Sunday, 10 September 2017

Resolving conflict: reconciling ourselves to each other through Christ

Sermon preached at Daventry URC on 10th September 2017 - recording available. Texts: Matthew 18:15-20, Romans 13:8-14.

Conflict. It’s a part of any human community. John doesn’t like what Rosemary said, and he’s in a huff about it. John’s friend Bill gets drawn in, and Bill’s wife Jane, except that Rosemary’s sister Judith is already in an argument with Jane. And ten years later, the arguments remain, the hurts stay. The community is diminished, but nobody can quite address it.

Image: XPastor
 And in churches, conflict can simmer and remain around for many years, because people stay in the same churches for many years, even sometimes generations. I was part of a church once where thirty years earlier there’d been a big argument over the use of the building, a group of people had left to worship in another part of town, and progressively the people who had left got old and died off, with just a small number of them remaining. But the rift hadn’t healed. And it was still a hurt that people didn’t want to talk about. That was in a town far from here, but I know of similar stories of churches in this area, where splits haven’t healed after years, or where people carry on together in the same church community but are unreconciled to each other.

If conflict isn’t addressed, it can get worse and worse. I’m reminded of William Blake’s poem “A Poison Tree”. The first verse is quite well known. It runs:
I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
However, the poem gets darker and darker. The unquenched anger becomes something real and tangible. Eventually the poet kills his foe.

So what do we do about this kind of conflict? That’s the subject of the reading from Matthew today. It’s not a cheery topic, not one many of us would like to think about, but it comes up as today’s reading in the lectionary, and it’s a really important topic. I need to say something directly before I continue. As someone who’s not been to this church before, let alone preached in it, I want to emphasise that what I have to say today is not loaded, it’s not based on particular conflicts between people here. So rest assured that any anecdotes aren’t aimed at specific people here – though that does mean I might unintentionally hit on a raw nerve or two.

And Jesus presents us with a solution of sorts, though it’s an odd kind of solution. The process Jesus outlines can sound incredibly harsh, like a recipe for a disciplinary committee of the sort practised by our Reformed forebears in places like Geneva and Edinburgh in the days when these were not cosy places if you stepped out of line with the community. And there’s the frankly quite odd statement that if the offender should be treated like the Gentiles or tax collectors, who elsewhere in the gospels Jesus is very tolerant towards. So is there really anything to be taken from this?

Well yes, if you look at the passage in the context of Jesus’ other teaching. Matthew 18 is a whole workshop on forgiveness. First of all, the immediately preceding passage is the parable of the lost sheep and the shepherd’s joy in finding it. And the passage is followed with Jesus telling Peter that we should forgive something not just seven times (which was the Jewish law) but seventy-seven times, or in some versions seventy times seven times; and after that another parable, that of the servant who is forgiven his debts by his master but then refuses to forgive a much smaller debt to another servant.

So I don’t see this as a passage about discipline, about the best way to chuck out a recalcitrant church member. I see it instead as a passage about forgiveness, about reconciliation, about rebuilding relationships. 

We often talk about the members of a church as a church family. Some translations talk about ‘if another member of the church sins against you’, but the Greek word is adelphos, literally brother but given the misogyny of the Greek, better understood as brother or sister, which is what other translations say. And that family link is important. For most of us, if we are hurt by a sibling, we don’t seek to have them expelled from the family. We might struggle with connecting with them, but eventually our goal is to restore our relationship. 

Remember also that the gospel of Matthew is thought by most scholars to have been written in the years following the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, in the city of Antioch in Syria. The communities called here ‘churches’, are the word ekklesia which had been used in Greek-speaking Jewish circles for some time to mean assemblies of believers. Almost all of these were small groups, perhaps 15-20 people. Think house churches rather than a church of this size, and certainly not the numbers found in a large parish church, cathedral or American-style mega-church. Moreover, they were tightly bound together, persecuted by the mainstream Jewish community out of which they had come, and increasingly also persecuted by the Roman state. In such a body, close relationships really matter. A rupture between two people could lead to a big problem for the entire community. It had to be healed for the good of all.

So this is a passage about love rather than law. It fits so well with the lovely words of St Paul in our reading from Romans that “Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law”. Now I’m not a big fan of St Augustine’s theology, but he had a phrase that you may know, often put in this way: “Love God, and do what you will”. In other words, if you are filled with the love of God, if your life is oriented towards loving God as the most important thing you can do, then your actions will always be pure. So I’d like to quote more from St Augustine, in a modern rendering by Stephen Tomkins. Augustine was preaching on the 1st letter of John, in the section which says that ‘whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love’, and he wrote:
If you hold your peace, hold your peace out of love. If you cry out, cry out in love. If you correct someone, correct them out of love. If you spare them, spare them out of love. Let the root of love be in you: nothing can spring from it but good.
So Jesus says, here are the steps to follow. If someone does wrong to you, you don’t kick back, you don’t nurse a grudge. First thing, you go and talk to them. You need to say straight out “you’ve hurt me, you’ve done me wrong”. That’s a shockingly difficult thing in itself to do. Very often I don’t have the courage to do it myself if someone has done me wrong. But it’s a necessary first step. And it acknowledges the other person’s humanity, that they too are a child of God whatever wrong they’ve done you. So there’s a lot of forgiveness needed in being willing to do that. And it may be sufficient by itself. 

There are cases where even this first stage is too hard, especially where there’s a big disparity of power balance between the people – if the person doing wrong is a church leader of some sort, for instance; and likewise if the wrong-doing was abusive in some way, emotionally or physically. In these cases it may not be possible to confront the wrong-doer directly, without additional support of some sort. Indeed, there are horror stories of churches where this very passage is used to justify further abuse by powerful people who insist upon their ‘Matthew 18 rights’. I read some awful cases online in the past week, preparing for this service.

But even if it’s possible to talk directly to someone, it may not be enough, and in that case we’re presented with a couple of further steps: to bring along a couple of others to talk it through with the wrong-doer, and then to take it to the whole community. That last step is incredibly difficult – to tell everyone what has happened. And this isn’t about gossiping, it’s about openly stating the issue. Imagine raising a long-standing personal dispute as an item at the next church meeting. It’s would be tough, unpleasant. But if it was done in the right way, in a spirit of openness and loving forgiveness, and if the other person could hear it in that spirit, and if the church could support you both through the process – that could be the sort of thing that really heals wounds that fester over decades within a community. 

And if it still doesn’t work, Jesus advises, we are best to openly acknowledge that the community is broken, to be public about it. It has to be done in love and care. Religious communities have treated transgressors really badly in the past, calling them excommunicated or expelled. But if we can openly acknowledge that the person who has done wrong is looking in a different direction from the rest of the community, perhaps with fault on all sides, then that’s perhaps another way towards eventual healing. And it’s a way to avoid blaming the victim, which I’ve not mentioned but can be a real risk in some cases – where wrong is done to someone, but the community closes ranks to support the wrongdoer and it’s the victim who is driven out of the community. That’s happened far too often to women who have been raped, it’s happened far too often to children who have been abused by people they trusted. What Jesus is talking about is a way to love everyone and forgive everything, but to trust the victim of wrong rather than blaming them.

Although even then you don’t cut somebody off. “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” has to be read in the light of the company Jesus kept. He ate with Gentiles, in defiance of pious Jewish custom. He touched and healed those who were considered unclean. He had tax collectors, those frequently-corrupt collaborators with Roman occupation, among his dining companions and disciples. The traditional author of this very gospel, Matthew, was himself a former tax collector. So again even at this extreme stage, the person has to be treated with love and respect. 

And the process has to be carried out at all times in a spirit of love and in a spirit of worship. Jesus reminds us that when two or three are gathered together, he is there among us. That’s a pretty salutary reminder for any gathering of Christians. We hopefully think in those terms in our worship, but do we act in that way when we have business meetings? I’ve been to church meetings, even elders meetings, which to put it politely would have been conducted somewhat differently if we thought of them as places where Christ was present among us. And this is all the more important where we’re talking about great hurts that may have been carried out by one Christian upon another.

So does Jesus mean us? This group of people gathered today in his name? Yes he does. And he means every church everywhere worshipping today, wherever in the world in whatever ways. He promises us that he is there with us, holding our community together. And that brings me to discernment, the process of listening for the will of God through the Holy Spirit.

What the sequence of steps for dealing with someone who’s done you wrong reminds me of, is the process of progressive discernment. I was a Quaker for fifteen years, and Quakers have long talked about an individual having a ‘concern’ – a matter that presses deeply on their heart. Often that’s the way that real change begins, from one individual’s concern. Among Quakers, it’s how the campaign against slavery began, how their work with the ambulance brigades in the world wars began, and how their witness for same-sex marriage equality began. If such a concern is really strong, you might believe that it’s God telling you to do something. But how do you know it’s from God? You pray about it individually, deeply, at length. Then you bring together a small group to pray together and to discern the leadings of the Holy Spirit on the topic. If that group believes that this is something coming from God, you take it to the whole church to seek their discernment. You might even go to another level within the denomination to seek further discernment – in the URC that would be synods and the general assembly. And what Jesus is saying here is a similar thing, but about handling conflict

If we want to restore community, if we want to restore wholeness to our broken relationships, we have to seek the will of God together, in wider and wider groups. We have to listen prayerfully to the still small voice of the Spirit, and we have to be prepared to forgive each other and to rejoice in the return of the lost one to our community.

This matters well beyond the church. We live in a world where community feels quite a long way from many people’s lives. And we’re in a world where conflict and separation are everywhere. The places change but the conflicts remain. So many of these sores are to do with ancient hatreds that never healed, because nobody put in the work to make them heal. What Jesus offers us here is a way of doing that, which if we practice it in our own local hurts and conflicts just might offer a beacon of hope to a world that is suffering so much from conflict. There’s a hymn from Zimbabwe which is based on today’s passage - I know it through the Iona Community. It runs:
If you believe and I believe, and we together pray
the Holy Spirit shall come down, and set God’s people free.
And set God’s people free, and set God’s people free,
The Holy Spirit shall come down and set God’s people free.
If we gather authentically in the name of Jesus, if we are able to forgive one another, if we can rebuild relationships that are bruised and battered – then the Holy Spirit will move among us, and God’s people will be set free. Amen.