Sermon by Pastor Joel Crouse
Sunday September 10, 2023
This summer, on holidays, I binged a TV show about a hijacked airplane. I want to make it clear: this was a completely ridiculous show based on highly implausible plot points. Shakespeare it was not. Not even its name was original: Hijack. I watched it and forgot it. Until this week, that is, when I sat down with today’s readings on conflict.
In the show, a mediator played by Idris Elba gets trapped on a hijacked plane. Because he is Idris Elba, his character is tough and strong. But he spends most of his time on the plane talking to keep the situation calm. And he accomplishes this over, and over again with one trick: he figures out what other people ultimately want or need, and he keeps an eye on what he ultimately wants, which is to get home safely to his family. With that goal in mind – he is willing to compromise, to walk back an insult, to accept restraints, to save one of the terrorists. Now, of course, in between there is a lot of silly action and drama. But ultimately, his character survives because he listens, and pays attention, and figures out what people need to resolve the conflict. (And in this case, land the plane and walk away.) He is constantly looking for common ground. Intelligent compromise, even when it is painful (quite literally), is his superpower.
Our conflicts are – thank goodness – a little more earthbound. But they are often very destructive. Friendships end. Family members are estranged. Communities break down. These conflicts may not be life or death. But they often hijack our lives. They can be devastating to us. I have met people who truly grieve no longer speaking to once-close members of their family, and yet can hardly articulate what started the fight in the first place. Somewhere along the line, they failed to see what the other person wanted or needed. They even forget what they themselves wanted or needed.
Our second lesson, which is a kind of re-branding of the ten commandments by Jesus, tries to teach us to keep the focus. Yes, Jesus says, the Ten Commandments, as they were traditionally presented, are important: don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t covet. All those classic nuggets. But they are focused on the law; they lead either to a binary world of right or wrong, or a distracting moral debate about context. Jesus says that ultimately, they should be packaged up into one commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself. Love, Jesus says, does no wrong to the neighbor. And therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
It’s important to consider that statement in full: Love your neighbor as yourself. Love is a relationship – between ourselves and another person. It is about mutual care, mutual consideration, and mutual compassion. If we can be compassionate for ourselves and our mistakes, so should we be with the mistakes our neighbor makes against us. If our wants and needs are important to us, the wants and needs of our neighbor are of equal importance. If we value our lives, we must also value the life of our neighbor.
Think of our Idris Elba back on his hijacked airplane. His only goal is to get home safely to his family. But if that is all he values, he will never achieve that goal. He would insist on his way, and conflict would ensue. Instead, he has to consider what his captor wants, and the ways that they might have shared interests. The obvious one, of course is that they also want to land safely and get home to their families. There are all kinds of incremental moments on the show where Idris could get angry and react in the moment – and thus, put his goal at risk. But he holds his focus. What is the best action here, he asks, so we can all get what we need?
We lose sight of this all the time. We choose to stew over a careless phrase made in an argument, even if it means all negotiation stops. We fail to work at seeing the perspective of the other person and jump to conclusions about their meanings without asking for an explanation. We become obsessed with the law: his actions weren’t right; she shouldn’t have said that. We fail to focus on love: what is it we both want? How can this conflict be resolved by meeting or compromising on what we both need?
Jesus surely knew that conflict was a virus that can destroy communities. So in our gospel, he gives very precise instructions for dealing with it. Indeed, those instructions are etched into our justice and governance system. As Jesus describes it, if you have conflict with someone, first seek them out and try to talk it out. If you can’t figure it out between you, bring in someone else to help. If that doesn’t work, seek out the help of your community.
Let’s say our neighbors builds a fence across our property line. We can stomp over to his house, fuming, but to what end? If we end up yelling at each other, is he more likely to move the fence? If we try to understand how this happened, and learn it was an honest mistake, how much closer are we to the goal? If we learn the neighbor had different facts about the property line, we might seek a second opinion together. And so on. But if our entry point is – I like my property, you like your fence, so how can we solve this? – rather than blame and scorn, we might avoid all of that. If we first go with grace – loving our neighbors as ourselves – odds are higher we will get our metaphorical plane landed safely and be enjoying burgers on the BBQ by sunset.
But what if none of that works? What then, Jesus? Well then, Jesus says, treat those people as you would a tax collector. But that’s a trick answer. Because how did Jesus treat tax collectors? He welcomed them; he stayed open to their discipleship. And so what Jesus is saying is not that we cut that person from our lives forever. Jesus is making a case for healthy boundaries. You might not invite that tax collector to your family table. But you would still answer when they are in need. You would still listen to their overtures should they come. You would stay open for the day when an opportunity comes to heal the wound and end the conflict. Just as you would want that grace for yourself, you would extend it to others.
Not easy. Jesus, after all, spent the bulk of his time negotiating or advising about conflict between strangers, between sisters, between parents and children. There were plenty of times during that TV show when I just wanted Idris to take control and do something daring and definitive, instead of backing down; it would have felt better in the moment. There are times in all our lives when we don’t back down when we should; when we talk when we should listen; and when we find ourselves deep in a conflict having forgotten how we got there.
The gospel has some advice there, as well: it calls us to ask, each and every day, what matters? What matters today, in this moment? What will matter a week, a month, five years from now? Indeed Jesus gives us the answer: Love your neighbor as yourself. Amen.