Thursday, June 19, 2014

“Agree With One Another, Live in Peace” (Matthew 5:38-48)

Twice now I’ve purchased an airplane ticket to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and booked myself at Pendle Hill Retreat Center, which is owned and operated by the Quakers.   Pendle Hill is intentional about community.  To be intentional means to plan and develop, as opposed to “see what happens.”
What’s the draw?  

*there’s green space for breathing

*there’s a walking trail for wandering and wondering

*there’s a quiet space for worship--to connect with the Spirit in good company

*flowing from that connection with the Spirit is hospitality; comfort for the stranger

*also flowing from that connection with the Spirit is a safe place for soul to show up--no setting each other straight; no fixing---everyone reaching for the presence of the spirit—everyone equal, everyone “ok”

*the food is organic and as local as possible – “a ministry of love and concern for your health”

*the buildings are beautiful but simple

*the coffee pot is always on

*the art building is well-stocked with paper and clay and paint, encouraging creativity and a deepening connection with the soul

*communion happens around the table at mealtime—a time of deep listening to the persons at the table—sometimes there are lit candles; there’s always flowers

*silence is a welcome gift so that one can hear God
*retreats are scheduled to help people love their life, or their work, or the life of their neighbor, or the presence of God; to teach us how to be better citizens of the world and to advocate for the least of these, OR peace.

At Pendle Hill the soul is safe from judgment; the body is safe from unhealthy food and constant sitting; and the mind is treated to beauty be it through words, demeanor, art, or nature.

The same could be said for a visit to a monastery, a monastery being an intentional community; a community focused on the presence of God, on care of the soul, on beauty, and on kindness.

Both are refreshing because they are SAFE places to explore being human, being ME, in relation to God and neighbor.  It’s okay to be on a journey and not to have arrived—to ask questions—to be messy—to grow and grow some more.

In his letter to the church at Corinth Paul offers a similar vision to the new congregation; a congregation that found themselves embroiled in meanness.  In our lesson today Paul is saying to the Corinthian congregation “Do the work of being a safe place for ALL people.”

The Corinthian congregation had grown to be quite contentious.  Many of the members thought they were better than others—many thought they were better than Paul.  An air of superiority permeated the congregation and it let out a really big stink.  So did the air of inferiority.  There was division.  Think about it.  An air of superiority creates a separate category; inferiority. 

We are not strangers to this kind of thinking; the United States is superior to any other nation, single or divorced is an inferior marital status; youth is superior to old age; the Builders are the Greatest Generation; children are inferior to adults; men are superior to women; my knowledge of scripture is right and yours is wrong: undocumented workers are inferior to documented workers,  and so on.  I think all of us could find ourselves on the short end of some stick. 

So at Corinth there was pain and many people left the church and rightly so.  It wasn’t healthy.   Insults abounded everywhere.  Persons invaded the lives of others instead of focusing on their own abilities and inabilities—you know—the log in their own eye before removing the speck in another. 

Who wanted to hang around and be ignored, or debased?  Especially since “in Christ there is no east or west; no south or north.”

Perhaps God had left the Corinthian congregation as well.  I have a valued friend who has the gift of discernment—the ability to see what’s running the church—love—or something else.  She’ll often say, “God left that church a long time ago.”  How do we know when God has left a church?  According to Paul it’s when the people find themselves embroiled in meanness, when things fall into disrepair, and when cheerfulness is difficult to come by.

How do we know when God is present?  God is present when people are in agreement, or at PEACE with one another.   It’s not when people think the same—it’s when people think like Jesus—and find GOD in human diversity.   That’s when the Spirit hums “surely the presence of the LORD is in this place.” 
Peace means WHOLENESS; unity.  When we greet one another in a holy embrace, or with respect; when we understand everyone belongs…God is present.

“Peace”,  the New Testament teaches us, “is another way to be WITH each other, as opposed to distanced and fractured or angry or mean or returning an eye for an eye.” It’s Jesus’ way.  Jesus instructs his listening audience in Matthew 5:38-48 (Message) :

Love Your Enemies

38-42 “Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’ If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, gift wrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.

43-47 “You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.”

Do we hear that?  To be children of God is to be FOR everybody, including our enemy; including people who aren’t FOR us. 

But how do we get there?  How do we get beyond the division to that peaceful place where everybody belongs?  How do we get to that place where we don’t think and act in terms of SUPERIOR and INFERIOR?  How do we think and act like Jesus?  

A few years ago a Quaker by the name of Parker Palmer wrote a beautiful little book titled A Hidden Wholeness. In this book he offers several insights:

First, there is no quick fix wholeness.  It’s intentional.  It’s daily.

Second, more people suffer from low self-esteem than arrogance.  More people are distanced from their soul, their inner teacher, their inner light, their Holy Spirit within—“our counselor and friend” as Jesus says.  Counselors, we understand, both embrace and correct—tell the truth.  We can’t be well when we are separated from the source of abundant life or unwilling to look at the truth.

Silence is necessary for soul to show up and to hear God.  So are small groups, a resistance to fixing people or demanding information about other people (gossip) or meddling in other people’s lives, as well as an ability to wonder about how other people arrive at their understandings instead of judging them.

Humility is also necessary to living in harmony—a willingness to admit to ourselves and others, “I don’t know.”  An attitude of “I don’t know” is a sign of enlightenment.
When I was a freshman in high school our English teacher introduced a short story with two characters; the white man and the red man (excuse the language, 1972 was a long time ago.)  The red man draws a circle on the ground and says, “This is how much the red man knows.”  The white man draws a larger circle around the smaller circle and says, “This is how much the white man knows.”  The red man draws yet a larger circle around the two and says, “Ah yes, but this is how much they DON’T know.”

As we listen to a little bit of what Parker Palmer offers us around Paul’s invitation to “live in harmony”, we realize it’s so different that the world most of us experience…

      Ears attached to ear pieces in order to hear ipods…
         Eyes absorbed in texting, and facebook posts…
                Lots of people in one place, but not fully present…
                 Constant doing…
                       An attitude of “I know.”
                          Violence and revenge.

Our world is so immature.  As a society, what are we?  Maybe 16 years of age?  If you hit me I’ll hit you back.  It can hurt to live here.  “Get things in order,” Paul says to the Corinthians, “you’ll like your church so much better.”

What do you think he means by “get things in order”? How do you and I begin to “get things in order”?

I am reminded of the story about the Elephant and the Blind Men:
Once upon a time, there lived six blind men in a village. One day the villagers told them, 

"Hey, there is an elephant in the village today."

They had no idea what an elephant is. They decided, "Even though we would not be able to see it, let us go and feel it anyway." All of them went where the elephant was. Everyone of them touched the elephant.

"Hey, the elephant is a pillar," said the first man who touched his leg.

"Oh, no! it is like a rope," said the second man who touched the tail.

"Oh, no! it is like a thick branch of a tree," said the third man who touched the trunk of the elephant.

"It is like a big hand fan" said the fourth man who touched the ear of the elephant.

"It is like a huge wall," said the fifth man who touched the belly of the elephant.

"It is like a solid pipe," Said the sixth man who touched the tusk of the elephant.

They began to argue about the elephant and everyone of them insisted that he was right. It looked like they were getting agitated.

A wise man was passing by and he saw this. He stopped and asked them, "What is the matter?" They said, "We cannot agree to what the elephant is like." Each one of them told what he thought the elephant was like. The wise man calmly explained to them, "All of you are right. The reason every one of you is telling it differently because each one of you touched the different part of the elephant. So, actually the elephant has all those features what you all said."

"Oh!" everyone said. There was no more fight. They felt happy that they were all right.
The moral of the story is that there may be some truth to what someone says. Sometimes we can see that truth and sometimes not because they may have different perspective which we may not agree too. So, rather than arguing like the blind men, we should say, "Maybe you have your reasons." This way we don’t get in arguments.
Prayer:  Peaceful God, bless us with a heart that embraces everybody.  May we be humble enough in spirit to say “I don’t know,” and gracious enough to say to our neighbor “Maybe you have your reasons.”  We’d love for our church to be a safe church.  Amen.

(This sermon was preached by Reverend Dana Keener at Central Christian Church on June 15, 2014.)

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