Sermon for September 6, 2020
Working Our Way through Matthew
In this season of Pentecost, we’ve been working our way through the gospel of Matthew. We started back in June, and Matthew will take us all the way up to Advent at the end of November – with one side trip into the gospel of John for Reformation Sunday. It’s hard to tell from reading one passage each week, but Matthew has a very distinct structure, more so than any of the other three gospels. He has a prologue (the birth story) and an epilogue (the passion story). In between he has five discourses or blocks of teachings. Matthew is the most Jewish of all the gospels, writing to a predominantly Jewish-Christian community. He likes to link Old Testament passages to the life of Jesus, portraying him as the new Moses. And he structures his gospel this way because he’s alluding back to the first section in the Bible, the Pentateuch, the first five books of Moses.
Yes, Conflict Happens – Even in the Church
Anyway, this is all prologue to my discourse today. Because this week and next we’ll be reading the fourth discourse in Matthew 18. This block of teaching has been called the ‘discourse on the church’ because of its instructions on how to live – in community – as followers of Jesus.
Contrary to the beliefs of many that the early church was a harmonious group of people, always loving, forgiving, and in agreement with one another, arguments and discord did arise among them. After all, they were human beings, and whenever two or more are gathered, there will be, not only Jesus among them, but opportunity for miscommunication, misunderstanding, bad behavior, conflicts, and divisions.
In a way, it should give us some comfort to know that even those early Christians needed to be reminded how we’re supposed to be with one another. It takes a bit of the sting out of reading this teaching and applying it to ourselves. Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus can come across as pretty harsh at times. For example, part of Chapter 18 we didn’t read today says: “If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it’s better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire.” Yikes!
I, for one, want to run from passages like that to Romans 3.23: “everyone has sinned; everyone falls short of the glory of God. Yet everyone has also been undeservedly justified by the gift of God, through the redemption wrought in Christ Jesus.”
While that good news is a great relief, it doesn’t take away the necessity of going back to these teachings to learn and relearn time and again how we grow even more into our identities as followers of Jesus. And there’s some tough stuff here in Matthew 18.
Let’s take just verses 15-17, which is a 4-step process for conflict management:
Jesus’ 4-step Process for Conflict Management
Step 1. If someone commits a wrong against you, go and point out the error, but keep it between the two of you. If they listen, you’ve won them back; but if not, go to . . .
Step 2: Try again, taking one or two others with you. If they still don’t listen, go to . . .
Step 3: Refer the matter to the church. If they ignore even the church, then go to . . .
Step 4: Treat that person as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.
Sounds simple, right? Well, yes and no. Jesus is clear that the goal is reconciliation. And here’s how to make that happen: 1, 2, 3, 4.
But he’s also clear that it doesn’t always turn out that way. One thing I’ve learned is the distinction between conflict resolution and conflict management. Some disputes can’t be resolved, but hopefully they can be managed. Think of some of the conflicts going on today. On a micro level, you might be involved in a disagreement within your own family, workplace, or neighborhood. On a macro level, it’s fair to say that our entire country is embroiled in unresolved contention – or contentions. Reconciliation is always the goal, but sometimes the best we can do is mitigate the damage.
As we know, the church isn’t immune to conflict. Even before the pandemic, many congregations were being strained by political differences. And frankly many were also already stressed by declining membership and financial resources. Since the pandemic, anxiety has gone up among both pastors and congregational members. And when anxiety goes up, conflict usually arises. So this 4-step plan that Jesus lays out might seem simplistic, but there’s a lot of wisdom in those 3 little verses, and we should take some time to unpack them.
Step 1: If someone commits a wrong against you, point out the error just between the two of you. Well, how simple is that? But how often do we do it? Our usual methodology goes something like: if someone commits a wrong against you, go and complain about them to all your friends, or make a plan to retaliate, or decide just to freeze them out and not associate with them anymore. In church disagreements, you get the parking lot meeting after the meeting, or the complaint phone tree, or the “helpful” member who informs the pastor that “people are saying . . .”
We’ve probably all fallen into that hole once or twice. Remember: “everyone falls short of the glory of God.” But if we take this advice from Jesus seriously and make a commitment to be good communicators with one another, we will contribute to the health and stability of the community.
Now we also have to consider when the situation is reversed – when you’re the one committing some wrong. Again, who has not ever done something to offend someone else? And again, Jesus is clear: you listen. Before you disagree, or try to justify yourself, or get defensive – you listen, not with your mind jumping ahead to plan your defense, but real, deep listening.
Every author, book, program, consultant on conflict mediation says the same thing: listening is key. Paula Green from Hands Across the Hills and other peacemaking projects has said, “When we took the time to listen closely, we recognized each other as friends and neighbors.” And: “We will not avoid the difficult topics, but we expect to listen and be listened to.”
My friend Judy Gussman, former co-facilitator of a Jewish-Palestinian dialog group and my co-conspirator in Hearts Across the Divide has designed and facilitated intra-Jewish Deep Listening sessions on Israeli-Palestinian relations.
You see it again and again: deep listening, close listening – which also involves keen self-awareness of what pushes our buttons. For instance, I know that as a white woman I need to own my defensiveness when listening to people of color talk about their experiences. The temptation to object with, “But I’m not like that” or “We’re not all racists” must be resisted. My soapbox as a long-time feminist must be set aside when hearing a transwoman speak of her experiences of discrimination. I have to listen to the Jesus voice in my ear saying, “Shut up and listen!”
This applies to so many areas of our lives right now. If we could learn – or relearn how to listen to one another, we’d go a long way towards reconciliation. Jesus, of course, understands that even this might not bring a resolution. There was a woman in a former congregation who finally left because, as she complained, “Yes, I know you always listen, but then you don’t do what I want.”
In times like these or when you hit the wall in a difficult situation, you try steps 2 and 3, bring other trusted people into the conversation and, if necessary, the community. And yes, it can be a very difficult thing to do. But the alternative is to let conflict fester until the entire body is affected. And when we truly live by this process and practice it, it gets easier because it is holy work.
Now, a warning about Step 4, actually a warning and a piece of advice. The warning is: don’t jump ahead too quickly from verse 17 to verse 21 (which we’ll get to next week). In verse 21, Peter asks Jesus, “If another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” And Jesus says, ‘Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Some translations say ‘seventy times seven,’ but it doesn’t matter; in the Bible seven is a perfect number signifying completeness, or in this case, an infinite number of times. Again ‘yikes!’
But here’s the warning: don’t jump prematurely from confronting and listening and working the process before taking on the often-difficult work of forgiveness. I’ll tackle that subject next week.
For now, I’ll go on to the piece of advice, which is: be sure you know what it means to treat someone as a Gentile or a tax collector. As you probably know, there are churches who practice shunning, that is cutting off all contact and relationship with one deemed to be an apostate, a threat, or a source of conflict. The Amish are most often associated with this practice, but other Christian groups and some other religions do it as well.
But if we follow the example of Jesus, this kind of ostracization is not an option. After all, how did Jesus treat tax collectors, Gentiles, and other ‘outsiders’? He always maintained relationship with them. He was secure enough in his identity and could maintain his own boundaries, while staying connected to those who would have been seen as a threat to his – and Matthew’s – community.
I believe that is what our synod attempted to do back in 1995 when they expelled St. Francis and First United Lutheran Churches for going against ELCA policy at that time, which prohibited the ordination of openly gay clergy. It was stated at the time that the synod would continue to maintain relationship with the two congregations, even though no longer part of the ELCA. That agreement worked better on paper than in practice, but it was the right idea. It also showed how challenging it is to faithfully work the conflict management process.
I’ve been reading over and over again in news reports, articles, and blog posts: people are sick and tired of the divisions that plague us these days. But we don’t seem to know how to get ourselves out of the quagmire.
Yes, it would be wonderful if direction and modeling would come from our leaders. But we don’t have to wait for that. we already have a leader who shows us the way, who models it and even gives us a plan to implement. It really couldn’t be any simpler. Simple, but not easy. If we’ve learned anything about the way of Jesus it’s that self-sacrifice is the way to transformation; the way of the cross is the way to resurrection – of ourselves, of our church, and as a grassroots movement of Jesus people, even our nation.
I have seen many interpretations of Matthew 18 with which I disagree. One such article is entitled Matthew 18: The Most Misapplied Passage on Church Conflict. Most of these interpretations try to codify what gets defined as sin and in what situations the process doesn’t apply. But I believe that Jesus does give us here a way forward in any situation. Attempting reconciliation by deeply listening to one another. Being willing to go further by expanding the circle of listening, and, if necessary, setting a boundary in the community, for the health of the community – yet with no one never being outside of love, compassion, and connection.
It’s not a codified process; it’s organic and depends on the good will, faithfulness, and prayerfulness of participants. And the presence of the Holy Spirit. Not that things will always get resolved as we would like. But even then, that Spirit will be with us as we continue to move forward into healing and wholeness.
You know, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said of Christianity: Christianity has taken the side of everything weak, base, ill-constituted, it has made an ideal out of opposition to the preservative instincts of strong life. In other words, Christians are wimps. He was wrong. It takes courage to be a follower of Jesus, the kind of courage demanded of us in these trying times. This ‘discourse on the church’ hands us our mission – difficult, but not impossible, if we decide to accept it.
Jesus said, “If someone commits some wrong against you, go and point out the error, but keep it between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won a loved one back; if not, try again, but take one or two others with you, so that every case may stand on the word of two or three witnesses. If they still refuse to listen, refer the matter to the church. If they ignore even the church, then treat that one as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.
“The truth is, whatever you declare bound on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you declare loosed on earth will be loosed in heaven.
“Again I tell you, if two of you on earth join in agreement to pray for anything whatsoever, it will be granted you by my Abba God in heaven. Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in their midst.”