How many of you thrive on conflict? Some people enjoy the struggle and get energy from opposition. Arguing and pressing for a cause ignites them. This trait makes some people excellent social activists, and others are just bullies. But the majority of us are exhausted by conflict. When Jeanne and I argue, neither of us can sleep until we have come to better terms with each other. I spent a Sabbatical learning about conflict resolution and transformation because it was hard on me.
How do you think Jesus handled conflict? If you think of Jesus as the wise, compassionate, and forgiving friend and savior, you might think he was so good at handling conflict that he always resolved it. Therefore, if we are patient, kind, and forgiving, we too will always handle conflict gracefully. When I took mediation training, I wanted to learn to skillfully bring every disagreement into a win-win situation. If conflict persisted, it must be because I made a mistake. It took me time to accept that not all disputes are resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. Conflicts bring necessary hard choices to the forefront. The best outcome may leave some people frustrated. This creates a dilemma for congregations. We are called to make God’s love and justice real, and yet we hate having conflict.
Mark’s Gospel is an interesting read if we look at it through the lens of conflict. John the Baptist is arrested in the first chapter. Jesus and his disciples picked grain on the Sabbath when no one was supposed to work, and it enraged the Pharisees, the rule keepers. Jesus answers, “the Sabbath was made from humanity, not humanity for the sabbath.” To make his point he then heals a man on the Sabbath, causing more controversy. Then he told someone their sins were forgiven. Some argued only God can forgive sin, and just who does Jesus think he is? Some of Jesus healings were done by casting out a demon, bringing him into a confrontation with forces that were oppressing people from within. Jesus’s opponents started a smear campaign and said he could only heal and caste out demons because he was in league with Satan. The more Jesus preached about love, forgiveness, liberation, and healing; the more conflict surrounded him. Its not hard to imagine when we compare him to Martin Luther King, Jr. Now we have a national holiday honoring the civil rights champion, but King never topped 50 percent support in opinion polls in the 1960s.
In today’s lesson, conflict comes to a head and John the Baptist is beheaded. All the forces of ego, brutality, jealousy, lawlessness and power come into play. Its Herod’s world, and he does what he wants to keep the peace in his dysfunctional family. Note that he married his brother’s wife. (Count me out on that family reunion.). I’m not going to spend much time describing Herod Antipas’s brutality. Just remember his father, Herod the Great, is said to have killed all the male children near Jesus’s age after the visit of the wise men. Brutality is the family business. And now Herod thinks Jesus is John the Baptist risen from the dead. So how did Jesus handle conflict, and how do we walk with him in Herod’s world?
Sarah and I lead workshop on how to have brave and bold conversations in the church. We opened the workshop asking this question, “What conflict can you not talk about in church?” Politics. Money. Budgets. Someone told a story about a prayer request for gun control after a mass shooting. The pastor got a storm of angry phone calls, so she organized an after-church forum. No one showed up. After a few more answers, someone blurted out, “No wonder churches are struggling. Apparently, we can’t talk about anything important.”
Andy Stanley, lead pastor of Crosspoint, a massive megachurch, learned a hard lesson about conflict during COVID. Andy learned church politics from his father, Charles Stanley, who was President of the Southern Baptist Convention. He has a unique ability to find the most moderate middle ground designed to sidestep controversy. When COVID struck, Andy made a hard choice to close the multi-site 20,000-member church and become a virtual church for at least one full year. When he received a torrent of angry criticism, he called almost 100 members who resigned from church leadership. He expected people to be upset about not seeing friends and experiencing community as they went virtual. Instead, he was shocked to get an earful of political commentary accusing him of selling out to liberal fantasies about COVID, and for not defying government mandates to keep church open. He lost 20 percent of his congregation.
COVID revealed a hard truth. There is no safe harbor of magic moderation where the middle ground will prevent conflict. Pastors who tried to straddle the middle often fared much worse as congregations divided over mask wearing and congregational singing. COVID protocols fractured congregations already struggling over issues such as welcoming LGBTQ people, racism, and the last election. The NY Times reported that 29 percent of clergy left the ministry this year, and many cited unrelenting conflict as their reason for throwing in the towel. (interesting metaphor when Jesus washed the disciples feet!).
I’m grateful First Churches hasn’t had the kind of conflict that divides the congregation. The importance of this story for us is a reminder that churches do not stay healthy and strong in mission by avoiding conflict. Dealing with conflict in open, respectful, and direct ways is essential to health.
This congregation’s history has been shaped by conflicts. I’m sure First Baptist Church created quite a stir when they were founded as an abolitionist church in 1846. The Congregational Church divided, and Edwards Church was founded down the street.
Some of you were here in 1996 when the congregation became Open and Affirming of all people, especially people of all LGBTQ gender identities and sexual orientations. We look back at that moment and celebrate that decision, but it was not without controversy. Rev. Peter Ives told me he wondered if he would have to resign if the vote had gone the other way. Even after a year of respectful discussion and sharing, several people voted “No” and a group of people left the church. I’m sure that was heartbreaking at the time. But imagine if you had avoided the controversy for the sake of keeping the peace. Many pillars of the church would not be here today. I probably would not have interviewed here nine years ago. Bravely facing controversy with patient and intentional dialog makes a church healthy. Avoiding controversy to keep the peace is like building a McMansion on the sand. It’s very comfortable until the first major hurricane blows it all away.
Getting through conflict is essential to our future. Let’s recall where we have been successful, to give us strength for the future. Many of you remember when we talked about selling the Tiffany stained glass window. We had a good process, and when we took a vote, more than 90 percent of you agreed to pursue selling the window. Our strong process kept us to together through conflict with the Historic Commission. We can do hard things. But don’t forget where we started. I heard words like, “Over my dead body.” What if we had stopped the conversation when strong emotion was expressed?
One of the most important things during COVID was renting our space for the cot shelter. Don’t forget it was controversial when it was proposed. I overheard the words, “Pastor Todd loves the homeless more than his church.” (I only wish I was so noble!). I have learned over time that people say things like that when they are anxious and afraid. I don’t assume that will be their final answer. Often the same people will take credit for the idea a year down the road. The point is, our entire church history is forged by how we have responded in moments of conflict.
I’m bringing this message because it is how the lectionary is speaking to me. I’m glad I’m sharing it in relative calm where we don’t have a divisive issue right now. I don’t have to be a fortune teller to say that more controversy is on the way. We are in a culture war, where many people have a vested interest in using divisive issues as a wedge to gain power and money. Good listening and dialog skills and courage to seek the truth together will be more critical to the church’s future than fundraising, a good Children’s Ministry, or a vibrant digital ministry. A non-anxious people who can make decisions to adapt to profound societal changes can thrive. An anxious church that succumbs to fight or flight will be battered by all the storms.
It’s often still Herod’s world out there. We must remember everything we have learned about dealing with division. It takes a spirit of patience, curiosity, and forbearance. Remember to ask questions before drawing a line in the sand. We also need the ability to set boundaries. All people are welcome; all behaviors are not. Call people in as much as possible, but sometimes we must “call out” hurtful or maladaptive behavior.
Jesus’s central theme throughout the Gospel of Mark is “The Kingdom of Heaven is near.” When I hear those words, I think of the phrase “Beloved Community.” To me, it goes beyond being nice people to be an authentic community. Sometimes when we walk with Jesus and act with grace, justice, and healing, it will make people angry. But together, we can live into Jesus’s prayer. “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”