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.


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