Craig Lemming, Associate Rector, Sunday, September 10, 2023
In the name of God who loves us and is with us in the midst of conflict. Amen.
Today’s appointed scriptures help us to build on the lessons Barbara’s sermon taught us last Sunday about independence being an illusion. We need each other to live life well. Living life well together requires healthy ways to address conflict. Conflict is uncomfortable, sometimes painful, and almost all of us, especially in midwestern culture, prefer to avoid conflict at all costs. Addressing conflict takes time, energy, and presence: resources that can only be cultivated in community. We make time together, we pour energy into co-creating relationships, and we show up with and for each other. Time, energy, and presence seem scarce in a society that puts a monetary value on time, overworks us based on the lie that “time is money,” and deludes us into thinking we can do life alone – independently. And yet, when we don’t pour time, energy, and presence into addressing conflict faithfully, that so called independence turns into loneliness, isolation, disconnection, and illness. Conflict reveals our shadow sides – those places where old wounds that we thought had healed are actually still very tender. We lash out or thoughtlessly say or do things that harm another person. Or they harm us when they uncontrollably vomit up their shadow on us – simply because they want to avoid feeling the pain of old wounds that conflict threatens to re-open. James Baldwin famously said, “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”
I have witnessed how conflict has been faced in healthy ways and in not so healthy ways in a variety of faith communities. I have been in healthy conflict and I have also been in unhealthy conflict. Unhealthy ways of dealing with conflict, like triangulation – complaining to people about a person we refuse to speak to directly – avoids the hard work required of love. Erich Fromm famously writes, “Love isn’t something natural. Rather it requires discipline, concentration, patience, faith, and the overcoming of narcissism. It isn’t a feeling, love is a practice.” We can only practice this art of directly loving persons with whom we are in conflict in community. In this community of faith, love is our spiritual practice. We do love by grounding ourselves in the knowledge and love of God, drawing on the power of the Holy Spirit, and then speaking truth in love to people we persevere in trying to love in the way Jesus loves us. Today’s Gospel shows us how conflict can be the sacred birthplace of reconciliation. Jesus gives clear and specific instructions to his followers – to us – for times of conflict in community. Every time I have failed to follow Jesus’s recipe for conflict resolution, I end up in that bleak place Paul Tillich calls estrangement. I find myself entangled in distorted relationship with myself, my neighbor, with God, with community, and with Creation. I have to turn back to those words and listen to them again: Jesus said, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” For today, we will focus on those first ingredients in Jesus’s love recipe for conflict.
I was privileged to serve Circle of the Beloved’s last seven cohorts of young adults who live as an intentional community in Liberty House – the old Rectory of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in North Minneapolis. These young leaders co-create a Rule of Life to which they hold themselves and each other accountable. One of the spiritual tools with which we equipped these young adults to practice the art of loving was non-violent communication techniques to address conflict. So, I’ll give a little glimpse into a scenario that typically happened in Liberty House, usually in February – after the young adults had lived into their Rule of Life and had some practice using their non-violent communication technique.
Picture it: a cold, miserable evening after a grueling day of work, and four twentysomethings are slumped at the dinner table with their fabulous chaplain to do their Rule of Life work. I’ll give them fictional names in the following scene and offer some commentary on how they practiced the art of love in conflict:
“So, Jonah, I noticed you left your dirty dishes in the sink again this morning. This has happened for several weeks now.” That’s Step One in Non-Violent Communication: name the behavior that is causing conflict.
“When you leave your dirty dishes in the sink, I feel frustrated, angry, and disrespected.” That’s Step Two in Non-Violent Communication – name the feelings the conflicting behavior causes us to feel.
“I value our relationship in this community. We all agreed in our Rule of Life that we would wash our dishes and clean the sink after every meal. You repeatedly leave your dirty dishes in the sink even though you know how upset I get when you do that. I need to use our kitchen to make breakfast after you’ve left for the day.” That’s Step Three in Non-Violent Communication – making meaning of how the behavior and feelings are threatening the relationship and naming our needs.
“I really need you to wash your dishes and clean the sink before you leave for work in the morning. Can you please do this?” That’s the Fourth and final Step in Non-Violent Communication – making a request for a change in behavior and asking for a commitment to that change for the sake of restoring right relationship.
Listening to young adults over the years and seeing how uncomfortable they were as their voices trembled in speaking truth in love to one another as they faced conflict by practicing this discipline – this art of loving – was inspiring. Their mutual respect for one another’s dignity deepened. Their courage in being vulnerable made them more loveable. And the genuine and infectious joy they felt when true reconciliation emerged out of their healthy approaches to conflict affirmed for me what Jesus promises: “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Where two or three are gathered in the name of belovedness to do the hard work of loving our neighbor as ourself, especially when we are in conflict, God’s Love itself is there among them.
We cannot do this work alone. We need one another to live life well. We need one another’s time, energy, and presence. We need the Holy Spirit of God’s Love Incarnate to do this work with us and in us. And in the immortal words of Dr. Maya Angelou, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” If we can make one another feel loved, especially when we are in conflict with one another, then we’re following Jesus’s love recipe for faithfully facing conflicts together. Even though they are time-consuming, grueling, and make us vulnerable, following the clear, step by step instructions Jesus gives us can put this art of loving to work in this community. We can put this discipline of loving back into our society. We can put this daily choice, this daily practice of loving back into this country and into this world. Love is not a feeling. Love is a practice. It’s time to do the work of love that God has freely given us to do together. Amen.
James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time. London, UK: Penguin Classics, 1990.
Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving. New York, NY: Harper, 1956.