When in Conflict – Communicate
Sermon by Rev. Steven McClelland on Matthew 18: 15-20. Focus on how we tend to communicate in conflict and how we could communicate so that we do good rather than doing harm.
Ok! Now that everyone has heard what Jesus tells us in Matthew’s gospel I’m going to throw a pop quiz at you to see how many of you were listening. Are you ready? Here we go:
- If another member of the church sins against you … you are to talk about them behind their back? Yes or no?
- If another member of the church sins against you… just call everyone you know in the church and complain about them? In fact you should start a letter writing campaign against them? Yes or no?
- If another member of the church sins against you… don’t say anything. Just avoid them. Better yet, un-friend them on Facebook. And, if you can’t avoid them on Sundays, then just leave the church. Yes or no?
And the correct answer is: None of the above.
In the eighteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel Jesus tells his disciples that the church should function like a family. He says, “If a brother or sister in the faith, hurts you, angers you, saddens you, or does you wrong in any way you go and talk to them about it directly, one on one.
Makes sense, seems like common sense but I’ll wager that most families, just like most churches, don’t deal with conflict in this way. Instead of being families that teach honesty, integrity, forbearance and forgiveness they become places that teach either verbal violence treating the people in their families to verbal drive by assaults, where the rule is strike first talk later.
Or equally as damaging and far more prevalent among families is teaching one another avoidance where the first rule is: If you can’t say something nice don’t say anything at all, and if you have a problem with someone, keep it to yourself, because harmony – even the illusion of harmony is the most important thing, more important than telling the truth, more important than your feelings, and finally more important than you.
Unfortunately too many Christians have confused being nice with being loving. Or to quote Reinhold Niebuhr: “Confusing etiquette with ethics. And neither of them is love. It’s avoidance and all the damage and dangers of unresolved conflict and un-confronted sin remains.
That’s the lesson many families teach, but in today’s lesson Jesus lets us know that the Christian family doesn’t work that way, that in the household of God, when your brother sins against you must go and talk to him, and if that doesn’t work you must keep going back – taking other people with you even the whole church if need be – doing everything in your power to get your brother or sister back again.
You see love and forgiveness are meant to be at the core of who we are, and to be honest, if we can’t do this between ourselves in church, how can we ever be agents of reconciliation in the world? In fact when churches cease to be places of forgiveness, grace and mercy they cease to be the church.
So what Jesus is talking about here is very important.
Because authentic community is hard to come by, a lot of people when they hear that word – community – think of something that is largely social, somewhat superficial, because its safer. But real community something that is more meaningful or intimate requires risk and is hard work. Do you want to blend in or do you want to really make a difference?
Authentic, intimate, honest, loving and forgiving communities and families for that matter require work. But it’s worth it. Because when you find it, it’s like discovering a little bit of heaven on earth. It’s like experiencing the reality of God’s existence in your midst.
So let’s see what Jesus tells us to do.
Step one: Go to the source of the problem, clarify what is being said, seek to sort it out. Aim for reconciliation, not condemnation. This is a different approach from the all to common, whine, gossip, complain anything but talking directly with the person you have the problem with. Don’t play the children’s game of telephone when it comes to conflict. Messages always get distorted when we play this game.
Step two: If you can’t resolve it between you and the other person keep it small and work with a couple of others in the church to act as witnesses to how you and your partner in conflict are going about resolving the issue.
And its more than bringing witnesses to prove that you are right and your neighbor is wrong. The bringing of other church members into the conflict is to help both parties speak and listen to one another.
Speaking with and listening to go hand in hand. But this is not easy. Just ask members of Congress if they speak and listen to each other. Just ask any couple getting divorced if they’ve tried talking and most will say talking was what ended the marriage.
So by definition there must be forgiveness in the communication. As Frederick Buechner says: “To accept forgiveness means to admit that you’ve done something wrong that needs to be forgiven. When somebody you’ve wronged forgives you, you’re spared the dull and self-diminishing throb of a guilty conscience. When you forgive somebody who has wronged you, you’re spared the dismal corrosion of bitterness and wounded pride. For both parties, forgiveness means the freedom to begin again and to be at peace within your own skins.”
Spiritual growth and maturity requires the acknowledgment of our own need to grow and if we can not make that acknowledgment, we have no other option but to attempt to avoid, get rid of or leave the person we are having conflict with, while all the time what we were trying to do was get rid of the reflection they offered us of who we truly are – both saint and sinner.
That’s what it means to bring witnesses. Their job is to hear both sides because it very well may be that I am the problem and not you and vice versa. In this approach there is an attitude of taking responsibility, of openness and yet there are still some restrictions around the issue, which means instead of having a congregation wide slugfest we begin by following the rule – less is sometimes more.
And in step three, if there is a real problem that cannot be resolved by bringing two or three witnesses then you must involve the whole church. There can be no secrets. If a member refuses to listen, tell it to the whole church. There can be no secrets at this point.
For as Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. The key thing is that if we do not loose the issue, we will remain bound. Unresolved conflict does not go away. Sin does not wear out.
But I am also much more aware of my debtors than I am of my own debts. If I do not forgive you or unbind you from our clashes then you and I will be bound by that same argument in heaven. Our unresolved issues will come into heaven, which is another way of saying they will come into the whole church.
Finally Jesus says – if that doesn’t work then things are really serious and the entire church is at risk for its very existence and then he says and if that happens we are to treat the offender as a Gentile or tax collector, which is an interesting thing to say given that Matthew was a tax collector. Might this be another way of saying: Treat people the way Jesus treated tax collectors and sinners – don’t write them off?
In a lot of ways it’s a real nuisance to belong to a family or an intimate community. It would be so much easier if we were just a bunch of individuals, loosely bound by similar beliefs but whose affairs remained a private matter between God and us. But according to Jesus, there’s no such thing in the family of God.
Our life together in this church is defined by how we are comforted, confronted, tested and redeemed by God through one another. It’s how we know God and how God knows us. We are called to confront and make up, to forgive and seek forgiveness, to heal and be healed. Anything less doesn’t deserved to be called the church – the body of Christ. Amen