First United Methodist Church – Omaha
Rev. Kent H. Little
August 26, 2018
Scripture: Romans 12:9-21
Sermon: “Conspiracy of Peace”
I was leading a retreat for a small group within the church I was serving when the question came. I had not heard the word used in the way it was asked before, only the root, at least seemed obvious to me. We were discussing grief and struggle and how we encounter and engage our own as well as others. I do not recall exactly what prompted the question, it was obviously something I had said about my own journey, she looked at me and asked, “Kent, are you an empath?”
My assumption was the root of the word had to do with empathy, and we talked about it a bit and then kind of moved on. When I got home from the retreat I did a little research into what it means to be an empath, even found one of those online tests that will tell you if you are or not. Some of it resonated with me… that notion of feeling the energy in a room full of people, or visiting with someone and taking on their grief or anxiety or other emotion. I have been aware of that for some time and have had to guard against it in my work as a clergy as many of us would.
While I resonated with some of it, some of it seemed a little far out for me, I decided after my reading and what little bit of research I did, I have a mild case of empath… makes it sound like a disease or illness or something. Sometimes I find it helpful, when I can catch it early… that rising awareness of anxiety or peace in a conversation or in a room full of people. I am not sure one needs to be identified as an empath to feel these things, but it does ring true in that sense. And it can be difficult to discern whether it is my own energy and anxiety raising in a conversation or room full of people or the room’s energy.
I attended the town hall meeting yesterday with the bishop at Saint Luke’s for the discussion of the three primary models to be brought to the Special Called General Conference of the UMC next February. As questions were asked and answers were given there were a couple of times I could feel the anxiety of the room begin to swell… never to the point of my being uncomfortable… just an awareness we were in the middle of continuing difficult conversations.
I confess some of the anxiety was my own; I tend to grumble a bit when I feel expected to attend a district or conference meeting on a weekend. Sometimes, they are less than fruitful. I confess sometimes I struggle with the need to have a worship service at every gathering of the district or conference that often feels disconnected from the gathering at best or disingenuous at worse. Let me just say for the record, I thought yesterday’s meeting was good for those who needed the information and we here at FUMC Omaha will be engaging in discussion over the next six months in preparation for the Special Conference in February.
I think one of the things I appreciated yesterday, though like I said I can be known to grumble about them, one of the things I appreciated yesterday was the worship piece… I appreciated it in particular because it was brief, no one felt the need to preach to or at us… there was a brief bit of singing, some liturgy, and the bread and the cup. I am not sure how others experienced the moment, but for me it was a reminder that while we are working at gathering information to make informed decisions about a Way Forward for the United Methodist church. It is not just an “issue”… or language in the Discipline… or pensions… or property… or theology… or biblical interpretation… conservative or progressive. We were/are dealing with a spiritual practice here… we are talking not about an issue… we are talking about people’s lives and faith, and we need a constant reminder of that, to separate the real lives and faiths and spirituality of our LGBTQ persons from the work of this Way Forward… is to do more harm.
That is what I glean from Paul’s writings in the letter to the Romans we read this morning. He was right in the middle of a church that was in conflict… right in the middle of a church being birthed into being, striving, stretching, trying to become a church that did not agree on every matter regarding faith and place in the world. It was a church trying to be separate within the culture and time it was a part. A church that had to decide if it was going to follow the way of power and might… of exclusion and isolation… or a church that was going to follow the way of humility and vulnerability… of welcome and inclusion.
Here are some of the things he advised in his letter…
Love should be shown without pretending. Hate evil, and hold on to what is good. Love each other like the members of your family. Be the best at showing honor to each other. Don’t hesitate to be enthusiastic. Be happy in your hope, stand your ground when you’re in trouble, and devote yourselves to prayer. Contribute to the needs of God’s people, and welcome strangers into your home. Bless people who harass you—bless and don’t curse them (ouch). Be happy with those who are happy, and cry with those who are crying. Consider everyone as equal, and don’t think that you’re better than anyone else. Instead, associate with people who have no status. Don’t think that you’re so smart. Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions, but show respect for what everyone else believes is good. If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people.
Don’t try to get revenge for yourselves, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath. It is written, “Revenge belongs to me; I will pay it back, says the Lord. Instead, If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink. By doing this, you will pile burning coals of fire upon his head.” Not sure this is good theology Paul… wrong motive… maybe one should do these things because they are the right thing to do… not because it’s going to pile burning coals on their heads… just saying.
Don’t be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with good.
Our United Methodist Church finds itself in this atmosphere now. Conflicted, differing political factions posturing for influence, a group who says with regards to LGBTQ persons we need to leave things as they are and become even more exclusive and punitive. A group who says we need to stay together with our differences and make more room for difference through broadening the tent, so to speak, back to where it used to be. We are in the midst of conflict and anxiety and we need to talk about it, devote ourselves to prayer, meditation, contemplation, silent listening about it, welcome the stranger, bless those who harass us, weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice, and be at peace with others.
We need to be about the spiritual work of inclusion and fruitful dialogue… not the culture of exclusion, separation, and isolation.
It is not the unknown, change, darkness, or some perceived outside force that will be our demise. It is fear, distrust, hate, anger, and anxiety that will threaten our peace; these are the things that fester and eat us from the inside out that will finally destroy us. Conversely, it is understanding, respect, hope, grace, and love that will heal us, bring us together, build us up, enlarge our table, and bring us peace.
An open hand offered in prayer and humility creates more brothers, sisters, and friends… more community and common good, than a clenched fist raised in fear and anger.
John Wesley, the founder of our church, spoke to just this very thing in his sermon, Catholic Spirit, “But is it not strange that even in the Christian world, although we all agree in general, ‘God is a Spirit, and they that worship God worship in spirit and in truth, yet the particular modes of worshipping God are almost as various as among those who do not? And how shall we choose among so much variety? No one can choose for or prescribe to another. But everyone must follow the dictates of their own conscience in simplicity and godly sincerity. One must be fully persuaded in their own mind and then act according to the best light they have.”1
Progressives need to be the peaceful presence in a United Methodist Church that is fraught with anxiety and fear. Those who would want a Way Forward as a more exclusive, homogenous church with no difference or disagreement are fostering just that… anxiety and fear. Progressives need to be about the spiritually formative work of the non-anxious presence in the midst of the chaos… as Paul writes… Don’t hesitate to be enthusiastic. Be happy in your hope, stand your ground when you’re in trouble, and devote yourselves to prayer. Contribute to the needs of God’s people, and welcome strangers into your home. Bless people who harass you—bless and don’t curse them. Don’t be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with good.
Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist Monk and author speaks of being the one in the boat in the middle of a storm, when everyone else is panicking, anxious, and fearful… be the one who is calm and at peace… you will calm the whole of the boat.2 It is the kind of atmosphere Nelson Mandela spoke to when he said, “Peace is not just the absence of conflict; peace is the creation of an environment where all can flourish regardless of race, color, creed, religion, gender, class, caste or any other social markers of difference.”
Those in the world, culture, society, and church who would foster and promote fear and anxiety expect reaction in kind…with the same fear and anxiety. To respond in love, compassion, and radical hospitality is to foster a conspiracy of peace.
I appreciated Eleazar S. Fernandez’ commentary on Paul’s writing here when he writes, “…early Christian communities were actively self-aware of their identity and calling as alternative societies vis-à-vis the wider world, particularly the imperial Roman context…. The church is called to engage the world and itself in a way of being and acting that seeks to embody genuine love, mutual regard, humility, solidarity, peace, and harmony. It is a way of being and acting that cares not only for members of the faith community but also for wider society, particularly strangers in our midst. … No Doubt, Fernandez writes, the forces of reaction will do everything within their means to prevent communities of faith from living differently and from carrying out the ministry of radical hospitality. True to their identity and dram of a new tomorrow, faith communities must not play the game of the power wielders. Instead, they must continue to overcome evil with good. They can do so only if they conspire (breathe together) with the Spirit and conspire (share life giving breath) with one another. The conspiracy of radical love, [hospitality and peace] is not only a strategic political necessity; it is a spiritual necessity as well.” 3
We, the church…and I believe in particular the progressive church today, in the current context of our United Methodist Church and the church universal, are called to conspire to peace. We are called to be peace in the world… that passionate, unwavering, non-anxious, compassionate, open, welcoming, loving, peaceful presence in a world…and in a church… who has forgotten the call of the God of our faith… Fear Not.
May it be so.
May it be NOW!
1 Outler, Albert C. and Richard P. Heitzenrater ed., 1991. John Wesley’s Sermons, An Anthology, Abingdon Press, Nashville.
2 Hanh, Thich Nhat 1987, Being Peace, Parallax Press, Berkley, California.
3 Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor ed. 2011 Feasting on the Word, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky.