September 13, 2020 Sermon
“Pursuing Change for Christ: Engage Those Who Disagree”
1st Scripture Reading – Jonah 1:15-17, 2:10-3:2
15 So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging. 16 Then the men feared the Lord even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.
17 But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
10 Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land. 3 The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2 “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”
2nd Scripture Reading – Luke 19:1-10
19 He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5 When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8 Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” 9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
“Pursuing Change for Christ: Engage Those Who Disagree”
What do we do with people who strongly disagree with us?
- About politics?
- About religion?
- About COVID-19 and mask-wearing or lockdowns vs. re-opening?
- About science?
I read an article this week entitled “Politics Make People Mean”. It didn’t sound partisan. It presented examples from both sides of the political aisle. The point of the article can be summarized from one sentence in the article: “These kinds of [social media] posts, telling off large swaths of your friends and acquaintances based on their political affiliations…are rooted in the same kind of mindset: anybody who disagrees with me on political matters is playing a part in making the world a worse place.” Maybe this way of thinking started with politics. Maybe, I don’t know. But wherever it came from, it seems to me to have pervaded just about every aspect of society: we act as if people who disagree with us…about pretty much anything…are playing a part in making the world a worse place. And if we think people are working to make the world a WORSE place, that’s going to affect how we respond to them, how we treat them, isn’t it?
So…what do we do with these people? I’m pretty sure what we actually do is very different than what we SHOULD do. Because what we all too often ACTUALLY do is cease engagement with these people. We rationalize our disengagement, JUSTIFY our disengagement, by proclaiming some variation of the proclamation: I’m just not going to engage with anyone who wants to make the world a worse place. In the process, we enter into an echo chamber in which we only hear voices that AGREE with us. And in the process, we ALSO imagine ourselves as self-righteous…we’ve shut down, shouted OUT, the people who want to harm the world. Can’t get much more righteous than that, can you?
But, I wonder, as Christians, as followers of Jesus, when we do this, when we remove ourselves from engagement with those who disagree, are we really doing what God would wants us to do, what Jesus wants us to do, anything remotely resembling at all what Jesus – whom we say we follow – actually did?
Three Sundays ago – which means after today we only have two Sundays left – we began a sermon series that seeks to answer one of the most fundamental questions of our faith: given that we live in a world that God desperately desires be transformed into something different, something BETTER, the kingdom of God, HOW are we supposed to pursue change to and in this world? Are we supposed to pursue change the way people around us are pursuing change, or are we supposed to pursue change in ways that are DIFFERENT – meaning, what kinds of strategies and tactics should we be employing?
We spent the first two Sundays of this series considering Paul’s letter to Philemon. In that book, we discovered that God desires our general approach to pursuing change to be an approach of love instead of hate, love instead of anything else, really, especially love for the people who are most DIFFICULT for us to love as a result of their sins. We even discovered some specific strategies we could, we SHOULD, employ for pursuing change. For the rest of the sermon series, we will look beyond the book of Philemon for other specific strategies God offers us through the scriptures. Last week, we discussed the first of these strategies – reconciliation, where reconciliation means that God wants us to pursue change by seeking to renew relationship with those who have wronged us…which isn’t easy by worldly standards because we typically feel like the person who wronged us should make the first move…but God says differently. Today, we move onto a different topic that might be just as difficult by worldly standards. Today, we will consider whether or not God wants us to engage in conversation with those who disagree with us. This is different from reconciliation because it includes people with whom we may never have had much of a relationship, and it’s different from reconciliation because it’s about people who disagree with us, not people who have HURT us.
You know there are people out there in the world who say the answer to this question of “should we engage with people who disagree” is an absolute “No”, don’t you? I mean, there are news networks that refuse to even carry speeches by certain politicians because those news networks are so convinced these politicians are deceitful and bad, seeking to make the world a worse place…in other words, these networks tell us our job as good people is to cease engagement with bad people. And there are news networks – well, pretty much every news network – that filter every story you see to be certain you won’t hear about – won’t be able to engage – stories those networks don’t want you to hear or engage with. And there are big tech companies – companies that pretty much control our access to information these days – that do the same thing. By the way, I don’t say these things to go anti-news or anti-tech on you; the news and tech companies in our society are in many ways a reflection of society – they do what they do because they feel pressure from society for ratings and clicks – for DOLLARS – to do so, so our news networks and tech companies doing this reveals a bigger, deeper problem in our society: a very great many people just don’t want to engage with anyone who disagrees with them.
Which – before we decide to JOIN them – should lead us as Christians, as the body of Christ, as the Church, to ask ourselves: does God want us to follow the lead of everyone else and disengage from those who disagree with us, or does God desire something else?
I’ve picked two stories from the scriptures – one from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament – that I find to be consistent with what God models and asks of us on the subject. Let’s take a look.
The book of Jonah in the Old Testament begins with a disagreement between God and the prophet Jonah. God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh and “cry out against” that great and wicked city. When God tells a prophet to do something like this, what God is really telling that prophet is to proclaim the opportunity for salvation to that city; if Nineveh ceases its wickedness as a result of Jonah’s visit, Nineveh will be saved from calamity. Which provides the basis for the disagreement between God and Jonah. God WANTS Nineveh to be saved; Jonah does NOT want Nineveh to be saved. In modern terms, Jonah finds the Ninevites to be the kind of people who play a part in making the world a worse place, and Jonah doesn’t want to engage them. So…Jonah goes in the OPPOSITE direction.
Which has an interesting side effect. With his action of heading in the opposite direction, Jonah becomes a person who, from GOD’S perspective, is making the world a worse place. From God’s perspective, the world will become a better place when the Ninevites repent, but Jonah wants no part in making that happen.
In God and Jonah, we get quite an interesting contrast, don’t we? Jonah doesn’t like the Ninevites – believes them to be BAD – and so Jonah refuses to engage with them. Jonah LIKES God – he’s a prophet of God after all – but doesn’t like this request God makes of him, so Jonah even disengages from God. That’s how people of the world deal with this kind of thing. But what about God? God could have disengaged with Jonah. God COULD have called a different prophet to send to Nineveh. But God chose to keep on engaging with Jonah. God sent a storm to get Jonah out of the boat that was heading in the wrong direction. Then God sent a giant fish to save Jonah from drowning in the storm. Once Jonah was back on dry land, God spent considerable time in conversation with Jonah, in verses we didn’t read today, trying to persuade Jonah of what is good, right, and just. Despite Jonah’s continued resistance to what God KNEW was right, even after Jonah said he would rather DIE than go along with God’s plan, God kept…on…engaging Jonah. (If you’ve never read the 4th chapter of Jonah, the chapter describing the bulk of this conversation that represents God’s continued engagement with Jonah, I encourage you to do so.)
Let’s fast forward to our second reading. It takes place about 800 years after the time of Jonah, in the time of Jesus. I’m sure this is a familiar story to most, if not all, of you; it’s the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus.
In order to understand what’s going on here, we need to understand Some things about Zacchaeus:
- For starters, Zacchaeus was a Jew. How do we know, since the story never actually says so? Well, there are many indications. Zacchaeus was a tax collector in Jericho (an area inhabited by Jews), and the Roman practice was to hire local entrepreneurs – so Jews in Jericho – to collect their taxes…meaning Zacchaeus was a Jew. Later in the story, Zacchaeus was identified by Jesus both as a “son of Abraham” and one of “the lost”, both of which provide further indication that Zacchaeus was a Jew, albeit a wayward one.
- So, Zacchaeus was a Jew. Just as important to the story, Zacchaeus was a wayward Jew who would have been – and was according to the story – despised by most of the Jews. Remember what I said about Rome contracting with local entrepreneurs to collect taxes? Well, those people, called “chief tax collectors” paid for their contracts in advance and were then allowed to collect taxes…including MORE than the amount owed…with the full backing of the Roman Empire. As you can imagine, many tax collectors abused their power.
- So Zacchaeus was a Jew and a tax collector…but he was also RICH. How did a tax collector become rich? By abusing the tax collection system I outlined above, which basically means STEALING from fellow Jews…Zacchaeus was a THIEF!
In the story, you can see the impact Zacchaeus being a tax collector had on his relationship with the rest of the Jewish people of Jericho. They perceived Zacchaeus as a person who was working to make the world a WORSE place, so they refused to engage with him and were critical of ANYONE, even Jesus, who chose to engage with Zacchaeus. They shamed anyone who would dare engage with Zacchaeus, even the Messiah.
By the way, is there anyone who believes that Jesus thought Zacchaeus was making a POSITIVE contribution to God’s people by stealing from them? I don’t think so!
So…what did Jesus do? As was typical for Jesus, he did the opposite of what people were doing in the kingdom of the world and chose to ENGAGE with Zacchaeus, even to the point of inviting himself over to Zacchaeus’ house to dine with Zacchaeus…which was a rather significant form of engagement in that culture.
From these two stories – the story of Jonah and the story of Zacchaeus – we find that God chooses the path of engagement with people who disagree with God, God chooses the path of engagement with people who actively WORK AGAINST God. I wonder why?
One reason must have something to do with relationality. You’ve heard me talk before about God making people to be relational partners with God. You’ve heard me talk before about God making other people to be relational partners with us; after all, we were created in God’s image – part of that means we crave relationship as much as God does. So…God’s great desire, God’s kingdom, is a place of engagement with people, even people who are different from us, even people who disagree with us. God’s kingdom is a place where people can disagree, keep talking, and GET ALONG. God’s kingdom – as evidenced by Jesus’ interaction with Zaccaeus – is a place in which the righteous sit down with sinners and share a meal. God’s kingdom is NOT a place where God’s people shame and shun those who they believe are working to make the world a worse place!!!!!
But there’s got to be more to this than JUST relationality, right? I mean, we could all choose to be in relationship with those who agree with us and STILL have plenty of relational partners, right? And it turns out, both of these stories – and pretty much EVERY story of this kind of continued engagement in the Bible – reveals that there is something more going on. The scriptures reveal that BETTER OUTCOMES result when we keep engaging.
- Consider Jonah. As a result of God’s continued engagement with Jonah, the entire city of Nineveh – which God told Jonah included more than 120,000 people – was saved. 120,000 lives spared is definitely a better outcome than 120,000 lives lost.
- Consider Zacchaeus. As a result of Jesus’ continued engagement with Zacchaeus, a whole BUNCH of wonderful things happened:
- Zacchaeus decided to give half his possessions to the poor;
- Zacchaeus decided to pay back anyone he had defrauded – and not just pay back what was defrauded but pay back 4 times as much;
- Oh, and Jesus declared salvation upon Zacchaeus and his house.
Y’all, continued engagement with those who disagree, continued engagement with those we believe are working to make the world WORSE, leads to BETTER outcomes. Continued engagement leads to SALVATION. Which makes sense. Let’s say we’re right about these people. Let’s say there really are people who are working to make the world a worse place, if we leave them alone, nothing will change; if we leave them alone, they will SUCCEED in making the world a worse place.
But there is one thing I need to add. Continued engagement, the kind of continued engagement modeled by God, modeled by Jesus, it looks like conversation and relationship; it looks like pointing to God. It does NOT look like coercing or shaming or anything mean and nasty. It doesn’t look like building guillotines in the front lawns of people we think are bad – like I saw happen when I visited Puerto Rico during a time of protests this past January. It doesn’t look like destruction of property to force bad people to change. No, engagement is conversation. Engagement is building the kind of relational trust that creates the possibility for change, the possibility for transformation, the possibility for the in-breaking of God’s kingdom. Just like God has chosen to change us through persuasion, which requires continued dialog and relationship with us, in order to follow God’s example, we must choose to pursue change through persuasion, through the engagement of continued dialog and relationship with those who disagree, even those whom we believe are working to make the world a worse place.
I started this sermon by asking: “What do we do with people who strongly disagree with us?” In every single congregation I’ve served, one answer stands out above the rest. Consistently, I’ve heard people, Christians, followers of Jesus tell me their response is to stop talking with people who disagree, to stop engaging because these folks are just too bad, they’re lost causes. Well, I’m here today to remind you that THIS answer is not God’s answer. According to God, only by relationally ENGAGING people who disagree – even people who disagree to the point of seemingly working to make the world a worse place – only by engaging them can we do more than just pursue change but actually achieve real and lasting change, also known as the in-breaking of God’s kingdom here on earth.