Confronting Conflict with Courage and Compassion, Part 2

MaryAnn McKibben Dana
July 6, 2014
Idylwood Presbyterian Church
Philippians 4:1-7 

Confronting Conflict with Courage and Compassion, Part 2

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. 2I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. 3Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, (Syzygus), help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. 4Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

 

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Maybe you know the story too—it’s an oldie but goodie—the story of the two farmers. They were neighbors—but only geographically. I don’t know how long it had been since they’d even talked to each other. One of them had dug a little trench between the two farms, to try to get the creek to run there, and the other couldn’t stand it, stuff like that, but the final straw was the dumbest thing. It was this little stray cat, a calico, I think. First the cat adopted one farmer, then the cat wandered as stray cats are prone to do, over to the other porch, and the other farmer started feeding and caring for it. The two neighbors would argue and argue over whose it was, and finally they just stopped talking about it. But they couldn’t really talk about anything else, either, so they were neighbors, but only geographically. In fact, when the traveler came around looking for work one of the neighbors said, “Hey, I’ve got something for you to do. I want a fence right in front of that trench. There’s some lumber out by the shed to get you started, I’ll run into town for more, thanks so much for doing this, I don’t even want to look at him anymore.” (Adapted from “Carpenter Story,” told by folk singer David Wilcox on the album East Asheville Hardware.) 

Do you know this story? In the version you know, are they farmers, or siblings, or members of a denomination, or rival political parties perhaps? 

Because we all know the story…

Paul knew the story, and it grieved him enough to announce to the whole church at Philippi that it was time for the two neighbors to just get along already. Their names were Euodia and Syntyche, and like those two farmers, they had labored side by side until something came between them. We don’t know what it is—probably something big—

something big like how to relate to their interfaith neighbors,

or something big like how they should live as Christians in the midst of an empire; how public should they be in their faith.

… Something more important, anyway, than a stray cat… or what kind of music to have in worship, or what color to paint the fellowship hall, but who knows? Because even when it’s about the color of the fellowship hall, it’s not really about the color of the fellowship hall, is it?

And so no matter what the issue is, Paul is tired of this story. Depending on which version you read, he urges the two women to agree with one another, be of the same mind, to live in harmony, or at least come to a mutual understanding. But that’s not all. Paul urges a loyal companion, Syzygus, to help them: help them sift through all these bad feelings and jaw-clenching conflict and find some resolution, some place they can stand together and get back to work, for goodness’ sake.

Now, any of us who have seen how these stories go knows that there are a number of problems with this plan of Paul’s, not the least being that if this loyal companion is anything like us, he or she is probably pretty clueless about how exactly to get these two neighbors talking again. This is someone who knows these women, who loves these women as sisters in Christ, but doesn’t necessarily have any skills in mediation. The conflict is so deep, how can a lasting peace be achieved?

Or maybe the situation is complicated by the fact that this loyal companion agrees 100% with Euodia and is thinking, “Well, she’s clearly right, it’s so obvious it’s her cat, we just need to get Syntyche on our page.” This is not some impartial observer. This is someone who’s living in the same little church family where this conflict breeds, and so what Paul is asking is quite difficult indeed.

How do we encourage two parties to be of the same mind in the Lord?

How do we do that, when too much has been said by both sides, things that can’t be taken back? When the conflict between the two camps has left this gaping trench in the earth that’s just too deep and jagged to cross?

How do we do that when we’re sitting on one edge of that trench and we don’t want to cross it, when we’ll take harmony and mutual understanding as long as it’s on our side of the trench?

Unfortunately, Paul seems to change the subject in the next verse: Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I will say rejoice. Hmm, okay… Two sentences about the conflict and, then Rejoice? And again, rejoice? Interestingly, the  Greek word for rejoice can also mean good-bye or farewell. And “goodbye” here seems even worse! “I urge the women to get along, and I urge you to help them, and gotta go, ba-bye.” This seems like the world’s biggest non-sequitur.

Or is this a key to resolving the conflict?

Rejoice in the Lord. Goodbye in the Lord. What do rejoice and goodbye have in common? They both seem to require us to let go. When we’re truly rejoicing, we’ve let go of propriety and inhibition. When we say goodbye, we let go of something or someone that’s dear to us. And so I wonder… if there’s a conflict that has driven us to despair, if we are paralyzed to move forward, then maybe we are holding on too tightly to this life…

Too tightly to the everyday stuff that seems so overwhelming. “Do not worry about anything, but in everything in prayer let your requests be made known to God.”

Yes, these conflicts are real, and Paul urges us to deal with them, but they are not ultimate. We are not ultimate. This space we occupy on either side of the trench is not our home—Paul says it elsewhere, our citizenship is in heaven. And here in today’s text, in case there’s any doubt, Paul uses the phrase “in the Lord” again and again to re-locate us. 

Stand firm, not on your side of the trench, but in the Lord.
Be of the same mind, not in your convictions, but in the Lord.
Rejoice, not always in lockstep agreement, but in the Lord.
And the peace of God will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.

But what does it really mean to be in the Lord and in the midst of conflict?

What does it look like to be in the Lord?

It’s too easy to say, “Of course I’m in the Lord. The Lord’s over here with me.” 

One clue is this business about the loyal companion, this Syzygus, who is called upon to help the women achieve harmony. The word companion literally means one who is yoked, one who is harnessed to another to get the job done. Paul says, I ask you as one who is yoked to help them… They have worked together, they have struggled together. Remind them that they are yoked to one another, like it or not.

We are yoked to one another.

It’s a hard lesson to learn. Maybe Euodia and Syntyche and the rest of the Philippians learn it in the end. Maybe the story doesn’t end with conflict and hurt feelings. Maybe it will end well for us in the conflicts we sometimes find ourselves embroiled in. But I can tell you this. The story gets better for those poor farmers, but they get some help. Because as the first farmer comes back from the lumber store, excited to see the progress the traveler has made on his fence, he is shocked, shocked to see that the traveler has built a bridge. Over that trench, onto his land, with his lumber. And, oh man, here comes his neighbor across that bridge with his arm out and a big stupid grin on his face. And before he can stop himself, the first one finds himself walking towards him across that bridge! And the second one says, “Thank you. I’ve been a fool. Can you ever forgive me?” And the first one finds himself saying, “Aww, I knew that was your cat.”

The story doesn’t end there. It’s never that simple. But something important has begun. 

And as the two farmers talk for the first time in years, as they stand there in a new place, they can’t help notice the traveler walking away, silhouetted by the evening sun, a couple stray pieces of wood slung over his shoulder, a long piece, and a short piece, nailed together… but that, I think, is another story.

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©2014 MaryAnn McKibben Dana. These sermon manuscripts are provided here for personal use, and are not to be redistributed or otherwise reproduced without permission of the author.