If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Let's Make Peace: Philippians 4:1-9

*This sermon was preached at Zion Mennonite Church on Sunday, October 9, 2011

One reason I joined the Mennonite Church was because of its peace tradition. As a Southern Baptist, who was involved in peace and justice, I resonated with what I was studying about Anabaptism. I thought I had found a tradition that reflected my own passion for following the Prince of Peace. When I made the connection between Anabaptism and the Mennonites, I thought I had found a peace church. So, you can see why I was completely surprised when at my first Mennonite church we got into a conflict. And not only was this peace church in a conflict it was over, of all things….peace! “How ironic,” I thought. A peace church in conflict over peace!

That wasn’t the end of the irony for me. As Minister of Peace and Justice for Mennonite Church USA I discovered that peace was becoming less and less a factor in shaping its congregations. The peace dove seemed to be taking flight….away from our church! And as I studied the battlefield of Mennonite Church history, I discovered that it was strewn with the bodies of the shot and wounded from countless church fights and splits. So, I asked myself a question, which I turned into an awarded article for the Mennonite Weekly Review entitled, “When is a peace church no longer a peace church?” My question arose from observing a church conflicted about peace and with many congregations simply conflicted.

Conflict in the church is nothing new. We might be better off if we considered conflict to be normal and natural for congregations. It was certainly part of the early church. In his letter to the Philippians the apostle Paul addresses a conflict. Two women, Euodia and Synteche, were at odds with one another. They were co-workers, who were “striving together” with Paul, Clement, and the rest of Paul’s co-workers in the gospel. Now, Paul says that they are “striving against each other.” These two women were significant leaders in the church at Philippi.

Paul urged Euodia and Synteche to be “of the same mind in the Lord.” He called upon his “loyal companion,” possibly Epaphroditus who was the messenger for this letter, to help the two women leaders with their conflict. It appears that their dis-ease with one another was infecting the whole church. These women played a key role in the unity of the church. It seems that they had forgotten their common ground in Christ. What a negative impact their conflict made on the church. How sad. Over two thousand years have passed and though they would never have imagined it, their names will be forever remembered as two Christians who did not get along.

There is a thick silence and empty space in the text concerning their conflict, as thick and heavy as the silence we experienced last Sunday evening. I wonder what they were quarreling about? Was it over weighty issues or trivial differences? Were their differences personal or over church matters? Did they ever solve their differences? We don’t know. The text does not tell us. It is silent.

The silence of the text gives us imaginative space to creatively wonder. Can you imagine the apostle sitting down at a table in the house church at Philippi with Euodia, Syntheche, and possibly Epaphroditus, to talk about their differences. The meeting starts off in prickly silence. No one wants to start the conversation. The air is heavy. Let’s listen in as they finally begin to talk.

Paul: Okay, who’s going to go first?
Euodia: Well, I guess I’ll just jump in with both feet. It all started when Synteche told Clement that she didn’t think I was a good church leader. Instead of coming and telling me face-to-face, she went behind my back and talked to….
Synteche: Now, wait a minute….It may be difficult for me to talk to people. But, it’s because I’ve been burned in the past. And this was a difficult issue. It had to do with how you understand the church and what it means to be a leader and….
Euodia: Yeah, but you think a church leader should cater to the differing needs of every member of our house church and I think a leader should follow their gifts of the Spirit, like Paul once taught us, right Paul?
Paul: Now, sisters, let’s give each other a chance to speak from our hearts and carefully listen to one another.
Synteche: I agree. Euodia never listens to the people. She’s always talking about how the Spirit gives us freedom in Christ, especially women. I think that there needs to be more order and following the traditions of our elders. Women can be leaders, but we must defer to the wisdom of the men. And….
Euodia: Hold on! Your way only alienates the new people that come to visit our house church. They know nothing about the “tradition of the elders.” How can we attract new Gentiles if all we do is talk about our Jewish ancestry, traditions, foods, and families? They won’t come back. We will just be a dying house church made up of a bunch of old Jewish Christians if we keep this up!
Epaphroditus: But, Euodia, we must respect the traditions of our elders.
Euodia: Who asked you, Epaphro! You don’t see the young people leaving the church and…
Syntheche: And you don’t see the importance of singing in Hebrew or observing the Passover or…
Euodia: Paul, can’t you jump in here and tell old Syn that these things have been done away with in Christ. Give me a break! We just have different visions of the church and worship and what a leader is supposed to do. Sheeesh. ( Paul leaves) Paul, can’t you straighten this out….Paul?....Paul?....where is that man going?
Epaphroditus: I think he went out to get some aspirin.

I wonder what the conflict was about between Euodia and Synteche. We don’t know for sure. We just know that the church today can be in conflict over differences of worship styles, understandings of the church, leadership, and pastoral roles, theology, ethical issues, views of women, ethnic backgrounds, family connections, and on and on the list goes. All these diverse forms of conflict over differences also make me wonder how we can make peace within the church.

Making peace within the church requires Christians to act in “unnatural” ways. This may sound strange, but being a Christian is an unnatural act! Iris and I have a wonderful friend, Michelle, a Mennonite leader who is not from Mennonite background, but comes to the Mennonite Church from the African-American tradition. She expresses her pacifism in a rather unique way. She will tell people straight forward about her view of nonviolence like this: “I’m a pacifist by conviction and not by nature. SO, DON’T TEST ME!” I love it!

Being a pacifist or peacemaker is not a natural act. It’s not something that simply comes with having a Mennonite name or even by adopting the peace tradition. Just because kittens are born in a refrigerator, it doesn’t make them ice cubes! Christian virtues are formed and nurtured through Christian practices. They don’t come naturally. So, in order to make peace in the church we will be called upon to perform some rather “unnatural acts.”

Experiencing joy is not simply a natural expression of being a Christian. Paul commands the Philippian Christians: Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice. How do you command someone to be joyful? How can the Philippians rejoice when two of their leaders are at each other’s throats and its impacting the congregation? Maybe if we rejoiced more, we would be less inclined to fight with one another or snarl at someone we don’t agree with. But, I thought rejoicing had to do with our natural feelings of being happy. How can we rejoice when steam is rising from our collar? Rejoicing in the Lord and at all times may be a nice happy tune for children to sing (Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice), but what about when there is tension, anxiety, sickness, troubles, persecution, or conflict? How can we rejoice then?

Here’s an amazing example of rejoicing. Christians in many South American and African countries have for generations faced persecution, poverty, denial of their rights, and have struggled just to survive. And yet, they are some of the most joyful and jubilant Christians anywhere. Why? Because they are a naturally joyful people? No. Is it because they don’t have differences and conflicts like we do? No. It’s because they have found a common reason to rejoice in Christ Jesus. Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord,” not in our circumstances or what’s going on around us. Ours is a joy that transcends normal human experiences. It is unnatural. It is nurtured by Christian practices like music and testimony and bible study and prayer and hospitality. And when you rejoice together, conflict and differences begin to lose their power.

Another virtue that nurtures peace within the church is gentleness. Like joy, gentleness can be an unnatural act. Gentleness is a fruit of the Spirit. And like fruit it takes nurturing with sunshine, water, and sometimes a little dung! It is a virtue formed in the church through nurturing practices. That is why I will be proposing that we work on a covenant at Zion that calls on each of us to interpersonal practices that nurture gentleness. Gentleness is a character quality of the meek, who will inherit the earth, not by their power, force, or violence, but by their ability to relate to others with patience, tenderness, kindness, and humility. Gentleness does not mean that you let people walk over you like a doormat, express no anger, or rule out discipline. Gentleness is bridled strength, conviction, and courage.

Paul tells the church, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” That doesn’t mean that they take out an ad in the paper or put up a billboard advertising their gentleness. It does mean that the word gets out about a Christian congregation that exhibits gentleness, just as the word gets out about churches that are in conflict. The word got out about Euodia and Syntheche’s conflict even as far as to us who are gathered here this morning on the other side of the world and over two thousand years later! I pray that the word that gets out about Zion is the word “gentleness.” It is a quality of a church at peace.

Anxiety works against making peace in the church. Anxiety often helps to produce conflict. When a congregation is anxious, uncertain, and worrying about something there is a human tendency to overreact or project our anxiety onto others. Peter Steinke, a church leader who understands church dynamics, says, “Anxious church families become locked in emotional reactivity. This is quite evident when they fight openly and angrily…” Steinke’s words may need to be translated for a more passive-aggressive Mennonite audience as: “Emotional reactivity is quite evident when they exhibit noninvolvement, helplessness, procrastination, stubbornness, and complaining behind-the-scenes.” Anxiety is the toxic elixir that works against making peace in the church.

Paul tells us, “Don’t worry. Pray instead.” Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. Prayer is a church practice that helps to heal anxiety, particularly prayer as a form of letting go. In prayer we can let go of our worries and anxieties as we pray, “Thy will be done” or “Lord, take this burden from me” or “Lord, I forgive that person who has done wrong to me or someone I care about.” Prayer places our worries into God’s hands so we can be free from taking our anxiety up again and using it against a brother or sister in Christ. And when we add “thanksgiving” to our prayers, we can turn our attitudes from sour to sweet. But, this all takes practice. It doesn’t come naturally.

Neither does positive thinking. Positive thinking? Oh, don’t give me that Norman Vincent Peale, Robert Schuller, and Joel Osteen nonsense. I have gagged over some of their syrupy-be-happy-attitudes messages. Probably it’s because that’s all they seem to preach about; a gospel devoid of cross, tragedy, human pain, sin and suffering. And yet, there is a place for positive thinking in making peace within the church.

Surpisingly, it is the apostle Paul who encourages positive thinking. He says, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there be any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Sounds like positive thinking to me.
Imagine what a difference this attitude would have made in the relationship between Euodia and Synteche. What if instead of shooting one another down and drawing their swords of difference, they released the peace dove of mutual affirmation, shared their commendable traits, rejoiced in one another’s excellence, praised God for their different gifts, and thought upon how they needed one another to build up the body of Christ.

Thinking positively is not natural. When someone questions my Christianity or doesn’t appreciate the gifts I offer the church or struts out their negative attitudes about me, my gut reaction is to fight back, get revenge, or tell a friend how rotten that person is. My first reaction is not to think positively. Almost instinctively, I’m ready to drag them down into the gutter. Thinking positively, trying to understand where another person is coming from, looking at the good side of a dog that just bit you, is not easy. It takes practice; church practices that help form us into more positive, Christ-like people.

Or making peace may take some good examples to follow. Paul says, “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me.” At first it may sound a bit egocentric and prideful to say, “Hey, you want to know how to make peace, get along, and develop these kinds of virtues. Then look at me.” Paul often presents himself as an example for Christians to follow. Whatever you may think about Paul offering himself as a prime example of Christian virtue, the fact is, we need good Christian examples to follow in order to make peace in the church. We need leaders who will model attitudes of gentleness and kindness. We need worship leaders who will assist us in expressing celebration and joy in the Lord. We need praying people to model how we let go of our anxiety and anger and show us how to forgive and make peace with one another. We need Christians with the gift of thinking positively and hopefully, even in the midst of conflict and chaos. We need peacemakers who model peace, reconciliation, justice, and forgiveness not only across the oceans in some foreign land, but right here within our own congregations. We need role models that have developed these virtues through church practices and can exhibit them for us, because they are so unnatural.

My wife, Iris, called me this past Friday at the church office right at this very point of writing my sermon. She was so joyful she wanted to share with me some good news. She told me that it had just been announced that her friend, Leymah Gbowee, who was with her in Eastern Mennonite University’s peace studies program, had received the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize! Praise be to God! Leymah, a Liberian peacemaker, led a movement for women’s rights, halted forcible conscription of children for Liberia’s 14 year war, and ended the bloody Liberian war that was tearing her country apart. Her story is documented in the film “Pray the Devil Back to Hell.”

What virtues had to be nurtured in Leymah in order take on such an amazing peacemaker’s task in the context of a national conflict? Her strength of character “was evident in 2003 when she led hundreds of women to Monrovia's City Hall, demanding an end to the war. ‘We the women of Liberia will no more allow ourselves to be raped, abused, misused, maimed and killed,’ she shouted. ‘Our children and grandchildren will not be used as killing machines and sex slaves!’
The women protested until the dictator Charles Taylor agreed to a meeting. Under Leymah's leadership, they gave the three warring factions three days to deliver an unconditional ceasefire, an intervention force and for the government and rebels to sit down and talk. They got what they asked for and soon after, the Accra Peace Accord was signed in Ghana.” Leymah brought peace to her nation! Praise be to God!

How could Leymah bring peace in such an entrenched and violent conflict? She says her faith helped in her peace work. And I suspect she had nurtured certain Christian virtues like courage, patience, joy in the midst of pain, thinking positively about justice and peace in the midst of tragedy and heartbreak. Leymah will continue to be a model for peacemakers around the world. She will leave a legacy of peace for the children of Liberia. She will be remembered around the world as a peacemaker.

We need such models of peacemaking within the church. We need people who will model gentleness, joy, letting go of anxiety, and nurturing positive ways of thinking and relating with others. Otherwise, our legacy could end up like that of Euodia and Synteche. We could be remembered for our conflicts, instead of for making peace.
If we become peacemakers within the church, then the God of peace with be with us. Paul says that if we keep on doing these things that we have learned, seen, heard, and practiced, like gentleness, patience, kindness, letting go of anxiety, praying, thinking positively, and more, “the God of peace will be with us”

The God of peace and the peace of God will be with us; the peace of God that passes all human understanding. Why is the peace of God beyond human understanding? Because it is not natural! It is peace that comes as a gift of the Spirit, not our own human effort. The peace of God comes from the God of peace; the God of peace who ends conflicts around the world; the God of peace who ends struggles between church leaders and members that don’t see eye to eye; the God of peace who is with us, even now.

I leave you with these words that Ervin Stutzman, Executive Director of Mennonite Church USA, just recently wrote to the Mennonite Church concerning conflicts with the church:

Since we are a peace church, we must continue to practice ways to build peace in the face of conflict. May God enable us to that end.

There is more light and truth yet to break forth from God’s Holy Word.

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