Aug 8th, Joy in the Midst of Conflict with Rev. Dr. Steven Koski
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Aug 8th, Joy in the Midst of Conflict with Rev. Dr. Steven Koski
Conflict is inevitable, conflict is a part of life. We can’t avoid conflict. No conflict may be inevitable when we don’t realize is that combat is optional. It’s not our differences that divide us. It’s how we choose to engage those differences that divide us. Could it be that that joy joy exists on the other side of conflict if we can somehow learn how to navigate conflict in a different way? Last week we started a new sermon series for the month of August on Paul’s letter to the Philippians.
Scholars call Philippians a letter of joy. It’s really amazing because Paul writes this letter of joy from a prison cell waiting to find out if he’ll be executed or not. We’re going to spend the month of August diving into the Book of Philippians, looking for hints of how we might find joy in our lives. Last week was Chapter one, where we explored how we find joy even in the midst of adversity. Today, we’re going to look at Chapter two and how we might find joy in the midst of conflict.
And there’s certainly, certainly no shortage of of conflict all around us. I watched two people in a store yesterday. I mean, shout at each other, shouted at each other about the store’s requirement to wear a mask. Now, how did something like wearing a mask become grounds for combat? Remember, conflict is inevitable, combat is actually optional and it’s combat that drains us of joy. Can we learn a different way? Last week, I said happiness and joy, happiness and joy are actually different.
You know, happiness is a feeling that comes from the unpleasant external circumstances. I mean, our circumstances are good and and we feel happy. Joy isn’t based upon our circumstances. Joy, Joy is based upon our inner convictions and our inner spiritual life. I mean, that’s what enables us to have joy even when our external circumstances are joyless. Did you know that every single one of the books of the New Testament, all twenty seven, all twenty seven of them have content specifically written to deal with conflict in the early Christian community.
All twenty seven books of the New Testament address conflict Jesus after he shares his last meal with his disciples praise. Father may they be one, as you and I are one, why is Jesus pleading that they be one? Because he’s witnessed them fighting and and arguing with each other for the last three years. On that same night, Jesus said, the world will know that you’re my disciples if you have love for one another. I mean, Jesus knew that differences are normal, conflicts inevitable.
But there’s this human tendency to turn conflict into combat. So Jesus said a new commandment, I give you love one another as I have loved you. So what is a Jesus shaped love look like? You know, love isn’t a soft, warm, fuzzy feeling when it’s described in the New Testament. The word we translate it as love is agape. Love is best defined as a dogged determination to care for you, regardless of whether I like you or not, regardless of whether I agree with you, I’m going to choose to care for you, to be concerned, for you, to put your needs above my own needs to be kind to you, to bless you.
That’s what Agape Love looks like. And this is the dominant message throughout the whole New Testament were called to show that kind of love to one another, you know, especially where there’s conflict and especially with those with whom we disagree. You know, I suspect I suspect that’s why there’s so much talk about forgiveness in the New Testament, because loving with an agape love is really hard. Jesus tells his disciples they have to forgive not just seven times, but 70 times seven, which just literally means endlessly.
Paul writes to the church in Colossians three and says, Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience bear with each other. Did you hear that? Paul is actually saying that we have to put up with each other and he goes on to say and forgive, forgive one another. Both Jesus and Paul realized that conflict is inevitable. But again, combat is is optional. We can learn to engage conflict with grace, humility and a love, or we can watch conflict destroy us in our calling isn’t to avoid conflict, but to engage conflict with agape love.
You know, I wonder if the kind of joy that Paul that Paul talks about. I wonder if if that joy exists on the other side of conflict, if we can somehow move through conflict together in a different way. Rachel Held Evans once said “one of the most destructive mistakes we make is to prioritize shared beliefs over shared relationships, which is deeply ironic considering we worship a God who would rather die than lose relationship with us.” You know, friends, we don’t have to think alike, to love alike. Our spiritual challenge in this time of deep division is to live as an expression of agape love in the world, a Jesus shaped love when it is so much easier to hate, to judge, to condemn.
You know, I always, always squirm a little when I read the words of Dorothy Day who wrote, I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least. Yikes. Talk about a serious shove out of my comfortable self-righteousness. You know, I suspect we’re not encouraged to love our enemies so that our enemies will be different. I suspect were called to love those who are hardest to love so that we become different.
When we choose to love those who are hardest to love. You know, I think we come as close as we can to understanding the transformative nature of God’s love and we come as close as we can to our truest and best self. And as a result, we experienced joy, the kind of joy Jesus talked about when he said, may my joy be in you and me your joy before, I think it’s the kind of joy Paul is talking about in the second chapter of Philippians.
Now, Paul was actually addressing a conflict in the church. He goes into more detail about that conflict in Chapter four, but he’s addressing the conflict and he offers these words, I think, to the church at Phillipi and to us as a way of preventing conflict from becoming combat. Paul says in Chapter two, Make my joy complete by being united in mind and spirit, having the same love. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or or vain conceit, rather, in humility, value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests, but each of you to the interests of others.
So Paul says in your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus. What is the mindset of Jesus? Scholars say Paul quotes an ancient hymn and Philippians two verses six to eight to actually paint a picture of the mindset of Jesus, where it says Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But Jesus emptied himself by taking the form of a servant, and he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death, on a cross.
What is the mindset of Jesus? Jesus emptied and humbled himself. Jesus showed us with his with his life and death that joy will never be experienced through the love of power, trying to dominate others, trying to destroy and demean others, winning an argument proving were right. Joy will only be experienced through the power of love and a God be love clothed in humility and compassion. I read a story last week about Ruth Coker Burks, who became known as as the Cemetery Angel in the late 1980s.
This was a time when people were were very fearful of those who became infected with HIV AIDS. I mean, there was a lot of fear and and judgment and condemnation of gay men in particular. Ruth inherited two hundred and sixty two plots in a cemetery in Arkansas resulting from a family conflict. Her mother I love this, her mother. But all of the remaining plots in the cemetery so that her brother, Ruth’s uncle, couldn’t be buried there. Conflict can be ugly and joyless.
And when her mother died, Ruth inherited two hundred and sixty two plots in the cemetery where Ruth was visiting a friend in the hospital every day for a week, and she noticed a room where no one would visit. She inquired about the occupant of that room and was told he had AIDS and no one visited, not not even his family. Ruth described herself at the time as a as a straight Bible believing church lady who was taught homosexuality is a sin.
She said, you know, I never even thought to question that teaching or make any effort to meet and hear the stories of those in the LGBTQ community. But something stirred in her and she was moved with compassion to visit the man no one visited. And that was the beginning of an incredible journey of compassion and humility for Ruth. She emptied herself of her judgments and bias to embrace the man living in her area, dying of AIDS. She provided comfort and peace and love and acceptance toward the end of their lives.
Then she provided them with a space for burial. When no one wanted their remains, she paid for their cremation and brought their ashes to the cemetery, placing them in one of the plots she inherited as the result of an ugly conflict. Talk about transforming the combat between her mother and uncle into something beautiful and sacred. Ruth helped over forty men find peace at the time of death and dignity. After they died, most of the men were abandoned by their families and churches because of prejudice, fear, hate, ignorance.
The KKK burned crosses in Ruth’s yard three different times, trying to stop her an intimidator. But for Ruth, she she took on the mindset of Jesus emptying, humbling herself to make room for love, agape love. Ruth clothed herself with the humility and compassion of Christ. You know, she said, I’ve been a churchgoing person my whole life, but I’ve never experienced joy like the joy I felt in caring for and loving these men. Paul said in Philippians, to do nothing from selfish ambition or vain conceit, rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests, but each of you, to the interests of others in your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.
I confess when I looked at these verses preparing for today’s sermon, I thought of at least at least a dozen people in the news who could use a little reminder not to act from selfish ambition or or conceit. And I thought of a few others who could use a little humility, not looking to their own interests, but have the common good in mind. And then I thought, empty yourself, Stephen. Humility. Humility, Stephen. I took a deep breath and I remember Jesus as yet has yet to ask me to fix anyone else.
And I suspect he hasn’t asked you to fix other people either. And so I read Paul’s words again this time as if as if he meant me, as if he meant us, that that we’re supposed to be the ones to practice love, agape love. And I realized that if I want the joy of Jesus to be in me and for that joy to be full, it’s going to require some humility, some emptying to make room in my soul for God to be at work in me.
Because our best hope in this time of conflict, when it seems like our divisions are actually getting deeper, our best hope. Is to have the mindset of Jesus, the mindset that trust, that love wins, the mindset that remembers there is a different way. In a world that lives that lives like a clenched fist, the mindset of Jesus is the mindset willing to walk with an open hand and a humble heart.
May it be so.