Where the Rubber Meets the Road

Sermon preached September 4, 2011

Scripture: Matthew 18:15-20

Don’t you love serendipity – that coming together of positive things that just happens? This week I was looking for some humorous church bulletin or church sign bloopers to begin the sermon. I had found a few on-line, but then in a wonderful serendipity, Tom Wiig sent me a bunch by e-mail. Here are just a couple:
Sermon this morning: Jesus Walks on Water. Sermon tonight: Searching for Jesus
Low Self-Esteem Support Group will meet Thursday at 7 p.m. Please use the side door.
Don’t let worry kill you. Let the church help.
The peace-making committee meeting scheduled for today has been cancelled due to a conflict.
Due to a conflict. How many of you, when I say the word “conflict” get a warm, fuzzy feeling inside? Not many. I know I don’t. The word “conflict” usually makes my stomach muscles tighten up a bit. I would not be a founding member of the “I heart conflict club.” It is one of life’s ironies that I have found myself at times in roles and positions where dealing with conflict is prominent. I was a district superintendent in the United Methodist Church for seven years, and was often asked to help work with conflict. A few times in that ministry, I would be the recipient of anger over a conflict. I had a man storm out of a charge conference one time when my response to his question about the United Methodist position on a controversial issue didn’t satisfy him. I had people mad at me when they lost a vote about a building project at their church, just because I presided at the meeting. Dealing with conflict went with the territory.
For a number of years, I was also a member of the “Conflict Transformation Team” in the Minnesota Conference. Being a part of that team meant that I taught conflict management seminars and occasionally intervened when there was a difficult conflict in a congregation.
So while I don’t love conflict, I have experience with it, and I have come to the conclusion that being a person of faith, a follower of Jesus Christ, does not mean a conflict free life. I have also come to understand that churches have conflict. Where two or three are gathered together, there are often four or five opinions. Here is the surprising discovery – I don’t think conflict itself is a problem. We are unique people with different ideas and perspectives and we are a richer community of faith when we can share our differing viewpoints as we make decisions together. We won’t all agree all the time, and that’s ok. That is what I mean by conflict. Now sometimes the word “conflict” connotes a disagreement that gets ugly, out of hand. That’s not ok.
Conflict, disagreement will happen – in our close relationships and in our church. It is inevitable and it is ok. Conflict itself is not the problem. Disagreement itself is not the issue. What matters is how we work with our differences and disagreements. When we are able to work with our disagreements well in our personal relationships, those relationships are stronger. When we are able to work with our disagreements and conflicts well in the church, our church is healthier. When we are able to transform conflict, not only is our church healthier, it is a stronger witness to the world about the power of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ. A community where conflict is worked with creatively is a breath of fresh air in a world that tends to manage conflict poorly. On the other hand, people will not be attracted to communities where conflicts become ugly fights. Who needs more of that? Working creatively with conflict is one place where the rubber meets the road in our faith.
Reinhold Niebuhr is a theologian who has deeply shaped my thinking about Christian faith and life. In one of his books he writes this: Christian faith is no sentimental thing. It is a faith that takes all the dimensions of life into consideration. (Justice and Mercy, 34) Christian faith is not unrealistic about the presence of conflict in communities and disagreements in personal relationships.
Matthew 18 is a great example of the realism of Christian faith, and of its practicality. As God’s people who follow Jesus Christ, we will encounter conflict. It will be helpful to have some idea of how to deal with it creatively and constructively. Here is a roadmap.
If another member of the church sins against you. Interesting beginning. Does this imply the possibility of a conflict-free community – “If”? One of the resources I used as a member of the Conflict Transformation Team and as a District Superintendent was something produced by JustPeace, the Center for Mediation and Conflict Transformation. Here is what it has to say about conflict: Conflict is a natural part of a creation that is relational and diverse, a creation in which we are free to make choices. God declares it good. We will always have conflict. Let us not seek the absence of conflict but the presence of shalom or justpeace. Conflict is a natural part of creation. I think this is a biblical view when one takes in the whole scope of the biblical witness. “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Ephesians 4:6). Paul does not presume we will be anger-free, but that we have choices about what to do with our anger. Our lives will not be conflict-free, but we have choices about what to do with conflict.
So why the “If”? One choice we can make when we disagree with someone, or even when someone disappoints us or hurts us in a smaller way – and I emphasize smaller way because I am not talking here about physical threats or harms, or deep psychological threats or harms – when we are hurt in a small way or disappointed, we can choose to let it go.
There are a couple of important movements here. One is to ask how we may be contributing to a situation of disagreement or conflict. If we hearken back to an earlier point in Matthew 18, we have words that describe the possibility that we are a cause for others to stumble. Sometimes when we feel a disagreement or conflict, maybe it is an occasion for our own learning and growth as much as anything else.
Sometimes when there is disagreement or conflict, sometimes when we have been disappointed or hurt in a small way, we can just let it go. A number of years ago, I read these wise words from theologian and popular author Lewis Smedes. Forgiving always comes with blame attached; anybody who gets forgiven knows when he has first been blamed. What we often need is not to be forgiven, but to be indulged a little. Not every annoyance needs forgiveness. Some pains beg only for a little magnanimity. I need it from my wife when I switch channels mindlessly on the television set. She needs it from me when she stretches her short stories at dinner into full-length novels. With a little magnanimity, the quality of the big soul that puts up with small pains, we can reserve serious forgiveness for serious offense. (A Pretty Good Person, 170) Not every hurt may require forgiveness. Not every disagreement needs to be pursued. Magnanimity is the reason for the “If” at the beginning of Matthew 18:15.
If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. When we have conflict or disagreement, at work, in the church, even in our closest relationships, we often seek allies before we do anything else. We find people who will declare us “right.” It feels so good. Then we go to the other person to let them know the error of their ways! This is not a good process for working creatively and constructively with conflict. Go first to the person you have an issue with. This principle applies in our close relationships and in our communities. Find ways to talk to that person. Listen well. Use “I” statements – “here is what I am experiencing,” rather than “you” statements – “you always do this.” Actually, avoid “always” and “never.”
If that doesn’t work, doesn’t move the relationship forward or help the community resolve an issue, get help. It is o.k. to ask for help. Sometimes our own bootstraps are not strong enough to pull us up and out. We get by with a little help from our friends – Beatles and biblical! For individual relationships, seek out a friend, counselor, maybe even a pastor to help. In the church, we have a staff-parish relations committee that is there to help when there is conflict involving staff, and other persons to help in other circumstance.
Tell it to the church. The church has resources that are of help in working with conflict. Prayer is a resource. Lord Jesus Christ, you are the light of the world. Fill my mind with your peace. Fill my heart with your love. Fill my soul with your joy. As we nurture our inner lives by practicing spiritual disciplines and deepening our theological reflection, we are better able to work creatively with conflict. The church has models for working with conflict at a community level, models that take Matthew 18 seriously.
If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Matthew 18 may have as its initial paradigm a situation where there has been some clear wrong-doing. There are times for accountability when healthy community practices have been flagrantly violated. But the processes here are applicable to wider situations of disagreement and conflict, and here we acknowledge that not every disagreement or conflict can be resolved. There are times when we need to live with our disagreements as best we can. There are even those rare times when someone chooses to leave. A few weeks ago I made reference to someone who left this church when a previous pastor left open the possibility that Muslims might be in heaven. He disagreed so strongly that he left. There is realism here. There is disappointment and sadness when we cannot resolve all our disagreements, but it happens. Yet the possibility for future agreement is always there. Jesus’ ministry often focuses on the Gentiles and tax collectors. There is a certain beautiful irony in this passage about treating persons as Gentiles and tax collectors.
Disagreement happens. Conflict is a natural part of a creation that is relational and diverse, a creation in which we are free to make choices. Yet we are reminded that where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them. God is with us, always. God empowers us to make decisions – binding and loosing, but God does not simply walk away. God is there – source of wisdom and courage in the midst of disagreement and conflict. God is there – source of forgiveness when we need it. Thanks be to God.
Working creatively and constructively with conflict is one place where the rubber meets the road in our faith. It is one powerful witness to God’s gracious presence in our lives. Amen.