By The Rev. Sherry Deets

September 4, 2011

Matthew 18:15-20

So…Matthew wants everything to be perfect, and that includes his church. Conflicts have arisen among some of the members of Matthew’s congregation, and he just can’t stand it. He wants everything to be perfect and in order, and conflict, if nothing else, is a messy business. I can imagine him lying awake at night, thinking about how to deal with the problems he’s encountering among the fellowship. He remembers what Jesus had said and he finally decides to provide this teaching from Jesus as a way of giving a clear-cut message to his fellow believers. When people get into it with one another, there is a way to deal with it. Matthew is convinced of that, and the sooner he addresses the situation, the better.

The instructions are quite simple and straightforward. If one of your brothers or sisters in Christ sins against you, you are to go and in privacy point out what has happened and how it has made you feel. If you get less than a redemptive response, you are to ask a couple of fellow members to serve as witnesses and go back with you to visit with the offending party. And if you still get nowhere with the person who has wronged you, as a last resort, tell the church about it. If the one who has offended you will not listen to the church, send him or her packing. Ok, now I’d like a show of hands – how many of us have ever participated in a conflict resolution of this nature. That’s what I thought. But we love that last verse from Matthew, don’t we? The one where Jesus says that when two or three are gathered in his name, he would be there among them. Why, we quote it all the time. Notice that we kind of take it out of context. Because, in context, it has to do with church fights, with disagreements and conflict, not with prayer or worship.

It could be argued that Jesus is the last person on earth to give advice about how to deal with such difficulties. He wasn’t exactly an effective conflict manager, now was he? After all, he ended up on a cross, and if you look at the biblical record close enough you will find that he is the one who really brought the confrontation to a head with the religious authorities in Jerusalem. He could have stayed out of town, laid low for awhile, let things simmer down. But no, no, no… he had to march full-bore right into the heart of the battle. It was almost as if he was determined to die a martyr’s death.

But Jesus’ method of conflict resolution starts to make a bit more sense when you consider the spirit of what he says and not just the one-two-three of it. In other words, instead of outlining it, we need to jump into it and move around in it… try on this, try on that, to get a feel for what Jesus is talking about. In doing so, we might just find something we can use when it comes to dealing with people with whom we’re having problems.

For one thing, Jesus puts the burden on the victim, on the person who has been sinned against. (Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), p. 85.

Isn’t that just like Jesus? Well, yes it is. He always seems to have this way of turning things around from the way we think they ought to be. “The first shall be last, the last first”… that sort of thing. That’s what he’s doing here. And it fits the context of this passage. You see, this chapter in Matthew’s gospel begins with the disciples coming to their Master with a question. “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” That should come as no surprise. That’s all the disciples were ever concerned about. They had this highfaluttin idea of what the coming kingdom was going to be like. Jesus would be the king and they would be his main henchmen. All he would have to do is snap his fingers and they would see that his orders would be carried out. Oh, the power they would wield! Everywhere they went, their conversations amongst themselves were about the kingdom. Who is going to be greatest?

Really what they are asking is, who of us is going to be greatest? Jesus says, “Gather round, boys, and I’ll let you in on the secret.” They come in close to hear what he has to say. As they do, he takes a toddler and places the child in the center of their little group, and then he says, “I tell you, unless you change – and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Say what? Did they understand him correctly? Not only will they not have the prime places of power, they won’t even get in… unless they become like children. What does that mean?

Then Jesus talks about attitudes that keep us from serving him on his terms. Finally, he gets around to these instructions about how to deal with someone who has wronged them. And the first thing they are to do is take the initiative. Even though they are the ones who have been offended, have been sinned against, they are to go to the offender and try to work things out. It is, is it not, an act of utter humility.

You’ve already been made vulnerable by the very fact that someone has offended you. Now, Jesus says you are to really stick your neck out and risk becoming even more vulnerable. You are to go, hat in hand, to the person who has wronged you and give that person the opportunity to set things right.

That’s just like Jesus, isn’t it? And something else that’s just like Jesus. He isn’t interested in who’s right or who’s wrong. That carries no weight with him at all. The only thing Jesus cares about is getting the relationship made right again.

Some people have an amazing ability to remember the slightest offense done to them, the less-than-redemptive remark, the tiniest snub. They let it fester in their souls until it just gnaws away at their hearts and little is left but resentment and anger and a really terrible case of heartburn. But in the end, especially as far as the kingdom of heaven is concerned, the only thing that matters is not what’s been said or who got the short end of the stick. The only thing of consequence is relationship.

In his book The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis, draws a stark picture of hell. Hell is like a great, vast city, Lewis says, a city inhabited only at its outer edges, with rows and rows of empty houses in the middle. These houses in the middle are empty because everyone who once lived there has quarreled with the neighbors and moved. Then, they quarreled with the new neighbors and moved again, leaving the streets and the houses of their old neighborhoods empty and barren.

That, Lewis says, is how hell has gotten so large. It is empty at its center and inhabited only at the outer edges, because everyone chose distance instead of honest confrontation when it came to dealing with their relationships. “Look, she’s the one who said that about me. Let her come and apologize!” “We may go to the same church, but that doesn’t mean I’ve got to share a pew with that so-and-so!” “It’ll be a cold day in July before I accept his apology.”

That’s all well and good, I suppose… if you don’t mind living in hell.

Are we really so willing to give up our relationships with others – relationships that have come about and been forged by our desire to follow Jesus? Nowhere, and I do mean nowhere, in the New Testament gospels will you find Jesus saying that the first order of things is always to be right. But he does have a great deal to say about forgiveness, about relationship, about reconciliation, about service and humility and vulnerability.

I read an article this week by Lillian Daniel, a pastor in the UCC tradition. Her story is about sitting next to someone on a plane who discovered she was a minister and he told her that was spiritual, but not religious. I smiled when I read this, because I’ve heard that too. Lillian Daniel has, in part, this to say: Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.

Thank you for sharing, spiritual but not religious person. You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating. Can I switch seats now and sit next to someone who has been shaped by a mighty cloud of witnesses instead? Can I spend my time talking to someone brave enough to encounter God in a real human community? Because when this flight gets choppy, that’s who I want by my side, holding my hand, saying a prayer and simply putting up with me, just like we try to do in church.

“Where two or three are gathered in my name,” he says, “I am there among them.” So when it comes right down to it, where do you prefer to be? Father, you’ve called us to be family. That means, from time-to-time, we’re going to hurt one another. Squabbles are going to break out, and we won’t exactly be getting along. But help us to see the bigger picture, that relationship is more important than anything else. Dear God, thank you for creating us in your image and not the other way around. Amen.

(Idea for sermon based on one by Dr. Randy L. Hyde, 2005)

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