Before You Un-Friend – Communicate
Sermon by Rev. Steven McClelland on Matthew 18: 15 – 20. Focus on the steps Christians should use when they are in conflict. Check out Jody Sinkway and the choir.
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, 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.
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 or ignore the person, 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.
The opposite of this and a strategy that is employed to often and too easily is to ignore the person and pretend as if they don’t exist, this is the un-friend option on Facebook. I don’t like what you said so I’ll un-friend you and the problem will go away. The only problem is that it doesn’t go away. Time does not heal all wounds.
Now speaking honestly and listening to one another in times of tension is not easy but speaking and listening go hand in hand. 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.
So 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 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?
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. It just leads us into a state of hell.
In his book The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis paints a very telling picture of hell. Hell is like a vast, gray city, Lewis says, a city inhabited only at its outer edges, with rows and rows of empty houses in the middle – empty because everyone who once lived in them has quarreled with the neighbor’s and moved, and quarreled with the new neighbors and moved again, leaving empty streets full of empty houses behind them. That says Lewis is how hell got so large – empty at the center and inhabited only on the fringes – because everyone in it chose distance instead of confrontation as the solution to the fight.
And by confrontation I mean just what the dictionary says: to bring two people face to face, to sort out what is going on between them. That’s what Jesus is recommending in today’s Gospel lesson, and it’s also what most of us would do just about anything to avoid. The excuses run off our lips. She’s the sinner; let her come to me. I wouldn’t know what to say. I’d feel so foolish. And what’s the use, anyhow? That person will never change.
Those are great excuses, if you don’t mind living on the outskirts of hell, but for those of us who are called to be a Christian community, they just won’t do. There’s another way, an alternative to putting distance between us and those with whom we are in conflict. We can go to them, Jesus says, and tell them what is wrong, or what we think is wrong, because the best way to end a fight is to admit that we might be wrong too.
There are certain questions to be asked, such as: Am I sure I know what I am talking about? Have I given the other person the benefit of the doubt? What are my motives in confronting them with my feelings? Do I want to make them feel bad or do I really want to make peace? What am I afraid of? Is the relationship worth the risk?
That last question is a very important one, because the only reason to take Jesus’ advice at all is to win back a relationship that’s in danger of being lost. Assuming you’ve made it this far, you are now ready for the final step, which is setting the lunch date, making the telephone call, or writing the letter that will halt the spread of hell. If this isn’t something you’re eager to do, don’t let that stop you; there isn’t anything about wanting to do this in today’s reading. All it says is: “Go and do it!”
Our life together is the place where we are comforted, confronted, tested and redeemed by God through one another. It may not be easy but it is the only way to be part of God’s family. It’s how we know God and how God knows us.
That’s what we are called to do: to confront and make up, to forgive and seek forgiveness, to heal and be healed – to throw a block party right smack in the middle of hell and fill the place with such laughter, love and affection that all of the far-flung residents come creeping in from their distant outposts to see what all the fuss and joy is about.
Our society, which is highly divided, does not expect the church to be free of conflict and sin but it does need the church to model how sinful and conflicted people can be transformed from fearful, angry people into people who are capable of being faithful and loving who are trying to move from being sinners to being saints. Amen