12 September 2011

Conflict Resolution the Presbyterian Christian Way

Romans 14:1-12

Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand. Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God. We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written, "As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God." So then, each of us will be accountable to God.

Where were you and what were you doing ten years ago today on September 11, 2001? We were all caught by surprise. I was walking across the church parking lot headed to my car when a woman told me in an excited voice, "Have you heard the news? Have you heard the news? They're bombing the world trade center!" With a startled expression I said, "No. I hadn't heard that." And got in my car feeling a bit shaken. Turned on the car radio and for the next 45 minutes as I drove to a presbytery committee meeting I listened to the story unfolding in real time.

You remember how the day unfolded. One of the World Trade Center towers was on fire. An airplane had crashed into it. People were jumping out of windows. Then there was another airplane that flew into the other building. The radio announcers on NPR were at a loss for words. It was all so surreal. The entire nation was gripped by fear and shock. We felt as if we had been snakebitten. We felt the poisoned by hate. The gentle doves had flown away and the hawks ruled the skies above.

Ten years later many questions remain about how the buildings came down and why. Beyond the basic questions of when, where and how is the bigger question which is why? Why did it happen and why did we respond the way we did? The alleged bombers were of Saudi Arabian descent yet the United States government responded by attacking Iraq. One thing we can say for sure is that acts of violence beget acts of violence. The conflict that emerged has been euphemistically called "The War on Terror" as if we could fight a war against a tactic. It is conflict by whatever name you choose. Both 911 and our reading from Romans 14 are about conflict.

We will consider the differences between healthy and unhealthy methods of interaction in the church. There are dangers and there are opportunities for us at this time in our church's life and we will talk about those. In essence, we will talk about the issues addressed in our text today since these are the issues Paul addresses in his letter to the Church in Rome. There were apparently several different Christian groups meeting in Rome. One group thinks its fine to eat meat that has been offered to idols such as the meat regularly sold in their markets. Some say yes and some say no. Regardless of the presenting issue the dynamics of conflict are the same throughout the generations from the early church until today.

Conflict goes all the way to the first story told in the first book of the Bible. You may recall from Genesis the story of how the serpent tempted Adam and Eve to eat of the tree of knowledge and they would become like God. They succumb to the temptation of spiritual pride and that causes God to turn them out of the garden. Spiritual pride is also the sin of the Pharisees that Jesus spoke out so strongly against. The Pharisees were good people. They tithed their money. They knew and taught the scriptures. Where they fell short is that they focused too much on outer manifestations of religion and not enough on the spiritual qualities of love and mercy.

A cursory glimpse at Christian history says we have a disposition toward conflict. Beyond the conflict in the early church we have the sad episode of the Crusades in which Christian mobs raped and pillaged Jewish and Muslim folks in their cities and villages. Then we have the inter-Christian conflicts called the Inquisitions, the last of which concluded less than four generations ago. So conflict has always been a relevant topic and it still is today. A sermon about conflict could be preached in any church in America today and each congregation would feel that the message was pointed directly at them. That is how widespread and common conflict is and always has been.

The question is not whether a congregation will have conflicts or not. The answer to that question is always yes. The question is how a congregation deals with the conflicts they have. Does the congregation have healthy or unhealthy practices when dealing with conflict? Unresolved conflicts can escalate to the point of tearing communities apart. In contrast, mutual forbearance is one of the hallmarks of the Reformed faith. Presbyterians have traditionally dealt with conflict head on and face to face. We show courage by saying what we think out in public. We don't slip anonymous notes under doors to make our point. That is the coward's way. It is not the Presbyterian way. Presbyterians are not cowards. Never have been and never will be.

It was in Minneapolis in 1986 where I first experienced the Presbyterian way of dealing with conflict. I was there as a seminary student representative to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). What amazed me about the gathering of a thousand or so Presbyterians in that convention hall was how the people respectfully but passionately disagreed on topics that ranged from the mundane church matters to apartheid in South Africa. The thousand or so delegates were seated. Standing microphones were dispersed throughout the delegates. When a controversial issue came forward the moderator would allow one person to speak for the issue for 2 minutes maximum and then one person to speak against the issue for 2 minutes maximum. Finally, all the delegates voted and the majority won and they went on the next controversial issue. I saw a lot of passion compressed into a system for expression and resolution that worked. Seeing the Presbyterian way gave me great respect for how we conduct business.

You may have noticed the same debating format when we hosted the presbytery meeting last fall. The controversial issue that day was the ordination of gays and lesbians. Those in favor of the motion lined up on side of the sanctuary. Those opposed on the other side. One by one they came to the microphone and each one gave an impassioned presentation of their view. They each had two minutes to make their presentation. Then time was called on them and they had to sit down. The vote was then taken and the majority ruled and the meeting went on to the next issue. One of the features of the Presbyterian system of public debate is that bullies are not tolerated. Bullies are not tolerated in the Presbyterian system and they will not be tolerated in this church.

Christ expects us in the church to be role models for the community. If the church models unhealthy behaviors such as bullying, let's not act surprised if the recent riots in London and flash mobs in the United States materialize in our city and our neighborhood. Perhaps we should look in the mirror and ask how do we relate to other people in the church? If we can't relate to one another in healthy ways in our local church then what hope do we have for our civilization? The church needs to model healthy relationships and mutual forbearance to the community. Otherwise, we shouldn't be shocked when the flash mobs and riots come home to roost.

During these days when the world seems to be slowing ripping apart at the seams, our faith communities are our best public defense. We've got to get it right in the church or we have very little hope for society. The stakes are very high. Make no mistake about that. The good news is that there is a way forward for the church and our society. When we learn to deal with one another is healthy ways our church will benefit and will our community and the world.

Let's live up to our Presbyterian heritage which includes being open and welcoming and willing to dialogue with people of other faith traditions. In his email last Wednesday, Elliott Gershwin, President and CEO of Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston, himself a Jew, wrote about celebrating his 40th wedding anniversary. He says,

"The other day when I was talking about my upcoming 40th anniversary someone said 'boy, I bet you've had a really good 25 years together.'  There's a lot of truth to that.


So why have we've kept it going all this time?  Here's why.


Even though we are very different people, we share the same core values.  And our relationship from the very beginning has been based on those.  We believe in honesty so there are no secrets between us. We believe in family so our hearts swell when things are good and burst when things are sad.  We believe in community, so we give back to others always reminding ourselves of the many blessings that God has bestowed on us. 


And because of the bonds of trust, loyalty and honesty, our relationship has turned to love.  It's not the same infatuation we had when we were teenagers, but it still burns today." ("Coming Together to Serve" email from September 6, 2011.)

What keeps us together as Presbyterians is that we share the same core values of mutual respect and forbearance. The biggest value we share is love for God and for one another as children of God. Working out the details of how we live out that love in a Christian community is messy and hard. Thus is our Christian history besotted with both Crusades and Inquisitions. Jesus said how we treat other people is equivalent to how we treat Jesus in his eyes. With that sobering thought in mind, we do well to remember that each of us will be accountable to God not for what our neighbor did or said but for what we do and say. That is a challenging thought for our nation as we consider our response to 911 over the past ten years. On the national and on the personal level, if we hope to receive mercy from God for ourselves, then we will show mercy to others. If we don't care how God will judge us then we are free to bully whomever we wish. And if we are the ones being bullied Jesus invites us to be wise as serpents and gentle as doves. Somewhere in between the serpents and the doves there is a balance to be found. That balance is the key to our survival as a church and as a nation.

The Rev. Dr. Jonathan L. Burnham preached this sermon on September 11, 2011 at St. John's Presbyterian Church, 5020 West Bellfort Ave, Houston, TX 77035 | Phone 713-723-6262 | sjpresby.blogspot.com

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