgrim Press, 2005).

Bruce Malina, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Minneapolis MN: Fortress, 2003).

Monday, September 12, 2011

9/11 Remarks

I made the following remarks at the Islamic Society of the Washington Area for their 9/11 commemoration event. Thanks to the 30 or so CCCers who attended!

Imam Khan and members of the Islamic Society of the Washington Area, Honored Guests, and fellow citizens, on behalf of the members and friends of Christ Congregational Church United Church of Christ in Silver Spring, I thank you for the invitation to be with you here today. I appreciate the invitation and hospitality shown to each of us. I bring greetings and prayers for peace from the members and friends of Christ Congregational Church. Our church endeavors to be a faith community that embodies God’s love for all people by laboring for the progress of knowledge, the promotion of justice, and the reign of peace.

This is a big calling, especially in the 10 years since September 11th 2001. On 9/11 we saw the shadows of darkness fall upon us as we woke up to that achingly beautiful morning sun. I do not think the darkness has dissipated. The human race has witnessed this darkness before -- long before 9/11. We will undoubtedly see it again. I’m talking about the human-made horror that devour us when we forget how to demonstrate mutual forbearance, and tolerance. It’s the darkness that descends when we disregard one another as fellow human beings. We see it when people use hatred to create victims; when people think that religion-incited violence can bring about peace. We struggled to find the light in the days following September 11th. But in our darkness, we found moments of light ... light in the times we connected with each other, light in the moments when we cared for each other, light in the times when we discovered humanity within the smoky destruction. The human race has seen the light of hope before, and we will undoubtedly see it again. We partner with God and with one another to shine the light we were given each and every day.

Today, I call my faith community to a sense of public and national unity that we have yet to fully experience as a country: A national unity that is not defined by fear but by faith; a national unity that refuses to dehumanize another; a national unity that seeks to be understand and accept others, to stand with the poor and the outcast and to forgive those who've wronged us; a national unity that resists the violence of the nations by promoting peace. Let us not be afraid to defend the oppressed and the powerless, because of the anger and might of the powerful. More than ever, we need love for one another, and hope for one another, and faith in one another. Let's dedicate our lives to claiming and acting upon our good hope as Americans: That when all our work seems useless, new hope blooms. That in the midst of brokenness, healing stirs. That in the midst of darkness, light shines. That in the midst of death, new life abounds. Thank you.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Art and Science of Forgiveness
Here is my sermon, along with some prayers from our 10 Am September 11th remembrance liturgy. --mbb

Prayer of Illumination
How do we praise God on a day as difficult as this, when we may still be angry and sad, when we know that terrorists still lurk? Where do we find comfort? Our tradition tells us that we derive spiritual healing from God. We find it in words of comfort. We hear it in our songs of faith. We see it in our works of mercy and justice. And on this day, we listen for it in our scriptures.
Into our darkness send your Light, Eternal Spirit. Open our eyes that we may see you shining among us in the world today. Open our ears that we may hear you speak among all our faltering words and among the words of scripture, that, hearing and seeing, we may rise up and follow your Way to the glory of your holy name. Amen.

Call to Prayer
Occasionally during the daytime, there is great darkness. Sometimes this darkness is caused by a natural event like an eclipse, while at other times this daytime darkness is caused by humankind. In this beautiful world God created, we struggled to find the light in the days following September 11th. But in our darkness, we found moments of light ... light in the times we connected with each other, light in the times when we cared for each other, light in the times when we found humanity within the darkness. Like God, we, have an opportunity to create ... we can help God recreate the light we were given each and every day.

Blessed are You, O God, Creator of lights.

Into dark days of terror you blaze forth in Jesus the Christ who shows us the Way, the truth, and the life. He touched the hurt with healing, cuddled children, opened the eyes of the blind, unstopped deaf ears, and set the lame to leaping. Standing up to power, he was struck down so that we could be raised with him to new life and enter your good future now.

God, hear our prayers. Make us new.

Prayer of Remembrance
For those who went into danger:
We give thanks.
For those who remained behind with the infirm and injured:
We give thanks.
For those who thought of others first:
We give thanks.
For those who offered comfort to others:
We give thanks.
For those who lost their lives, as sufferers, as victims and as rescuers:
God, grant your peace.
For those who lost hope:
God, grant your peace.
For moments of the unknown:
Grant us courage.
In times of fear:
Grant us courage.
When called upon to stand for the rights of others:
Grant us courage.
When others call for our destruction:
Grant us courage.
When the enemies of freedom lash out:
Bless us with Your peace.
When the darkness of hatred descends:
Bless us with Your peace.
When we feel the urge to trample and destroy:
Bless us with Your peace.
When we look to the future of Your universe:
Bless us with Your peace.
And together we say:
Amen

Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times? Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”
Matthew 18:21-22

Rage is literally all the rage today. A June, 2005 study estimated that roughly 1 in 20 people has had “intermittent explosive disorder” -- a form of destructive, uncontrolled anger. The numbers translate into many millions of circles of trembling misery and anxiety. Wives live in fear of their husbands' next tirade, and wonder if they dare bring children into such a violent world of wrath. Husbands find that sometimes the smallest provocation of their wives brings on a firestorm. Parents struggle to understand why a son puts his fist through things, kicks pets, or screams at siblings.

It’s easy to see the problems in others. But if we’re honest, we’ve all done it. At one time or another, someone says something innocent and we take it as a personal attack. Or we feel that a certain person is intentionally doing something to make us angry, and we seethe in resentment. We’ve all exploded irrationally at something minor and let the situation control us.

Making the choice to forgive can be a liberating practice -- one that can lead to a life filled with exquisite experiences. We must remember that forgiveness is possible because we have the ability to make choices. We have the choice to forgive or not to forgive and no one can force us to do either. If we want to forgive someone, no one can stop us no matter how poorly the offender may have acted.

On this anniversary of 9/11, I’ve been thinking a lot about forgiveness. It’s a foreign concept in the American landscape. In our age of partisan bickering and decreasing tolerance, does forgiveness have a role in our national dialogue? How about tolerance? How about living at peace? A recent poll of 2450 adults by the Public Religion Research Institute concludes the following:

Americans are evenly divided over whether the values of Islam are at odds with American values and way of life. Approximately two-thirds of Republicans, Americans who identify with the Tea Party movement, and Americans who most trust Fox News agree that the values of Islam are at odds with American values. A majority of Democrats, Independents, and those who most trust CNN or public television disagree. Nearly 6-in-10 white evangelical Protestants believe the values of Islam are at odds with American values, but majorities of Catholics, non-Christian religiously unaffiliated Americans, and religiously unaffiliated Americans disagree.

Americans employ a double standard when evaluating violence committed by self-identified Christians and Muslims. More than 8-in-10 Americans say that self-proclaimed Christians who commit acts of violence in the name of Christianity are not really Christians. In contrast, slightly less than half of Americans say that self-proclaimed Muslims who commit acts of violence in the name of Islam are not really Muslims.

The survey findings suggest that we are in the midst of a struggle over what growing religious, racial and ethnic diversity means for American politics and society, and that partisan and ideological polarization around these questions will make them difficult to resolve.

Have we forgiven what happened 10 years ago? Can we forgive? Should we forgive? What does this all mean? I don’t have answers when it comes to terrorism. I know Jesus’ radical call. I don’t know if I can do it. Here’s what I can talk about: How do we, on 9/11/11 think about our roles as healers and peacemakers. How do we create peace in our personal lives, in our families, in our communities and in the world. I think part of that journey begins with understanding forgiveness.

We talk about it a lot in church. We know Jesus wanted his followers to do it. I believe that when the gospels quote Jesus saying things like, “Forgive your enemies. Bless, and do not curse them,” that these are among some of the most authentic and original sayings of Jesus. It’s also the number one question I get from people who come to me looking for spiritual advice. “Pastor, how do I forgive?” People say to me, “Terrible things have happened to me. I know I should forgive those who hurt me, but I can’t. And then I feel guilty for not forgiving. What do I do?”

Forgiveness happens in stages. In the beginning, something happens that fills you with self justified anger. At some point in your life, you have been wounded and you are mad at and hurt by the person who wronged you. You blame the offending person for how you are feeling. You are certain that another’s actions cause your distress. You have no choice in the matter. You feel so injured that you are convinced it would not be right to forgive the offense. You are angry. You are in pain. But anger and pain don’t have to declare the final word.

The second step towards forgiveness emerges when, after feeling upset with someone for a while, you realize that the hurt and anger do not feel good to you. It may be impacting your emotional balance or your physical health. You may wish to repair the damage done to the relationship. You may begin to see the problem from the other person’s point of view. You may simply decide to let the problem go. In either case, after a while you are no longer done in by your anger. You forgive the person with whom you were angry.

The third stage of forgiveness comes after you have seen the results of forgiveness. You are now ready to work to either repair damaged relationships or let go of seeing the situation as a problem. You decide to forgive because you have had some practice with it and see the clear benefit in your life. This could emerge in a situation as simple as being cut off by another car on the highway or in a complex situation like being the victim of violence. At this stage of forgiveness you are aware that the length of time you experience a situation as a grievance is primarily up to you.

I have to confess to you, there are times when I’ve squandered my time being angry at people. I remember times I’ve had misunderstandings with others. Words were said. Feelings were hurt. I felt angry, hurt, and betrayed and I didn’t know what to do. I was disgusted with hypocrisy – my own included. I would try to avoid those who hurt me, but we would eventually see each other and I’d remember my injuries.

I can tell you exactly how things changed for me. I was reading a quote about hypocrisy by the famous activist and preacher William Sloane Coffin. He wrote: Of course we all pass ourselves off as something we are not, but not as anything we are not. Generally, we try to pass ourselves off as something that is special in our hearts and minds, something we yearn for, something beyond us. That’s rather touching.

Reading that quote changed my perspective. I realized that I’m human and I act to protect the wellbeing of myself and my family. Others are human, and they act to preserve their interests. I don’t need to harbor anger. I can make a different choice. I can forgive. And I hope that people can forgive me. I make mistakes. You make mistakes. If I have done things that anger you, I ask for your forgiveness. If I make decisions that you don’t understand or agree with, please forgive me. If I say or do something and your feelings are hurt, please forgive me. Let’s walk in the healing love and unity that can be the trademark of our congregation.

Thankfully, that’s not the end of the journey. There is still one more step to healing.

The fourth stage of forgiveness involves the choice to rarely if ever take offense in the first place. There is an ancient and well-kept secret to happiness that sages have known for centuries. They rarely talk about it, but they use it all the time, and it is fundamental to good mental health. This secret is called The Fine Art of Not Being Offended. In order to truly be a master of this art, one must be able to see that every statement, action and reaction of another human being is the sum result of one’s total life experience to date. In other words, the majority of people in our world say what they say and do what they do from their own set of fears, conclusions, defenses and attempts to survive. We all act out of self interest. When we understand that, the world can become more manageable.

Maybe you are now at a point in your life where you don’t want to waste your precious life in the discomfort caused by anger or hurt. You are ready to feel differently. You are able to forgive yourself, forgive others, forgive life, and forgive God.

Maybe you’ve learned that life is filled with incredible beauty and wonder and you are missing these experiences when you’re stuck in the remembrance of old hurts or disappointments.

Perhaps you realize that everyone, including you, operates primarily out of self-interest. In my self-interest, I will be annoyed by someone else’s expression of self-interest. If I can understand that this is an ordinary part of life, what is there to be upset about? If I understand that self-interest is my guiding principle, how can I not offer forgiveness to everyone, including myself for behaving that way?

In this sense, forgiveness is an art. It takes practice, discipline, and patience to get to a point where you desire not to get offended in the first place.

As it turns out, there is also some science to forgiveness. Forgiveness may be a choice and a discipline, but it also comes from a changed reality at a subconscious level of impulses. The subconscious is ruled by our most in-grained fears and desires, so if we can train our subconsciouses to crave reconciliation and lessen fear, then the world can be changed one thought at a time.

I’m going to keep this very basic, because that’s all I can understand. There is a part of the brain called the Cingulate Gyrus, Latin for “belt ridge”. The Cingulate is an evolved feature of the mammalian brain. It functions as a clearing house for the subconscious mind, deciding which primal instincts are appropriate for a given situation. Think of the Cingulate as the belt around your consciousness. It functions in the brain a little like a mediator. It helps restore balance between your thoughts and your feelings, between behaviors and emotions.

What’s this got to do with forgiveness? Research shows that activity increases in the Cingulate during moments of forgiveness. The brain is hardwired for forgiveness. Your brain is able to consider another person’s intentions, another person’s emotional state and the forgivability of another’s actions. If the brain wasn’t so crowded out with competing demands and opposing stories from the past, there would be more forgiveness because our brains would be free to do what they can do so well and so impersonally. We tend to think that forgiveness only benefits the person being forgiven. However research has found that forgiveness is good for the person forgiving as well. It lowers blood pressure, improves cardiovascular health and strengthens the immune system.

This is not to mention the social benefits. People who forgive tend to have less depression, longer lasting marriages and stronger social networks. With forgiveness, what goes around most definitely comes around.

The science and art of forgiveness is summed up like this: Loosen the belt of your consciousness. You can absorb pain and injustice without becoming a bitter person. You can come face to face with pain, your own and others, without becoming hostile. Forgiveness is good for you, and so much better than holding on to resentment. Forgiveness is also good for the world. Forgiveness is one of the powerful thoughts that change the world, beginning with your inner world. So forgive. Stop expecting the world to be perfect. Forgive seventy times seven times. Forgive because it’s good for others. Forgive because it’s good for you. Forgive because it’s part of your biological make-up. Forgive because God forgives you.

Sources:
• “'The Science and Spirit of Forgiveness " By Ian Lawton. February 24, 2008
• The Art and Science of Forgiveness by Frederic Luskin, Ph.D. Available online at http://www.cancersupportivecare.com/forgive.html



A Prayer
Say to yourself:
May I be at peace. May I be a lake of forgiveness. May I be truly happy.

Think of someone who has harmed you, or needs your forgiveness:
May you be at peace. May you be free from suffering. May you be free from pain. May you be happy.

Bring all the peoples of the world into your focus:
May the world be at peace. May it be free from suffering. May it be free from pain. May it be happy.

Finally, bring the Earth into your focus:
May she be at peace. May she be free from suffering. May she be free from pain. May she be happy.

Sermon for September 4, 2011

Conflict and Communication
I only kind of preached this sermon. I lost my notes and made up the second half, but this is essential what I said. -- mbb

“If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back. But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses. If the person still refuses to listen, take your case to the church. Then if he or she won’t accept the church’s decision, treat that person as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector.
I tell you the truth, whatever you forbid on earth will be forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven.I also tell you this: If two of you agree here on earth concerning anything you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you. For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them.” Matthew 18:15-20

I had a former church music director I called “The Maestro”. I remember entering the sanctuary of a church one Sunday morning. The Maestro was there, chirping one of his favorite hymns with a warbled falsetto as he changed the numbers on the hymn board. Usually the Maestro grumbled his way through Sunday morning. He was a lightening rod for conflict in the church. Instead of his usual litany of complaints, however, he seemed gleeful as we prepared for morning worship. Throughout the morning, there was a sense of lightness in the dusty atmosphere of this old church. Worship attendance was higher than average. Worshipers belted out the hymns and greeted each another with gracious salutations. I preached a sizzler-of- a-sermon. The choir was in tune. I dare say we enjoyed worshipping together. After the service, a church member pulled me aside to talk confidentially. I called him, “The Amazing Randy.” The Amazing Randy would occasionally conveyed extrasensory messages from the spirit world to me. Today he had another message. His hands were folded like a Jedi Master’s. He motioned me close and said, “Just between you and me, I’m getting a strange vibe at church today. I feel tension in the air. There is going to be a great power struggle here soon. I just thought you would want to know.” The Amazing Randy’s prophecy came true too quickly. That afternoon, I saw some choir members congregating in the parking lot. As I drew near to them, everyone ambled off — everyone except for “The Soprano,” whose unofficial job is to keep tally of all insults to the choir and the Maestro. “Today’s service was an outrage,” she said as I approached. She wept as she fumbled with the keys to her car. Between sobs, she told me that people treat the music director rudely, and he just wants to teach us fine music, and people want to stay ignorant and, “What are you going to do about it, pastor?” Welcome to life in church, folks.

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 CCC, we affirm that we are a congregation of people who want to listen attentively. We seek 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.

We have all be taught certain methods of passive conflict resolution. For instance, do you have a problem with someone you know? Does this person have bad manners, bad hygiene, or annoying habits? How about those inconsiderate neighbors with noisy pets? Wouldn’t you love to tell off your tyrant boss without her 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 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 him 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.” So let’s do everyone a favor. If you have a problem with someone, go deal with it directly with that person alone.

That’s how Jesus wants us to do it. In today’s Gospel reading, we get some very practical advice on how to handle it when someone in the church sins against us. The first thing we learn is that we're to approach the person whose behavior hurt us directly, and if at all possible, privately. That way, the person you're speaking with has room to reconsider without losing face -- and you have room to reconsider if the other person can point to ways in which your behavior has contributed negatively to the situation. Jesus encourages quiet conversation between people. The quiet conversation isn't just a formality on the way to wonderfully juicy public drama. He’s saying that instead of going public, the first quality of conflict and communication is to face a person one-on-on without dragging others into the dispute. There may be time to involve others later. However, the initial confrontation is always personal, private, and sincere.

Another quality of conflict and communication is caring. This means that we use words to express healing. 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. Merton writes:

“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”

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. 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 conflict and communication 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 encourage an atmosphere where every person here can talk honestly about his or her beliefs. 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.

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.

Sermon for January 21, 2018

How Far Would You Go? 1 Samuel 17 I had a sermon all ready to go today. It was a NICE sermon. You would have felt really good about i...