The sermon begins around minute 27.
Susan was afraid to go to her boss and tell him that his suggestive humor was offensive. John didn’t like the way that the leader of the committee always interrupted and put people down. Barb was hurt because in the ministry meeting she never seemed to be listened to. But Susan, John and Barb didn’t say anything. They didn’t confront. They didn’t want to rock the boat, or cause trouble.
This morning’s text, suggested by Ann Williams, is a powerful passage about conflict and confrontation, and how you deal with conflict within the body of the church. I think it has application for many contexts that you find yourself in.
This text is about the power of the spirit to work in community as people “speak their truth” in love and build a community upon honesty, transparency, the power to forgive and to heal.
The first thing I want to do is to “exegete” this passage. Exegete is a word used by students of the Bible which means, before you apply the passage to our contemporary setting, it is important to know how this passage might have been received by the first readers and hearers of the text in the second half of the first century of the common era.
Then I want to offer some words of application to the issue of conflict and confrontation and truth telling in our day.
When Jesus was alive and preaching there was no church. There was no gathering of the faithful on Sunday morning like we do today. The early Jesus followers kept going to the Jewish temple to pray. Once Christianity split from Judaism in the 60s you had house churches but only later did you have identifiable places of worship that were specifically Christian.
So when Matthew writes: “If another member of the church sins against you…” it is almost certainly not the words of Jesus but the interpretation of words of Jesus now set in a new context at the end of the first century. The church was figuring out how to be church.
Today we are doing the exact same thing as early Christians did with the teachings of Jesus: interpreting them for our day.
If someone “sins” against you, it means someone does something to you that breaks the bonds of fellowship, that causes separation in the body, that “misses the mark” of faithful living. I think this is more than mere disagreement; this is something that threatens the identity of the fellowship.
First, go by yourself and see if you can reconcile, but if it doesn’t work then take two or three with you. Taking two or three is mandated by Jewish law. And the two or three are not to be your advocates, ganging up on the one who “sinned,” but objective third-party observers to make sure that the engagement is fair, that the accuser and accused are on equal footing – to hold everyone accountable.
If your face-to-face encounter and then the small group advocacy don’t seem to work then you are to take it to the church. That puts a whole new spin on Sunday morning! Gerry Springer!
Today there is shunning in some churches; the person is cast out of the community. In Martin Luther’s day there was excommunication – you were no longer given the sacrament; you were cut off. In the Presbyterian church we have a Permanent Judicial Committee on which Lois and I have served. And we have had to make very difficult decision in issues of clergy misconduct.
According to Matthew to be so shunned or removed meant that the community treated the person as a “Gentile or a tax collector.”
Now, that is interesting. Because Jesus specifically got in trouble for eating with tax collectors and Gentiles. So it seems that while discipline may be called for, it is never forever; rather the person becomes a focus of new evangelism, of special care.
The purpose is never to cut off, but to bring back – to reconcile. That is important to remember.
So what is being described in Matthew’s gospel here is something big that is really destructive to yourself or to the community.
A one-on-one, face-to-face encounter with the person you are having a problem with is the right thing to do. It is so much healthier than to triangulate – go to somebody else and say you have a problem with someone and the person you are having a problem with remains in the dark, but perhaps senses that something is amiss.
A healthy community, a healthy family, lives one-on-one relational encounters. It is a sign of a functional and blessed congregation. And you all are pretty good at it. Many of you have been faithful in this teaching with me over the years and I am very grateful.
To take that faithful and honest step of encounter shows great maturity and trust.
Speaking truth in love is not easy but it is the essence of relationship: any good friendship, partnership, or marriage. You have to be able to speak your truth, to let it all hang out. Disappointment is inevitable but reconciliation is always possible if that is the goal.
For when you love somebody and you need to tell the truth, you are longing for reconciliation. You long to let go of the tension, of the anger, of the disagreement and look at it together because holding on to something and not expressing it causes internal angst and destruction, it leads to resentment. And what is resentment but “taking poison and waiting for the other person to die!”
And just as speaking up is hard, so too is listening and hearing.
And as one who has been on the receiving end of many of these face-to-face encounters I have learned to always say, “Thank you!”
Most times my first reaction to being told that I have done something wrong is to get defensive and argue. But there is a reason somebody is coming to you to share their perspective or their truth – it may not be your truth – but if someone is coming to you, willing to bear their soul, then take it as a gift.
I have learned this, as we are getting deeper into talking about race and white privilege. My first reaction when someone says: “John, what you said was racist,” is: “I didn’t mean that.” Or “I was just joking.” Or I roll my eyes and think the other person has the problem. Sometimes I just retreat, feeling foolish, not willing to say anything else so I won’t get in any more trouble.
And I might have not intended my words to have the impact they did. I actually might have been joking. Yes, the other person might have their own stuff to work through … but I have to listen before I speak.
I can learn from the feedback and it never hurts to say “I’m sorry, I will try to do better. It wasn’t my intention to hurt you and I am regret the impact of my words.”
For generations our culture has put down whole groups of people from speaking their truth. The recent #MeToo movement is one of the most empowering things to happen to our culture for generations.
Women couldn’t speak their truth. Sometimes truth isn’t lovely. We don’t listen to children. Who else are we not listening to?
The church must be the place where those long silenced are given voice, and all are held accountable in love to that which we all yearn for–acceptance and trust, hospitality and inclusion.
Amy Morin in Psychology Today writes that many avoid confrontation, claiming “I’m a peacemaker,” or “I don’t want to ruffle feathers.” She describes 6 practical steps to getting over conflict avoidance (I have copies of the article if anyone wants one.)
1. Identify that you have a problem – why are you nervous to speak up?
2. Think about what you will gain by speaking up – often the other side of truth is liberation!
3. Fear of confrontation is based on false assumptions – your internal tape recorder is stuck on “don’t talk back!”
4. Address one issue at a time – and make it a small one the first time! I have been scared to say something to somebody, and then I finally do and I find that the person is really accepting and the relationship has deepened!
5. Stick to “I” statements. Instead of blaming the other, express how you are feeling. Don’t say “You are an arrogant so and so!” Rather say: “I felt disrespected by how you addressed me.”
6. Keep practicing. The more you speak up for yourself the better you will get. It is empowering to speak your truth. Christian community is about empowerment and inclusion and being the people of God! We are to loose and we are to bind.
Truth telling and faithful confrontation is at the heart of the gospel – the gospel that confronts us that all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, but all have been made alive and accepted through Jesus Christ.
On this foundation we are to build the church, living powerfully, speaking our truth in love, listening to others, changing the world!