Sermon Notes 2019 08 18 Rev David Howells Conflict
There is a sense of frustration and conflict in the readings today. It feels uncomfortable, and I felt like I would prefer something a bit more positive to be preaching on!
It is that reaction that I want to look at. I don’t like conflict! I would rather avoid it, skirt around it and smooth it over. I grew up in a household of almost daily, angry explosions and so I have an intense desire to avoid fights.
But that is not a good thing. Well, fights are not good, but pretending there is no conflict is not good either. Whenever there is conflict in a church I have learned to be glad. People only enter into aggressive statements about things when they really matter. I am glad that people take their life of faith so seriously as to fight for it. I am glad that people want to hold onto what matters to them.
As I move into leadership in this church I will bring my own ideas and the things I have seen work well in other churches and I will, without even realizing it, bring change. To me these will seem to be small things, and improvements. But to members of the congregation the removal of what has been known and valued is the erasing of little pieces of tradition, or memories of worship, of moments when, through a few words of the service, once, but marvelously, God spoke into their heart. Just being here I am the absence of Douglas, of Michael. No one will complain to me of that, but there is always a little sadness around change. They were people who showed you ways to be faithful and their absence is a sadness.
Jesus says “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law” How is this Good News?
Conflict comes when something happens which bumps you off course. A supervisor says something critical. A friend suggests you change your opinion or way of doing something. You feel judged, found wanting, and your image of yourself as “basically OK” gets shaken. And when your self-image gets dented there is an instinctive reaction towards conflict or towards withdrawal. Neither of these serve us well, because they both do something unloving towards the other person. To withdraw is to shut someone out of your love. To attack is to name the other as enemy.
Suddenly Jesus’s image of a family with generations in conflict and in-laws in disagreement takes on another aspect. Here is a picture of a family in conflict, holding different understandings of who Jesus is and how his teaching and actions should influence the body of the whole family. Jesus enumerates the people at odds, but he doesn’t say, “And then he stormed off in a huff!” Or “She said, ‘I’ll never speak to you again!’ ”
How do we do conflict well? How do you let the bumps and friction that come in your life be a blessing not a curse?
The first step is to pause, maybe after the rapid fire of the conversation has ended, take yourself apart, and be still. You can only find your way out of conflict by finding where you are. Beginning in prayer is not a bad plan. “Lord Jesus, help me slow down, pay attention and think. Help me find myself safe in your love. Then let me think about what just happened.”
Putting your own reaction aside. Often the desire is to hit back or to cut off love. Putting this aside helps you get centered and balanced. Sitting still, taking several slow deep breaths, asking God to hold you in love and peace. All this is centering in God.
Perhaps it is best to go to the words that hurt most. Let them stand there. This is like the family after the fight. I imagine everyone going off to a different place, slowly, gently looking at what hurts most. The good question to ask is “How come ‘So and so’, who I like and I thought liked me, was so angry with me?” The looking at what you might have done. The old translation of the Lord’s prayer says “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” What does “trespassing” mean? It is an image of stepping over a boundary and walking on someone else’s space without permission. It is an invasion, not only of land, but of soul and heart. When we are hurt, or have hurt others, without knowing it perhaps, we have invaded someone’s soul space and left our footprints on their heart. And, conversely, we are looking at the tracks of rough boots in the garden of our own soul and heart.
You cannot make peace until you are reconciled. You cannot be reconciled unless you know how you have hurt, and how you have been hurt. You cannot be reconciled until you have heard the other tell of the pain you caused, and until you have been brave enough to tell the truth of the hurt they caused you. Jesus always leads us to truth. The truth, he said, will set you free.
We, who are trying to practice the Way of Christ in our lives, need to become awake to conflict, and enter it with the awareness and openness we see in Jesus. If we follow Christ we will repeatedly be in conflict with a culture that values power, and wealth and privilege. We will be called to be a voice for the ignored and advocates for the disregarded. The creation itself needs our witness.
And the Way of Christ in conflict is to be awake. Awake to the way God never rejects a person, but may reject how they are living. God never writes anyone off, for “while we were still sinners Christ died for us”. And we believe that each one of us is made in the image of God, and therefore is held in God’s love. A love which is so strong that God can get mad at us, because God is so in love with us that God gets frustrated at our foolishness and destructiveness. About you, God cares. Always, cares. Enough to die for you, for me, even when we are being as dumb as a sack of hammers.
True peace only comes following conflict. Faithfulness involves truth telling, and truth can hurt. It is brave to tell hard truth to someone you care about. But it can be an act of love. Jesus and the prophets told truth with love, I believe. We are called to be people of truth and of love, and so we tread bravely, but also humbly, carefully, delicately to be bearers of truth that will cause others anger or pain. We are called to do this for real peace - that comes with justice, truth and love - to enter our worlds.
In this we are slowly building little, fragile, outposts of the kingdom of heaven. And this is no small thing to do with our lives.
May God’s Spirit dwell in us, guide us, and give us courage and truth in our hearts.