A young rabbi found a serious problem in his new congregation. During the Friday service, half the congregation stood for the prayers and half remained seated, and each side shouted at the other, insisting that theirs was the true tradition. Nothing the rabbi said or did moved toward solving the impasse.
Finally, in desperation, the young rabbi sought out the synagogue’s 99-year-old founder. He met the old rabbi in the nursing home and poured out his troubles.
“So tell me,” he pleaded, “was it the tradition for the congregation to stand during the prayers?”
“No,” answered the old rabbi.
” Ah,” responded the younger man, “then it was the tradition to sit during the prayers?”
“No,” answered the old rabbi.
“Well,” the young rabbi responded, “what we have is complete chaos! Half the people stand and shout, and the other half sit and scream.”
“Ah,” said the old man, “that was the tradition.”
As we reflected together at our Conference on the Past back in October, and as I have been in conversations with many of you… conflict was the tradition of this church as well.
For many years… even when the pews were filled… there was a sense of competition, tug-of-war, a sense of unease as this congregation was pushed and pulled from one end of the political spectrum to another and back again… from laity empowered ministry to pastor-in-charge ways of doing ministry to times without a pastor altogether.
How many of you have felt like this church has sometimes been on a roller coaster?
I cannot speak for our past Bishops or our leadership or the Holy Spirit… because I know very well that the Holy Spirit moves in mysterious ways… But I do want to say that no matter who has been sent to lead this congregation what really matters is not the pastor up front, but each of you.
That was one nugget that a few of you shared with me over these past few months. That in spite of everything that this congregation has been through – maybe because of everything that this congregation has been through – you have realized that the people sitting around you are who really matter.
Like that Jewish congregation of sitters and standers, no matter what your differences, you still get together and you still come together to worship and serve.
I think what we can all admit about the past, however, is that there have been times of winners and losers, folks who have gotten their way and those that didn’t, people who stayed and people who left.
As we continue on this “Come to the Table” journey, we are entering a time when we want to find out just what is on our plate. We want to discover what’s going on here in this church right now, but also what is happening out there in the world.
As we walk with the church at Corinth, they will help us to understand that many of the problems we face today are problems people of faith have been facing for thousands of years.
There may not be much comfort in that… but at least we have good company!
The first reality we must face, the first course on our dinner plate, if you will… is conflict.
As soon as Paul finishes praising God for all of the potential that this congregation has, he launches into a plea that the people of Corinth would stop fighting with one another.
“In the name of Jesus,” Paul writes, “you must get along with each other! You must learn to be considerate of one another and cultivate a life in common.” (message paraphrase)
He sees among them a whole lot of folks vying for their piece of the pie, wrestling for the spotlight, people who believe that they are right and everyone else is wrong. He sees people who really do want to be faithful… but they are putting all of their eggs in the wrong basket. They think that to be faithful they have to be on the winning team.
So they pick sides. They follow Apollos or Cephas. They throw their lot in with Paul. Some of them even go around saying, “to heck with all this division… I’m following Jesus!” And in doing so, they only stoke the fires of competition even more. It’s like playing a trump card.
|Photo by: Philippe Ramakers
But you know what… they aren’t using that trump card in order to actually be more faithful to Jesus… they are doing it to put others down. “I’m a Christian and you’re not” they seem to be saying.
In the worldly realm of politics, we understand how this works. There are winners and losers on each issue, there is competition for money and time and we don’t care who gets run over in the process. We don’t care who our words hurt or what we do to our nation in the process.
And it is sad to say that sometimes that spirit gets into our churches as well. Paul saw it happening in Corinth… and before it got too bad, he wanted to set things right again.
Paul was aware that this continuous practice of win/lose behaviors ends up exacting a high cost. Listen and see if any of these sound familiar:
- Sometimes it causes people who actually do have great leadership skills to sit in the background and keep quiet. They simply do not want to enter the fray.
- Sometimes, we are so hurt by past conflict between winners and losers that we are afraid to disagree with anyone, and so a diversity of opinion is lost.
- Sometimes, confidence disappears.
- Sometimes, anxiety that comes from past hostility seeps into our current conversations and tiny differences are intensified and exaggerated.
- Sometimes, we are unable to discern creative solutions to our problems because we are afraid of trying something new and failing.
Even when a church finds itself back on healthy ground… even when the fruits of the spirit and running rampant in our midst… the residue from those past conflicts can stick around for a while. We are so tired of having winners and losers, that we simply choose not to participate… or when we do, we are timid, and afraid to say what we really think.
I think the first thing we need to see when we confront this reality that is before us is that conflict… in and of itself… is not bad.
Jill Sanders once told me that conflict is simply two ideas co-existing in the same space. Whenever you have community, you will have conflict. You will have differences of opinion. You will have perspectives that offer different solutions.
Conflict is not bad. It is necessary. It sparks change. It leads to growth. We can’t learn without conflict.
How we deal with conflict is a completely different story. If we quickly chose a side and fight to the death, we are repeating old patterns and will lead to our ruin.
God gives us another way. God has formed us as the church by the Holy Spirit so that we can show the world how to be a people of truth, peace, wholeness and holiness. We can show the world that you can have conflict, without competition, violence and war.
The second thing we need to see, confronted with this reality, is that we have a standard by which to judge all of our conflicts. It isn’t the side of the winners… it isn’t the side that has the most money… it isn’t the side that is even right.
As Paul writes to the church of Corinth:
The good news that points to Christ on the Cross seems like sheer foolishness to those hellbent on destruction, but for those on the way of salvation… it makes perfect sense. (message paraphrase).
The cross is what unifies us. The cross is our standard. The cross of Christ, his life, death and resurrection, should be the focus of all of our decisions.
So faced with a conflict, faced with difference, we are called to look to the cross. We are called to love as Christ loved… sacrificially. We are called to die to our old ways and take up the ways of our resurrected one. We are Easter people. We are people of hope. We are people who love the unloveable and forgive the unforgiveable. We are called to find a way through the chaos… and we do it through the cross.
And sometimes that makes us look like fools by worldly standards.
But it is what we are called to.
We are called to not just follow in name only- but to actually become the name of Christ… to let the cross of Christ transform us. To make ourselves different. To be the crucified and risen body of Christ in the world… to go to those who suffer and suffer with them, to bring healing and hope through Christ’s love and to share the good news of the salvation of the world…