Years ago I lived in a high-rise university residence. Usually our residence was very quiet, especially on the seventh floor, where I lived. But occasionally, someone would have a wild party. And that’s what happened this one evening.
I ‘d been working nights, all summer long. So I hadn’t had a good sleep in a long while. Very crabby, very tired, I decided to settle down early.
That’s when the party started. Someone, somewhere on those 12 floors, was having a major bash. And it spilled over. First into the halls, then into the elevators.
I tried putting my pillow over my ears.
Up and down slid the elevator, every floor. The door opening and closing. Young women shrieking and young men yelling in big burly voices to each other. It was like frosh week all in my elevator. The noise was especially irritating since it echoed up and down the shaft. I was already in a very bad mood.
I tried closing all the doors in the apartment. I turned on some classical music.
Nothing. Nothing helped.
Finally I broke. For once and for all, I thought, I am going to stop this.
Grabbed a housecoat. Flipped on the lights. Grouchy and going to do something about it. Fuming. Steaming. Don’t bother calling the cops, I thought, I want to take care of this myself.
Went out to the hallway, to where the elevator was. I could hear the kids partying and yelling and laughing as the elevator went up and down and up and down. Forever up and down.
I leaned hard on the button. Kept my hand pressed down, putting all the frustrations of the day into that grip. Muttering to myself: Come to me. Come to me.
You could hear the noise of the elevator approaching, and with it, the party. With every rising decibal I got angrier. Now I’m going to tell those punks a thing or two, I thought. Angry. Furious.
The car came to a stop with a whine. Finally, finally, I was going to get my say. The door slip open. “What do you think you’re doing!” I started. I looked down. That’s funny. Something wrong. Then looked up. Way up. I was looking into everyone’s chest. My anger started to fizzle.
There I was, in my housecoat, looking at an elevator full to the brim with absolutely huge university football players.
The biggest, beer in hand, looked down, WAY down, at me: “Excuse me. What did you want?”
It takes either courage or stupidity to go into a conflict willingly.
But that’s exactly what our lot in life often is, and the Gospel reminds us that being a follower of Jesus doesn’t mean avoiding conflict at all, but maybe – just maybe – handling it differently. Because it isn’t just late-night parties that need resolving. Usually – I hope – you and I don’t face those situations. Sometimes it’s a matter of justice for those we’re supposed to remember – the outcast, the poor. Often, it’s something closer and more personal, maybe something chronic, and we need to ask ourselves: what ARE we willing to confront?
What about relationships? what about our past? our parents even if they’re gone, our children, even if they’re grown, the things we have done ourselves that have never been dealt with.
If the passage about going and pointing out fault, in Matthew, is about anything, it’s about this: ADDRESSING THE ISSUES AND CARING ENOUGH TO FACE UP, IN LOVE TO CONFLICT.
I wonder how many of us can name a moment when we really cared enough to do that, to confront something in ourselves or others, or in the system. One moment which had the power to change our lives. It takes courage to confront. And perhaps the reason most of our lives are so UNlike that elevator encounter has more to do with our lack of courage than our lack of anger.
If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault… says Jesus.
So as far as conflict goes, these words in Jesus’ mouth do not exactly describe a love-in. It’s hard for us to realize that sometimes the better part of love might be to confront something rather than letting it go. In fact, in this particular Gospel lesson we see a way in which conflict is seen as something which can bring people back together rather than driving them apart.
It’s hard to believe, because conflict hurts, and nothing that hurts, our society tells us, can be good. But there, our society is wrong. Sometimes the truth IS painful, and sometimes confrontation which is painful at the time is the only way toward growth in our lives. Anyone who has had a child knows this. There comes a point, with a young child, where the parent has to bite the bullet and put up with the anger. No, your son or daughter CANNOT always have an ice cream EVERY time you go past the ice cream store. If you do that, you’re lost. A little conflict, sometimes, helps to build rather than destroy, relationships.
And the same is true for how we think of the world. In the attempt to see the truth in everybody’s viewpoint, have we lost the notion of truth itself? In the attempt to be fair, have we forgotten that maybe differences can enrich us rather than scare us? That maybe there are actions, and thoughts which are just wrong? Extremism, like we see in ISIS on the news, is just wrong. Greed, that says it’s okay if all the honeybees die so long as I make my stock dividends, is just wrong. Police who are above the law is just wrong. And it takes passion to address such problems, too, in the name of justice, like the prophets did.
It took a lot of anger and fatigue to confront those people. But it takes just as much passion – and a lot more love – to stay connected to people. To build bridges rather than knock them down. To reach out. To go the extra distance. To confront someone and overcome harm and distance and bad blood and bad feelings. To be reconciled, one of the nicest Christian words of all. “God was in Christ,” says Paul, “reconciling the world to himself”.
Conflict – if it is honest, and approached in love – can lead to growth.
We also need to know WHY we confront. “Where two are three are gathered in my name,” said Jesus, “I am there among them.” That’s the key. Our courage is not based – or should not be – on the idea that we are right and someone else is wrong. In other words, we don’t face each other in self-righteousness, but on the belief that when our Lord sits with us, all of us who are human and frail and fallible can work through anything with each other.
For me that evening in the student high-rise, standing there all confrontational like that, I probably didn’t look all that frightening in my bathrobe. But somehow, the largest and burliest and ugliest of these football players looked at me, then at the beer in his hand, and said: ‘Sorry about that – we didn’t think anyone was in bed already. We’ll take it easy and clear the elevator.”
Wow. Confrontation can lead to surprises – occasionally even nice ones. May you and I have the same strength that comes from passion, strength enough to confront our pasts, our presents, injustices, even ourselves. May God grant us to learn from the courage and spirit and reconciliation of Jesus, who so perfectly embodied passion expressed in love.