SERMON 10/9/11 Pentecost 17A
Watching children work out their disagreements can be entertaining, especially while they play and interact. Go to any local park and watch them, and you may see one child take the toy of another and you will hear the screams and see the tears begin to flow. You may see another third child ask a friend to push them in the swing and if that friend refuses, the first child may grab her toys, walk away and say, “I’m not playing with you anymore.” Conflict happens at any age and it sometimes occurs when different viewpoints clash or when people fail to strive to find compromise.
The early church was not without its own disagreements. The discord Paul mentions in today’s epistle must have been quite an affair. It was certainly a well-known test of wills between two people named Euodia and Syntyche. The interesting thing about this little squabble is Paul does not even mention what the problem was between these two. He only acknowledged that a disagreement existed, who it was between, and that it happened in Phillipi. The source of the conflict itself was not of importance to Paul, but how the church might deal with these types of disagreements. Disagreements are not something we should avoid because we should be willing to welcome differing viewpoints and opinions. No one person has all the answers or all the wisdom but sometimes, healthy disagreements can become unhealthy conflict. When controversy turns into attitudes of “my way or the highway,” when the contest of wills nets out “winners and losers,” and when disagreements become character assassinations, we no longer are being healthy, we are undermining harmony, cooperation and common mission. When our views become so polarized, when we draw battle lines, or when we defend our ideas at all costs, we are no longer communicating and working things out, we are abandoning Kingdom living. I imagine whatever was going on between Euodia and Syntche in Phillipi, it was a very serious disagreement, so serious that it threatened the peace of the community. In Paul’s pastoral response, it was how the community should remain together even when they disagree that he focused on. Paul’s exhortation was that the people in conflict should “be of one mind.” In other words, Paul was saying that the people should work together to find a middle way. Being “of one mind” does not mean compromising ones closely held values. It means that even when we feel strongly about issues, there needs to be an attitude of “give and take,” of “meeting in the middle,” of a willingness to live in gentleness, trust, and respect for each other. Our Anglican way has for centuries, been grounded in the notion of compromise in the midst of conflict. Back in the day when Queen Elizabeth was trying to restore harmony and peace in the Church of England, she became known for her great compromise, which resulted in holding the church together. Had either group remained polarized and stood their ground without compromise, without working together, it is very likely that we all would be a part of a tradition that strives less for balance and walking together, and part of one that holds tight to polar opposition. The middle way, the being of one mind, is the way of peace. There are a may things that get in the way of peace. Fear and worry is the greatest threat to our peace. We need to consider what Our Lord has to say about worry. “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?’” (Luke 12:22-26, NIV) Fear breaks down our peace, it infiltrates our sense of trust, and it undermines God’s Kingdom. When this happens, we have an alternative. We can rest in the promises of God. “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.” (Proverbs 3:5-8). When we find ourselves in the midst of a fearful situation, it is then that our commitment to trust God can be strengthened. We can tap into the peace that passes all understanding, when we engage in and participate in the peace found in the power of prayer. When we turn to God, with an open heart and a spirit and release our will to God’s, we are thus, transformed. We learn through prayer what it means to meet God, and it is in meeting God, that we are able to let go of our own self-acclaimed certainties and fear-driven uncompromising positions. When we begin to trust outside ourselves, when we rely on the one who created all, redeemed all and sustains all, the Spirit will lead us into all truth. In the life of a church there are many things that can get into the way of Kingdom living. Conflicts over resources, distrust over past hurts, uncertainty in times of transition, and even minor disagreements can fuel fear and uneasiness. Peace and harmony can be disturbed when distractions get in the way of the church’s mission of a common life shared together. An alternative to fear is to embrace healthy dialogue that provides for the sharing of differing ideas and possibilities. When conflict arises, we can choose to abandon the natural tendency to move into polar opposites and well-entrenched positions, and seize the opportunity to “meet in the middle.” When misunderstandings arise, and they will, we need to embrace what is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing and commendable. We need to trust each other, seek common purpose, and most importantly recognize that we are one community who has passed through the waters of baptism. It is by our baptism that we are made into a community of love. Life in the Christian community is different from any other in the world. Unlike other human associations, like government, corporations or other entities, of which most of us have had experience, the Body of Christ is a community of “give and take,” reconciliation, love, and trusting in God’s grace. We are a people that have been redeemed by the cross of Christ. As children of God who are called to play, serve, and worship together, we need to remember that the world sees God’s redeeming grace through the window of our common life. The question with which we must wrestle is, “will others come to recognize God’s grace in the example of how we love one another?” The church is a radical community of love that thwarts the norms of culture. We are invited by God to live together in harmony, peace, and with a commitment to “being of one mind.” When we commit to grow in our love of Christ, when we recognize Christ in our sisters and brothers, peace will prevail.