Monday, September 5, 2011

Conflict Resolution for Labor Day

Preached at The Church of the Incarnation, New York City, September 4, 2011

Ezekiel 33:7-11
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

Our lessons this morning all in one way or another refer to the resolution of conflict. How interesting that they should occur on the weekend of Labor Day.

The labor movement in this country began as a serious force in the 1880's. Founded in 1869, the first major American labor organization, the Knights of Labor, had only 28,000 members in 1880, and grew to an astonishing membership of 700,000 by 1886, just six years! Something big was going on! The founder of the Order of the Holy Cross, James Huntington, joined the Knights here in New York City and quickly became a national figure supporting the rights of working people, helping to bring their concerns into the heart of the Episcopal Church. The Knights of Labor could not maintain that level and its membership soon fell back, but its rapid growth showed the industrial and political community that organized labor was a force to reckoned with. The Knights of Labor paved the way for an industrial order which eventually came, through struggle, to recognize the rights and dignity of working people. That struggle takes different forms in our own age, perhaps, but it is perpetually necessary, even in times when the creation of work through capital itself seems endangered. And conflict was part of that struggle.

Our three lessons this morning all deal with conflict in one way or another. The prophet Ezekiel is commissioned by the Lord to warn the wicked. But Ezekiel seems not to want to follow through. The Lord has to tell him that if he does not warn them and disaster comes, the blood will be on his hands. So this conflict is dealt with by telling the truth regardless of its consequences to the teller. If people are not warned, they will not change. If they are warned, they may not change anyway, but at least they have had the option presented to them. So, the prophet says, Change while you have the chance.

St. Paul takes another tack. We know what we should and should not do. The Law tells us – adultery, murder, theft, greed are going to cause conflict for sure. Paul wants us to understand how urgent our lives are. We may think there is all the time in the world to resolve things. We may excuse ourselves because keeping the law is complicated. But actually, Paul says, in some of the most inspired words of scripture, Wake up. The time is now. Start living without building up toxic debts to each other. “Love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” If Ezekiel recommends truth telling, Paul recommends living as though the other person is as important, and as worthy of love, as we are.

The passage from St. Matthew’s gospel comes as a surprise in this context. When conflicts arise in the Church, as they always have, and I suspect they always will, one might expect Jesus to tell the believers to turn the other cheek, as he does in another context, the context of an individual choice. But this is a group situation which requires a different approach. So Jesus recommends a conflict resolution process. First talk to the person you have your problem with. If that doesn’t work, bring in another person or two. If that doesn’t work, take it to the congregation. And if that doesn’t work, invite the person to leave. You can almost imagine Jesus writing this out in large letters on big pieces of paper and taping them to the wall during a conference called something like “Conflict Resolution in the Church”. A morning session at a retreat center just outside of Capernaum, by scenic Lake Galilee, perhaps. Jesus the Conference Facilitator. Joking aside, conflict happens, and it clearly happened in the early church. So procedural. So sensible. So sane. So boring.

Except, the ways conflicts were resolved in Jesus’ time were often quite violent. Just look at the 18th chapter of Matthew, from which this passage comes. Earlier in the chapter, it is said, "If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire.” And after our passage, a story about forgiving debts, which ends: “And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart." Jesus was using these images because they are familiar – all too familiar – to his hearers. If this is the way people deal with themselves and with members of their own extended households, how will they deal with outsiders?

And that is the point of this passage, I think. Jesus wants the church to be different, to start something new. Jesus is saying to the church, Even though you come from different families, different towns, different languages and cultures and nations, you are not outsiders to each other. You have a responsibility to listen to each other. You are still bound to come to a just decision, and when you do, the Father will support you, But this must not be done with violence in any case, as is the way of the world.

Jesus is preaching the Kingdom of Heaven here. The world, God’s world, is enveloped in violence, violence which we commit upon ourselves and upon each other, unthinkingly, almost unconsciously, because that is the way of things. And perhaps it can’t be avoided, although I do think that the Middle Eastern love of rhetorical hyperbole should be considered as an interpretive tool for scripture when we are tempted to follow its advice and pluck out eyes or torture each other as means to spiritual progress. But the believing fellowship, the church, is the place which is expressly dedicated to beginning to live in the Kingdom of Heaven, And so here, Jesus calls his followers to another way, a way which is contrary to the way their world operates, to a counter-culture. It is not acceptance of what is wrong. It does not facilitate the offender. But it gives the offender three distinct forums to repent, not unlike Ezekiel’s prophetic call to tell the truth. And if that does not work, the punishment meted out is not eye gouging or hand amputation or torture. It is simple exclusion. If you cannot come to terms with the honest judgment of those who love you as a brother or sister in the Lord, then you don’t belong in the fellowship. Perhaps the Kingdom of Heaven is not for you.

How different from the organized violence of the Roman state. How different from the rhetorical violence of the thought world of Jesus’ hearers, How different from a world in which you have the duty to practice violence on those outside your kinship group at the slightest pretext, and how different from a world in which the enforcement of discipline on those inside the family can call for torture. Jesus wants to transform the conflict of the world, and he wants the church to lead the way.

The history of labor and industrial relations in this country is a history filled with violence. But it is also a history of learning to listen, sitting down one to one, in small groups, and in assemblies if need be. It is a history of learning to hear each other, and of learning that each needs the other.

Ezekiel says that there must be truth tellers. Paul tells us that the time is urgent, and that the way forward is to treat each other with more than wary respect, in fact, to treat each other with love. And our Lord says, If the conflict is real, deal with it. Begin at the lowest level and work up. Come to good and right decisions, and be prepared to enforce them if necessary. But check the violence at the door.

Friday, September 2, 2011


The hurricane came and went. We did as much preparation as we could at the monastery. There were a lot of leaks. The crypt underneath the chapel flooded. It was renovated last year, and the flooding was interesting. The water came up from under the altar, not from the outside drainage area, which had been the problem before, and not from the floor in general. The new heating system was installed in a way that seems to have sealed that part from the source of the water. So once the water was pumped out and the carpet dried and cleaned, little damage was sustained. Our area had a power outage that lasted for a day, but we have a good generator which kept us in electricity.

But that was not the case for our bookkeeper, whose property is by a creek that is tributary to the Wallkill River, and which was badly flooded. At least one car was totaled, and parts of the property so damaged that little could be salvaged. They will be dislocated in various ways for months. And they were lucky. Their power was restored in a day or two, while others in the area are not so fortunate.

Because a lot of the damage was in small towns and out in the country, the news of the effects of the storm is a lot slower coming in than if it had been in more populous areas. It seems that the edges of the storm carried more water than more central parts, so the northern areas, in New York State and Vermont, turn out to be the most heavily hit. A lot of bridges are out. A lot of farms and towns are built in low-lying areas around rivers and streams and were in the way of the water. Schenectady, west of Albany along the Mohawk River, is particularly hard hit. Small towns in the rural areas near us are reported to have basically disappeared. This is not big news in a media sense, but it is significant in our area. There is not a lot of economic activity in New York State once you get away from the New York City commuter areas and the Albany area, where the state government people live and work. The loss of a farm or two, of a small community, can be permanent.

It is increasingly clear to me that the monastery has an important positive economic role in our area. We employ people, purchase a lot of local products, bring people to the area from other places, and work to share what we have with the wider community in various ways, including cooperating with those who help disadvantaged people, of whom there are plenty around here. On a normal week 50 people or more are here doing one thing or another, on retreat or at a meeting or coming to pray with us, in addition to the community, which at this point numbers 15 or so. This is not insignificant, especially in an economic area which, while not precisely depressed, is not flourishing either.

The way we live, the Christian monastic way, is of course not the way for everyone. But we share what we have communally, we practice simplicity (to some extent at least!), and we work cooperatively. These are values useful beyond the monastic context, I think. What we do puts me in mind of the classic Benedictine monasteries of medieval Europe, which were literally centers of their communities, and whose cooperative economics were both stable and dynamic for wide areas around them.