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Season of Pentecost week 12, Common Lectionary year A

Straight Talk about Conflict in the Church ?!
(Matthew 18:15-20)

By Rev. Elisabeth R Jones
There’s a passage of scripture I learned, with a certain fear and trembling, during my own seminary days, one I’ve soberly passed on to those who’ve sat in my classes. 
It’s from Paul’s last letter to Timothy, exhorting the young man to “Preach the Gospel, in season and out of season, with all longsuffering and sound teaching.”

Preaching the Gospel can be an exhilarating task, exploring a text, finding nuggets of salvation – Good News –offering a word of hope, encouragement, promise, vision.
But that’s not easy with this Gospel text.This is the text preachers dread. The one about Conflict in the Church. (An aside, when a preacher sees this one coming and rubs their hands in glee, watch out!).

Here’s the dilemma: play safe, avoid the text or “preach the word in season or out.”

Here’s the thing:while it’s good and right to preach aboutthe merciful nature of God whose very nature is to seek the wellbeing of all, especially the weak and vulnerable, or to preach the saving power of God who frees slaves from bondage,the loving compassion of Jesus who has work Peter to do, no matter how many times he sinks beneath the waves, Gospel is also about conflict.

Many of us  become involved in the life of a faith communitybecause we hope  that here we will find faithful, good, ‘kindred spirits’ who share the love and joy of God with one another, and can do so without the petty back-biting that infects so many other social groups.  Many Sundays, we come to Church to worship, hopeful, or even desperate for an hour of respite,and peace from the din and turmoil of the world ‘out there.’

Perhaps  this has  been one of those weeks? Illness in the family, waiting for test results.  The early morning hassles of getting summer-sleepy children out the door for school on time.The boss or the co-worker, or the union, or the management,who have made our work week tense, fraught or fractious.

We know we should pray for all the turmoil in the world at large;for Syria, Libya, the economy, for the victims of disasters and wars who are struggling for survival, but we so wish we could bathe in a moment of bliss and peace, of uncomplicated fellowship and communion, here in this “sanctuary” ( = place of safety).

But we know it just isn’t so.
Conflict, and his cousins,
tension, friction, brokenness, anger, frustration,
and betrayal,
all came in with us today,
nodded their heads in our direction
and settled down in the pews beside us.
There is no ‘off-season’ for Conflict and the way it impactsthe life of a community of faith, either directly or indirectly.And much as we’d wish it, Church folk  are not immunized at the door against conflict, sin and hurt from the outside world, nor yet from one another within these walls. And we will. It’s not an “if”, but a “when.”
We will not only experience the sort of conflict that hurts, but we will also be the cause of hurt to someone else. It seems unfathomable to imagine that people who share a common purpose and vision will end up being hurt by and causing the hurt of those we are supposed to love like brothers or sisters. If it is any consolation, this entire book is filled with just such conflicts.  It happens, because we’re human. The question is, what can we  – and God – do about it?

Matthew’s five-verse process  – which one commentator alarmingly dubbed
“Rules for Fighting well in church”is at first blush a great one.It boils down to a solid maxim we need to do our utmost to emulate:
 “If someone has hurt you, tell them, face to face. If they don’t hear you, get others to go with you and tell them again.”
And conversely,“If someone tells you that you have hurt them, try to be open to hearing it.”

We have even adopted this as part of our Covenant of Harmony,
where we have promised ourselves that we will “speak with honesty,”
create an “atmosphere of mutual respect” where differences are accepted, and where we will try to “talk directly to the person or group with whom we disagree.”  

But it is not so easy is it?
The sort of courage it takes to risk telling someone that they have ‘offended’ or ‘hurt’ us is huge. The risks of further hurt usually stop us in our tracks, and we dread the collective tension that such honesty can provoke.
Is this text any use then? 
Some commentators have dismissed it as a Matthean attempt to police his own community, and would rather we ignored it completely as unworthy of the sort of teaching of Jesus.
But I think our problem lies in using it as some sort of context-less dictum, rather than seeing it in light of the larger Gospel narrative. Matthew’s chapter 18 begins with disciples asking Jesus “who is the greatest in the kingdom” – this after Jesus has been teaching about servanthood for days.So Jesus sits them down for a good long talk,
telling them and us – yet again – about this topsy turvy Dream of God, where what matters most to God are not the greatest, but the least.“The kingdom is filled with people who become trusting like a child trusts a loving parent” Jesus then comes out with a string of hyperbole – exaggerated statements that should have us laughing uproariously, even as we get the point: that working for the kingdom is not about getting ahead,
but about making the way easier for the little ones.

It has to mean something that the passage immediately before Matthew’s covenant of harmony is the story of the Lost Sheep,where the shepherd leaves 99 sheep to go looking for the lost one. He ends that story with the words “So it is not the will of God our Father in heaven that one of these little ones should ever be lost.”

How different this passage about conflict looks in the light of the whole chapter, and indeed the whole Gospel.
Jesus has just been saying that God’s Dream  is not about winning, being the greatest, it’s not even about never getting lost. It’s about what we do when we’re hurting, and what we do when we’ve hurt someone.Gospel, and being a community that makes a difference in the world is about making the way plain in the desert for the children to find their way home.
It’s about going over hill and dale, cliff and crevasse to find the most ornery, wayward, unrepentant wandering one,to bring them back, rejoicing, to the fold.

It’s about belonging. When Conflict happens among humans
its biggest fallout is fraction, dissociation, alienation.
To this Jesus is saying, “Stay connected.”
“When one has hurt you. Stay connected. If they won’t listen,
get others to help you stay connected.
And if they still can’t see that what they’re doing is hurting
the wellbeing of the community, then
– here’s the kicker –“you should treat them as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.”

For two millennia  now, we in the Church  have been trying to kid ourselves that this last linegives us permission to cast the awkward ones, the troublesome ones, the ones who’ve hurt us, or others, out of this blessed place, somehow thinking that by so doing,
that even if we can’t be immunized against conflict, we can create a quarantined, disinfected sanctum for ourselves.

But, would we listen? Listen to Jesus a moment? If he began this teaching with this sentence
“It’s not God’s will that any of the little ones, the wayward ones, the hurtful or hurting ones should ever be lost,”then what might his closing line mean?

Jesus, who was well-known to eat with Gentiles, heal, raise their daughters from fatal illness, and call tax-collectors into his closest group of followers. Well, this Jesus enjoins the community of disciples, to treat the sinner, the conflict causer, the trouble makerwithin our midst as he would treat a Gentile, or a tax collector….  Do you see?

Now I get why he ends  this tense lesson on conflict within the fold with the promise
 “For where two or three”
– you know the ones who were fighting not six verses before
“are gathered in my name”
– gathered as he would gather them, lost sheep, children, the least, gathered around a common purpose, a common dream,
“there I am among them.”
THANKS BE TO GOD that he is!

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