Written by Pastor Ed
Can’t We Just Get Along
September 10, 2017
Romans 13: 8-14
Matthew 18: 15-20
In a seminar I attended a number of years ago, Columba Stewart, a monk at St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota, was talking about the Rule of St. Benedict which governs life in the abbey. He noted that when Benedict wrote his rule in the 6th century young men would join the monastery perhaps in their late teens, spend perhaps 10 or 15 years in monastic life, and then die by the age of 40. In contrast, he noted, today monks have to live together for 50, even 60, years! That, he said, can be a challenge.
I distinctly recall preaching on this text from Matthew 18 when I was pastoring in Nebraska. I was following the lectionary, as I am doing here, and this was the given text for the Sunday right after the parole hearing for a young man from the congregation who had become involved in a right-wing religious cult and was in prison for participating in the murder of another member of the cult, who was also from the congregation. Needless to say, this created a great deal of tension with both supporters and detractors from within the congregation. It became painfully clear in the parole hearing that the congregation was divided. And then I had to preach about forgiveness and reconciliation! Needless to say I took some flak for that one.
In my role as a Conference Minister, one of the aspects I most dreaded was dealing with congregational conflict. And yet it seemed inevitable that conflicts would arise. I mean, anytime you have a group of people together for any period of time, you’re bound to run into disagreements. But mediators I’ve talked with say that church conflicts are the worst ones to deal with, because everybody thinks they are right, and probably have Bible verse to back themselves up with. And if you’re right, then there is no compromise possible, is there? So people leave, congregations split, friendships dissolve.
Why can’t we just get along?
But the reality is, as I said, that if a group of people are together long enough there are bound to be disagreements, conflicts and the church is no exception. Perhaps the church is even more prone to that reality since the church brings together people from a broad cross-section of society. But having conflict isn’t the issue, it’s bound to happen. What matters is how we deal with that conflict when it arises.
It’s a little like the definition of health that I once heard and like. We aren’t healthy because there are no germs in our body. Our body deals with germs and disease all the time, because we are exposed to germs all the time. We get sick when the body can no longer deal with the germs or handles them the wrong way. So in an organization, like the church, conflict is inevitable and if it’s dealt with appropriately, the body remains healthy. It’s only when it’s not dealt with or handled badly that the body becomes unhealthy.
In the early 1970’s a young Mennonite probation officer in Ontario by the name of Mark Yantzi had an idea and convinced a judge to let him try it out with several young offenders who had been convicted of vandalism. He teamed up with Dave Worth, then the director of MCC Ontario and they arranged a meeting between the offenders and the victims of the vandalism. And the rest, as they say, is history as Victim-Offender Mediation is now practiced around the world and is used even in much more serious crimes.
Now I’ve never asked Mark where he got the idea for this from, but I suspect part of it, at least, may have come from Matthew 18, the passage we read this morning. Growing up, I remember hearing sermons about this passage as the proper way to handle interpersonal issues in the church. And I recall one instance when I remember my mother using it, although I don’t really remember what it was about or even for sure who it was with.
The verses we read from Matthew 18: 15-20 outline a process for handling a case where someone “sins against you.” You should, according to this, first go and talk to them privately. If that doesn’t resolve the issue, then take one or two others along as witnesses, and if even then there is no resolve, take it to the church and if the offender still doesn’t listen, then treat him or her like a tax collector and a Gentile.
This text, more than any other, has been the basis for church discipline in many parts of the church and is still used in more conservative branches of the Mennonite church. Unfortunately, in my opinion, it has often been misused by persons in authority to punish people who don’t follow the rules. It often has become a “ganging up” on an offender to force them to change their ways, and has nothing to do with maintaining a good relationship. In so doing it has been taken out of context and used as if it were a mandate to punish rather than a means to reconciliation.
In fact, the whole of this section of Matthew deals with how the community of the Messiah should interact, the ways that set it apart from all other communities. As one commentator summarized it at WorkingPreacher.org:
“Matthew’s discourse on community discipline, as chapter 18 is often designated, in fact describes the foundational values and practices that distinguish the community of disciples from any other: solidarity with one another as “children” (Matthew 18:1-5), avoidance of actions that cause others to “stumble” (18:6-9), care for the most vulnerable (18:6, 10, 14), restoration of those who go astray (18:12-14, 15-17), and forgiveness without limit (18:21-35). In the pursuit of this vision and these practices, the community embodies and represents the empire of heaven on earth (18:18-19) and Jesus himself is present among them (18:20).”
He goes on to say: “The process described in 18:15-17 is a concrete example of a careful, orderly, and, most important, persistent means of dealing with kinds of interpersonal conflicts that lead to “binding and loosing” (18:18-19). The process Jesus describes resembles, and has been a foundation for, modern practices associated with “restorative justice,” which focus less on punishment and more on the restoration of dignity and wholeness for both the conflicted parties and their communities.” In fact, one of the primary benefits of the victim-offender process is that it helps both the victim and the offender feel a sense of closure and satisfaction.
The chapter closes with the parable of the unforgiving servant, the one who begged his master to forgive his huge debt, and then went out and demanded a fellow servant pay up on the small amount owed. All in all, there is an overall emphasis on care for the most vulnerable, searching for the lost, and on forgiveness as the primary task of the follower of Jesus.
And even if there is a place for discipline in the church, we need to remember that Jesus made a point of eating with the tax collectors and sinners and including the Gentiles in the community. The point is not punishment but rather reconciliation, a way of keeping the community healthy and dealing with those conflicts that arise.
And clearly, we know from experience as well as all the training that dealing with things directly is the best way. If you have a problem with me, come and see me directly. Don’t go and talk to someone else to gain allies. That’s not what taking one or two others along means. That’s called triangleing and doesn’t help. And please don’t send me an email or a post on FaceBook. If we can’t work it out face-to-face, then we can ask a mediator or someone to come and help. And if I have an issue with someone, I need to go to that person with the rest of Matthew 18 in mind as well, in a spirit of humbleness and wanting to restore the relationship, not out of anger or spite. We always need to remember that Jesus said, right after this, “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (18:20) That should make some difference in how we talk to each other.
Now there are instances where it is not recommended that someone go directly to the offender. If there is a major power imbalance, as in the case of abuse or in an employee-employer relationship. Then there should be other mechanisms in place for dealing with offenses.
But here we’re talking primarily about how we deal with each other and the situations that arise as we share community together. And perhaps the first principle which goes along with Jesus’ words in Matthew 18, are Paul’s admonition to the Romans which we read from Romans 13. “Owe no one anything, except to love one another;” (13:8) and again, “Love does no wrong to a neighbour.” (13:10)
Paul summarizes the whole law in those two phrases. Does that mean we’ll never have conflicts? Of course not! As you’ve heard me say before, “If everybody agrees on everything, someone’s not thinking.” But love means we will handle those disagreements remembering that Jesus in sitting among us and that means what we say and do in those times will reflect our willingness to speak directly, to listen clearly, to forgive as we have been forgiven, and to recognize that our community of faith is to model what the Kingdom of God looks like, on earth as it is in heaven.
St. Maximus the Confessor once said, “If we detect any trace of hatred in our hearts against any man whatsoever for committing any fault, we are utterly estranged from love for God, since love for God absolutely precludes us from hating any man.”
Owe no one anything but to love one another. Love does no wrong to a neighbour. May those admonitions guide us in all our disagreements.