Many pastors are tempted to just skip over this Gospel text, to talk about something easier than sin and conflict in congregations. But, talk about it we must, because our lives are filled with sin, and our congregations always have the potential for conflict. There are lots of ways to sin, that’s why there are ten commandments, and millions of pages of legal language to define what each one means. For today, I only want to talk about the kind of sin that relates to communication.
I want to start with a technical, language issue. There are two words in verse 15 that are not in all of the earliest Greek manuscripts. One version of the text reads: “if someone sins against you” with “you” in the singular, not “you-all”. The focus with this perspective is that one person hurts another person. Bill lied to Sue; Marcia gossiped about John.
Sin is about broken relationships, causing one person to not trust the other, making it hard for them to love each other. This interpersonal sin affects more than just the two people directly involved, since they belong to families and friends, and the sin challenges the trust in many people. But the focus is on the two key players.
Some ancient texts omit the “against you”, so the focus is on the health of the church body. The text then reads, “If someone sins …” Now Jesus is talking about sins against the body of the Church, against the unity of the community.
This sin is more typically about the spreading of discontent with one or more other members, or the spreading of differing doctrines. This kind of sin has a broader impact, affecting many members of the congregation, or even many congregations. Sin always affects the relationship between people and God. When a few people hurt, many feel the pain, and many wonder about God’s presence in the relationship.
Often, sin begins with a distrust or a disrespect of another person. Behind that mistrust is a lack of trust in God to be present in the relationship. When that mistrust is communicated to another, people begin to talk about one another, instead of with each other. When this kind of unhealthy communication becomes widespread, it is hard to stop.
… I’ve been reading a novel about a shipwreck in the Atlantic in 1914 called The Lifeboat, by Charlotte Rogan. Thirty-nine people are crammed in a lifeboat really intended for 25-30 people. For almost three weeks, they battle the elements, waiting to be rescued. They also battle their emotions: grief, fear, mistrust. They struggle with hunger and thirst, tired and cold bodies. They form alliances. A few people must sacrifice their lives so that many more may live long enough to be rescued.
People at first trust Hardy, the only seaman in the lifeboat, for his knowledge and leadership as he makes decisions to ration food and water, to keep the boat headed into the wind to minimize the rocking caused by the waves, to stay near the wreck so they could be found by other ships. But, eventually, small things he does lead some of the passengers to mistrust him.
They begin to challenge him openly, leading eventually to a mutiny. At first it’s just a bit of quiet grumbling among two or three; later, it becomes obvious manipulation. Finally, before they are rescued, Hardy is killed, forced overboard.
… In Confirmation class last week, we talked about Adam and Eve, and Cain and Abel, and the sinful nature of people. Since the beginning, sin has affected the health of the community. We remember the grumbling of the Israelites in the wilderness. We remember the disastrous leadership that led up to the destruction of the temple and the Babylonian exile. We remember the way Jesus was treated by the Jewish leaders.
Jesus knew discontent and disagreement and sin would happen, and wanted to prepare his followers for it. He wants our conversations with each other to be healthy and open-minded. He says, when there is a problem, start by talking with one another one-on-one, to see if the concern can be resolved simply, before it grows.
Jesus next says, if that doesn’t work, bring witnesses into the conversation, to be sure the conversation is open and fair. Perhaps the witnesses could act as mediators. When we have others helping us hear each other, we have a better chance of working out our differences.
Jesus says, if necessary, take the concern to the entire community. And, if resolution is not possible, if the sinners are destroying the health of the community, they should be cast out from the community, for the sake of the community.
… This model for conflict resolution, for dealing with sinners in the church, has become part of church constitutions. It is a painful process if it goes beyond the first two steps. It is not a perfect method, but if done with Jesus’ love, it can be useful. It depends so much on the attitudes of the participants. If all have open minds, hearts, and ears, it is possible to find a reasonable solution.
Of course, we should not restrict the use of this process to the church. These are wise words for any relationship. When people voice their concerns when the problems are small, it is so much easier to resolve the problems. When we have conversations with open hearts, minds and ears, we can hear what we need to hear more easily.
We can best have such conversations when we all keep our focus on God. The psalm response today reminds us to “Order our steps in God’s word”. If we keep our focus on God, it is much easier to live in community with each other and to not sin against each other and against the Body of Christ, the Church. As a side note here, just to make sure we understand what Jesus means, next week’s Gospel text is about forgiveness, 70-times-7 forgiveness.
Here’s a story about a conversation that prevented an ongoing conflict in a household. The way it was handled as a healthy conversation made it into a family joke instead of an ongoing battle.
Dot and Art listened to each other with open hearts and minds, and open ears. They married later in life, when they both had some definite ideas about how things should be done.
One night Dot made meatloaf for Art for the first time. As he began to eat his food, Art asked Dot where the Ketchup was. “Why do you need Ketchup?” she asked. “Because I always put it on meatloaf,” Art replied. Dot said, “You haven’t even tasted it yet. How do you know it needs Ketchup?”
They had a conversation about tasting food before adding a condiment. Art tried the meatloaf and agreed that it tasted great by itself. And, from then on, Dot always put Ketchup on the table by Art’s place whenever she made meatloaf. And Art never used it, until he made a sandwich of the left-overs.
Please pray with me. Lord, we are a messy people. Our lives, our emotions, our opinions, all can get in the way of loving and forgiving each other. Help us to put you first in our conversations. Help us to listen and learn with your ears, with your heart, and with your Spirit. For Jesus’ sake, Amen