"Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this." Rev. 1:17-19.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

On Communication and Conflict

          At St. Thomas, as in many churches, one of our biggest issues is communication. It is so easy for me, or any of our church leaders, to get busy and to start expecting others to read our minds. It is so easy for any of us, in the name of efficiency, to act too quickly, without taking the time to get feedback from the others who are affected by our actions. The more we work together, sharing the responsibilities for rich and varied ministries, the more complex the pathways of communication become. In addition, each step forward in parish growth requires an adjustment in the way that parishioners and leaders communicate, and with each added layer of parish structure, confusion and even hurt are always just one small piece of human error away. Moreover, anywhere that people work together to do things that they are passionate about, things that they feel called by God to do, the inevitable missteps of human miscommunication can lead to magnified reactions and conflict. In a way, the more we care about our parish and want to be the best that we can be, the more we step on each others’ toes! 
          Our Gospel lesson for today tackles the thorny issue of conflict and communication in the church, and its presence in our Scriptures should at least reassure us that we are normal when we fight, for churches have clearly been dealing with internal conflict for as long as there have been churches. If we take this small snippet of Gospel lesson as a separate rule book for settling church conflict, however, we are walking a dangerous line. Since the Middle Ages, this is the text that has been used to justify not just rules of communication but official excommunication from the Church—removing the “heretic” and the “sinner,” and shunning them as the Jews of Jesus’ day were told to do with “Gentiles” and “tax collectors.” I’m not so sure that the politics of the  Pope’s exclusion of our own dear King Henry VIII from the Mother Church or our Puritan ancestors’ chaining of their fellow Christians in the stocks for infringing the moral code are really what Jesus or Matthew has in mind here.  
           Notice instead that the “rules” for disciplining church members are wedged right between the parable of the Lost Sheep and Jesus’ telling Peter to forgive over and over again. We are to hear these directions for our life together, then, in the context of the shepherd who leaves his 99 sheep out in the wilderness to go looking for the one lost one, rejoicing more over finding the lost than over those who never went astray, and in the context of limitless, “70 times 7” forgiveness.
Personally, if I were editing Matthew’s Gospel with my red pen, I would turn this whole passage around to begin with the last verse. I believe that Matthew ends with the most important presupposition of the text. Of primary importance is that, where two or three are gathered together in Jesus’ name, Jesus is there among them. Whenever we gather, whether it is around the altar, in the vesting room, in the Fellowship Hall, or even in our favorite of all church gossiping places, the parking lot, Jesus is among us. Jesus, the one who cried from the Cross, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do,” is with us, guiding us, taking our concerns seriously, holding us together, surrounding us with love, holding our hands like a good teacher trying to encourage two preschoolers to tell each other that they are sorry after a blow up. Each time we pray together, each time we communicate with one another, the first thing to remember is that Jesus is present among us. We are not doing the hard work of being a community on our own.
          Continuing to look at our text backwards, we see that Jesus has given the whole Church—not just Peter in this passage, but ALL of us together—the power of binding and loosing. As a church, a church that lives and moves as one Body, we must decide, as the ancient rabbis did, which Scriptures to bind to our actions in the world, and which Scriptures to let loose of in a particular circumstance. Jesus has given us the power of interpreting God’s Holy Word and applying it to our lives—a formidable task, and a task that is inevitably going to cause disagreement within our church body. What if I want to loose something that you think needs to be bound, and vice versa? How we listen to one another, how we assume a posture of forgiveness in our discussions--that is the challenge that Jesus places before us in these verses. Much too often, we panic before such responsibility and lash out at one another. How can we ever decide on a course of action? We can have confidence in the process because of the promise that we just heard—that Jesus is with us when we come together in community, holding us together as we listen respectfully to one another.
          Then finally, we get to the first part of our text about what to do when the inevitable conflict raises its ugly head. Jesus knows that we cannot let trouble-makers run wild in the parish, distracting us from our mission, hurting others. We cannot just sigh and turn the other cheek and let communication in our community go to hell in a hand-basket. Jesus is not asking us not to care about what goes on in our life together. But even in our actions to confront conflict head on, we do have to remember that forgiveness and loving divine presence surround and permeate Jesus’ advice. Adding on to Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase in The Message, I would “modernize” these verses by saying, “If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell him in person—don’t send him an email. If he listens, you’ve made a friend. If he won’t listen, don’t huddle at coffee hour with your friends and complain and whisper about him. Go to see him again in person but take one or two others along so that the presence of witnesses will keep everyone honest, and try again. If he still won’t listen, tell the church. If he won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love.”[1] And again, and again, and again. Remember, although Jesus says to treat the offender “as a Gentile and a tax collector,” we all know that Jesus never gave up on either one of those groups.
          For those of us who want  practical, concrete “homework” to take away from our Scripture lessons and sermons, today’s Gospel is just for you.  Matthew is giving us good advice on how to communicate with one another—just as long as we set our passage in context and don’t use it to beat one another over the head. In our life together at St. Thomas, we would do well to follow the lead of St. Benedict, who was inspired by today’s Gospel in the writing of his Rule, the foundation for the amazing kind of close community lived out daily by monks over so many centuries. When a Benedictine monk joins the community, he must prostrate himself at the feet of each one of his brothers, symbolically throwing himself on God’s mercy that is present to him in each one of them. The Rule states: “Let [the brothers] strive to be the first to honor one another. They should bear each other’s weaknesses of both body and character with the upmost patience.”[2] As we must confront one another, as we live together with one another, if we imagine ourselves prostrate at the feet of that person who is annoying us, full of forbearance for his most annoying faults and foibles, with Jesus beside us, then perhaps the words that come from our mouths will build up this Body of Christ here on Westport Road, and not tear it apart, even when we disagree.

[1] Eugene Peterson, The Message translation.
[2] The Rule of St. Benedict 72.4-5. Found in The Gift of St. Benedict by Verna Holyhead and Lynne Muir (Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 2002).

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