Sermon preached September 7, 2014
Texts: Romans 13:8-10; Matthew 18:15-20
Hues Corporation, “Rock the Boat” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FfBwsG8ubFw
I have had a few conversations in recent weeks with young adults who are not all that charged up about becoming “adult.” With the freedoms and choice that come with adulthood there are also new responsibilities to assume – bills to pay, laundry to do, dishes to wash. As we move into adulthood, some of those who were with us on the way begin to age and some die. As we grow into adulthood, we come to recognize that life is often more complex and messier than we perhaps thought. Of course, this analysis supposes that we had relatively secure childhoods, and unfortunately, there are too many who did and do not. That’s another difficult truth we can learn as we grow.
I think part of the appeal of the music of our youth is that it evokes a simpler time. “Rock the Boat” was a song from 1974. I turned 15 that year. Now that time in life also has its challenges, and they are real. But as the distance grows from age 15, one often remembers the simpler times – a fun song that you just wanted to dance to.
Well, a few years later, 1987, I was in Dallas, Texas. We had moved there so I could pursue my Ph.D. at Southern Methodist University. I got a job as a youth pastor to help with our family income. We were a family of four, then, and I could not simply be a full-time student without contributing something to our family income. Anyway, I was hired by a church in Dallas as a youth pastor. The basic commitment was to lead the weekly Sunday evening youth group, which included time for recreation and for some teaching. That first fall, as I was planning for something around which to do some teaching for our Sunday evening youth group I came across a book written by Christian singer Michael W. Smith. It looked like a good resource to use to start some conversations. It was not an official United Methodist resource however, and without knowing it, I had stepped on a land mine in that church.
United Methodist Churches in the South tend to have very developed adult Sunday School programs. Six or seven adult classes met at this church every Sunday morning, along with classes for children and youth. What I did not know was that before my arrival, one of these adult Sunday School classes had hired a teacher from a theologically conservative seminary in Dallas – Dallas Theological Seminary. He was with the class for a couple of years, I think, and in that time became very critical of The United Methodist Church and United Methodist theology. It got to the point where the church made the decision to fire this teacher, leading to the departure of some of the Sunday School class members as well. In order to prevent a future occurrence, the church had established a policy that all curriculum used in church programs had to be United Methodist curriculum. So I come in and suggest that we read Michael W. Smith! I was asked to come prepared to discuss this at the next council meeting.
Conflict in the church – imagine that. We are a group who has in its founding document, the Bible, these words: Owe no one anything, except to love one another…. Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Love and conflict?
My doctoral dissertation advisor in Dallas was Joe Allen, professor of Christian ethics at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University. Joe’s major book on Christian ethics is entitled, Love and Conflict. In it he writes: Conflict is an inescapable feature of life, in several senses: conflict among moral claims, conflict among the interests of various people and groups, and conflict as struggle over those interests. He goes on: Conflict is not simply evil, nor is harmony simply good; it depends upon what kind of conflict or harmony (9).
Love and conflict. Conflict is not simply evil – it depends. While I stepped into something in my church in Dallas, and created a bit of conflict, it turned out to be a good conflict well-managed. We had a good discussion at the council that evening. The senior pastor, Fred, for whom I developed a deep affection, even though he and I have some significant theological differences, helped let the council know that I was not simply another youth pastor, but that I was an ordained elder in The United Methodist Church and should be trusted to teach well. I was not out to split the church. The council was open to the conversation, and supported my choice. I was the youth pastor in that church for all seven years we were in Dallas.
Love and conflict. Love does not erase our differences, but calls us to work with our differences with compassion and care. Owe no one anything, except to love one another. Sometimes the call of love moves us to rock the boat a little. Loving change can require a little boat rocking, but in love we want to avoid capsizing the boat.
So I want to spend just a couple more minutes with our Scripture readings to see what insight they offer about love, conflict, rocking the boat without capsizing it. I am looking at this not because we are in the midst of significant conflict here, but precisely because we are not. It is in times like these that it is most helpful to think about the kind of people we want to be, even when conflict arises. It is in times like these that it is helpful to develop qualities of character and skills so that we can work well with conflict when it arises.
Our two texts are an interesting combination. Paul cites a number of familiar laws found in the Hebrew Scriptures, and says they can all be summarized by love – “love your neighbor as yourself.” The text in Matthew, on the other hand, seems to be an expansion of the concept of love. Here is what love in community looks like, particularly when there are disagreements and differences.
So what does that look like?
If you have an issue or disagreement with someone, talk to them, or maybe not. I have worked in the area of conflict transformation for The United Methodist Church using this model from Matthew 18, and we added a step. Sometimes, it is o.k. to let something go, if we can really let it go. I think of the wise words of Lewis Smedes in his book A Pretty Good Person: What we often need is not to be forgiven, but to be indulged a little. Not every annoyance needs forgiveness. Some pains beg a little magnanimity. I need it from my wife when I switch channels mindlessly on the television set. She needs it from me when she stretches her short stories at dinner into full-length novels. With a little magnanimity, the quality of the big soul that puts up with small pains, we can reserve serious forgiving for serious offense. (170) Sometimes it is ok to let a disagreement go, if you can really let it go and not store it up for a later attack. I often tell couples to watch out for “Always” and “Never” in their disputes.
When you do have an issue with someone, though, begin by talking to them. It can take courage, but it is the loving thing to do.
If that doesn’t help resolve the issue, get some help. This is not the same as finding three other people to agree with you and ambushing the other person with how wrong they are. In a marriage, it may be seeking someone who can help you move through a difficult time. In a church community, it may mean speaking with the Staff-Parish Relations Committee if you are having an issue with me, or with another staff person. If you are struggling with someone else in the church, it may mean coming to me. We are here for each other.
Sometimes we need to get even more help. Sometimes churches get really stuck in an issue and need to invite someone in to help. I served for a number of years on the “Conflict Transformation Team” for The United Methodist Church in Minnesota. We helped churches work through difficult times. If you are struggling in a personal relationship and you have sought some help from friends and that has not been enough, maybe some professional help would work.
Then there is the painful reminder in Matthew 18 that sometimes relationships end. Churches make decisions that may have wide but not unanimous support, and someone decides they cannot live with that decision. It is painful, but it happens and sometimes people have to move on. The wonderful irony of the Scripture in Matthew is that it says that such folks should be treated as a Gentile and a tax collector. But aren’t those among the people Jesus hung out with? In the midst of pain, a word of hope. Sometimes even our best efforts at conflict transformation won’t keep people together, but Jesus never gives up on us. Jesus seeks whatever healing is possible.
Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor whose person and ministry have garnered some significant attention. She has been interviewed by Krista Tippett. She has a book. She is a sought after speaker. In her book, Pastrix: the cranky, beautiful faith of a sinner and saint, Bolz-Weber writes about church, and what she tells people who are joining the church she pastors. This community will disappoint them. It’s a matter of when, no if. We will let them down or I’ll say something stupid and hurt their feelings. I then invite them on this side of their inevitable disappointment to decide if they’ll stick around after it happens. If they choose to leave when we don’t meet their expectations, they won’t get to see how the grace of God can come in and fill the holes left by our community’s failure, and that’s just too beautiful and too real to miss. (54-55)
In Matthew 18 it talks about where two or three are gathered. In my experience, where two or three are gathered, there will be disagreement sometimes, disappointment sometimes, conflict sometimes – some of that conflict necessary boat rocking, some not. I also trust that where two or three are gathered in the name and spirit of Jesus, he is there, forming us in love and grace so we can be more magnanimous, big-souled. And where two or three are gathered, the grace of God happens in some remarkable ways, too beautiful and too real to miss. Amen.