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Conflict in… [gasp] the Church?!?!?! : Sunday, September 10, 2023

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost; “Welcome Back” Sunday
Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

One day a worker sat down with their supervisor for a meeting to discuss salary details; the worker having argued that they deserved a higher stipend than was the norm. The worker tried to make a solid case for fulsome remuneration: “If you’ll check my file, you’ll see that there haven’t been any complaints about me. I’ve not been the source of dissension. I’ve steered clear of controversy. I’ve never made a mess in the staff kitchen. I haven’t said or done anything to dishonour you, or tarnish the reputation of the company. Indeed, I think you can only agree that I have no strikes against me getting in the way of maximum pay.”

The supervisor nodded and replied. “I can’t fault you on anything you’ve said. You’ve not caused any trouble for fellow employees, nor for the company. You’ve not made any waves or ruffled any feathers. And it’s true that I have nothing to hold against you.” The supervisor sat back and took a deep breath. “But there’s really only so much I can do with regard to raising your pay: I mean, you start with our company next week!”

The only way to absolutely avoid being misunderstood is by saying nothing. The only way to absolutely avoid be hurt is to never open yourself up to anyone. And the only way to absolutely avoid conflict with others is to never leave the house (and never go on the internet… and never answer the phone when someone calls about duct cleaning).

We have fairly small snapshots we have of Jesus from the Gospels, but from what’s there, it’s pretty clear that Jesus knew something about conflict in families; about tensions that arise amongst groups; about combative interactions with others; about the dangers of mobs and crowds; and about the fallibility of institutions. This would have been a very practical lesson for the disciples of Jesus and from the Church that evolved from that community. And there has yet to appear a church so perfect that this lesson hasn’t been needed. Certainly, throughout history, there have been a variety of approaches to difference, disagreement, and discord in the Church. The whole spectrum from ignoring and enabling bad (sometimes even evil) behaviours, to correction and discipline (maybe even shunning or excommunication) to an extent that it has been off-putting for many.

I’m not sure how directly this almost 2000 year-old policy can be applied in today’s world and church. These words were initially applied to a particular type of culture, and with a particular understanding of “church,” which for them was probably a relatively small and intimate group that met in houses (in a situation of high stakes and sometimes even danger; more of a sect or club than what most of us experience today).

But certainly there is wisdom for us here today. And it’s maybe specially appropriate for this reading to fall near the beginning of September, as we are getting back to our old routines, and coming together again, more fully, as a community.

There’s something important to learn in this process of reconciliation that first says ‘go that person directly’ and try to work it out. Sure, there will be some things that can dissipate with some time, or by shouting into the void, or pulling out some hair. But other things, when left unchecked, they can fester. And do harm not just to oneself, but to a whole community.

I recall one instance from a number of years ago (in a different church, before I was at St. Andrew’s): midway through the church service I went over to someone and wished them ‘peace’: “peace be with you” (as we’ll be doing in a few moments). The other person responded: “Hello.” I just assumed that that person kind of didn’t know how to do the Peace… But then as time passed — you know when you wake up in the middle of the night with some epiphany — I started thinking that maybe that person had some issue with me. So much time had passed by that point that I didn’t think that there was anything for me to do. Truthfully I don’t think either of us were of particular importance to the other, though we had shared several years of history connected in a parish, so I was still a bit troubled by it all. And then subsequently through some mutual involvement in a project we had some interactions that were positive and productive. And there have been friendly conversations since then. So I think time did its thing, and all is well. But there are inevitably going to be relationships that are deeper, and wounds that are deeper, where going to that person and trying to work things out is indeed worthwhile.

The guidance in the Gospel continues, in cases where that one-on-one meeting doesn’t work. Take one or two people with you. Sometimes that’s helpful. People with some emotional detachment who can listen with fresh ears to both parties, and offer new way forward. A third person who might be able to offer a compromise solution that both parties can live with.

And if that doesn’t work, Jesus says, involve the church. Again, in this context, we’re probably not talking about many more people, but it does widen the circle. Interestingly, the story we heard doesn’t provide any more details; it just says “tell the church.” Perhaps trusted elders stepped in. Perhaps a process of confession and reconciliation was enacted. Maybe something else. But it reflects something about how the health, behaviour, and relationships of individuals, couples, and small groups can impact the health of the wider group. And if some broken dynamic infects the wider group, what can result is a skeleton in the closet. And left unchecked, that skeleton will haunt the life of the community; maybe not daily, but every twenty or fifty years it will wreak some havoc within the community.

And then we come to the last part of the process Jesus describes. If options A, B, and C have failed, then treat the offender as a Gentile and a tax collector. As an outsider. Even a betrayer, or collaborator (in the negative sense). Sometimes there is grace in that: giving ourselves permission to stop obsessing over something (or someone). To stop guilting ourselves for not wrapping everything up in a bow. Or to stop exposing ourselves to a harmful situation.

And yet… and yet the goal here isn’t to cast out and alienate someone we don’t like. Because we will recall the times that Jesus — sometimes even to his surprise — opened himself up to Gentiles. Or when Jesus called tax collectors to be with him; even to work closely with him. So there is something here in being honest about the reality we face, but also of leaving space for God’s mercy and power to work in our relationships, even when our natural abilities have failed. So even in situations of conflict, we can still say “peace be with you” to our neighbour. Not because everything is fixed or perfect; but because we are expressing our trust and our hope in God’s Reign (or Kingdom, or power) in which, in the end, all will be healed, comforted, and reconciled.

And we come to the end of this passage; another appropriate saying to dwell on on ‘Welcome Back’ Sunday: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” We normally reserve this passage for when we’ve worked tirelessly on some event, hoping for fifty or a hundred participants. But then only a couple people show up. And you find some comfort and confidence by reassuring those keeners by saying “wherever two or three are gathered!”

So we can keep doing that, but understanding that that’s not the context here. Jesus has been talking about the community of his followers. What we call the church, or congregation. He implies that conflict and fallibility are inevitable. But how we meet these challenges is important. How we treat each other is as sacred as our singing, or our liturgy, or our communion silverware (or communion itself). The smallest, most everyday interactions are important. Saying hello. Wishing someone peace. Welcoming the stranger. Not letting the stranger stand all on their own on their first visit. Setting up and cleaning up for a barbecue and potluck. Raking leaves. Contributing baking or knitting. Teaching Sunday School. All of these very ordinary, everyday (maybe even boring) things are important; even corresponding in some way to heavenly realities. And Jesus says to us: ‘remember, I am there, when you do that, among you.’ And that should help us understand how special it is to gather together, and be in relationship with one another. Amen.

© 2023 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter