Sunday, September 7, 2014

Good Conflict

A Sermon preached on September 7th (Pentecost XIII) at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
Ezekiel 33:7-11, Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 18:15-20

I realize that this will come as a complete surprise to you, but now and again churches experience conflict and disagreement! No really, it does happen and it’s been happening for a long time. You might remember the story of how the disciples James and John want to be seated on Jesus’ right and left when he comes into his kingdom, which makes the other ten “angry with the two brothers.” (Matthew 20:20-24) A lot of Paul’s letters, especially to the Corinthians, are about how to deal with conflicts, both personal and ideological, in those churches. And the fact that in today’s Gospel reading Matthew takes a whole paragraph to describe the rules and procedure of community and for dealing with internal conflict, shows that his early Christian community had to deal with this issue. 

As you may have heard before, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke share two common sources. Both Gospel writers knew and used the Gospel of Mark as a basis for their own narrative. They also knew and used another common source for the events of Jesus’ life and for Jesus’ teachings and sayings that is called ‘Q’ from the German word Quelle, which tells us that this explanation was developed by German theologians! What is interesting is that Luke only uses what is probably the original, brief Q fragment: “Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive,” is what we find in Luke’s Gospel, 17:3. 

Matthew on the other hand has added an elaborate 3 stage procedure to this simple admonition. First there must be a private confrontation: “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” (Mathew 18:15) Then the issue is to be brought up in a small group, and finally, if it has still not been resolved, before the whole church! And don’t you love the punishment: “If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector” or publican as it is sometimes translated. (18:17) Considering that the community Matthew’s Gospel was written for will have included a lot of Gentiles and that the supposed author, the disciple Matthew, was by tradition a tax collector before becoming a disciple this seems a little ironic. But even if the use of these two groups as examples was already anachronistic by the time of writing, they still stand for a very serious sanction, for excommunication and for exclusion. Gentiles and tax collectors were automatically excluded from any Jewish community.

While the Church is supposed to be a Community of Love, we are also a human association in which personal conflict is inevitable, which is why Matthew felt the need to lay out a process for dealing with conflict. And conflict is not necessarily a bad thing, on the contrary: conflict and disagreement are signs of passion and interest and of creativity. Where there is no conflict there is often simply no real interest in the community - no one really cares about its purpose and mission. That’s was definitely not the case here at St. Augustine’s. The conflict you experienced and were part of came about precisely because all parties involved cared and care passionately about this church and about its mission and ministry, and about the best way to serve God and God’s people in this place. That was a good thing.

What was not so good here, and in so many other churches, was how that conflict was managed and what it lead to. I believe firmly that we get the readings that we are meant to have and so even though they are being used today all over the world in many churches, they still have a message for us here and for our situation. We are about to make a fresh start together. Yes I know I’ve already been here for 6 months, so I’m not that fresh any more. But we are only now closing some issues from the recent past and now is the time when we, your vestry on your behalf and I, are making a long term commitment to working together. So clearly now is also the time to reflect on how to deal with conflict in the future, and that’s what today’s readings will help us do.

Procedure is important. Matthew’s procedure, even if it seems a little formal at times, contains some key truths. If you disagree with someone, tell them – privately, honestly, directly, and in a spirit of love. What we don’t do is ignore the issue or try and paper over the cracks. Avoiding conflict really just means delaying and exacerbating conflict.

If direct confrontation does not work, if the issue cannot be resolved, then, and only then, do we bring in other people. Their role, Jesus calls them witnesses, is to act as objective mediators – and if they are objective they should also be in a position to tell the one who called them in if he or she is perhaps either in the wrong, or if the issue is not as black and white as it appeared to be. Note that we are still talking with the person with whom we have a conflict, not talking about them. Long before the word ‘triangulation’ existed, Jesus is teaching us to avoid it at all costs. Just as a reminder we have our own procedure for how we relate with one another here at St Augustine’s, not just in times of conflict, it is the Vestry Compact agreed in April of this year, and one of the guidelines in that compact is “Avoiding triangulation – if we have a problem with someone, we speak to them directly.”[1]

Finally, if the issue is still unresolved, the larger church community is to be involved. And only the wider community and its authorized leaders would have the authority of expulsion as a final resort - always with the hope of and possibility of reconciliation. It is not a coincidence that this very practical passage comes right after the parable of the lost sheep (Matthew 18:12-14) in which Jesus praises the shepherd who goes after and finds the lost sheep, rejoicing over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray! As a community we are poorer for anyone we lose or exclude. And one meaning of verses 19 and 20 of today’s Gospel: “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” is that it is in harmony and agreement that prayers will be answered and in unity and concord that Jesus will be present.

As (or perhaps even more) important than procedure when dealing with conflict are the attitude and motivation of all participants. Everyone involved must examine and question their motivation. Is really for the greater good and will it further God’s mission? Or are we motivated more by personal preferences, or even by power and pride – that was the complaint about James and John wanting to sight at Jesus’ right and left hand. Even when we disagree about the means we should be ready to recognize and acknowledge common goals. What Matthew’s procedure emphasizes is the importance of an agreement at community level. The right solution in any conflict will not be the one that just one person or one small group wants, regardless of how ‘important’ that person is – Priest or Senior Warden or even Bishop!

Our underlying attitude in dealing with conflict is, as Paul tells the Christians in Rome, one of love: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” (Romans 13:8) For Christians the new age has already started – the day is near – and that is why we are called to live and also argue according to the rules of God’s new kingdom, putting on the new armor of light or simply putting on the Lord Jesus Christ to live as he lived. Now as we know, Jesus was willing to confront people and to speak uncomfortable truths. When he knocked over the tables in the Temple I don’t see him avoiding conflict! But Jesus was also always forgiving, excluded no one from his love and grace, and ultimately gave himself for all, even and especially for those who did not deserve this gift: that’s agape or self-giving love that I talked about last week.

So how do we deal with conflict in future? We take reconciliation seriously at all levels. We are direct, open, and respectful with those we disagree with. We approach conflict with a spirit of love. We follow Christ’s example. We strive for unity because it is when we do things together and in Jesus’ name, whether prayer, study, decision making, or worship, that Christ will be among us. And the greatest symbol of that togetherness and presence is the Lord’s Table that we gather around together for Communion. No conflict should keep us from Communion and from the healing presence of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Body and Blood and Blessing that we share at that table.


[1] Compact drafted at St. Augustine’s Vestry Retreat in Kloster Tiefenthal on 22nd March, 2014 and adopted at the Vestry Meeting at St. Augustine’s on 19th April, 2014

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