Epistle Lesson: Romans 13:8-14
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
Gospel Lesson: 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. But 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. If 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. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, 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. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
(PICK UP BOXING GLOVES)
“Where two or three are gathered, conflict is there.” (Misquote from Matthew 18:20)
Isn’t that the saying Jesus used? Clearly not, but I often believe that this quote has some validity to it. One thing I have experienced growing up has been a lot of different groups. I have been on t-ball teams, basketball teams, soccer teams, in clubs with common interests like Student Association of Cultural Awareness, Theatre, I have been a part of the social fraternities of Phi Sigma Kappa, and for the longest of times I have been a part of many many faith congregations. The only things that have remained constant as I have experienced all of these groups, are there were more than one person involved, and conflict was there.
And as conflict has been present in all of these groups from the past, I believe that it will be safe to assume that conflict will be, if it is not already, present here at Red Valley. I am sure if I were to ask any one of you that has been here for over 5 years, you could name at least a few times there has been conflict here at Red Valley, whether that conflict was between two parishioners or between members of the congregation and the current pastor. The matter is not whether or not there will be conflict here at Red Valley, I know there is going to be conflict, the matter more importantly is how one responds to the conflict. There have been social scientists, specifically a man named Murray Bowen who studied family systems, basically he studied how people respond to each other in a family unit. A part of that family unit was/is conflict. He names three particular ways we handle conflict: Distancing, Triangling, and Over/Under functioning. I will address the first two of these today.
Matthew is a Jewish Christian, writing to a Jewish Christian audience. Jesus’ words here are not so different than the instructions given the Jews in the Levitical law. Leviticus says in chapter 19, “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” This Levitical writing assumes that we are going to become angry with one another, and sometimes for good reasons. But the best way to handle such a conflict is by confronting the other person immediately instead of letting one’s anger fester. Paul wrote something very similar in his letter to the Church of Ephesus. He wrote in the 4th chapter of this letter, “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and do not make room for the devil.” As I thought about what happens when we allow our anger with someone to go without confronting that person, I began to imagine and imagine with me if you will, a cut that begins to go untaken care of. After a few days that cut begins to get worse and begins to irritate the skin which in turn irritates you. After a few weeks, that cut is infected, and it begins to ooze with infection. I think you get the mental image and I think I am going to stop there before anyone passes out. However, if you confronted the issue right away and although you knew it would hurt, you cleaned the cut, the issue goes away. According to Bowen Theory, this is the response of distancing from the issue or the person who caused the issue. The issue of distancing is that it gives a false impression that you are free from the problem, when in reality you are emotionally bound and defined by it.
So, if we refuse to ignore the issue, how then do we address it?
Matthew instructs those reading that if another member of the church sins against you to go and confront the issue when you two are alone.
We know that conflicts are going to arise, we know that we are not going to agree with everyone all the time. And we know it is extremely difficult to let someone else know that they have hurt you in some way. Often it is our natural reaction to go and get allies right away. Kind of like if Kent did something to upset me, I may want to go and say to George, “You are not going to believe what Kent did to me…blah blah blah.” This is what Bowen calls triangling. Triangles in our relationships are normal and a part of being human. No matter who you are, you have been and are involved in this process of triangling. Trianlges of people in themselves are not bad nor are they good, they simply are. However, as you triangle, it takes what was a simple matter and makes it much more complex. As you add more and more people into the mix of the situation, you tend to add more emotions and more ideas, and more miscommunications. This is why I believe it was important that Matthew began by saying go to the member first when the two of you are alone. If you do not, it easily could make a very simple matter into a much larger issue. The next line of action is if they do not listen, to take two or three with you as witnesses. As I read this I could not help but think that we are preparing for a court case. But I believe this is more so about the type of culture that they live in during the first century. You see, they live in a culture of shame and honor. You do nothing that would shame you or your family. If you were to bring in two or three witnesses, it applies a little more pressure to help bring that member back into the fold. If the member still does not listen, then bring them to the church and tell it to them. It seems often in today’s culture that this is the first response rather than the last. You know the story where everyone in the church knows that so and so had an issue with so so, even before the person is ever confronted. This is exactly what I am hoping to avoid by suggesting that you first confront the individual before you speak of it to anyone. Now as we speak about the church of today, there are two different boards that you can bring grievances before. If you are struggling with another congregant, it is my understanding that would be brought before our membership committee and then before the Council. And if it is an issue with a staff member or a pastor, you would bring that up to the PPR/SPRC. I would like those members of this committee to stand so that others may recognize you. If you have an issue with myself or in the future another staff member, I would encourage you, after first coming directly to myself to address the issue, to speak with one of these individuals to be brought up to our PPR Committee meetings.
So I am sure all of us did not come today to hear a word on processing a conflict within the church structure, but to hear an uplifting word from God. And so, as I began our sermon today, I will close today with these words from Jesus.
(PLACE THE GLOVES ON THE CROSS AGAIN)
“Where two or three are gathered in my name, (there is conflict), but yet I am among them.” (adapted from Matthew 18:20). Thanks be to God who is among us, even at our worst.
 (Gilbert 2004), p. 16