September 6, 2020
14th Sunday after Pentecost; Proper 18
I hear a lot these days that the gospel just isn’t relevant to live in the 21st century, that the teachings of a middle eastern man from over 2000 years ago has nothing to do with the way we live today. And, when we don’t accept Jesus among us, that’s true.
Jesus didn’t come to fit into the culture in which he was born. He didn’t teach the disciples to fit in to the culture they lived in. He doesn’t teach us how to fit into our culture. The teachings of the middle eastern, brown skinned man from 2000 years ago have nothing to do with the way we live when we choose to live as the world teaches.
Jesus came to teach us how to be the people God intends for us to be – people living in healthy relationship with God and each other. Relationships in which we are other focused, seeking the greater good of all rather than our own individual interests and agendas.
Jesus didn’t come to be the popular one but the one who speaks the truth of unhealthy relationships people create for themselves and their unhealthy approach to God and religion, whatever century we find ourselves in.
Jesus teaches both on the cultural level and the personal one. We each have to do the difficult and sometimes painful work of letting our own faults be healed so that we can be together as community in healthy relationship.
Think back over the Sunday readings and sermons this summer: we’ve talked about tending to our own soul’s soil and abundantly scattering the seeds of love.
We’ve talked about seeing the infinite value in all human beings as God’s children.
We’ve talked about the true treasure of God’s kingdom and how our behavior reveals what we truly value.
And, we’ve talked about not conforming to the ways of this world and letting ourselves be transformed by God’s love so that we can bring heaven to earth.
Jesus, the great healer, didn’t just heal physical ailments and deformities. Jesus heals our hearts and souls as well.
And in today’s gospel reading, Jesus talks about how to handle conflict with direct and loving communication. I can’t think of anything more relevant for us today than this topic.
We’ve become angry and in our anger we can only see how to destroy something or someone in an effort to alleviate our anger. As a nation, as a society, as a culture, as a community, and as individuals, we are lashing out at anything or anyone.
We are angry and we want to feel better and looking outside ourselves is far easier than looking in. And, it is far more damaging to our society, our relationships, and ourselves.
When we bring one person down in our undefined anger and we still don’t feel better, then we have to bring down another and another and we continue to destroy our own heart and soul in the process.
We like to think that churches are free of this type of conflict, or at least we are very good at pretending it doesn’t exist. We’ve decided to ignore that conflict happens in church because we want people to think we are nice, and that’s the most unhealthy response to conflict there is.
The first step in a healthy response to conflict is to say “we have conflict”. It’s like being an addict, the only way to begin resolving the problem is to admit there is one.
Often however, in our “nice church people” attempt to deny any conflict at all, we then attack the one who is trying to resolve the issue by pointing it out in the first place.
We’d rather stay in our unhealthy ways because we know these ways and they are comfortable and they don’t require us to change anything. It’s like saying “I’m used to my limp so why do I need to have the surgery to fix it?”
We keep putting pretty coats of paint on the facade and ignore the cracks in the foundation.
And so Jesus teaches us how to face the conflict and how to work through it in a loving and healthy way.
Jesus address the ways we are tempted to deal with conflict and offers us a healthy, life-giving alternative to these temptations:
First, Jesus makes it clear that avoidance and evasion are not the answer. He tells us to talk to each other, honestly and openly, with the agenda to build up rather than tear down.
Second, when someone causes us offense, we don’t gossip – we don’t start with talking about the person, but we address the issue directly with the person who offended us, one-on-one. This respectfully gives both of us a chance to discover if perhaps it was just a misunderstanding and to explore the real cause of the bad feelings without embarrassment or shame. Triangulation and gossip are corrosive to our community, the opposite of healthy and life-giving.
Third, Jesus tells us not to create echo chambers of grievance – seeking out those we know we can convince to agree with our grievance even if they themselves were not a part of the original offense, secret meetings to discuss such topics as “what are we going to do with her” or “how are we going to make him do it our way.” The true goal of these types of secret meetings is never reconciliation but revenge. So bring in a witness who can point out the common ground necessary for building healthy and life-giving communities.
Fourth, if talking directly with the individual or with a witness hasn’t worked, we can’t stay within our like-minded gang of grievance. The next step is to bring the offense before the entire community, including the one who caused the offense in the first place. All points of view are included, keeping everyone accountable. With a diverse group of listeners, we are less likely to exaggerate our “side” or to omit or alter key details to make us look better or the other person look worse. It helps us keep resolution as the goal, not revenge or retaliation.
And finally, Jesus warns against throwing the offending person out. When the goal becomes excommunication even before we begin communication we are focused on retaliation not resolution. If someone in the community continues in dysfunctional behaviors, removing their toxicity may be the only answer but it is always a last resort.
The church is a place of mission and ministry, a community in which we are to look outwardly to see where we need to be sharing God’s love at all times. And so, Jesus tells us to treat self-focused, emotionally unhealthy individuals as he does tax-collectors and sinners – we welcome them to stay in our community to learn to be Christ-centered people, serving God and others with all that we have.
No one is exempt from God’s grace. No one is excluded from Jesus’ mission of love and God’s beloved community.
Conflict happens. It is happening. As the church we are the ones who are called to model relationship building resolution, not corrosive retaliation and coercion. With all that is happening, this is more relevant today than perhaps any other time in our history.
How we live within the relationships of our church community reflects our hearts – light or dark. Our behavior toward others either reveals heaven or the ways the world.
We have the choice to bind ourselves to heaven or earth.
We can choose to say that the gospel is no longer relevant and ignore Jesus’ teachings about living in relationship with each other. Or we can embrace the life-giving, loving, liberating way of God and let ourselves be transformed into the people God created us to be, with full awareness of Jesus in our midst at all times. Amen.