March 4, 2012 Gospel: Mark 8:31-38 Psalm 22:23-31
1st Reading: Genesis 17:1-7; 15-16 2nd Reading: Romans 4:13-25
“Wherever two or more are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” No, we did not hear these words in any of today’s readings, yet they apply, because anytime two or more are gathered, you’ll have at least that many opinions and the opportunity for conflict. In fact, the next verse after this one from Matthew, Peter asks Jesus how many times he must forgive his neighbor.
In this morning’s Gospel readings, Peter and Jesus have a disagreement. They have a difference of opinion on what Jesus’ role should be and how his life should play out. They have a fight.
There may be nothing that terrifies congregations more than conflict. I recently attended a training called “Transforming Church Conflict” and got more than a few funny looks when I said I planned to go and invited the council to attend with me. Church conflict? Here?
A lot of how we each deal with conflict, has to do with how we learned to deal with it growing up. I don’t want to generalize too much, but if we look at the Scandanavian way of handling conflict, a category that a good number of members of King of Kings fall into—we know this group tends to be on the reserved side, showing little emotion. Think if you grew up in a colder climate, stuck indoors for months on end, you’d probably find a way to avoid conflict just to get through. Those patterns get passed down. I’ve learned German stubbornness or else it is in my DNA. I like to be right. But I also grew up in an abusive house, so conflict is a very scary thing to me, because it can end up in physical injury. We all have different experiences of conflict that affect how we see it and what we do when we are in it.
Doesn’t this just make you so curious to know more about Jesus’ family of origin dealing with their conflicts? Jesus doesn’t shy away from conflict. In fact, he seems to pick fights. He says what is on his mind. He is self-assured. He doesn’t let things fester. And yet, for Jesus, a conflict is just part of life. He doesn’t push anyone away from him because of a conflict. He is just as loving and kind after he argues with you as before.
This workshop that I attended with Winston and Mary, reminded us that conflict is not failure. We often think of it that way. Jesus said we are to be peacemakers, why can’t I get along with so and so? Many of us will do almost anything to avoid conflict—even lie. We just “smile and nod,” right? We listen, then ignore. We pretend to agree with people just so we don’t have to get into it with them.
Another reason we see conflict as failure is because we think in conflicts there must be winners and losers, right and wrong. Especially in the political climate we’re in, we see those with one opinion vilifying those with a different opinion, making the other side out to be monsters. We don’t see a lot of healthy conflict resolution playing out in the media. Where do we get healthy role models for conflict? None jump readily to mind. We may need to seek them out so that we as Christians can help model that.
We learned at the workshop that rather than being a failure, conflict is a result of the wonderful variety that God made amongst people. We vary in ways that we can see, such as age and gender. But most of the ways we vary are hidden, like the way we handled conflict growing up, our profession, our wealth, our status in the congregation. It would be boring if we were all alike, and because we’re different, we will see things differently and disagree about them.
Let’s look again at this argument in the Gospel. Peter and Jesus had a difference of opinion. Jesus is saying things that the disciples don’t want to hear about what is going to happen to him. Peter says, “Jesus, don’t talk like that!” It is wonderful that Peter and Jesus have a strong enough relationship that Peter feels that he can share his views. Think if Peter kept those feelings to himself. They would just grow stronger. Maybe he’d have trouble sleeping or get an ulcer. Maybe he’d go to the other disciples and start complaining about Jesus. There are a lot of unhealthy things that could happen. But Peter feels the relationship is strong enough that he can say what is on his mind.
Next Jesus turns to all the disciples. He knows that what one is thinking, likely several of them are thinking. When Peter contradicts Jesus, he isn’t just speaking for himself but he’s expressing what others are also thinking. In the same way, when you have a question about something here at church, there is no need to feel shy about bringing it up. Maybe you feel stupid, like you’re the only one who doesn’t know why we do things a certain way or what a lectern is. Or sometimes just asking the question of why might seem like an attack in itself, when it is really just curiosity. I invite you to ask those questions. There are likely others who have the same question. And if you have a different opinion, there are probably others who do, too, and by bringing it up you are helping a whole group of people give voice to another point of view. And if we are doing something just because that is the way we’ve always done it and it is inefficient or counterproductive, it might be time to change it for the good of the community. Ask the questions, not just for yourself but for the sake of others.
Sometimes conflict feels like the end of the world. But after this conflict, Jesus and the disciples don’t break up. They continue in relationship and ministry together. There are many other times the disciples don’t get it, but they keep working at the relationship and learning from their disagreements and interactions and we know that Peter eventually does get it since he goes and spreads the good news after Jesus’ death and resurrection and eventually becomes a martyr. If they never brought up their differences, they might never have the chance to learn from one another and from Jesus and grow in their faith and maturity and understanding.
This congregation has experienced some pretty difficult conflicts over the years and even more recently we’ve faced differences of opinion among us and poor communication that has led to misunderstandings. This congregation is not immune from conflict. The better we can understand what is happening when we go through conflict, the better we can learn and grow from it, rather than it pulling us apart. In thinking of a conflict a few years ago, the council evaluated what we could have done better and created a policy so that we would better communicate in the future. I don’t want to sound naïve, but there are ways we can all win, when we experience conflict, and that is when we learn something about ourselves and those with whom we disagree. When you come through a healthy conflict experience, often you’ll find a deeper bond. A strong friendship transcends the differences between us and will last through even the toughest difficulties.
In the Old Testament Reading for today, God enters into a covenant with Abraham. It is an agreement between the two, almost like a marriage. God will be God to Abraham and his many descendents and they will be God’s people. Yet God and Abraham are very different. They are going to disagree. Abraham will make many mistakes, but that will never come between them and their relationship. They are going to keep working at this relationship, no matter what trying times come. Abraham will disagree with God and he will let his opinion be known. God will disagree with Abraham and let him know. Yet they will continue to be in relationship with one another and they will build a common story together that will bind them closer together in relationship.
Sometimes when we disagree, it seems like everything is out of balance. However, our unity must go beyond our differences, because the source of it is God. Think of God who made each of us and loves us all. We are all made and loved by the same God who wants to be in relationship with us and wants us to be in relationship with each other. We have our savior Jesus who was constantly teaching the disciples to be among those different from themselves—children, lepers, women, those of different religious affiliations, foreigners, tax collectors. He knew the value in exposing yourself to all different kinds of people, that it helped you know who you are and what is important to you, it helped you to see beyond yourself to the needs of others, it helped you to learn and grow as a person, it helped your relationship with God who is also different from us, and it helps to grow God’s Kingdom (otherwise known as “kin-dom,” or relationship), God’s web of relationship and love that no one is outside of.
So, your council is a little better prepared to deal with conflict. We’re still practicing and won’t be perfect, but if you help us practice we will learn to use the skills from this workshop. We’ll encourage you to speak up. We’ll help assemble the different voices so that people can weigh in. We’ll encourage the sharing of stories so that we can understand more deeply where each other is coming from. We’ll affirm the unity we do have, even when we disagree. And we’ll try to learn and help the community learn and grow in love and relationship to one another and to God just like God’s people have throughout the ages. Let us return to community and relationship so that we can serve God together despite our beautiful differences.
Jesus didn’t argue just to be difficult. He stood firm about justice for the poor, food for the hungry, and help for the sick and imprisoned. Because he stood up for those who were hurting, he butted heads with those who liked the system as it stood and he gave his life, making sure that everyone had access to life abundant.