(1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11) – J G White
11 am, Sun, Jan 27, 2019 – UBC Digby
I read in my devotional time a week go a story from Genesis that reminded me of a joke. Where do you find the first Baptists in the Bible? All the way back in Genesis 13, when there was some strife between their families and livestock, so Abram says to Lot: ‘you go your way and I’ll go mine!’
‘The Ability to Handle Conflict.’ This is a sermon about capability; not a sermon about conflicts. It is about ability: our abilities; God’s abilities.
When I looked at Dennis Bickers’ chapter about how a healthy church can handle conflict, and looked at some Bible readings for today, I saw a match. First off, John’s great story of Jesus at a wedding in a Galilean town called Cana.
“What does this story have to do with handling conflict?” we might well ask. I see a few examples.
Wine at a wedding. Yes, real wine. Wine that can actually get people drunk, as the chief steward mentions to the groom. Wine made by Jesus, when the party ran out of it.
Baptist Christians have always liked miracles, certainly Jesus’ miracles, but we have not always liked wine, or other alcoholic drinks. When the temperance movement developed, two hundred years ago, the Baptists got on board. Many congregations adopted a standard Church Covenant, written by J. Newton Brown in 1834, that included this promise to one another: to abstain from the sale of, and use of, intoxicating drinks as a beverage… A version of this very covenant was the one used by Digby Baptist, for years, and by Windsor Baptist, and by so many others.
I remember so fondly a man in the Windsor Church, Clayton, who lived his whole life as a very faithful servant of Jesus there: deacon, choir member, trustee, and always at Mid-week Prayer and Bible Study. One Wednesday, I asked people to share an accomplishment of their lives they could be rightly proud of, and the one thing Clayton mentioned was that he had never taken a drink, ever. That was his accomplishment!
To drink, or not to drink – that is a question. And can certainly be an issue, with conflict to be handled.
Also, the Gospel story of Jesus at the wedding starts with what could seem like a conflict with his own Mother. She points out the problem to her son, and He says, “What does that have to do with us? It’s not my time.” I have not quite figured out, to my own satisfaction, what that little conversation means.
And any family wedding can be an occasion for ‘drama,’ as we say. Anyway, the scene of Jesus attending a wedding gets us wondering about the issues that divide people and the trouble we give one another, from time to time. Yet this story has very little conflict, and maybe that is an inspiring part of it. Alcohol, your mother giving you hints, and a big wedding, are not necessarily a recipe for a fight.
But wait; I just went off track right there. A conflict does not need to be a fight. They are not the same thing. Conflict can be handled – handled well.
So I’ve heard, anyway.
Unhealthy conflict is what we think of first. In a group, such as a congregation, conflict can become something we dearly want to avoid, instead of deal with positively. In his book about being a healthy church, Dennis Bickers says: Healthy churches are able to see conflict as a means by which change can occur in the church. (Dennis Bickers, The Healthy Small Church, 2005, p. 72) Yet, in this chapter, he does not say much about how conflict is constructive. He talks in detail about about things that cause conflicts, & ways to deal with conflict. But never quite tells us details about how conflict helps us change for the better.
I think about the roots of conflict. Conflicts come out of our differences. We are, each one of us, different. Differing skills and gifts. Differing personalities and opinions. Differing life experiences and influences. Differing strengths and weaknesses. Differing sins, differing righteousness.
No wonder Paul wrote at length to the believers in Corinth, Greece, a couple thousand years ago. For pages on end he wrote to them about their conflicts. These were believers, remember, a church. But Paul has to talk to them about sexual immorality and prostitution, about lawsuits against one another, about marriage problems, about foods to eat or not eat, about his own spiritual leadership to them, about their worship – what to wear, how do to up your hair, how not to fight about the Lord’s Supper… you get the idea. By the time we get to chapter twelve, Paul is getting beautiful and poetic. Those Christians were diverse, but wonderful! Talking about what they do when the gather to worship, he wrote:
12:4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
You and I cannot be confused with one another. We are each quite different: looks, personality, voice, attitudes, interests, abilities, personal story. Problems. No two of us alike. This is actually a great thing.
For some years it has seemed to me that my greatest weakness have, with them – within them? – the opportunity for a great strength. And my greatest strengths have within them the danger of a weakness or problem. And so it might be for every one of us.
I look back upon my own life, and sometimes think I am indecisive. I don’t make decisions well – small choices or big ones – I don’t know how to decide things! But then, the other side of this coin is my ability to see more than one side of an issue, the gift of viewing the big picture, and the virtue of being humble about what ‘I’ know. So I pray: how can Christ use the strength here, instead of me using the weakness?
I think of my friend, J_____, who lives far from here in Nova Scotia. For twenty-five years she served as registrar for an annual week-long conference of adult education and spirituality. More than being the Registrar, she was in control of everything. All the local arrangements with the campus where the event happened, all the meal plans, details for the guest speakers where they stay, what microphones they would use, everything. She was the main planner and designer of the schedule and the brochure. She got her son to run the website. On and on. She knew the fifty year history of the event. She was so capable, and so on top of every detail, but if she dropped out, who would know what she knows? Who could run the seminar? She did so much… too much.
Her greatest strengths for us also had the greatest weaknesses attached. But, as the time of her retirement came, she handed over the reigns and is helping others with the hundred tasks she used to do.
I think of a famous man – Catholic author and teacher of the 20th century – the late Henri Nouwen. We read that he often felt so isolated, struggling with where he belonged, with loneliness, what was ‘home,’ struggling with his sexuality, wondering if he was loved. But out of his life Nouwen inspired so many by teaching ‘you are the beloved of God, so deeply & completely loved and accepted by our God!’ One of his great little books is called, “The Wounded Healer.” That’s what he was.
Walking with God, we grow to understand ourselves, and we cooperate with the Spirit to make our weaknesses into strengths. We are given gifts, of that Spirit, to do even more.
As we do this, we see the same in others. We appreciate those very different from ourselves. I see someone with a great gift to lead by making decisions – so I give thanks. If I also find that person to be too bossy or controlling, God gives me more patience and understanding for the individual.
So our times of conflict – as we face any change or challenge – call for us to appreciate one another. Knowing that what bothers us about someone has, beside it, some gift that blesses. Knowing that the special skill of someone else is a gift to the whole fellowship, not something to compete over or compare.
The ability to handle conflict.
God is able! And may you be able. Able to handle conflict one bit better than before. Because we value one another. Because you understand yourself better too, and love yourself better, thanks to the Master.