Dialogue & Reconciliation: Jesus’ plan for resolving conflict in the church
There’s been a car insurance commercial recently that I’m sure you have all seen. It actually has little to do with cars or insurance. Beatrice is entertaining two friends in her living room. Beatrice tells the other two ladies that she saved so much time buying car insurance that she was able to post all her vacation photos to her “wall,” which actually consists of a bunch of photographs Scotch-taped to her living room wall. When one of the ladies corrects Beatrice on her car insurance “deal,” Beatrice responds:
“I un-friend you!”
In frustration, the guest replies:
“That’s not how this works! That’s not how any of this works!”
Reviewing the Gospel reading for today, I wonder what Jesus might say about some of the ways we deal with conflict resolution in the church. (Perhaps he would agree with Beatrice’s friend!)
If you do a little research on the internet, you will quickly discover that the topic of conflict in the church is a big issue, whether it manifests itself as problems between parishioners, between clergy and staff members (particularly, it would seem between clergy and choir directors/organists!), or clergy and members of the congregation. From the number of articles published on the topic, you might think that, whenever two or more are gathered together in the church, there’s probably a conflict between at least two of them!
Jesus gives a plan and process for dealing with conflict in the church. Oddly enough, when this Gospel story takes place, the “church” did not yet exist and would not be born until after Jesus’ resurrection when believers came together bound by Christ. But in today’s Gospel, Jesus is preparing his followers for the future reality of the church and he reminds the faithful of the great power–and great responsibility– that they have as Christians. And so we have in this passage a plan for addressing and resolving the conflicts that will inevitably come as a part of life in community. It is, after all, not conflict that can endanger and even kill churches, but our refusal to deal with conflict that does the most harm.
“If another member of the church sins against you…..”
We sometimes have a little trouble with that word “sin,” so consider this:
“If another member of the church wrongs you….
The first step is to go to that person and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.
So simple. And we make it so complicated!
Today we have an amazing number of ways to keep in touch with each other. Email, social media, texting, cell phones, face time, Skype–it is in fact increasingly difficult to purposefully “unplug” and disconnect. Unfortunately, all these great new tools have given us an increasing number of ways to avoid dealing directly with each other.
If we are wronged, we may be less likely to talk with the other person than we are to perhaps “fire off” an angry email. (Possibly copying a few other folks too so that they will know about our injured status.)
In a more general type of retaliation, we may post a complaint on Facebook. We have all heard that in the South, you can say anything if you add: “Bless their hearts!” I’m thinking we now think we can write anything online if you add the right emoticon (“smiley face”) or LOL (“Laughing Out Loud”).
Instead, Jesus says before you “unfriend,” go to the offending party, in private and in humility and love. Not to destroy them but to win them over. A private conversation gives both of you the opportunity to examine the situation and to save face if either is at fault. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. And kept a friendship.
“If, on the other hand, 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 directive actually goes back to instructions in Deuteronomy (19:15): “A single witness shall not prevail against a man for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed; only on the evidence of two witnesses, or of three witnesses, shall a charge be sustained.”
At the point that the member refuses even to hear the testimony of several witnesses, Jesus says you then should tell the church and if even this final step has no effect, that person is to be to you “as a Gentile and a tax-collector.”
I think this last is hard for us to hear and comprehend. As Episcopalians, we lean toward inclusion. The idea of “shunning” a church member sounds archaic, narrow-minded, even a little barbaric. There are a few ideas to consider regarding the expulsion of a community member.
First, keep in mind that this is a last resort and it comes at the end of a careful, thoughtful, and deliberate process.
Next, it is an unfortunate truth that there can indeed be a member in a group–whether in church, the work place, or even a family–whose presence is so toxic that the health and even the very existence of the group is threatened. Those of you who have been school teachers or supervisors in work places will probably agree that a single individual can do a great deal of damage to a group. As difficult as the decision may be and as hard as that conversation may be, expulsion may be the only action left.
So, where is the Good News in this passage? (Because it sounds pretty grim!)
“Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.”
Though this may sound at first like advocating ostracism, we know how Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors. (Matthew, the author of today’s Gospel was himself a tax collector, after all!) I believe action taken in love still leaves the door open for for the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation.
And what are we to make of verse 18 in this context?
“Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Eugene Peterson paraphrases this passage this way in “The Message:”
“A yes on earth is a yes in heaven.
A no on earth is a no in heaven.
What you say to one another is eternal.”
We are gathered together today in Jesus’ name and are charged to act in a way that exemplifies Jesus, embodies Jesus.
What we do (and how we treat each other), matters.
St Catherine’s Episcopal Church
Temple Terrace, FL
September 7, 2014