I bet there are a few preachers out there who have been waiting for this gospel to come up for 3 years now. Others have been dreading it.
The hard to face gospel truth is the church is doing its job well if it is full of people who are hurting. And that means we will occasionally hurt one another. And that means conflict is inevitable.
We have to be careful that this “method” from Jesus does not become a judicial process. Too often we refer to this method when conflict has already escalated. We’ll go through the steps (which we all know she will fail) and then we can ask her to leave or, at least, make life here really miserable for her. But what would happen if we treated each step as the final step.
One could say, “Fine. I’ll talk to him and if (when) that doesn’t work I’ll bring in the priest.”
But what if we say instead, “This person hurt me. I am going to sit down and talk with him. I hope we can reconcile”?
A good way to start this sermon is with the passage from Romans. In it, Paul reminds the readers that the law is only fulfilled in love. Following all the right steps does not fulfil the law, nor will following Matthew’s 3 steps of conflict resolution automatically please God.
For Jesus there is no room for vengeance, revenge or seeing anyone, not even the offender, “knocked down a few pegs.” Humility is a spiritual gift and it’s for God to give, not you. How often have we begun a conversation with these thoughts in our heads?
- You just wait.
- I’m going to tear a strip off of him.
- When I’m done with her she’ll have to see it my way.
- I’ll talk to her but it isn’t going to help anyway.
If this is what is running through your head, just stop. Stop. Go back, sit down in your pew and pray.
I’ve started practising something around criticism. I can’t offer you criticism unless I have already had coffee with you. I don’t mean I’ll pay for the privilege of criticizing you. I mean I am committed to building a relationship with you before I impose my opinions on you. In this way, conflict resolution begins before the conflict even starts, or, at least, that’s my hope.
I’ve spent most of this post talking about the first point, and I think that is a good balance for a sermon on this gospel. If we actually put the time, preparation, prayer, hope and compassion that Jesus put into his difficult conversations, there would be no need for steps two and three.
If the conversation does not go well, or a few conversations, bring some others with you. We should feel some regret every time we need to escalate things. Again, the hope is not to go through the motions to get the offender kicked out, nor it is to make the offender see your way. We are always seeking reconciliation. Keep that in mind when selecting your witnesses.
If no reconciliation can happen, it may be time to go separate ways. I don’t know a priest who has not had a parishioner leave unhappy, and I don’t know a priest who was relieved or happy to see that person gone. It is a wound. It is devastating. It is not a victory. It is sin. Remember we are called to love the Gentiles and tax collectors, not shun them. The offender is not outside of God’s love, simply outside of the fold, and the door must always be open for them to re-enter.
How do we hear this if we are not the offended, but the offender? I hope it comes with some relief. How often have we offended someone with our preaching or actions, but were given no opportunity to say we were sorry. Or heard it third hand, and then what do you do? Walking on eggshells does not help anyone. Remember grace in all things.
Finally, a caution to be mindful of our listeners who have been impacted by abuse, which includes just about everyone. Sometimes, the only safe solution is to be the one to walk-or in some cases run-away. There is no need to try to reconcile before pressing charges against someone who has or will harm you or others. There is no obligation on anyone to enter into a conversation that puts them at risk of physical or psychological harm. A word of advice to seek counsel from a friend or a professional is also helpful.
Preacher friends, how do you talk about conflict from the pulpit? How will you be approaching this sermon this Sunday?