About ten years ago, one of our closest and oldest friends was having a fierce conversation with her husband, a fight with her husband. In the Ann Landers tradition, I’m going to change both of their names: let’s call our friend Sarah and her husband Adrian. The fight that Sarah and Adrian were having was seismic in nature: they were tackling big questions about their future. It was one of those fights that thickened the very atmosphere in the room, one of those fights that was a kind of life hinge: depending on where the fight turned, their future would look very different.
Eventually, the fight came to a conclusion. The two of them reached some tearful agreements, the most notable agreement being that children would not be coming to join their family, now or ever. And that might have informed Sarah and Adrian’s lives for years to come. Except that Adrian then said:
That fight was really hard and really stressful.
Let’s never do something like that again.
And Sarah says that, in that moment, she knew that their marriage was over.
That’s a difficult story and a sad story. But it’s also an important, an instructive story. Because notice: what led to the death of Sarah and Adrian’s marriage – what led to Sarah moving out some six weeks after that conversation – wasn’t the fight, nor was it the outcome of the fight. Quite the opposite. What led to the death of their marriage was the moment when Adrian verbally confirmed something that Sarah had suspected for a long time: this fight was, for him, the rarest of exceptions to the rule. Generally speaking, Adrian was unwilling to do the hard and vital work of having a fierce conversation with his spouse.
Now to be clear, I don’t doubt for a second that Adrian had the best possible motivations in seeking to avoid conflict, I don’t doubt that his goal in skipping as many fights as possible was for Sarah and him to avoid the pain and the sadness and the other big feelings that came with them. I don’t doubt that because I have been Adrian, especially when I was a younger man. Back then, I would move mountains to avoid anything that felt remotely like conflict, not just with Phoebe but with anyone. But the terrible irony is that, through Adrian’s efforts to avoid the wounds of conflict, he inadvertently invited in the far bigger wound that was the death of his marriage.
Today, Jesus talks about fierce conversations, about conflict and, in particular, about conflict in the church. I find his teaching here hugely reassuring. What we learn from the Gospel today is that, even when Jesus was with us in flesh and blood, even when our Lord was an actual guy in a body who was standing here on the Earth, even when you go could up to the Son of God himself and ask questions and get advice – for the Christian, this is the very definition of ideal conditions – that didn’t stop conflict from being part of his community.
That tells me that conflict between humans is universal and unavoidable and normative. Conflict isn’t something that in an ideal church doesn’t happen, or in an ideal marriage doesn’t happen, or in an ideal friendship doesn’t happen, or in an ideal country doesn’t happen. To the contrary, conflict is evidence that your church or your marriage or your friendship or your country has a pulse. If you are part of a relationship in which there is no conflict, there is a high probability that at least one of you in that relationship is dead.
Here at Grace, there has been conflict and there is conflict; unless this is your first Sunday with us, that won’t be news to you. And let me dig out my crystal ball right now and make a prediction: there will be conflict in Grace’s future. I understand the conflict here at church in the same way that I understand conflict within my marriage and within my deep friendships: as evidence that we care about one another and love one another and are engaged enough in the work that we are doing together to be willing invest ourselves in hard conversations. When I counsel couples who are preparing to get married, I don’t get worried when I find out that they have fights. Of course they have fights. I get worried when, like Adrian, one of them is starting to check out, to refuse to invest in fierce conversations, to refuse to invest in the marriage.
In our Gospel reading today, Jesus doesn’t say “don’t fight.” He knows that we can’t achieve that goal, and that it’s a mistake to try to achieve it. What he says instead is “fight fair.”
And what does fighting fair look like? Well, it looks like direct communication and it looks like an attitude of persistent, almost relentless openness and forgiveness.
Jesus tells us to go directly to the one with whom we are in conflict, and to speak to them in private. If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. In other words don’t triangulate: if Person A has a complaint about Person B, don’t tell Person C about it. Get your complaints out of the parking lot!
Having that first conversation in private is super important. Jesus specifies privacy rather than the parish hall or the Thanksgiving table because it means that you and your conversation partner are spared having to expend any energy defending yourselves from public embarrassment. Your total focus can be on the conversation. (The one instance in which it’s okay and even good to skip the total privacy rule is if talking to Person B alone feels so fraught or is such a source of anxiety to you that you will skip the conversation before encountering that anxiety. In that case, it’s totally fine to say, “I’d like to talk to you. Do you mind if I bring along this other person whom we both know and respect?”)
In my experience, that private conversation leads to a resolution – or at least the beginning of a resolution – nine times out of ten. But if it doesn’t lead to a resolution, Jesus says, then keep on going. Have another conversation, this time with a third party – maybe a counselor, maybe another member or two of your community. If that still doesn’t work, involve the wider community. And if that doesn’t work, then Person B shall be like a Gentile and tax collector to you.
What does it mean to treat someone like a Gentile or a tax collector? It’s tempting to read this as an instruction to shun someone. Except that I notice elsewhere in scripture that Jesus is actually really generous and really welcoming to Gentiles and tax collectors: he has meals with them, he heals them, he tells transformative stories to them, he includes them in his life in every way. So maybe to treat someone like a Gentile and a tax collector is to acknowledge that there is a fracture in your relationship, that the two of you have named that fracture together, and that you remain committed to finding healing and wholeness, even if it means that your relationship will be deeply changed in the process.
Katherine Jefferts-Schori, the Episcopal Church’s recently retired Presiding Bishop, has a wonderful new interview on the website of Time magazine. Jefferts-Schori is one of a number of women whom Time is featuring because they were the first women to do a given thing; as many of you know, Jefferts-Schori was the first woman to be Presiding Bishop. In the interview, she talks about the abuse that she received early on in her Episcopacy, much of which was simply appalling – she got spat on, for instance, and called the most vicious of names. But then she says something remarkable and generous. She says that she understands conflict as an occasion of possibility.
I knew exactly what she meant.
I have never endured anything as harsh as what Jefferts-Schori endured. I have, however, been in a few intense fights. I think of one fight in particular when I was back in the theatre business, in which the energy going back and forth between me and the one with whom I was in conflict was so hot that it just about blew off my toupee. But you know what? Notwithstanding all of that yelling (because of all of that yelling?) come the conflict’s end, the two of us understood one another in a new way and our shared task in a new way. That conflict was hard but it was also full of possibility, it was generative, it invited us into new insight, into growth.
You’ve heard me say more than once that Jesus’ teachings are often simple and hard. And this teaching is simple and hard. Because I don’t know about you, but I would way rather triangulate, I would way rather go to the parking lot and complain to Person C about Person B. It’s so much less emotional labour. And besides, when I complain to Person C, I am able to cast myself as the unequivocal hero in the conflict: my actions my motivations are thoroughly calm and reasonable and fair whereas Person B is unhinged and unreasonable and unfair. The problem is that, as appealing as this scenario is to me, it deprives both me and Person B of what Jefferts-Schori described, of the possibility of conflict. It deprives that person and me of mutual understanding, of mutual learning, of mutual growth, of the opportunity to say, “I can see why you felt that way, why you behaved that way.”
Jesus says: Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Often the church has focused pretty hard on the binding part. But I wonder if Jesus’ formula for encountering conflict, if Jesus’ ministry and teaching in general, isn’t way more about loosing bonds.
Do the hard work, Jesus says, of engaging in fierce conversations directly with one another, of engaging in conflict with one another, of understanding that conflict as an act of love. And in doing so, loose the bonds that hold you back: the bonds of the resentments that you have left unspoken until now, the hurts that you have left unnamed until now, and in turn, the perspectives and experiences of Person B that you have left unheard until now. That will loose your bonds, on earth and in heaven.
Today’s passage then ends with Jesus’ famous words: Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am in the midst of them. We often remember those words when talking about praying together, or when talking about a poorly attended church service: and fair enough, that’s a good and reasonable reading. But what the wider context of this passage tells us is that Jesus is also talking about conflict. We could paraphrase his words just a little and say:
When two or three of you are gathered in conflict in my name, I am in the midst of you.
And that might be the best news there is about conflict. When we choose to do the hard work of engaging in a fierce conversation, when we choose to fight fair, when we choose to tell the truth to Person B and listen to Person B’s truth in return, we are inviting Jesus further into our marriage, further into our friendships, further into our country, further into our church.
 The term “fierce conversation” comes from Susan Scott’s book of the same name.