Saturday, September 27, 2014

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Exodus 17
The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin, traveling from place to place as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2 So they quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.”
Moses replied, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the Lord to the test?”
3 But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?”
4 Then Moses cried out to the Lord, “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.”
5 The Lord answered Moses, “Go out in front of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6 I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7 And he called the place Massah[a] and Meribah[b] because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the Lord saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

Summer weather, two months too late.
The price of everything.
People who think they can drive.
Books with titles like Wheat Belly and Grain Brain.
People who fly to conferences to denounce people who fly to conferences.
The municipal election that never ends.
Adding the word “gate” to every scandal.
Paul Calandra.
Phones that bend in your pocket and the people who lined up for days to buy them.
Our new plastic money.
Offering me dark roast coffee instead of asking for my order.
That voice that says “the number you dialed is not a long distance number.”
The latest medical study that contradicts the last medical study.
Road work.
Verb phrases like “lean-in” and “drill-down” and anything that starts with “eco.”
Pets dressed as people and people dressed as pets.
And that guy with 51 turtles in his pants.

It seems I have a lot to complain about. You will notice I didn’t include presbytery, conference or any of my colleagues. You never know who reads these things online. I also deleted “mothers who complain I don’t call enough,” since she has spies everywhere (or can read online).

And I know I’m not alone. Complaining is as human as breathing, and when we’re not complaining we’re just as likely listening to complaints. Being a sentient being more-or-less demands complaining, since being dissatisfied means seeking change and improvement. In other words, complaining is nature’s way, as Darwin as walking on two feet, since before that, we complained we couldn’t reach anything.

And complaining has a long and storied tradition in the Bible. Adam was the first to complain, saying “you know that woman you put here with me—she gave me fruit from the tree and made me eat it.” It was at this point that God told Adam to put on his big-boy pants and accept that life would be nothing but endless toil. Thanks, dude.

The Israelites complain more than kids on a long road trip: ‘we’re hungry, we’re thirsty, we have to go to the bathroom.’ I added the last part, but I think such complaints are a safe bet. In chapter 17 it’s thirst, so Moses strikes a rock at Horab and it’s problem solved.

My favourite part of this short passage is really Moses’ revenge on the complaining Israelites. He strikes the rock, the people drink (and presumably stop complaining for a moment) and Moses then calls the place Massah and Meribah, which we are told means “quarreling and testing.” I know of a couple of churches that could easily rename themselves Massah United Church or Meribah United Church, but I won’t name names (not Central, of course).

Job famously would not complain, and argued the point over several chapters, but even Job succumbed in the end. A bunch of brothers complain that the kid with the cool coat is the favourite. David includes some complaints in the Psalms, the prophets mostly complain about disobedience, and the twelve disciples complain throughout four gospels: who can understand you, Jesus? Why can’t I be the greatest? And unless I see the wounds, I will not believe.

And all of this leads to the most memorable complaint found in scripture, this one from the cross:

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”

It is, of course, a quote from Psalm 22. And it helps us recall that the scriptures were so essential to Jesus and his understanding of God that even on the brink of death it is a Psalm that best captures the moment. He could have went on—and perhaps did—as the Psalm continues to express his sorrow:

Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest.[b]

But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
“He trusts in the Lord,” they say,
“let the Lord rescue him.”

It is the second stanza here that no doubt inspired John Newton, who famously wrote:

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound,
That saved a worm like me!

Later generations would recoil at the word ‘worm’ and give us ‘wretch’ instead, and by the time the Red Book was published (1971) the hymn was omitted altogether. We cheered when the hymn returned for Voices United (1996) but even then the editors suggest it would be suitable to awkwardly alter the line to read “saved and strengthened me.” Those of us who continue to feel like worms or wretches at least part of the time can continue to use the old words.

It sounds like I’m complaining again. So I’m going to make the argument that complaining is a spiritual discipline—a unique path to God—and one that anyone can master. When we complain we ask God to listen, and our dissatisfaction becomes part of a conversation about life on earth.

But before I refine this idea, I should say a word about how we respond to endless complaining. Back in minister’s school, they warned us that some people might complain. And the key lesson regarding pastoral care and complaining is avoid making a lame response. Some examples? The silver lining: “At least you know the chainsaw is working.” The counter-argument: “Surely it can’t hurt that much.” The distraction: “This has to be the nicest September ever.”

Instead, we were taught to listen, and then keep listening, and if we really felt compelled to say something, best to limit ourselves to something simple like “I’m sorry.” And we should be sorry, because if someone is having a truly awful time of it, feeling sorry seems the best response.

So back to God. Most often, our communication with God seems somewhat one-sided. We don’t usually get a noticeable response, nor do we expect one. We try to focus on a sense of God’s presence with us, and this can be aided by the very principle of pastoral care I mentioned a moment ago.

In a world of trouble, we have a God who hears our prayers and in love answers—not with a silver-lining, nor a counter-argument, nor a distraction—but a quiet presence that says “I’m sorry.” Your complaint is real and heartfelt, and the God-who-listens does not dismiss it or turn away, but rather adds it to the depth of God.

And how do I know? At Calvary, Jesus cried out “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And at that moment God was powerless to stop the events unfolding around the cross precisely because this was God on the cross. But God was not crying out to God, not in some sort of circular conversation. This was the human Jesus and the divine Christ suffering together, dying together, feeling abandoned in the moments before everything would change.

This was the moment that God learned in the most intimate way what it means to be human. To feel physical pain and the sorrow of separation, to feel separated even from the totality of himself, and to complain using ancient words that in a strange way would being comfort.

And somehow—in the mystery of that moment—the God addressed in that plea became so immersed in human suffering, that from that moment forward every example of human suffering would reach God. Every example of human suffering would enter the heart of God, and every example of human suffering would be met with “I’m sorry.”

May we continue to give God both our joy and our sorrow, the things we celebrate and the things that trouble us, and may we trust that God is always listening, adding depth to depth in the mercy of God alone. Amen.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost.

Matthew 20
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them a denarius[a] for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
3 “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ 5 So they went.
“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. 6 About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’
7 “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.
“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
8 “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’
9 “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’
13 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Once upon a time a kingdom emerged, its founding marked at the end of an age of raids and conquest. Some time later, another kingdom was added, a kingdom known for its long place names, and where everyone seemed to have the surname Williams or Jones.

Still later another kingdom was joined, this one across a small sea, a land of green hills and missing snakes. Finally, late in the history of this kingdom, a final kingdom was added, a land of mountains and mists, and a people who magically discovered that if you dry the barley over a peat fire, the taste of the peat adds flavour to whatever you choose to distill.

Later still, in what some call the present age, each of the kingdoms began to rediscover their uniqueness, and each kingdom received what rightfully belonged to them: an assembly, some autonomy, and a football team, just for good measure. But the first kingdom began to grumble, saying ‘the kingdom who came last got the same as the rest, plus a referendum, and the men don’t need to wear pants—this is unfair.” The end of this story is unwritten.

In another story, this one set across the ocean, a vast land was populated by first peoples, who welcomed wave after wave of newcomers. The first wave came by boat, and named everything for home, but added the word ‘new’—New France, New Amsterdam, New England. The next wave came by horse and cart, across a new border, loyal to the king from our first story, and willing to start again. Later still another wave came, this time by ocean liner, from places like Italy, and Holland, and islands in the Caribbean.

The last wave arrived by plane, from countries all over the world, from Africa, and Asia, also looking for a new life. But all the other newcomers began to grumble, saying ‘they have just arrived, and they expect rights and jobs and a share of our prosperity?” And then the wise first peoples finally spoke up and said “you are all immigrants to this land, whether you arrived in 1608, 1784, 1950 or last week. Now stop fighting and care for the land we shared with you.”

In our final story, there is a another kingdom, this one heavenly, with workers, and a marketplace, and a vast vineyard. The master of this vineyard must hire workers each day, and so travels to the marketplace, promising an honest days work and the daily wage, a small silver coin.

Soon the master needed more workers, and around nine he hired the next group, making the promise to ‘pay what is right.’ At noon he hired more, and three, and even at five he had room for another handful or workers. When the end of the day came, the master said to the foreman ‘pay the workers what we owe, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’

When those hired at five came forward, they were delighted to receive the daily wage, a small silver coin. The imaginations of the other workers began to light up, but each group down to the first hired received the same small silver coin. The first hired grumbled the loudest: ‘We worked the hot sun the entire day, and did the bulk of the work, yet these ones received the same wage. You have made us equal!’

‘But friends,’ the master said, ‘did I not pay you what I promised, with my money? Why is my generosity so troubling to you?

Maybe just one more story. Long long ago, God liberated a people and led through the wilderness to the promised land. And while it sounds simple enough, the journey actually took forty years. It was a journey marked by various degrees of hardship, with hunger and thirst at the top of this list.

Soon, these wanderers had had enough. After years of wandering they become experts at complaining, knowing exactly what to say to make Moses and the other leaders see red. ‘You know, Moses,’ they said, ‘we would have happily died back there in Egypt. At least there we would have a final meal from the famous fleshpots of Egypt, and the sumptuous bread, and the ice-cold Egyptian ale. Instead, you have led us into the desert to starve us all.’

Well, God heard the complaining, and God told Moses ‘I will give them food to eat each day, but since I hate their complaining so much, I’m going to give them a test—to see how well they can follow directions. Each day for five days I will rain bread from heaven, and on the sixth day I will give a double measure, so day seven remains a day of rest.’ Then God give the details of the test, which Moses then shared.

‘Each day,’ Moses said, ‘you are to collect what you need, an equal measure of manna—one omer—for everyone in your tent. So the people followed Moses’ direction. But while some of were strong and fit, and able to collect their portion quickly, some struggled and could not collect their share. But at the end of the day, in what is now called the ‘first miracle of the omer’ all the containers of manna were made equal. But this was not the test.

The test was for hoarders, the people who didn’t trust in God to provide for the next day. They ate only some of the manna in their containers, and tried to save the rest for tomorrow. But when they awoke—and this is called the second miracle of the omer—the manna that remained was filled with maggots and smelled of rot. Isn’t the Bible fun?

And just in case you are wondering how much manna there is in a single omer, the Bible becomes both fun and informative. There at Exodus 16.36, it says “and one omer is equal to one-tenth of an ephah.” Good to know.

So what’s the glue here? If we had to describe the theme through each of these stories, it would be “unhappy people received an equal share.” Or, “having received an equal share, some remain convinced they are more equal than others.”

You might say we have a love-hate relationship with equality. We tend to say we love it, and strive for it, and seek to safeguard it, but at the end of the day we generally feel more equal than others. You go to church every week for a hundred years, you tithe with your money—giving an appropriate about to the general fund, M&S and COPs. You spend decades loving and serving others just as the creed says, then some tiny upstart in a slippery dress gets one squirt of water at the font and you’re completely equal in God’s eyes. How is that fair?

Some get something called “devo-max” and £203 more per person per year in healthcare services, and some get charter rights protection within minutes of landing at Pearson and some get ‘equal pay for work of equal value’ and everyone gets a daily dose of manna and the kid who threw away his inheritance on dissolute living gets the fatted calf treatment while the older brother thinks he got nothing. And everyone says ‘how is that fair?’

To this—and every complaint about equality and worth and a fair share—Jesus says “give us this day our daily bread.” Not too much and not too little, more than the foolish amount we call the minimum wage and way less than what a bank president gets. Give us this day our daily bread, Lord, and help us to be equal, both in terms of what we get and in terms of what we think we deserve, Amen.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Exodus 15

I will sing to God, who has triumphed gloriously.
Horse and rider are thrown into the sea.
God is my strength, my song, my salvation.
This is my God, whom I will praise,
our parents' God, whom I will exalt.
God is a warrior: Eternal is God's name. R
Pharaoh's chariots and his army are cast into the sea;
his chosen officers are sunk in the Red Sea.
The floods covered them;
they went down into the depths like a stone,
your right hand, O God, glorious in power,
your right hand, shattered the enemy.
In your great majesty you overthrew your foes;
you sent out your fury
and consumed them like stubble. R

Time to open the crazy phone call file.

In my secret life as the church secretary here, I get the most interesting calls, like this week:

Someone called asking to rent our baptism pool. ‘Sorry,’ I said, ‘we don’t use a baptism pool. We have a font.’ ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘so you don’t do real baptisms.’ I tried to explain how we like to think we do the real kind, but she hung up.

Or the person who called some time ago asking for money. This is not an unusual request, except this person wanted the money to be hand delivered to her house, and if I refused, she was going to call down fire and destroy the city. ‘Can I at least get some warning on the whole ‘call down fire thing’ I asked. ‘Nope, no warnings.’

The collection agency called for Iman Amadi again this week. That’s year six of calls on that particular file. When I told the caller that I had preached about Iman Amadi back in the spring they were simply delighted.

This one bugs me the most: I got two calls in the same day regarding trouble with my computer. It’s a well-known (and scary) phishing scam whereby the caller begins with something like ‘we see there is a serious virus in your Microsoft computer and we can help.’ I’m supposed to give them unfettered access to the computer (which can be done remotely) while they steal all my information.

Ignoring the fact that I have a Mac, I let them talk long enough to incriminate themselves. So, a minute or so into the first call I say ‘I know what you’re doing, so I’m going to hang up now. But after I do, I want you to call the police and turn yourself in. Bye now.’ When the same call came in the afternoon, I was getting annoyed. A minute or so into the call I said ‘look, you called me earlier—this is a terrible scam—and I have to warn you that if you continue on this path your soul will spend eternity in hell. Bye now.’

I should tell you that I don’t usually cast people into the lake of fire, or condemn them to eternal damnation—but two calls in one day, come on! Phoning people randomly to steal all their personal information? So this is the PSA part of the sermon. If someone calls you out of the blue offering to fix your computer remotely, you should politely say no, tell them to turn themselves in to police—and if you wish—hint at some eternal peril.

Of course, that would be rather unusual for good United Church folk. We seem to have largely walked away from a belief in hell—and for good reason—since too many of our Christian kin like to make long lists of who’s off to hell and who isn’t. It’s Christianity’s least attractive side, the we’re-in-and-you’re-out approach to ecumenical and interfaith relations.

It remains, however, part of our DNA, with Article 19 of the Basis of Union still official belief: “the finally impenitent shall go away into eternal punishment and the righteous into life eternal.” In other words, we’re pretty happy with the last part, but increasingly uncomfortable with the first part.

And this, it seems, is part of a wider movement toward a friendlier and more palatable understanding of the Christian religion, not just in the United Church, but among mainline tribes generally. Tired of Christians judging everyone? Downplay God’s judgement. Tired of people praying that God take their side? Downplay God’s agency.

We end with a God that is little more than a bumper-sticker (“God is love”) or little more than a projection of what we imagine is our best selves: left or centre-left, pacifist, reads the Toronto Star. And it’s easy to find this understanding in the Bible, simply by reading the wildly popular Micah 6: “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

Now, I’m not dismissing this vision of God for our lives—God knows this world needs more justice, mercy and humility. My concern is a reduction in our understanding of God based on our experience, worldview, or personal preferences. The picture of God found in scripture is complex and multifaceted, preserved from generation to generation, and deemed authoritative for our life together. In other words, a discipline: we need to consider and seek to understand the complexity of God, while confessing that much of what we think we know cannot be fully known.

I share all of this because of a treasure known as the “Song of the Sea.” We recited it with Joyce, an ancient and epic poem that describes the moment Moses and the Israelites pause to mark and celebrate their liberation—the liberation God has just provided.

It is considered by scholars to be among the oldest parts of the Bible, and includes a fragment of a poem that may reach back to the event itself. Some of the phrases may have been inspired or borrowed from ancient Canaanite sources, and express an idea that forms the heart of the Exodus story: God overcame Pharaoh to save the Israelites.

3 The Lord is a warrior;
the Lord is his name.
4 Pharaoh’s chariots and his army
he has hurled into the sea.
The best of Pharaoh’s officers
are drowned in the Red Sea.

The poetry is vivid and visceral—a violent end for a violent people. The very ones who would enslave these people once more are drowned in the sea. Moses continues:

7 “In the greatness of your majesty
you threw down those who opposed you.
You unleashed your burning anger;
it consumed them like stubble.
8 By the blast of your nostrils
the waters piled up.
The surging waters stood up like a wall;
the deep waters congealed in the heart of the sea.

And in the end, when the people are safe on the other shore, there is singing, led by Moses’ sister Miriam, the prophetess who—timbrel in hand—gives voice to this great moment:

“Sing to the Lord, for he is high exalted.
Both horse and driver, has hurled into the sea.”

It was Philo of Alexandria, writing at the time of Christ, who suggested that this was sung by “two choruses, one of men and the other of women,”* with one led my Moses and one led by Miriam. They both sing it in the passage, making Philo’s suggestion rather elegant.

So I clearly love the poetry, but can I love the sentiment too? Can I embrace this warrior God, this defender of the helpless ones, trapped between warhorses and the Red Sea? Or is it simply the projection of hope, a postlude of gratitude? Or, is it a description of divine violence we can countenance no more?

And these questions lead me to ISIS, or ISIL, or more commonly, the Islamic State. Shunned by al-Qaeda for being too brutal, this group has managed to occupy territory across Syria and Iraq roughly three times the size of Lebanon. Using unspeakable methods, this group has terrorized local populations, displaced thousands, and certainly committed genocide.

President Obama said “ISIL is not Islamic,” since “no religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim.” His statement that this is extremism and not religion is an important bit of context, and underlines why ISIS is opposed by Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and countries around the world.

So what do we pray? Do we pray for the defeat of ISIS? Or do we simply pray for peace? Do we speak out when some of the oldest Christian communities in the world are destroyed, or do we keep silent while remembering the Crusades and our own version of holy war?


Then Peter said, “Lord, if someone sins against me, how often should I forgive? Seven times?”
“No Peter,” Jesus said, “not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Then he told a parable.

In this parable, a merciful king decides to forgive a great debt. But moments later, when the one forgiven a great debt is barely out the door, he meets someone who owes him a paltry sum, grabs him by the throat and says “pay me what you owe!” Learning of this, the king summons the forgiven debtor once more and turns him over to be tortured until the original debt is repaid. Jesus concludes: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart."

It’s not a warm and fuzzy story. It has to be his most violent, and most unexpected when the topic at hand is forgiveness. Even omitting the conclusion, which could very likely be the work of an over-zealous scribe, the parable gives us an unexpected turn pointing to the paradox of forgiveness: In a Kingdom defined by forgiveness, the truly unforgiving can hardly expect forgiveness.

So we are back to a merciful God who may not show mercy to the unmerciful. The God of peace who will destroy those who seek to destroy the vulnerable. The God of love who spoke through Jesus to say “love your enemies” but will “scatter the proud and bring down rulers from their throne” (Luke 1) to quote the mother of Jesus.

I propose we step out of our comfort zone very briefly, and set aside a sense of God’s neutrality in favour of God’s justice—God’s justice that demands that the vulnerable be protected. And I suggest we pray: for a world made new, where war and terror are no more, and where people of goodwill can live in peace, Amen.

*Kirsch, Moses: A Life, p. 193

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 18
15 “If your brother or sister[a] sins,[b] go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’[c] 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
18 “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be[d] bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be[e] loosed in heaven.
19 “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

Winnipeg: BA in Conflict Resolution Studies
Carleton: Graduate Diploma in Conflict Resolution
Cornell: Managing Organizational Conflict Certificate
Columbia: MA in Negotiation and Conflict Resolution
Brandeis: MA in Coexistence and Conflict
York: Certificate in Dispute Resolution
Humber: Alternative Dispute Resolution
SMU: MA in Dispute Resolution

It makes you wonder why any conflict remains? With countless degrees and certificates, books and journals, think-tanks and symposia, how can there be anything left to fight about? Maybe, just maybe, conflict is at the heart of being human.

So here’s another list, this one of siblings who fight, with sibling rivalry being the oldest conflict of them all:

Cain and Abel
Jacob and Esau
Leah and Rachel
Moses and Pharaoh (step-brothers)
Thor and Loki (for you pagans in the crowd)
Romulus and Remus (hardly surprizing considering the she-wolf thing)
J.R. and Bobby (ask someone over 50)
Ann Landers and Dear Abby
The Andrews Sisters (for information on boogie-woogie, ask someone over 80)

And that’s just siblings. Expand your look to the rest of the family, or famous fights in every other realm of human endeavor (all the way up to wars) and you begin to see that conflict is a theme that never goes away. And all those programs that collect generous amounts of tuition will tell you that since conflict is inevitable, we ought to learn to manage it.

But we could go further. Back in the olden days, when people would still get married in the church, I would sit down with couples and tell them about conflict. Drawing on the latest literature on the topic, I would tell them that they will fight, eventually, and that the important thing is to fight fair. I even stole a famous book title on biblical ethics (Wm. Countryman’s “Dirt, Greed and Sex”) to let them know that house-cleaning, money management and intimacy were the areas most likely to lead to conflict.

But we could go further still. You could make the argument that conflict is critical to human achievement, with rival individuals and teams conflicted over the best way forward (think Edison and Tesla, Jung and Freud), leading to new insights or inventions. But that assumes that the best approach wins, rather than the one with the best fight in them.

So what about fighting in the church, that thing that happens even in the most convivial churches like this one? How do we proceed, and based on what method? Well, it turns out Jesus anticipated conflict in the gathered community and set out some simple guidelines to follow. It’s a three-step process:

If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.
But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’
If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

Back in preacher’s school we were taught to never say “Jesus said—and I think he was right...” Of course he was right, he’s the Son of God for heaven’s sake. And besides, nobody likes a pompous pulpit. But this is a case where Jesus wasn’t just right, he has Son of God right. If you are going to deal with conflict in the church, this is the very best approach to use.

And here is why: Most conflict begins small and becomes bigger over time. Often conflict is based on preference or a simple misunderstanding. And even when conflict begins in sin (as Jesus’ methodology describes) the offending party is usually more careless then malicious.

So someone does something wrong, or fails to do something (former Catholics can tell us about sins of omission vs. commission). It has the potential to undermine or disrupt the life of the church. And so the first step is a one-on-one conversation. And most often that is all it takes.

Let me give you a for-instance. Let’s say you think the last hymn I chose is a piece of crap. A real stinker. Awkward tune, didn’t fit the theme, bad lyrics, too many verses, imprecise rhyming—wow, you really don’t like that hymn. In congregation that is wedded to some kind of management model, you might go straight to Joan (my worship boss) or to Joyce (Ministry and Personnel Chair, my boss’s boss) or just dash off a quick note to the Moderator or the Observer’s Question Box. This actually happens in congregations.

If, however, you follow the biblical model, you will talk to me first. I will apologize for picking such a stinker, or I will explain why the hymn is the best thing since 18th century sliced bread. Either way, we will have a dialogue and resolve the matter. Picking a bad hymn isn’t a grave sin, but it can cause conflict.

Sometimes, of course, these things can’t be solved by negotiation or private confession. Sometimes the individual won’t listen or be persuaded to stop doing what they are doing (notice I’m leaving the bad hymn example behind). In this case, Jesus says gather one-or-two others along, so that two-or-three may establish what is truly happening here.

If you are thinking something sounds familiar here, you would be right. Two-or-three gathered is Jesus “I will be with you” number as well as his ‘establish the truth’ number. And notice that the person in question is still being given the respect of a more-or-less private place to recant or repent. This model says ‘we respect you enough’ to practice internal discipline, assuming that the sincere wish of two-or-three elders will be enough sway almost anyone.

Finally, of course, there are the people and situations that cannot be so easily resolved. Yet even then, there is a third attempt in making the sin known to the whole church, and allowing the person to face all their peers. This steps says ‘you are accountable to all of us’ but it also says ‘we all seek to be reconciled with you, the whole church.’ And if this doesn’t work (you might call this 3B) then treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector, an outsider, or an outcast.

It has a beginning, a middle and an end, and each step finds the sweet-spot between support and discipline, care and accountability. And it can be found in the disciplinary legislation of this and most denominations, in various models of dispute resolution, and between believers who take this particular part of the Bible literally.

And you can hear echoes of it wherever people take conflict resolution seriously. Take, for example, the classic book on the topic, Getting to Yes (1981). In it, Fisher and Ury describe a model based on these directions: Separate the people from the problem; Focus on interests, not positions; Invent options for mutual gain.

‘Separate the people from the problem’: Jesus’ model keeps the focus on the sin rather than the person. His model says ‘you’re not the problem, what you did is the problem.’ And ‘Focus on interests, not positions’: The two-or-three establish that the primary interest is remaining in the community of faith, which leads to ‘Invent options for mutual gain’, finding the answer for the benefit of all.

And there is another fun echo, this one from a TED talk that William Ury did some time ago. He begins with a story from the Middle East, a story about three brothers. There father has died, and leaves 17 camels to be divided between the three sons: the oldest was to get half the camels, the second son a third of the camels, and the last son a ninth of the camels. Immediately there is a problem: 17 doesn’t divide in half, or by three or by nine. The math is all wrong, and the sons begin to fight.

Frustrated with this impasse, the sons agree that they will seek the advice of a wise woman in their village. The woman thought about for a while and came back to say ‘I don’t know if I can help you, but at least if you want it, you can have my camel.’ And suddenly everything worked: 18 divided in half gave the eldest 9 camels, 18 divided by three gave the second son 6 camels and 18 divided by 9 gave the youngest 2 camels. 9+6+2=17, they had one camel left, so they gave the woman back her camel.

Ury goes on to say that conflict resolution is about finding the 18th camel, the wisdom that says there is a way to resolve conflict creatively. It means seeing problems with fresh eyes, and being open to other insights and viewpoints. So if we go back to Jesus three-point plan for conflict in the church, and we look hard enough, we just might see the 18th camel.

Jesus said: “If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

Treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector—but Jesus was a friend to pagans and tax collectors. The woman at the well, Zacchaeus, even one of his disciples (St. Matthew) was a tax collector. So how do you treat a pagan or a tax collector, if you are Son of the Most High? You befriend them, you forgive them, you make them your own. The 18th camel is a relationship with Jesus: that even when it seems you are at the end of the line, Jesus turns his own process on it’s head and forgives us and makes us his own.

Thanks be to God, Amen.