23RD SUNDAY OF THE YEAR
N.B. Speaking a homily is much different than writing a homily. I do not write homilies out, but speak from an outline of notes, crafted phrases, key ideas and stories…keeping space open for spontaneity and the flow of a more natural speech pattern. The following is a written compilation of my notes and is more a reflection of speaking than of crafted writing. Thank you for understanding this distinction.
“HEALING COMMUNITY CONFLICTS”
Painful conflicts are an inevitable part of every family, business, organization, church and faith community. Life, can and does get very messy and extremely complex. All of us have experienced painful conflicts in our families or professional lives or communities to which we belong.
I’d like to share with you this morning a personal, painful conflict from my time as a pastor, in a small university town, a number of years ago. For me, this story shows just how complex things can get at times.
There was a very normal young couple with two children who were very involved in our parish community. They had 2 children and were regulars at Sunday liturgy. Unfortunately, I discovered that the man began having an affair with another woman, and he was not secretive about it. And most unusually,he began bringing his girlfriend to Sunday liturgy….the same liturgy which his wife and two children attended. It was very awkward and very painful. I would be up at the altar and see the wife and children on one side of the church and the husband and his girlfriend on the other….go figure…..what a strange and rather bizarre situation. After two Sundays of this, the wife called me, very distraught and asked for help. She didn’t know what to do. I offered to call the husband and talk with him.
I called him and gently invited him to meet and to talk at a confidential place of his choice. He refused. I said then that I did not know anything about his marriage and that I was not judging him. But I asked him to stop bringing his girlfriend to Sunday Church. I said that it was causing deep pain for his family and the parish community. He became very angry with me. He said I was judging him. I said again that I was not judging his marriage or his person, but I did have a responsibility to judge his actions, and his actions were hurting others. As pastor, I had a responsibility to care for his family and the community. I tried to offer marriage counseling or to meet together with him and his wife but he refused. He became even angrier and hung up the phone.
There was no perfect conflict resolution in this situation. He left his wife a few months later and I never saw him in church again. The conflict was partially solved but their was no reconciliation. I felt that I did the best I could to protect the wife, their children and the community…..but I struggled quite some time with the pain of the entire situation.
Conflict like this is HARD….VERY HARD! I wonder what conflicts may be a part of your life right now? Our Gospel this morning gives us at least some wisdom in dealing with these painful life situations.
Let’s look at our Gospel today and see what wisdom is there for us. In Matthew’s Gospel, there are five major speeches where Jesus speaks his deep wisdom to us. Today’s Gospel, is the fourth speech. It is about brotherly and sisterly correction and healing community conflicts.
One scripture scholar I read, called his study of this 4th speech: “MATTHEW’S ADVICE TO A DIVIDED COMMUNITY.” There is such practical wisdom for us in the words of Jesus today—so very important for community relations.
This teaching is not only about loving correction but about the SACREDNESS OF COMMUNITY. As an aside, it is important to note that St. Theresa of Avila, a prioress of a Carmelite Religious Community, thought that relationships in community were often a greater indication of one’s relationship with God that the heights of Mystical Prayer! Significant! Our human relationships mirror our relationship with the Divine.
So….what can we glean from the words of Jesus Today?
First of all, none of us is a Certified Public Accountant of another’s actions. None of us is comfortable in making judgments about others. But Loving Attention to actions which wound the Community is always Necessary.
Secondly, Jesus provides a very clear model of action for us community conflict resolution today.
- Go personally to the individual and express your concern……confidentially and alone. We can call this “caring confrontation.”
- If this does not resolve things, then take a few others with you to meet with the person again, so that your issues are confirmed and witness by others. We can call this “Negotiation.”
- If this does not work, then take your issue to the broader community—-Jesus says the Church—but this word Church is certainly not from Jesus, but from the early Christian Community of Matthew. We can call this “Adjudication”
- If this still does not bring resolution, then be wary of the person just as one would be wary of a Gentile or a tax collector. In other words, the person is to be treated as an outsider—this sounds rather painful and harsh, to be sure. We can call this Judgment. Very challenging!
This model or protocol for discipline can be found in most business Human Resource Manuals and people have discovered this wisdom without leaning on Scripture. What elevates this protocol to something worthy of the inner spiritual life of the Christian Community is the Context that Matthew provides. In this Gospel reading, Context is Everything!
Matthew has carefully placed this disciplinary protocol between a parable about compassion and a parable about abundant forgiveness. Matthew’s placement is no accident. The story of the Lost Sheep precedes the disciplinary protocol and is a model for the exercise of Christian Authority. Namely, reach out to those who wander……LOVINGLY……ALWAYS LOVINGLY!
St. Benedict, in speaking about communal correction says: “Be careful to be gentle, lest in removing the rust, you break the whole instrument.”
On the backside of today’s Gospel, Matthew tells another Parable—-the Unforgiving Servant—about a man who is forgiven a huge debt, and then turns around and abuses a co-worker who owes him a mere pittance. The obvious message is: if we have been enormously forgiven by God, we should pass on that Forgiveness generously to our fellow human beings.
So, Matthews protocol for Conflict Resolution is encased with a reminder that Disciplinary Action in the community is always done in the context of Compassionate Love and Endless Forgiveness for the person involved……always rooted in Christ and tempered by prayer. This is what makes it different from our secular Human Resource Manuals. Compassion & Forgiveness. It is also important for us to keep in mind that the well-being of the whole….the family, the business, the organization, the faith community is the reason for prophetically attending to the faults of one of the community members. Attention to the well-being of the whole!
A final thought this morning—–Life being the messy thing that it is—this model of Healing Community Conflicts does not always work. Things fall apart—–the middle cannot hold—-Anger seeps in—-people feel wounded—-the ego rises to the surface. Things may be irreconcilable……like my phone call to the husband in my parish. There then comes a time when people must in conscience decide what is best for them. When things fall apart, sometimes one must leave the situation. Sometimes one must decide to stay and live with the fault.
But whatever decision one feels called to make in conscience, I would like to suggest that it is very helpful for the sake of the whole—-if at all possible—–to have the Courage and the Wisdom to live together in CREATIVE TENSION with one another—-realizing that this can be a courageous spiritual practice—–keeping the Doors Open—-tenaciously hoping for a Peaceful Resolution which may never come—Remembering that Love is not always tender and gentle, but is sometimes Harsh and Dreadful—-accepting that there are no easy answers or quick fixes—-affirming that Forgiveness is different than Reconciliation—-that Forgiveness is essential but Reconciliation may not be possible or appropriate—and recalling the beautiful words of Mahatma Gandhi who once said that: “Forgiveness is the virtue of the Brave.
This is where we can put on the Mind of Christ, by welcoming the pain of the conflict and letting go—and realizing we may not be able to resolve things. We grow by losing, and leaving and letting go.
I am sorry but I have another Final Thought: Jesus reminds us today that “Where two or three gather together in my Name, I am with them” Jesus is the source of our Unity and Union. Jesus is present among us even in our conflicts. May our Union with Him keep us in Union with One Another.
I wish you Peace and Goodness in this stressful time. We journey together—even if from a distance.
Presider and Homilist
Holy Wisdom Monastery