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Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 7, 2014

The conflict in the world is scary and depressing. Everywhere you look – the Middle East, the Ukraine, Pakistan and numerous other places – people are warring, avenging, retaliating, killing. I know some news junkies who have turned off the television and stopped reading the newspapers because all they hear about is one conflict after another, threatening to destabilize the world order.

There are conflicts in our nation. The Republicans and Democrats are at odds over many things. The success or failure of Obamacare is a hot topic. The mass influx of illegal immigrant children is a problem. Many say they should be treated with compassion and not incarcerated. Many others ask why these children are sometimes getting better care and more attention than our own at-risk children. The violence in Ferguson is a stark reminder of how much hatred and violence this nation has to overcome.

People are conflicted in our cities. Arlington has agencies that fight for affordable housing for those who work here and want to live here, but many people don’t want these apartments in their backyards. Lawrence, Virginia, has refused the use of their town for housing illegal immigrant children. Budgets are being cut, and people are suffering everywhere.

There is conflict in our families. Sibling rivalry is legendary and can be extremely painful. Parents fight all the time, and divorce ensues. Abuse, alcoholism and other behaviors threaten the very fabric of our existence.

So we come to church to experience peace. We come to be with our friends and worship God. We come to get away from all this tension and strife that we experience close at hand and far away. The last thing we want to hear about when we come to church is conflict. But there is no escape. The church is a community of sinners, just as every other community, organization and country is. So the church has conflict. We have most recently seen it in the larger church, where there has been name calling and separation over the issue of ordaining practicing homosexuals. There have been property disputes. Many churches experience conflict over building an addition, firing an employee or changing a program. Sides are taken, people talk about one another behind their backs and the opposing factions. Impasse is a virtually certainty.

Jesus knows that the church is going to have conflict – over theology, over behavior, over who is in and who is out. There will even be grievous sins that go on in church – infidelity, bearing false witness, coveting. But Jesus presents a path through conflict that is different for the church community than for others. He mandates a way of life that is centered on reconciliation and restoration. His way will serve as a kingdom example for all others to follow, and he gives the church the awesome responsibility of carrying out that mission. He gives us power and authority to discern and make judgments. He promises his presence when even the smallest group is gathered in his name, prayerfully seeking God’s will.

Jesus also knows that in this community of sinners, many of us will be tempted to use our power and authority to freely point out the faults of others or create brokenness in the group, which cannot be allowed because this community of the church is one body – the Body of Christ, acting together in the world to give witness to the awesome love and forgiveness of God.

So Jesus couches his rules for the church in some lessons about taking on leadership roles in the church. First he cautions about lording power over others when he talks about who is the greatest in the church. True greatness in the community is found by being childlike. One must be humble and of service to others, welcoming to all God’s children regardless of our differences.

Then he talks about the importance of righteous behavior to leadership. He warns his audience not to be stumbling blocks for others. He knows that temptations are bound to come, but cries woe on anyone who is not watching his or her moral behavior carefully. Unrighteous behavior may harm one of the little ones who is a new believer, and even those who are seasoned believers may be thrown off track.

Jesus tells them to be inclusive and relates the parable of the shepherd that loses one sheep out of 100 and leaves the others to go search for it. No one should be left behind; no one should be discounted. God wants everyone to be part of the kingdom, he says, and it is your job to lead in such a way that you show this to everyone, not separating into factions by differences but uniting together in one body with Christ as the head.

After his words about discipline, he talks about the necessity of continuous forgiveness (more about that next week). So discipline should be carried out not with an eye to exclusion, but with an eye to inclusion.

Jesus’ practice for discipline involves the offended party seeking out the guilty party to try to reconcile with them. There is no room for bearing grudges, self-pity or gossip behind the other person’s back. The victim has the responsibility for making the first move. He or she is to go to the other alone, so as to minimize shame and embarrassment (Mitchell G. Reddish). If that doesn’t work, the victim is to bring a few others from the community along to bear witness to the conversation between the two. Only if those two measures fail is the conflict to be brought before the whole church, where it is devoutly hoped that restoration will take place. If even here, the offending party will not repent, then they should be treated like a Gentile and a tax collector. It is not the community who has excluded them, but they who have excluded themselves (James C. Howell). Remember however, that Jesus consorted with Gentiles and tax collectors and wanted them in his community, so the break in community does not mean a shunning forever, but that these former members should continue to have the community reach out to them, never giving up on trying to bring them back.

The church community is the most important community on earth because it is engaged in the mission of bringing in God’s kingdom. Can you imagine the church communities of this day and age working this way? We all have differences of opinion, and that is assumed, but our behavior given these differences may be what gets us in trouble. There is always tension between how we act as individuals and how we must act as part of the community (Karoline Lewis). We are not self-sufficient anywhere – but especially not in this community. We are to be reconcilers whether we want to be or not. Are we able to speak the truth in love to our brothers and sisters who have harmed us? Are we able to humbly and faithfully name those actions that are harming the community as a whole? If we are called to sit in judgment can we remember that we are not in the business of the loudest and most argumentative “winning”, nor are we even in the business of majority rule; we are in the business of discerning God’s will for us as members of the church and for us as community.

Conflict is a fact of life in all communities, including Christian ones. It is not our lack of conflict that sets us apart, but how we respond to that conflict. Reconciliation, not revenge, is our aim. Restoration, not exclusion, is our hope and prayer. The community represents Christ on earth. Can we act as Jesus told us to, speaking our truth in love, hearing others speak theirs, all of us using our power to bind and lose with great humility? Can we take this way of conflict resolution into the world around us? Jesus has promised his presence with us in our efforts. Trust him and use your God-given power around conflict wisely and well.

AMEN

     - Rev. Ann Barker

 

Works Cited:
Mitchell G. Reddish, Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 45
James C. Howell, Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, vol 2. Chapters 14-28, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013) p. 97
Karoline Lewis, “Community and Connections” in Dear Working Preacher, blog post, Sunday August 31.