To read this sermon from The Rev. Dr. David A. Marcus, Jr. click on “Continue reading” below.
Sermon based on Matthew 18:15-20
The late Jed Harris, a well-known Broadway producer once became convinced he was losing his hearing. He visited a hearing specialist, who pulled out a gold watch and asked, “Can you hear this ticking?” “Of course,” Harris replied. The specialist walked to the door and asked the question again. Harris concentrated and said, “Yes, I can hear it clearly.” Then the doctor walked into the next room and repeated his question for a third time. A third time Harris said he could hear the ticking. “Mr. Harris,” the doctor concluded, “there is nothing wrong with your hearing. You just don’t listen.”
Communicating with people is a part of our everyday lives and sometimes listening is more difficult than talking. We all know that relationships with people have its ups and downs. In any relationship conflict is sure to come at some point in time. What is conflict? Generally, conflict is pictured as something serious, intense, disruptive and unpleasant. Literally, conflict means, “to strike together.” Conflict is very much a part of everyone’s life. Conflict may range from the tension between you and your next-door neighbor, a co-worker who isn’t carrying their weight in the office, to those family feuds that we are all familiar with. There’s an old Sanskrit saying that wisely counsels knowing how you characteristically face anger and conflict: The anger of a good person lasts an instant; that of a meddler two hours; that of a base person a day and a night; and that of a great sinner until death. The church has something of a hard time with conflict; particularly conflict between individual Christians and between groups within the church. We view congregations idealistically. We want the body of Christ to be a perfect community. Conflict seems to be the very negation of much for which the church stands. It is the opposite of Christian unity; conflict separates people rather than bringing them together.
Few among us can say we have never been hurt by somebody else or that we have hurt another person either in the church or anywhere for that matter. When faced with conflict we often choose two paths, we get angry and insist on our own way or we avoid conflict all together. In the times of Jesus people were stepping on one another’s toes, saying and doing hurtful things to each other. If those conflicts were not properly dealt with, they had the potential of splintering Jesus’ ministry before it really started. For this reason, Jesus offered some great guidelines on conflict in our gospel lesson from Matthew. This teaching can help us learn how to deal with conflicts in the church, but are also helpful hints for the home or the workplace. Although we cannot be judgmental, we must point out to people privately, transgressions that may have hurt an individual or group. Jesus encourages us through this passage that where there is conflict among Christians, we must attempt to end that conflict by following these steps and to be in prayer for the person or situation involved.
Through the wisdom of Jesus, we see the first thing we must do concerning conflict is to nip the problem in the bud, before it escalates. If someone offends you, go to him or her privately and share your feelings. The human tendency is to let problems fester rather than deal with them at the source. Going directly to the person gives opportunity to clear up any misunderstandings that may have happened. One of the most disturbing trends I see in the world of communication is how email and texting has often replaced direct personal contact with another person. These are wonderful instruments of communication but there is something to be said in approaching others in person. Approaching the person directly enables the two parties to understand the viewpoint of the other person something our email and texts cannot always do. The reason for this first step is once a dispute goes public; it can get out of control. Also, the person accused of wrongdoing is embarrassed in front of others. We must learn to talk with each other, not about each other. Keeping secrets to a minimum and discouraging gossip are important keys to reducing conflict. Last week’s sermon from the book of James offered great advice on taming the tongue. In that passage James shared that words out of our mouths may seem of no account, but they can accomplish nearly anything including destruction. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony into chaos, or throw mud upon a reputation. Being a Christian means being willing to admit our shortcomings, and seek forgiveness, from others. According to Jesus, we are to begin solving our conflicts by confronting the other person in a loving way, about the issue.
The second step, should the first step not work is bring a witness or two. We may bring along one or two church members for the next conversation to serve as witnesses to what is said on both sides. These people brought in should be people noted for their wisdom and fairness. They can help the adversaries see the problem from a third perspective. Their role is like that of a counselor. In this step, people must be willing to trust one another. If we are unwilling or unable to trust others, perhaps we are trying to control the conflict rather than curb it.
For the Christian, the third stage of solving conflict is the most difficult. Verse 17 of our passage from Matthew, which reads:
“If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Should the first two not work, Jesus tells us to bring the whole story to the Church. This does not mean that the conflict should be retold during our morning announcements or even before the whole church community rather a deliberating body would do, like elected members of our Leadership Board. Admittedly, verse 17 is very troubling because at face value, it seems to suggest that if the third public step fails, we are free to consider the offender as outside the community, that we give up on the people or exclude them. However, if we use Jesus’ own behavior as our guide, even this third step is not final. After all, Jesus ate with tax collectors and recognized the faith of gentiles. What this verse may be saying to us is that the offender loses their status as a brother or sister safe in the fold. He or she returns again to the status of a “lost sheep” waiting to be found which Jesus talks of in Scripture.
In thinking of lost sheep, years ago, a large statue of Christ was erected high in the Andes on the border between Argentina and Chile. Called “Christ of the Andes,” the statue symbolizes a pledge between the two countries that as long as the statue stands, there will be peace between Chile and Argentina. Shortly after the statue was erected, the country of Chile began to protest that they had been slighted because the statue had its back turned to Chile. Just when tempers were at their highest in Chile, a journalist saved the day. In an editorial that not only satisfied the people but also made them laugh, he simply said, “The people of Argentina perhaps need more watching over than Chile.” Likewise, God is always watching over us. For this reason we as Christians, must remember that our responsibility includes resolving conflict. Jesus knew that the community he would leave behind would have its failures, times when the bonds of love would not be maintained. He knew there would be situations where reconciliation was impossible. Yet Jesus promised his presence, in the midst of times of conflict.
Perhaps we have been wronged and can even now in silence, name the person from whom we are estranged, maybe that very person is here today. I believe that many conflicts are over the issue of control. Control is just another word for power. Who really holds the power in the Church? It’s not the pastors or the people; it’s our Chief Elder, Jesus Christ.
Our gospel lesson from Matthew carries with it a hard teaching for all of us. What we learn from this passage is that God is always waiting for hearts to change, and every one of us has benefited and will continue to benefit from God’s mercy. We can’t always mend the fences in life, we can’t always make peace with those who have wronged us. However we can and we are called by Christ to try because that is what the church is all about.
The Rev. Dr. David A. Marcus, Jr.
June 18, 2017