Second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 7)
June 22, 2014
The Rev. Dr. Luk De Volder, Rector —
Love in a period of conflict is one of the most challenging exercises of our human adventure. Will Tea Party members ever love left wing Democrats? Will Hamas ever love Israel? Or more internally: will I ever love those parts in myself that others have taught me to reject? Some of the so called hard sayings of Jesus that we hear in today’s gospel come across as challenging exactly because Jesus is not avoiding the complexities of our human existence. Rather, we learn that conflict is part of human growth and at the same time, there are ways that we are called to rise above it.
The World Cup Soccer tournament is in full swing these days and I know many Americans don’t really care about the game. Here in the US, soccer doesn’t feel like a real sport. It’s a lot of running for meager results. If a team is lucky, they get three or four scores in an hour and a half game of constant running. Wow.
Still, the match between Spain and the Netherlands might make even a soccer agnostic become a fervent believer. The Dutch team played phenomenally well vanquishing the world leader, Spain. For those of you who don’t know, the Netherlands and my own country of Belgium live embroiled in a fraternal struggle. Like many siblings, we are two countries that speak the same language, but hardly understand each other at all. And so a Belgian praising the Netherlands is most unusual.
Still, at one minute before the half-time break the Netherlands scored a goal that took seconds to execute, but years to achieve. Bruno Indi, the midfielder, kicked a luxurious air ball far and long down the field to his teammate Robin Van Persie. And rather than catching it with his foot or chest, Van Persie dove to catch the ball on his head, thrusting a gorgeous header over the Spanish goalie and scoring a goal the world has been replaying all week for its sheer beauty. The radio commentators shouted their favorite word: Goooal! It was what Europeans call: true art.
One of the hidden aspects of the World Cup is that these national teams are not the usual soccer club teams. The team members must have the nationality of the country they are fighting for in order to participate in the World Cup, regardless of what team they normally represent. David Beckham must represent England, even though he usually plays for the US. As a result some players end up in the national team after having been competitors all year long. Imagine Red Sox and Yankees players training together to form one team during a year that they are also playing against each other on other days. Feuds have to be put aside; suffered injuries need to be forgotten, and conflicts must be surmounted. This conflict management is harder than it looks. In 2006, Tiffany and I watched as the French soured majestically through the World Cup tournament to the final game, only to let internal team conflict finally rip them apart.
World Cup champions must undergo not only intense physical training, a concentration on field formation and an abstinence of alcohol and other pleasures. The World Cup champions must excel in conflict management, internally and externally. They must learn to control their own frustrations and grudges and rise above them in pursuit of a higher goal.
The Gospel of this Sunday dives into the theme of conflict management with its infamous conflictual hard sayings of Jesus. “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.”
In so many other areas of the Gospels we learn of God’s profound love for us and of God’s call for us to love one another. But Jesus preferred not to leave his message of love and compassion hanging in some utopian fantasy that bears no resemblance to the reality we face with other human beings. Instead, we learn that conflict is part of the way we love one another. And so Jesus directly faces the issue of relational conflict including its rawness and potential.
Our God reminds us that conflict is part of growth. Every basil plant is fighting to poke through its hard-shelled seed to grow up. Every downy chick is pounding its beak on its egg to crack it open and burst into growth. Growth involves conflict. Necessarily so. And our God helps us understand that this is a normal part of the process of maturation.
But just because conflict is normal does not mean every way of handling conflict is healing. There is a healing way to move through conflict and there are many harmful ways to do it. Harmful ways are usually ones in which we allow ourselves to be guided by fear and in which we descend into a spiral of amygdala-in-overdrive aggression. We tighten ourselves, brace ourselves, sensing the other as a threat. Fear makes us react without empathy for those around us. Only protecting ourselves. No wonder a main theme of Scripture is: do not be afraid.
But our God gives us another way of dealing with conflict. The way of compassion. We can choose to steep ourselves in God’s love. There, God loosens us, opens us, and helps us to see the other as a companion on the journey who is challenging us to grow.
To love the Lord, above anything, with all our heart, and soul, and might is a conflict management approach. Whatever may be the conflict, if we choose to focus on God’s love rather than on what we are not getting from the other, we see things differently. If we join our God, as though we are sitting on a cloud with the divine, and see the conflict from God’s perspective from above, we can see the situation and the people in all their fullness, struggle and pain. And we will act differently when we return to that very conflict.
God does not physically live in a space hovering above us. But because God knows us so well, better than we know ourselves, it is sometimes helpful to imagine God living on a cloud. When God asks us to love God more than our mothers, God asks us to soar above any conflict with our mother, and there are always conflicts! God asks us to lift up our hearts and to hover above the situation with God and join in the divine compassion for creation that sees the fragility and fears of each person involved in the conflict. And by doing so we return to the situation a different person. We return with compassion and internal conflict management that has the power to heal the conflicts necessary for growth.
Whether it is a tween pushing away her parents, a twenty something searching for identity, a spouse pushing us away during a midlife crisis, or a friend acting out from shame of unemployment, our God invites us to lift up our hearts and to rise above it all and find our own comfort in God’s love. We are called to do this not just to comfort ourselves, but so that we are strengthened and empowered to love the ones around us through their pain until they find their balance again. We are called to be the immediate face of God to each other, to be compassion in the conflict.
That said, God is never ever suggesting we stay in abusive relationships. We must take turns rising to see the situation from above and supporting each other. If we are the only one who ever does the rising to the cloud with God in a relationship, it is a lopsided relationship that may need serious consideration.
Love in time of conflict, conflict that leads to growth: Approaching conflict with love is certainly not easy, especially when facing serious divisive questions: such as whether soccer is a true sport! But when we manage our internal conflict well, we might just find that we are able to achieve far more than we could ever ask or imagine, to grow in ways we could never dream. The Dutch team was able to manage itself so well that they beat Spain and lead to this Belgian boy to praising them from the pulpit. That is the expansive power of internal conflict management. Even those outside the direct conflict are touched by it.
So as we return to the world this week, may we too, learn to approach whatever relational conflicts we have by hovering above it in a cloud with God. Because when we do, we might just find we learn how to deal better with conflicts, and suddenly all these clouds we have been having this Spring don’t seem so bad. That we may all learn that conflict is always an opportunity for growth, in Christ name, we pray. Amen.