Summary: For life in the church, Jesus gives us a process and promise to help us deal with conflict so that others may see Jesus clearly.
16 Pentecost A Matthew 18:15-20 8 Sept.2002
Rev. Roger Haugen
In my final year of university at Camrose Lutheran College, I was in charge of one of the dorms. There was one guy determined to get my goat. He was always at the centre of disturbances, always living just over the edge of the dorm rules. There was a lot of tension between the two of us all year. One morning, after one particularly heated exchange, I discovered all of the tires on my car flat. I knew it was him and in order not to punch him in the mouth, I avoided him for the remaining weeks of school.
The conflict and tension ate away at me for a long time and I finally wrote him a letter that summer as a way of sorting it out at least for me. It was a difficult letter to write because I knew that I would have to take responsibility for my part of the conflict. It was also quite safe because I was not likely to see him again. When I had sent it, I felt relief.
Several years later at Homecoming, who should I run into but this same person. We spoke about the letter, it was humbling but freeing at the same time and our long-standing antagonism was gone. I wish I had dealt with it a lot sooner, the relief was wonderful and I felt Jesus’ presence in a real way that day.
About twelve years ago, a couple came to see me about getting married. In the process of our pre-marital counseling, I became concerned about a number of things in their relationship, the most serious being what I saw to be a volatile temper and the potential for violence. At one session I pushed a few of his buttons, to the point where I thought he was about to get out of his chair to punch me. I was hoping the bride-to-be would see what see was getting herself into and call it off but to no avail. Due to perceived pressure from her family, I married them only to find out that the violence began the evening of the wedding reception. If I had confronted the situation more openly or refused to marry them, I may have saved her from the two years of Hell it took for her to get out of the abusive relationship.
On my internship there were two farmers who were neighbours, members of the congregation. The problem was that one of the farmers had pigs but not good fences and every spring his pigs would get out and visit the other’s yard. One year they rooted up his garden, so he called his neighbour who came and picked them up. The next year, they got out and destroyed his lawn. Same response – a phone call, the pigs are picked up. This had gone on for a number of years with tensions rising, and the fences got no better. Finally, this one particular year, the offended farmer packed the pigs up in his truck and hauled them to the auction mart. He didn’t have the proper documentation, so he had to take them home again. No apology or restitution was made. The second farmer decided that the next spring he would just shoot the pigs.
The owner of the pigs quit coming to church. Sadly, he could no longer worship with his grown children and grandchildren because of the pig incident. I don’t know what the next spring brought. Neither farmer saw a need to deal with the conflict, one wanted to go about as he always did and the other wanted revenge. Long-time neighbours at odds, the church community weaker because of it. You must wonder what the neighbourhood thought about the Lutheran church in that town.
Conflict is a fact of life. I could give you many more examples from my life of failures to deal with conflict creatively, but you have your own examples. We have them as a congregation. We live in a society that seeks to avoid conflict and instead allow conflict to eat away at us creating bitterness and anger in the vacuum. The list of people to avoid grows longer and longer and grudges are held for years.
The texts for today bring the issue of conflict within the Christian community. Jesus knew as people came together in the body of Christ, the church, there would be conflict and we would need a process to help us. To those of us within the community who know the hurt that can occur within the church, he offers us a process and a promise.
The bar is raised for us within the community of faith. In our dealing with other people we are not to be motivated by revenge or spite but, more than that, within the community of faith, we are to deal with conflict openly and quickly so that when people see us and how we deal with one another, they see Jesus. Love is to be our motivation above all and is to be seen in all our doings. Our dealings with one another are to be so transparent that we are seen to be Christ to our community.