A sermon on Matthew 18:15-20.
[For an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by James Sutton on Unsplash]
One of my favorite resources for sermon preparation is The SALT lectionary commentary, because it always focuses in on the relevance of the scripture lessons for our current context. This week, the connection was easy to make. This week’s essay begins with a comment on the relevance of teaching about conflict in our current societal context:
“wisdom (regarding conflict) has perhaps never been more pressing, as we continue to live through one of the most polarized periods in American history, including a divided and divisive political campaign season, protests over racial inequalities, civil unrest, and a grueling global pandemic.”
Yes, indeed. Conflict is an ever-present and pressing reality in our lives. We can’t turn on a news broadcast, or drive past a yard sign, or even put on a mask without a reminder of how our current moment is defined by lining up on opposing sides.
This persistent barrage of argument and opposition can be exhausting and anxiety-provoking. Many of us, at least most of us who are used to feeling safe and accepted, are probably longing for an end to all the tension. I know that longing calls to me on a regular basis. It can be so easy – and appealing – to believe that what we need is to just agree to disagree and let go of all the arguing. That what we need is a spirit of unity…
I empathize with that instinct, but I think it’s actually dangerous. It suggests that the problem is just the conflict, and not the root causes of the conflict. My friend Matt Schultz, who pastors a church in Anchorage (a city that has been torn by its share of conflict in recent months) put it this way:
“As I see these multiple protests and the anger and division amongst the people, I keep hearing the comments many people have made, that they pray for unity. I suppose I do also, but that’s the secondary prayer. We first have to pray for truth, justice, and compassion. Unity only matters if it is built on those things. To pray for unity first, without those things, is like seeing a person with a sprained ankle, and praying that they stop limping, without praying that their sprained ankle gets healed.”
Conflict is never the initiating injury, it is the symptom. And so, just stopping the conflict will not solve the problem. In fact, it might actually aggravate the injury! I think it’s fair to suppose that at least some of the acrimony and anger on display in our society right now derives from long patterns of avoiding conflict and letting injuries and divisions fester under the surface, suppressed by a desire for civility, or by an imbalance of power.
We won’t solve our problems as a society by backing away from conflict… but, of course, we won’t solve them by just screaming at each either. We need a model for engaging our conflicts in a way that can lead to true healing.
This model is exactly what Jesus offers the church in today’s gospel reading.
Jesus makes it clear that we WILL have conflict – including in the church - but when that happens, he calls for much more than just “unity” in the church, or even conflict resolution. Jesus describes the kind of community he wants us to build.
The first characteristic of this community is that it is built on direct, honest communication.
No passive avoidance of conflict here. When there is a problem, we are to address it. But we are to do so with a generosity of spirit that honestly invites the other person to listen to how we feel wronged so that the conflict can be resolved, and the relationship restored.
This approach applies to individual relationships, of course, but it can also extend to the kinds of conflicts that are fracturing our societal dialogue. When engaging in these larger conflicts, we should always ask ourselves if our goal is to be truly heard in a way the other side can understand, or if it’s just to score points; Is our goal restored community, or just “winning” the debate?
And this connects to the second characteristic of the community that Jesus is describing: the value of restoration rather than shame.
In a striking contrast to the patterns of call-out culture that dominate both sides of the political spectrum, Jesus commands us to seek the most private context possible for confrontation. A public call-out uses shame to coerce a change in behavior, but Jesus doesn’t want just changed behavior… he wants changed hearts. And so, he calls his followers to take the vulnerable step of approaching those who hurt us with the truth of our pain, and appealing to the hope of restored relationship, rather than their need to save face.
In this command, we see a third characteristic of the community Jesus describes: it’s rejection of power plays.
When there is a fault, we are not to spread our version of the story and gather supporters to our cause. We are not to hold secret meetings or seek to undermine the one whom we think has wronged us.
And if private reconciliation does not work, we are to bring the conflict to the whole community – where we cannot manipulate a biased response, but will be held accountable to be fair, and honest in our presentation of how we have been wronged.
In this pattern the goal isn’t to coerce or condemn a person we see as the enemy… it is to reconcile with a person who is part of our community. To name the injury and address it, so that the injury can be healed, and we can move forward together.
Now, there is an important caveat to address. Jesus is clearly assuming a context of safety and parity of power, where the wronged person can bring their complaint without fear of reprisal. He is laying out guidelines for his people, whose allegiance is to God’s way of working, and not to the systems and powers of this world. In secular culture, and – let’s be honest – all too often in the church, power dynamics function to silence those who are wronged and prop up those who commit the wrongs. So, we need to be careful not to wield Jesus’s instruction as a weapon to condemn those without power, whose only access to justice is to make their claims public. If anything, his instructions should tune our ears to their calls – because WE just might be the ones who need to listen.
And we need to further recognize that Jesus offers these instructions sandwiched between two stories of mercy… stories in which Jesus commends efforts to save and protect the most vulnerable, even when it seems to be against our own interests…
By leaving the 99 sheep to find the one that is lost;
By forgiving debts for which we have every right to demand payment;
By risking, in order to restore the vulnerable.
Jesus can call us to the vulnerable work of sharing, and listening, and reconciliation because he has already called us to be a community of mercy. And a community of mercy will practice direct, honest communication. A community of mercy will seek restoration, not shaming. A community of mercy will reject power plays. We are called to practice a vulnerable, mercy-oriented approach to conflict knowing that it lacks coercive power, knowing that the world around us jeers as such self-giving mercy, because we are called to be a different kind of community.
That call can be scary… or it can be our most inspiring source of hope. In a prayer that author Sarah Bessey shared this week, she offered this petition:
“may we be the ones who do not settle for calling out, but be the ones who dare to call others in – in to mercy, in to goodness, in to justice, in to repentance, in to hope.”
When Jesus teaches us how to handle conflict, he is calling us IN. He is painting a picture for us of what life in community could look like if we let go of our instincts for self-protection, and vengeance, and power and instead valued reconciliation. He is calling us to not settle for winning the argument, and to instead strive for healing our communities.
And, I think, he is teaching us about a non-coercive source of power: the power of hope. He is modeling for us how to call people in to a vision of how much better our world could be if we shared, and listened, and reached for healing when conflict arose.
He doesn’t offer any promises that this way of hope will be easy. Power doesn’t tend to let go easily. The anxiety and anger all around us is not going away.
But Jesus does promise that he will be with us in the struggle, “wherever two or three are gathered in his name.” In other words, Jesus himself is calling us in to his community of mercy.
Thanks be to God.
 https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2020/8/30/life-together-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-fourteenth-week-after-pentecost  https://www.facebook.com/matt.schultz.3367/posts/10157143179662312  https://sarahbessey.substack.com/p/a-benediction-for-august-685?fbclid=IwAR2P90I-To3MORfxaeSiKnwKuH1oDlVpxL-_2jzCqYEIkaN5chpe6bTJ5oE