Saturday, September 3, 2011

Conflict, Jesus’ way

Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

      One of my favorite TV shows is The Vicar of Dibley. It's an old British comedy starring Dawn French. Much of the action takes place at the weekly parish management meeting at a table with a crew of real characters. Nothing happens in Dibley without some kind of problem or conflict. They tease each other, disagree with each other, propose preposterous ideas, and love each other enough to find a way to work together to accomplish the task for the week.
It’s not pretty, and it’s not always the way things happen in real life, but it’s fun to watch, and their love for each other is what stands out for me. They work intentionally to resolve conflict before it gets so bad, one of them has to leave. In a way, it reminds me of Hope’s council – we love each other and work hard to find agreement, and have a lot of fun doing so.
As a congregation, we have not so long ago been through a time when differences of opinion were not handled with love or even kindness. While just about every bone in my body – and probably yours, too – wants to avoid this topic, this text from Matthew does offer us the opportunity to remind ourselves how to live in loving community with each other.
Conflict happens everywhere, in families, at work, in congregations, in organizations, in politics, in government. Conflict can be good. Moving to a new home or staying in the old one; too many people in worship; receiving a bequest. Some conflict leads organizations and people into a new future, more open to being led by God.
Poorly managed conflict usually goes something like this, at times in larger scale, but often in very personal ways: Bill resented the way Susie resented him. One day, Bill arrived at a meeting just looking for a chance to vent his anger. Susie appeared to be calm, resisting venting her own anger, but it was simmering just below the surface. It was obvious that the problem was much deeper than the particular issue they were arguing about at that moment, but had in fact started years before.
Looking in from the outside, we can see that they should have talked out their issues face to face when they first started. But they didn’t. Each little problem was added to the previous ones, until the collection of small problems made one huge emotional mess. After that day, Bill left the organization, and Susie carried on as if his leaving made no difference, other than to lessen the tension.
In modern times and ancient times, conflict is always present, and needs to be managed.  In this Greek Testament conversation with his disciples, Jesus lays out a plan for healing conflict. Although our English Bible has translated the Greek to say “a member of the church,” the Greek says “adelphos sou,” which means “your brother.” We could also correctly translate it as “your brother or your sister.” This gives a better sense of the importance of healing the conflict.
In Matthew’s time, we at Hope would be a very large congregation. Look around the room and notice who is here. The people in this room would often be the only family you have, because you have been kicked out of your biological family for believing in Jesus. At this time in Matthew’s community they were also working to develop the basic theology and live it out. What did it mean that Jesus died and was raised? How should they love one another? Who deserves forgiveness?
So, when Jesus tells us how to heal a conflict within the congregation, he means we are to work together as family, seeking to restore Christ’s peace in our church home.
The process of conflict management laid out by Jesus begins with a one-to-one, face-to-face conversation with the person who has caused the problem. If a one-to-one, face-to-face conversation doesn’t work, two or three witnesses should be brought so the brother or sister knows the community cares about them. This also ensures a fair hearing. Perhaps the accuser is in the wrong, not the accused. These witnesses are not involved in the conflict; they are not to take sides, just watch and listen.
These first two steps make sense to us, even if we find them hard to do. But the third step in the passage surprises us. If the brother or sister will not stop their hurtful ways, then the person should be considered a Gentile and a tax collector – in other words cast out of the community.
Jesus, who welcomed Gentiles and tax collectors into his loving embrace, would most likely not have said this. While those who caused trouble might deserve to be asked to leave the community, I believe Jesus would not want them to be treated the way the Jews treated Gentiles and tax collectors.
Instead, Jesus would want sinners within the community – as well as those outside the community – to be treated with love. Paul urges: Love one another, live honorably, and put on the Lord Jesus Christ. If we remember that Jesus loves even those with whom we have conflict, it is easier for us to love them.
Jesus also says in this text, “When two or three are gathered together seeking to resolve a conflict, remember that I am with you.” In saying this, Jesus has taken a traditional Jewish thought and adapted it. Shekinah is the dwelling or presence of God with God’s people, promised since the days of Abraham. Jesus takes that thought and puts himself into it. Where God’s people gather, there Jesus/God’s Shekinah is present with them.
Going a step further, we can say that when we are having conflict, or working to resolve it, Jesus is present with us, and within each of us. When we recognize Jesus’ presence in the person with whom we are having a conflict, it can make it easier to seek peace with them.
If we use the method of conflict resolution described by Jesus, we will do what Paul says: love one another. While it is not possible to legislate love, we can adopt loving ways of handling differences of opinion. Listening to each other with love and mutual respect can lead us to well-managed conflict. We can use love in any situation, any organization, including the congregation and the family we live in.
When we treat the person as a brother or sister in our family, it can help us love them. (Not always! J) That love for the other person gives us more reasons to manage conflict in healthy ways.
Remembering that Jesus lives within each of us can help us love the other person – or persons – involved in the conflict.
Remembering that there are usually many ways to accomplish one goal can help us manage conflict in healthy ways.
Remembering that Jesus is present and watching can encourage us to treat each other the way he would. Guilt does have a purpose, you know! J

Please pray with me. Oh, Lord, you faced conflict often in your life on earth and loved everyone, even though they did not always love you. Help us to manage conflict with your love and your presence in mind. Amen  

Props: None

Who knows what this weekend is?
This is Labor Day weekend in America.

Does anybody know why we have this holiday? 

Let’s list some jobs people do.  
make things for us to use (shoes, houses, computers),
grow food for us to eat (tomatoes and beef),
keep us healthy (doctors and nurses),
keep us safe (police and fire and EMS),
find new inventions (new medicine),
help us communicate with each other (phone, email),
help us enjoy life (music),
like play (baseball, football, soccer).
help us communicate with God (pastor, deacon, Stephen minister).

God has given us the ability to work, and the talents to use when we work.

God also asks us to take time off work, to learn about God and enjoy God’s presence. On Sundays, our job is to come to worship and Sunday school.

Pray: Thank you, God for all sorts of jobs to do, and for the people who do them. Amen