Sermon for Aug. 30, 2020 Aurora United Ministry, Aurora, NY

Everyone wants peace, the peace of God. Every human being deep down wants to be at peace, the peace of wholeness and happiness. That peace is the goal of creation. Yet we see contention everywhere around us. This should be no surprise. The Bible teaches us the natural state of the world, perhaps of life itself, is contention and opposition. The Bible also teaches us that before we can experience lasting peace, we have to learn how to deal with contention and opposition. In a way, we can look at the Bible as a textbook teaching us how to deal with contention and opposition.

Few places on earth have had more argument per square foot of land than Israel. This was true in Abraham’s time, true in David’s time and true in Jesus’ time. The world Jesus was born into was a world of opposition: religious orthodoxy opposing apathy, Pagan Roman troops opposing civilians, prophets opposing apostates, Sadducees opposing Pharisees, extremist assassins opposing those who just wanted to get along, and, of course, political factions all opposing each other. There is nothing new under the sun.

Jesus acknowledged opposition. And Jesus' teaching method is a graduate text on how to overcome opposition. In his teaching, Jesus didn’t challenge people’s bedrock beliefs. In teaching, Jesus began gently, building on what people already knew to be true. This is captured in Jesus’ teaching mode in the Sermon on the Mount; You have heard thus and so, but I say to you. And then he unfolded the spiritual truth behind and beneath the elements of the law. For example; You have heard it said, You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister, will be subject to judgment. And, You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

Jesus started where people were. Then, he showed them, through demonstration and through parable, there is more, more than what we see on the surface. He helped ordinary people see a different way to act and react on their quest for peace.

We are in a time of change, like it or not. This plague is causing us to make changes in how we live and work. This is stressful. And we quite reasonably have different opinions about how to deal with changed circumstances. Difference of opinion is good. But just when we need common purpose and a pulling together to deal with these problems, we see the opposite; instead of reaching for a consensus, we have increasing polarization of opinion. Polarization is often the result of dogmatically held opposing positions. And it’s often about something other than the problem at hand. In pursuit of certainty, polarization generally knocks us off the path to a solution.

Nothing new here, of course. We know that dug in opposition is a no-win situation. There are immutable physical laws that apply to opposition. One of these laws states that every action is met with an equal and opposite reaction. Jesus’ taught this long before Isaac Newton. Newton’s Laws of Motion apply to human behavior as well as to automobiles or atoms. Direct opposition will create a direct reaction, not a teaching moment.

Jesus has a great deal to teach about dealing with change and opposition to change. Jesus’ teaching is sound psychology as well as a roadmap for peaceful living. Jesus taught us to seek the lower place, not the place of honor. When struck on the cheek, to present the other also. He taught, Blessed are the meek, the humble of spirit, they will inherit the earth. Blessed are the peacemakers; blessed are those who are abased and belittled for bearing witness to truth in their lives.

But the world is slam-bang. Despite the teaching of Jesus – and Newton, we often seem to prefer immediate redress of perceived wrongs. We want action and we want it now. And whether we’re demanding action or change, or resisting action or change, we are not sensitive that confronting opposition with unfiltered, harsh words is sure to provoke reaction and even greater opposition. Objects break. Nations fracture.

Polarization is another way of saying people are dug in to opposite corners, like trench warfare. They are angry at each other, and have metaphorically loosed poisonous mustard gas while lofting mortars. Think about World War 1. There’s not much room for discussion once the mustard gas covers the battlefield. Speaking of World war 1, it’s maybe a coincidence that history’s third worst plague, the great respiratory flu of 1918 may have helped everyone decide to stop fighting. Even the armies got sick. The plague racked up a higher score than the war to end wars. The scorecard for World War 1: Weapons — 10 million dead. Plague — 20 to 50 million dead. Digging in is not a good idea.

So what causes unreasonable digging in? I think the problem is certainty. We act as though we are convinced our position is perfect and our opponents position is totally without merit. After a while, we actually come to believe it. Then we slip into wanting to win, not persuade or agree.

Science has helped us understand it’s not smart to be 100% certain about anything — with the exception of the reality of a loving creator. This is also how the scientific method works, uncertainty and probability, continuous questioning of our propositions.

Digging in with certainty increases opposition. The goal becomes “owning” those so-and-sos on the other side.

Jesus taught a different way. Remember the odd demand Jesus made when he ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. In Matthew 16, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” The disciples answered: “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, or Jeremiah, or some other prophet.” Holy men. Prophets, but humans. Jesus then turned the same question to the disciples. The disciples had been up close to Jesus for some time now. They saw him heal the sick, give sight to the blind, explain parables; they saw the miracles, his feeding the thousands, calming the storm, quieting the waves. Jesus asks his disciples directly: “But who do you say I am?” You can see the disciples, looking from one to the other. Some looking down. Maybe shuffling their feet. Nobody speaks. Then the big fisherman, Simon blurts out boldly, “You are the Messiah, the son of the Living God.”

No one argued Peter into this. Peter experienced an underlying truth about the nature of God by seeing Jesus live, teach and bend nature through faith and prayer. Jesus acted. Jesus prayed. Jesus inspired faith. Jesus taught no dogmatic theology. In essence, Jesus taught science. He gave people practical experiments in the power of faith and prayer. Jesus changed how people saw their religion by how he lived and acted. He didn’t do it through convincing rhetoric. Jesus moved people’s understanding of God by demonstrating the power of faith and prayer. He moved mountains that needed moving, and Jesus taught others they could do the same.

This was a new way of understanding the relationship of God to humanity. Instead of rhetoric, people received gentle nudges from Jesus. When he asked what they really wanted, they searched themselves. They didn’t answer Jesus with argument, they answered with what they needed. They set aside what they had believed until then, searched out their problem and asked for God’s help. Rather than needing to be right, they needed help. And they came to see that God could and did throw their mountain into the sea.

But now the inner circle around Jesus knew the truth that Jesus was the Messiah. Were the disciples ready to publish, to get the word out? If they had an Internet, would Peter issue a Tweet announcing the Messiah to a needy world? No. Instead, Jesus... sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

Why not? Ever think that an announcement might trigger even more opposition? Start a “yes He is, no he isn’t” battle? Create sides when Jesus still had teaching to do, teaching each person to transform themselves, changing their hearts to conform to God? Certainly the disciples didn’t understand. As we heard in today’s gospel lesson:21From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

There was no way to explain the Messiah truth to the people yet, it was bigger than their minds could hold. The disciples weren’t ready to hear this themselves. It would only create opposition. That opposition would only distract from the deeper truth needed on the journey to God’s peace. This was Jesus’ priority. Jesus was not trying to win an argument, not trying to prove he was right. Jesus’ goal was to bring about spiritual healing through faith. Rather than opposing and challenging people’s beliefs, Jesus built on the truth underlying their beliefs. He showed them there is more. Jesus built on the foundational truth that God is God and cares about his creation, and there is more here than our mortal eyes can see. God is not through with each of us yet. We each have our role in God’s plan. Jesus demonstrated how we might better live to faithfully play our part.

As a final thought, I’m sure the experience of following Jesus has made an enormous difference in your life as it has in mine. It’s probably better to give people who question belief in God, children, grandchildren, friends..., give them a gentle nudge by acknowledging that, yes, many people today do not believe in God, Jesus or the Christian way. And rather than arguing, share with others how the Christian way of living and thinking and responding has brought peace of mind, fulfillment and satisfaction to your life. You are a living proof. Like Jesus, our goal should be to come to a healing solution. Not to win an argument. Build on the undeniable truth - the wholeness and Peace Jesus has brought to our lives.

And let’s pray for our commonwealth, our country and all the people yesterday and today who have given so much, risked so much to live in this blessed land.

We have several mountains that need to be moved.