What's Tony Thinking

Conflict in the Church, My Sermon of Sept. 10, 2023


Conflict in the Church/Matthew 18: 15 – 35/September 10, 202, A sermon preached at Joseph United Methodist Church, Joseph, Oregon

“Conflict in the Church.” Why in the world would a guest preacher bring up and preach on a topic like that? Trust me, it wasn’t my idea. I didn’t pick it. This is the appointed reading for this Sunday of the church year. 

There’s this thing called “the lectionary.” Assigned readings for each Sunday of the year. You don’t have to be bound by it. But there are some good reasons for it. One is that most of us preachers have a few favorite Scripture passages. Left to our own devices we tend mount our preferred hobby horse and gallop off, leaving the congregation thinking, “haven’t we heard this one before?” Sticking to the appointed readings, and preaching on them, forces preachers (and congregations) to deal with stuff they might prefer to avoid. 

Case in point. “Conflict in the Congregation,” or at least conflict between church members. Not an easy topic. I know, I know . . . “I didn’t come to church to hear about conflict. Got enough of that already. Besides, I could listen to the news if I wanted that!” I hear you. Trust me, I get it.

But there is, maybe, something to be said for talking about conflict in the church when you’re not in the middle of one. And maybe there’s something to be said for talking about it or hearing about it from a guest preacher and summer member, a sort of insider/ outsider. 

Of this much, I’m sure. Conflict happens in churches and it happens in all churches. It has become so common, that in recent years congregations that complete a profile for a prospective pastor have to answer questions about conflicts in their church, how they were dealt with and how they were resolved — if they were resolved. Likewise, clergy on their profile now have to answer questions about their approach to conflict and what skills and experience they bring to dealing with conflict.

So as I said, I didn’t pick this passage with its fairly detailed process for what to do if a fellow church member sins against you. But I did fudge it a little. I added in the parable that follows, the parable of the servant who is forgiven a debt so stupendously large that there was no way he would ever pay it off, but who then turns around and refuses to forgive even a small debt owed to him by another servant. Point being: God has forgiven you plenty, with the idea that you might keep that in mind when someone you know needs a little grace.

But the larger point is that if we only read the bit about how to handle it if a church member has sinned against you, it can sound like a pretty cut-and-dried and legalistic instruction manual for how to excommunicate someone. 

So it’s important to hear that particular passage in its context. And that context is all about forgiveness and mercy and the importance of restoring relationships. The passage just before our own, is the story of the shepherd who leaves behind 99 sheep to go look for the one lost sheep. God is really into finding the lost and taking big, wild risks to do so.

That and a lot of other stuff about sweeping your side of the street, taking a look at yourself, precedes this passage. Even earlier, we got the famous line about removing the log in your own eye, before undertaking to get the splinter out of your neighbor’s. 

Then after our passage, we get Peter asking, “How many times must I forgive someone? How about seven?” To which Jesus answers, “How about seventy times seven?” Meaning, stop keeping score! And then tells Jesus this story about the servant who needs to wake up to how much he has been forgiven.

So all around our reading it’s about stuff like mercy, forgiveness and restoration. That’s the context in which we are to hear what Jesus has to say about dealing with conflict. Moreover, we are reminded that we too stand in need of grace and forgiveness. We come to any effort at reconciliation aware that we are ourselves are not perfect, that we too have done and said things we regret. 

In other words, we approach a sinner as a fellow flawed human who has known God’s mercy.

If we go charging off to set someone straight about their screw-ups but are clueless or in denial about our own foibles and failures, it will almost certainly end badly. If, on the other hand, we go to talk with someone who has hurt us, and are aware that we ourselves have our own litany of screw-ups and yet have received grace, it’s a different ballgame. 

So, even with all this as the background, I get that we may not be sure that the process outlined here is the way we want to deal with problems. And it may sound more like Law — “you must,” “you should,”— than Grace, which is “you may.” But before we dismiss it out of hand, the passage deserves a more careful hearing. 

Let’s focus a bit more on these words of Jesus about what to do if a fellow member of the congregation has hurt or sinned against you. Step one, “If another member of the congregation sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.” 

First move, talk to the person who has hurt you alone, privately, which is sort of the opposite of how it often goes, isn’t it? What oftens happens is, when someone feels hurt or ill-used, we talks to a bunch of other people, to tell them how awful said person is or about the terrrible thing that has been done unto us. These days, goodness, we might even post something on social media about it for anyone and everyone to read! When it comes to public humiliation, really, the Puritans got nothing on us.

So, one of the ways we can show grace to one another in the church is by talking to an offender alone and privately about a hurtful comment or another mis-cue. Good bosses, for example, don’t embarass an errant employee in front of the whole crew or office. They talk to them privately and alone, directly. 

And get a load of this: Jesus suggests that the person who has been hurt, the one sinned against, take the initiative here. Which again runs against the grain of how things often go, which is to sit on our hurt feelings, savoring our grievances, even maybe announcing, “He’s the one at fault, let him come to me.” Says Jesus, let what we might call the “victim,” take the initiative. Translation: you don’t have to be a powerless victim. You have power, agency. You take the initiative.

That said, there are situations when one-to-one may not the best move. No one needs to put themselves in an unsafe situation, alone, with a person who has been abusive or who has a track-record as a bully. 

Just this week a young pastor called to talk with me about a situation in her congregation where someone was trampling boundaries like a grizzly bear in a peach orchard. I said, “Maybe do not go to talk with this person alone.” 

Proceed directly to step two, which is, “Take one or two others along with you.” This doesn’t mean, take along your cheering section to gang up on the offender. No, the people you ask to accompany should be mature, wise elders (of any age) who understand that the goal isn’t revenge, but restoration of a broken relationship. 

If that doesn’t work, the next step may seem to us a real long shot, “If the member refuses to listen even to them, tell it to the church.” Well, I guess I’d be very cautious about that, about what that would look like, and under what circumstances it would happen. You hope to not go there.

But if you go there, it is not to be in an angry, self-righteous and judgmental way. This is not the Inquisition. This, remember, is the community of the forgiven trying to be honest about something that is a real problem, one that is hurting, maybe endangering people in the congregation. 

That brings us to the final step in this process. You’ve had the private, one-on-one conversation; you’ve tried bringing two wise elders along; you’ve brought the matter to the church, perhaps through its appointed leaders. Still, the offender has not listened, nothing has availed. What now? 

Step four, according to Jesus, “If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile or tax-collector,” which is to say someone who is not any longer part of the congregation. 

Sounds pretty awful, doesn’t it? And, for sure, in the hands of the self-righteous or those of little self-awareness, it can be just that — awful. These words have been used in some congregations, for example, to publically shame and condemn a young women who is pregnant but not married. We know of such horror stories. And so we recoil, rightly, from such spiteful behavior.

And yet . . . and yet . . . there are times when establishing a boundary, saying, “so long as you persist in this behavior” — say threatening to assault others in the congregation, or lying about people, or hitting on young women in the congregation, making them uncomfortable — means you cannot be here is necessary in order to protect those who are vulnerable. We don’t do anyone a favor by tolerating or overlooking abusive or threatening behaviors in the name of Christian love or compassion. 

So, it may sound awful to read, “treat that person as a Gentile or tax-collector,” meaning draw a line and say to an offender, “Right now, you’re on the wrong side of it.” We care about you, but so long as this is going on, you don’t get to be here. It breaks our heart, but for now we can do no other.

So that’s the process outlined here. Even if we still recoil from it, note this: in a culture that says, “If someone hassles you, forget them. It’s their problem, not yours,” we have to be impressed by the how persistant and time-consuming this effort is to restore a broken relationship. But the persistance asked of us is nothing compared to the persistance of Jesus in seeking us when we have been lost. 

And all this said, there’s maybe a bit of surprise-ending here. Jesus said, “Let that person be to you as a Gentile or a tax-collector,” (the latter being a Jewish person who works for the Roman occupiers and extorts money from his own people).

Here’s the suprise ending. Who did Jesus travel across the Sea of Galilee to minister to in the previous chapters? “Gentiles.” To whom does Paul tell us Jesus came to, in order to break down the wall of separation? Gentiles. Not to put to fine a point on it, but you and I, are those Gentiles.

And tax-collectors. Who did Jesus chose to take his meals with, to the outrage of the righteous? Why tax collectors and prostitutes! Whose home did Jesus chose to stay in when he visited Jericho? The house of the tax-collector, Zacchaeus. And what was the writer of this very gospel, the Gospel of Matthew, doing when Jesus said to him, “Follow me”? Well, he was working as a tax-collector, that was what Matthew was doing at the time. 

So to say, “Let that one be to you as a Gentile or a tax-collector” may be saying, “Yes, sometimes you do your best to work things out and it doesn’t work. And sometimes you may have to drawn a line to protect the community and its vulnerable members.” But remember always, as the prophet Isaiah said, “God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, God’s way not our ways. The line God draws is a bigger one, one that does not exclude anyone from God’s love or care, or from the possibility of change and a new beginning. 

We are not the community of the perfect. We are the community of the forgiven, called to hard and risky work of finding the lost sheep and mending broken relationships. 

In C. S. Lewis’s book, The Great Divorce, Lewis pictures hell as a city that is empty and desolate at its center surrounded by ever widening rings. That’s because people keep fighting with their neighbors and moving further out, then fighting with the new neighbors and moving still further our, until everyone is isolated and alone. 

In our world of brokenness and conflict, what work could be more important than being a community that faces brokenness and sin as best we are able, but doing so knowing that grace and mercy are the final word, the  enduring reality, made so by the cross of a loving God. Amen.   



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