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"Courage in Numbers" - Rev. Jennifer Gleichauf

Posted on September 6, 2020 by Kathy Miller

 

“Courage in Numbers”

I had been at my first church for a year when the leadership and senior pastor came to the decision to fire the music director who had been there for 20 years.  And it was a BIG deal.  Of course, there were faults on all sides – conflicts swept under rugs, people speaking in whispers and through gossip, passive aggressive behavior – all of this unhealthy behavior had been going on for a long time.  And, I remember the Senior Pastor telling me that he had known it would be better if the music director was fired the first year he was at the church, but he hadn’t wanted to upset people when he was so new.  And so, when it happened, many years later, it was much, much worse than it might have been.  People said awful things to each other, some left the church, there were anonymous letters passed around, people were hurt and angry.  But, also, things finally came out in the open and it forced a lot of honest conversations, and in the following year or two, the health of the church improved quite a lot.  I’ll never forget the conversation I had with the senior pastor sometime later when he said he wished he had just had the courage to deal with that conflict sooner and more directly.  How he thought, if he had just had the courage earlier, a great deal of pain and hurt would have been avoided. 

And I’ve been thinking about courage this week.  Most often, in our society, we tend to associate courage with physical bravery; of standing strong in the face of danger or fear.  Courage is associated with soldiers and first responders – the folks who run into danger, instead of away from it; those who protect others, even when it puts themselves at risk.  And, this is one element of courage, to be sure; to face danger head on for the sake of others, takes courage. 

Courage in physical bravery is also often what gets attention. We see stories of physical bravery on the news all the time – soldiers sacrificing their lives for our country, firefighters running into burning buildings, doctors and nurses putting themselves at risk to treat others, parents who perform feats of physical strength to save their child. 

And there are certainly many examples in our faith of those who had the courage to be physically brave.  David, when he fights Goliath; Paul, when he risks death and persecution to spread the gospel, and most of all, Jesus when he went to the cross.  These, and other acts of bravery, from the martyrs and faithful through the years, inspire others to face physical danger, and even death, with the courage that this life is not the end and the belief that some things are worth dying for. 

But there is so much more to courage, than physical bravery. Courage can be so many other things as well.  Things like: facing a conflict that you know will be difficult and messy.  Or the willingness to be vulnerable.  Or the ability to admit fault.  Courage can be the openness to change one’s mind or to show compassion to someone different from you.  Courage can be finding a way to forgive someone who has hurt you or to share with someone your deepest fears.  Courage can be a willingness to try and fail and then try again.  It can be choosing to remain hopeful, when it seems hope is lost.  Some days courage is just getting out of bed and facing the day.  Courage can mean speaking the truth in love to someone even when you know they don’t want to hear it.  Courage can be the willingness to show your truest self to the world, even when you know others won’t understand. 

These and many other things which require courage are less about physical bravery and more about a courage of spirit.  And while our faith may require physical bravery from us at some points, there is no doubt that courage of the spirit is absolutely necessary, often on a daily basis, to a life of faith.

But courage isn’t something we are just born with and it doesn’t always, or often, come easily.  Mary Daly said, “Courage is…a habit, a virtue: You get it by courageous acts. It’s like you learn to swim by swimming. You learn courage by couraging.”[1]  In other words, courage is a spiritual discipline, something we have to work at and practice regularly in our life. 

And I’ve been thinking about courage as a spiritual discipline this week as I read the passage from Matthew for today.  This little teaching of Jesus’ is set between two parables – one about leaving your flock to go find the one lost sheep.  Which is a story about bringing people into the fold, making sure no one gets lost.  And after the passage from today there is a parable about forgiveness, specifically, forgiving seventy-seven times.  And set between them is the teaching we read this morning. 

There is a famous line in today’s passage I suspect you may have heard before: “wherever two or three of you are gathered in my name, I am there.”  This passage often gets used when Christians gather together for worship or when a few people get together to pray or study.  And that’s fine.  But when we read the whole passage this line is from; we see that Jesus was actually giving a really important lesson about conflict in community - guidelines about what we should do when we are angry or upset with one another; when something has gone wrong in the community.  And his instructions get at the heart of the unhealthy things that often happen when there is conflict.

For example, one commentary listed the temptations of conflict like this – see if any of this seems familiar in your experience of conflict.  “First, we’re tempted to avoid conflict. Second, we’re tempted to gossip: to tell other people about the person or behavior that’s offended us, rather than to address our concerns directly to the person or people involved. Third, we’re tempted to gang up on each other, to recruit like-minded people to our side and create echo chambers of grievance. Fourth, we’re tempted to air our grievance only in such echo-chambers, or in front of overwhelmingly friendly audiences where accountability is minimal. And fifth, we’re tempted to regard our opponents as if they are unwelcome or better off elsewhere, outside our community entirely.”[2]

Reading that list, I could immediately think of places where we can see examples of all of these unhealthy behaviors in our larger community and nation these days, but I suspect many of you will recognize them personally too.  I know I do. 

But these ways of dealing with conflict lead to two main outcomes: that a community either becomes more and more divided and estranged from one another or people start leaving a community alone or trying to recruit others to go with them and start a new community.  And that’s why I think this teaching is set between the two parables it is, parables of inclusion and forgiveness, because Jesus knows inclusion and forgiveness happen much more often in healthy communities.

Which is not to say that these instructions he gives are easy to follow.  Facing conflict; owning our part of whatever has gone wrong; being willing to listen to another; communicating clearly and directly about our feelings; not getting defensive – all of these are advanced level grown up stuff. 

Which brings us back to courage.  To have a chance of resolving conflict – of doing what Jesus suggests by speaking directly to each other, not gossiping, not ganging up on someone or trying to get everyone on your side – we need courage.  Courage to be vulnerable; courage to speak truthfully but with open ears and minds and love; courage to take the responsibility that is ours to take and courage to work towards forgiveness and healing.  That’s a lot of courage.  But again, we learn courage by couraging. 

C.S. Lewis said, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.”[3] Courage is what is needed whenever we are tested; whenever it would be easier to lie or hide or avoid or pretend.  Courage is what is needed when our anger is taking us over and we need to find our compassion.  Courage is what we need when we disagree with one another and it would be easier to just go our own way.  Which all takes a lot of courage.

But Jesus doesn’t give us these instructions and disappear.  These instructions are meant to be practiced in our faith communities.  We practice together, remind one another, hold each other accountable, care for one another with gentleness and strength, and together we build the courage to take out into our lives; into the other communities we are a part of.  Jesus knew that a life of faith would require great courage and we’d need people to practice with. One of the greatest gifts he gave the disciples was each other – people with whom they could try to live in faith together.  “Moreover, Jesus promises that when we are about this work – that is, when we come together as a community to address our differences, resolve our disputes, seek to end conflict, and repair relationships – he is there. Always. Supporting, encouraging, blessing our efforts. We are not alone and that’s why we don’t give up.”[4]

A practice of courage in daily interactions asks us to be vulnerable, to put down our self-righteousness, to speak honestly and directly but lovingly, to listen to others tell us they are hurting, they are angry, they are tired and to respond not with anger or denial or accusations, but instead with hearts open to a willingness to change and grow. 

So, today, and this week, consider what ways God is calling you into acts of courage in your communities.  Where can you practice having courage each day?  What courage will you practice to bring greater love and health and good to your life, your family’s life, your communities?  We live in times when courage of spirit is deeply, sorely needed.  May we rise to Jesus’ invitation to be people of courage and love. Amen.



[2] Lose, D. (2020, September 1). Community Rules [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.davidlose.net/

[3] https://thepastorsworkshop.com/sermon-quotes-on-courage/

[4] I Lose, D. (2020, September 1). Community Rules [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.davidlose.net/

 
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