The Other Presence in the Room

Sermons Proclaim
September 5, 2020
Homily: 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reproduced with Permission
Sermons Proclaim

Summary: We cannot avoid conflict in the church. In our conflicts we allow our egos to do damage to the church and its witness. If we imagine the risen Christ with us in our disputes, would we treat each other in better ways?

Even though no one likes conflict in the church, we certainly seem to have a lot of it. Conflict by itself can be a good thing, if we use it to learn other points of view. But conflict can destroy adult classes, youth groups and even whole churches. Conflict can lead to anger, hurt feelings and loss of membership. How can we address church conflict? Can we at least reduce the harm? How do we fulfill the mission of the church despite the conflict?

Conflict can happen within a local congregation. Two people disagree over a point of theology or ethics. Two factions within a church can disagree over the direction the congregation should take. Sometimes disagreements within a church can get out of hand. One pastor, newly assigned to a parish, read the history of the church and the minutes from the meetings of the board, all in an effort to know the new congregation. He came across a story about a fist fight that broke out during an important meeting. We have to assume that neither combatant received the "Peacemaker of the Year" award. Other churches have in their histories, if not physical confrontations, angry ones nonetheless.

Conflict can occur within denominations. If we tried to count the number of Protestant denominations, we'd have a hard time keeping up. Most new denominations arose out of some conflict. Within the church, we sometimes even face conflict over the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. That sacrament was intended to create fellowship among Christians, yet it divides us. Just as we do within a local congregation, denominations can face conflict over theology, church polity, ethics and a host of issues.

Even the Roman Catholic Church, despite being led by a pope, can face conflict. If we want a conflict-free church, we will likely face disappointment. What should we in the church do?

Matthew's strategy for conflict

We can see that conflict in the church goes back to New Testament times. Here in Matthew, Jesus gives a specific plan to handle conflict. Jesus outlines a step-by-step process. The process begins with an individual, private conversation. The person who believes that another has done wrong should approach the wrongdoer in private. The initial hope is that the other person will listen, and that the two of them can work out the trouble, including an admission of guilt and an apology.

If that doesn't work, the wronged party enlists an ally or two to join the conversation. Perhaps the allies serve both as witnesses of the conversation and as added persuasion for the wrongdoer to repent.

As a final step, the wronged party reports the offense to the church. The church leadership adds its persuasive power to the conversation. The process recognizes that even these three steps might not solve the conflict. We assume that letting the offender become like a "Gentile and a tax collector" means exclusion from the church (though since both groups were objects of church missions in that day, it may mean something like "If he won't listen to the church, you'll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God's forgiving love," which is how The Message words verse 17.)

We might ask ourselves how useful we would find this process on a practical level. The process assumes that one person clearly has done wrong, and one person clearly stands completely in the right. Occasionally that happens. Even in that case, however, the process in the text might escalate the conflict.

More typically, though, both parties consider the other to have done the wrong. We might envision a situation where both parties bring a "witness" to verify their positions. A fistfight might not break out, but the conversation might become heated. Even in situations where only one party brings a witness, the other person would likely feel "ganged up on." In many cases, both parties would simply leave the church. Perhaps both parties would take others with them.

As for the next steps in the process, can we not envision both parties going to the church leadership to plead their case? Most church leaders do not want to become involved in personal disputes. Again, in the final step of treating the offender as a tax collector or Gentile, the ones with the hurt feelings would likely leave on their own.

If we tried to use this process on a larger scale for deep conflicts within a church, or within a denomination or between denominations, how would it work? We all have heard of the big councils of the church early in its history. Denominations have big meetings to work out differences. A division within the church can sometimes lead to peace, even if an uneasy peace. Nevertheless, even the big meetings do not necessarily resolve conflict. They often lead to new denominations.

Our own efforts to resolve conflict

Experts write books about conflict management. Denominations hire consultants on conflict resolution. Regional bodies hold workshops on how to deal with conflict. Congregations bring in negotiators. We develop our listening skills. We pray for understanding. Yet, we can't end the conflict. Congregations leave denominations. Denominations split in two. Individuals and families leave congregations.

If we speak honestly, we know that sometimes a parting of the ways cannot be avoided. Sometimes a person or family must leave a congregation. Sometimes, staying together causes more harm than splitting. Some issues do become deal-breakers. Throughout its history, the church has had to brand some ideas as too dangerous. The church had to take a stand against those ideas. Early in the life of the church, the idea arose that the Old Testament was not the church's book; Christians shouldn't use it to understand God. The church condemned that idea, and its major supporter, a man named Marcion. The church had to assert its role of helping members understand the scriptures. The church knew that while the New Testament is vital to Christianity, its members needed the stories of the creation and the exodus, the words of the psalms, the call to justice of the prophets and the other Old Testament texts for a fuller understanding of God and his expectations of us.

Having said that, we must admit that sometimes our egos get in the way of resolving conflict. We believe that we are right and the other person is wrong. We want to gather allies to back us up. We can distort the advice of this scripture passage to rally people to our side. We try to win every dispute, rather than allowing for some disagreements. We not only want to do everything our way, we want everyone else to do things our way. We resist allowing some ambiguity, with God in charge of the results. Jesus, as recorded by Matthew, tries to give us a way to resolve disputes, but our own sinfulness turns it into a way to feed our egos.

Hope from the passage

Jesus, however, gives us more than a strategy. Jesus makes us a promise. At the end of the passage, Jesus promises the church that "where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." We typically assume that we should claim that promise in worship. The risen Christ stands among us when we worship. Can we claim that promise in our church meetings? Can we claim that promise in the midst of a dispute?

I want to ask us to use our imaginations. When a disagreement breaks out, can we imagine in our heads that the risen Christ stands there in the room with us? How would that change our behavior? Would we be so quick to try to win if we could imagine the risen Christ standing in the room? Could we more easily tame our egos if we could imagine the risen Christ in the room during a dispute?

Perhaps we could not resolve every disagreement under those circumstances. Nevertheless, perhaps we could hurt each other less often. Perhaps we could model to the world that the church can disagree, can face conflict and still love one another. Perhaps we could disagree more fairly. If we could do that, we could fulfill the identity that Jesus gives us earlier in Matthew, in the Sermon on the Mount - that we are the salt and the light.1 We know that the risen Christ stands among us when we worship. May we remember that he stands among us even in our disputes. May that promise help us treat each other better and show the world how to disagree and still love each other.

One church song has it that "They will know we are Christians by our love." Surely that applies not only to worship and mission work, but also to our board meetings, parking-lot squabbles, caucus-group gatherings and even our one-on-one disputes.

May people know we are Christians by our love in those places as well. And may we be aware of the other presence - the divine presence - in the room at those times.