Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 13th Sunday After Pentecost + August 14, 2016
Usually when I go and stand closer to the congregation seated in the pews, I get to say things like, “May the Lord bless and keep you,” and “The peace of the Lord be with you always.” Today I had to proclaim: “Jesus said, ‘I came to bring fire to the earth!’ and, ‘Do you think that I come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!’”
Those aren’t the kind of words we expect to hear from Jesus, and they’re not the kind of words we like to hear from Jesus. People are drawn to Jesus by his message of radical love, by sayings like “Just as I have loved you, you ought to love one another” (John 13:34), and “Turn the other cheek” (Matt. 5:39), and “Even the hairs on your head are all counted [by God]” (Matt. 10:30).
Those words about division and fire aren’t what we expect from our Christian community, either. Often we expect our church to be a place of love and forgiveness, a little slice of heaven on earth. Even if we acknowledge that we are a group of humans coming together and that therefore we will be flawed, we tend to think the the ideal we should be striving for is perfect peace and harmony — because isn’t that what Jesus was all about?
Today’s Bible readings remind us that conflict is an inherent part of God’s work in the world. In the Jeremiah reading God said: “Is not my word like fire…and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” In Jeremiah and the other books of the prophets God complained that the people would listen to the happy messages of the false prophets while ignoring God’s messengers, because the true messages often brought news people didn’t want to hear, demanded change, and caused conflict.
Today’s gospel reading may point to the fact that what is good news for some is not good news for everyone. In the next chapter in Luke we read of the time Jesus healed a woman who had been unable to stand up straight for eighteen years. Good news for the woman and those who cared about her; good news for all people who need healing. But because Jesus healed on the Sabbath, his action brought conflict with those who preached a strict version of God’s command to rest on the Sabbath (Luke 13:10-17). Other stories remind us that what is good news for the poor might cause conflict with the rich (e.g. Matt. 20:1-16); what is good news for a foreigner might cause conflict with the native (e.g. Matt. 15:21-28). The gospel is good news: news of peace and love and healing, of the hungry being fed and the poor being lifted up and the outcast being welcomed. It is the news of God making the world a better place for all people, but that does not make it free of conflict.
I am by nature a conflict avoider. A dramatic example: when I was in college I worked in our theatre department’s set building shop, and one afternoon I was working alone with my boss, putting big pieces of lumber through this new machine that made warped boards more straight. At one point I realized he was feeding the wood in the wrong way, but I couldn’t make myself say anything; even saying “Um, hey, I think it goes like this,” felt too much like conflict to me. When my boss figured out the problem, and that I had seen it a few minutes before, he was more perplexed than frustrated: “Why didn’t you just tell me? It would have saved time.” I like to think I’ve grown a lot since then and am not so ridiculously afraid of conflict anymore, but this story gives you a clear idea of how much I would rather think that following Jesus meant just serving people and making everybody happy all the time. So when I say that conflict and the gospel go hand in hand, know that I am not saying it lightly or easily or without demanding a lot of myself. To hear that being involved God’s mission means being involved with conflict makes me quake in my boots.
But I’ve learned that if we see conflict differently, even conflict can be a proclamation of the gospel. Most often people see conflict sort-of like a tug-of-war match: there are two sides, pitted against one another, and there can be only one winner. But if our conflict has been sparked by God, by a desire to be true to the gospel, then we should see conflict as an opportunity for both sides to hear something new from God. Through conflict the Holy Spirit may work to refine our sense of God’s mission in the world and of who we are as people of the gospel.1
Of course it can be really, really difficult to hear from God in the middle of a conflict. Maybe the main reason why is that God does not make it easy to for us to know exactly what God wants us to do. As Lutherans there are things we count on as sources of revelation from God to us: first and foremost is scripture, and we also turn to tradition, to the wisdom of community, to the sacraments, and to prayer. If I learned only one thing during my time in seminary and during all these years of going to Bible studies, it’s that people can interpret scripture (and all those other sources of revelation) in so many ways. Though we like to think these things offer clear direction for our lives, when we try to apply these revelations to our lives, especially in a group, it can get really confusing.
Another reason it can be difficult to hear from God in the middle of a conflict is because of the way humans tend to behave in conflict. In all sorts of situations humans do this thing called mirroring, where we play off and copy each other’s attitudes and actions. A lot of the time this is a really good thing: if someone smiles at me, I smile back; if someone treats me with respect, I treat them with respect. Sometimes it works in a sort of complementary way: you take leadership of situation, and I naturally step back and become your helper.
But when we are in conflict and do that natural mirroring thing, the hurtful component of conflict will escalate quickly: you insult me, I insult you; you go behind my back, I go behind your back. We get caught up in the heat of our interactions, in trying to look stronger, in trying to win. When our interpretations of the Bible come into conflict, it can turn into that tug-of-war with each side yelling, “This is what God says!” / “No, this is what God says!” In the midst of all that noise, that strange mix of sincere faith, hope, fear, pride, and self-defense, it can be really difficult to open our hearts and listen for the movement of God’s spirit.
I heard stories this week about psychologists and sociologists (and even police officers doing counterterrorism work) who are studying the benefits of intentionally breaking that cycle of mirroring, something they call non-complementarity.
One story I heard was about a family who was held up at gun point. They try reasoning with the man with the gun: “Look, we don’t have any money!” They try shaming the man: “What would your mother think?” But then one of the people in the family has a crazy, backwards idea. She stops mirroring the man with aggression; she stops playing the complimentary role of the fearful victim. She flips the script. She says to the man, “Look, we’re here celebrating. Why don’t you join us, and have a glass of wine.” Immediately the man’s face completely changes. He drinks some wine; he eats some cheese; he puts the gun back in his pocket. A few minutes later, the man says, “I think I’ve come to the wrong place.” They forgive him. After a few minutes of silence, he asks for a hug, and as the family embraces him, he says that he is sorry. It’s a crazy story. It may not work every time. But it is powerful example of how breaking the cycle of mirroring and reacting can totally turn a conflict on its head.2
Maybe this idea — this non-complementarity thing — is where Jesus’s teachings start to come together. Maybe “I come to bring division,” does somehow fit together with “love your neighbor” and “turn the other cheek.” We are always going to have conflict: in the church, in the world, in our homes. The gospel itself is always going to bring conflict as God changes the world. Jesus’s teachings about love and forgiveness are not meant to create a world without conflict, but to be a guide for how we react in conflicts. As in so many cases, Jesus-followers are not meant to act in the usual way of the world.
Jesus said: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you: do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile” (Matt. 5:38-41).
These teachings are not about avoiding conflict entirely; they are not about being a pushover or letting other people do whatever they want and making yourself nothing. They are more about breaking the cycle of harmful mirroring, about flipping the script, about acting in a new way to change the way a conflict is headed. They are examples of who to stay true to the Christian values of peace and love even when conflicts arise. Through these teachings, Christ once again calls his disciples to be leaders, to go against the way the world usually works.3
That’s not to say that conflict will be easy and happy and peaceful. In today’s gospel reading Jesus talks about households being painfully divided: father against son, mother against daughter. (We probably know something about that picture, especially during an election season.) He talks about fire; he references his impending crucifixion, and in doing so, he points to the martyrdom of so many his disciples. Yet to know that God is present even in our division, ushering us and the world into God’s kingdom, ought to give us comfort and hope that even our conflict is part of God’s mission, and one day God will lead us to reconciliation, peace, and a better world. Amen and Amen.
1. [Susan M. Lang. Our Community: Dealing with Conflict in Our Congregation. Congregational LEADER Series. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2002). ]↩2. [Lulu Miller, Alix Spiegel, and Hanna Rosin. “Flip the Script.” Invisibilia (podcast). July 15, 2016. Available online (with some great additional articles!) http://www.npr.org/programs/invisibilia/485603559/flip-the-script%5D↩3. [See for example: Walter Wink. Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.) Especially chapter 2.]↩