Last week, your Senior warden, Dave Brumbaugh and I – along with Josh, our new communications staff member — participated in a workshop with 50 other leaders in our Diocese; the workshop was called “Fierce Conversations”. Fierce!? At first, it seemed a bit off-putting: I mean was it, like, Beyonce “fierce”?, Or wild animal “fierce”? Would anyone get hurt? Yet so many of us were drawn there, I think, because, in the Church, as in other organizations, we sometimes hesitate to have the conversations we really need to have, because we fear they will be uncomfortable, or even painful. So we spend lots more energy, dancing around issues, and talking in parking lots, judging people and making assumptions without any feedback from them.
That’s what starts to happen in today’s Gospel lesson. The Pharisee, whose name was Simon, begins by silently judging Jesus and the woman; perhaps he is even muttering to those seated around him. “what does that Jesus think he’s doing?” mutter mutter mutter. But Simon does not say these things directly to Jesus; that would be too uncomfortable; he might have to hear Jesus’ perspective and might have to change his thinking and even his behavior. It sounds to me as though Simon is a little afraid: afraid to step out, to be vulnerable, to be himself. Fierce Conversations require courage. They require us to use our “real voice” and to speak to the “heart of the matter”.
In the process, these conversations will surely generate some “heat” and may lead to productive changes. Best of all, they have the potential to enrich relationships: with our best selves, with others, and with God. Now, not every difficult conversation is a “fierce conversation”. According to the workshop, Fierce Conversations have Four Goals:
1) To Interrogate Reality. To ask real questions about what is going on, to be honestly curious about not just our own perspective, but others’ as well. If Simon really wanted to know about “this woman”, he could have asked her, or asked Jesus about her (even her name!); 2) To Provoke Learning, and that is on everyone’s part. Jesus most often teaches using parables, which are left open-ended, and require us to think. I wonder: did Jesus learn anything in this conversation, too? Perhaps he learned that those who receive compassion become the most generous, as is evidenced in the verses that begin the next Chapter: these “women” whom Jesus championed became some of his strongest supporters. 3) Tackle Tough Questions, such as “who is worthy to be saved?” or “who is our neighbor?”. How about: “what is the point of Christianity?” Talking about these issues, rather than focusing on minutia and personal preferences, can help everyone to move forward. I wonder: how did Simon feel about his own worthiness? He might have told Jesus, “sir, when I see you welcoming this person who I thought was inferior, I wonder whether I am worthy of salvation? Does God love me?”
Finally, Fierce Conversations, 4) Enrich Relationships. When we have skillful and honest conversations with someone, even about (perhaps especially about) topics that are difficult for us, then we free our relationships to become something deeper, more connected, more “real”, than they were before. Jesus tells Simon, “well, you don’t seem to love me very much: no kiss, no caring, no gratitude. It doesn’t seem as though you feel you need or want God’s love.”
The people with whom Simon had been “muttering” seem to miss the point: “who does this Jesus think that he is?!” they say, without taking time to learn, to have any “aha”, to have their relationships with God transformed. But what about Simon? Scripture does not tells what he does next. I like to imagine that Simon continues the conversation, fiercely. That he shows up, from “behind himself”. Perhaps he says, “Jesus, you’re right. I haven’t been very warm to you. I’m a little unsure of my status in the Synagogue, and didn’t want to rock the boat. But I do believe in what you say, and I want to change. Can you help me?”
I like to imagine Simon offering “the woman” a place at the table, and offering her food and drink; talking to her and hearing her life story. I like to imagine that after his conversation with Jesus, Simon’s house became a place where anyone who was on the “outside” knew that they were welcome, and that everyone who came there received water for their feet, and a kiss of love.
Jesus says, “the one to whom little is forgiven loves little”. I think one of the reasons we hide from “fierce conversations” is that we have the idea we can hide our own imperfections. If we talk about people instead of with people, we don’t run the risk of learning the other side of the story! We may have to say “sorry”; we may get to forgive others, and ourselves. That is one of the reasons we begin our service with a confession: not to say, “we all stink”, but rather to remind ourselves, as a body, that we all fall short of grace, and that as a result, we are all grateful beyond measure. It frees us to have real, loving conversations, and relationships, with our family, friends, co-workers, even with those at our Church, for goodness’ sake. Not “parking lot conversations”, but ones that are intent upon hearing, learning, growing and, above all, loving.
As your Rector, and your priest, I want you to know I am committed to having these kinds of conversations. About real topics, that matter to our salvation, to our faith. Not just about the summer schedule, or the worship bulletin, or the flowers on the altar (although those conversations, when honest, can reveal some important issues too). I want to talk together about what matters to us: as people, as Christians, as a community: at meetings, over a beer, after a movie, even at coffee hour after church. Are you ready to get fierce with me? With God’s help, we will! AMEN.