Complex Conversations

Jacob Wrestling the Angel by Larry Patten

The Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost

The Rev. Austin K. Rios
St. Paul’s Within the Walls
September 20, 2015

These past few weeks, it seems like the most significant conversation in many of the media sources I follow has been all about the global refugee crisis.

It’s as if the entire Western Hemisphere is finally waking up to the reality that has been literally at our doorsteps here in Rome for so many years now, and I have had request after request from people and groups in the states who want to know how they might help, and what has caused the crisis in the first place.

This past Thursday I was invited to be a guest on a Christian podcast from the United States that explores issues of justice and faith, and the topic of conversation was the refugee crisis.

For 45 minutes we talked about the issues, discussed potential solutions, and examined what our faith asks of us in the midst of this complex situation.

After I got off the call, I opened up my browser and checked the news.

While there were several stories about the crisis and creative responses from people around the world, I was amazed at how much more energy and effort was being spent on topics and questions of much lesser import.

Kylie Jenner and Tyga acting up and posting videos.

Tiger Woods has season ending back surgery.

Donald Trump keeps being Donald Trump.

In fact, it was these topics that were generating the most buzz and the most comments… the numbers of commentators weighing in on conversations about them were in the 10s of thousands, while the refugee crisis generated numbers in the hundreds.

On some level, I understand this.

It is much easier to talk about celebrity gossip, sports, and political buffoonery than it is to engage the complexity of the refugee crisis.

You don’t need to be an expert to offer your opinion on those topics, where the complexity and pain of the refugee crisis can seem impossible to engage.

This is not a new phenomenon.

There have always been topics of conversation that can lead us to transformation and more evolved states of being, and ones that serve only as distractions.

We see Jesus and his disciples modeling these two sorts of conversations in today’s Gospel.

Here’s Jesus talking about heavy heavy stuff…

About “The Son of Man being betrayed into human hands, and being killed, and three days after being killed, rising again.”

Who can engage that?

I can imagine the look on the disciples faces as they are listening to him talk this way.

The Gospel goes on to say that the disciples didn’t understand what he was saying and they were afraid to ask him.

This is a common reaction we humans have when we don’t understand something… rather than opening ourselves up to learning by asking questions, we hide behind a façade… in fear that by asking questions, we will look less smart than we are.

I know that I have done this before, and I imagine you have as well.

Letting go of this fear might allow the disciples the possibility of entering into a deeper dialogue with Jesus about what he actually means by this… it might allow them to approach this complex conversation with the eyes of a child.

Children ask questions, are great question-askers… they are not so self conscious about their need to maintain an image of intelligence… but rather are open to learning, instruction and deeper understanding.

But the disciples, like the good adults they are, choose fear and disengagement instead.

And once that choice is made, it is not a far leap for them to choose a lesser form of conversation in lieu of the big one that they have run from.

Who is the greatest among us?

It is one of the pettiest of conversations we can have as humans… an endless game of comparisons that leaves us extremely unsatisfied the more we follow it to its conclusion.

And one that invariably leads to argument and division.

Jesus is aware of this dynamic and asks the disciples to be forthright about it: “What were you arguing about on the way?”

This sort of conversation is not worthy of the way to which he has called them…it is a distraction from the larger mission in which they are engaged and a diversion from the really big questions about betrayal, crucifixion, and resurrection.

Jesus uses the example of the child, to remind them that instead of arguing about such fruitless things, they are to spend more time with the questions.

They are called to wrestle… like Jacob with the angel… with the larger conversation that leads to real blessing, and to settle for nothing less.

We who gather in this place today are called to do such wrestling as well.

We are called to ask the deep questions, and to engage the complex and meaningful conversations that come before us rather than settle for distraction and diversion borne of fear and incompetency.

This past Tuesday, the Vestry at St. Paul’s met to converse in this fashion.

We explored what it means to live simply, and how we as a church can walk the fine line between living simply and being good stewards of the church and tradition that has been passed on to us.

There are no easy answers to this question.

But there are certainly faithful ones, and more importantly, the questions themselves, and the curiosity that such a conversation sparks within the hearts and minds of the children of God, are true to the calling that we have received in Jesus Christ.

So goes conversations about the global refugee crisis, and questions that call forth our best… the questions and conversations that really matter.

When is the last time you had a conversation like this with a group of people?

When was the last time you engaged such deep questions of the spirit, and spent time in the midst of complexity, challenge, and confusion?

At its core, this is what our community at church should be… it should be a place in which these kinds of questions can be freely asked and explored…and it gives me great hope that your vestry has no qualms about doing just that.

The question that each of us have to answer is whether we will be strong enough to resist the fears and the temptations to settle for something less.

There are hordes of lesser conversations vying for our attention and our time.

And the world will not be healed and made better if we remain transfixed by them… paralyzed by the pettiness of politics, the charades of celebrity, and the shallowness of the cult of superficiality.

What we discuss and contemplate directs the course of our lives.

And when we talk about big things, that affect people’s lives and their ultimate destiny, we are walking like children of God in the way of faith.

Will you ask the questions this week dear friends?

Will you seek out conversations and conversation partners who will engage you in the big things that we are called to pursue as disciples of Christ?

Will you leave fear and insecurity behind and embrace the greatness of approaching life with the eyes of a child…eyes that see possibility and potential, and welcome the mystery of the Son of Man’s Passion and all its varied implications?

Do so, and the church, world, and your life will be changed.


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