How to Address Conflict: Communication, Not Ex-communication!
by Paulist Fr. Rich Andre
September 10, 2017

Paulist Fr. Rich Andre preached this homily for the 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year A) on September 7, 2014 at St. John XXIII Parish in Knoxville, TN. The homily is based on the day’s readings: Ezekiel 33:7-9; Psalm 95; Romans 13:8-10; and Matthew 18:15-20.

A funny story happened in my family in 2000. Everyone agrees on 2 facts:

  1. My sister’s wedding took place in Columbus, OH.
  2. When my parents arrived, their wedding clothes were still in Pittsburgh, PA.

But the fun of the story is in the remaining details. Who left the clothes back in Pittsburgh? Who saved the day? Well, that all depends on who’s telling the story!

Why do we enjoy this story? Don’t we want objective truth? Granted, there are times when truth-telling is a necessity. To build meaningful relationships, we need to address conflict, especially when family members engage in destructive behaviors, destructive to themselves or to others. However, many times, the differences in perspectives simply enrich the experience. For example: think of my sister’s wedding. The different perspectives weave a tapestry of additional depth and color – re-creating the pandemonium and the personalities contributing to it. Life is complex, but complexity often contributes to the beauty and humor of life.  

As we listen to the readings today, this comes to bear in two very different ways. (1) Our readings are all about dealing with conflict within the family of believers. (2) Like in my family, each writer has a different perspective, and each adds depth and color to our prayerful consideration.  

One thing beyond dispute: our God is a god of mercy. Let’s celebrate that!

Today’s passages come from four different members of our Judeo-Christian family. All four family members articulate the Word of God, but from different perspectives. Wild uncle Ezekiel tells us in no uncertain terms that we are responsible for one another’s actions. The psalmist – she’s the poet of the family – testifies to the importance of listening, listening especially to the voice of God. Cousin Paul used to be something of a firebrand, but now he’s a family sage. He speaks of doing all things in love.

Jesus gives us specific advice on how to address conflict within a family. Sometimes, I think we often lose the nuances in Jesus’ message. The goal of addressing the sins of our family members is always to re-establish or strengthen our communion. Jesus calls us to stay in communion with our brothers and sisters, and to strengthen their communion with God. For those who refuse to reform their behaviors, Jesus tells us to treat them like Gentiles and tax collectors. Time for a quiz! How did Jesus treat Gentiles and tax collectors? 

In his gospel, Matthew has previously shared at least four examples of how Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors:

  • Declaring that the Roman centurion has more faith than all Israel (8:1-11): “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof, but only say the word…”
  • Calling Matthew to be a disciple (9:9-13)
  • Table fellowship with tax collectors (11:19)
  • Curing the Canaanite woman’s daughter (15:21-28)

Let’s repeat the main point: We are supposed to address each other’s sins in order to build communion, not to prove that we’re right and they are wrong. I don’t know about you, but for me, I often find that when I finally muster the courage to address a conflict, too often my goal is not communication, but ex-communication. Sadly, in this day and age, it’s too easy to ex-communicate ourselves from people who have different perspectives. We use news media that only reports things from the perspective we want to hear. We use internet programs like Spotify so that we only hear music similar to what we already know. At home, we relax in the backyard by ourselves, rather than sitting on the front stoop and talking with neighbors. On social media, a lot of us surround ourselves with people who agree with us.

The times that someone I truly love is doing something I think is wrong, I’m more hesitant to speak up. I’m scared of the conflict. All four members of our Judeo-Christian family who spoke to us today would tell me I have things exactly backwards. If I truly love someone, then I should love them enough to speak to them about their sins.  

Three years ago this weekend, I was ordained as a deacon, and I preached my first homily. Back then, I issued two challenges to myself to both broaden my appreciation of varying perspectives and to address a conflict in a spirit of fraternal love. I’ve tried to be true to the commitments I made three years ago, but I need to continue to commit myself to these challenges, and I’d encourage you to do so as well. The first is rather easy to keep: I try to read news reports and commentators from writers who sit at a variety of points on the American political spectrum.  

The second is an ongoing challenge. Given how many people I see in a given week, and given the fact that I’m human, I’m sure that somebody will do or say something this week that causes me to bristle. Will I address the conflict with fraternal love? Will I reach out in a spirit of communication or ex-communication? Jesus tells us: “When two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am.” As long as we address conflict in the name of Jesus, the Holy Spirit will provide us with the guidance to build communion.

St. John XXIII Parish is one of the most diverse parishes in the Diocese of Knoxville. We gather as a family with multiple perspectives. We’re usually blessed to have visitors from other parish families. Sometimes that diversity of perspectives creates more work in the short term, but usually the diversity leads to a greater awareness that we gather in the name of Jesus. We share one bread at this one table to become the one body of Christ.