June 11, 2023
Rev. Scott Landis
We sometimes forget that the early church was started by the enthusiastic followers of Jesus whose mission it was to convince ALL others that his ministry did not end with his death. They preached passionately with words that complemented Jesus’ message AND his ministry of loving and embracing ALL who wanted to join this new movement known as The Way.
Theirs was not a “build it and they will come” mentality. Like Jesus, they traveled from city to city in the regions surrounding Jerusalem and gathered a critical mass of people which became a new church. Paul was unstoppable in that regard. A voracious church “planter,” Paul established churches at Ephesus, Thessalonica, Galatia, and Corinth just to name a few. The letters which comprise a major portion of our New Testament include his instructions to these new churches addressing the various problems they faced. Even a cursory reading reveals the church at Corinth was truly his “problem child.”
The Corinthian church not only faced the interior squabbles as they argued over who was most important based on their unique spiritual gifts, they also became the epicenter of rivalry. The leaders of the Corinthian congregation began to convince their converts that Paul’s leadership was no longer valid. Living out a “when the cat’s away the mice will play” mentality. They insisted their ideas were superior to Paul’s. And they were determined to separate from Paul’s authority. If you read both of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, you hear the anguish in his words and his fear that he was losing control. His letters warned them that what they were doing ran counter to the gospel of love that Paul promoted.
Listen to the words that immediately precede the passage read today:
5 Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you? 7 But we pray to God that you may not do anything wrong—8 For we cannot do anything against the truth but only for the truth. 9 For we rejoice when we are weak, but you are strong. This is what we pray for, that you may be restored. 10 So I write these things while I am away from you, so that when I come, I may not have to be severe in using the authority that the Lord has given me for building up and not for tearing down.
Paul did not mince words. He was quite concerned that they were falling prey to the indigenous leaders who were attempting to lead them away from what he sought to establish. Paul confronted them as directly as he could through his letters – words that he backed up in person when he arrived in their city. [PAUSE]
The takeaway for me as I read this letter once again is that the church has not changed all that much in the intervening years. Church conflict is not something we invented in our lifetime. It’s been going on since the church was established.
I hasten to add, conflict is not necessarily a bad thing. Just as I made the case last week of the importance of “doubt” as that which can actually strengthen our faith, I also contend that “conflict,” when entered into civilly and with proper respect for the other, may serve to bless the bonds between two factions rather than weaken them. The problem is we rarely fight fairly. Our tactics can be devious, or passive-aggressive, or they can be fueled by ignorance and the unwillingness to listen carefully to those we have demonized – those who, we believe, must be defeated.
OR we may try to avoid conflict altogether – you know, to try and smooth things over — ignoring it, hoping it will all go away which only makes matters worse. [PAUSE]
So, I ask you to think to yourself for a moment. How do you handle conflict? Do you charge in determined to win at all costs, or do you avoid it like the plague, swallowing hard, frustrated that you are not being taken seriously?
While I don’t think of myself as completely “conflict averse” my tendency is to avoid it whenever possible. Conflict is unsettling to me. I want church to be a place of peace — perhaps that is why I was drawn to this church whose name actually means “peaceful haven,” but that’s not always the case — even here. And avoidance, I have found, typically makes matters worse.
What I have discovered is that more often than not, conflict arises out of ignorance. One or both parties simply do not have all the information needed for a dispute to come to any positive resolution. And if folks only took the time to listen to one another, to gain an understanding of their perspective, miracles can happen. [PAUSE]
I’d like to share a story from my last parish to illustrate my point. The issue surfaced over something I did which caused a division that I did NOT see coming.
My congregation had declared itself an “open and affirming” church years earlier, specifically stating that it loved and affirmed ALL people – particularly those on the margins – specifically LGBTQI, non-binary, persons of color, differently abled, those espousing different faith beliefs, and so on. I got the bright idea we should announce this stance boldly by posting a banner that could be affixed to our church sign. I didn’t ask anyone’s permission. I just did it. Big mistake.
The sign was simple. It said “At this church we believe:
Women’s Rights are human rights
Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Persons should be affirmed
All religions lead to God
And several other affirmations I thought we all agreed to. For the most part I was right, but the one that several in the church took umbrage with was the line stating: Black Lives Matter
Now to me this seemed to mesh as consistently with our mission as peanut butter does with jelly. But some saw it differently claiming the “Black Lives Matter” was a Movement that was subversive, political, and sought to undermine democracy as we know it. Their phone calls and emails shocked me. I just didn’t see it coming – nor was their concern something I could avoid.
Alternatively, I knew there were other members of the congregation for whom that slogan felt deeply supportive. They SAW themselves in those words and felt, when they read it, like their church had their back.
As pastor to all, I felt like I was caught in the middle and in a no-win situation. It was indeed a conflict. I decided the best thing to do would be to bring the two sides together – in my office – where, I hoped, each might have an opportunity to express their thoughts and listen carefully to one another. A good idea but I was nervous. I had no idea how this might go.
We met. We prayed. And I insisted that each one speak from their heart regarding what these three words meant to them. What happened was nothing short of miraculous. Tears flowed as those in opposition spoke about how they did not want their church to become involved politically and the fear that we might be the subject of vandalism. Their experience of Black Lives Matter was seeing news reports on television of the destruction of a few radicals who had allowed their passion to get in the way of seeking justice for persons of black and brown skin. They equated Black Lives Matter with violence, demands, and destruction.
Those in support spoke of what it is like to live in this country as a person of color, of how they live in constant suspicion, in fear of the police, and must work twice as hard to get half as much. When they saw the words, they sensed recognition and respect. That their lives … actually mattered.
A public radio news reporter in the group explained how the media tends to focus on the drama (in this case destructive participants in the protests) in order to gain viewership. He said, “that’s what draws the cameras” and what you see on television often presents a biased perspective. It was a reality that those in opposition hadn’t considered.
The tears continued. Hearts softened. A new understanding emerged and a new appreciation for each other’s position began to form a bridge where before was a huge gulf of suspicion and bewilderment regarding who authorized the sign.
The group slowly realized the conflict had little to do with the sign. That was the red herring. While the symbol was not insignificant, the real issue that fueled the conflict was ignorance (on both sides) and fear that nearly divided two significant groups within the church. If we had avoided the difficult conversation and had not spoken from our hearts, those wounds would not have been given a chance to heal. When we took the risk of truly listening to one another we all realized each had valid points and each had much to learn from the other. [PAUSE]
Paul understood. He brought to light that which he knew could easily destroy the newly formed church telling them to clean up their act by reminding them that they each carried Christ within them. They were to honor that by testing themselves – their hearts, their motives and to know that Paul wanted nothing more than their highest good.
He concluded by imploring them to do two things:
Live in peace.
Greet one another with a holy kiss.
And then he offered those lovely words we call the benediction (which literally means “good words” or “the blessing”:
The Grace (lokomaika’i) of our Lord Jesus Christ,
The Love (aloha) of God,
And the fellowship/communion (launa) of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.
As we seek to do the work of our Savior may those words of benediction be always in our ears and dwell deep within our hearts as we risk sharing our aloha with one another whether they be friend or foe.
We will never get along with or understand everyone. But we will never go wrong if we offer our aloha even while engaged in the most challenging conflict. When we begin with aloha we do not enter conflict with the intent of winning. No, with aloha our hearts are open - alive with wonder - seeking understanding. When we do this we see the Christ (as Paul described) in the other.
Where there is aloha – there is ke Akua. Amene