So here’s a little bit of Bible trivia for you. Maybe you know it already, but the Gospel we just heard contains two out of three times that the word church is mentioned in all the Gospels.
In Greek, it’s ekklesia. We translate it as church. It means the gathered community, like us right here. This section of Matthew that we’re reading through is a collection of teachings of Jesus about how the ekklesia should operate, how the church should operate.
So today it’s about bringing an errant brother or sister back into community. Jesus gives us a three-point plan for dealing with conflict:
Number one, take that person aside and talk with them. If that doesn’t work, number two, include two members of the community in your conversation. If that still doesn’t work, include the whole community in your conversation.
Andf that doesn’t work, treat the person who has harmed you as if they were not a member of the community. But that’s the extreme. The hope is for reconciliation. There’s an emphasis there on forgiveness.
In fact, the very next words in the Gospel of Matthew, which will be next week’s Gospel reading here in church, are about forgiveness. It’s where Peter says, “If someone in the community harms me, how many times must I forgive them? Seven times?” Which he thinks is a lot.
But Jesus says, “No, seven times seventy times.” Forgiveness, in other words, has no end. There’s no limit to forgiveness.
Now coincidentally, while I was beginning to think about this passage, I received the latest edition of an email newsletter called “Well,” which is all about how to feel good. How to be healthy. How to feel well.
And in this particular issue of this newsletter, there was an article in which experts were consulted about how to resolve conflict, what to do if someone does something that harms you.
So the experts say, number one, start by practicing confrontation with people you trust, with people you feel safe with. And number two is ease into this conversation. Breathe deeply. Make sure that you feel okay when you’re going into this confrontation. Number three is to describe your emotions to the person whose hurt you—in other words, tell them how it made you feel. The next one, number four, is to switch to listening to them and see if they want to talk about how they feel. And number five is, remember that in the end you can only control your own emotions. You can’t control anybody else. So if you haven’t convinced them by now, just walk away.
So I did a little compare and contrast in my mind, Jesus three-point plan versus the five-point plan from the experts. How do they stack up against each other?
Well, the expert advice was almost entirely me-centered. It’s all about me. And the advice from Jesus is about the community. It’s all about the community. It’s all about reconciliation and forgiveness. That’s how we’re supposed to handle conflict.
So do conflicts arise in this community of the ekklesia of St. James the Greater? Well, I don’t know. One of the blessings of retirement is that I don’t know what your lives are like when I’m not here, and I don’t have to know. So you know that nothing I say from here on out is a specific reference to anything that’s happening here.
But does conflict arise here? I’m going to say yes, almost certainly it does. I mean, it’s natural. It’s human. Jesus assumed that it was going to be happening. Being a good Christian community doesn’t mean that you’re not ever going to have any conflict. What matters is what you do about it, how you handle it.
There’s a line in the hymn we just sang. I don’t have it right in front of me, but it’s something about how all disagreement goes away when you’re a good Christian community. No, actually, that’s not true.
Conflict happens even in church community. But what matters is what we do about it.
For us, resolving conflict is not making sure that I feel good. It’s about bringing errant brothers and sisters back into the community. It’s about forgiveness and reconciliation.
And the world needs to see this. The world really needs to see us demonstrating conflict resolution as reconciliation. The world needs to see that it’s possible to work through conflict, to work through disagreement, and still get along. The world needs to see forgiveness in action.
And that business of setting a good example, that’s a form of service to the world, just like feeding the hungry and visiting the sick.
Because more and more, we see conflict in the division and division in the world around us. And you know that. We certainly see it in our politics, but I see it all around me. I mean, everybody’s angry, it seems like. Road rage. I mean, people are angry in their cars. I think they’re angry in supermarket lines—although to be honest, Chris does our grocery shopping. So I don’t see too much of that kind of conflict.
Maybe one reason we come to church is to get away from all of that and be with people that we know we can trust, people who care about us, even when we disagree.
So there’s a music video out there called “Try That in a Small Town.” I don’t know if you’ve heard of it. It’s been mentioned in the news a lot, and I heard about it, I read about it in an news article.
So I flipped over and looked at it and watched it on YouTube. “Try That in a Small Town.” It’s basically about solving conflicts with violence against people you don’t agree with.
In the video, there are short clips that show scenes in the city of protest and violent crimes, but I don’t think it has any nice pictures of warm small-town life in contrast. The lyrics say:
Try that in a small town, [it says,] see how far you make it down the road. Around here we take care of our own … [I’ve] got a gun that my granddad gave me …
But you know what? This is a small town too.
This is a small town, not just Bristol, but this small community right here. Small as we are, small church, small ekklesia. We take care of our own, not with guns, God help us, but by grace. Because we remember that promise that Jesus told us: wherever two or three are gathered in his name, he is with us.
Small as we are, we do know that loving, inspiring presence of Jesus Christ. And we’re inspired to take care of others in the community. And through the grace of his presence, we have the power to witness to the Good News that we proclaim in His name.
And we know that it’s all about community. The community is the bedrock of all of this. As a church, we’re called to be the kingdom of God, to reflect the Kingdom of God to the world, to be builders of the Kingdom of God here on earth.
So I don’t know if you ever heard the saying, be the change that you wish to see in the world.
It’s usually attributed to Gandhi, and it’s one of those weird little quotes where actually Gandhi didn’t say that, but he said something like that.
But regardless of where it came from, it’s true. The change that we want to see in the world begins with us. As individuals and as the church, every change we want to see in the world begins with us.
And this sad, divided, conflicted, weary world needs our example. Small as we are, powerless as we might think that we are to change anything, we’re not.
The world needs our example and needs us to be that tiny flame of love and hope that burns bright in the darkness that seems to swirl all around us. It needs us to be the change that we wish to see.
And as small as we are, that much we can do.
Preached at St. James the Greater Episcopal Church, Bristol, PA.