Season of Peace
In an hour or so from now, I predict an interesting phenomenon is going to occur all around Shawnee. Drive by any church and you'll see it in action. To be more specific, drive by any church parking lot and you'll see this phenomenon in full bloom. No, I don't mean the rush of people trying to get to their cars and hit the restaurants before the other church folks get there; although that will probably happen as well. But sweep your eyes across any church parking lot and see if there isn't at least one small group of people in conversation.
It’s certainly true that this little knot of folks could be talking about anything. But I would wager that many of them will be talking about church events. It could be last minute preparations for the Women's circle or the upcoming Trustees meeting. They may be sharing an update on another member who has been in the hospital, or filling in the details of their mother-in-law's illness. Perhaps they're laughing about something funny that happened during worship. My point is that I think that church folks are engaging in conversations like this in practically every church parking lot in Shawnee. I would also lay money that this isn't limited to our city, but that it's happening in church parking lots all over -- the state, the country, etc. A dear minister friend of mine started a church blog a few years ago that was devoted specifically to the multitude of church events that were happening in his congregation. He titled the blog something like, "In the Parking Lot," because, as he told me, that's where the work of the church really happens; in the parking lot.
There's nothing inherently wrong with these sub groups that happen in the parking lot. But along with the topics of conversation that I already described, I would also guess that some of these parking lot discussions are about a problem or a conflict that’s happening in the church. I would speculate that someone in that small group of people is unhappy about something or someone. I suspect that in many of these informal confabs, battle lines are being drawn. The conflict could have something to do with the pastor. It could have something to do with another church member. It could be about a controversial policy or procedure. It could be about anything, but when conflicts and disputes within a congregation are being discussed in the parking lot, they become dangerous. They become dangerous because if the conflict is being talked about out there, it's not being talked about in here. It's dangerous because I think it leads to doing the opposite of what Jesus prescribes in these verses in chapter 18 of Matthew's gospel.
Although I don't generally like to use the word "prescribe" when it comes to scripture, in this case I think this word is applicable. Jesus is giving the disciples practical advice about how to deal with conflict. If another member of the church, of the community, sins against you, go to that person alone. Address the sin, address the issue. If that doesn't work, then bring some of the members as witnesses. If that still doesn't work, then the issue needs to go before the whole church. But if that doesn't solve the problem, then the person who has done the "sin" should be treated as a tax collector, a Gentile, an outsider.
This is conflict management in clear, concise, concrete steps. If a member of the church sins against you, this is what you do. Sounds easy. But is it? There is some debate about whether the words "against you," actually belong in verse 15. Several scholars I read pointed out that some of the oldest manuscripts of Matthew's gospel leave out those two words. That changes the emphasis somewhat. This conflict may not only be of a personal nature between two people. It could also address a sin that this member commits, perhaps a sin that is against the whole community. I believe that both emphases are important, but for our purposes I'm going to leave in the words, "against you." It's not that I think we, as a community of faith, shouldn’t address the issue of a sin that affects all of us, but it seems to me that it would be a slippery slope to go from addressing a sin that has occurred to looking for one that might. We've probably all encountered someone who has an eagle eye for other people’s supposed sins. That kind of overeager watchfulness becomes about judgment and legalism more than directly dealing with conflict. I don’t believe that’s what Jesus was trying to address.
What he was saying, as I read it, is that conflict cannot be ignored. If conflict happens -- when conflict happens -- if a sin against you occurs, address the person in private. But if that doesn’t work, then bring in witnesses. Again, I think we need to be careful about how we interpret this. Bringing in witnesses isn’t about shaming the other person. It isn’t about humiliating this brother or sister in the faith. Witnesses can protect both parties. Witnesses can help to keep anger in check. Witnesses can make sure that the accusations against one or both persons aren’t exaggerated.
But if these first two approaches still don’t work in resolving the conflict, then the whole church must become involved. And if that doesn’t work, then the person should be treated as a Gentile, as a tax collector, as an “other.” I think it is these words of Jesus that give most of us pause. Does this mean we should kick someone out of the church? Should we take it to the extreme of shunning? That seems contrary to every aspect of our understanding of what it means to be the church. But here’s an interesting thought from one of the commentators who contribute to WorkingPreacher.org. Jesus had a prolific ministry with Gentiles and tax collectors. Perhaps what Jesus is saying is that sometimes we can’t bring about reconciliation on our own. Ultimately it is up to God to do this. I’m not convinced that this is about shunning someone, although sometimes people have to leave the congregation in order for healing to occur, as much as it is about recognizing that the offending person is still a child of God and in God’s merciful hands.
One last exegetical note; this passage does not occur in a vacuum. It is not a solitary word from Jesus. Before and after, Jesus is speaking to the disciples about love and grace and forgiveness. Immediately preceding are Jesus’ words about the shepherd with 100 sheep. If even one sheep is lost, the shepherd will search for it relentlessly, even though there are 99 sheep that are safe in the fold. Immediately after this prescription for peacemaking is Jesus’ response to Peter about forgiving someone until you lose count. The more I read this passage, especially in light of its context, I believe that Jesus preaches this way of discipline not to break down community, but to build it up.
Community, specifically the community of God in Christ is at the heart of this passage.
As I said before, these steps that Jesus preaches sound simple. Yet the parking lot syndrome continues to occur. Let me make it clear: when it comes to discussing painful or difficult issues in the parking lot, no one is more culpable than I am. Clergy are not immune to taking conflicts to the parking lot instead of dealing with them as Jesus taught. I am no exception. But if we have these words of Jesus, why do we continue to go the other direction when it comes to our conflicts? I think that if we’re honest, if I’m honest, dealing with a conflict out there is far easier to do than it is in here. Conflict doesn’t just make me uncomfortable, it scares me. I avoid it all costs. I avoid it, though, to my detriment. When conflict arises, as it inevitably does, I may resist taking it to the parking lot, but I also don’t say anything. Does that help? Nope. It just festers, and I become resentful. So much so, that I either finally explode at the person or just break off relationship. Perhaps some of you have taken that same course. Yet Jesus says that if a member of the church sins against you, then go to that person. It may be scary. It may be uncomfortable. It may be painful, but go directly to that person and address the problem. Deal with it, face-to-face. Don’t let it fester. Don’t let it build up into an unnecessary battle. Why? Because we are to be about the practice of community, of being in relationship. Everything Jesus preached about, talked about, taught, practiced was about relationship. Relationship with God. Relationship with one another. Relationship is so important that what happens between us here is reflected in heaven. It’s reflected in heaven because God cares deeply about our relationships. God is at the heart of them. God is at the heart of this passage. God is at the heart of our community. And when it comes to community, size doesn’t matter. Even if only two or three people are gathered in the name of Jesus, God is there with them. God is here with us. That goes for our conflicts as well. God is here with us, calling us to reconcile, calling us to make peace. Let us answer that call, in God’s world and right here, in this place. Not the parking lot. Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.