This is the sermon I delivered yesterday at the church where I work. It is about how we deal with conflict, and how the way in which we deal with conflict can create an uncomfortable environment in our churches. We’ve all known people who make us feel as though we are walking on eggshells; but how many times have we noticed ourselves laying our own eggshells? Here follows the Scripture from Matthew 18:15-17 and the sermon text after that:
“If another member of the church[a] sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Have you ever had that person in your life? The one around whom you must tiptoe with great care? The one you can never seem to please; the one for whom no one can ever do anything right? And if you do something wrong, oh, you’ll know it. You might not necessarily know what it was that you did, but you know you did something. I’m sure we’ve all run into someone like that before, perhaps we’ve even been someone like that before. It’s not necessarily difficult to encounter this kind of behavior. And when we do, how do we usually describe the feeling we get when we’re around that person? That it feels as though we’re walking on eggshells, right? Because it seems like it’s impossible to do anything without somehow upsetting them. And so, rather than take the risk, I imagine most of us simply try to avoid the eggshells by being around that person as little as possible, or, if we can manage it, not being around them at all.
Of course, it must be very tough for that person. I’m sure they find it difficult to have meaningful relationships, or to maintain friendships with others for any substantial amount of time. Perhaps they wonder why nobody ever invites them back for dinner, or why they have trouble making new friends. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean these people don’t have friends. Maybe they only release the eggshells with certain people, while others may step wherever they wish. Or perhaps they behave differently in one setting than they do in another, and the eggshells only show up on vacation, or in their home, or at the workplace. Or in their sanctuary. And while I have been talking about “those people” as though they are somehow other than us, out there in the big world, and you’re probably thinking this sermon is going to be about how to deal with “those people”, the truth of the matter is that most of us have been that person at some point in our lives to one person or another. And my bet is that while it is easy for us to recognize when we are walking on eggshells, it can be rather difficult to tell when we are the ones laying them.
The truth of the matter is, we do lay eggshells, don’t we? Maybe not with everyone and not in every place, but we all have that special project that can’t be disturbed, or that one person that seems to annoy us no matter what they do, or that one place where everything has to be just right. And if we’re perfectly honest with ourselves, I think we would find that it is often the floors of our churches, perhaps more than any other place, that are littered with eggshells, is it not? Indeed, as an entity, it seems that the church is one of the most difficult places to be around if you are an “outsider”, so to speak. There are certain things you cannot do; certain ways you must not behave; certain clothes you are required to wear; certain rules by which you must abide. And for the insider, who already knows all of these things, this might not be a big deal. But suppose, like any church, we are looking to be open and inviting to those in our community who do not go to church, who are seeking a faith community to be a part of, those who we might tend to call “outsiders”. We rejoice loudly anytime one of these so-called “outsiders” comes to visit us, in the hopes that they will continue to visit us and eventually join us as a member of the church. But do we really think that they will come back if they can’t even walk down the aisle without cracking a few shells?
I would expect that nobody wants to be that kind of church; nobody wants to be that kind of person. And if we could perceive the eggshells, we would want to find the quickest way to clean them up. So, naturally we would want to ask the question: what causes us to put out the eggshells? How do we avoid becoming that kind of person and that kind of church? The answer, I think, is found in our text today.
Now, I actually pondered simply getting up here and reading the text over again for my sermon. Just read the three verses and be done with it. Because, as straightforward as it is, I have noticed that the church has a bit of a problem following the instructions in this text. And I don’t want to be mean or anything, but I also don’t want to sugarcoat it: I think we all really need to listen to what Jesus has to say here. Here’s what he says: “If your brother or sister sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” That is, if you have an issue with someone else, the first thing you should do is confront them about it in private. Now, I want to make one caveat very clear – that this does not apply in situations of abuse or assault. I would never advise anyone to confront their abuser or attacker alone before bringing the matter to a third party, and I don’t think Jesus would either. What we are talking about here are less-serious slights – everyday conflict between people who are otherwise on friendly and respectful terms. Jesus says, if you have a bone to pick with somebody, go to them first. He doesn’t say go to your best friend, your church confidant, your pastor, your spouse – no, go to the person you have a problem with, and confront them about it. Then, “If he or she listens to you, you have regained your brother or sister.” Great! If you work it out between you two, then there is no more need to fret about it, to complain, to worry, to behave as though nothing is wrong around that person while secretly harboring ill-will towards him or her on the inside and consequently making him or her feel as though he or she is… walking on eggshells!
That’s right. That’s what causes us to lay eggshells. They come out primarily when we seek to avoid conflict. And I get why we try to avoid conflict – I do it all the time, myself – we are afraid of hurting someone else’s feelings, or we don’t want them to get angry with us. In general, conflict just stresses us out, and we would rather have everything be nice and peaceful because then it just feels better, doesn’t it? But, if we remember what Dr. King said, that true peace is not the absence of tension, but the presence of justice, then we might come to see why avoiding conflict isn’t necessarily the best thing to do. Because that tension doesn’t just go away when we avoid conflict. Instead of being external tension between you and the other person, it becomes internal tension. And the tension is much more likely to stick around if it is internalized than if it is aired out in the open and allowed to run its course between you and the other person. And that internalized tension is easier to sense than you might think; and it easily bubbles up to the surface. That’s why, whenever you have been in conflict with someone over a certain thing – if you avoided the conflict and failed to work it out – the next time you have a conflict with that person or over that thing, you are more likely to snap or lash out. For example, let’s say you have a parking spot at work, and it’s your favorite spot. But, all of the sudden, somebody new starts working there, and they get there a little earlier than you do. They don’t know it’s your spot (it’s not labeled), and so they start parking there. You are annoyed, but you decide not to confront that person because they are new. Overtime that annoyance gradually turns into anger, until you come in one morning when that person is on vacation, expecting to find your spot vacant, only to discover that a visitor has double-parked, taking up both your spot and somebody else’s. Enraged, you leave an angry note on their windshield and maybe key their car just a little bit, not even having met them. That’s how conflict avoidance turns into an environment of eggshells. The visitor bears the brunt of your internalized anger, and they probably won’t come back to visit anymore. But if you confront your co-worker and work things out the first time around, then all of the sudden the parking space goes back to being just a parking space, and you are more likely to react reasonably the next time it becomes a point of conflict.
Now, suppose you have a conflict with someone, and you can’t work things out between the two of you alone. Then is it okay to go and complain to your friends, your coworkers, your church family? Actually, Jesus says: “If you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” This is not ganging up on the other person, per say; you are not supposed to take one or two good friends – people who will always take your side on everything no matter what – but rather one or two impartial persons. They are supposed to act a bit like a jury, recalling the stipulation in Deuteronomy 19:15 that says the evidence of at least two or three witnesses is required to convict anyone of a crime. And if you and the other witnesses still can’t work it out between you and the person who slighted you, only then are you to take the matter to the entire church. If they still don’t listen, they are to be treated as a Gentile and a tax collector, and we all know how Jesus treated those, so don’t think this means you should oust them and have nothing more to do with them. Basically, the person with whom you have a conflict should be involved every step of the way, and there should never be any point in time where you are taking your conflict with them to someone else behind their back.
But, we’ve all done this, haven’t we? It just seems to be human nature. The barista at Starbucks made an offensive comment about you, and you decided it was better to just walk away and rant about it to your spouse or your best friend later on that evening. That’s probably understandable, given that you don’t have to see that barista again or have any real meaningful relationship with them. But if you go to Starbucks every morning, and you interact with the barista every day, well then perhaps that is a different situation, isn’t it? And if you have a problem with someone in your church, well I would say that definitely calls for confronting the person and not ranting about them behind their back. And, again, we all do it, I do it too, I’m not perfect. But perhaps we can all be a little bit better about it. Perhaps we can make a concerted effort, the next time we have a problem with someone, to confront them about it directly and privately first, before we bring anybody else into it.
That is, of course, the first step in any conflict. To actually have it, instead of avoiding it. There are some other things to keep in mind, too, when you confront somebody. And if you’re the type of person who likes to take notes during a sermon, this would probably be the time to do so. This is just a partial listing of recommendations for healthy conflict from a group called the Center for Conflict Dynamics, which works with Wake Forest Divinity students during their second year to help us better understand how we currently and how we should deal with conflict. You can certainly find plenty of Scriptures to back these up, but I am just going to run through them now quickly in the interest of time.
- The first thing to keep in mind is that the other person, whatever they did, probably did not intend to hurt you. More than likely they did not mean for their comment or action to be taken personally. In fact, there may even be an entirely reasonable explanation for why they did what they did or said what they said, and you just don’t know what it is yet.
- The second is to know what your hot buttons are. That is, know what things get you worked up and angry when said, and guard against them. Let the other person know that what they are saying is pressing your buttons, and could they maybe say it differently?
- The third is to not make conflict into a contest. It is not about winning or losing. Remember, Jesus makes it about “gaining a brother or sister”, not winning the argument. Your goal should always be to resolve the conflict, not to win at all costs.
- On the other hand, you don’t want to just give in to the other person’s demands, either, because you will still harbor resentment and you will not be much better off than if you had just avoided the conflict altogether in the first place. Find the happy medium between winning at all costs and giving in to avoid further conflict.
- Finally, check your emotions, and refrain from loud, disrespectful words. Don’t resort to insulting the other person. This is probably the hardest thing to do, because most of us get angry and loud when we get into a conflict. If you find yourself unable to control your emotions and voice, it may be wise to take a break from the conflict and come back to it later.
Now, I think these are good, common-sense recommendations, and, again, you don’t have to look far to find Scripture to back these up. I happened to choose a text today that talks about conflict avoidance, because I believe that is the first step we, as a church, need to take in order to deal more healthily with conflict. But these other steps are just as important as the first, because once we get ourselves into conflict, we need to be able to deal with it constructively rather than destructively.
Ultimately, this is how we get rid of the eggshells. Eggshells always appear in a person or institution that deals with conflict in an unhealthy manner. The more internalized anger we hold onto from our avoided or badly-handled conflicts, the quicker we are going to explode at even the smallest thing that doesn’t go our way, and, consequently, the more eggshells there are to traverse around us. Even if we don’t confront the person directly, that internalized anger is bound to come out in some form of passive aggressiveness – a sharply-worded note or ill-timed and impulsive action. And, yes, it’s hard to avoid when you’re trying to be nice to people and not make any waves, and you might think that this culture of niceness and conflict avoidance is particularly inviting to those who might wish to join us in fellowship. But the thing is, waves are necessary to wash away the eggshells, and if we leave those shells where they are, people aren’t going to want to walk around here for very long. If we really want to clean up our church floor, we’re going to have to confront each other when we have an issue or a complaint. It’s the only way to keep us from walking on eggshells. Amen.