September 10, 2017

14th Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling

Matthew 18:15-20

To Listen: 170910_001

“I’ve got a lot of problems with you people.”  Remember those lines from Frank Costanza in Seinfeld, presiding over Festivus, a made up festival that begins by gathering your family and then listing all the ways they have disappointed you in the last year.   It seems like the lectionary would like us to start out the same way.  Now that we’re all back together as a family, about ready to start a new program year, let’s review the process on how to deal with problem people.  You know who you are.

The first church that I served had today’s gospel text in its constitution as the process for termination of membership. If you wanted to remove a contentious or problematic member, you were required to follow these words of Jesus.  Only then, could you remove someone from membership.  We never utilized that part of the constitution, although I can remember one or two times that I wanted to.

Apparently, church conflict is nothing new.  Where two or three are gathered, there’s going to be an argument.   Jesus must have known that his followers would eventually start planning things, or clarifying theology, or have to respond to a social situation, or choose carpet, or elect some narcissist as a pastor.

Conflict is inevitable.  How we handle it, makes us church.  It may also be how we are marked as Christians outside the church. We don’t just cut people off, hold a grudge, or slam the door, we seek reconciliation, as long as we can. Only at the end, if all else fails, do we consider the offender to be a gentile or tax collector…..who, by the way, were the people that Jesus invited to dinner.

Truth be told, there’s not an end game.  It’s a loop trail, with ever widening circles, ever new strategies, never giving up on that one who seems so “other” to you. If other parts of Matthew are a guide in understanding this little section of Jesus advice, we’re not being given a rigid process to follow until we give up.  Jesus is imagining out loud how the church might get creative in dealing with wounds or problems.

First, you actually address the person who has hurt you.  You don’t post it on Facebook or send out a Tweet, or stand around with your friends and school and complain.  You talk to each other.  You risk saying, “I was hurt, or I was offended by this or that action.” Jesus probably started with this because it totally goes against our nature. It is so much more exhilarating to talk ABOUT them than WITH them, especially with a group of people who won’t challenge us but simply confirm our opinion of that total loser. The body of Christ deals with conflict directly.  If we hurt one another, we sit down together and we talk about it, face to face.

But sometimes that doesn’t work.  We’re too entrenched in our own opinions or perspectives.  We’re shaped by our own baggage so sometimes we don’t read situations or people or words right.  We hear a critical mother or the uncle who verbally abused us.  We use different metaphors or languages; different styles of intelligence.  And we totally miss one another.

So then, Jesus says, bring in someone else.  Conflict resolution often needs another set of ears, someone who can hear what we cannot; someone who has an interest in reconciliation, not in keeping things stirred up; someone who can be a reliable and honest witness to the conversation.  Sometimes conflicts are so intense, it’s best to start with this step.

And, then if that doesn’t work, widen the circle.  If reconciliation can’t occur, sometimes there’s a community problem.  This happens particularly when the conflict is between people who represent difference experiences, or races, or levels of privilege, or background or any of the ways we divide up people into certain groups.  Maybe it just takes a whole community, or two communities together, to figure out the hardest problems.

We’re living in time when dealing with conflict seems especially necessary. Many of us are struggling with how to deal with political differences right now.  So much anxiety fills the news.  So many decisions scare people on both sides of the political aisle.  So many of us quick to pontificate but stuck in knowing how to engage with people that believe differently.

Maybe more than ever before, we have to go back to our faith to figure out how to be agents of reconciliation in this tense environment.  We need to get creative in how we bridge divides.  Certainly, the civic realm is not focused on reconciliation.  Perhaps, that’s our job right now.

What words, what processes, what programs, what attitudes will move us into circles of relationship?  Do we just vent, or do we engage with difference? Do we just talk to those like us, or do we risk vulnerability or become open to learning a thing or two from people who are simply “other” to us.

As I thought about this, I had an idea about a step to add.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I think it’s important to speak out and to be direct about those things that go against goodness and justice.  The church has something to say about the welcome of strangers, the care of the sick, the welfare of the least.  Those on the edges are our core concern.

But I wonder if, before we start to speak, before we go to our sibling, we engage in a courageous and fierce moral inventory of our own heart.  Before we tell others that they’re wrong, we understand clearly where we have been wrong.  When did I not welcome the stranger?  When did I not defend the least but rather provided justification for the strong?  When did I use unkind or demeaning language to describe an enemy?  When did I profile someone? When did I spout off just so I can hear accolades or praise? When did I put myself above another, making myself great at the expense of someone not quite able to compete?  When did I do the same things that I’m about to criticize?  How am I the same as the person I’m about to engage?

The world usually has two ways, my way or the highway.

We are people of the third way, the way of Jesus, this one who never gave up on a single human being, who forgave his enemies while being executed, who gave Peter another chance, believing that this failed disciple could love as much as the universe can love.  Jesus, who sits at tables with gentiles and tax collectors, presidents and voters, members who offend and complain, people who hurt and are hurt; Jesus who died so that we get to start over again, who will not let even death cheat us of one final possibility for reconciliation.

If there are two or three who gather to trust this Holy One, this Jesus, then heaven itself will bind itself to those few.  And no one will be lost. Maybe that’s why we start with these words on Rally Day.  We need to start learning how to trust Jesus, and we need to practice being people of reconciliation.  We’re not going to learn it out there.  Our children aren’t going to learn it any where else. Only here, together, where we end up sharing a table with a welcome to saint and sinner, tax collector and gentile, you and me.