08 Sep Christian Conversation
Living in Harmony?
I don’t know about you, but I am someone who hates disagreement and conflict. About 6 years ago, our church staff took personality inventories and I learned that my number one strength is “HARMONY.” That means I want everyone to get along and agree with each other whenever possible. I like to smooth things over. I’m best when I can help move people in a unified direction.
But you know as well as I do that “harmony” is not usually the reality.
Even in this time of a pandemic, when we’re spending more time apart from others, I’m not sure time apart is helping us get along any better with one another. For example, some days, don’t you feel like you’ve spent too much “together time” with your own household family members? And school online or in new hybrid ways will bring its frustrations as many of us come together in that different format in these next weeks.
Our jobs have their own level of complicated communication challenges as this COVID-19 time continues. Everything just seems harder than usual – and that can result in burnout, tempers flaring, and friction among colleagues, friends and our closest family members.
Not Always Going to Get Along
In our gospel for today (Matthew 18:15-20), Jesus names that when we gather as a church, we also aren’t going to always get along. As participants in the church, we can, and will, disagree. In the process of interacting with each other we will hurt and wrong each other at times.
I know we aren’t physically together, but those of you who join us regularly in this Good Shepherd community, you know things will remain tricky in the months to come. The novelty is wearing off of online church, Zoom meetings, and gathering in other remote ways.
The temptation will grow to become picky and opinionated about how to do, or not do, things moving forward. In all likelihood, our conversations with each other may become hurtful and not helpful. We’ll sin against each other. In many ways, we’re no different in our group dynamics than any other group of individuals that meet outside the walls of this building.
We are like all other communities—with one big exception! Jesus Christ has brought the kingdom of heaven into this community—the church. And Jesus demands that we practice the way of the kingdom of heaven here, with each other—whether we’re meeting in person or not.
Connected in Jesus’ Name
Jesus tells us today that when you and I live together as the church, we are to be in relationship with each other. We are to be connected to each other in Jesus name—and that connection is to be like no other, anywhere!
Jesus says, “When you live as a true community in my name, there will be disagreements, hurts and wrongs. When that happens—you are to care enough about your sister or brother in Christ to act. To respond in love to set things right.”
Jesus is calling us to a different style of behavior in this community. Will we be perfect at it? No. We confess from the start, we will not. But we can try because Jesus calls us to practice over and over again, a different way.
If someone hurts you – or you deeply disagree with each other, Jesus commands us to confront one another and work toward reconciliation. We are called to speak the truth in love. I love that phrase. I learned it in Stephen Ministry — we are to speak the truth in love.
But, you know as well as I do that that’s an incredibly hard thing to do—to approach someone alone, and point out in love and truth a harm they have done. But then Jesus promises, if that person listens to you, you have regained that person.
Think of how important that type of rare conversation is! If you think about your own life you have probably had some of your most life-changing experiences, or self-insights, when someone came to you, one-to-one, and told you something hard to hear about yourself, but something you needed to hear. They spoke the truth in love to you.
Who am I to Judge?
A Christian professor recalls a college course in which he taught about friendship and ethics. He had his students present personal case studies about a difficult point in a friendship. Many students wrote explaining why they avoided responding to some situation in which a friend was engaging in self-destructive or hurtful behavior (i.e. a friend was dealing in drugs, or driving drunk, or cheating on an exam).
Their primary justification for their lack of intervention was, “He was my best friend. Who am I to judge?” or “I feared if I said anything, she would get mad and never speak to me again.”
Upon the conclusion of hearing all these case studies, the professor told the class, “You people give friendship a bad name. Let me just say this, Please, don’t any of you be my best friend. I am too dependent on somebody who cares enough about me to say, “Now that was not one of your better moments, was it?” or “What the heck were you thinking when you did that…?“ or “There, you’ve messed up again.” I don’t need any of you to aid my self-deceit. If that is the case, please, don’t be my friend.” (Story from William Willimon, Pulpit Resource, 2005, p 42)
Too often, in many of our relationships, we have this unspoken promise to stay out of another person’s life and stand quietly by as they plummet themselves into self-destructive behavior. We call that ‘friendship’.
Called into Deep Community
Jesus refutes that idea today. He calls us into community, into getting to know each other and developing deep friendships here and in other places in our lives.
Then Jesus adds, there can be no deep friendship without truthfulness. The willingness to confront—with the hope of confession, caring conversation and reconciliation—can be an act of deepest love.
This can also be an act of deepest faith. Jesus Christ is the one who not only tells the truth about our sin but also, in the same breath, forgives our sin.
In this community we are called to build deep friendships as God’s forgiven people. I have a number of different friendships in my life, but it’s the friendships I share with other Christians that are the ones that are most deep and true.
Those are the friends I can be most open with.
We can talk of our joys and imperfections.
We can be real with each other. Authentic.
Gathered in Truth & Honesty
Perhaps that’s why Jesus closes this section of today’s Gospel with a promise. Jesus promises “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:20) In this context, that means whenever two or three of us are gathered to tell the truth to one another, to seek repentance, to offer and receive forgiveness, to be honest about who we truly are with each other, then Jesus is there with us.
It’s a high standard to live up to—but within our attempts to speak with one another in love, there is the real presence of Christ in the church.
But, what about…?
Now, I’m coming to the close of this sermon and perhaps you are thinking, Pastor Sheryl, you haven’t preached on all those other steps Jesus gives us in today’s gospel. All those steps about confronting people who don’t listen and bringing people before the entire church to confront them with their wrongs.
And, Pastor Sheryl, you haven’t addressed the divisions we have in our nation and community over all sorts of issues. How are we supposed to talk about these things together as Christians, when we are so divided?
Well, perhaps I am avoiding these issues for today.
Or, perhaps I’m not.
That’s in part because I truly believe most of us have our hands full in just trying Jesus’ first step. It’s hard enough to approach someone in a divide and speak and listen to them.
And when we’re in conflict or have been harmed by someone, Jesus says that the goal of approaching a person who we feel has hurt us and speaking to them in truth and love—the whole reason for doing that is to “gain a sister or brother.”
Finish the Painting
“The story is told of the time Leonardo da Vinci was working on his painting “The Last Supper” and became inordinately angry with a certain man. Losing his temper, he lashed out at the other fellow unfairly, with unkind and bitter words. Returning to his canvas, Leonardo attempted to work on the face of Jesus but was so upset he could not compose himself for the painstaking work.
Finally, he put down his tools, sought out the subject of his wrath, and asked his forgiveness. The man accepted his apology and Leonardo was able to return to his workshop and finish painting—the face of Jesus.” (Speaking the Truth in Love, Koch & Haugk, p 143)
In all our relationships—whether they take place within the walls of our church or outside of the walls of this place—when we speak in truth and love in our relationships with the goal of being reconciled to one another, we are finishing painting the face of Jesus.
Think on that image this week.
Thanks be to God. Amen.