Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. DeeAnne Lowman, Associate Pastor

 

 

 

Living in the Thin Places: Conflicts

Sunday, January 28, 2007

 

 

Matthew 21:12-17

 

 

Epiphany is the climax of the Advent/Christmas Season and the Twelve Days of Christmas, which are usually counted from the evening of December 25th until the morning of January 6th, which is the Twelfth Day and the evening of January 6th is counted as the Twelfth Night.  This is also the night traditionally commemorating the arrival of the Magi at the home of Mary and Joseph and the young Jesus child, bearing their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

 

In traditional Christian churches Epiphany is celebrated as a period of time, a season of the church year, rather than just a day. The so-called Season of Christmas begins with the First Sunday of Advent, marked by expectation and anticipation, and concludes with Epiphany, which looks ahead to the mission of the church to the world in light of the Nativity.

 

It is the Nativity – this glimpse on the face of the Holy – that makes Epiphany the perfect time to speak of thin places. The Celtic understanding of thin places is where the veil between heaven and earth is lifted…where it becomes so thin that we can see into eternity and catch a glimpse the divine. There are a variety of thin places we can remember from the Bible:  mountaintops, water-walkings, mealtimes, healings – all these were and are thin places for people of faith. 

 

Throughout this season of Epiphany, we’ve been talking about thin places.  We remember that thin places aren’t always places.  There are people or experiences in our lives that help us to see God and reach for God, and when and through whom God reaches for us.  First we spoke about sacraments as thin places – baptism and communion specifically, but also occasions like marriage, confirmation, ordination, and even death can be revealed as thin places.  Last week Dean spoke of places where not only we catch a glimpse of the divine, but a time when the eternal can seep through and actually touch us.  The Bible calls that “an anointing” – a touch from God into our lives and onto our hearts.

 

To believe in thin places you must also believe in a reality which is beyond what we can see, touch, taste and smell. Thin places mean little to those who are convinced that nothing is real that cannot be identified and quantified. Thin places elude those with no mind for mystery and no longing for transcendence.

 

Thin places are not always easy places to be, and they are certainly not conflict-free.  They are opportunities for us to grow and be stretched and molded in people who can live and love and fight for justice with God. 

 

I’ve recently been trying to get back into a regular practice of Yoga, but I have an ongoing conflict with my body about that goal. It’s been more than six months since I attended my last class in Burlington, VT, and my body is well aware of the time that has passed.  What I did with ease last year at this time is not currently possible.  No tree pose, no camel, no plank, no nothing.  My leg muscles scream and cry, and my arms quiver and shake.  What I need is to be stronger and more flexible, and that will take work.  But I know that in order to feel better, I need to stretch daily – each day hopefully moving my hand closer and closer to my foot.  So, too, conflicts that stretch us and help us lean closer to God might be painful, but they aren’t inherently bad.

 

Some conflicts are destructive, harmful, or even dangerous.  God is, in deed, reaching out for us during these times of pain.  But we are probably so distracted by the nature of these conflicts that we are unable to see or feel or touch God while we are in it.  Sometimes we see conflicts as thin places only after we have moved through them. 

 

But it isn’t the nature of the conflict that determines whether or not it’s a thin place.  It is our nature and the nature of God together that creates the distance between us as we move in and out of conflict. In the Scripture that we just heard, Jesus comes into the temple and finds it in disarray.  There are conflicts erupting as people bought and sold offerings.  The moneychangers were taking advantage of faithful worshippers; the exchange rate for temple money far exceeded the actual cost.  Worshippers were using the temple as a place to redeem their social status rather than a house of redemption.  To Jesus, this was a scene of chaos, injustice, and blasphemy.  He was sick of it (or so it appeared), so he turned the tables over, and he chased out the people who were selling and buying.

 

Conflict in community is necessary. Many people have said, “If there is no conflict then there is no real relationship.” Growth and relational depth is fostered as we work through the issues of life together. Conflict can be constructive.  It can help eliminate misunderstanding, empower those who feel helpless, and begin to build new levels of trust. We are then free to establish even closer bonds with one another and with God. Conflict can draw us into God’s care during the experience. Our failure to acknowledge a disagreement as a thin place fails to draw us into God’s vision for reconciliation and redemption.  It is where we may sense a loosening of the bounds of our humanity.  We may see God in the life of the other.

 

There are both private and public conflicts that occur in our lives. Private conflicts seldom (we hope) make headlines, but they are just as devastating.  A divorce or the end of a long-term relationship, a friendship derailed due to a disagreement, a teenaged child and parent unable to connect and communicate – all possess the potential for either more division or honest, real reconciliation.   Our personal conflicts tend to turn our worlds upside down for a time.  There is great pressure to forgive and forget, especially when it comes to family.  There is social pressure to keep our long-term relationships intact, even if it means we can’t be who we believe we were meant to be.  Private conflicts can be thin places for us. 

 

Then there are the public conflicts.  At the 2000 session of General Conference held in Cleveland, Ohio a strong and spirited debate began again, as it has since the 70’s.  This conflict was around the concerns for and about homosexuality and the United Methodist Church.  Should the church encourage and celebrate the united lives of gay and lesbian couples?  Should the church permit those who are “self-avowed and practicing” homosexuals to preside as ordained leaders in the church?  Was the practice of homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching” and if so, what should the church’s response be?

 

Emotions and tensions ran very high at the conference.  There were those for whom hospitality was primary and they held open the doors of the convention center, symbolizing their desire for a fully inclusive United Methodist Church. There were others who expressed their concern for the future of the church if GLBT folks were able to openly pursue ordination, and if gay and lesbian persons were welcome to share and celebrate the love in their life in the life of a faith community. 

 

On the 10th day of the conference, two pieces of legislation came to the floor for debate and a vote.  By margins of approximately 2 to 1, the 992 delegates said the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, and no self-avowed practicing homosexual can be ordained as clergy or given a pastoral appointment. Debate on the two questions took approximately 90 often-agonizing minutes. At one point delegates and some visitors stood in the aisles of the Cleveland Convention Center in protest of the actions.

 

After the votes, Bishop Dan Solomon, who was presiding, met with some of the demonstrators and announced they had reached agreement to continue the protests in an orderly fashion, standing in the aisles or kneeling at the altar. By mid-afternoon – after delegates voted to retain the church’s prohibition against pastors performing same-sex union ceremonies -- the “covenant” began to break down and demonstrators moved to the platform area. Solomon bowed his head and then implored the group to return to their earlier positions of kneeling or standing in the aisles.

 

One of the group said the church has broken the covenant with them and they felt their actions were justified. A 15-minute recess was called, later extended to 25 minutes. Police were called and 30 persons were arrested, including two bishops—C. Joseph Sprague, then of Chicago, and Susan M. Morrison, then of Albany, N.Y. According to police, the 30 faced charges of disrupting a lawful meeting with maximum fines of $250 and court costs, or 30 days in jail. It is believed to be the first time people have been removed from the floor of General Conference by police. [i]

 

No matter how painful, this event in the life of the church was a thin place.  But seven years later, we appear to be no closer to a resolution to this divisive and hurtful quandary.  In fact, it seems like the space between the two factions is getting wider in some ways.  I believe that we have experienced thin places together as a church body during the 30-year long debate on this issue – through places and times and people.  It is in these thin places that, if we are open to it, we see Jesus turn everything upside down. 

 

That’s what Jesus does with conflict; he turns the conflict around to help us see where the pain is, where the hurt is. In these thin places, there is disorder and defiance.  Whether it is a public conflict, a more private division like the ending of a relationship, or our most private conflicts that occur within ourselves, we may experience something that has been dormant or forgotten.  Jesus helps us recognize where the chaos is, and how we need to live through the chaos to the calm.

 

In thinking about this further, I believe that conflict becomes the thin place only after we have our tables turned and benches flipped over, when our foundations are shaken and the walls of our own pride have come down. It is only then, when we have experienced the turbulence of conflict, that we are ready to have God reach in through all the defiance and discontent and remake us and renew us and transform us. 

 

What did Jesus do after the so-called cleansing of the temple?  He healed those who came to him.  It was only after the conflict regarding the true purpose of the temple that it became a place where people could be healed.  It was only after the conflict of the true purpose of the temple that Jesus was able to make the temple a place where those without sight could see and those who were lame were strengthened to walk. It was only then that people could truly and personally and intimately connect with God.  Conflict can clear away all the clutter of our own agendas, clearing the way for God’s purpose and vision for God’s people.

 

So we will emerge from this turmoil as the church.  How that will happen is unknown right now, and perhaps the next General Conference will reveal even more of the conflict between the divide.  This congregation of the United Methodist Church already has emerged, and we can continue our witness to the strength of our connection with God especially in the thin places.  Since the day more than 11 years ago when Foundry Church made the decision to be intentionally and adamantly inclusive, this church continues to be a place where all are welcomed, all are invited into God’s love and grace, and all can see and experience healing. 

 

So in and through conflict, our lives may feel upside down and disrupted. 

We will feel sadness, despair, anger, even fear of being in the conflict.  But if we can stretch our hearts and minds, bending ever closer to God during these thin places, we can emerge healed, whole, reconciled, and brought into a new relationship with one another and with God. 

 

 

                 

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[i] United Methodist News Service, May 11, 2000.