Under God? Week Two

Today we are going to continue the sermon series that we started last week--a series that is going to take us all the way through the month of November...

Which just happens to be the month where we begin our year-long trek to a national election that could be one of the most contentious in American history.

So there's that.

But there's hope... and that's what we're going to be spending the next several weeks focusing on--the hope that we can find when Christians actually do what Christians are called to do when it comes to healing the divisions among us.

To that end, this series is focused on how those of us who call ourselves Christians can be peacemakers in a culture that seems hopelessly divided and at war with itself.

Today we are going to dig a little deeper as we discover how important listening can be in the peacemaking process.

In 1968 elementary school teacher Jane Elliott conducted a famous experiment with her students in the days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  She divided the class by eye color.

The blue-eyed children were told they were better.  Non blue-eyed children were told they were less than the blue-eyed children.

What ensued was shocking.  Classmates who had been playing happily side by side began taunting and torturing one another on the playground with the blue-eyed children in the role of antagonist. 

Then Elliot reversed the roles and told the "in" group they were "out" and the "out" group they were now in.  The brown-eyed children then went on the attack.

Lest you think this is just some sort of manipulative thing someone did to little kids... similar experiments were performed after Elliots with older students and adults.

Since then we have discovered a great deal about how our brains work in these kinds of situations.  with fMRI scans researchers can actually see what parts of our brains are firing when we perceive a member of an out-group.

This is called the Out-Group Homogeneity Effect.  When we encounter an out-group member our amygdala, the part of our brain that produces anger and fear often takes over and becomes more active.

Here's the problem... while some of this is lizard brain kind of stuff, you really have to be taught who is an out-member to your particular tribe.  And Americans have been doing this kind of thing for a very long time.

But in the past few decades, most of the ways we sort ourselves have been clearly defined and understood as dangerous and divisive.  And often deadly.

Here's the problem, though.  The attention merchants, news agencies and politicians who have become so enmeshed with both learned long ago that the easiest form of manipulation is the Out-Group Homogeneity Effect.

And so they use it----all of the time.  It doesn't take much to trigger people, no matter what their political persuasion when you are exploiting fears, generating outrage, and constantly creating an "other" to dread.

As Christians we have a responsibility to do better--to be better.  And it's time for us to step into this.  Because here is what is at stake:  The future.  Period. Look around you at the children and youth among us.  What will be our legacy to them?

We have to start listening to one another, and do the hard work of silencing our unfounded fears, of letting ourselves be manipulated.  Or the future for emerging generations is going to be a lot less certain.

It's time for us to realize that the Church should not be married to any political party.  The Church, and those of us who still believe in the purpose and mission of the Church, is called to proclaim and embody the kingdom of God.  And to do this right and well, we need to be peacemakers, and to do that--we need to be better listeners. 

This is what I want us to hold on to today:

We become peacemakers when we learn to truly listen. 

Our conversation partner today comes to us from the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament.  This particular book was written by a follower of Jesus named Luke, who traditionally is believed to be a physician.

In the passage today, Luke relates a story of how the Apostle Paul delivered an address at the Areopagus in Athens.  In this story, Paul demonstrated his listening skills, which enabled him to speak directly into the culture he was trying to reach.

The Areopagus is a large rock that stands northwest of the Acropolis in the middle of ancient Athens.  The name is a mashup of the name of the god of war Ares, and pagos, which means rock.  It's often referred to as Mars Hill.

The Areopagus had been a place of prominence for centuries by the time Paul showed up.  It had been a place of trial, a location for the council of elders and more.  In Roman times, it was a place for conversation and debate.

Paul lands here after he basically gets kicked out of Ephesus.  He has conversations with people, he listens, he debates, he tells his story and eventually he catches the attention of Athenians who are interested in learning more about what he's talking about.

Here's what happens:

22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

Paul quickly assesses the lay of the land, listens to the context and does his best to understand it.  He finds a way for him to have common ground with the Athenians. 

24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

Here Paul quotes two famous Greek philosophers and poets.  First he quotes Epimenides, a near-mythical figure who helped to purify Athens from pollution and dangerous funeral practices.  This is a snippet from a poem Epimenides wrote where Minos is speaking to Zeus:

They fashioned a tomb for you, holy and high one,Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies.But you are not dead: you live and abide forever,For in you we live and move and have our being.
Then he quotes the Cilician stoic philosopher Aratus, who was a student of Zeno the founder of stoicism.  Aratus wrote a poem that was extremely popular in the Greco Roman world--the Phenomena, which includes this line:
Let us begin with Zeus, whom we mortals never leave unspoken.
For every street, every market-place is full of Zeus.
Even the sea and the harbour are full of this deity.
Everywhere everyone is indebted to Zeus.
For we are indeed his offspring
29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

Paul finds common ground that he gained from listening and learning from the Athenians, and helps to connect the dots between what they know and what he's wanting them to hear. 

32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” 33 At that, Paul left the Council. 34 Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.

He sees how Christ is playing in 10,000 places.  And how God is revealing truth to the Athenians--truth which Paul builds on to show them Jesus.  To sum it up: 

Paul demonstrates here his willingness to listen and have his own beliefs shaped by the people he's trying to engage.  

So how do we do this?  How do we learn to listen to the people we disagree with for the purpose of being peacemakers?  How do we find common ground?

First:  Start with You.  

The kind of transformation it will take to become active, engaged listeners who are able to find common ground and connection is the kind that needs to begin within us. 

It's time for us to take off our jerseys.  Jerseys are helpful at times when we want to find immediate common ground with people who like our team.  But they can also become extremely unhelpful when that's our only criteria for engagement. 

Tribalism isn't going to cut it in our current culture.  If we aren't willing to set aside our tribal loyalties, which more often than not are grounded in biases and out-group thinking, we'll never see any real progress. 

We also need to find our why.  What I mean by this is that we need to know why we feel the way we do about the issues that so easily divide us.  We need to understand why we feel the way we do other than the fact that it was something we learned on a news channel or a favorite author. 

And listen, if the reason why we feel the way we do about particular issues has to do with our interpretation of the Bible---then we need to know why that interpretation is important to us.  

Listen, we need to know these things not for the sake of being able to argue them better, we need to know them because it's important for us to get our own story.  And who knows?  As you dig into some of this, you may discover that the "why" you thought you knew is not something you really hold to any longer. 

Second: We need to turn outward. 

Once we have done the good work of understanding ourselves, we need to turn to others. 

And it's important when we do this that we Give Grace to those with whom we have disagreements.  We need to give grace because right now our culture suffers from grace deficiency. 

There is so much outrage in our culture right now.  And there are plenty of things that we all should be outraged about, to be honest.  But some of us spend most of our time being outraged about one thing or another, and most of them aren't really worthy of outrage. 

Sometimes people become outraged at other people's outrage.  Look, just because you are all of a sudden "Woke" as it's called in the parlance of our times doesn't mean that you have license to make everyone around you feel like absolute garbage because they aren't as woke as you. 

Show some grace.  Jesus had plenty of grace for everyone--even the people who thought they were always right. 

Also we need to Get Curious.  Take the time to hear someone else's "why" as it relates to divisive issues.  Instead of arguing them down and doing everything that you can to show them how wrong they are about something you disagree with them on... ask them about their "why." 

Keep asking questions, keep listening, learn everything you can.  You might actually be the impetus for someone to reevaluate their "why" but they sure as hell won't do it if they think you are castigating them. 

This might take some time.  You might have to spend more time at lunch with a co-worker, or take them out for coffee afterward.  You might need to have more than one gathering with those family members, or that friend. 

So having said all of that:  Here's your homework this week. 

Create a "why" list.

Find moments to ask "tell me more."  You never know where it will lead. 

Because we become peacemakers when we learn to truly listen. 


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