Congregations and Conflict, Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 10, 2017

Proper 18

[RCL] Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 149; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.” (Matt. 18:15)

Congregations are communities of people. They usually function well. Some have very strong central authorities, and others work better with leadership by consensus. And all of them, from time to time, have conflicts that arise between members.

Speed Leas, a well-known expert in church conflict resolution, identifies levels of conflict which range from “Level One: a problem to solve,” to “Level Five: intractable situations where personalities have become the focus and energy centers on the elimination of the persons involved.” In this extreme condition, it is often necessary to bring in an outside person to deal with the explosive situation.[1]

Keeping congregations healthy is a mutual responsibility that requires the participation of everyone. In unhealthy churches, people often create a toxic triangle made up of the victim, the persecutor, and the rescuer. Once the triangle is established, it becomes more difficult to resolve a condition or address an issue. Often, the pastor is drawn in and expected to rescue everyone, but sometimes the pastor is the victim or even the persecutor. Wise leaders try to avoid getting triangulated so they can help resolve the situation from a detached perspective, but it isn’t always possible.

In Matthew’s text for today’s Gospel, Jesus addresses personal conflict by urging people to resolve their differences directly first, and then, if necessary, to bring others into the discussion. We aren’t given details or examples. Jesus’s mission is to create committed communities of believers that will witness God’s love to a battered and broken world.

There are some basic premises at work here: One is that Jesus teaches that God loves all God’s children and that our need to be right is not always helpful. The organization for families of alcoholics, Al-Anon, teaches this premise and reminds its members that all of us, including the alcoholic, have a Higher Power who is not taking sides.

The congregation is a place where people can work out differences in community by listening as much as lecturing, by understanding as much as demanding to be understood.

Another premise of Jesus is that healthy leaders are loving and primarily concerned about others. A small church in the Middle South has developed a strong core of healthy leadership over several decades. It carefully steers troubled people into places where they are loved and cared about, without allowing them to become leaders who, because of their own pain and suffering, could become toxic to others. This works, not because there is some secret group that puts people in their place, but because the entire leadership core cares about all the members, and helps troubled newcomers and long-time members fit in without being tagged as problem people.

The opposite situation is also common: a church where conflict is the main menu whenever the community is gathered. A small rural church was beset with conflict among its members, and quite proud of the fact. A number of diocesan clergy had taken turns at trying to help resolve the conflicts and were sent packing. The lifestyle of conflict became obvious to one pastor on a day when a new family showed up and two people got into a verbal spat in front of them. The family left, never to return. The pastor tried to point out that this behavior was damaging, but the people involved said this was who they were – like it or leave it! It was only after years of this conflict that a faithful and loving priest came to live in their community and slowly began to help them learn new behavior, mainly by modeling it himself.

If you are listening at this point you have likely been thinking of how your own faith community compares with these anecdotes. There are countless ways to evaluate the health of a congregation, and some are better than others. Every faith community has its own style of life that is built into its identity and history, and it can be difficult to change if it is unhealthy.

The passage from Matthew for this Sunday concludes with a well-known teaching: “Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, I will be in the midst of them.” This is always heard as a reassurance that God desires us to be in community, whether small or large. Being alone is not necessarily bad, but it can lead to isolation and arrogance. The Divine Triune God is a God of relationships, a dynamic force that empowers our spirituality and grounds us in faith.  The Trinity models what our relationships are to be: fully in unity and desiring of diversity.

Depression in congregations often comes from our tendency to allow only like-minded or similar types of people into the community of believers. Things become static and nothing challenges us to grow and become more like what God desires the Church to be. The healing of depression in a congregation comes when new relationships are formed. Some smaller congregations are organized into clusters or regional groups with shared leadership for that very reason. Vitality comes when new people enter the scene, new ideas are introduced, and the same old way of doing things is transformed.

Jesus does not envision the Church to be a place of contention and conflict. But we know stories of his disciples and from the Book of Acts that the Early Church experienced a lot of tension and disagreement, even among its apostolic leaders. However, as the church expanded into the Greco-Roman civilization in the West, it had to take on and embrace different norms and customs, as it does even today. The challenge for the Church will always be to find and implement new ways of proclaiming the Good News. When we are engaged in that enterprise, when we are more concerned about serving others than survival, there will be less conflict and more delight in the people that God sends to us and sends us to. The health of any congregation rests on its sense of mission, and its willingness to be flexible and welcoming, as Christ welcomes each of us. Amen.

[1] Much of Leas’s material is available on the Internet and from his books available through the Alban Institute.

Ben Helmer is a retired Episcopal priest living in the Diocese of Arkansas.

Download the sermon for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost (A).

The power to bind or loose, 13 Pentecost, Proper 18 (A) – 2014

September 7, 2014

Exodus 12:1-14 and Psalm 149 (or Ezekiel 33:7-11 and Psalm 119:33-40); Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

Church conflict is nothing new. Sometimes people think there should be no conflict in church, as though by virtue of being Christians we can and should cover over all disagreements with niceness. Jesus in his teaching in our gospel lesson today seems to proceed on the baseline assumption that conflict in Christian community is normal and natural, and should be dealt with honestly and with compassion.

As we all know, honesty and compassion are all too rarely the watchwords of our church conflicts. Many times anger, hurt feelings and lack of clear communication drive us toward either sweeping everything under the rug to keep the peace, or openly hostile entrenched positions that lead to explosions and people leaving the church permanently. The result is either a Body of Christ pristine on the outside but riddled with the disease and rot of resentment on the inside, or an openly dismembered and bleeding Body of Christ hemorrhaging members and vitality. There must be another way.

Jesus provides us another way in our gospel lesson today. First, he asks us to use direct and respectful communication. If we are struggling with something a church member has said or done, we are not to talk behind his or her back. Nor are we to stage a dramatic public confrontation at coffee hour. We are to take time aside, after the initial rush of emotion has subsided, and engage in dialogue with that person one-on-one.

If that conversation does not yield fruit, we create a small group of all parties involved to discern and pray together. If no progress is made, then we let transparency be our guiding principle and search for a solution as a whole church community, bearing one another’s burdens and seeking reconciliation.

Some disagreements are so deep that even these steps cannot ease them, and so Jesus says, “If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Now we breathe a sigh of relief. If we’ve checked all the boxes for responsible church conflict and still have gotten nowhere, we can shun and push aside these troublemakers. Hooray!

But it turns out that we are not off the hook at all. Why? Because of how Jesus treated gentiles and tax collectors. What can we learn from his words and actions toward them that we can then apply to our fellow church members?

When Jesus tells the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the temple, he emphasizes the Pharisee’s showboating pride and self-satisfaction versus the tax collector’s pained and private acknowledgement of his own sin. To treat a fellow church member like a tax collector would then be to realize that beneath the outer façade of combativeness, that person might be hiding a great deal of pain and regret over his or her own actions in the conflict. Jesus says this tax collector went home justified or forgiven. Could we not look for the hidden self of the person with whom we are in conflict and have our compassion awakened? Could we not realize that we ourselves might be in danger of praying like the Pharisee, proud and certain of our own righteousness?

Zaccheus was not just a tax collector but a chief tax collector and filthy rich. But he is so eager to see Jesus that he climbs a tree to get a better view of him. Jesus calls Zaccheus down and invites himself to dinner at Zaccheus’ home. How then can we treat a fellow church member crosswise with us like Jesus treats Zaccheus? We can invite this member to share her gifts with the church in some way, just as Jesus did with Zaccheus. And most importantly, we can share table fellowship together, in the parish hall, at the altar, in one another’s homes.

That is how Jesus treats tax collectors – with mercy, with invitation, with curiosity and with an eye toward their potential for growth and service to the Kingdom. Matthew, one of the 12 apostles, was a tax collector, and Jesus called him right from his money table to follow him. When Jesus tells us that we are to treat our most stubborn and contrary church members like tax collectors, he is telling us to treat them like members of his inner circle, disciples who are key to the spreading of the Word.

What about gentiles? If we are to treat church members with whom we disagree as gentiles, how does Jesus teach us by example to behave toward them?

One of Jesus’ most famous encounters with a gentile was the healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter. He initially refuses, saying that the food for the children of Israel cannot be given to the dogs. Her clever and persistent response, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table,” convinces him to change his mind. If our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who was perfect and without sin, can be persuaded to soften and gentle and change his mind about someone, can we not do the same? Are we really paying attention to the argument our opponent in the church is offering? Jesus was not afraid to really listen and be changed by what he heard. We have the opportunity to do the same.

We see Jesus’ relationship with gentiles in another story: the healing of the centurion’s servant. The centurion seeks Jesus out, admits that he is not worthy of Jesus coming under his roof, and says that he knows that if Jesus says the word, his servant will be healed. Jesus immediately extends healing to the servant, and marvels at the depth and purity of the centurion’s faith. Notice that Jesus heals the servant not in person, but over a distance. For the church conflicts in our past, the ones that drove us or our neighbors to leave the church, this story proves that healing can occur over distance, a geographical distance or the distance of time. All it takes is, like Jesus, recognizing the faith of the gentile. And so it is worth revisiting old broken relationships with our brothers and sisters and spending time in prayer for our faith and the faith of those from who we are estranged. It might be a path to healing we never expected.

And so we see that this gospel lesson, in fact, does not give us license to get rid of people we don’t like, to ostracize troublemakers and let silence and distance be the arbiters of church conflict. Jesus’ instruction to treat the ones who seem to be the most far gone and uninterested in reconciliation like tax collectors and gentiles opens to us a whole array of creative and surprising paths toward reconciliation, toward seeing the best in one another, toward achieving healing even years after we no longer remember what got us so angry in the first place. In the imitation of Christ we find that treating others like tax collectors and gentiles is a path of gentleness, hope and potential.

All of this is so important not just because of the simple reality that there is no such thing as church without conflict. It matters because of how Jesus concludes his instructions:

“Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

How we choose to treat one another when the going gets rough has consequences that far outlast this question of the theology of sexuality or that knock-down drag-out over the carpet color in the nave. We have the power to bind and to loose.

With the choices we make, we can bind each other even tighter into our separate camps and polarized positions. We can loose each other out into a world without the benefit of Christian fellowship, driving each other from the church with wounds that bleed for years to come.

Or we can loose ourselves from our pride and our ever-present need to be right. We can loose one another from assumptions and stereotypes and bitterness. We can loose our church communities from the fear of church conflict. And then we can bind ourselves together with the unbreakable love of Christ, a body tested, refined, healed and flourishing with new life.

 

— The Rev. Whitney Rice is priest-in-charge of the shared ministry of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Shelbyville, Ind., and St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Franklin, Ind.,  in the Diocese of Indianapolis. She blogs at www.roofcrashersandhemgrabbers.com.

It’s not always easy, Pentecost 17, Proper 18 – 2008

[RCL] Exodus 12:1-14, Psalm 149; or Ezekiel 33:7-11, Psalm 119:33-40; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

We thought last week’s gospel was the tough one, didn’t we? Last Sunday’s passage was the turning point in Matthew’s gospel – the point where Jesus begins to announce his fate. He begins telling his followers that his end is death and theirs, most likely, would be death, too.

Remember, Peter said, “God forbid,” and got severely reprimanded by Jesus: “Get behind me Satan, you are a stumbling block to me.”

That whole story was pretty serious. It’s the kind of gospel that should make us sit up and take notice and realize that being a Christian isn’t a lark, it’s a serious commitment to a radical new way of life.

Well, to tell you the truth, this week’s gospel makes taking up your cross and following Jesus look a whole lot easier. There’s a little bit of chest-swelling pride in being able to say, “Yes, indeed, I’m willing to carry any cross. Willing even to die for my faith.” We can say that because as we sit here in the U.S., we can be pretty sure we’ll never have to die for our faith.

But look at this gospel. Here’s where the rubber hits the road. This is part of what Jesus means when he says, “Take up your cross.”

Today Jesus says, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”

Oh, right! Is there anything harder than confronting someone who’s grieved you? Especially when it’s someone you know well? It’s so much easier for us to take our grievance to someone else – to talk about it to anyone else who would listen. Anyone else that is, except the one we ought to. But this is what this gospel is all about. It’s about how we should behave if we are indeed going to call ourselves members of God’s family.

So, let’s take a look at what’s going on in this straightforward gospel passage.

There are no secrets here. We don’t have to look too far beyond the images Jesus uses in order to understand what he’s saying.

What is often helpful is to look at what comes before and after the Sunday passage. The whole of chapter 18 talks about our behavior as God’s people. In verse 1, the disciples ask Jesus who the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven is, and he says it’s anyone who is like a little child. In fact, he says unless you become like a child, you cannot enter the kingdom. And worse, anyone who causes the downfall of a child would be better thrown into the sea and drowned.

Then he told the parable of the lost sheep. The good shepherd leaves the 99 and goes to find the 1 that is lost.

Today’s gospel follows directly after this parable. All of this concerns what our faith life should be like. Bottom line: we should look after one another and be honest with one another.

But of course, that’s not as easy as it sounds, and we know this. We often fail, even in the best of circumstances – or more accurately, in what we know should be the best of circumstances.

But this is life. Gossip happens and people are wronged in many different ways. We all make poor choices at times. We’re human; life here will never be perfect.

So this gospel also talks about reconciliation. Reconciliation, because our actions have an impact not only on the one person we’ve wronged, but on the whole community. Because we are the people of God, what we do affects the whole. We show that in the way we worship together. That’s why we baptize and confirm people within a community celebration. That’s why we say the confession and pass the peace together. That’s why we say, “We” believe in one God. That’s why our hymns have a lot of “we” and “us” in them instead of “me” and “I.”

So, Jesus says, go to the one who wronged you. If that doesn’t work, go to the community. Now, more than one thing can happen. Going to the community means sharing perceptions. Maybe we’ve misunderstood what someone has done. The community could help us see our misperceptions – see things in a different light so to speak. Maybe it turns out that we’ve not been wronged at all.

But if the other is at fault, he says, and if the community doesn’t seem to be able to help, treat this person as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. His disciples would understand that image immediately. A gentile or tax collector was about as much of an outsider as you could be in that culture. They could be ignored, pushed aside.

Except these same disciples had seen how Jesus treated gentiles and tax collectors.

A couple weeks ago, we had Matthew’s account of the Canaanite woman. Remember how Jesus was forced to go beyond the cultural boundary and extend his care and healing to a gentile? Jesus also called a tax collector to be in his closest circle of disciples.

So, evidently, we can’t put limits to our forgiveness either. We can’t say, “OK, fine, that didn’t work. I don’t have to do anything more.” Reconciliation means the door to forgiveness has to stay open. But there’s more. When we wrong others, we must repent. We’ll hear more about that in next week’s gospel.

So, what do we take home today? If we want our life as a church to grow, we need to work constantly on our witness. Others must see us care for each other. They should hear us speak kindly of one another and they should see us forgive and ask forgiveness.

It’s not always easy, and we won’t always do it. But as we try to live as we are called to live, we have only to remember that Jesus also said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them.”

Written by the Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz
The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is executive director of the Center for Ministry in Small Churches at the School of Theology, Sewanee, Tennessee, and assistant professor of Contextual Education. She is also publisher of Tuesday Morning, a quarterly journal of ministry and liturgical preaching.