Sunday, September 7, 2014

Better Together (Matthew 18:15-20)

15 “If your brother or sister sins against you, go and correct them when you are alone together. If they listen to you, then you’ve won over your brother or sister. 16  But if they won’t listen, take with you one or two others so that every word may be established by the mouth of two or three witnesses. 17  But if they still won’t pay attention, report it to the church. If they won’t pay attention even to the church, treat them as you would a Gentile and tax collector. 18  I assure you that whatever you fasten on earth will be fastened in heaven. And whatever you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven. 19  Again I assure you that if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, then my Father who is in heaven will do it for you. 20  For where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them.”

Psychiatrist Scott Peck wrote that communities often pass through four stages of development. Peck called the most common, initial stage of building community “pseudo-community” or “false community.”  And sadly, “pseudo-community” is often the only stage that many communities will know.  There are no problems, people mind their manners, and, when asked, everyone is doing, “Fine.”

But then we find out that, beneath the plastic smiles and polite pretense, beneath all that sugar-sweet niceness, dishonest failure to name things leaves untended cavities which rot out everything under the surface such that just a hollow outer shell remains.  It’s not that conflict doesn’t exist in the pseudo-community, it’s simply swept under the rug and ignored.  Like deferred maintenance, the longer you let it go, the more damage it does.

Jesus, however, calls us beyond pseudo-community into Christian community.  Whereas in pseudo-community, politeness and proper appearances are the highest goals, in Christian community, reconciliation and restoration of relationships are the highest goals.

The 18th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel is Jesus’ blueprint for moving from pseudo-community into real community.  It doesn’t ignore conflict, but recognizes it as part of life, and even that it can be a healthy thing that builds the community when it’s handled in the right way.

Where two or three are gathered, there is bound to be a difference of opinion.  It’s been said that one of the greatest things about being part of the church are the people!  And one of the most difficult things about being part of the church are . . . the people!  Spend enough time with people, and someone will, inevitably, rub someone else the wrong way.  I wish I could guarantee that if you’re part of a church, that will never happen, but I can’t.

What I can do is invite and challenge you to deal with those bumps – the misunderstandings, the hurt feelings, the disagreements, the conflicts – in a Christian way.  Not to live as a pseudo-community, but as a Christian community.  And here’s the number one rule for dealing with conflict as a Christian: when you have a problem with someone, talk directly to them.  Don’t talk about them.  Don’t talk around them.  Do not pass Go, do not collect $200, do not tell anyone else about it until you have first talked to them, in person, face-to-face, so the relationship can be restored.

I was thinking of conflict in the church, and trying to think of an example I could give of bad ways to handle church conflict.  After 34 years in the church, it’s hard to think of examples that aren’t real examples, and it’s interesting how the issues that come up in one church are similar to ones that come up in another.  Even if I change the names and the scenario and the ministry area, even if I completely made up an example, it could still sound enough like another instance you know that you’re left wondering if I’m really talking about that situation or about so-and-so – I’m not.

Here are some unhealthy ways of dealing with conflict that clearly are not interested in restoring relationships and fixing what is wrong:

Talking about someone rather than to them.  Anyone here ever talk about someone behind their back?  Anyone here ever have someone talk about you behind your back?  That’s a pretty universal human experience, and we all know, first-hand, how frustrating and painful that can be.  When we have a problem with someone, it’s easier to talk about them behind their back, bless their heart, than to their face, but this provides us with no opportunity to fix the problem and work on the broken relationship.

Just so you know this is a made-up story, let’s imagine I’m mad at, say, Lib Joyner for something.  I’m picking on Lib because, come on, like I could be mad at Lib about anything, and I figured she’d be at both services like usual.  So, let’s say Lib did something that really ticked me off.  Maybe it was on purpose, maybe not.  Maybe she knows she did it, maybe not.  Maybe she can sense how mad I am about it, maybe not.  Doesn’t matter.

So, and see if this sounds familiar, I’m mad at Lib, and I pick up the phone and call four people to let them know what she did and how upset I am.  Then, each of them in turn call four people and say, “Did you hear what’s going on between Lib and A.J.?” and within an hour, everyone knows some version of the story, the whole church is talking about it, except for the only two people who should be talking about it.

According to Matthew 18, what did I do wrong in that example?  If I have a problem with Lib, who should I talk to about it?  Do you see how it’s a problem when I talk to everyone but the person who is actually involved?  Most conflicts within the church involve far more people than they need to.

Being a willing audience.  Gossip spreads because there’s a market for it.  When someone comes to you and says, “Let me tell you about so-and-so,” and you say, “Okay,” you are just as responsible for the spread of hurtful gossip as the person saying it.  You’re working against reconciliation by giving the person the easy out by telling you about their beef with someone else instead of doing the hard thing to talk to the person they have the problem with.  If, however, you respond by saying, “Have you talked with them, yet?  If not, don’t talk to me,” you have decreased the street value of gossip by indicating there is no market for it.

Anonymous feedback.  Anonymous feedback is a way of saying, “I want to say this, but I don’t want to take responsibility for what I’ve said.”  We have a special file that anonymous notes go into.  It’s next to my desk, round, and gets emptied once a week by the cleaning crew.  Not only is anonymous feedback cowardly, it provides no opportunity for reconciliation because you don’t know who to seek out in order to fix the issue and restore the relationship – an anonymous complaint is an unresolvable complaint.

Spokesperson for a cause.  One that’s a bit more subtle, but still under the category of anonymous, is when we speak on behalf of others.  We provide feedback and couch it in terms of “many people feel this way.”  When someone tells you how “many people” feel about something, you have permission to lovingly say, “I am interested in how YOU feel.  Please tell ‘many people’ that if they want me to know how they feel, then many people’ will need to talk to me directly.”

Unofficial Meetings.  These take many forms: the meeting before the meeting, the meeting after the meeting, in the parking lot, in the hallways, in the kitchen.  We hold what we really think in the official meeting, only to share it as soon as the meeting adjourns.  Again, do you see how this sort of things makes restoration and reconciliation impossible?

Disappearing Act.  I don’t like how things are going, I got my feelings hurt, someone said something to me, and so I either stop coming and/or stop giving.  I deal with conflict by taking my ball and going home.  Again, rather than dealing with the difficulty directly, we just walk away, and again, reconciliation and restoration become impossible with a person who is no longer there.

Christian community always has reconciliation and restoration at its goal.  Where these behaviors break down is that they provide no opportunity for reconciliation.  Our faith is the story of God restoring and redeeming all that is broken, all that is amiss, all that is damaged and in need of repair, beginning within us and our relationships with each other.

99% of the time, misunderstandings and difficulties can be cleared up if both parties are willing to sit in the same room and listen to each other.  I’m grateful for people who love me enough to sit down with me and let me know ways I’ve let them down.  I’ve learned things about myself that I’d never known before, and discovered how I can avoid doing it again.  These conversations typically end with one person saying, “I’m sorry,” and the other saying, “I forgive you.”  Maybe you’ve heard the saying, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry,” but if I can channel my inner Bill Cosby for a minute, that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard!  Love means saying you’re sorry all the time, not because you have to, but because you realize the pain you’ve caused, and you want to fix it.

Where two or three are gathered in his name, Jesus is there with them – but it’s not about the numbers.  It’s about the reconciling spirit of Christ that brings people together.  We may say it to make ourselves feel better when there’s a low turnout at Bible study, but this verse is an assurance that when there is a conflict in the church that is resolved, Jesus is involved and present in that agreement. It’s all about agreement, not attendance.  The sincere agreement of two people is more powerful than the superficial agreement of thousands.

Sometimes, that means hard conversations with each other.  Those conversations are like removing a splinter from your finger.  It hurts to dig around and work on getting it out, even if you’re the one doing the digging.  But it hurts even more to do nothing, to leave it there so that it becomes infected and becomes even more painful and gets the whole body sick.

Conflict needs to be resolved.  And to be resolved, it has to be named.  Not with the goal of embarrassing one another or finding fault, but so we can do whatever it takes for the relationship to be restored.  That’s hard work.  But it’s faithful work.  And it’s necessary.

Reconciliation takes place on a small stage, usually one-to-one.  And if one person is reconciled to another through Christ, you know what you have?  Two people gathered in his name, the building block of Christian community.

One of the most difficult things about being part of the church are the people.  But, one of the greatest things about being part of the church are the people.  The people around you are among God’s greatest gifts to you.  Don’t take those gifts lightly.  In the life of faith, we’re always better together.

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