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First Reading = Matthew 18:15-20
15“If another member of the church 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. 16But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If 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. 18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
We are nearing the end of our series about real relationships. Last week we heard about the importance of self-care. Even Jesus took the time for self-care! And when we’re at our best, we’re at our best for other people, too.
This week we are talking about conflict. Do you know the first time I addressed conflict as the main topic of my sermon? My fourth sermon here on May 3, 2015. That was 269 sermons ago. And we’ve delved into the deep waters of conflict about once a year since then. I’m sure we’ll get it all figured out this time, though 🙂
We heard from Jesus in our first text the basic recipe for approaching conflict. We’ll circle back to this later, but here’s the recipe for conflict: go one-on-one first, then bring in one or two others to help, then bring it to the whole group, then and only then can you say “Well at least I tried.” And those steps are in order, by the way.
Now that we know the recipe, let’s also hear from Jesus about how important it is to deal with conflict.
Sermon Text = Matthew 5:21-26
21“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
There…and Back Again?
You know how there are those memories that are etched into your soul? Those memories that seem just as real today as when they happened? I was reminded of one of those memories recently. I can still hear the words echoing in my head – “Code zero, zero, zero. Destruct. Zero!” And sixty seconds later, the Starship Enterprise exploded! Not alternate universe exploded. The beloved Starship Enterprise really, really exploded! I was devastated!
Of course, that was Star Trek III, and they still had Star Trek IV to make. So, what do you know? They had a brand new Enterprise ready to go for the next movie! And that one was almost destroyed in Star Trek V. And in Star Trek: The Next Generation, the fancier Enterprise was destroyed in the second season. But it got better! They were able to reverse it with time travel!
And then the Enterprise was destroyed 17 times in one episode when they were stuck in a time loop. And not to be outdone, another episode managed to conjure up 300,000 Enterprises from alternate timelines. And then that Enterprise crashed in another Star Trek movie. But they had yet another, fancier Enterprise ready to go again, so nice foresight from Starfleet.
Are you getting tired of hearing about the Enterprise blowing up? Yeah, me too! Someone tell Paramount that it’s hard to work up any tears for the Enterprise after you’ve seen it blow up several times and magically no one important dies and there’s another ship waiting for them. When everything returns to normal, the conflict seems like a waste of time. If everything goes back to the way it was, it’s hard to care about the Enterprise blowing up.
JRR Tolkien wrote the genre-defining Lord of the Rings books. And there are some very different subtitles in the series. You have on one hand “The Hobbit: There and Back Again.” This implies that Bilbo went out on an adventure, came back to his home, and everything was more or less the same afterwards. Compare that with last section in the series, which is called “The End of the Third Age.” Does that sound like everything is going back to the way it was?
“The End of the Third Age” doesn’t sound like “There and Back Again.” There’s not going to be another Enterprise after that. People and places and all of Middle Earth’s history are actually different after that. Things changed after that conflict.
Many of our church leaders are reading a book by Michael Jinkins called Transformational Ministry. And he has an entire chapter about the role conflict plays in ministry and in the life of a church. He says, “As followers of Christ, we recognize that conflict is potentially redemptive and transformative…so our perspective is not…an attempt to return to a previous equilibrium.” Conflict isn’t something to just sweep away so we can get back to the way things were. Conflict isn’t something to manage away so everyone is OK. Jinkins says that “God uses the stresses and tensions and conflicts of human community to reshape us into the image of Christ.”
If we have the fortitude to engage productively with conflict, we aren’t just going there and back again like Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit. We aren’t just shrugging off one starship Enterprise because we have a few spares in the back. No, conflict is a major way that God can shape us into the image of Christ. Conflict is a way that God can shape our community into the image of Christ. After the last few years, we should be thinking more about “The End of the Third Age” and less about going “There and Back Again.”
Jesus tells us in our text today that conflict isn’t something to be managed or avoided or minimized. Conflict is something to engage directly and quickly. He says our emotions are reason enough to engage with someone. He says our need for reconciliation is greater than our need to be in worship! That’s coming from Jesus!
Reconciliation requires engaging directly with the conflict between people. Reconciliation might require restitution, not just hugging it out. Reconciliation might require swallowing our pride. Reconciliation might require that things be different moving forward, not just going there and back again.
And so I encourage us to think about the last few years as an opportunity for Jesus to bring redemptive and transforming change into our lives and into the church, the Body of Christ. Wherever it is helpful and positive and worshipful to return things “back to normal,” we will. But if we just pretend that the last few years didn’t happen – as if they were just a blip like another starship Enterprise blowing up – then we will have wasted a once-in-a-lifetime chance to be formed more into the image of Christ.
That doesn’t make it fun at all, but why put that to waste? So here’s the first set of questions for today. Thinking about all the pain and conflict and difficulty of the last few years, what should be different moving forward? Where could Jesus bring redemption and new life?
So conflict is a chance at reconciliation and transformation, not just something to be managed and minimized so we can get back to normal.
Jesus also shows us that conflict is an opportunity to look in the mirror, not just point our fingers at others. In our main text today, Jesus says, “if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” Did you catch that? If someone has something against you, go and be reconciled with them. If you look in the mirror and realize you have been at fault, go and be reconciled. If you need to own your own stuff, own it! Don’t make excuses! Don’t hide! Own it! Be personally accountable! Go and be and be reconciled with your accuser, Jesus says!
As I have shared before, my brother and I only had one fight growing up. It just lasted about fourteen years. One of the turning points in our relationship was when I was big enough to challenge him directly. I was finally big enough and strong enough to take him. So I didn’t wait for him to annoy me. I picked the fight myself! Bring it on! Time to represent the power of the younger brother!
A few minutes later I walked back into the house with a bloody nose. And my mom started screaming at my brother! “What did you do to your brother?!?” But I stopped her and said, “No, I started this fight.” We still had a few years of that one fight ahead of us, but that was a start. The typical younger brother move – one I had perfected through repeated application, by the way – would be to skate off to your room and let the older brother take the undeserved heat. But for whatever reason, I raised my hand rather than skating off. It was the beginning of respect growing in place of resentment.
And a little personal accountability goes a long way. A few years later, I remember totally forgetting a Spanish assignment where I was supposed to cook something from Spain or Mexico. And I told my brother about it that morning before school. Rather than laughing at me when I was always the school goody-two-shoes, he helped me whip up a batch of tacos to take to school. I grew in respect for him.
Taking personal responsibility, personal accountability, can grow respect in a relationship. And that can cause great change over time.
Jesus said to consider if someone has something against you. Consider if someone has a reason to accuse you. Think about your personal accountability. Conflict is an opportunity to look in the mirror and own your stuff instead of hiding it. Ain’t no makeup gonna hide our flaws from Jesus anyway.
So here’s our second set of questions today. Where do you need to raise your hand and take responsibility? Where do you need to look in the mirror and own some stuff? I’ve gotta do that, too. In fact, I have quite the list going already!
Direct = No Triangles
So conflict is a chance at reconciliation and transformation, and conflict is also an opportunity to look in the mirror and own some stuff with personal accountability. Now let’s circle back to Jesus’ conflict recipe from our first text today.
The basic summary from Jesus is that we should handle conflict directly. That’s never fun, right? If you ever want to generate some excuses, just think about handling conflict directly. That’s a surefire way to get our excuse-ometers going. It’s really easy to talk ourselves out of handling conflict directly.
And do you know what our brains like even more than talking ourselves out of handling conflict directly? If we can think of someone else to handle our conflict for us! That is internal emotional gold right there! That’s like all the happy buttons! If we can get someone else to handle conflict for us, that makes our brains as happy as my dog when we accidentally drop bacon on the floor.
But Jesus told us to handle conflict directly. And in family systems therapy, getting someone else to handle conflict for you is called triangulation. Alice is annoyed by Bob. So she tells Claire about how annoying Bob is. Claire, feeling like a very responsible person, tells Bob about the problem Alice has with him. Congratulations, Claire! You’re now triangulated!
That happens ALL…THE…TIME in human relationships. And it happens all the time in this church. Triangulation lowers the relational stress for a short while, but it never resolves anything. So every year, more and more stuff just keeps accumulating.
Have you ever renovated a house with wallpaper? It’s not pleasant getting wallpaper down if you’re doing it yourself and you care about the walls underneath. The worst – absolute worst – thing to discover, though, is multiple layers of wallpaper. Ugh! That takes forever to get through!
Every time Alice triangulates Claire in instead of going to Bob directly, it’s like adding another layer of wallpaper. It looks OK for a bit, but it’s really just making more layers of problems that will come up later.
Triangles are really useful in many things, but they are terrible for human relationships. Take Jesus’ recipe for conflict – handle conflict directly. Let’s unplug our excuse-ometers for a spell and handle conflict directly. Let’s get Alice and Bob talking instead of bringing in Claire.
So here’s the final set of questions today. Where have you been triangulating instead of handling conflict directly? Where have you been telling Claire about Bob instead of talking to Bob directly?
Sisters and brothers, we know as followers of Jesus that conflict has the potential to be redemptive and transforming. It’s not about going there and back again, it’s not about just grabbing a spare Starship Enterprise from the back room and getting back to normal. Conflict is an opportunity for God to be at work.
And more specifically, Jesus told us to be personally accountable – look in the mirror so we can own our stuff. And Jesus told us to handle conflict directly – no triangles, and no excuses!
Now remember, I’ve been preaching about conflict since May 3, 2015. This has been a recurring topic over the last 269 sermons. So I don’t want to hear that this was a nice sermon after worship. I want to hear that you hated it or that you’re thinking about applying it. I made a list of things I need to do in light of this sermon. What’s on your TODO list? Amen.