Sermon for Sunday, 6 September 2020

Sermon by Revd George Mwaura

If you think church conflict is something new, then you haven’t been in church long enough. There is a church I read about where the Minister and the Director of Music were not getting along. As time went by, this began to spill over into the worship service. During the first week of the year, the Minister preached on commitment and how we all should dedicate ourselves to the service of God. The Music Director led the choir with the song, ‘I shall not be moved’. The second week the Minister preached on tithing and how we all should gladly give to the work of the Lord. The Director led the choir with the song, ‘Jesus paid it all’. The third week, the Minister preached on gossiping and how we should all watch our tongues. The Music Director led the choir with the song, ‘I love to tell the story’. With all this going on, the Minister became very frustrated and discouraged over the situation and on the following Sunday, he told the congregation that he was considering resigning. The Director of Music led the choir with the song, ‘Oh why not tonight?’ As it came to pass, the Minister did indeed resign. The following week he informed the church that it was Jesus who led him to that church and it was Jesus who was taking him away. The Music Director led the choir in singing: ‘What a friend we have in Jesus’! You may laugh, but some folks think there should be no conflict in church, as though by virtue of being Christians we are beyond all the shenanigans, disagreements and pettiness of ordinary mortals or we should hide all the quarrels under the guise of being nice and polite.

Well, if you ask me, that’s not doing church that is sheer hypocrisy. In today’s lesson, Jesus seems to be suggesting that conflict in Christian communities is normal and natural, and should be dealt with honestly and with compassion. But as we all know, honesty and compassion are not the primary catchphrases of conflict in any church. Quite often, anger, malice, hurt feelings and lack of clear communication drive us toward either sweeping everything under the rug to keep the peace, or it sends us looking for bigger shovels to dig deeper trenches which only alienates some people who eventually leave the church. The result is either a Body of Christ beautiful on the outside but riddled with the disease and rot of resentment on the inside, or an openly dismembered and bleeding Body of Christ haemorrhaging members and devoid of direction and mission focus. Surely there must be another way, don’t you agree?

Jesus provides us another way in our Gospel lesson today. First, he asks us to use direct and respectful communication. If we are struggling with something a church member has said or done, we are not to talk behind their back (that is really hard). Nor are we to stage a dramatic public confrontation during coffee; rather, we are to take time out! After our tempers have cooled, then we must enter into a dialogue with that person. If that conversation does not work, we then proceed to stage two and create a small group of all parties involved to discern and pray together. If no progress is made, then we let transparency be our guiding principle and search for a solution as a whole church community, bearing one another’s burdens and seeking reconciliation. Good luck Walter! I have preached on this very same subject here at Cornerstone three years ago. You see, some disagreements are so deep that even these steps cannot ease them, and so Jesus says: if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a gentile and a tax collector. Phew, now we breathe a sigh of relief. If we’ve ticked all the boxes as a responsible church and didn’t get anywhere, we can slam the doors and kick out these troublemakers. Hooray! Really; really! Is that what Jesus is saying? As it turns out: no. That’s not what he is saying. Why do I beg to differ? Well, because of how Jesus treated gentiles and tax collectors. Is there then something that we can learn from his words and actions toward these gentiles and tax collectors that we can apply to our own churches? Oh, yes there is!

When Jesus tells the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the temple, he emphasizes the Pharisee’s pride and self-satisfaction as opposed to the tax collector’s pained and private acknowledgement of his own sin. To treat a fellow church member like a tax collector then,  is to realize that beneath the façade of bravado and anger, that person might be hiding a great deal of pain and regret over his or her own actions in the conflict. Jesus says this tax collector went home justified or forgiven. Could we not look for the hidden self of the person with whom we are in conflict and have our compassion awakened? Could we not realise that we might be in danger of praying like the Pharisee and making the prayers all about ourselves and our imagined righteousness?

Zacchaeus was not just a tax collector but a chief tax collector and very rich. But he is so eager to see Jesus that he climbs a tree to get a better view of him. Jesus calls Zacchaeus down and suggests dinner at Zacchaeus’s home. Can we do that? Can we invite a troublesome member to share their gifts with the church in some way, just as Jesus did with Zacchaeus?  Can we not share table during communion in the church and in each other’s homes? That is how Jesus treats tax collectors – with mercy, with invitation, with love and with an eye toward their potential for growth and service to the Kingdom. The apostle Matthew, was a tax collector, and Jesus called him to be one of the Twelve. When Jesus tells us that we are to treat our most difficult church members like tax collectors, he is advising us to treat them like members of his inner circle – disciples who were key to the spreading of the Word.

What about gentiles? What can we learn from Jesus treatment of gentiles in this passage? An encounter with a gentile that stands out was the meeting with the Syrophoenician woman who was seeking her daughter. He initially refuses, saying that the food for the children of Israel cannot be given to the dogs. But her clever response: ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table’, convinces him to change his mind. If our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, who was perfect and without sin, can be persuaded to change his mind about someone, can we not do the same? Are we really paying attention to the argument our opponent in the church is offering? Jesus was not afraid to really listen and be changed by what he heard. We have the opportunity to do the same.

We see Jesus’ relationship with gentiles in another story: the healing of the centurion’s servant. The centurion seeks Jesus out, admits that he is not worthy of Jesus coming under his roof, and says that he knows that if Jesus says the word, his servant will be healed. Jesus immediately extends healing to the servant, and marvels at the depth and purity of the centurion’s faith. Notice that Jesus heals the servant not in person, but across the miles. This story is relevant in terms of how it sheds light to the church conflicts in our past, the ones that drove us or fellow Christians to leave the church. This story proves that healing can happen over a geographical distance or the distance of time. All it takes is faith. And so it is worth revisiting old broken relationships with our brothers and sisters and spending time in prayer for our faith and their faith. It might be a path to healing we never expected.

Let me finish by saying that this Gospel lesson does not give us licence to drive out people we don’t like in the church and create a divide between us. Jesus’ instruction to treat the ones who seem to be the most troublesome and uninterested in reconciliation like tax collectors and gentiles opens to us new, creative and surprising paths toward reconciliation; toward seeing the best in one another, toward achieving healing even years after we no longer remember what got us so angry in the first place. In the imitation of Christ we find that treating others like tax collectors and gentiles is a path of gentleness, hope and potential. All of this is so important not just because of the simple reality that there is no such thing as church without conflict but because of how Jesus concludes his teachings: Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. How we choose to treat one another when the going gets tough has consequences that far outlast questions of theology, Brexit, sexuality or the kind of Bible version we read on Sunday. We have the power to bind and to loose. With the choices we make, we can bind each other even tighter into our separate camps and polarised positions. We can lose each other out into a world without the benefit of Christian fellowship, driving each other from the church with wounds that bleed for years to come. Or, we can release our church communities from the fear of church conflict. And then we can bind ourselves together with the unbreakable love of Christ, a body, tested, refined, healed and flourishing with new life.

Can I get an Amen?