"Good Old Conflict"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 8/10/1997
Job 23:1-7; Mark 10:35-45
If we could have been eavesdropping when Orville and Wilbur Wright were trying to solve the problem of flight, I'm sure we would have overheard many heated arguments. Historically, when massive accomplishments come onto the landscape of human history, the conflicts and struggles that paved the way aren't even recorded in the footnotes.
A couple of weeks ago during our 7:30 a.m. Garden Service, I used a quote from Malcolm Forbes who was remembering conflicts that were recorded in our history books. Malcolm wrote these words when our country was celebrating it's 200th birthday.
As we reverently prepare to mark our Constitution's bicentennial, it's probably healthy to recall that it was adopted 200 years ago by the skin of its teeth in a fiery crucible of debate in a long, hot Philadelphia summer. Virginia's ratification was fought for by George Washington, James Monroe and Thomas Jefferson, bitterly opposed by Patrick Henry. New York approved it by just three votes. In a popular vote, Rhode Island rejected it. So it's a living document, subject to interpretation as times change in ways unforeseen by the Founding Fathers.
There is another kind of conflict that I want to discuss this morning. It is the kind that affects us personally. One of the intriguing aspects of conflict is that it brings to the surface what is coming up for us. Conflict gives us very accurate insight into our personal growth issues. It is like looking into a mirror. Is our conflict the result of a hurt we sustained? Have our lives been affected by someone else's decision? Are we frustrated because others want to interpret what we are experiencing to suit themselves? The answer to all of these questions is "yes, absolutely!" That is why we are upset!
And almost immediately we want justice! We want an apology. We want repayment. We want fairness! More precisely, we want those in our drama to recite their lines exactly as we wrote them. Since few people choose to live their lives around our approval rating of them, what a great time to look elsewhere for what has caused our upset.
Jesus' little band of disciples was not immune to conflict. The little drama in our lesson today began when James and John approached Jesus with a simple request. Thinking in terms of their material experience, they asked Jesus to allow them to sit on his right and left when he ascends to his throne in the Kingdom. When word leaked to the others what the brothers had asked, they were furious.
The ten disciples were angry because the two had been caught seeking special consideration. They felt James and John were trying to grab at something all of them may have wanted. "This was obviously an attempt to make an end run around the rest of us," they thought. Most of us have witnessed such conflict.
Just prior to my appointment to St. Matthew's, I was part of a task force that was preparing to construct state-of-the-art townhouses five blocks from our church. The six acres of land was the site of the Ellen Wilson public housing project, a group of apartment buildings built in the 1940s that had been abandoned years ago. This new construction would offer affordable housing on Capitol Hill to people of various economic levels. We secured a 26 million dollar grant from HUD to engage in a social experiment that had never been attempted in the District.
Our task force sponsored an open forum for the community. We held that gathering in the fellowship hall of the Capitol Hill United Methodist Church. There were those of us who wondered if anyone would get out of the church alive. Talk about conflict!
Gathered in our fellowship hall were professional people like dentists, attorneys, judges, corporate executives, high-level government workers and community leaders. Many of them were screaming, swearing, accusing and threatening each other. What an interesting spectacle! The occasion offered an opportunity to observe how easily people can reach the same level of hostility when the conflict appears threatening enough.
Many individuals in that gathering were not thinking about affordable housing, nor about the replacement of old abandoned buildings that for decades have been a blotch on the landscape. They were thinking about their property values. They were fearful of what 224 lower-income units would attract to their neighborhood. They were afraid of change and their loss of control.
The neighbors felt that our task force had made plans without first consulting with those who lived around the site. Yes, our task force made some mistakes along the way. One of them was substantive communication with those living in the neighborhood. We discovered that we had some fence-mending to do. So much for first impressions!
As we return to our lesson for a moment, notice where Jesus went with his words. He did not address the conflict in terms of right and wrong. What Jesus did was concentrate on what each of them had the power to be. He reminded them that the ways of the world will always feature power struggles. Then he said, "This, however, is not the way it is to be among you. If one of you wants to be great, you must be the servant of the rest; and if one of you wants to be first, you must be the slave of all."
Immediately, we believe that such a teaching will make us passive people. In fact, this may be one of his teachings that we prefer to overlook. Why? Because most of us attack immediately when challenged. "I don't want to be a servant or a slave to a spouse who ignores me." "I don't want to play a servant role when dealing with arrogant, insensitive and useless people." "I think as long as we live in an imperfect world, I am forced to play by its rules." "Jesus was teaching about a state-of-mind that has not yet come for everyone; and I don't want to be among the first." Most of us know the logic we use when we sharpen our defenses.
What happens when we elect to go on the offensive or the defensive? What happens is that we throw away our happiness, joy, and peace. We literally do damage to ourselves. And in our anger we point fingers and say, "You did this to me! You drove me to this state of rage! You made me into being this ugly person!"
Jesus would say, "Is that right? Are you positive that this other person crawled into your mind and made you hide your light under a basket?" There it is again -- that ever truthful mirror. We see the reflection of ourselves, a reflection that does not and will not lie or deceive.
When Orville and Wilbur Wright struggled in conflict, they weren't pitting their personalities against each other. What they were doing was struggling to discover the principles of aerodynamics. Both were focused on a mystery greater than themselves.
During the Constitutional Convention, what kept everyone together was not the desire of winning some personal power struggle. What kept them together was a desire to be servants of a new nation that had elected them as delegates. Their struggles were directed at constructing a new style of government that had never before existed on earth in the form they were proposing. It was a Democracy that had three branches of government, none of which would hold absolute power over the other.
Being a servant is far from passive. Being a servant means having the ability to recognize a call for love in other people. It means being able to play big. Think about what must be overcome within ourselves in order to play big. The disciples were fearing that someone was trying to get ahead of them in the pecking order. Jesus was reminding them that there is no pecking order.
Having power is when we recognize that nothing exists that can convince us that reflecting darkness back to others is what they need. God can't work through darkness, yet repeatedly we attempt to convince ourselves that we have no other choice. Like the disciples, we attack because we believe there has been an injustice. Having real power is when we understand thoroughly what James and John did and it doesn't matter. The activities of others cannot diminish who we are unless we choose to play small.
Jesus was not teaching us what to think but how to think. Jesus was pointing out that people have attacked each another for thousands of years. There was absolutely nothing revolutionary about such thinking. In fact, it seemed to be the mutually agreed upon manner in which conflicts must always be resolved. It is extremely easy to tell others where they are wrong, but quite another to put them in possession of the truth. Success will only come when we refuse to be like those who engage in attack. Do we honestly believe that a better day will come if no one is willing to live in it now?
The pilgrimage of our personal spiritual growth can never be measured by how many conflicts we resolved while we live but rather by who it is we have become. Many crusaders of great moral causes have been mean-spirited, judgmental people. Jesus said we can live in the Kingdom now, but we will never arrive there maintaining and nursing attitudes that so easily cripple others and ourselves.
Bud and Connie McGee recently told a wonderful story that reflects this. There was a married couple that fought constantly. They stayed together for the sake of the children, but their marriage was unhappy to the bitter end. A massive heart attack claimed the life of the husband.
He arrived at the gates of heaven and met St. Peter. Peter said, "In order to gain entrance you must spell the word, "Love." The man couldn't believe that entrance to heaven was that simple. He performed the task with ease and was immediately admitted. Suddenly Peter was called away. He said to the newcomer, "Would you mind watching the gate for me? You know the routine." The man was delighted with his new responsibility.
It wasn't long before he saw his wife approaching. He couldn't believe it. With a frustrated, angry tight smile on his face he asked, "What are you doing here? I just left you." She said, "While we were traveling to the hospital to sign the release forms for your body, we were hit by a speeding car and I was killed. So, here I am." Not flinching in his new responsibility he said, "In order to gain entrance into heaven, you have to spell "Czechoslovakia."
The humor of this story gives us a glimpse into something Jesus was telling us. Can you imagine meeting someone in the Kingdom who is still holding on to attitudes that communicate exclusion and separation? Our main point of living is to deal with such issues. If we want to have peace, joy and a loving lightness of being, God's will is that we develop such qualities now.
This is our moment! Our personal movie was designed for just this purpose. The conflicts that come up for us will not even remotely be similar to those coming up for someone else. That is why not one of us can claim that we are more enlightened than someone else.
Sports enthusiasts learned recently that several million dollar athletes are experiencing conflict in dealing with their own material success. They have held out for millions of dollars in contract offers and once they win them, they turn to alcohol, cocaine and travel at irresponsible speeds in their new high-ticket automobiles.
Many who consider themselves devout followers of Jesus Christ have conflicts in loving and staying around those whose belief systems differ from their own. Clearly, Jesus taught just the opposite. It is sometimes very difficult to look at ourselves, isn't it?
The last verse gives us an image we might want to remember, "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served; he came to serve and to give his life in order to help people in the world change their minds." Conflict is our opportunity, our stepping stone to being greater servants than we are at the moment. To be first, we must be the slave of everyone else. Do we currently have that kind of power? Jesus taught us that we do. We just need to use it.