2 Christmas 2020: A time to fight and a time to hold differences between us

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Jeremiah, the psalm, and the Gospel
point to a conflict in the Bible.
It is one we have seen graphically before
while it is more implicit than explicit
in today’s readings.
So, if you don’t see it,
you’ll just have to trust me that it is there.

In any case, it is difficult to deny
that from beginning to end
the overarching theme of the Bible
is about God’s solidarity
with ancient Israel.
The only real argument
is whether that blessing
remains within Israel
or by extension,
God’s solidarity is with all of humankind?

Within that question, is the even more gnarly one
about exactly how much preference
God shows
toward those who are persecuted
and marginalized
by people with power and wealth?

The Bible is like a peanut shell
with two little nuts
cuddled up side-by-side
in a small hollowed home.

Open the Bible,
and from the very first verses
we discover there are two nuts
arguing with each other.
Like a curmudgeonly old couple
who cantankerously grump back and forth,
the priestly and the prophetic voices of the Bible
bicker over a thousand years
and more than 785,000 words.

We know this fact about the bible:
both the Hebrew text
and the partially Gentile New Testament,
were written and edited
by a gazillion hands
without much effort to harmonize all that variety.

That said, there has been considerable effort
by later Christian theologians
and doctors of doctrine,
to harmonize the obvious contradictions
and the multiple,
antagonistic perspectives
inside the Bible.
As the centuries stacked up after Jesus,
and especially as reason and philosophy
began driving the process,
theologians imagined they could systematize
and regularize
the diversity of thought
in the Bible.
Like driving a team of horses,
they actually thought they could
make all those ancient voices behave.
But not so much.

The Bible is full of bad boys and girls
that do not do what they are told.
And in that scrum of tangled beliefs
there are two voices that argue the loudest:
the priestly voice
and the prophetic voice.

The priestly voice understands righteousness
as a by-product of purity,
while the prophetic voice perceives righteousness
as found in the womb of justice and peace.

The priestly voice
is anxious to make certain the traditions and rituals are kept, and kept correctly;
while the prophetic voice
is angered by relationships that are out of kilter
and resources poorly distributed.

I have noticed in every congregation
I have served,
that tension continues to burn
between an emphasis on spiritual community
and nuruture,
or mission and outreach.
It is of course, a misunderstanding of each
to press them as a binary choice
or even to see them as distinct.
And yet, we often do.

A healthy congregation, like the Bible,
is a poorly edited conglomerate
of disparate voices
and an unruly collection
of opinions and beliefs
tussling over shared concerns.

An unhealthy congregation,
is like the imperial orthodoxy
that came to rule Christianity,
it has a pall of order placed over it
in an attempt to make everyone think,
believe, act, and worship
in the same ways.

So, I want us to piggyback on that tension
and those conflicts for a moment.

Sometimes relationships strain
like the bruising of hamstrings
that won’t stretch any further.
Sometimes we simply have to turn away
from those we love –
a parent,
a sibling,
a spouse,
a friend.

Sometimes they will not change with us
and then judge us harshly
for continuing to change
when they have refused.

Sometimes it may be us
who are left behind
because we will not accept a change
that others have evolved toward.

Sometimes a schism between people
comes about because of things done
or left undone
that cause us to lose trust,
or simply
the will to reconcile.

I am not someone that believes all fractures
and conflicts
can or should be reconciled.

As Maya Angelou said,
and who is so often quoted about it these days,
when people tell you or show you who they are
believe them the first time.

When people have acted poorly toward us,
and it has happened more than once,
then we need to adjust our expectations
and accept what they are telling us
about who they are.
Then we can decide the appropriate distance
we need to keep between us –
which does not mean
we need to hate them
or fear them
or be mean to them.
Simply, that we do not wish
to make ourselves vulnerable to them again.

So, what I am about to say regarding
value conflicts, is not a blanket statement
about conflict in general.
In order to work with conflict
we need to have a sense that we are dealing
with someone who is trustworthy.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
was not naïve about who he was dealing with –
whether white supremacists who hated him
or white liberals who talked the talk
but would not walk the walk.
He was strategic and did what was necessary
but not without his eyes wide open.

But that said, most conflicts are reconcilable
if the parties involved decide
reconciliation is better than fracture.
That is as true between individuals
as it is within communities and organizations.
I dare say that the historic enmity
between Trinity and St. Peter’s
is a decision not to reconcile
based upon events and people
that created and sustain a crisis of trust.
When there is an absence of trust
reconciliation is not going to take place.

But there is another kind of fracture,
the kind between people who love each other
yet hold between them
a value conflict – a value they do not share
or two values with sharp opposing edges
pointed at one another.
That is the kind of conflict
that burns in the Bible
between priestly and prophetic traditions.

A value conflict
between those who love each other
does not resolve,
does not narrow,
does not soften.
When we have a value conflict
with someone we love,
we must live with the pain between us
even though it is a cut that does not heal.

We cannot
and should not
give up a value for someone else.
Rather, we are left to acknowledge it;
to be as clear about it as we can;
to understand it as best we are able;
and then simply hold
the distance
and the difference
between us.

If it is a true value conflict
we cannot
and should not
try to talk each other out of it,
or in any way disrespect one another’s autonomy.

Learning to love around a basic value conflict
requires an artfulness
and elasticity
some people do not come by easily –
and that no one embodies completely.
And yet,
learning to hold one another
even as we hold opposing values
is the mark of spiritual depth
for individuals and communities.

I mutter over this a lot lately,
given the vociferousness of public discourse around politicians and policies.
I remind myself that one of the reasons
I am a priest today,
is because I grew up among people
who understood this core
spiritual element
of community.

Like many of you,
my younger years included the assassinations
of the Kennedy brothers,
Martin Luther King and Malcom X,
the riots at the Democratic National Convention
in Chicago, Watergate, and Kent State.
Inside all of that
was the violent separation of generations.

In my little Episcopal Church
in Muncie, Indiana,
there was an adult education hour
every Sunday that ran concurrently
with Sunday School between services.
I may have told you this,
but when I was sixteen or so,
I asked to make an anti-war presentation –
the exact topic of which is long since forgotten.
Not only did the priest and adult leadership
welcome me to do so,
they encouraged the congregation to attend.
What happened surprised everyone.

A couple of adults that apparently
equated anti-war views with Communism
began shaking and screaming
with wild gestures and red faces.

Honestly, I can’t remember what they said
or even what the argument was about,
I just remember the color of their faces
and the agitated movement of their bodies.

But I also remember the others in that circle –
men in white shirts and dark suits
and women in Sunday dresses.
They somehow made me feel surrounded
and protected,
and insisted that their church was a safe place
where all points of view would be heard.

Those who did not want
all points of view to be heard
stomped off in a rage,
while the other adults remained –
which was most of them.
They asked me to continue
with the program I had planned
though surely many of them knew
they would not agree with it.

I experienced that model of community
again and again in church
during those turbulent and angry years,
when value differences
divided the culture and poisoned relationships
between generations.
That congregation, in fact, was the one place
I remember feeling
as though it could hold us all.
As it turned out,
it was also a refuge that would hold me
when events conspired
to break apart relationships within my own family.

What I have learned since those long-ago days
is that when a conflict exists between people
there is a way to resolve it
so long as those involved
have the desire and will
to find resolution…
and so long as circumstances
have not dissolve the ability to trust.

But that said, a value conflict
cannot be resolved.
It can only be held in place
between those in relationship.

Held between them like a beach ball
but held there
because the relationship can hold it
in spite of the differences.

All of us bear the scars
of strained or broken relationships
because value conflicts could not be held.
Maybe they were too much for us, and
perhaps at a time
when we lacked sufficient resilience,
or maturity to accept the presence of something
we could not share,
or would not share,
or refused to accept.

Maybe we found a way back to one another
and then learned to live with
whatever the lump between us was.

If so, hopefully, we made amends
for our inability to embrace
and hold the other
in spite of the painful
difference between us.

If we were fortunate,
we had a community that reminded us
of a greater love than ours
that surpasses all differences,
and nurtured us into resilience
to mimic that love
with the ability to encompass differences.

No one, and no community, does it perfectly.

We will continually find ourselves
falling into a categorical we/they
and them/us refusal
to embrace opposing values.

We will seduce ourselves
into righteous indignation
over something we disagree with.

We will catch ourselves
sliding down that sluice of resentment
toward someone’s wrong-headed ideas
and want desperately
to give into that glorious stance
of hands on hips,
chin turned up
and lips turned down.

We will be full of the desire to change their mind
or negate their value or belief,
and above all,
to vanquish their will so that we might win.

But what that really is,
is our need
to have our belief or value
affirmed by others.

What is really going on inside us
when that happens,
is our need
to be certified
from the-outside-in.

When we cannot allow a significant
value conflict to stand between us,
even as we hold one another in relationship,
it is because we are in need
of affirmation,
or fear that our own value or belief
cannot stand on its own.

When that agitation occurs
we need to stop
and listen within ourselves.
Is there fear within us?
Are our values
or beliefs threatened
because someone we love
does not share it?
If so, it is our fear
that needs to be addressed and healed
rather than the defense of our values and beliefs.

What is threatened by someone not sharing
what we hold,
and why is it threatening?
Exploring our own fears,
resentments, and
anger is where resilience is born,
and where spiritual depth finds its soil.

When we can explore our own fears
instead of defending against
someone else’s values or beliefs,
we will discover
the ability to hold onto one another
with differences between us.
And when that happens,
for individuals and for community,
we will discover that we have reached
a whole new depth of spirit.