Tag Archives: conflict

The Ruckus of the King

A Sermon for 20 March 2016 – Palm Sunday

A reading from the gospel of Luke 19:28-48. Listen for God’s word to us.

“After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, “Why are you untying it?’ just say this, “The Lord needs it.’ ” So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” Then he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling things there; and he said, “It is written, “My house shall be a house of prayer’; but you have made it a den of robbers.” Every day he was teaching in the temple. The chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people kept looking for a way to kill him; but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were spellbound by what they heard.”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

 

A reading from the prophet Isaiah 50:4-9a. Listen for God’s word to us.

“The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens— wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward. I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty?”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

 

We started this service with that beloved reading according to the gospel of Luke of that first Palm Procession down the Mount of Olives, through the garden of Gethsemane, and into the city of Jerusalem right through the Temple gate. And just in case we don’t see you again this week, let me remind you that Jesus is about to get into great big trouble! Trouble that will bring on for him what the prophet Isaiah once wrote about. . . . What a blessed day, Palm Sunday, to rehearse the story of his coming into Jerusalem. I guess we could call it triumphant – though at this point in the story, he’s really not triumphed over anything yet. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus just has welcomed into the fold Zacchaeus. It might have been one of the last straws for the religious leaders of the day because, according to the gospel of Luke, Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector. And he was very rich. But he wanted to see Jesus so he climbed up a tree. Much to everyone’s shock, Jesus called Zacchaeus outta the tree and sat with him at table in his house. . . . Jesus really is starting to meddle. It all was clear before – who was in what place. Tax collectors were out. Unclean as they mingled with the Romans. And not to mention despised for all too often overcharging for their own gain. In the eyes of Jesus’ people, no one’s much lower than a chief tax collector. . . . But “he too is a son of Abraham,” Jesus declares. “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). If those in religious leadership had no reason to be furious with him before, as Jesus sits at table with Zacchaeus, now they most certainly do!

And he doesn’t stop there! He should’ve stayed out of the city. Kept his mouth shut – as some Pharisees warn when the crowd is going crazy shouting “Blessed! Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven!” (Luke 19:38). . . . We all do our best to make sense of things. And the gospel of Luke’s got a certain understanding. Here alone the story goes that the crowds shout “blessed is the king . . . peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven.” . . . This is the gospel writer who alone tells of the night of his birth. Remember at Christmas when we heard of angels singing to the shepherds? It was the in-breaking of a new kingdom. “Glory to God in the highest heaven,” they proclaimed. “And on earth, peace among those who God favors!” (Luke 2:14). . . . We miss it because words like king. Peace – often these are common for us when we think about Christ. . . . But it’s believed there was another procession into the city that week. Passover was when all the Jewish pilgrims would flock to Jerusalem. It was time to celebrate their freedom from captivity. The way God made when they were slaves in Egypt. With a merciful hand the LORD their God passed over each home marked with the blood of the lamb – the sign of the covenant. Later that night, their sandals on, their cloaks ready – the people of God escaped captivity behind the mighty staff of Moses. . . . Passover in Jerusalem was the annual reminder that God had set them free! . . . So, just to make sure they didn’t get any revolutionary ideas, each year at Passover, Rome made sure they were ready. Pilate came parading into the city too. Strong. Royal. On a warhorse, surrounded by Roman soldiers, spears in hand. As a sign of the Roman Empire – an extension of Caesar, Rome’s king – they were there to keep PEACE (Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 2; H. Stephen Shoemaker, p. 153). . . . The kingdoms indeed are clashing!

On one side we have Pilate, Rome’s right-hand man, ready by force to overtake any who get outta line. That’s what peace looked like for Rome. Fear, intimidation, domination, force: that’s the way in the kingdom of Rome, the way of the world. . . . Now don’t get me wrong: the Pax Romana, or the Peace of Rome, brought with it many good things. Travel suddenly was secure – possible even – on roadways Rome built all over the empire. After all, they had to have a way to move their army around. So it may not have been for the best of intentions, but still it brought movement all over the Empire for almost anyone – and in relative ease and safety. The potential for commerce boomed. Which probably was a good thing for common folks, because Rome had to have some way to pay for it all. Heavy taxes were laid upon the people – for some a crushingly cruel amount. And Rome wasn’t interested in letting you file for an extension if you thought you were going to miss the April 15th deadline. With ruthless force, Rome ensured peace. If followers of God aren’t careful, they too will mistake such ways as acceptable. It appeared as if the end justified the means. Being so deceptively sweet, such ways easily ensnare.

And in more ways than one. In the gospel of Luke’s telling of the story alone, some of the Pharisees are present as Jesus parades into the city. They’re not necessarily adversarial towards Jesus; just insistent. They want the ruckus stopped. It reads as if they represent the voice of fear. You know: that part of us that doesn’t want the boat rocked. Those voices in us that clutch us and keep us from seeking truth. That power that overtakes until we cannot act on faith. . . . Fear is a major force, played upon by any empire wanting to keep folks quiet. The threat of the cross was real in Jesus’ day. It represented execution by the state for any sort of crime against them – including inciting allegiance to One higher than the Emperor. Crosses dotted the land as a fearful threat to stay in line. Maybe these Pharisees know exactly how much trouble Jesus is in for as his followers hail him king and shout out about God’s way of peace. It’s possible they are the very same leaders who’ve warned him once before as he approached the city – sending word to him to stay away because Herod wanted him dead (Luke 13:31-35). . . . No matter. Jesus tells them God’s way will prevail; for if his followers were silent, “the stones would shout out” (Luke 19:40). No matter the pressure; creation bows only to one King.

It’s we people who quickly forget. The gospel of Luke’s telling of the story alone reminds us even further. For it reports that when Jesus rounded the bend – a bit closer to Jerusalem – he wept over it bitterly. . . . As in the days of old when prophets like Zechariah had warned against living according to the ways of force. When Habakkuk had prophesied that those unjustly betraying God’s Law and God’s people would not last long. As in the days when God’s people fell into living the ways of the world instead of being according to the ethic of Love; Jesus weeps over what it all has become. The peace he knows – the peace he brings is so very different than the enforced peace he sees. The same kind of peace we often see that benefits some and greatly diminishes others. . . . One commentator seeks to explain God’s very different kind of peace by writing: “’Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven’ is more than a song of heavenly rest and hope in the world to come. It is about the ‘kingdom of the heavens,’ as (the gospel of) Matthew called it, which has drawn near in Jesus to challenge and change the kingdoms of this world” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 2; H. Stephen Shoemaker, p. 155). . . . O yes! Jesus is about to get into some very big trouble. He’s about to alienate everyone.

But why? Why does he seem to seek out the conflict? Didn’t his parents school him in not rocking the boat? Why won’t he tell his disciples to pipe down a bit – everyone’s listening? Why couldn’t he leave well enough alone – stay outta Jerusalem all together. Or at least keep a low profile and just celebrate Passover dutifully along with everybody else. Why’s he got to seemingly go looking for trouble? Which the gospel of Luke indicates he does as he heads from his Palm Parade directly into the Temple. Imagine the scene as he starts pushing out the Temple peddlers. More ruckus! Even if they just were doing their job in reference to providing proper sacrifices in remembrance to God. It’s not like it was the first time and it certainly will not be the last time the people of God have it bobbled, and what was to be a good and holy thing got turned all inside out and upside down. The church can heed the warning that too quickly can we make the worship of God about something else entirely: our gain, our entertainment, our right thought or feeling over everything else. . . . Why would you march right into Jerusalem, with a whole crowd singing your praises, only to incur further wrath as every interaction from here forward just infuriates the religious leaders even as it threatens the powers of this world?

Because he trusts another Way. For he embodies a very different kind of God. If Rome wants to portray peace as something kept by intimidation and force and even death to any challengers; then Jesus knows a prevailing power. We’d do well to remember. The gospel of Luke emphasizes – especially at the end – that Jesus represents a different kind of King. Here from the cross Jesus readily gives up his spirit. It’s an ultimate act of love – a willing sign of trust. No “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani” is here, as in the gospels of Matthew and Mark when the crucified Christ questions why God has forsaken him. . . . This king is of a different kingdom – the kingdom of true peace. Freedom. Shalom. And this Christ shall be victorious over any other power. For God’s ways of justice, mercy, everlasting love shall demolish all other ways forever – though maybe I’ve given too much of next Sunday away. . . .

“Blessed??? Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!??? Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven!???” . . . Hold on . . . because all the other ways are going to do everything they can to put an end to this Way. . . . Hold on: it’s a rough ride on the way to resurrection . . .

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2016  (All rights reserved.)

 

7 Sept. 2014 sermon — Matt. 18:15-20

DISCLAIMER: I believe sermons are meant to be heard. They are the word proclaimed in a live exchange between God and the preacher, and the preacher and God, and the preacher and the people, and the people and the preacher, and the people and God, and God and the people. Typically set in the context of worship and always following the reading of scripture, sermons are about listening and speaking and hearing and heeding. At the risk of stepping outside such boundaries, I share sermons here — where the reader will have to wade through a manuscript that was created to be spoken word. Even if you don’t know the sound of my voice, let yourself hear as you read. Let your mind see as you hear. Let your life be opened to whatever response you begin to hear within you.

May the Spirit Speak to you!
RevJule
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7 September 2014 – 13th Sunday after Pentecost

Click here to read scripture first: Matthew 18:15-20 (NRS)

 

I can’t go into all the sorted details, but last week when I was gathered with about a hundred other pastors at a conference in Montreat; I heard a whole lot of stories about churches in the middle of major fights. One of them had to do with disagreements over denominational matters, but most of them came down to people who really couldn’t find a way to get along. Small churches, mid-sized, and large ones too that to one degree or another are tearing each other apart. The worst I heard was ruling elders having shouting matches at each other in the parking lot after session meetings, though I’ve actually attended session meetings where the elders and pastor on their feet around the table were pounding fists and shaking fingers at each other. You should know that I was an outside guest at such meetings and not the pastor doing the pounding. . . . Most all of the church fights I heard about last week were among good, God-fearing Presbyterians. Just like us: well-educated, successful, family folks who could not get along. Some of the stories sounded totally justified to me. I mean, if the church I was a member of, without any input from us, went off and changed not only the time of Sunday worship but also the style of it; I think I might be ready to throw a few punches. If my beloved music director suddenly was fired; I’d go to battle. If the pastor who had held my hand through life’s traumas, whom I had come to love and trust completely, suddenly was being charged with something outlandish like taking two full days off each week; I just might have a few choice words for the accusers. We’re the church. Everyone says it’s not supposed to be like this. But the truth of it is, sometimes – actually far too often these days – it is.

You all know that. Because whether it’s been during your tenure as a member here or somewhere else, conflict happens. Some of you have told me of the difficult days for HPC during the 1980s. I actually learned last week that many congregations of the South experienced very similar difficulties when a particular experience-driven spiritual gifts movement was sweeping the nation. I guess it was something in the water or something but suddenly certain folks were having these ecstatic spiritual experiences – which are not bad in and of themselves. The problem comes when those who have them seek to make them the norm – especially among frozen chosen Presbyterians – and begin judging themselves better than those who haven’t yet been caught by the Spirit in quite the same way. It can be incredibly divisive; as it was in the early church we read about in the epistles, and as I understand it was here for those around at the time. It feels like overnight a major eruption has happened and good church folks are locked in battle with one another. . . . Church fights. Conflict sets in that rages far beyond a simple problem like what to have for dinner tonight.

I also heard again last week about the levels of conflict. We don’t have to look too far into the world to find evidence of these. Someday we’re bound to experience such things if not in life together in the church, then perhaps in our families or neighborhoods or nation. Some of us might be embroiled in it right now. The gospel of Matthew wouldn’t have recorded Jesus’ words about conflict between people if Jesus expected we’d never experience it. We might as well get prepared for when we come across it. So let me tell you about it. . . . Level one conflict is a simple problem – like what to have for dinner tonight. Or what color to paint the sanctuary ceiling. Level two’s a disagreement: one party insists that Thai food far outweighs the merits of Italian. Level three’s a bit more intense: who makes the best Thai. Coalitions begin to form. Personal attacks are had. Everyone assumes they know each other’s motives. Level four’s flight or fight. The objective is to break relationship – hurt, punish, humiliate the other. Folks start questioning motives and attacking the integrity of others. This is when churches so often move to fire the pastor thinking if that pastor is gone, everything again will be all right. Of course, it rarely is that simple. And then we get to level five. The conflict is intractable. We call it out and out war, where the objective is to destroy each other. The conflict now has taken on a life of its own and cannot be stopped. Though at this stage it’s often ambiguous what the fight is all about, the parties typically believe they are defending an eternal cause. They cannot; they will not back down. The sad thing is, this kind of level five conflict has been on the rise in churches. It’s a killer for clergy and members alike. The sooner we can recognize what’s going on among us, the greater chance we have to guard our life together from exploding out of control as it does at such high leveled conflict.

The best thing to do is advice not that far from Jesus’. Get the parties to sit down together. See if they can begin to understand what each other wants and what lies underneath the wants of one another. We’ve got to get each other out of our reactive lizard brains into a more rational state of respect and open listening. If at all possible, the church can surround all the sides and call them to different behavior. If you really want to know more about it so that you could travel to somewhere like Israel or Iraqi just to give it a try, you can read more about it in the book Getting to Yes where I understand this form of Principled Negotiating is outlined.

It sounds a little bit like Jesus, doesn’t it? At least according to the gospel of Matthew, chapter 18 where he seemed to be laying out his rules for life together as the church. Step one: recognize the sin against you. Before you pick up the phone to call person 3 about what person 2 did to you, seek out person 2. And as we know these were the days before email, instant messaging, and texts; go to person 2 in person. It would be great, wouldn’t it, if that could be the end of it. If you could just come to me to say, “Pastor Jule, when you said that crazy thing in class the other day, it really hurt my feelings.” “Or Pastor Jule, when you did or didn’t do what I was hoping for the other week, I was left feeling very under-appreciated.” Wouldn’t that be awesome?! We could sit down together and have a rational conversation about what I did or said and what that meant for you – how it hurt you or made you angry and why, because of what need of yours was going unaddressed. We’d shed a tear or two, have a prayer together, and before we know it be feeling so much more closely connected because we were able to hear the deep needs of one another. Hopefully we’d be laughing by the time we saw each other to the door and appropriately hug it out as we departed. Now, I let all my best friends know that we only can have such a conversation when we’re both ready for it. Not when I’m dog tired at the end of a long day, or when my mind is pre-occupied with a zillion other details. It’s fair to request such a conversation, but I find it helps if both parties are in a state of being able to be truly open to one another. Of course, I statements always are best. And I don’t mean like: “I think that you’re a jerk!” But like: “I am hurt when I’m not listened to because it feels like I’m not important.” Or “I don’t like hearing harsh words because that kind of anger scares me.”

Maybe it won’t always work. Which is exactly why Jesus puts forth step number two. If the first attempt breaks down, take along another church member. Now, we have to be smart in these days of frequent litigation and accusations that could ruin a person’s life. But if the problem isn’t one involving the abuse of power, taking along a few other listeners is a great idea. We don’t want to create a sense of ganging up on someone. The others are there merely to listen. Witnesses who can hear out each others’ side. And if that doesn’t work, it’s time for the fault to go public. Tell it to the whole church so that together we all might be able to bring the other’s behavior back in line – which is always the point of such confrontation. Treating another like a Gentile or tax collector doesn’t mean cutting them off – this was Jesus speaking. The one who went out of his way to show an extra dose of compassion to Gentiles and tax collectors. He expects the same from his church.

I realize this might sound a bit like a very dry lecture inspired by our Book of Order’s “Rules of Discipline,” which is why I think the Apostle Paul’s words to the Christians in Rome come in handy. “Owe no one anything,” he writes, “except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8). When we can do so in a respectful way, it’s most loving to have a direct conversation with each other about the ways we have hurt one another. I’m not talking about bringing along your laundry list of all the ways the pastor has been failing to meet your expectations and getting ready to fire away, but sitting down with each other – in love – to give and receive the truth needed. It’s loving to take responsibility for our own feelings and faults instead of blaming everyone and everything else. It’s loving to work out a way together to live compassionately with each other on our good days and on the days when we sin against one another. Being merciful to one another because, in the wise words of our Home Book Club author Jim Dant: “if everyone has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, I assume that includes me. And if you and I are both sinners, then I can’t stand against you – we’d be fighting. I can’t stand over you – I’m not your judge. I won’t stand below you and be humiliated. I only feel comfortable – Christ-like – standing beside you, walking with you, struggling with you, and gratefully allowing you to do the same for me. Practicing compassion. Trusting God to do what only God can do” (Dant, Finding Your Voice, pp. 160-161). . . . When we live like that, we fulfill the law of love. We show forth the God of mercy to the whole wide world. May this be our way today, tomorrow, and forever!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2014  (All rights reserved.)