Sunday, September 7, 2014

How to kill a church

My sermon this week was based on Matthew 18:15-20.

To hear my sermon, click here.

I'll let you in on a little secret.  I know a sure-fire way to kill any church, stone dead.  For that matter, I also know how to kill any marriage, friendship and working relationship.  The secret is simple.

Avoid conflict.

It sounds counter-intuitive, because like most sane people, I am hard-wired to avoid conflict.  I don't like it.  I don't like the way it makes me feel.  I don't like how vulnerable it makes me.  I don't like facing the possibility I may be in the wrong.  I don't like being the person telling another person they are in the wrong.

But the fact remains that just about every lesson worth learning I have learned in this life, just about every new and rewarding level I have attained in all my personal and professional relationships have come as the result of successfully negotiating conflict.

Conflict is not the terrible thing we as a society make it out to be.  It can and often is extraordinarily positive and life giving, as long as it is addressed in the appropriate manner.

Jesus gives us some hints as to how we should approach conflict in today's gospel.

Now, there are a couple of things in this passage that don't quite ring true.  First of all, the author refers to "the church", when in reality the Christian movement would only start referring to itself as a church several decades after Jesus' death.  Second, Jesus advises his followers to treat unrepentant "conflicters" like "Gentiles and tax collectors", meaning that they should be ostracized.  In truth, Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors pretty well, and I don't think he would have advised anyone to ostracize anyone else.  Ever.

So we can be sure that Jesus did not actually utter those very words.  However, we can be equally sure that he uttered something like it, important enough to be recorded in Matthew's gospel.

You will notice when it comes to conflict that he says we should address the person we are in conflict with in person, face to face.

Notice what he does NOT say:

"You should complain about each other behind each others' back"

"You should sow dissent amongst each other around the water cooler"

"You should triangulate one another, gather recruits, and stab each other in the back"

"You should let conflict fester and go unacknowledged"

I have a colleague whose office is right next to the church kitchen, and he is fond of saying that he had been assassinated more times in that kitchen than he can count.  Clearly, some people in his church are not aware that sound travels in their church, so if anyone is unhappy about something he has done, he has little choice but to hear about it, because that seems to be where people air their complaints about him.

And his question is, "Why don't they come next door and tell me to my face?"

As a priest, I am often privy to person A complaining about person B, and my response is usually to suggest they stop telling me, and they go to the person in question.

Jesus advocates an immediate, face to face resolution to the conflict.  Should that fail, others may be involved to act as mediators.

The fact of the matter is that very few people like to rock the boat, but as the saying goes, real boats rock.  That is how boats establish their equilibrium upon an unpredictable surface, and that is how boats actually stay afloat.

Relationships, whether they be church, family, romantic or professional are much the same.  They stay afloat not by failing to rock, but by successfully negotiating the rocking.

The fact is that in any organization, particularly one as large and eclectic as a church, people will disagree.  They will disagree on trivialities such as what pattern of paper plates to use at the church picnic, and they will disagree on crucial church matter such as how to disburse donations or what mission projects to engage in.

But in the end, we are called to do God's will, to help the world wherever we can.  That sometimes means disagreeing, but committing anyway.

Ideally, a church can be a unified body.  In my experience, that has NEVER happened, at least to my knowledge.  But if we can put our egos aside and keep our eyes on the prize (which is DOING God's will, helping our brothers and sisters, supporting each other through the rocking of life), we will doing much better.  We are here for a greater purpose that ourselves, and we are meant to be saving our energies for greater conflicts out there in the world.

If our boat must rock, let us all at least be rowing in generally the same direction.

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