7 Sept. 2014 sermon — Matt. 18:15-20

DISCLAIMER: I believe sermons are meant to be heard. They are the word proclaimed in a live exchange between God and the preacher, and the preacher and God, and the preacher and the people, and the people and the preacher, and the people and God, and God and the people. Typically set in the context of worship and always following the reading of scripture, sermons are about listening and speaking and hearing and heeding. At the risk of stepping outside such boundaries, I share sermons here — where the reader will have to wade through a manuscript that was created to be spoken word. Even if you don’t know the sound of my voice, let yourself hear as you read. Let your mind see as you hear. Let your life be opened to whatever response you begin to hear within you.

May the Spirit Speak to you!

7 September 2014 – 13th Sunday after Pentecost

Click here to read scripture first: Matthew 18:15-20 (NRS)


I can’t go into all the sorted details, but last week when I was gathered with about a hundred other pastors at a conference in Montreat; I heard a whole lot of stories about churches in the middle of major fights. One of them had to do with disagreements over denominational matters, but most of them came down to people who really couldn’t find a way to get along. Small churches, mid-sized, and large ones too that to one degree or another are tearing each other apart. The worst I heard was ruling elders having shouting matches at each other in the parking lot after session meetings, though I’ve actually attended session meetings where the elders and pastor on their feet around the table were pounding fists and shaking fingers at each other. You should know that I was an outside guest at such meetings and not the pastor doing the pounding. . . . Most all of the church fights I heard about last week were among good, God-fearing Presbyterians. Just like us: well-educated, successful, family folks who could not get along. Some of the stories sounded totally justified to me. I mean, if the church I was a member of, without any input from us, went off and changed not only the time of Sunday worship but also the style of it; I think I might be ready to throw a few punches. If my beloved music director suddenly was fired; I’d go to battle. If the pastor who had held my hand through life’s traumas, whom I had come to love and trust completely, suddenly was being charged with something outlandish like taking two full days off each week; I just might have a few choice words for the accusers. We’re the church. Everyone says it’s not supposed to be like this. But the truth of it is, sometimes – actually far too often these days – it is.

You all know that. Because whether it’s been during your tenure as a member here or somewhere else, conflict happens. Some of you have told me of the difficult days for HPC during the 1980s. I actually learned last week that many congregations of the South experienced very similar difficulties when a particular experience-driven spiritual gifts movement was sweeping the nation. I guess it was something in the water or something but suddenly certain folks were having these ecstatic spiritual experiences – which are not bad in and of themselves. The problem comes when those who have them seek to make them the norm – especially among frozen chosen Presbyterians – and begin judging themselves better than those who haven’t yet been caught by the Spirit in quite the same way. It can be incredibly divisive; as it was in the early church we read about in the epistles, and as I understand it was here for those around at the time. It feels like overnight a major eruption has happened and good church folks are locked in battle with one another. . . . Church fights. Conflict sets in that rages far beyond a simple problem like what to have for dinner tonight.

I also heard again last week about the levels of conflict. We don’t have to look too far into the world to find evidence of these. Someday we’re bound to experience such things if not in life together in the church, then perhaps in our families or neighborhoods or nation. Some of us might be embroiled in it right now. The gospel of Matthew wouldn’t have recorded Jesus’ words about conflict between people if Jesus expected we’d never experience it. We might as well get prepared for when we come across it. So let me tell you about it. . . . Level one conflict is a simple problem – like what to have for dinner tonight. Or what color to paint the sanctuary ceiling. Level two’s a disagreement: one party insists that Thai food far outweighs the merits of Italian. Level three’s a bit more intense: who makes the best Thai. Coalitions begin to form. Personal attacks are had. Everyone assumes they know each other’s motives. Level four’s flight or fight. The objective is to break relationship – hurt, punish, humiliate the other. Folks start questioning motives and attacking the integrity of others. This is when churches so often move to fire the pastor thinking if that pastor is gone, everything again will be all right. Of course, it rarely is that simple. And then we get to level five. The conflict is intractable. We call it out and out war, where the objective is to destroy each other. The conflict now has taken on a life of its own and cannot be stopped. Though at this stage it’s often ambiguous what the fight is all about, the parties typically believe they are defending an eternal cause. They cannot; they will not back down. The sad thing is, this kind of level five conflict has been on the rise in churches. It’s a killer for clergy and members alike. The sooner we can recognize what’s going on among us, the greater chance we have to guard our life together from exploding out of control as it does at such high leveled conflict.

The best thing to do is advice not that far from Jesus’. Get the parties to sit down together. See if they can begin to understand what each other wants and what lies underneath the wants of one another. We’ve got to get each other out of our reactive lizard brains into a more rational state of respect and open listening. If at all possible, the church can surround all the sides and call them to different behavior. If you really want to know more about it so that you could travel to somewhere like Israel or Iraqi just to give it a try, you can read more about it in the book Getting to Yes where I understand this form of Principled Negotiating is outlined.

It sounds a little bit like Jesus, doesn’t it? At least according to the gospel of Matthew, chapter 18 where he seemed to be laying out his rules for life together as the church. Step one: recognize the sin against you. Before you pick up the phone to call person 3 about what person 2 did to you, seek out person 2. And as we know these were the days before email, instant messaging, and texts; go to person 2 in person. It would be great, wouldn’t it, if that could be the end of it. If you could just come to me to say, “Pastor Jule, when you said that crazy thing in class the other day, it really hurt my feelings.” “Or Pastor Jule, when you did or didn’t do what I was hoping for the other week, I was left feeling very under-appreciated.” Wouldn’t that be awesome?! We could sit down together and have a rational conversation about what I did or said and what that meant for you – how it hurt you or made you angry and why, because of what need of yours was going unaddressed. We’d shed a tear or two, have a prayer together, and before we know it be feeling so much more closely connected because we were able to hear the deep needs of one another. Hopefully we’d be laughing by the time we saw each other to the door and appropriately hug it out as we departed. Now, I let all my best friends know that we only can have such a conversation when we’re both ready for it. Not when I’m dog tired at the end of a long day, or when my mind is pre-occupied with a zillion other details. It’s fair to request such a conversation, but I find it helps if both parties are in a state of being able to be truly open to one another. Of course, I statements always are best. And I don’t mean like: “I think that you’re a jerk!” But like: “I am hurt when I’m not listened to because it feels like I’m not important.” Or “I don’t like hearing harsh words because that kind of anger scares me.”

Maybe it won’t always work. Which is exactly why Jesus puts forth step number two. If the first attempt breaks down, take along another church member. Now, we have to be smart in these days of frequent litigation and accusations that could ruin a person’s life. But if the problem isn’t one involving the abuse of power, taking along a few other listeners is a great idea. We don’t want to create a sense of ganging up on someone. The others are there merely to listen. Witnesses who can hear out each others’ side. And if that doesn’t work, it’s time for the fault to go public. Tell it to the whole church so that together we all might be able to bring the other’s behavior back in line – which is always the point of such confrontation. Treating another like a Gentile or tax collector doesn’t mean cutting them off – this was Jesus speaking. The one who went out of his way to show an extra dose of compassion to Gentiles and tax collectors. He expects the same from his church.

I realize this might sound a bit like a very dry lecture inspired by our Book of Order’s “Rules of Discipline,” which is why I think the Apostle Paul’s words to the Christians in Rome come in handy. “Owe no one anything,” he writes, “except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8). When we can do so in a respectful way, it’s most loving to have a direct conversation with each other about the ways we have hurt one another. I’m not talking about bringing along your laundry list of all the ways the pastor has been failing to meet your expectations and getting ready to fire away, but sitting down with each other – in love – to give and receive the truth needed. It’s loving to take responsibility for our own feelings and faults instead of blaming everyone and everything else. It’s loving to work out a way together to live compassionately with each other on our good days and on the days when we sin against one another. Being merciful to one another because, in the wise words of our Home Book Club author Jim Dant: “if everyone has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, I assume that includes me. And if you and I are both sinners, then I can’t stand against you – we’d be fighting. I can’t stand over you – I’m not your judge. I won’t stand below you and be humiliated. I only feel comfortable – Christ-like – standing beside you, walking with you, struggling with you, and gratefully allowing you to do the same for me. Practicing compassion. Trusting God to do what only God can do” (Dant, Finding Your Voice, pp. 160-161). . . . When we live like that, we fulfill the law of love. We show forth the God of mercy to the whole wide world. May this be our way today, tomorrow, and forever!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2014  (All rights reserved.)

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