Francis Beare

gracefully correct

There are many cases of conflict and need for forgiveness in our world.

We could recite a laundry list.  One on the international level that in recent months has appeared with a vengeance involves the US and North Korea.  I wonder, if our leaders considered themselves to be brothers, would it make a difference?

It is unusual to hear competing sides refer to each other as “brothers” or “sisters.”  Still, if we recall Cain and Abel, we should be aware of how the Bible presents the very first homicide as a fratricide, one brother killing another.  (I suppose we could make the argument, taking the really broad view, that every murder is a fratricide or a sororicide, killing a brother or sister.)

In Matthew 18, Jesus addresses the conflict, the offense, the sin that goes on in the church, the Christian community of faith.

The Lord addresses his disciples, posing a scenario in which a brother or sister sins against another.  Some manuscripts don’t even include the words “against another.”  They simply say if someone sins.  Period.  If someone commits an offense.  Full stop.

As I just said, Jesus places all of this in the church.

1 Mt 18How about if we start with a less serious situation?  (Although I must confess, some might consider this one to be a matter of life and death!)

When we recently spent a year in Tennessee, Banu and I worshipped with two different Episcopal Churches.  I’m pretty certain we sat in someone’s “spot” once or twice.  Nobody made an issue of it, but I wonder if anybody was thinking about it!  I’m sure that’s never been a problem here!  I’m sure if anyone noticed someone in their spot, the reaction would be, “Welcome to worship!  I’m so glad you’re here!”

But for a moment, let’s assume it were a matter of serious importance.  What would be the first step in addressing the offender?  Publicly berate the person?  Enlist others to give stern looks?  Perhaps make derogatory comments about their mother?

Again, assuming the action would qualify as sin, what does Jesus say?  Verse 15 reads, “If another member of the church [or your sister or brother in the faith] sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.  If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.”

Going first to the person alone says and requires a number of things.  One thing it requires is a certain level of maturity.  Being willing to lovingly confront, to face them alone in person, rather than talking about them behind their back—or spreading gossip—means you’re willing to “own” your complaint, to take responsibility for it.  You’re not playing the game of reporting what anonymous “others” have said.

Going first to the person alone suggests you don’t want to shame the person.  It says you have a greater desire for reconciliation than proving you’re right.

But isn’t it so much fun proving you’re right or getting the last word in?

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The late Wayne Oates, a congregational consultant, said when we go to the person first, we “[g]ive the person the benefit of the doubt by saying, ‘I don’t know whether this is accurate or not, but is it true that you said or did this?’  The news bearer may not have reported accurately or may have misinterpreted…  Give ‘the offender’ an opportunity to say it in [his or] her own words.”[1]

There’s usually two sides, or even more sides, to every story.

It’s not much fun when your words are taken the wrong way, is it?  When you’re misunderstood?  On the internet and in emails, a lot of people use emojis, like a smiley face to show they’re not angry.  Or maybe they use a wink, letting people know they’re just being facetious and playful.

Think about the Bible.  We can’t hear the tone of voice, so we don’t always know if something is gravely serious, or if it’s a good-natured comment.

There can be another benefit to going to the person first.  Our friend Wayne goes on, “Word of your initiating this private conversation might well spread through the church system.  If so, it can lift the level of ethical responsibility of the whole congregation.  Members will know that they, too, will face you alone if they sin against you.”[2]

This should be a happy coincidence.  If you make a big show of saying, “Hey everyone, I first went to So-and-So all by myself,” that kind of defeats the purpose of working stuff out privately.

I want to include a disclaimer about a private meeting.  In cases where people have been abused or threatened, it is almost never a wise thing to do.  That’s when others should be called in.  It is probably a case in which other people are necessary.  It’s important to let them be witnesses, or even be advocates on behalf of the abused party.

So, with that in mind, sometimes lovingly going to the person first doesn’t always work.  That’s where verse 16, with its call to bring one or two wise people with you, comes into play.  You notice I added “wise.”  It’s important that these others know how to keep confidence—that they’re not going to go and blab to somebody else.

Confidentiality and secrecy aren’t the same things.  Sometimes there’s confusion about that.  Among the differences between the two is confidentiality maintains the other person’s integrity and helps build relationship.  Secrecy works against both of those.  Another difference is confidentiality builds respect; secrecy destroys respect.

Oates points out an additional aspect of this second level of going to the person.  “By bringing in one or two others, you can check your own behavior with the wisdom of other Christians.”[3]  It’s extremely important to hold ourselves accountable.  Engaging in self-deception is easier than we think.

But again, what if even this doesn’t work?  What if the presence of others still doesn’t convince the person to listen?

According to Jesus, “If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (v. 17).  I don’t know about you, but to me, that sounds pretty harsh!  There are those who say there’s no way Jesus would have said something like that; it was added by Matthew or somebody else.

Our friend Wayne agrees Jesus sounds rather callous, but he reminds us that when Jesus was presented as an infant in the temple, his “mission in the world [according to Simeon]…was to be ‘a light for revelation to the Gentiles’” (Lk 2:32).[4]  It’s hard to be a light for someone if you can’t stand them!

3 Mt 18
Wayne E. Oates, 1917-1999

He adds that Jesus “took great initiative toward Zacchaeus, the tax collector.”  Now that’s a guy who was far from popular!  It wasn’t so much that he collected taxes (though that was part of it), but he did it for the hated Romans.  He was thought of as a traitor.  And yet, Jesus welcomed him.

So, when comparing the offender to a Gentile or a tax collector, the hope is that the “congregation can sustain a caring relationship” to the one being corrected.  The church might say, “We believe what you’re doing is wrong, but we still love you.  We still hope for restoration.”

In The Message, Eugene Peterson translates it this way: “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.”  So he would seem to go along with what we just heard.

Now, after Matthew does his three-step approach with someone being cautioned, in verse 18, he ties it with binding and loosing.  Jesus says, “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Some say that’s about exorcism, casting out demons, but it’s more likely he’s talking about a practice of the rabbis.  Basically, they would “bind” the law, a scripture, if it fit, if it applied to a certain situation.  They would “loose” the scripture if they decided it really didn’t apply.

Jesus passes that authority to bind and loose on to the church.  It’s not because Christians are worthy of doing so; it’s because the Spirit of Christ lives within the church.  As he says: “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (v. 20).  Please note.  That’s not about worship; it’s about reconciliation and dealing with offenses.

This whole matter of correction by the church obviously is a tricky business.  In our own Book of Order, the section called “The Rules of Discipline” takes that on.  It says church discipline “should be exercised as a dispensation of mercy and not of wrath” (D-1.0102).

And it’s not something to rush into.  We’re told it “remains the duty of every church member to try (prayerfully and seriously) to bring about an adjustment or settlement of the quarrel [or] complaint.”  We should “avoid formal proceedings…unless, after prayerful deliberation, they are determined to be necessary to preserve the purity and purposes of the church” (D-1.0103).

When we lived in Jamestown, an administrative commission was formed to investigate a pastor in one of our presbytery’s churches.  (Quick note: administrative commissions are groups of people formed with a single task.  Usually they help with installing new pastors.)

Banu was part of that commission.  There apparently was evidence the pastor had porn on the church’s computer.  It turned out to be true.  Faced with the prospect of disciplinary procedures, the pastor figured it was time to hit the road.  He did what the Book of Order calls “renouncing the jurisdiction of the church.”  That means leaving the Presbyterian Church.  He was protected from ecclesiastical charges.  The pastor literally hit the road.  He wound up moving out of state.

A year or two later, I was part of a similar commission.  There had been a long-going dispute within the session of that same congregation.  It was our job to attempt reconciliation.  It’s safe to say, that church had a lot of problems.

That brings up a related issue.  Is there any action that is utterly unforgivable?  Can you think of anything we might do that is beyond forgiveness?  Is there anyone who Christ does not and cannot forgive?  How does that apply to us, we who pray “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”?

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A couple of examples from church history might be helpful.  Aside from doing this to others, Christians have burned each other at the stake.  Presbyterians, on a number of occasions, dealt with Baptists in a dreadfully appropriate way.  Responding to their insistence on another baptism, in addition to infant baptism, Presbyterians would tie heavy stones to them and toss them into the river.  You want another baptism?  Here you go!  (Splash!)

Maybe we no longer fit people for concrete galoshes, mafia style, but we still do some pretty terrible things to each other.

Peter comes to Jesus and wants to know about forgiving.[5]  He wants to make it really personal.  He asks Jesus, not what to forgive, but how often to forgive.  Peter offers, “As many as seven times?” (v. 21).  To Peter, this is a lot.  He feels like he’s bending over backwards.  Again, a teaching of the rabbis applies here.  It says [and please pardon the male-oriented language], “If a man sins once, twice, or three times, they forgive him; if he sins a fourth time, they do not forgive him.”[6]

So with his response, Jesus blows Peter’s mind.  He says to forgive, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times [or seventy times seven]” (v. 22).  This huge symbolic number says, “Don’t keep count.”  It’s not up to you to keep track of how many times to forgive.

Here’s a complicating factor that can arise: do we wait until someone asks for forgiveness?  What if they never come around, like the offending brother or sister we looked at earlier?  Are we still compelled to forgive?  And by the way, I’m not talking about forgiving in a back-handed or snarky way—as in, “I forgive you for getting offended when I called you a jerk and made disparaging remarks about your mother”!

Forgiving someone doesn’t mean we’ll automatically have a nice, warm, fuzzy feeling.  Forgiving isn’t about emotions.  And it’s not about conjuring up something by ourselves.  It is very much about the grace of God enabling us.  And it is a grace that removes a heavy burden from us.

Pamela Cooper-White picks up on this idea of the grace of forgiveness.[7]  She says, “To be gracious is to be graced.  It is a charisma, a gift of the Holy Spirit.  It enables a person to let go of the person who wounded him/her, and perhaps, in time, to be less preoccupied with both the perpetrator and the wound.”[8]  Forgiving is not easy.  In fact, it can be the hardest thing in life.  But if we can get there, we can find a freedom like none other.

Picking up on the earlier theme about church discipline, if we can wrap our minds and hearts around forgiveness being an act of God’s grace, then we can gracefully correct and be gracefully correct.  Faithful discipline is done with a view toward forgiving.

Faithful discipline offers a challenge.  It offers a challenge to practice being a community of accountability and forgiveness.  It doesn’t happen instantly; it isn’t one and done.  It is a practice.  It is a discipline.

5 Mt 18

Henri Nouwen says, “Community is not possible without the willingness to forgive one another ‘seventy-seven times’…  Forgiveness is the cement of community life.  Forgiveness holds us together through good and bad times, and it allows us to grow in mutual love.”[9]

I know I need the grace of God to be part of that cement.  I need that grace to gracefully correct and be gracefully correct.  How about you?

 

[1] Wayne E. Oates, The Care of Troublesome People (Alban Institute, 1994), 5.

[2] Oates, 5.

[3] Oates, 6.

[4] Oates, 7.

[5] αφιημι, aphiēmi: “I send off,” “I forgive”

[6] Francis Beare, The Gospel According to Matthew (Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson, 1981), 381.

[7] χαριζομαι, charizomai: “I favor.”

[8] Pamela Cooper-White, “Forgiveness: Grace, not Work,” Journal for Preachers (32:2 Lent 2009): 20.

[9] henrinouwen.org/meditation/forgiveness-cement-community-life


gentle and humble in heart

There is a book by spiritual director Adele Ahlberg Calhoun called Spiritual Disciplines Handbook.[1]  In it, she lists 62 different disciplines.  (Spiritual disciplines are practices which promote spiritual growth.  Devotional reading of scripture and various forms of prayer are probably the most familiar ones.)  The discipline I want to address today is “teachability.”

How many of you recall the TV show from the 70s called Kung Fu, starring the late David Carradine?  I always liked the way he spoke.  “I am Caine.  I am called many names, but I have chosen ‘Caine.’”  When he fought, he did it with almost effortless action.  He was a serene warrior—even a pacifist warrior?

1 Pr

I remember a commercial he did for Yellowbook.com, a website version of the yellow pages.  (I’ll be honest, I did have to go to YouTube to refresh my memory!)[2]

Anyway, he’s approached by a would-be disciple who inquires of him, the master, the source of his wisdom.  The student is directed to the website, in which Carradine promises infinite information.  He then proceeds to meditate with the mantra, “Yellowbook dot commmmm.”

Wisdom is sometimes confused with information.  Thanks to the internet, the information available to us is exponentially greater than at any time in human history.  By the time this day is over, it will have vastly expanded again.  Does that mean we’re wiser than all the generations before us?  I don’t have to answer that question, do I?

If teachability isn’t simply the acquisition of information, then what is it?  Calhoun says it means being “a lifelong learner who is continually open to the fresh wind of the Holy Spirit,” and that might mean learning “from God no matter who the teacher or what the experience may be.”[3]  That last part can really be a problem.  God can speak to us—even through those we consider having nothing to learn from!

Teachability is not about what you know or don’t know.  It’s an attitude of the heart; it’s a readiness, an eagerness, to learn.  And it’s also a practice.  It’s something we can will ourselves to do and to be.

Mere possession of knowledge does not make someone wise.  We’ve all encountered people, so-called experts, who know a great deal (though usually not as much as they think they do!) and are anything but teachable.  We see this on the job, in school, in church, in the government, on television.  They’re not open to other ideas.  The Bible has a word for such people: they’re called “fools.”  And if we’re honest, I’m sure all of us have been fools.  I know I have!

While teachability is something to which we must be open, wisdom is not something we can just conjure up at will.  Fortunately, God, who gives truth, also gives wisdom to those who seek it.

In Proverbs 8, wisdom is personified in the form of a female who calls out, who raises her voice.  We read in verses 2 to 4: “On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out: ‘To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live.’”

Being portrayed as female, the speaker here, not surprisingly, is often given the name Lady Wisdom.  Some of the women will no doubt think, “Of course, wisdom is female!  Can you seriously picture wisdom as a man?”

But she’s more than just a gift from God.  She is divine wisdom.  We’re reminded of how the gospel of John starts: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1).  Before the creation of the universe, Lady Wisdom existed, or exists—it’s a timeless reality.  Verses 22 and 23 tell us, “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago.  Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth.”

Comparison is made between Lady Wisdom in Proverbs 8 and Jesus in Matthew 11.[4]  Jesus is placed in what’s known as the wisdom tradition.  He’s also compared with Sirach, part of the apocrypha.  (Those are additional books that the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches accept as scripture.)

Sirach, which was written two centuries before Jesus, says this: “Put your neck under her [that is, wisdom’s] yoke, and let your souls receive instruction; it is to be found close by.  See with your own eyes that I have labored but little and found for myself much serenity” (51:26-27).  The image of the yoke as binding oneself to wisdom well predates Jesus.

In our gospel text, Jesus speaks as the very voice of divine wisdom.  And he’s presented within a context of teachability—or at least, hoping for teachability!  In verse 15, he says, “Let anyone with ears listen!”  Just before today’s reading, he makes the rather surprising statement, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants” (v. 25).  It’s safe to say, Jesus has encountered plenty of so-called experts!

But as I was looking at this, the phrase that really captured my attention is in verse 29.  “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”  His yoke—an instrument for holding two oxen together, or for torturing people—is described in verse 30 as “easy.”  The word in Greek is χρηστος (chrēstos), which also means “kind.”  Change one letter, and we have χριστος (christos), the word for “Christ.”  (To be honest, I’m not sure how meaningful that is!)

Still, Jesus makes a claim that sounds like a qualification for teaching.  After issuing the invitation to take his kind and easy yoke, he says this: “learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart.”  Gentle and humble in heart.  He doesn’t say, “Learn from me, because I know better, because I know more than you do.”

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We can learn from Jesus because he possesses wisdom.  And because he possesses wisdom, for that very reason, he is also teachable.

The best teachers always practice the art of teachability.  The professor of the one economics course I took in college did not seem to practice that art!  He would get visibly irritated if he had to answer more than one or two questions during a class period.  His philosophy was to just plow through the material, whether or not the students knew what he was talking about.

The best teachers remain open to new ideas.  And no matter how much they already know, they’re humble enough to admit that they always have much more to learn.

We too easily ignore the fact that Jesus was completely, totally human.  And as such, he had to learn.  In his encounters with other people, without question, there was a two way flow of information.  In Jesus, the one who teaches, and the one who is taught, are in perfect harmony.

That’s especially evident in his encounters with society’s outcasts.  As I mentioned earlier, Jesus thanks God for hiding certain truths from “the wise and the intelligent” (or so they think), and revealing them “to infants.”  The religious leaders and other notables are offended by his associating with these undesirables.

I think Jesus not only gives benefit, but receives benefit, by his interaction with the poor and the unwanted.  He learns things that the high and mighty can never understand.

In the call of Jesus to “learn” from him, he’s talking about more than knowledge gained by sitting in a classroom and taking notes.  The word used (μαθετε, mathete) literally means, “be discipled” by me—or be my apprentice.  That speaks of relationship, of walking together.  It speaks of bearing that kind and easy yoke together.  It does not mean being sent off to Yellowbook dot commmmm!

It’s been said that the call of Jesus “is not a call to heaviness, but a call to lightness of being.  It contrasts with the serious calls of those who interpret scripture as demand and [restriction].”[5]  And those stuffy souls with their long, frowning faces absolutely hate him for it.  They despise Jesus.  People like that are prisoners, trapped by their own inflexibility.

The more teachable we are, the more we are like Jesus: gentle and humble in heart.  The arrogant and proud aren’t interested in learning.  They only care about gathering information to bolster their own positions, their own preconceived notions.

Here’s a question.  How often do you find yourself talking with someone who doesn’t seem to be listening to you?  Far from thoughtfully considering what you’ve said, the other person seems to already be thinking of a reply—even while you’re still speaking!  How many here have gotten that impression?  How many here have been guilty of that offense?

The epistle of James offers this lesson in becoming more teachable: “let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak” (1:19).

I’ll leave you with a couple of questions Calhoun poses for us.  “What positions have you rethought and changed your mind about in the last few years?  What does this say about you and your journey?”[6]

This is bigger than social issues; this is bigger than politics.  This is about our willingness to let God change us, to not be attached to our own opinions.  Teachability is about transformation.  As the scripture says, those who find Lady Wisdom find life.  Those who hate her find death.  Choose life.  Follow Lady Wisdom; she is gentle and humble in heart.

 

[1] Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005).

[2] www.youtube.com/watch?v=IGjJz1PmuQ4

[3] Calhoun, 82.

[4] Francis Beare, The Gospel According to Matthew (Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson, 1981), 267.

[5] wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/MtPentecost4.html

[6] Calhoun, 83.


can conflict be a gift?

After looking at my sermon title, I realize that it could lead to some unintended conclusions.  Raising the question as to whether or not conflict could be considered a “gift” might suggest that I enjoy conflict—even possibly that I seek it out.  I’m just itching for a fight!  I assure you, that is not the truth.

One day, Banu was looking through some old files.  That tends to happen when one frequently moves from one place to another!  She found a folder that contained some documents from when we were at seminary, when we were just beginning the ordination process.  We were in the Presbytery of Philadelphia, and their Committee on Preparation for Ministry had us fill out some forms.

There was one that asked about our challenges / weaknesses.  I wrote something along the lines of needing to be more assertive, especially in situations of conflict.  That was 1994.  Two decades later, I think I might say the same thing.  I realize that it’s something I still need to work on.  I’ve made some progress in being more assertive and a less anxious presence in the midst of conflict, but I still have a long way to go.

So, no, I do not enjoy conflict.

It would seem from the reading in Matthew that Jesus doesn’t either.  In fact, it looks like when presented with conflict, he simply wimps out!  Look at how our scripture begins.  Jesus tells the people, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.  But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (vv. 38-39).

image from stlydiasplace.typepad.com

The “eye for an eye” Jesus starts with is the lex talionis.  That’s Latin for the “law of retaliation.”  It appears three times in the law of Moses (Ex 21:23-25, Lv 24:19-20, Dt 19:21).

We often hear calls for law and order, for greater security, based on this idea—an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  This one often finds its way into arguments for the death penalty.  It seems to provide for a very stern, no holds barred style of justice.  However, that’s only true if we take the principle of “an eye for an eye” completely out of its context.

It’s been said, “The lex talionis was in its time a social advance of great magnitude [in modern times, we can compare it with the outlawing of slavery]; it put an end to the vendetta, the blood feud, which allowed unlimited retaliation for an injury done to a member of the family or tribe, so that an entire group could be wiped out before the demands for vengeance were satisfied.”

To our 21st century ears, that law “sounds savage, but it was actually a softening of the primitive fierceness of the feud, which set no limits to the revenge” that could be taken.[1]  The idea was that, if you kill one of ours, we’ll kill ten of yours—and then, it would escalate from there.

Still, Jesus doesn’t say limit revenge to “the same injury; Jesus declares that we must take no revenge at all.”[2]  When he says, “Do not resist an evildoer,” he says don’t worry about getting payback (v. 39).

There’s one verse that isn’t so much a question of revenge.  Jesus tells his disciples, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you” (v. 42).  I wonder, would that include lending your car to someone who returns it with an empty gas tank?

It looks like everything that Jesus says in our gospel text runs contrary to what we usually do.  (Or at least, we might do it with a great deal of hesitation!)  Why is that?  Is this ethic he lays out something that can actually be done?  Many people simply say “no.”  Many people say that Jesus is exaggerating to make a point.  I’m not sure I’m totally convinced by that!

In any event, I find the phrase in verse 39 especially interesting: “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”  Again, there are many takes on what Jesus means by this, but I find the comments of Speed Leas, a consultant on congregational conflict, to be useful.

“What that means to me,” he says, “is that when the battle has begun, I do not leave, nor do I attack.  I stay there.  I stay in range of getting hit again.  I take the risk of not destroying the other person or leaving the scene.”[3]  According to Leas, Jesus tells us to resist the “fight, flight, or freeze” reaction.  You know what that is:  the temptation, when faced with a conflict, to lash out, to take off, or to become paralyzed!

There’s something that tends to handcuff us when dealing with conflict.  This is true for all people, but I think it’s especially true for those in the church.  We have a tendency to see conflict as inherently bad, something to always steer clear of.

Episcopal priest Caroline Westerhoff talks about this.  “Conflict is not just inevitable…  Instead it is part of the divine plan, a gift.”[4]   So here’s the question I raise in my sermon title—with a little emphasis.  How in the world can conflict be a gift?

According to Westerhoff, conflict is part of the creative process.  Almost any story or movie has an element of conflict.  There’s the protagonist and the antagonist.  Conflict is indeed inevitable; it’s built into creation itself.  Animals engage in conflict for food.  In a way, humans do, as well.  We certainly find ourselves in many different kinds of struggle.  A big part of the artistic process is struggling with ourselves and with God.  Westerhoff says that “newness cannot come without conflict.”[5]

The truth is, we have differences.  We look, think, act, smell, vote differently!  That’s how we’ve been created.  One of the main reasons for conflict is due to the fact that we’re not all alike.  We aren’t copies of each other.  We often try to impose a level of sameness on each other, but it’s a mistake.

If we can’t, or shouldn’t, avoid conflict—if it can’t be prevented—what we can and should do is to manage it.  We need to guide it, set boundaries around it.  (Recall what I said about the lex talionis, “an eye for an eye” being a boundary, a limit.)  We have to use conflict for constructive, and not destructive, purposes.

Westerhoff continues, “To manage conflict then would be to allow it, not suppress it; to open our doors and windows to its fresh wind.”[6]  I must say that I don’t often think of conflict as being a breath of fresh air!

“Following this line of thought to its ultimate conclusion, violence and war becomes not conflict…out of all bounds, but the final outcome of conflict [when it is stifled].  They result when we will not allow the other to be different, when we deny our life-giving dependence on the different one with all our might and means.”

This is the first Sunday since the presidential election.  There’s no debating that our country is divided.  That’s been true for a long time.  No matter what your political orientation, no matter who you voted for, I think I’m safe in saying that this past year has had a distinctly different feel.  I think I’m safe in saying that there has been a narrative of not allowing the other to be different.  There’s been a narrative of denying our life-giving dependence on the different one, and doing that with all our might and means.

The “other ones” who have been insulted and verbally attacked for over a year from on high have found a green light, permission has been given, implicitly or explicitly, for them to be physically attacked, to have fear instilled in them.

In that context, Jesus seems to wimp out again in verses 43 and 44.  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  Really, that sounds outrageous!

image from stlydiasplace.typepad.com

Far from wimping out, what Jesus proposes takes a great deal of courage.

In another congregation, I asked the session to read the book, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times by Peter Steinke.[7]  (I mentioned that people are always anxious at some level, so this book would probably work any time.)  He doesn’t exactly use the language of “loving the enemy,” though sometimes it might feel that way when we’re in the midst of conflict.

In the book’s Acknowledgements, he salutes “the unnamed congregational leaders and members who have influenced my thinking through their wisdom, counsel, and especially courageous action.  They deeply cared for their congregations in such a way that they were willing to risk the displeasure of others, even to the point of being demonized.”  Remember, these are church folk!  “They resisted giving in to the pressure of the moment if it meant forsaking their integrity.”[8]

Remember what I said at the beginning about recognizing my own need to keep working on being assertive in situations of conflict?

Steinke goes on, “Some leaders patiently and calmly stayed connected to people with opposing viewpoints and to those known to be troublesome…  To their credit, they did not regard their own judgments as placing them on higher moral ground.  They simply could not set aside distressing circumstances or avoid a difficult decision even if it meant individuals would be hurt or the congregation would suffer.  They spoke ‘the truth in love’ (Eph. 4:15) so that the truth could set people free (John 8:32).”

Friends, this is not easy.  That’s why we let things go for so long that we know in our heart of hearts need to be corrected.

Twice in our scripture text, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said…  But I say to you…”  In the midst of conflict, Jesus shows us the way forward.

In the midst of conflict, it can feel like the walls are closing in.  We can feel tightness in our chest.  We need to remember to breathe.  We need to remember that the Spirit is within us.  But we also need to remember to actually breathe!  There’s nothing like being still, taking some deep breaths, and getting oxygen into the lungs to help us regain some perspective.

Jesus closes by saying, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (v. 48).  That sounds like a tall order!  But this isn’t “perfect” in the sense of being flawless; this is “perfect” in the sense of being “perfected,” of being made whole.  That is the Lord’s desire for us.

We are fragmented, broken creatures.  We are not whole.  Still, in the strange and unwanted gift that is conflict, we come together.  Sometimes we come together by crashing into each other.  But thanks be to God, in all of that craziness, the Spirit is there to lead us into new avenues of truth, returning insult with blessing.

We need that now more than ever.

[1] Francis Beare, The Gospel According to Matthew (Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson, 1981),158.

[2] Beare, 158.

[3] Speed Leas, “The Basics of Conflict Management in Congregations,” Conflict Management in Congregations, ed. David Lott (Bethesda, MD:  The Alban Institute, 2001), 30.

[4] Caroline Westerhoff, “Conflict:  The Birthing of the New,” Conflict Management in Congregations, 56.

[5] Westerhoff, 56.

[6] Westerhoff, 57.

[7] Peter Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times (Herndon, VA:  The Alban Institute, 2006).

[8] Steinke, xv.