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Sermon for September 4, 2011

Conflict and Communication
I only kind of preached this sermon. I lost my notes and made up the second half, but this is essential what I said. -- mbb

“If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back. But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses. If the person still refuses to listen, take your case to the church. Then if he or she won’t accept the church’s decision, treat that person as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector.
I tell you the truth, whatever you forbid on earth will be forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven.I also tell you this: If two of you agree here on earth concerning anything you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you. For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them.” Matthew 18:15-20

I had a former church music director I called “The Maestro”. I remember entering the sanctuary of a church one Sunday morning. The Maestro was there, chirping one of his favorite hymns with a warbled falsetto as he changed the numbers on the hymn board. Usually the Maestro grumbled his way through Sunday morning. He was a lightening rod for conflict in the church. Instead of his usual litany of complaints, however, he seemed gleeful as we prepared for morning worship. Throughout the morning, there was a sense of lightness in the dusty atmosphere of this old church. Worship attendance was higher than average. Worshipers belted out the hymns and greeted each another with gracious salutations. I preached a sizzler-of- a-sermon. The choir was in tune. I dare say we enjoyed worshipping together. After the service, a church member pulled me aside to talk confidentially. I called him, “The Amazing Randy.” The Amazing Randy would occasionally conveyed extrasensory messages from the spirit world to me. Today he had another message. His hands were folded like a Jedi Master’s. He motioned me close and said, “Just between you and me, I’m getting a strange vibe at church today. I feel tension in the air. There is going to be a great power struggle here soon. I just thought you would want to know.” The Amazing Randy’s prophecy came true too quickly. That afternoon, I saw some choir members congregating in the parking lot. As I drew near to them, everyone ambled off — everyone except for “The Soprano,” whose unofficial job is to keep tally of all insults to the choir and the Maestro. “Today’s service was an outrage,” she said as I approached. She wept as she fumbled with the keys to her car. Between sobs, she told me that people treat the music director rudely, and he just wants to teach us fine music, and people want to stay ignorant and, “What are you going to do about it, pastor?” Welcome to life in church, folks.

We tend to think that all conflict is bad. But that’s not true. Living together as a church family does not mean there will never conflict. But there is healthy conflict and unhealthy conflict – words that hurt and words that heal. Healthy conflict is the responsible exploration of our differences. In fact, we can thrive on differences of opinion, differing approaches to life and different ways of thinking. It is possible to courageously learn what makes us different from one another and then recognize how these differences can be used to serve God. Being human means that we will face times when we are angry, confused, or blind. When we are faithful to God, opposition can be turned into collaboration.

As we think about our core values here at CCC, we affirm that we are a congregation of people who want to listen attentively. We seek others’ opinions and understand that differing values do exist within our church family. We deal with disagreements constructively, communicating with others in a direct, caring, and responsible manner. The good news for us today is that while disagreements can hurt, disagreements can also bring us together. Remember that next time you are locked in a conflict with someone. Words can hurt, and words can heal.

We have all be taught certain methods of passive conflict resolution. For instance, do you have a problem with someone you know? Does this person have bad manners, bad hygiene, or annoying habits? How about those inconsiderate neighbors with noisy pets? Wouldn’t you love to tell off your tyrant boss without her knowing who did it? Now your confrontation problems are over. I once found a website called SincereSuggestions.com. For $5, Sincere Suggestions would send a politely written letter to notify people about their problems while you will remain completely anonymous. The sender would just choose a topic, fill out the information and an anonymous letter would be sent right away. I don’t recommend this approach, of course. I believe if you have something to say about someone, than you should say it to her face. But we live in a society whose rules say that direct confrontation might hurt another person’s feelings. So instead of being honest, we will find a third person and tell him everything wrong with another person. Now I don’t know about you, but I’ve never heard a person say, “You know, I wish someone would trash talk me around town today. I wish someone would call me a crook, or a liar or a weirdo behind my back because confrontation makes me uncomfortable.” So let’s do everyone a favor. If you have a problem with someone, go deal with it directly with that person alone.

That’s how Jesus wants us to do it. In today’s Gospel reading, we get some very practical advice on how to handle it when someone in the church sins against us. The first thing we learn is that we're to approach the person whose behavior hurt us directly, and if at all possible, privately. That way, the person you're speaking with has room to reconsider without losing face -- and you have room to reconsider if the other person can point to ways in which your behavior has contributed negatively to the situation. Jesus encourages quiet conversation between people. The quiet conversation isn't just a formality on the way to wonderfully juicy public drama. He’s saying that instead of going public, the first quality of conflict and communication is to face a person one-on-on without dragging others into the dispute. There may be time to involve others later. However, the initial confrontation is always personal, private, and sincere.

Another quality of conflict and communication is caring. This means that we use words to express healing. Healing words say, “Even though I don’t agree with you, you are important to me. You are a person of worth and I’m not going to cheapen you with bad thoughts or careless words. I value you as a person, and I will honor you by what I say.”

The theologian and activist Thomas Merton once wrote these words. They come from the book entitled Seeds of Contemplation. I offer them for all of us to contemplate. Merton writes:

“Do not be too quick to assume that your enemy is a savage just because he is your enemy. Perhaps he is your enemy because he thinks you are a savage. Or perhaps he is afraid of you because he feels you are afraid of him. And perhaps if he believed you were capable of loving him he would no longer be your enemy.

“Do not be too quick to assume that your enemy is an enemy of God just because he is your enemy. Perhaps he is your enemy precisely because he can find nothing in you that gives glory to God. Perhaps he fears you because he can find nothing in you of God’s love and God’s kindness and God’s patience and mercy and understanding of the weakness of men.

“Do not be too quick to condemn the man who no longer believes in God. For it is perhaps your own coldness and avarice and mediocrity and materialism and sensuality and selfishness that have killed his faith”

I read a story about a grandmother who cuddled her new grandson in her arms. The new father was grinning by her side until the woman looked at her son and said, “How could anyone as dumb and ugly as you have such a good looking child?” Her words might have been brushed aside as a bad joke, but they instantly brought tears to the new dad’s eyes. He replied, “It’s taken me years to believe I’m not ugly or dumb. Why do you think I haven’t been home for so long? I don’t ever want you to call me dumb again.” The woman sat in stunned silence. She had meant her words as a joke. For years, without realizing the impact of her words, this woman teased her kids about being stupid, fat and ugly, just as her mother had teased her. How often have we said something without thinking, not realizing the harmful impact of our words? Healing words picture a special future for others. I’m not just talking about sappy sentimentalism here. I’ve seen the power of words. I’ve said things I regret, and I’ve been on the receiving end as well. I suspect most of you are the same. We need to remind ourselves that people have a deep need to know they are loved, accepted, and created by God for a purpose. Our job is to see the face of Christ in those with whom we disagree. Until we can look at the most revolting members of the human species and see the face of Christ, we are imprisoned by prejudice and hatred. And that’s not the way Christ wants us to live.

Healthy conflict and communication is also responsible. We grow together when our differences are valued and when people learn to practice civil and patient boundaries with one another. We encourage an atmosphere where every person here can talk honestly about his or her beliefs. When we take time to listen to everyone, even when we disagree, we will find shared meaning together. And the more shared meaning we find, the deeper our relationships will become.

Our goal is to be at peace. Peace is not the absence of conflict. It is a way through it. Peace is not the absence of conflict. It is the presence of Christ in our midst. Because we humans are always going to be in conflict in some form or another, making peace means actively addressing conflict and injustice – not running away from it — using nonviolent methods. So remember, words can hurt and words can heal. Disagreements can tear people apart, or they can help us work together for a shared future. The choice is up to us.

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