I preached this message on May 14th, 2017 Trinity United Methodist Church in Waverly, IA. It was designed to teach the congregation a form of mindfulness that could counteract dissent and disheartenment. In the message, I talk a lot about my own disheartening experiences online. The key overarching theme for the message is we are called to acts of reconciliation in the face of divisiveness.
Today’s passages are chalk full of goodness. Rich metaphor, comforting advice. There’s enough content for 10 healthy sermons. Unfortunately, (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it) we only have time for one. So what should we talk about?
Our passage in John begins with:
14“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.
Our Psalm ends with:
24Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord.
Wow, book-end passages from two different parts of the Bible that essentially say the same thing. In John, Jesus is preparing his disciples for a time when he will no longer be among them in the flesh. On the other hand, the psalmist is praying for God to be with them in their time of trial.
Imagine you are a disciple in Jesus’ day. Imagine what it would be like not having Jesus in your life for the first time. They are about to lose the greatest leader, teacher, and prophet they have ever known. The very voice of God. Where will they find their direction? Who will settle their disputes? They must have been devastated. Troubled. Disheartened.
Early in the passage Jesus reminds us that the promise of heaven remains. “In my father’s house there are many dwelling places”. But heaven is of little solace to those who are worried about today.
The focus of both passages is to give us wisdom for how we can live our lives when our hearts are troubled…now. How we can adopt a heart of peace. Peace in the midst of our troubles.
In these polarizing, uncertain times, we need these words.
Please pray with me.
God of light, God of truth, we are surrounded by doubt, we are assailed on all sides. The world breeds uncertainty. You are our refuge. In you all is made possible. Be with us now, and with each successive breath we take, for all time and always. Amen.
I had a Freudian moment when I first read “take me out of the net that is hidden for me” in this week’s psalm. For you see, I spend a lot of time on the “Net”. I know the psalmist wasn’t talking about the internet, but the trap feels real to me.
My ministry necessitates that I spend a lot of time on the internet. I am a digital minister. As an Ordained Deacon, I am called to help churches leverage digital tools for the sake of the Gospel. To make disciples and to build the kindom of God.
In general, I like spending a lot time on “the net”. Though lately I feel like I’ve spent a lot of time trapped “in the net” if you catch my drift. The last couple of weeks online have left my heart troubled. There are a lot of amazing ways in which God is at work online that I don’t want to discount, but when your heart is troubled, it’s hard to see past the relentless deluge of negative information. For those of you who don’t spend a lot of time online, simply think about the 24-hour news cycle or water cooler talk at work. There are net’s everywhere waiting to ensnare us.
I am going to tell you what’s bothering me, but before I do, you should know that I’m about to break an unwritten role of preaching that scares practically every pastor I’ve ever known: I’m going to take a political stance or two. Not because I want to alienate half the congregation, that’s the last thing I want. But rather because our passage about “taking heart” convicts me to give witness to my own testimony, and convicts us to find comfort in God in the midst of our disputes. If Jesus were here, he would undoubtedly solve our disputes by telling us a cryptic parable that leads us gently into enlightenment. But he isn’t here in the flesh. Instead, we have his words and his spirit. It’s about time we start using them to learn to live together again as one people, reconciled in Christ. That’s why I’m going to break the rule.
Here it goes: I don’t like the stuff that Donald Trump’s administration has been up to and I don’t like that Bishop Olivetto, a practicing homosexual, was removed from her post as Bishop by the judicial council. Yet, during the last couple of weeks my social media feeds have been jammed packed with news about each.
During these times, I identify with the psalmist. I feel caught in the net. And if I’m not careful, the emotional roller coaster will overwhelm me. “Into your righteousness, deliver me, O, Lord!” Indeed.
Statistics suggests that between 30-60% of the people in this room will disagree with the things that are upsetting me. So the question is: can we disagree with each other, but do so with a heart that’s at peace towards one another?
If those issues aren’t a source of strife for you, I imagine you have your own nets you are dealing with. And not JUST the big things either, the little things too. Jesus didn’t truly die and leave the disciples after all, he just wasn’t around in person. It was the daily reality of living without Jesus that they were being prepared for in John.
So what’s gnawing on you lately?
Maybe money has been tight, maybe you have some nagging health issues. Maybe you have a dispute with a friend or family member. Nets are all around us, and until Jesus comes again, they always will be. They are inescapable.
When you realize you are disheartened, the solution is to seek a “heart of peace”. To turn a net of ensnarement into a safety net, if you will. A safe space. A place of comfort. You do this by seeking assurance within yourself before you act outside of yourself.
I got this “heart of peace” language not from the passage, but from a book called, “The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict.” A fictional story about a Palestine Muslim and an Israeli Jew who run a retreat program in Colorado that helps a group of troubled parent’s cope with their troubled youth. According to the book, finding a heart of peace is a type of mindfulness that allows us to account for our emotional state in the midst of conflict. Pastors are incessantly taught this skill for pastoral care, but even though I don’t do a lot of pastoral care myself, I’ve found this type of mindfulness be invaluable in my daily living.
Approaching conflict from a place of hate or doubt can be subtly destructive. It can divide. It can breed dissent. It describes much of our political discourse these days. It’s definitely out-of-sync with “love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
I’d like to use the rest of our time to give you some scripturally relevant strategies for achieving a heart of peace, amidst conflict.
I’ll break it down into three pieces taken from our passage: “The Way, The Truth, and The Life.”
6Jesus said to [Thomas], “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
Remember, at this point Jesus isn’t talking about heaven. He’s talking about how the disciples can cope without Jesus in their lifetimes. How they can use their experience with Jesus, to connect to the divine, even after he is gone.
Let’s start with “The Way”
The way mentioned in the passage is that “nobody comes through the father except through me.” Simple enough.
The opposite of putting our faith in Jesus might be described as “putting our faith in ourselves.” Choosing pride and arrogance over humility and supplication.
One of the best strategies for finding a heart of peace is to remember that final and certain judgement is the auspice of the divine. “None are righteous, no, not one” proclaims Romans 3. This is also spelled out in our psalm:
15My times are in your hand; deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.
16Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love.
17Do not let me be put to shame, O Lord, for I call on you; let the wicked be put to shame; let them go dumbfounded to Sheol.
Notice how the Psalmist doesn’t say “I” will send my enemy to H-E- double hockey sticks. Instead he say’s “My times are in your hands”. He does “call on” God to condemn the wicked, but it’s clear that God is the judge in this scenario.
If you can separate your beliefs from another’s beliefs and remember that God WILL sort it out, you are one step closer to a heart of peace. A simple strategy for doing this is to I say “I believe X” or “I feel like x” instead of saying “X is true”. For example, “I believe that Bishop Oliveto meets the disciplinary and practical requirements to be the bishop of her jurisdiction despite her sexuality.” Is different than saying, “those who think Bishop Oliveto was justly removed from office are wrong.” Even if the disciplinary language was crystal clear, that’s not the highest authority that United Methodist adhere to. Wesley implored us to seek perfection in God’s sanctifying grace, meaning we’re not perfect, but we should strive to be so. So there’s room for error in the midst of our search for perfection, even MY error.
This strategy of passing judgement onto God has its limitations. Daily living necessitates that we pass judgement on one another. However, admitting that we cannot know the mind of God, can lead to humility and prayerful discernment in the midst of tough decisions. It turns an inflexible mind into one that can be led by the Holy Spirit.
Consequently, right after our passage in John is when Jesus first introduces the Disciples to the coming of the Holy Spirit, to their new guide in life.
Which leads us to our second point: “The Life”
Shortly after our John passage, Jesus says: I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.
Jesus’s ministry lives on through us. He even says, “Those who believe if me, will do greater works than [my own miracles].”
The second strategy for obtaining a “heart of peace” is to remember the old adage “what would Jesus do?” Jesus didn’t just “die” for us, he spent a lifetime modeling what it means to be a good person.
Jesus spent a lot of time in service to the marginalized. If you are well off, privileged, or in the majority, as it relates to the circumstance in which you find yourself, doing what Jesus did will be challenging. Luckily, we’re not required to BE Jesus, rather to let Jesus’ love for us convict us to greater levels of holiness. There’s that sanctifying grace again. Emulating Jesus is a great way to get us out of our own heads, and to question our own motives and beliefs.
This technique also helps us to account for our privilege, in addition to the examining our emotional states. Knowing the biases and feelings we bring into a situation is extremely powerful. In some cases you check them at the door. In others, you can find power in naming them. Bringing pain into a situation can help you to better relate to those in similar pain. Henri Nouwen called this the wounded healer. Naming a bias can help others to see where you are coming from.
I came across this apt quote by Joni Eareckson Tada, an international advocate for people with disabilities:
“The Christian faith is meant to be lived moment by moment. It isn’t some broad, general outline–it’s a long walk with a real Person. Details count: passing thoughts, small sacrifices, a few encouraging words, little acts of kindness, brief victories over nagging sins.”
When we walk with Jesus, we walk WITH others and not against them. A crucial step in achieving a heart of peace.
That leaves us with “The Truth”
“If you know me, you will know my father also.”
The truth is that God so loved the world that he sent his only son, so that we may know God.
It’s common to talk about the purpose of Jesus’ death being the forgiveness of sins, but sin is just the cause, right. The effect was to reconcile our relationship with God. To make it whole again. This act of reconciliation, of truly knowing one another, of loving one another is central to our faith. We are a reconciled people called to acts of reconciliation. I believe, (there are those words again), I believe that God’s reconciliatory acts in the world are inconsistent with dividing the United Methodist Church and inconsistent with continued division within our country.
It’s possible that reconciliation through Christ is more important than any dispute that seeks to divide us.
One of my theological heroes, Fr. Teliard De Chardin, put it this way:
“Love alone is capable of uniting living beings in such a way as to complete and fulfill them, for [love] alone takes them and joins them by what is deepest in themselves. All we need is to imagine our ability to love developing until it embraces the totality of men and the earth.”
De Chardin, believed that over time, God’s love will pull us into one being with God, something he called the omega point.
This brings me to the next tip for maintaining a heart of peace. Love those you disagree with. Jesus tells us to “love our enemies” but you might need to keep saying it in your head (or out loud) until you believe it. You see, if I don’t LOVE Donald Trump, the person, what hope is there for me to reconcile with him and the millions of American’s who follow him. You with me. What hope will there be for the future of our country? You can both love and disagree with someone.
I once had a job once with a tyrant of a boss. We’d have staff meetings where a person would leave in tears. Occasionally that person was me. It was a hostile work place. At the time, LeAnn and I were financially stable. I could have quit, I almost did several times. I was afraid to be anywhere near the guy and it severely hurt my performance. I’m surprised I wasn’t fired. One day I convinced myself, “I have the least to lose out of all the staff members, if anybody can afford to take a risk it’s me.” So in a fit of divine inspiration, I knew the way to address this problem was for me to start loving the guy I was afraid of. It was hard. I started by going over his head to his supervisors to tell them about the problems we were having. I started my complaints with “I love him…but.” Surprisingly, I wasn’t fired. When I talked to him directly, I had to scream “I love you” over and over in my head until I was calm. It was awkward and dangerous, but over time I could actually feel the love blossoming. It gave me courage to actively seek out reconciliation. And guess what, after about a year it started to work. His superiors decided to get him the kind of support he was missing. We started meeting regularly and over time I grew less afraid of him. We started finding projects to collaborate on which lead to incredibly successful programs. Today we’re friends. Everything got better for everyone. During that time, Love proved itself to me to be Truth, incarnate. And by the way, I wasn’t right about everything. I didn’t always have the moral high ground. That experienced change me. It changed my beliefs, it made me a better person.
Since then I’ve learned a similar, more universal technique that can be employed at any time. When you are distressed, you can break out of it be remembering a specific time when you’ve experienced God’s love. You can hold that moment in your heart until you are able to break out of the funk you in. I often think about my daughter as an infant smiling back at me or the view from the top of Mount Washington after a long hike, or the time I stared a quizzical black bear in the face. I once spent an entire Lent imaging Jesus standing behind every person I was talking to with his hand laying gently on their shoulder. I’ve found this to work because God’s love is triumphant.
Being mindful takes lots of practice and reflection. In addition to the Way, Truth, and Life methods I presented today, there of dozens of others. Find what works best for you. Constantly examine your state of being. I’m still a novice at this stuff but it’s already made a huge impact on my life.
The Way – Practice Humility knowing none are righteous.
The Truth – Reconcile yourself to others by channeling God’s love.
The Life – Emulate Jesus.
The more you can do these things, the less your heart will be troubled. Right before your eyes, your net of ensnarement will be transformed into a safety net.
I want to leave you with this story that was told to me by the legendary Choir Director, RD Mathey.
During the crusades King Richard the Lion Hearted entreated with the Caliphate Saladin in Salidin’s lavish tents for a parlay. Richard stormed in with his attendants. Without saying a word, he had them place two blocks on the ground with a solid wooden beam across them. Then Richard called for his sword. Saladin allowed it. Richard took his mighty sword and arched it down crushing the beam into two jagged pieces. Then he pronounced, “Give up or I will crush you.” Saladin simply replied, “I am not impressed.” Richard grew furious and motioned again for his attendants. This time they brought two wooden beams as thick as an ox. Richard brought his mighty sword down with both hands cleaving the beams in twain. Then he said, “Give up or I will crush you”. After a brief time, Saladin again proclaimed, “I am not impressed.” Richard was furious but Saladin lifted a finger to get his attention, then simply wiggled on his ear. An attendant threw a gossamer scarf made from the finest silk into the air. In a flash, the caliphate rose from his cushions drawing his curved scimitar, blade up. The scarf fell upon the blade’s razor sharp edge, slitting it neatly into two halves that then fluttered to the floor. Needless to say, King Richard was impressed.
RD told my College Men’s chorus this story on multiple occasions when we were having problems tuning. You see there are two popular vocal techniques for men’s chorus. One is a forward, nasally technique preferred by glee clubs. (Demonstrate: Ahhhhh). This technique is loud but it doesn’t tune well. Then there is the backwards technique where you let the sound resonate behind your uvula (Demonstrate: Ahhhhh). This technique is quieter but it tunes infinitely better. RD knew that a Choir that is perfectly tuned will always be more powerful, even if they don’t produce as much sound.
So it is with a heart of peace. We grow stronger bonds when we can relate to each other in harmony, despite singing different parts and different words. Friends, “Let not your heart troubled” is more than just words of comfort, they are a road map for forging the kindom of God. Sure, we are allowed to yell, we are allowed to complain. God can take it. So direct your hate, your fear, and your uncertainty at God, instead of each other.
So when you get frustrated, don’t pull away, don’t struggle in the nets. Don’t try to force your way out. Instead, try to find peace within yourself. Use God’s love as your guide. Wield a heart at peace. When we are successful as a society, as Christians, then as Jesus promised, we will perform greater acts than his, in his holy name.