January 26, 2020
Dealing with conflict – J. Barry Vaughn – Annual Meeting Sunday – Jan. 26, 2020
The story is told that a traveler came across a man who was about to jump off a bridge.
“Don’t jump!” the traveler said. “Why not?” the man asked. “No one loves me.”
“Well, God loves you. Are you a Christian?”
“Yes,” said the man.
“Are you a Protestant or a Catholic?”
“Me, too! What denomination?”
“I am, too! Northern or Southern Baptist?”
“So am I! Northern Liberal Baptist or Northern Conservative Baptist?”
“Northern Conservative Baptist.”
“Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?”
“Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.”
“So am I! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region 1912 confession or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region 1879 Confession?”
“Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region 1912 Confession.”
“Die, heretic!” And I pushed him off.
Some of us come from churches that spent a great deal of time debating the fine points of theology. Would Jesus come back before or after the millennium? Should Christians dance or not? Was the world created in seven 24-hour days or over a much longer period of time?
A great attraction of the Episcopal Church is that we don’t spend a lot of time debating the fine points of theology. People have left the Episcopal Church over the ordination of women, the 1979 Prayer Book, and our decision to allow people of the same sex to marry. But you never see two Episcopal churches next door to each other in a town square that have split because in one church people started the creed by saying “We believe” and in the other they started it saying “I believe.”
Sometimes I wish that we were a little more engaged with theology. I don’t want us to split over whether to say, “I believe in God…” or “We believe in God…” but I’d just like us to take theology a little more seriously. But that’s a sermon for another day.
Make no mistake, however, we get upset and leave church for all kinds of reasons.
Do you know how many Episcopalians it takes to change a lightbulb? How dare you change that lightbulb! My great aunt Tilly gave that lightbulb to the church in memory of Uncle Ethelbert who died in World War I. That’s a perfectly good lightbulb!
As I believe I’ve told you already, Bishop Edwards warned me that Christ Church had a tendency to engage in level 4 conflicts. I asked him what that meant, and he said that level 5 conflicts generally destroyed churches. But I came here anyway!
Church conflict is nothing new. Today’s second reading tells us about a conflict in the church at Corinth, and like a lot of church conflicts, it involved gossip. Paul wrote, “It has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you…”
I have great respect for St. Paul, but did he really need “Chloe’s people” to tell him that there were quarrels in the Corinthian church? There were quarrels among Jesus’ disciples about which of them was the greatest or who would sit at Jesus’ left and right hands when he established the kingdom. Paul argued with Peter about the necessity of circumcision. Church conflicts are nothing new.
Apparently, the people at Corinth had divided themselves up into several groups. “Each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’”
The last category – “I belong to Christ” – is odd. On the face of it, it seems as though everyone should belong to that faction. But that’s exactly the problem: Turning our identity in Christ into a faction. Could it be that there were those at Corinth who were saying, “I’m a REAL Christian, and you’re not.” There are too many people today who use their Christianity as a kind of stick to beat others over the head with.
I wonder what Paul would say about Christ Church Episcopal. Would he say, “It has been reported to me that there are quarrels among you. Some of you say, “I don’t like our Latino ministry” or “I think we’re spending too much on outreach” or “We should be doing more to help the homeless” or “We need more families with children.”
When I interviewed to become your rector I identified two large “fault lines” in this church: One was between Anglos and Latinos and the other was between inreach and outreach.
I pointed out that although there were more Latinos than Anglos, the Anglos were paying most of the bills, and I also said that this church was doing a huge amount of outreach for a church of this size. Both are unsustainable situations.
Those fault lines still exist, but I don’t think they are dangerous as they were when I came.
When I came here seven years ago, our Latino members were giving relatively little to the church, so I asked Father Jorge to work on Latino giving, and he has done a great job. When I arrived, I don’t believe there was a single Latino pledge, but now there are many. Our Latino members now give about $50,000 a year to the church.
Seven years ago, we were doing a huge amount of outreach but doing very little to address our deferred maintenance problems. We are still doing a huge amount of outreach, but now we have begun to address our deferred maintenance problems.
By the way, I claim very little credit for myself. The increase in Latino giving is due to Father Jorge’s hard work and our Latino members’ generosity. The work we have done on deferred maintenance is because our vestry members have worked very hard, and some members and friends of this congregation have given generously.
But we still have factions. We still have gossip and triangulation. And frankly, we always will. But we still need to improve, because factions and gossip and triangulation kill churches. They always have.
Several decades after Paul wrote his letters to the church in Corinth, St. Clement, the bishop of Rome, wrote another letter to the Corinthians, rebuking them for deposing their elders. In other words, the Corinthians didn’t like their pastors and got rid of them. And after that the Corinthian church pretty much disappeared from history.
I don’t want Christ Church Episcopal to disappear from history. Conflict is normal and natural, but we need to avoid level 4 conflicts and certainly need to avoid level 5 conflicts.
Here is what one expert says about level 4 conflicts: “Relationships are weighed down by negative emotions, attitudes and stubbornness. This level means that there now is little flexibility and more than likely it’s about getting back at someone rather than solving the issue. Some people at this stage dread coming to work or don’t show up at all and worse sabotage the organisation because of that one person.”
What can we do to avoid level 4 conflicts? Avoid gossip and triangulation. Whenever someone comes to me and says, “People are saying…” I know that they really mean, “This is what I think but I don’t want to take responsibility for saying it.” If you have a problem with someone, it’s best to go directly to that person and talk to them. Don’t go to a third party and talk about it.
And above all, if you have a problem with me, please come to me and tell me about it. I don’t bite, and I think I’m a pretty good listener.
But Jesus offers us the best solution for conflict: “As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’”
The best solution for conflict is to follow Jesus. Amen.
Epiphany is a season of light. It begins with the faint light of a star. Although faint, it is enough to guide the magi to the stable where the infant Jesus was sleeping.
Light travels at about 186,000 miles per second. That means that the light from our closest neighboring star, Alpha Centauri, has to travel more than four years to reach earth. It also means that when we gaze into the night sky we are seeing light from stars that have long since died, and yet, their light continues to travel at 186,000 miles per second out into the universe in all directions.
Assuming that the star referred to in Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth was a star and not a comet or some other heavenly body, it’s light must have traveled for years and years before the magi saw it and concluded that it signaled the birth of a great, new king. God had been preparing the light of that star from the very beginning of the universe to announce the birth of Jesus.