A Thriving Spiritual Community

Annisquam Village Church Logo

Annisquam
Village Church

820 Washington St.
Gloucester, MA

Annisquam Village Church Logo

Annisquam
Village Church

820 Washington St.
Gloucester, MA

A Thriving Spiritual Community

photo of AVC sanctuary
Sermon: “WHY???”

“WHY???”

October 15, 2023

come-share-in-god's-joy

Why? Why? Why? 

Why did Hamas brutalize Israelis? Babies? Mothers? Young people? Why?? Why did Israel respond with such massive force and a cruel blockade?  Killing so many innocent people? Surely igniting the next generation of terrorists? Why??  Why can’t Israelis and Palestinians live in peace? Why? 

I wish someone could answer these questions.  I am not going to even try.  Far more knowledgeable people than me, like Tom Friedman in Saturday’s New York Times, will likely offer a whole slew of different ideas.

Here is what I do know. There is no path to peace without Israelis and Palestinians trying to understand one another.  There is no path to peace without Israelis and Palestinians recognizing the humanity, let alone, the divinity, in one another.  Calling each other “animals” does not help.

In Friday’s New York Times, Nir Avishai Cohen, a major in the Israel Defense Forces, referenced his book, “Love Israel, Support Palestine” writing “Israeli society has to ask itself very important questions about where and why the blood of its sons and daughters was spilled…On both sides, the intractable positions of a small group has dragged us into violence.”

Human conflict – whether global- like in the Middle East; national – like in the House of Representatives; community wide – like over affordable housing; in churches – over everything from homosexuality to women’s leadership to what kind of music to sing and so more;  human conflict in our homes and most treasured relationships over everything from  who puts away the dishes or how we spend our money – human conflict is a fact of life, found to some degree in nearly all relationships.

What’s not inevitable is the process and outcome of conflict. It doesn’t have to lead to division, destruction, or death. It’s not something we have to be afraid of.  In fact, avoiding conflict when there are actual problems to be solved usually just makes them worse. Addressing conflict with love, respect, and some skillfulness can actually create understanding, build bridges, and inspire imaginative and useful solutions.

On Tuesday, a friend said to me, “This week I’ve really been struggling.  I wonder if there is any hope for humanity.  When I think about the climate and what’s going on in Israel and Gaza, I despair.” I suspect many of you feel the same way. These are harrowing times, full of conflict.

In his Letter to the Colossians, Paul – or as some scholars think – someone writing in the name and spirit of Paul, was deeply concerned about problems that had arisen in that community. 

Earlier, in a section of the letter we did not hear, he identified a whole host of issues in the wider culture: including anger, wrath, malice, slander, abusive language…evil desire, greed and lies. His concern was that these behaviors also existed within a community of people who claimed to follow Jesus.  He believed that participation in a community that followed Jesus should lead to transformation, to putting aside the ways of the world for the ways of Christ, the ways of love.

In contrast, the author identifies the virtues and character that should exemplify their behavior. He offers instructions for a community that is ever-stumbling, ever-growing, ever a work in progress – like every community I’ve ever known, including this one

The Letter to the Colossians is not advice for a group that has it all together. There is no such thing.  It is guidance for people who will rub up against each other’s imperfect and sometimes hard edges. Listen carefully to what the author says: “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.  Bear with each other and forgive one another, if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And above all these virtues put on love…” This is perfect instruction for imperfect people.

When I was being interviewed to be your pastor in 2019, I asked about challenges this community was facing then.  I was told “We are conflict averse.” The Search Team described certain issues in the church and styles of communicating in this small village that were smoldering under the surface of things.  Sure enough, with a new pastor, under the stress of a pandemic that accelerated changes in how we gather (who could have ever foreseen Zoom church or the near disappearance of families frm church life?) we, too, had some interactions that were less than ideal. 

In consulting with a variety of colleagues during that time, I was asked “Does your church have a covenant that outlines its aspirations for how to communicate and approach conflict within your community?”

“No, we do not.” 

My pastoral supervisor, the highly respected Anne Deneen, suggested we consider bringing in a consultant to help us develop a covenant, something she had also done while pastor at St. Paul’s in Lanesville.  Our Board agreed. Prior Board Chair Nancy Guselli and current Board Chair Sandy Lawrence began the process, finding Rev. Dr. Betsy Waters, an expert facilitator.  

But before diving into creating a Covenant, Dr. Waters advised we lay the foundation by hosting  a workshop she would lead on Crucial Conversations – which occur when “stakes are high, opinions vary or are opposed, and emotions are strong.” The first workshop was so enthusiastically received, we offered a second, followed by six discussions to help those who wanted to deepen their facility with the principles and practices we were taught. Along the way, Nancy and Sandy collected samples of covenants being used by other churches. 

From all this work comes the proposed Covenant, a draft, which you now have in your hands, a work in progress. Since this was printed, Sandy, Nancy and I have already heard from some Board members with some excellent suggestions. Please take it home and reflect on it. On November 5th, during Coffee Hour, those who are interested are invited to discuss  what will become another draft;  to offer any questions or feedback.  The Board will vote on its adoption before the Annual Meeting, at which time church members will be invited to sign it. Going forward, new members will also be asked to sign it. 

Our proposed Covenant begins with these important words: “We welcome a wide variety of voices and ideas expressed in a respectful way to help us evolve as a spiritual community.  We recognize that conflict and disagreement are normal, natural and an opportunity for individual and community spiritual growth.” 

How? Through these five (powerful) principles:

  1. We strive to be instruments of grace.
  2. We recognize the presence of God in one another. 
  3. We work to build trust in all of our relationships. 
  4. We aim to build each other up and not tear each other down. 
  5. We seek to build unity. 

Can you imagine what would happen in families, communities, the halls of government, and in the hot spots of the world if people could agree to these principles?? (pause)

Reflecting on what is happening in Israel and Gaza, I can’t help but wonder how things might have gone differently if they could have followed guideline #9: “We will try as hard to understand as to be understood.” Do you hear the echo of St. Francis?

Friends, in the midst of conflict, it is so easy to be reactive, to fight back without pausing to ask the deeper questions about WHY the other person or group thinks or feels or acts the way they do;  and then  to say and do things we later come to regret; It is easy to be so sure we know why the other person or group has done something we don’t like   that we never bother to check out our assumptions.  

We often fail to approach the other person or group with curiosity, with our concerns and questions. Often we don’t even try to understand their viewpoint or actions. Instead, in the blink of an eye, without even being conscious we are doing it, we create an incomplete or even  false narrative that only serves to escalate misunderstanding and tension. 

“We will try as hard to understand as to be understood.”

How different would our relationships be if we put that into practice? 

At the end of his essay, Major Cohen reflects, “This war, like others before it, will end sooner or later. I am not sure I will come back from it alive, but I do know that a minute after the war is over, both Israelis and Palestinians will have to reckon with the leaders who led them to this moment.”

How many lives would have been saved if Israelis and Palestinians could have tried to understand each other before taking up arms? How might political life in this country be different, if rather than name-calling and demonizing others, we actually listened to one another, to build each other up, not tear each other – and the whole government – down?

Why? Why? Why?  

Other than through the power of prayer, we are likely helpless to effect any kind of change in Israel and Gaza today.

But, the next time you find yourself in a conflict with another person, ask yourself – have I really tried to understand their point of view? Am I behaving in a way that is building trust in the relationship? 

A church community can be a laboratory of love; a place where we strive to live from our highest spiritual principles, recognizing that when there is conflict, we can engage each other in a way that helps us grow as individuals and as a community. 

“Israelis” writes Major Cohen, “must realize that there is no greater security asset than peace. The strongest army cannot protect the country the way peace does. This current war proves it once again. Israel has followed the path of war for too long.

At the end, after all of the dead Israelis and Palestinians are buried, after we have finished washing away the rivers of blood, the people who share a home in this land will have to understand that there is no other choice but to follow the path of peace. That is where true victory lies.”

May our proposed covenant help us to be people of peace in all our relationships; so that by our example we contribute to the peace of the world. Amen.