Conflict Resolution

* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on September 10, 2017 *

Since sermons are primarily intended to be heard, you can listen along here.

Texts for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost:
Ezekiel 33:7-11 + Psalm 119:33-40 + Romans 13:8-14 + Matthew 18:15-20


Please pray with me this morning, church:

Holy One,
These days our anxieties are high,
Our tensions are elevated, and our spirits are weary.
Give us grace to bear with one another in patience and in love,
And help us bring reconciliation and peace to your world.


It’s a question most congregational call committees dread. And if I’m honest, it’s not a question that most pastoral candidates delight in asking either. But the committee’s response to this question can tell a candidate a lot about a congregation.

“How does your faith community deal with conflict?”

We don’t really like it as a congregation because, often, times of conflict weren’t particularly happy times. And we don’t want to present ourselves as a community full of conflict. And we don’t really delight in digging through some of our mucky past. And honestly, we just want to move forward, so…

But I’ve said it before, and it bears repeating here, one of the marks of a healthy congregation is not the absence of conflict, it’s the extent to which we deal with conflict well.
Look, every faith community has conflict; it’s what happens when you put more than one person in a room together. Just before verse 20 when Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them,” he could have also very well said, “Where two or three are gathered, conflict is a distinct possibility.”
I’m not sure why that is, or why it seems that church conflict is particularly nasty, but I have a theory. Perhaps it what happens when you get a bunch of people together for the sole purpose of engaging that which they hold among the closest of their passions: their faith. The great Lutheran theologian and author Paul Tillich calls God our “ultimate concern.” So it make sense that when we’re talking about and engaging in practices surrounding that which concerns us ultimately, we bring a fair amount of passion to it. And when passions are high, it’s a good bet that the tensions and the stakes are too.

But this is where I’m grateful for the lectionary compilers for the texts that we get paired with each other each week, because I think St. Paul’s words from Romans 13 are a beautiful framework for Jesus’ words in Matthew 18.

Jesus’ words in our gospel this morning feel very legalistic. They are pretty much a textbook definition of the law side of law and gospel. Because the law says, “Do this. Do that. Behave this certain way.”
And with that, we get Paul’s wonderful words from Romans, “The one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love is the fulfilling of the law.”

So when we frame Jesus’ words with St. Paul’s words, if another member of the church sins against you, go and engage with that member from a place of love.
Which is radical, because I think if we’re honest with ourselves, love is the last thing on our minds, hearts, and lips when we feel like we’ve been wronged.

Matthew 18 makes an appearance in almost every church constitutional document under a heading of Church Discipline. That is, if a member of the church messes up or sins, these are the steps that you should take to confront that person about their mess up. And it’s often used as a way to shame that person for how they acted, or to bully someone into behaving differently, or used with the ultimate goal of removing somebody from the community. But there’s no grace there, and that’s why I think Paul’s words are instructive, because I don’t think Jesus’ goal in our verses this morning is the removal of church members.

No, I think these words in our constitutional documents ought to be more accurately titled, Conflict Resolution, because ultimately, that’s what I think Jesus is getting at. I think Jesus is outlining a way for us to engage well with each other when the inevitable conflict arises between people in the community of faith.
And when understood that way, the goal, then, is not kicking people out of community, but rather the goal is strengthening the community through reconciliation.

And if you’re still not convinced, consider verse 17, if after you’ve gone to that person one-on-one, and then again with one or two others, and then again with the community leadership, and that person still won’t hear you, then let that person be to you as a Gentile or tax collector.
In other words, wipe your feet, wash your hands, and be done with them, right?

Except…except remember how Jesus treats Gentiles and tax collectors… He eats with them, talks with them, engages them in community…
Friends, if you’re looking for proof texts to bully and shame someone, and kick someone out of the church, this is not it.
But if you’re looking for a model for how to deal with conflict well, for the purpose of engaging with someone from a place of love and seeking to truly reconcile with someone who has sinned against you, or even better with someone who you’ve sinned against, then this is it.

Which I think is really important for us to hear when we’re just starting to emerge from the aftermath of a hurricane…and when we’re thinking of our siblings in the Caribbean and Florida and the southeastern US…and when we’re trying to make sense of the incredible amount of injustice in our world, including simply treating other people as human regardless of their sexuality or gender identity or country of origin or immigration status…and when we ourselves are trying to deal with a really significant death in our community.
Because in times like these, times of crisis and devastation and upendedness, passions and tensions are high, tempers are short, and patience is thin. And love seems to be in short supply.

I think our gospel for today is asking us to breathe a little more deeply, to have a little bit more patience with each other, and to bear with one another in love…don’t take a break from confronting injustice or evil or sinfulness in the world, but do so from a place of truly desiring reconciliation, which I think is God’s desire for us.
That we strive, as much as possible, to be agents of reconciliation and builders of bridges in our world.

In your bulletins, you should all have an insert for our “God’s Work. Our Hands.” Sunday. These are some ideas from our Service Commission about how you and your family can be the hands and feet of Christ in our world. This idea comes to us from our churchwide offices of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America as a way that our congregations across the country can embody the life-giving love and grace of God in our world. “God’s Work. Our Hands.” Sunday is a way for us as a denomination, as a church, to live out who we are as Lutheran Christians—a church, saved by grace, through faith, by Christ, for the sake of the world…freed to live lives of love and service to our neighbors.
I hope you’ll take this call seriously, as it is truly the life that we are called to in our baptism, and is the life we are called to as followers of the one who embodied love and service to the world.
Church, our world desperately needs agents of reconciliation, builders of bridges, and resolvers of conflict. You are freed in Christ to be the embodiment of God’s love. Let’s get to work.

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