Discerning God's activity in the midst of conflict
In today's gospel reading, Jesus, the Prince of Peace, surprisingly declares that he did not come to bring peace on earth but division and, by inference, conflict. He then challenged his hearers to interpret the signs of the times. Palestinian peasants predicted the weather by reading the sky. Clouds rising in the west over the Mediterranean meant rain. A southerly wind indicated scorching heat would arrive from the Arabian Desert. Jesus spoke plainly: “You hypocrites! You claim to put God at the center of your lives. Yet your emphasis is on the things of this world and not the Kingdom of God. You do not know how to read the signs of the times to understand what God is doing in your midst.” His words haunt us twenty centuries later. We claim to be religious, spiritual people. Yet, do we see God acting in our midst? Can we identify what God is doing in the world today?
This morning, I want us to discern the signs of the times in both national events and the life of Holy Nativity. If I were to preach a series of sermons on this text, we could also helpfully focus on discerning the signs of the times globally, within Christianity in general and The Episcopal Church in particular, and in our families and individual lives. In every setting, we can discern God's activity by identifying ways in which justice has increased, love has extended its transforming reach, and new life has flourished.
In the last few decades, the US has experienced what many observers call culture wars. Illustratively, many Christians who once regarded themselves and their religion as core elements of US national identity and ethos now feel marginalized. During my lifetime, public schools ceased to begin the school day with prayer and a Bible reading. Governments removed the Ten Commandments from public buildings. Church attendance has dropped precipitously. Today, retail businesses are not only open on Sundays but may also sell alcoholic beverages. Many states have legalized gambling and the use of marijuana. Concurrently, sexual mores have changed. Pre-marital sex is widely accepted and alternative lifestyles are affirmed.
Consequently, large numbers of Christians, especially theologically conservative Christians, believe that godless secular forces are waging war against Christianity. Concerned Christians first responded by organizing groups such as the Moral Majority and Focus on the Family. More recently, Christian feelings of persecution have hardened into an angry rejection of experienced politicians.
This reaction, I believe, misreads the signs of the times. When I look at the US in 2016, I see a much more profoundly Christian nation than existed in the 1950s and 1960s. For example, my fifth grade public school class said the Lord's Prayer together at the start of each school day. The exercise made a travesty of prayer. Students were visibly disengaged from any effort to turn toward God. I think that my experience is symptomatic of a nation that outwardly acted Christian while inwardly valuing privilege, making money, belonging to a church for its social advantages, and defeating Communism.
In 2016, environmental stewardship is a priority. Compared to 1960, people are now far more likely to be judged by the content of their character than by the color of their skin, gender, ethnicity, or gender orientation. Jim Crow laws are gone. Misguided calls both for excluding immigrants based upon their religion or nationality and for building walls to exclude immigrants trigger a much more negative reaction today than they would have fifty years ago. People's primary motivation for being active in the Church is that they value belonging a community committed to walking the Jesus' path, spiritual growth, and loving their neighbor. In sum, justice has increased, love has extended its reach, and new life is flourishing. As Jesus' resurrection poignantly emphasizes, God is defeating evil.
Holy Nativity during the last couple of years lived through severe conflict. Out of the ashes of that conflict, I also discern clear signs of God moving in our midst.
First, I see people returning to Holy Nativity, committed to this community and its ministries. The heart of a Christian congregation – any Christian congregation – is not the building, the priest or pastor, or any program or ministry, but Jesus.
Second, I see people reconciling with one another. Reconciliation does not mean papering over past disagreements with polite platitudes. As Jesus reminded his hearers, conflict is inevitable. However, Jesus' followers both try to avoid framing disagreements in anger and turning against a brother or sister because of a disagreement. Reconciliation starts by recognizing that almost everyone involved in the conflict wanted what he or she prayerfully believed to be best for Holy Nativity. Reconciliation continues when individuals own their misplaced anger and hard feelings, confess those failings to God, and work to heal broken or damaged relationships. I observe reconciliation as the Holy Nativity ohana again cultivates respect and trust for one another as members of God's beloved family. We gather as sinners who need a hospital, not as saints seeking a safe haven.
Third and finally, I discern signs of new life in this community. If you were on campus Tuesday, the first day of the new school year, then you saw an exciting vitality. This academic year Holy Nativity School has chosen the word inspire as their theme. Visit your school and be inspired. Last week, if you read the Banyan Tree, the parish newsletter (and if you do not receive the Banyan Tree, please give me your contact details and I'll ensure that you are added to the distribution) featured a report on the ten goals that the Vestry set for the next eleven months. Among these goals are developing a program to incorporate newcomers into our community, creating a quarterly fellowship program, revitalizing worship, improving communication, and initiating the search process for a new rector. Those goals are marks of renewed mission, marks of new and restored life at Holy Nativity, and, most importantly, signs of God's activity in our midst.In sum, I see at Holy Nativity signs of justice increasing, love growing, and new life beginning to flourish. For us, like Jesus before us, conflict is a catalyst that transforms the agony and apparent defeat of crucifixion into the glorious victory of resurrection.