St. Mary Magdalene Anglican Church

Vancouver, B.C.

Phone: 604-877-1788

E-mail: office@stmarymags.ca


The Anglican Parish of St. Mary Magdalene

2950 Laurel Street at West 14th Avenue

Vancouver, BC, V5Z  3T3

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Diocese of New Westminster Anglican Church of Canada

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Sermon

September 6th Pentecost 14, 2020                      John Marsh


Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 149; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20


Conflict is ubiquitous…


Nothing seems immune…


Conflict between left and right both politically and religiously…


Conflict between religious systems, Christians and Muslims, Hindus and Muslims…


Conflict within religious systems, Protestant and Catholics, Ultra-Orthodox Jews and secular Jews, Sunni

Muslims and Shia Muslims, Evangelicals and Progressives…


Conflict between racial groups, between rich and poor…


Ans yet, I wonder, is the problem with conflict itself or how we handle conflict, how we express conflict, how we respond to conflict?


If conflict is ubiquitous, should we not acknowledge its presence and develop skills to deal with it in a manner less divisive and more respectful, less destructive and more creative, less personal attack, more an interpersonally honest, complex conversation…


Truth to tell…


I don’t like conflict.


In my younger days, I always sought to avoid it.


Over time, I’ve learned, often the hard to way, of the need to address it.


As a priest, I’ve had to deal with it on a regular basis.


Gradually, I’ve come to learn that that which we name as god is often discerned within conflict.


Communally and personally, I have discerned that god, that the demands of ‘the way’, require the development of ever deeper levels of honesty and communication skills – developments which demand ongoing commitment.


I say this because, as the gospel implies, it is of crucial importance that we understand conflict, differences, disappointment, anger, and frustration as proper considerations for the community of faith.


For those of us who follow the way of Jesus – perhaps more correctly, those who attempt to follow –    conflict cannot be assumed to be a failure within or of the community (although it may lead to failures).


To paraphrase Jesus, wherever two or three gather there will be conflict…


Conflict is a component of a community at work in following the way of Jesus because, as a function of life, it is, as I said, ubiquitous.


Conflict is inherent to any gathering but especially those which seek to open to the transformation of self and society; conflict is a human issue, an ecclesial issue and the manner with which we handle it, a communal responsibility. ¹


Conflict and how we deal with it is a missional activity, of missional importance; it is to witness to the alterity of our way – to the courage, compassion and creativity of Jesus which is to be expressed in ‘how’ we deal with difference, disappointment and the divergence of opinions.


~


As we probe the communal dimensions of conflict, we should look at today’s gospel text.


At first glance, conflict, differences, and divergences of opinion are presumed within the gathering – why else is there a discussion of how to handle it?


However, as we consider how to handle such situations, the gospel should never be understood as prescriptive – the gospel text is not a method or program to be followed in all circumstances - ‘one size fits all’ is neither good marketing nor effective pastoral care.²


At the risk of overusing a phrase, we should see the gospel text as a finger pointing at the moon…


As was said, it points to a truth that conflict is a part of Christian community because it is inherent to life.


It points to a truth that, at the very least, avoiding conflict is problematic, that what is repressed is always expressed.³


It points to a truth that, while it involves the personal, conflict is fundamentally communal in nature because conflict is never a solitary event.


And truth to tell, we need each other for conflict to be resolved; we need each other to learn from conflict, we need each other for reconciliation to move into existence.


We need each other to know when we’ve lost the way and/or lost ourselves.


The gospel text is saying that we need others around us who will tell us when they see parts of us slipping away.⁴  (See Matthew 18:15-16)


Conflict, acknowledging conflict, seeing possibilities emerge from conflict, requires a truth telling community or perhaps more correctly, a community committed to processes of truth telling.


Conflict is about truth processes and yet, to quote Gloria Steinem, ‘The truth will set you free. But first it will really piss you off.’


And so, we need commitment, the commitment to and of a community to hold us to account; we need the courage, the pastoral sensitivity, and the energy of a faithful community to engage transformational processes of truth telling.


If we can hear a truth, which is to say, if we can receive and work with truth processes, then perhaps we will have opened to the dynamic presence of god in our midst. (See Matthew 18:18-20)


But what of those who don’t or won’t hear truths, participate in truth processes?


Does it matter?


Are there no boundaries?


Is everything endlessly flexible?


Is it ever acceptable to ‘let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector’? (See Matthew 18:17)                                               


Well, truth to tell, it is certainly possible that some, perhaps many, will disrespect boundaries, shut down, refuse a truth, saying ‘no’ to possible ‘spirit moments’.


So yes, it is possible, that it is sometimes necessary to let someone be to us as a tax collector, as an outsider.


However, there remains a troubling yet critical question – how did Jesus treat tax collectors and gentiles?


Put more colloquially, what did Jesus do?


With whom did he eat; who did he heal, who did he teach?


If those who refuse to listen are demonized into becoming our enemies, our faith demands that we ask, ‘What did Jesus teach about our enemies?


Is not the enemy, the stranger, the outsider often the bearer of god?


Is not the other often our teacher?


With these questions lingering, haunting us – may they continue to spook - let’s go back to my dislike of conflict.


Truth to tell, dislike aside, I have learned, often the hard way, that my best teachers are those with whom I’m in conflict!

 



 ¹ In a culture such as ours, where the individual is paramount and feelings reign supreme, it is crucial to realize that, humanly speaking, the communal dynamic of the way is more determinative than the personal. This is not a denial of the personal but its proper understanding. The personal exists within the inter-relational dynamic of the whole. We all have feelings, and it is true that feelings are neither good nor bad – they simply are. As such they need to be named and acknowledged. However, we must be responsible for how we feel – we must own our feelings and be attentive to ‘how’ we attend them. Feelings may be personal, but healing and growth is communal.

 ² Nonetheless the gospel presents a much better approach than many of the zero tolerance approaches advocated lately. Zero tolerance tends to drive things underground where it cannot be adequately addressed and/or demonizes persons to such an extent that the conflict is perpetuated and aggravated. At the very least, the gospel approach brings the conflict into the open in such a manner that possibilities for healing appear!

 ³ Truth to tell, war is not conflict heightened, war is the inability to stay, to remain, within the complexity of conflict. War, in so far as it is battle lines drawn, sides chosen, seeks victory, the surrender of the enemy. Remaining in the complexity of conflict, the complexity of difference, seeks understanding, ideally reconciliation. The more violence is ratcheted up, reconciliation ratchets down, its hope becoming ever more elusive.

 This is an insight of Emily Townes, the dean and womanist scholar of Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville, Tennessee.