... before I begin
Week of Sunday September 4 - Pentecost 12
Gospel: 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. 16But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. 18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’
I am damaged goods. I don’t mean the shonky knees and the crook back. I mean 12 years of school where, whatever the objective facts, what I remember and have ingrained in me, is a profound sense of exclusion and alienation. To be on the outside, and to be excluded; treated as a tax collector and a gentile, causes grievous injury. It scars us. It marks us for life, and habituates unhealthy responses which take a lifetime to manage and begin to overcome.
My salvation was my parents, and the church. At the church, simply by its acceptance and fellowship, I was put back together each week. Being allowed to belong, and pick up the hymnbooks after church, saved me. In my late teens as a student, coming back to the church, was a coming back home. I didn’t realise this until much later, but that did not prevent the power present “when two or three agree” from doing its work in me.
Years later, when our parish did a hatchet job on us, it nearly destroyed me. It was not the lies that were told, not even the barefaced lies told to my face; it was not the abuse of our children, or my wife, that did the real damage. It was the exclusion. The casting out, and the separation, took my life away from me. I still sometimes catch myself responding not to the situation at hand, but to that parish!
When we accept someone into our church we do not promise them the earth. We promise them more than the whole earth. (Matt 16:26) When conflict is unresolved and we lose, rather than regain a member, they lose more than the earth. Sometimes, because we are still in the church, and we have “won” the fight, we think we have lost nothing. Perhaps we have even gained a peace, and some safety. But in fact, we have lost part of the church, part of our little “outpost of the kingdom.” When someone goes, or is lost, there are no winners, really.
I think that before we look to resolve a conflict, we should be well aware the cost of unresolved, and badly resolved, conflict. Perhaps then we would be less involved to “duck” the issues.
We should also look to some of the roots of conflict. In his commentary this week, Brian Stoffregen quotes some classic lines from Scott Peck's People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil.
It is not their sins per se that characterize evil people, rather it is the subtlety and persistence and consistency of their sins. This is because the central defect of the evil is not the sin but the refusal to acknowledge it. [p. 69]
Evil then, is most often committed in order to scapegoat, and the people I label as evil are chronic scapegoaters .... In other words, the evil attack others instead of facing their own failures. Spiritual growth requires the acknowledgment of one's need to grow. If we cannot make that acknowledgment, we have no option except to attempt to eradicate the evidence of our imperfection. [p. 74]
We are the people for whom all are neighbours. We will attract those who are evil according to Peck’s definition, if only because no one else will have them! Let’s be forewarned.
However the content of Peck’s second paragraph applies to many, if not most of us! We do not need to be evil to take a lesson here! I have slightly reworded the paragraph.
Often we attack others, or find fault, instead of facing our own failures. Spiritual growth requires the acknowledgment of our need to grow. If we cannot make that acknowledgment, we have no option except to attempt to eradicate the evidence of our imperfection. We need to get rid of those who, although they may be at fault, remind us of ourselves.
Or as Jesus says somewhere, we need to take the log out of our own eye, before we worry about the speck in the eye of others.
Finally, to retain the balance, our tendency to project is no excuse to avoid confrontation. Quoting Stoffregen again
Hare (Matthew, Interpretation Commentaries) suggests the more common, modern day approach: "We are inclined to 'forgive' sins in advance of repentance rather than have to confront the guilty parties" [p. 213]
Or, quoting Bill Loader
Unfortunately Christians have been particularly good at replacing honest open love with being nice.
This is not forgiveness. This is avoidance, and all the dangers of unresolved conflict and un-confronted sin remain.
When I have to deal with issues of conflict and unhelpful behaviour in the congregation, it is to the points above that I try and remember to go first. They remind me of my wounding and where I am like to over react. They remind me of the gravity of conflict; it is not simply a matter of “sorting out” some annoying person. They remind me that evil is real, and ducks and twists like the very devil to avoid being brought to account. And they remind me to be alert not only for the sin, or issue at hand, but what may be the deeper issue; what is being projected, and what deeper history may be energising the problem.
Then I can go to Matthew 18, which is a classic text. If only we consistently used this text as a guide whenever we had a problem with each other—even if we remained completely ignorant of our own tendency to project and scapegoat! We would be so far in front. Our tendency to ignore the text is a tragedy.
The text gives us a wise conflict management process.
Step One: go to the source of the problem, clarify what is being said, seek to sort it out. Aim for reconciliation, not condemnation. This is rather different to the all to common bitch, whinge, gossip and triangulate approach that we take! (18:15)
Step Two: if you can’t resolve it, keep it small and work with witnesses. Keep things under control while possible, and maintain the possibility of everyone saving face before the issue goes nuclear. (18:16)
Step Three: Deal with it as a church, if it cannot be resolved. (18:17) Obviously, there are times and issues where the whole church is not appropriate for dealing with an issue. This is why we have discipline committees. Yet a story I was told recently, is hugely instructive:
A church runs a group which teaches skills to all comers. It’s a big program. It attracts Christians, Muslims, and more. Many women come. It is wonderful welcoming place for refugee women; a meeting of many cultures, and tribes within cultures. There has been a murder, a tragedy setting one clan against another. Members of each clan are in this group, and the next meeting is full of hostility as accusations and shame flow freely. The woman leading the program was on her own; the pastor was absent! In an inspired moment she called for attention and told everyone that if they needed to talk and shout, then it would be done in the church, in front of God. Everyone went in to the church. For a long time there was a lot of loud praying about “the other bad people,” but in the end, I am told, there was an amazing reconciliation and everyone went back to class with a renewed vigour.
When we distance ourselves from the reconciliation process with a committee, we lose this. Committees can discipline. Reconciliation needs something else.
Reconciliation may not be, or need to be, between the offender and victim. In the example above, neither were members of the “congregation.” The offence was still there, and if not confronted, would have caused lasting problems. What you loose and bind on earth will be loosed and bound in heaven, it says. (18:18) This relates back to the text on the keys of the kingdom, and broadens Peter’s original authority to interpret scripture to be the authority of the whole church.
The key thing in our current context is that if we do not “loose” the issue, it will remain bound or, rather, we will. Conflict does not go away. Sin does not wear out. The effects remain. I am startled, and shamed, by what a good memory I have for unresolved and unreconciled sins done against me. And these memories are not analytical, or concerned with justice. They rise hot and fresh with heart thumping potency.
Sometimes, no matter how hard we work, things cannot be reconciled. A person cannot be regained. Then “if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.” This is the sting in the tail of our text. Jesus made a habit of not excluding tax collectors. He made a habit of including gentiles. In a moment he will say to Peter, that symbol of our church, “Don’t forgive only “seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” (18:22)
Bill Loader, whose article on this text is worth reading in its entirety, wonders if our text might originally “have been a bit of sectarian traditional wisdom about how to deal with deviance.” In Chapter 18 it is placed in the midst of some examples of the radical inclusiveness of Jesus’ teaching. He says,
If we really rub these conflicting statements together and try to make them fit, we might end up with something like: treat them like Gentiles and tax collectors, people who no longer belong, and then relate to them the way Jesus related to toll collectors and commissioned that we should relate to Gentiles: offer to them a relation (sic) of acceptance and forgiveness! Don't write them off!
Don’t write them off because their belonging to the gathering of the people of God makes them, and us, whole.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.