On healthy conflict

This is a sermon for the fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is Matthew 18:10-20.

“Love one another.”  It sounds so simple, doesn’t it?  It sounds as if it should be pretty easy to work out what it means.  We don’t always feel very loving towards one another, but I think most of the time, we think we know what it would look like if we were loving.

But this morning, as we gather here as a parish family, I want to challenge some of our assumptions about what it means to love one another, just a little bit.

One of the things that tends to happen in small churches like this one, is that we base a lot of our decision making, not on being in line with a particular vision of who we are called to be in God, but on keeping everyone happy.  Because we are a small community, and we know one another well, and the cost of someone being unhappy is usually very high – impaired relationships, broken friendships, open conflict and so forth – we tend to value keeping people happy above almost everything else.  And we often tell ourselves that this is what it means to love one another.

But imagine if this was how Jesus and his group of disciples had functioned.  Jesus would have given up on the journey to the cross, and instead pursued political glory, to keep Peter happy.  I don’t know what they’d have spent money on, but some of the memorable stories of the gospel wouldn’t have happened, as the money would have been managed in such a way as to keep the pinch-purse Judas happy.  And no doubt endless time and energy would have gone into managing travel arrangements and meal planning and what not in such a way that nobody would get into a snit about anything; but I’m not sure how much would have got done in the way of miracles and teaching.

They’d have been totally ineffective as a group of people serving the reign of God… but they might have been happier with each other.

The temptation for us – and for lots of churches like us, it’s certainly not unique to here – is to buy into that sort of approach, though.  To spend so much time and energy, to make so many decisions based on not upsetting this person or that one, that we end up becoming a little group completely inward focussed, paying attention to our relationships with one another, but totally ineffective at relating to the world beyond that little web of relationships.  Sweeping conflict under the carpet rather than dealing with it, and even getting to the point of seeing people outside that group almost as irrelevant or a threat to what’s really important to us here, which is how well we can get on together.

And here’s where I’m going to get challenging.  That’s not loving one another; not really.  That’s loving our comfort in one another’s company, for sure.  It’s loving that we have a place where we can feel assured that people aren’t going to challenge us too much, because we have an unspoken agreement that we don’t do that here.

But it’s not the kind of love Jesus taught his disciples, or the kind of love he encourages us to take up in this morning’s gospel reading.  No; the love we heard about this morning says that if somebody sins against you, you go and point out the fault.  You don’t sweep it under the rug and pretend it didn’t happen; you deal with it, because the relationship between the two of you is too important to be allowed to disintegrate under the weight of unaddressed issues.

In this part of Matthew’s gospel, there’s a whole section of Jesus teaching his disciples how to live together as the fledgling church.  By the time Matthew came to write this down, his community were already testing those teachings and learning how to survive in a hostile world.  The instruction that Jesus gives them, to prepare them for that survival, isn’t about being comfortable or mutually nice; it’s about uncompromising commitment to a big vision of what God is doing, and doing all that we can, both to play our part in that, and to encourage others to find and play their part in it.  And we know that as he presented this big vision to his disciples they struggled with it!  He had to call Peter Satan; he had to intervene in arguments about who was the greatest; he had to disillusion disciples who thought they were going to reign at his right hand, and remind them that his way led first to the cross, and only after that to any glory.

Why do I remind you of all of this now?  We find ourselves at a point of new beginnings.  Over the next little while, the incoming parish council will have decisions to make about our priorities in mission; what’s going to be most important for us to work at together over the foreseeable future.  Making decisions about priorities and plans can be a difficult process; it’s not unusual or even bad or wrong for there to be disagreements and conflict to be worked through, and because we’re human, we can easily be hurt in that.

And I am reminding you today that as you work through all of that, loving one another doesn’t just mean keeping everybody happy.  If you prioritise keeping everybody happy, what you will end up with is a series of insipid decisions, likely held hostage to the emotional state of whomever is most fragile on the day the conversation is had.

I am encouraging you each to participate in that process seeking to do what Jesus did; loving the members of your parish family by seeking the big vision of God for this place, and seeking to encourage one another to find your place within it.  Dream big, seek inspiration, be radical, if that’s what God stirs within you.  Don’t be afraid to put what’s on your heart on the table; if there’s disagreement and conflict, don’t shy away from it but work through it; and if you need help to reconcile after an argument, don’t be ashamed to seek that help.  Even the disciples, after the resurrection, needed a series of encounters with Jesus to work through the issues raised by their behaviour and attitudes.

This parish will need the best of all of you, if it is to be an effective expression of the reign of God.  What Jesus promises us, in this morning’s gospel, is that as we work at that process, he will be with us in it.  Where two or three are gathered in his name – even if they disagree or have hurt one another – he will be at work with us, and helping us to grow in love and grace towards one another.

It isn’t easy, this business of facing conflict head on instead of avoiding it.  It takes a good deal of courage, and sometimes a steely determination that I’m going to love that other person, whether they like it or not!  That being part of the church means refusing to give up on one another, even when we really would rather just withdraw, put our heads down, avoid problems or pretend they aren’t there.

But we worship a God who is bigger than our poor behaviour and our bad treatment of one another; who’s bigger than our disagreements about what to do next; who’s bigger than our fears and vulnerabilities.  And that God calls us to a bold vision of community, and promises that as we seek to build that kind of bold community, he will be with us in it; and in that way we will be – as Paul put it – the fullness of him who fills all in all.

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