This sermon was preached on September 6, 2020, by the Rev. Teri Daily on the text Matthew 18:15-20…
Growing up I had a friend who went to a Baptist church in a neighboring town. His pastor was new to the church and obviously didn’t know the unspoken rule about the length of the Sunday morning worship service. His sermons went long every Sunday. After several months, my friend and his father had finally had enough. One Sunday morning they parked their car right in front of the church. When noon came, with the pastor still going strong, they got up and walked out of the service. When the service ended, the pastor took his usual position just outside the front doors of the church. This particular Sunday, though, he was met by the sight of my friend and his father having a picnic lunch on the hood of their car. I don’t recommend this passive-aggressive method of dealing with pastor-parishioner conflict; however, the next Sunday church did let out right at noon.
My friend’s church had experienced what is, according to one congregational consultant, the third most frequent cause of conflict among church members. In case you’re interested, here are the top five most common sources of conflict according to one consultant’s experience: 1) a change in the worship schedule, 2) disagreement over how to deal with a staff member involved in a compromising moral situation, 3) the length of worship services, 4) a lack of clarity about who makes decisions in specific areas, and 5) style of worship. And then, of course, there is the color of the church carpet, whether or not to own a church van, and who gets to use the church building. And, on a much deeper and more serious level, there are betrayals of confidence, breakdowns in communication, and failures to love.
Living in community is hard; the bible doesn’t try to gloss over that reality. In today’s gospel reading from Matthew, Jesus lays out a plan for conflict resolution. If another member of the community sins against you, then go and point out that person’s fault when the two of you are alone. If that doesn’t lead to acknowledgement of the wrongdoing a reconciliation, then take two or three witnesses with you and talk to the person again. If the person still does not admit their wrongdoing, we’re told to tell it to the church. If the person refuses to listen to the church, then they are to be to the community as a Gentile and a tax collector. A Gentile and a tax collector? Really?
I wonder how many churches have lifted these verses word for word from the bible and placed them in personnel manuals. I hope very few. It’s not that these verses aren’t helpful or that they shouldn’t have a place in the life of the church; it’s just that we can’t lift them out of context without losing sight of what Jesus is really saying here.
Just after today’s gospel reading, Peter comes to Jesus and asks, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive him?” Jesus replies, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy times seven.” Or as some have translated it in today’s language, “as many times as it takes.”
Read in conjunction with the verses that follow, today’s passage on how to handle sins within the community takes on a spirit of reconciliation and mercy. After all, what did Jesus do with Gentiles and tax collectors? Jesus did not cast them off; instead, he ate with them, talked with them, called them to follow him – all much to the chagrin of the elite and legalistic ones among whom he lived. Today’s passage is meant to be read side by side with the call for mercy, forgiveness, and restoration that follows it.
But before we breathe a sigh of relief and think we can just move on to forgiveness without having to talk about confrontation, it’s important to remember this: just as we can’t take today’s gospel passage out of context, we also can’t lift Jesus’ command to forgive seventy times seven times out of context. Throughout history the church has at times done this very thing; the call to unlimited forgiveness has been used by some pastors to persuade battered women to stay with their abusive husbands, to persuade women and others to submit to violence of many types over and over again. I don’t think that’s the spirit in which Jesus spoke these words about forgiveness.
We need both passages – the call to confront wrongdoing and the call to forgive – to make sense of what it means to live well within a community, to be true to the call to respect the dignity and worth of both the offender and the one who’s been offended. For Christians, the goal of conflict resolution is always twofold: to deal with the harm that the wrongdoing has caused (to individuals and to the community), and then to restore the wrongdoer to the community.
But let’s be honest: which side of the equation we emphasize may not be the same for every person. In communities in general, if a sin is committed against someone with little power in the community, someone who is marginalized, it is more likely that that the emphasis will often fall on the side of “forgive and forget.” On the other hand, if a person with great power is wronged, it is more likely that the wrongdoing will be confronted.
Jesus knew that how we handle conflict is often wrapped up in issues of who has the most power in a given situation. At the beginning of this chapter in Matthew, when the disciples ask Jesus who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus takes a child and says, “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” Greatness in the kingdom of heaven is about humility and paying attention to the most vulnerable in any situation – including that of conflict.
All of this brings us to a core truth about scripture: the bible doesn’t give us cookie cutter recipes for the perfect life or the perfect community. Every rule or guideline in the bible intersects with the particularities of a community – with the realities of location, past events, and power dynamics. And so every guideline in the bible for how to do community requires interpretation; that’s what Jesus means in today’s passage by to “bind” or to “loose.” To bind and to loose is not about including or excluding people, but about how to apply certain principles and laws in a particular situation; it is a work that involves ambiguity and discernment.
The bible does not function legalistically. The bible functions according to a logic of relationship, and relationships are anything BUT cut and dried. Relationships can involve long sermons, picnics on cars, and resetting expectations.
It’s been said that “in community there really are no resolutions, only ambiguous and messy attempts to find our way back to one another.” Living in community is hard. But it’s worth every ounce of discernment, humility, challenge, confession, forgiveness, and commitment that we bring to it. It’s worth it because it’s here – where two or three are gathered, where two or three strive to live faithfully – that we find Jesus. And isn’t that worth everything?
 Thom S. Ranier, “Five of the Most Frequent Issues of Church Conflict Among Church Members,” http://thomrainer.com/2014/07/five-frequent-issues-conflict-among-church-members/.
 Christopher L. Heuertz, Unexpected Gifts: Discovering the Way of Community (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2013) xv.