Monday, February 4, 2013

Loving in the Midst of Conflict

Homily for the 4th Sunday of Ordinary Time, 2013

Most people will do a lot to avoid conflict.  I certainly don’t enjoy it – and I suspect if I were to go down the row in each pew very few of you would say you enjoy it.  The feeling in the pit of the stomach, the frustration, the anger that often results of the anxiety that dogs us.  No fun.

Yet most of us, I imagine, find ourselves in situations that are marked with conflict on a pretty regular basis.  Perhaps in our home – there are different times when we find ourselves at odds with our wife or husband and just can’t seem to resolve underlying issues.  It may not always be out in the open, but there is a frustration and a lack of harmony that has made what should be a life-giving relationship into an energy sapping relationship.  Or conflict with our children, who often at one time or another generally tend to decide that we are their enemies.  Or perhaps we encounter conflict with our parents or sisters and brothers or other extended family who are making choices or doing things that just seem to constantly antagonize.  So many people today are living in one of the many difficult situations brought about through a divorce, trying to navigate how to relate to a former spouse or a new step-parent or new step children or a former spouse or all of the other relationships that can be fraught with difficulty.  And of course there is often conflict that manifests itself in the workplace with co-workers or supervisors or employees.  And conflict often arises between neighbors and friends, within various community associations and, yes, even in the Church.

Our lives are incredibly social, and this matrix of social interaction that we find ourselves in the middle of exists in a fallen world, a world marked by limitations, and sin, and division.

When conflict gets especially strong, when it’s the middle of winter and everyone is grouchy, I imagine we have all hit the point when we just want to run away, to escape – when we feel like we just can’t handle the conflict any more.  That it is too much for us to take.

The readings today offer encouragement when we come to that precipice, to the brow of a hill, just as our Lord did in the Gospel we just heard – when it feels like those who are closest to us despise us or do not understand us.  Remember that Jesus was in his home town, with the people who he knew best – and these were the people who he loved, who he had grown up with.  Can you imagine the feeling in the pit of his stomach, the anxiety that he felt?

We should never forget that our Lord knew the feeling of rejection and conflict well – he knew it better than most of us.  His words, his teaching was more often than not met with resistance, with scorn and mockery or outright hatred.  His own disciples and family were often in conflict around him and with him.  He did not live a charmed life, a carefree life, surrounded only by those who agreed with him or did what he asked of them and tried to please him.  Instead, it seems that he sometimes even purposefully waded into social situations that he knew were bound to create conflict, he did not avoid social tension and awkwardness in the least – it seems that many times he almost sought it out.

I think two questions arise from his example and can be a great help and guide for us.  First, why did he do it? And secondly, how did he do it?

Why did he do it?  Why did Jesus submit to social conflict in the first place, we might ask.  Why didn’t he go and found a monastery with his disciples and make others come to him, preferably after climbing up a very steep mountain, so that only those who truly wanted to hear his teaching and follow his example would follow him.  Why did he instead choose to constantly place himself in the midst of detractors and antagonists?
Love, I think, is the ultimate answer.  Jesus shows us that if you refuse to enter into situations of conflict in this fallen world, you also refuse to enter situations that are most in need of love.

The cross is the clearest proclamation of this truth: where did Christ show us the greatest love?  In the final and greatest conflict of his life.  Christ manifests the greatness of his love precisely where it is needed the most: in places of conflict.  St. Paul understood this character of the love of Christ profoundly, as we hear in the well-known passage from 2nd Corinthians today.  The portrait of love that he paints is one of tireless endurance to the end, of sacrifice and generosity of heart – a love that is made to exist precisely in situations and relationships of conflict: where else would we need to be patient and kind, avoiding a quick temper or brooding over injury, bearing all things and enduring all things?  Certainly not in heaven!  Love only manifests itself according to these attributes in a fallen world, in a world of conflict and strife.  It is precisely in these moments, St. Paul knew from the experience of his own life which seems to have been one conflict following upon another, it is precisely in these conflicts that he knew the love of Christ could and should shine most clearly through him if he was open and working to be receptive to the Holy Spirit.

And that brings us to our second question.  Well, okay, we understand why it is important not to avoid conflict, because God’s love is needed there and we are called to be vessels of his love.  But how?  How do we not get beat down?  How do we not get drawn into the conflict ourselves?  It’s one thing to know what is needed, it is quite another to have the strength and the capacity to give it.  To love in the midst of conflict is perhaps the most daunting tasks that any Christian faces.

How much we all need to hear the words that Jeremiah speaks to us today: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you.  Be not crushed on their account, as though I would leave you crushed before them; they will fight against you but not prevail over you, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.”

To love those who love you?  That doesn’t take much character – children love like that, St. Paul tells us, criminals love like that, Jesus tells us.  But to love those who curse you?  Those who malign you?  Those who want to kill you?  To love in the midst of conflict?  You can only do that when you know and experience the love of God – when you are rooted in him, when you carry his love within you.  I don’t know any other way.  That is why the martyrs have always been the greatest of Christian witnesses.  Those who saw their love in the midst of conflict and hatred could not help but sense that the martyrs were drawing upon a powerful source of love beyond themselves, a source of love that seemed inexhaustible.  And they were – they were drawing on the love of Christ.  That same inexhaustible source of love is given to us today – Christ does not give us a partial portion of his love, but all of it – as much as we want, as much as we are willing to receive.  May he help us to approach him with open hearts, hearts prepared and ready to be filled and then poured as we bring the love of Christ into the places of conflict in our world.

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