Harmony and Discord

June 23, 2013
Matthew 18:15-20; II Corinthians 5:17-21

Mim – We are delighted to worship with you this morning. We want you to know how much we appreciate each opportunity to worship with you. Among the many churches we have visited, in our unbiased opinion Hyattsville Mennonite is one of the best.

Jim – It is a personal joy to witness the leadership of our daughter Cindy, and to experience the caring community in which our grandchildren are being nurtured.  Thank you for the love and grace you extend to Cecilia, Jamie, Elijah, Cindy and Eric.

Mim – Our sermon this morning, Harmony and Discord, should not be strange in the life of congregations.  Unfortunately in most churches we value harmony and only reluctantly address discord.

Jim – On the face of it, this seems strange.  Not only are the Scriptures bold and straight forward about conflict.  So is the experience of many churches.  Witness the frequent fracturing of the body of Christ into denominations and splinter groups.

Mim – Take the big word reconciliation Paul uses in II Corinthians 5, a word heard frequently among Mennonites – it means nothing if it doesn’t assume something is broken or a set of relationships needs to be healed and brought together again in harmony.

Jim – Or take the Matthew 18 scripture – Jesus doesn’t say that if perchance there might ever be a difference among you, deal with it.  No, he assumes that from time to time people will have grievances with one another.

Mim – Sara Wenger Shenk, President of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, stated in a recent blog, “Practicing reconciliation means facing the hard truth about what is broken.”

Jim – Sara goes on to say “the part of (the prayer Jesus taught his disciples that) we always stumble over goes like this: Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”  Can we get past stumbling over this phrase in the prayer?

Mim – In the title of this sermon we speak of Harmony and Discord, not either/or.  We assume some level of discord to be normal in families and churches that requires effort to regain a sense of harmony.

Jim – It is no shame, embarrassment or sin to admit our need to deal with discord.   It is only when we fail to deal well with conflict like resorting to manipulation or forms of violence that evil creeps into the situation.

Mim – Too often fear of conflict will lead a church or family to settle for a superficial harmony and refuse to name or face honestly their conflicts.   Sugar-coating conflict only intensifies the problem while people go merrily on their way congratulating themselves on being harmonious.

Jim – Now we have no inside information on simmering conflicts in this congregation!   We picture Hyattsville as a healthy church.  We admire the way you deal with the tensions you experienced with your conference over the past decade.

Mim – We also know even good churches and good people have a diversity of opinions and perspectives. Often there are topics best not addressed openly for fear of inciting controversy.  Our hope is to support health this morning, not respond to a particular problem.

Jim – We recently spent 18 months amidst a community that was highly polarized and conflicted.  We learned once again the need to be proactive in dealing with differences rather than allowing them to erupt unhelpfully.

Mim – We want to share several stories as a way of unpacking this topic and providing some illustrations of positive ways to address our differences when discord arises.

Jim – Two brothers, actually twins, grew up in the same household.  Because one was born a few minutes before the other he was technically the older.  In the culture in which they lived the oldest son received a special blessing not given the younger sibling.  This pattern created a unique challenge for the younger brother.  Being competitive, he and his mother devised a plan to circumvent the system so the younger brother received the prize family blessing.  Their deception resulted in deep pain and hostility that trailed the two brothers for decades.  For years they avoided one another and kept their distance, the younger afraid of bodily harm if he got too close to his older brother who he had cheated.
Eventually the younger brother decided he had enough.  He learned the two brothers were coming to the same region with a good possibility they would meet.  So he began to make a plan to appease the older brother to resolve this long-standing dispute.
The night before they were to meet, the younger brother could not sleep.  He spent the whole night struggling – was it with his conscience, with God, with an angel, we don’t know.  Eventually he came to a place of peace within himself and prepared to meet his older brother.  To protect himself he decided to present his older brother with some lavish gifts in the hope of reducing the potential for outright conflict.
In the morning the younger brother set out across the valley where he saw his brother approaching. He was startled to see he had with him a large group of men.  Was this an army prepared for battle coming toward him?  In fear and anxiety he arranged all the gifts meant to assuage the brother’s hostility and proceeded toward him.
Suddenly he saw someone move out of the pack and come toward him.  Wasn’t this his brother?  He recognized him even after all these years of absence.  He held his breath.  What was about to happen?   The older brother came closer, and then started running toward him.  He threw his arms around the younger brother, weeping and kissing him.   Joy and happiness was on his face.  The younger could not believe was occurring. It was more than he dared expect.  He cautiously responded by placing his own arms around the older brother.  And there – with all the wives and children and those who worked for them looking on – these two brothers put aside their long-simmering conflict and experienced forgiveness.  It had taken a longtime.  But after decades of estrangement they were united, reconciled and parted as friends.
What allowed this unusual healing to occur?  Clearly the efforts at appeasement were not necessary.  It took time – as it often does – for all parties to be ready for healing and reconciliation to occur.  It often requires interior work and struggle like the younger brother went through the night before that prepare us to risk an encounter with one with whom we have been alienated.  But it can happen!  Some of you guessed right; this is the ancient story of Esau and Jacob, who came from a conflicted family, resolved deep seated differences, and found fresh harmony.

Mim – Another story.  About three years ago a 20 year old girl named Chloe Weaver was riding bicycle in rural Colorado when she was struck by a car driven by a 16 year old boy and killed instantly.  At the time Chloe was serving in Mennonite Voluntary Service in Alamosa, CO.  The tragedy of her death was compounded when the young man who struck her fled the scene of the accident.  Later he was arrested and brought to trial.
At the sentencing for this young driver, Chloe’s parents and sister were invited to speak.  Each spoke with a wish that the 16 year old would become a man who would dedicate his life “to continue the work Chloe was doing.”  Chloe’s father who serves as a conference minister in the Mountain States Mennonite Conference said to the young man, “I want you to have the courage to take responsibility for your life and actions, honestly and humbly. I want you to carry on, in some small way the work Chloe came to do and to make (this) a better world.”
The reporter for the story says the district attorney could not believe what he was hearing.  He observed that the meeting between the Weavers and the accused man was incredible.  “The love they showed Kyle (the 16 year boy) almost brought me to tears,” he declared.  “It showed the strength of faith.  They don’t want to see Kyle incarcerated but they do want him to have consequences.”
The judge sentenced Kyle to 45 days in custody, 500 hours of useful public service, and restitution of almost $4,000 to the Weaver family and $4,000 to a Victim Compensation Fund.  With this sentencing, the judge said to the young man, “You have a shield around you of forgiveness and love by (the family) of the victim that is phenomenal.  They have been your guardian angels.  For that you should be thankful.  All too often I see victim’s families consumed by hate.”

Jim – When it comes to forgiveness and reconciliation, one human tendency is to find easy solutions and avoid the hard work and pain.  Unfortunately that happens too frequently among well-educated people, as well as brothers and sisters in the church.

Mim – Perhaps we need more of the attitude of Nelson Mandela, who after 27 years in prison became the president of South Africa.  It is said the genius of his leadership was his ability to forgive his former enemies, along with his personal charisma.  In light of what black South Africans experienced under apartheid this is amazing.

Jim – When asked how he came to this perspective, Mandela observed that as new leaders in that nation they had no time for revenge.  The urgent issues of leadership became their priority. We wonder what it means that so many people seem to have time for revenge when more pressing issues require our attention.

Mim – In Matthew 18 Jesus recognizes that sometimes one member of the church will sin against another, and that people being human, will be reluctant to face up to what they have done.

Jim – How often people express disillusionment about the human side of the church.  We might expect certain behavior in government or in some business dealings.  But among Christians?

Mim – Instead of looking the other way or walking away, Jesus asks that when bad things happen we be proactive in addressing the issue.

Jim – Avoidance only compounds the problem.  Some of you read in the Mennonite World Review about the Old Colony Mennonites in Bolivia where the community turned a blind eye to the girls and women who came forward with stories of rape and violence.  How many girls and women could have been spared abuse if there had been honesty to face the wrong-doing among them.

Mim – Often our grievances seem so small we are embarrassed to deal with them.  We read about the 19th century feud between the Hatfields and McCoys in the hills of Kentucky and West Virginia.  Over 25 years about 12 people were killed.  One report is that it started when a pig in one family wandered onto the property of the other family, and things escalated from there.  Finally in the year 2000 a giant family reunion of 5,000 descendents of the two families made peace and ended the feud.

Jim – Jesus asks that we deal with things as they happen to prevent the escalation to drastic proportions.  He outlines a process of personal efforts, taking others with you as necessary to resolve differences.

Mim – Paul wrote to the Galatians about “restoring” a person in the spirit of gentleness when grievances or conflicts occur between people. The point is not punishment but restoring relationships.

Jim – We were both employed in the denomination in 1995 when at Wichita, Kansas a series of steps called, “Agreeing and Disagreeing in Love” was adopted.  You can find these steps on line at the Mennonite Church USA website if you are interested.   Essentially they provide guidance step by step toward the goal of healing brokenness when it occurs.

Mim – We were not present at the last Mennonite Church USA assembly in Pittsburgh when Shane Hipps spoke to the convention on the II Corinthians text read this morning.  Shane Hipps once served as pastor at Trinity Mennonite in Phoenix and more recently as teaching pastor at a large non-denominational church.

Jim – Hipps stated that while justice and holiness are virtues in the church, they are not our highest virtues.  The higher virtue toward which we must aspire is reconciliation.  While justice and purity use a hammer to smash a rock, Hipps said, reconciliation uses the hammer to shape the rock into something beautiful.

Mim – He goes on to say that Mennonites are one of the few communities of faith that emphasize love of the enemy.  “That teaching is needed more than ever,” Hipps said.  “The ministry of reconciliation is the chemotherapy that fights the cancer of divisions.”

Jim – Hipps ended with this challenge: “Reconciliation and love of enemy are the bread and butter of the Mennonite faith; now make me a sandwich.”

Mim – To which we say, Amen.  May Hyattsville church continue to be a people known for your sandwiches of love and reconciliation.

Jim – May Mennonites not be known for our cookbooks but for our reconciliation and love sandwiches.  Amen.