Pouring Oil on Troubled Waters

Pouring Oil on Troubled Waters

By Larry Casey, a UUC member who preaches from time to time.

Scripture: Psalm 133:1-3; Ephesians 4:1-6

When I first learned back in May that I was scheduled to preach in September, I knew I wanted to talk about the divisiveness that characterizes not only our political discourse, but our society, our country. We find it sometimes in our own attitudes, our words, our tendency to dismiss the opinions of those on the “other” side. We too often hear about disruptive behavior on airplanes, road rage, and, most disturbing of all, the increase in mass shootings, especially those fueled by hate, such as the racially motivated mass shooting in Buffalo last year and in Jacksonville, Florida in the past week.

Yes, conflict and divisiveness are on the rise, and it can make us anxious, worried – troubled. And with partisan cable news networks available 24 hours a day, and like-minded groups on social media just a click away, it’s easy for people to live in an echo chamber and begin to see it as catastrophic for our nation and the world if the candidate we don’t want gets elected or re-elected.

In her book High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out, author Amanda Ripley shares her study of how conflict becomes the driving force in our behavior citing examples from politics, war, and gangs. In high conflict, she says, people become addicted to the negative energy associated with the battle itself, identifying only with our team, our tribe, and our side. High conflict, as the author defines it, is not productive and leads us away from empathy and compassion.

As I mentioned, I had it in mind for several months to speak on this topic, Then, at least two of our guest preachers earlier this summer focused or touched on some of the same issues. In July, Jonathan Case preached a sermon called “Gentleness in an Age of Rage.” We heard from Alex Wright in August on “Order and Hospitality in the Midst of Exile.”

Rather than thinking “well, that idea has been taken,” I was relieved and encouraged to find that it’s not just me wanting to explore these issues from a Biblical, a spiritual, perspective. So, this is what we’ll do together today and see if we can pour some oil on these troubled waters, because that’s what the Gospel asks us to do.

Let’s first agree that not all conflict is bad. We grow and learn from healthy conflict. Proverbs 27:17 tells us “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” That means even in healthy conflict, some sparks are going to fly. But good conflict is the way we learn to deal with ourselves and work with others. It requires us to be less selfish, to speak less and to listen more. Learning how to work through conflict is part of our spiritual development. So, we shouldn’t avoid good conflict. We need it to grow.

What do the Scriptures tell us about conflict? A lot. Let’s look at two verses.

As recorded in Matthew 5 beginning at verse 38, Jesus said:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[a] 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 

Some take this passage to mean that Jesus is teaching us to avoid conflict at all costs. But the point he is making is that regardless of the conflict, we are called to love. I think he is trying to teach us that love for others must go beyond those on “our side”. We must learn to love those with whom we are in conflict. Our ability to love those on the other side is a gift from God. I don’t think we come by it naturally.

            In the Gospel of Luke, chapter 12, Jesus says these words:

Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. 52 From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. 53 They will be divided…

On the surface, that doesn’t sound peaceful. But we can take from this passage the idea that good conflict shouldn’t be avoided. Christians must be willing to stand up for who we are, for the values we hold as children of God. The gospel of love sometimes creates conflict.

And, of course, we know conflict and divisiveness aren’t new – not in politics, in society at large, or — in the church.

I have been in churches where tempers have flared, and hurtful conflict has arisen – usually involving how money should be spent on everything from ministerial compensation to the paving of a parking lot.

But, while no church is immune, I have got to say one of our church’s strengths is that we get along and make important decisions without harmful, negative conflict. Maybe it goes back to how we were organized more than 100 years ago as a church for all denominations. The hymn we sing occasionally written by Sam Scholes, Sr. “The Community Church” captures the idea that we moved past clashing over differences in doctrine or different worship styles. It is evident in our history of pew communion and chalice communion, infant dedication and infant baptism. Low church…and sometimes, not “high church,” but a little more formal.

I’m not saying we’ve got it made as a congregation – conflicts could arise, and maybe they have before my time at UUC. But we do have a way of working and worshiping together as one body.

And that brings me back to our scripture lesson for today from Ephesians 4, in which the writer, by tradition thought to be Paul, calls on believers to be one in Christ. From this letter we know that the “us” versus “them” mentality we contend with in our world was very much a part of Paul’s first century world.

Probably the most notable division among early believers was between Jews and Gentiles. It wasn’t just a religious difference of course – the separation was ethnic, cultural and social. It’s no wonder the early Christians saw the eventual unity of these two groups in the church as a powerful work of the Holy Spirit. Two groups that had been so far apart for centuries were now being reconciled in Christ.

Every member of the body has equal access to God; all are equally children of God. In thew first century and the twenty first, we are one in Christ.

Just as the church in the first century stood for the overcoming of fundamental, deep-seated, ingrained, divisions, so too does the church today—our church—stand for overcoming divisions forced on our world by tradition, social class, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, nation, religion…or even political party. In our unity as God’s people, we are joined together, and it is only to the extent we are joined that are we able to make known God’s presence in the world.

Our unity is the cornerstone for the building of a community of reconciliation.

Why would God knit us together in communities like ours if God did not have a plan and a purpose for us? We may not always be certain of what our purpose is, we may even sometimes disagree about what it is or should be, but we believe God has a purpose for each of us and for this church, and for the whole church. We gain strength and purpose as people and as a church from one another…in community.

As Paul said in his letter to the Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” And today, we could add there is no longer Republican or Democrat, there is no longer conservative or liberal, there is no longer pro-life or pro-choice. We might hold different opinions in some of these areas, but as long as our disagreements are characterized by love and compassion, we remain one in Christ.

Our unity is more important than ever in this time of transition as we search for our next pastor. We have guest speakers scheduled through the end of the year, but sooner or later, we will have a decision to make on calling a new minister. I know we’ll make that decision as one body in Christ. And then the real work will start of getting us from where are to what God is calling us to be in the years ahead. This is an exciting time for our church!

In a world that constantly encourages the “us versus them” mentality; the Christian message is that there is no “them.” There is only “us.” So, let’s acknowledge that, and live in celebration of our oneness in Christ. Let’s be the balm, the healing oil, that calms the troubled waters of divisiveness and high conflict in our society today – or, at least that part of it that we encounter in our daily lives.