October 15, 2017 – White Bluff Presbyterian Church
The other night at rehearsal, the choir members were asking what I will be preaching on today. I told them that I was going to talk about what Jesus said we ought to do about conflict in the church. Their reaction was priceless. There was this kind of awkward chuckle that went through the group. Some of the more outspoken of the altos and sopranos wondered aloud with a twinkle in their eyes what I could possibly mean. There’s no conflict in the church, right? There’s never conflict in the church! Churches don’t ever have conflict! Then we all laughed. But again, it was an awkward, self-conscious kind of laugh, like there was some degree of apprehension, or maybe plain fear, but certainly discomfort behind it.
Because we all knew it just wasn’t true. There is conflict in the church. There is conflict in the church over important things, like how best to respond to strangers who come here asking for money. There is conflict in the church over unimportant things, like what color the napkins should be at the fellowship dinner that is coming up. There is conflict in the church over broad social issues, like whether the best way to stop mass shootings is to pass laws to restrict the manufacture and sale of guns. There is conflict in the church over issues very particular to our community, like whether the Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan police are doing enough to stop racial profiling and prevent police brutality against Blacks and other People of Color.
And I will bet you that as I read that list of conflicts in the church, at some point, you felt your blood pressure begin to rise. You had that sour feeling in your gut, or that breathlessness in the bottom of your lungs, or you felt like your heart skipped a beat, or you had whatever reaction you get when you become uncomfortable in social situations. That feeling is there to tell you something. Among other things, it is there to tell you the reason that we can only laugh awkwardly, self-consciously, and apprehensively at the mere mention of conflict in the church.
The fact is that conflict over hot-button issues, whether they have to do with personal taste or political views, cause a physical reaction in us. We start to be afraid, as if we are under personal attack. The reaction in our blood pressure or our guts or our lungs or our hearts is something like the reaction our ancestors might have had when they thought they were about to be attacked by a lion. They needed to decide whether the thing that would save their lives would be to stay and fight, or whether they would be best off just fleeing. Just talking to the lion to find a reasonable compromise or embrace a differing viewpoint was not really an option. And if the attack they suddenly feared was coming from a member of an enemy tribe, the options were exactly the same. They could not save themselves by standing and chatting. There was only one decision to make: do they stay and fight, or do they flee?
The question before them was what they could do to save themselves. But here’s the thing, from God’s perspective: we have already been saved. In the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God has promised us that we are safe from anything we need to be saved from. So how do we live differently?
Our blood pressure and our guts and our lungs and our hearts tell us to either stay and fight or turn around and flee. But Jesus has another way. “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” Start by being honest, but not in a cleverly-worded retort on Facebook or a rebuttal issued just loud enough so that everyone else at the fellowship lunch can overhear what you say. Those responses to disagreement and offense might feel good to you; they help you to show everyone else that you are right, the other person is wrong, and you can win the fight. But they feel awful to the person you are attacking, and frankly they feel rather awful to the people reading or hearing you, too.
More importantly, they don’t help us accomplish what Jesus would have us accomplish. Jesus never told us to win the fight. Jesus doesn’t want us to punish the offender. Jesus didn’t say we were supposed to make everyone think we are right all the time, and Jesus certainly didn’t say we were supposed to be self-righteous. Jesus told us to seek reconciliation. And if we miss that fact, then we have missed the point of what Jesus is telling us God wants here. God wants reconciliation. God wants healthy, strong relationships. Because those healthy, strong relationships, built on mutual respect, honesty, and love, even when we disagree, are an important means by which we discover God’s presence, receive God’s care, and witness to God’s hope in a world that never seems to have enough hope.
Instead of shaming the other person, we speak with the other person. We address them privately, when no one else is watching. Ideally, with some give and take, some listening and some sharing, some honesty and some grace, we can work it out. And then, Jesus said, it is as if “you have regained that one.” Something that was lost is found again. Jesus had just finished telling the story of the shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to go and look for one that had wandered off from the rest of the herd. Our relationships with each other, whether they are in the church, in our families, in our community, or among nations in the world, are something like that. They are so precious they are worth chasing after, and when they are restored, they are worth celebrating, just like that shepherd who rejoiced when he found that one lost sheep.
Sometimes, though, it’s not that easy. If you can’t work it out in private, Jesus said, then try again. But you still don’t need to drag it out in front of everyone looking on. You take a couple of people with you, not to take your side or the other side, but simply to witness where things are going wrong and what commitments you can make to make things right. And if that doesn’t work, then you try again, allowing more of the community to be a part of making it right.
And then, if that still doesn’t work, then Jesus said, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Finally, we think, we can wash our hands of the whole, unpleasant mess. Finally, we can just cut that person out, taking them off our Christmas card list, turning a cold shoulder to them when we pass them in the sanctuary aisle, ignore anything they have to say in the meeting or the class, and “unfriending” them online. But pay attention here: that’s not what Jesus said. He said, “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Do you remember what happened when the Pharisees saw Jesus’ dinner party invitation list? Matthew tells us about it back in chapter 9. He said that Jesus would often eat meals with “tax collectors” and other sinners. The Pharisees challenged him on this. To eat with Gentiles of any sort, especially ones like the tax collectors, who made their fortunes by cheating God’s people, would make a good religious person unclean. Why would a holy man like him do something which so boldly flaunted the rules about what made you worthy of approaching God? So how did Jesus respond? He simply told them, quoting the prophet Hosea, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”
Tax collectors and Gentiles were not drummed out of the circle of Jesus’ friends and followers. Just the opposite: tax collectors and Gentiles were the focus of his ministry. Through his relationships with tax collectors and Gentiles, Jesus demonstrated what God really wants God’s people to be and to do: to welcome those who are different, to show mercy to those who are the subject of prejudice, and to be in relationship with those whom everyone else says we ought to cut off. So when Jesus told his followers that those who refuse your efforts at reconciliation should be “like a Gentile and a tax collector,” he was not saying you get to shut them out of your life. Even folks who marginalize themselves because of their own sin are part of the focus of Jesus’ ministry, and they ought to be central to his followers’ ministry, too. When someone refuses to be reconciled, you don’t just get to throw them out to where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. You still have to invite them to supper; you have to love them back into the community.
God wants reconciliation. God wants reconciliation in the church. And likewise, God wants reconciliation in our families, in our communities, and even in our world. And Jesus tells us how to make it happen. Just think about the people you have disagreements with. Are they people in your family or among your close friends? Are they people in your workplace? Are they people you don’t know personally, but who have different political views, or come from different nations or cultures? Might they be people in the church? What can you do to be reconciled to them?
It feels awkward even to ask such a question, fraught with self-consciousness, apprehension, and even fear. You might feel the fight-or-flight instinct in your body: in your blood, in your gut, in your lungs, and even in your broken heart. It’s hard work seeking them out, not to shame or belittle them, but simply to name the issues, to listen to the other person’s experience and perspective, to share your own experience and perspective, to find common ground, and to identify where you differ and, more importantly, understanding why you differ. Mutual respect is key. Humility is essential. So is a willingness to be challenged and even to change. None of that is easy stuff.
But it’s the only way we’re going to make things better in the church, our families, our communities, our nation, and our world; it’s the only way we’re going to do something else; and we are not going to follow God’s will without at least trying. And so my prayer this morning is that we can seek reconciliation in all those places where our relationships are broken. My prayer is that we can follow Jesus’ instructions, reaching out to others without any intent to shame or to belittle them, but only to listen and to share. And when that doesn’t work, my prayer is that the person we disagree with becomes like a tax collector or a Gentile to us, remembering that Jesus invited such people to supper.