by Sally Wilke
As we gathered last week
for orientation and transition;
and for worship together this week,
it seems the last thing on our minds is conflict.
Some of us have come to LSTC
for the first time and may be tentative,
but also eager to meet new people;
some have survived CPE and
long to put their new skills to work;
some have returned from internship and,
while grieving the loss of their congregational ties,
are excited to be back and reunited with dear friends;
some have not left here for many years and
are wondering what this year’s community will be like.
Do we really want to talk
about how to handle problems
when many of us are focused on just being together?
But what if this isn’t just three easy steps
to conflict resolution?
What if these words are heard,
not as a strategy for church discipline,
but as the way Jesus creates community?
Matthew is the only gospel writer
to use the word ekklesia,
translated “the called out ones of God,”
or in the NRSV, “the church.”
So, as the “called out ones of God,”
can we see this passage in light of
God’s desire for community?
We can, especially as we look
through the Gospel of Matthew and
recall all the ways Jesus reached out
with words and actions of love and forgiveness;
of his care and humility
as he sought to follow God’s claim on his life.
Chapter 18 may or may not be a discourse
on how the church is to flourish,
but it certainly tells us who Jesus is and
what matters in the kingdom of God.
It begins with the disciples question,
“Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
After Jesus responds with words about humility
and the importance of caring for those without power,
he shares the words we just heard.
And the chapter concludes
with a discussion on the depths of forgiveness
needed in the kingdom of God.
This isn’t about church discipline,
as it has been so frequently used
throughout church history,
nor about getting the other
to confess his or her wrongs
as much as it is about reaching out
in humility, with love,
to save a wounded or broken relationship.
This passage resonated with me
during two experiences I’ve had here
since returning from internship.
As I was reuniting with old friends
many of them shared their stories
of ministry experience,
and we eventually get around to stories of triangulation -
messy situations that resulted
in hurt feelings and estrangement
without even understanding how it happened.
Whether a fight between family members
in a hospital room or
a congregation with an “advocate”
for those who fear to speak for themselves,
triangulation reared its ugly head
and spelled trouble for all involved.
We live in a world of conflict, disorder, and pain
and expressions of sin, disagreement
and hurt feelings spring up all around us.
We may face problems in our families,
We may face conflict in our schools and workplaces.
We can look down on those
who would triangulate relationships or
we can see ourselves too,
as broken, weak, and fallible creatures,
fully dependent on God’s forgiveness.
we are redeemed only by the love of God
through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
The other situation occurred last week
during the diversity training.
As we listened to speakers and
especially as we participated
in an exercise that highlighted the diversity among us,
I was struck by the fact that
while differences need not mean conflict,
too often we need more face to face conversations
with those who are not like us.
I remember a trip to Target
in the beginning of our junior year
with several classmates I didn’t yet know.
One of them said,
“This is so good to finally be
with people who think just like me.”
We murmured our assent and
then began talking about
how we do have similar goal and
the same God-given source of identity,
but we do not all think alike.
And, as we got to really know each other,
we discovered that we have many interesting differences.
Whether we’ve been here for a long long time or
we’re new to this community,
LSTC offers each of us an opportunity
to explore Christian community
in an environment that can be pretty safe.
It can also be pretty challenging.
As many of us experienced
during that session on diversity,
there are wonderful differences among us.
All are differences that can enrich our lives
as we remain humble and curious or
they can disrupt our lives and
our community when we don’t.
United by the presence of Jesus among us,
our multiplicity of background,
lifestyle, experiences and viewpoints
brings a diversity that
enriches and enlivens our community.
As we seek to see Jesus present
in all of our relationships,
we are free to value each other’s God-given identity and
we are blessed by our relationships.
Our lives become richer and fuller
as we learn from one another and
build our community together.
But that doesn’t just happen.
We have to be willing to really listen and
explore what life means to each other,
be willing to seek reconciliation,
to “stay at the table” with one another.
There are many among us,
called to love and serve,
whose reconciling actions
make this community safe for others.
There are those whose lives
seem to glow
with the love and grace of God in all that they do.
And resolving conflict with them is grace-filled
and strengthens relationships.
And then there are the rest of us.
Some of us are afraid of things we don’t understand.
Some of us hold grudges,
some of us don’t know what to do with our anger,
or where to go with our hurts
and we lash out in ways that are harmful,
not only to the parties directly involved,
but to the entire community.
This scripture lesson may offer us a way
to genuinely build community
and seeing Jesus in this process,
we may be able to move from
“God’s on my side” to
“God’s on our side.”
We may hear ourselves saying,
“you don’t have to be wrong for me to be right.”
But what matters most
is that we know God is with us;
that as Jesus restores our relationship with God
he continues to reconcile us to one another.
If a member of the community
sins against you,
go to that person in love and humility,
If that doesn’t work,
bring others with you;
others who can help both to hear each other;
And if that doesn’t work,
involve in the entire community
in helping both to see clearly
so that the relationship may be repaired
and the community may remain safe.
And if all steps fail, go totally radical
and really love the person,
as God in Christ has loved you.
Always remembering that
where two or three are gathered in his name,
Jesus is present in the midst of us.
Thanks be to God.