|26th Sunday in Ordinary Time||
October 1, 2000
Someone once said that whenever two or more are gathered together, someone will spill the milk.1 People make mistakes and milk gets spilled in a lot of ways. Sometimes we speak in a careless manner and someone is hurt. Sometimes we are simple insensitive. Sometimes we say things that attack another person's position just so that we can promote our own. Whatever the case people are offended, relationships are damaged, conflict often follows and milk is spilled. In today's Scripture lesson, Jesus did not insist that the disciples never spill the milk; he told them that after the milk gets spilled to live in peace with one another.
Peaceful coexistence is a rather rare commodity if you consider the history of civilization. The Society of International Law, in London, states that during the last 4,000 years there have been only 268 years of peace. In the last 3 centuries, there have been 286 wars on the continent of Europe alone.2 Moreover, in excess of 8000 peace treaties were made--and broken.3
Political turmoil and international conflict continue to be a part of our daily headline news. The people of Yugoslavia know the problems created when political leaders decide not to live in peaceful coexistence. After years of internal military conflict, they are now faced with political uncertainty after their last election. The Palestinians and Israelis have not even been able to decide when to met so that they can continue their peace talks. The Palestinians accuse the Israelis of stalling and the Israelis blame the Palestinians. While the political leaders argue, three young men were killed this week on holy ground. We live in a world of turmoil and conflict, maybe that is why Jesus wanted his disciples to live in peace with one another. Striving for greatness, striving for power, striving for dominance was simple not to be evident in the lives of his disciples.
While Jesus is not writing a how-to manual on maintaining harmony in relationships, our Scripture lesson includes several helpful ideas that are necessary to live at peace with one another. Mark has done this in a very skillful manner. He uses the Semitic literary device of inclusio or inclusion. In the concluding words of Jesus, Mark points us back to the beginning of the section thereby connecting everything in between.4
If you were here last week, you will remember that the disciples had been arguing about who was the greatest. They were in conflict with one another. Today's Scripture lesson concludes with the words, "live at peace with one another." Mark has created an envelop around these instruction of Jesus thereby connecting them to the original conflict. In other words, Mark has structured this material to tell us how we are to live at peace with one another. I said in last week's sermon, that the first and foremost way is for the disciples to be more concerned with welcoming the destitute than with striving for positions of power and prestige.5
THE STEP OF TOLERANCE
The second step toward peaceful coexistence is developing a spirit of mutual toleration. Jesus communicates this to the disciples when they tell him that they tried to stop someone from casting out demons in his name. They were upset that a stranger who had not been authorized to exercise power in the name of Jesus would chose to do so. He was not on the approved list of disciples. He had not walked with Jesus for 2 1/2 years. He had not been with Jesus when he feed the 5000. He had not been on the mountain and seen the Transfiguration. He was not a certified card carrying member of the group.
Jesus rejects the disciple's narrow exclusivism. The kingdom of God is must broader than they would imagine. The disciples had abused their authority. In the Church today, so called, disciples continue to abuse their authority in other ways in the life of the Church. In each circumstance, they are trying to dictate to others how they can or cannot worship and serve God.
The cartoon had a picture of an older man with a neatly, trimmed bread seating on a stool talking to a young girl. He was showing her a scar on his upper forearm. The caption read, "And I got this one during the 'Guitar in the Sanctuary Wars'"6 That cartoon was very real for me. In the last church I served guitars in worship was still a hotly contested issue. I have also been in churches that have fought over the appropriateness of raising ones hands during the singing of songs.
The underlying issue in all of these matters relates to control and greatness. If we try to dictate or control how others experience God, we are assuming a position of superiority. Jesus wanted his disciples to display humility not superiority. Humility will only be expressed through mutual toleration. Some people will sense God's presence through quiet prayers, others through the vocal praise of a group prayer. Some will need to share the personal and very intimate pain of their heart, while others will keep their past private. Some will maintain a formal posture while others will be overwhelmed by God's presence and faint. We may feel uncomfortable when another person experiences God differently than we do, but let us not assume a position of superiority. Let us not attempt to dictate to someone else what is acceptable or not acceptable in God's house of worship. We do not know the mind of God any more than the disciples when they told the strange to stop casting out demons in the name of Jesus. Let us display tolerance and forbearance with one another and thereby life in peaceful coexistence.
THE STEP OF HOSPITALITY
Jesus continued instructing the Twelve, by turning their attention to themselves. He told them that whoever offers them a drink in his name will not lose their reward. The disciples knew what he was talking about. During their travels, they had to rely on the generosity of strangers. When a stranger offered them a meal, they did not question the person's theology before eating. The only thing that mattered was the cup of cold water, the morsel of bread, the bed and blanket they offer and the shelter of roof. The disciples accepted the hospitality of others regardless of their theological views. The gift of hospitality bridged differences.
Woven between these lines is a powerful message for the church today. The most effective way of breaking down barriers and building relationships is through hospitality. The disciples were never suspicious of the people who feed them. They never let their differences interfere with their relationships. The gift of hospitality dissolved many conflicts.
Hospitality is a lost art in the church today. We have forgotten how to be hospitable. We seldom invite people into our homes. Karen Mains in her delightful book, Open Heart, Open Home notes that in Webster's Dictionary the word hospitality is wedged between the word, hospice which means shelter and hospital which means healing.7 Ultimately that is what we offer when we invite people into our homes-a shelter of healing. I believe that more church conflicts could be both prevented and resolved if the gift of hospitality was freely exercised in the church.
The third step of peaceful coexistence comes through the exercise of the gift of hospitality.
THE STEP OF INTEGRITY
While Jesus wanted his disciples to exhibit a spirit of tolerance, he was not promoting an anything goes attitude. God had established is law. They were not ten suggestions. They were commandments. His words are directed not only to the Jim Jones, David Koresches and Marshall Applegates of the world but to any lay person or minister who uses sacred vocabulary but redefines the words with empty meanings or whose lifestyle is inconsistent with their teaching.
In his personal journal, George Fox, the founder of the Quaker faith, tells how he was seeking God. As a young man, he had a ache in his soul. He wanted desperately to experience the joy of his salvation but struggled to do so. He sought the advice of a clergyman. After one meeting, the young man was leaving the parsonage and the two were still conversing. Fox accidentally stepped off the path and the minister flew into a rage. Fox decided to seek spiritual counsel elsewhere. Another young person may have rejected the Church and even the faith over such an incident. Kent Hughes writes:
How many have been turned off by an unforgiving spirit, or by a dishonest business transaction of a church member or by the worthless, crude street language that sometimes falls from a believer's mouth or by the sarcasm of a malignant gossip.8The fourth step toward peaceful coexistence is to minister to one another with integrity.
LIVING IN HOLINESS
The day came when the doctor had to tell her that she had to make a choice, either her foot or her life. Her diabetes had taken its toll. The circulation in her limbs had finally become so poor that the cells in the foot could not get enough blood and they died. Gangrene had set in. Without an amputation, it would slowly and painfully move up her leg. The same thing can happen in the spiritual life. Jesus uses a physical metaphor to describe just how serious the disciples should treat the sin in their life. His words may sound extreme but not when you consider the consequences.
The chief cause of conflict in relationships is the sin that still abides in each of our hearts. Our impatience with one another produces anger and strained communication. Our insensitivity causes hurt feelings. Our unwillingness to forgive creates broken relationships. We cannot live in peaceful coexistence unless we are willing to be relentless in removing those attitudes that produce conflict.
LIVING WITH CONFLICT
Not only does a lot of milk would get spilled whenever two or more are gathered in his name but the ensuing conflict is a time of trial by fire. When two people disagree, they do not always do it agreeably. When Jesus first told his disciples that they would have to be salted with fire, he was probably referring to the persecution that they would have to endure at the hands of the Jews and Romans. However, Mark has put these words in the context of the relationships between the disciples. In that context, they remind me that conflict is inevitable. I will misunderstand others and they will misunderstand me. I will say things that I should not say and they will say things that they should not say. Our relationship will be salted with the fire of conflict.
First Methodist was a century-old congregation in the Midwest. The board discovered that the social hall in its basement was woefully inadequate. The young people suggested that a larger, brighter facility would better suit their needs, but the church elders objected, saying the price of expansion was too high. The young people argued back, saying that increased rentals would more than pay for the new hall. The older members of church voted down the proposal to build a new social hall. Words were exchanged across generational lines. Relationships were strained but latter the older members acknowledged the young people's need for a better gathering place. They agreed to renovate the basement space.9 A win-win position was found. The fire of conflict brought both groups closer together.
WHEN WE ARE SALT
Conflict will emerge when we consider that our ways of doing things are better than everyone else's. We will live in peace when we are more concerned with serving the destitute children of the world than promoting our own agendas.
Conflict will erupt when we try to dictate to others how they can or cannot experience God. We will live in peace if we show a spirit of toleration.
Conflict will surface when leaders act in a manner inconsistent with the teachings of our Lord. We will live in peace when our church leaders life a life of integrity and display the fruit of the spirit.
Conflict will appear if we are not willing to be diligent about remove the attitudes of bitterness, resentment, anger and an unforgiving spirit. We will live in peace when we display the fruit of the Spirit-love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
We cannot avoid conflict any more than we can avoid spilled milk. The challenge is not to prevent any spills but learning how to live in peaceful coexistence after the spill. That when we are truly the salt of the earth.
1. Source unknown.
2. Bret Blair, Online: http://www.sermonillustrations.com quoting J.K. Laney, Marching Orders, p 50.
3. Bret Blair, Online: http://www.sermonillustrations.com quoting Moody Bible Institute, Today In The Word, June, 1988, p.33.
4. William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark, (Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 339.
5. John H. Pavelko, "The Mark of Greatness," September 24, 2000, Online: http://www.crossroadspc.org/thebarrel/2000_09_24.html.
6. Leadership, unknown issue.
7. Karen Burton Mains, Open Heart, Open Home, (Elgin IL: David C. Cook Publishing, 1976), 28.
8. R. Kent Hughes, Mark: Volume Two, (Weschester IL: Crossway Books, 1989), 39
9. Adapted from Abby Mendelson, "Tips on Solving Congregational Conflict: Ten ways to ease tension in the church," Your Church Magazine, May/June 1999, Vol.45, No. 2, 62 Online: http://www.christianityonline.com/yc/9y2/9y2062.html.
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