Year A, Pentecost 13
As a priest in the Episcopal Church, one of the things I have been taught is how to handle conflict when it happens in the parish. While conflict is not something that most people seek out, it also should not be avoided. It can be healthy and help people grow. If it is ignored or handled in an unhealthy way, it can be quite corrosive. Some things about conflict management are pretty obvious. Never handle it over e-mail. The best thing to do is to deal directly with the person with whom you have the conflict. Yet even with this knowledge, I find it a very hard thing to do especially outside of the church.
Just recently I had a conversation with a very close friend of mine and she said something that really upset me. I acted like it did not upset me because at the time, I was not sure that I should be upset. I always find it helpful to take some time to consider why I am upset. Often it has little to do with what the person did or said and more to do with what is going on with me. But pretty quickly, I realized that I was not going to get past this which meant that I had to talk to my friend. By this time I was a little mad and I did about the stupidest thing you can do. I called a mutual friend and talked to her about it. Even as I was doing it, I knew it was stupid. I felt that I needed to talk to someone about it who would know the people involved and who might have some helpful advice. My friend asked, “Well should I talk to her for you?” Now these two friends and I go way back and that was how we dealt with conflict when we were teenagers so it was tempting to regress, but I said no.
I was pretty ashamed with myself. I’m a priest. I should know better than this! Yet it is human nature to want to avoid conflict and seek comfort and support from a third party. There is a technical term for it. It’s called triangulation and in ministry it’s like the 8th deadly sin. Can you imagine Jesus going to Peter and saying, “Can you believe what Thomas just did? Of course you can’t…Thomas can’t even believe what he did…he’s such a doubter. I mean bless his heart, but seriously…” Jesus would never have done that. He always addressed conflict straight on because he realized how corrosive unresolved or poorly resolved conflict could be in a community.
I believe that is what he was teaching about in the Gospel lesson for today. Like much in the Bible, this particular Gospel reading has been misappropriated. It has been used to call out sinners in front of the congregation. I have heard of churches that will actually ask people to publically confess their sins in front of the congregation. I would think that would have a rather negative effect on the people involved. However, a lot of people would use this passage to defend that kind of treatment.
If you were to read this passage alone, without the benefit of the surrounding readings, it might sound pretty harsh…which is why you should always read something in context. Right before today’s reading, we hear the parable of the lost sheep. Jesus told a story about a shepherd who left 99 sheep to find the one who had wandered off. After today’s reading Peter asks Jesus how often he should forgive someone. Jesus recommends 7 times 77. Does this sound like the kind of God who would recommend that members of a community castigate someone in front of everyone and then throw them out?
This is not supposed to be a handbook for managing conflict in a community any more than the story about the sheep is a handbook for shepherds. However, it is demonstrating a critical point. Jesus cares about the individual, but he also deeply cares about the community. He knows that the health of the community depends on the relationships between the individuals within the community. That means that the health of the body of Christ depends on us. That is a pretty big responsibility.
In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he also talks about the importance of the community. “Owe no one anything except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Paul then went on to mention a couple of commandments. All of the commandments he quoted were regarding how we treat one another. He wrote that all the commandments could be summed up in this phrase, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” How do we reconcile Jesus demand for confrontation and his call for us to love one another? How can we love our neighbor as we love ourselves while also holding one another accountable?
When Paul told the Romans to love one another as they loved themselves, he was quoting something that Jesus said in the Gospels. In order to love others we have to know what it is to love ourselves, to see ourselves as beloved children of God. If that is how we love one another, then one would assume that is how we confront one another or hold each other accountable. Before we address the sins of the other, we must first address our own sins. That way we will approach that person with humility.
In my situation with my friend, I kind of did the first part. I tried to examine what my own part in the argument was. But then instead of approaching her with the appropriate humility, I talked to someone else about it. Thankfully my friend was a good friend and she talked to me directly. She apologized to me and by then I was able to also apologize for not handling it well. While I am not proud of how long it took me to talk to her directly, I did spend that time examining my own actions. If we had left it at that (the self-examination without the conversation), we would have just been ashamed. But when we addressed it directly, it was a very healing experience.
It is important to remember whenever we are dealing with conflict, even when we are almost certainly in the right, we are still sinners in need of forgiveness. That is one of the reasons that we have the communal confession. We don’t say, “Ok, whoever sinned this week, why don’t you come up to front and say the confession.” We assume that we have all sinned and so we say the confession together as the body of Christ. That does not take the place of those direct conversations, but it’s a good start, especially if we really think about what we are reading and consider our own sins as we read that confession. I always try to provide a moment between when I announce the confession and when I begin it to allow for people to personally reflect. (Now you know that when I give you a little longer than usual, it’s because I have a few more sins to confess.)
I have a little disclaimer for this sermon. Direct confrontation is almost always better than going to someone else to vent your frustrations. But this method is never an excuse for cruelty. You can’t just say the first thing that pops into your head whenever you want to. Jesus could get away with that but none of us are God incarnate. We can’t be sure that everything that comes out of our mouth is the word of God. Why do you think I write these sermons down? Sometimes the Holy Spirit comes to us later when we refine our thoughts, when we have had time to cool down. Loving one another is not easy. It doesn’t always come naturally. If it did, Jesus would not have had to repeat it as often as he did and we would not still be talking about it today. Love one another as you love yourselves. Confront one another gently, but do so with the knowledge that you are just as sinful as the person you are confronting.