I have been looking forward to this Sunday for weeks! After taking successive vacations at the end of the summer, all of our staff are finally back in town. Many of you have been traveling, spending time away with friends, or simply taking a break to enjoy the last bits of summer. Our musicians and liturgy team have been planning our return to three services. Our Stewardship Committee has been organizing our new Discipleship Fair. Our Parish Life Committee has been organizing our Parish Picnic. Church members have been inviting friends to join them for church, or maybe you yourself decided today was the day to search for a new church home. I have felt the anticipation building as this has day approached.
I have been so excited to kick off a new program year, to invite people to engage in their faith journey, and to share an invitation to others to discover the beauty of this vibrant community, and what does the gospel lesson from Matthew offer us? A text about fighting within the church. Jesus does not just admit that sometimes, every once in a while, people in the church might experience conflict. No, Jesus goes into great detail about what to do when you face conflict in the church: embrace conflict directly, repeatedly, and publicly. To those of us who were raised in the South, or at least to those of us who were raised in conflict-avoidant families, this text is our worst nightmare! And this is certainly not the joyful text I was looking for when anticipating this festive day.
Part of what bothers us about this text from Holy Scripture is many of us come to church looking for a break from the conflict that surrounds our everyday life. Whether we experience conflict in our families, conflict in our workplaces, schools, or service organizations, or conflict in our political lives, the last thing we want to do when we come to church on Sundays is deal with more conflict. A friend of mine once confessed to me that he was thinking about leaving his current church home over a conflict within the church. We were both young adults, on our own for the first time since college, and we had images in our minds about what church should be and what we wanted from our church communities. But instead of bucolic communities of peace, harmony, and justice, we were both finding churches riddled with conflict and disunity. As we were talking about his frustration, my friend finally confessed, “When I go to church, I just want everyone to get along. I go to church to escape what is going on in my everyday life, not relive it!”
Now, I could spend the next hour deconstructing his complaint, but there is something powerful at the heart of his complaint, and perhaps at the heart of our own experience of church. When we talk about church as being like a family, or being like home, what we really mean is we want a place that is a bit unlike our families or homes. We want a place that is always happy, loving, nurturing, sometimes challenging, but more often comforting. When we think about the warm, fuzzy feeling we have, the feeling we find at a place like Hickory Neck, the last thing we think is, “Man, I love the way we handle conflict at church!”
Unfortunately, that is exactly what our text is inviting us to do – to celebrate the way that the church teaches us to fight – or to phrase it a little differently, how the church teaches us to deal with conflict in healthy ways. In order to get to the point where we can see the gift of healthy conflict resolution as a good thing, we need to do a few things. First, we need to get to the point where we can embrace the inevitability of conflict in the church community. For some of us, that is not a big hurdle. For others of us, the assumption of conflict is difficult. Perhaps you were raised in a family who treated conflict as something to be avoided at all costs. Or perhaps you grew up in an environment where conflict was so aggressive you created patterns of conflict-avoidance later in life. Regardless, if we have come to see conflict as the enemy, accepting the inevitability of conflict is going to be our first task. In Matthew’s gospel today, Jesus says, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” But what he implies is that when two are three are gathered in his name, there will be conflict. Jesus himself was so sure there would be conflict that he developed a whole conflict management plan. So take a deep breath, let the breath out, and repeat after me, “Conflict is unavoidable in church.”
Now that you are breathing calmly, and accepting the unavoidable, the next thing we need to do is honor the gift of conflict management Jesus gives us in scripture today. For those of us who are conflict avoidant, Jesus’ conflict management plan is going to seem daunting. The good news is scholars agree with you. Many of the scholars who have written about this text say the step-by-step instructions do not necessarily need to be read as a step-by-step guide to solving conflict within a church.[i] What is most important is what the instructions convey: conflict in the church is not to be ignored, hidden, or buried. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas has this to say about conflict, “[Jesus] assumes that conflict is not to be ignored or denied, but rather conflict, which may involve sins, is to be forced into the open. Christian discipleship requires confrontation because the peace that Jesus has established is not simply the absence of violence. The peace of Christ is nonviolent precisely because it is based on truth and truth-telling. Just as love without truth cannot help but be accursed, so peace between the brothers and sisters of Jesus must be without illusion.”[ii]
As Christians, Jesus wants us to behave differently. Jesus wants us to be truthful with one another. Jesus wants us to deal with one another face-to-face instead of talking behind each other’s backs. Jesus wants us to work on reconciliation of relationships instead of letting hurt and pain fester and erode relationships. For Jesus, being right or wrong is much less important than being in relationship. Being in right relationship, keeping the family together is much more important.[iii] Jesus wants us to take a breath in, let the breath out, and repeat after him, “Conflict is not the enemy. Letting conflict ruin relationships is the enemy.”
Finally, once we have accepted the inevitability of conflict, and once we have agreed to value relationships over the avoidance of discomfort, we are ready to embrace the gift of our gospel lesson today – and perhaps even claim that this might be the perfect lesson for a Rally Sunday. If you came to church to escape conflict or enter some bubble of blissfully ignorant happiness, Hickory Neck is probably not the right place for you. But, if you came to Hickory Neck to learn how to transform conflict into something holy, they you may have just found a real home – not a home based on illusion, but a home based on truth, dignity, and respect. When you accept the inevitability of conflict and the value of meaningful relationship, you receive the tools to work through conflict and land in the reality of reconciliation.
But here is the best part of Jesus’ Conflict Resolution Class today. If we can stay on the journey through conflict to reconciliation, gaining the tools that this community has to offer us, then we as a community create something much more powerful than can be contained in these walls. We create a witness for our community. We create disciples capable of not only working through conflict within the community, but also capable of modeling reconciliation beyond our community. Anyone who has read a headline in our country in the last year knows that our country needs more models for healthy conflict engagement. That is what Jesus offers us today: tools to work on our own issues around conflict, tools to become a loving, honest, and reconciling community, and tools to teach reconciliation beyond these walls. Jesus has promised to be with us as we do our work. In fact, Jesus is here with us now as we anxiously try to step on that path toward reconciliation. So take a deep breath, let the breath out, and repeat after me, “Conflict is a blessing my church teaches me to embrace. Thank you, Jesus, for the blessing of conflict and the promise of reconciliation. Help me to share that gift with others.” Amen.
[i] David Lose, “Pentecost 14 A – Christian Community,” September 6, 2017, as found at http://www.davidlose.net/2017/09/pentecost-14-a-christian-community/ on September 7, 2017.
[ii] Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006), 165-166.
[iii] Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven: Sermons on the Gospel of Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 88-89.