Sermon given by Rev. Patrick Crocker at First Christian Church in Las Cruces on September 17, 2023.
Let’s hear what the Spirit is saying to the church as found in the Gospel of Matthew.
“If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell him—work it out between the two of you. If he listens, you’ve made a friend. If he won’t listen, take one or two others along so that the presence of witnesses will keep things honest, and try again. If he still won’t listen, tell the church. 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.
“Take this most seriously: A yes on earth is yes in heaven; a no on earth is no in heaven. What you say to one another is eternal. I mean this. When two of you get together on anything at all on earth and make a prayer of it, my Father in heaven goes into action. And when two or three of you are together because of me, you can be sure that I’ll be there.”Matthew 18:15-20 (The Message, Eugene Peterson)
Oh gracious God, shepherd the words of my mouth and the thoughts and meditations in each of our hearts, that they may grow pleasing in your sight and transformative to our spirits.
Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
What is your default on conflict management? What do you automatically go to? How have you seen it done well when you were the one who was the offender? And how do we work this out in our lives together?
Bits and pieces of this passage have been a comfort to small churches, especially over the past few years. Especially that last line, “where two or three are gathered together, there am I also.”
While that is a beautiful sentiment, it is also helpful to remember that Jesus was talking about church discipline when he said that at least the way that it’s presented in Matthew. So it’s not just when we only have two people show up for worship and, “well we can comfort ourselves.” But also we remember that Jesus is listening in, watching and hearing what we say to each other.
This passage is within a larger section where Jesus talks about the life together, what life in the church is to be. Even though the word for church is only mentioned two times in the entire Gospels and one of them is right here.
Jesus starts by talking about how those who are followers of His are to be marked by childlike humility, childlike trust, yearning for the greater. Then we get into a bit more of how we are to treat those who are younger than us in the face, those who have a more unrefined understanding.
We talk about how we look to each other, and this is a counter to the way that many of us understand the church and in fact, the way that we, it seems, have to talk about the church when we talk to larger entities like the state, the church, as understood within the gospels, is not simply a voluntary organization of like-minded individuals.
Yes, we have to treat it that way for the legal work, but within the understanding of the gospels, the church is the body of Christ. We are the body of Christ and we are under direction of Christ. Although it seems that some parts of the church are getting faulty instructions or acting out without instructions, and that does sometimes happen in the body as well.
I know I don’t tell my little toe to find where all the furniture is when I’m getting up in the middle of the night, but it sure seems to find it anyway. So also there have been times where the body has said, “we doing this” and the mind has said, “no, we’re not,” and the body has said, “yeah, we are.”
So it is within the body of Christ sometimes that we find ourselves at odds with each other.
It is interesting within this passage to look at some of the older manuscripts where it says, “If a brother, if a sibling in the church sins against you.” Some of the old manuscripts don’t have that against you. “If a sibling in the church sins, go and tell them.”
It’s something for us to keep in mind and to dance with that we within the body of Christ are affected by each other’s actions, by each other’s thoughts, by each other’s ways of living in the world.
This is an antidote to the me-and-Jesus-ism, which does seem to have infected our culture. That so long as I’m right with God, everybody else can just go away.
The Gospel of the Lord is that there is no “everybody else can just go away.” We are here together. We are here as one body of faith and what we do to each other, with each other, in the name of each other, has eternal consequences.
It’s also been troubling for me in this passage to think about how, according to this, the one who is offended, the one who is the, often, the one with less power in a power dynamic is the one who is supposed to go and seek reconciliation.
I understand it from one point of view because quite often the one who has done the offending, the one who has done the wounding, may not even know, does not even realize that what came out of their mouth or what came out of their heart was toxic, was wounding. And so those of us who carry the wounds are called to take the first step to reconciliation.
This is a place where we show how the church is to be even now counter-cultural. This family of faith is to be one where we practice these ways of being, these ways of trying out a new way of living our lives. This also means that this place is to be a place of empowerment for those of us who are on the margins, those who feel we cannot speak up.
Whether it’s because of personality issues, and we are the shyest of the introverts that has ever been made, right here, or if we just fake it to get through an hour on Sunday morning, or if we are actually in a place of marginalization because of society’s rules and those things that those who are in power have decided what is normal, even if they themselves can’t touch normal with a ten foot pole.
We look at the ways that we can practice healthy in a different way. It is a difficult piece, yes. It is also, I think, a needed corrective.
One of the difficulties that we have found with zero tolerance policy in the schools, which I seem to remember being a thing long before cancel culture got called what it is, and then cancel culture itself.
The idea that you get one chance and that’s it. There is no redemption after that.
I scratch my head at how we can hold on to that and think in any way that we follow the one who calls us to reconciliation. The one who, even from the cross, called out for forgiveness and grace.
Yes, we do need to do a better job of protecting those who are on the margins.
We need to do a better job of finding ways to protect and empower those who have not had a voice, those whose voices have been silenced, those who have never had a voice within the culture at all. We also find ways back to the community.
Having been raised in the church, I have certainly seen examples of what my darling sister calls autoimmune diseases within the body of Christ. I have seen examples of cancers within the body of Christ, and that’s where I realize that the map breaks down. Sometimes the map is good and sometimes the map needs some revising based on new information, because within the body of Christ there is always hope for reconciliation.
There is always hope for redemption.
My work with hospice, on the other hand, showed me that there are some reconciliations that will not happen on this side of the pearly gates. It is sad, it is tragic, and it hits home really hard because I can think of two people that I’m related to very closely that probably will not see that reconciliation. Though one hopes for it daily.
I know within this passage that we are called to something greater. I also recognize that there are times and places where, because of the ways that we live, because of the ways that we think, there are some of us that need to have some strong boundaries between us and the ones that we’ve hurt, between us and the ones that have hurt us.
This is not an easy answer that will be solved with the latest special talk from whichever psycho-educational programs that we have subscribed to. And I know because of subscribed to a lot of them over the course of the years. This is something that we walk through by faith and hope, recognizing once again that if we’re going to love big, we’re going to hurt big.
We are going to be vulnerable. And that is going to cause some within this world to lash out. After all, our culture does seem to be built on, “If there is an opportunity to exploit, take it.” The old pirate’s code: “take what you can and give nothing back, because that’s how you win.” Our faith calls us to something different, to the opposite, to open our arms wide and say, “let’s try this again.” Difficult though it may be, painful though it may be.
This is one of the places in the gospel where I admit that it falls down for me with “the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.” Not as I’ve ever really subscribed to that bumper sticker. It seems a little too trite where the gospel is complex.
But I also recognize that in so many places, my default conflict management style is to go take a nap. My default conflict management style is to take a break and walk away.
I realize that asking, “what is your conflict management style, default conflict management style?” is a bit complex of a question itself because so many of us have different styles depending on who we are chatting with. Our different relationships determine a different way of being.
When I was in school, I had a very different conflict management style for my teachers than I had for my friends. Within the church, we often have different conflict management styles based on how we perceive the other person, whether they are an elder in the church or just an elder on the plane of time, or someone that we have seen grown up.
We are called to treat each of these as siblings in the faith, as fellow members of the body of Christ, all-yearning, all-growing, and yes, sometimes in need of correction, just as we ourselves are in need of correction.
We lift each other up and we hold each other accountable. “What you bind on Earth is bound in heaven. What is loosed on earth is loosed in heaven.” We are called to bind ourselves and to bind each other to the vision of the blessed community. What could be. Very difficult, sometimes painful. And when it works out, a beautiful flowering.
Plants are a symbol of the hope that I carry for me, because every plant that I take home is an act of hope that it will not go the way the rest of them have. I inherited the black thumb from my mom, that’s for sure. She managed to kill a plastic ficus tree, and that’s power.
We find, though, those symbols of hope, and we look for ways to be symbols of hope, symbols of reconciliation, symbols of the life of God, the hope of God, and the love of God. Reaching out into the world, saying there is a better way than what we have done. Saying just because we have only tried it a particular way doesn’t mean that’s the only way that works. Because if we look at it, quite often it hasn’t worked.
The way of cutting people off and saying, One shot and you’re done. I’ve always had the problem with that, that, well, if that is the way that we are going to treat each other, then why should anyone ever attempt to reform? Once you’re done, once you have failed the class irrevocably, why try?
Reconciliation calls us to each consider where we are and where we might turn to be more in line with Christ, who is our leader, who is our head. We look for ways where we can be the presence of God, regardless of how few might be around. And we look for ways that we might strengthen those who have been silenced, those who have been weakened, because there will be a day again when we too will need help as we have needed help in the past.
Oh gracious God for the counter-cultural and counter-intuitive vision that you have of what we could be. We give you thanks. We ask for your grace as we work out these means of grace within our own lives. As we walk with each other toward grace, toward hope. Help us to be your flowering plants in the desert. Your signs of hope and peace. Your signs of shalom. Help us to be the joyful noise. Help us to be your children, more truly. Amen.