Text: Matthew 18:15-20
Since you are sitting in a pew this morning, I know community matters to you. You could do spirituality by yourself, meditating or reading good books, but people seldom stick with anything without a community. Most of you are going to coffee hour after this service, and it is not because we have the best coffee. (There is nothing wrong with our coffee! Its Fair Trade and strong!) But you are going to coffee hour to talk to people, for community. Weight Watchers and 12 Step groups all know this truth. Community sustains us.
What so healthy communities need? We need a sense of purpose, resources, good organization, caring-all of these matter. But there is the one thing healthy communities need to do or they will fail. Deal with conflict. We can do everything else right, but if we can’t deal with conflict, we will fail.
I could be preaching about a lot of things this morning. With Hurricanes Harvey and Irma devastating the Gulf Coast and fires burning around LA, I could preach about climate change. Immigrants are under threat, white supremacists are emboldened, there is no shortage of vital moral topics for preaching. My perception is this church is in a low internal conflict environment. So this sermon is like preventive medicine, reminding us to keep doing the right things. On the other hand, our society is in a high conflict, polarized environment, and it would be surprising if we remain unaffected. If our vision is to make God’s love and justice real, we need honest conversation about hard things. If we are a place where sacred conversation can happen about race, climate change, gender and sexual identity, that is a way for the church to make a difference. If we are effectively learning to deal with differences in church, then you all take that experience out into the world through your work and relationships.
Conflict in church is especially hard because we have such great need and expectation from our faith community. We desire meaning, hope, love, to be valued. When conflict happens, people are especially disappointed and hurt. If you are relatively new at First Churches, you might be worried about getting hurt and disappointed, so let me reassure you. It will likely happen. It may have already happened! Conflict is inevitable. Combat is optional.
Let’s do a quick survey. How many of you have left a church because of conflict? Some of you may have left deeply conflicted churches that openly expressed disagreement in hurtful ways. I wonder how many of you have left a church because they failed to acknowledge the conflict in front of them? On the surface the church seems calm and stable, but underneath the important issues aren’t dealt with. Nobody is arguing, or leaving with a door slam, people just quietly vote with their feet because their concerns are not addressed. One of the great temptations of church life is to placate, sweep things under the rug, and avoid controversial topics because we fear conflict, it makes us uncomfortable, and we don’t want anyone to be upset or leave. (When I preached this on Sunday, an equal number of people raised their hands for this second situation.) What happens when we avoid conflict as a default position? People leave anyway, its just more quiet.
People leave church when there is too much conflict, and they leave when conflict is avoided. Is there another way? I think there is. Healthy churches do these things:
- Maintain good processes where issues can be safely discussed.
- Make big decisions through real consensus so people value the process.
- See conflict as an inevitable part of life together which can bring about needed change and new direction.
Healing and growth don’t happen because we are good at avoiding conflict. Transformation happens when we are good at channeling conflict into positive action and deeper connection. Our Gospel lesson takes this approach, with advice for both interpersonal and systemic conflict.
If you feel someone has wronged you, or you are upset by something they said, go talk with them in private and see if you can work it out. That is sound advice, but it isn’t as easy as it sounds. How are you at having conversation about disagreements or feeling hurt? I find it challenging, and often lie awake at night, sometimes I put the conversation off for as long as I can. These are difficult, fraught conversations. Over time I have learned two things about difficult conversations.
#1: most of the time, a simple, direct conversation clarifies things. Afterwards I wonder why I was so worried. Most people respond well to open, non-blaming honesty.
#2: When I put off a difficult conversation, it is rare that the situation gets better all by itself. Initiating a chance to clear the air is usually the best option, even though it is hard.
What about the times it doesn’t work out? Jesus says to get some help. Find a mediator, go to couples therapy or family counseling. Things can get too hot to handle, when emotions run deep. I needed a mediator with a church member in New York. We were in constant tension over management issues. A mediator helped us realize that we had different models, he worked for IBM and was trying to get the church work like IBM. I put pastoral concerns first, but sometimes built in no accountability, or clarity about how things would get done. We both learned something and could work together again. It is important to note when we can’t solve things on our own.
Occasionally tension is so bad you need more decisive action and create some boundaries. Once in my career, we had to convene a meeting to deal with conflict between me and a couple in the church. I felt like they were criticizing everything I did, some of it was good feedback, most was about things I thought were going well. They thought I was leading the church in the wrong direction. I didn’t want to be there anymore, so we called in some long-term members to figure out what to do. After sharing our perspectives, a well-respected member said, “We need to support our pastor. You need to stand down.” They left the church. I was worried, because they pulled their large pledge, and took their substantial volunteer time elsewhere. But things got better. Most of the congregation found these folks a pain and had been waiting for me to do something.
Jesus modeled this for us in so many ways. He asked great questions, was curious instead of judgmental. He taught that we should remove the log in our own eye before going after the speck in someone else’s eye. He stopped a mob from stoning a woman to death, with the wise words, “Whoever is without sin, caste the first stone.” He brought people at the margins-lepers, Samaritans, women-back into community. He taught about forgiveness and second chances, and wasn’t afraid to say, “You brood of vipers,” when dealing with injustice. The way of Jesus is a way of active reconciliation.
Can our belief in love and reconciliation impact our current polarized environment, in a way that doesn’t just help the bullies and fanatics have their way? It’s not simply saying can’t we all get along, we all want the same thing.
I studied conflict transformation during the summer of 2002 in Northern Ireland, just when the region was emerging from centuries of violence and a decade of car bombings and paramilitary violence. Catholic and Protestant politicians had just put in place the Good Friday agreement, but here is where reconciliation began for Northern Ireland.
A group of mothers, Catholic and Protestant, got tired of their kids getting beat up on the way home from school. A handful of women met with two Catholic nuns who worked as facilitators. Together they identified the tension point. Belfast is a city of walls, big beautiful border walls, to separate Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. These walls have doorways where people can cross to get through the city, and guess where all the fights broke out! There was one passage where all the school kids had to pass to get home from school. So this small group of nuns bought the house by the door and made it their convent. They helped the women organize after school monitoring so kids could be safe. From there the peace movement began in the 1970s, because this group of women established a means of dialog and showed progress was possible.
Jesus said wherever two or three agree on anything, it will be done for them, for wherever two or three are gathered, there I am in the midst of them. So what do we want God to help us do? Maybe we can’t solve the nations warring madness, but can we find one doorway that we can claim as a safe place for people to cross over to the other side? Where is that door? We need safe passages through the doors of restrooms for trans people, doorways of bakeries who will make a wedding cake for anyone, access to citizenship for immigrants, entry points for opportunities to get and education and get a living wage, exits from mass incarceration. Is there just a safe space where people of differing opinions can talk with respect and openness, a door that stays ajar for conflicted families to be civil?
I was taught to hold the door open for people. Pick a door, any door, door number one, two or three. Someone put your foot in it, hold it open till we can all get there and support you. Be the church. And wherever two or three of you are gathered working at reconciliation, Jesus will be there too.