Suzanne G. Roberts
Sermon for Proper 18 Year A, September 10, 2017
Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 149; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20
Earlier this week I ran across a wonderful snippet of a video interview with our former Presiding Bishop, Katherine Jefferts Schori. It was part of a series that Time magazine is running on women who have been “Firsts”, and she was profiled because she was, of course, the first woman to be elected as Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church USA. I hope other listeners looked beyond the novelty of a seeing a woman wearing a bishop’s miter to actually hear what she was saying, because I believe that she was speaking not just as a women, but as a wise person of faith when she said something that is very pertinent to life in the United States today. She said: “Conflict is a sign of possibility. It is not just negative and many, many people see it as something to be avoided. But we can’t grow, we can’t change without conflict.” Most of us don’t think of conflict and growth and change in the same breath; this is because most of us aren’t wise enough, or perhaps faithful enough to recognize the possibilities inherent in conflict. Today there are some lessons about conflict and conflict resolution in our readings.
First, and rule number one, is laid out in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, our first lesson. Paul wrote: “The commandments are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”” That’s it. Don’t you love it when the lesson can be summed up in a bumper sticker? I know I do. But I’m afraid that we aren’t finished yet today, for, as we all know, it is much easier to quote “Love you neighbor as yourself” than it is to actually do it. Which brings us to today’s Gospel from Matthew—-where we actually gain some tools to help us to love our neighbors.
This gospel reading is actually much more nuanced than it appears at first reading, and it has been the topic of debate among scriptural scholars for some time. There are roughly two sections to the reading: in the first section Jesus gives instructions for conflict resolution within the church community, and in the second section it appears that he grants broad powers of judgment to his disciples, but don’t be too hasty and accept the easy, literal interpretation.
The first section is actually a lovely description of the process that is now known as “restorative justice”. Restorative justice is a process of healing and reconciliation that has been employed in countries such as South Africa and Northern Ireland, countries where deep wounds caused by racial oppression or interreligious conflict have literally left entire generations scarred and divided. Restorative justice involves, perhaps more than anything else, listening. Listening on the part of all of the parties involved, listening to both the victims and the perpetrators, for all of the involved parties have been wounded. So let’s look again at what Jesus had to say today. He said that if you are in conflict with someone then first go and talk to them. Don’t avoid the conflict, don’t talk about them behind their back, don’t draw uninvolved third parties into your conflict—first go to this person and try to talk. And then, in the next two sentences Jesus used the verb “listen” four times! Listen to one another. Only then, if you are not able to resolve your conflict amongst the two of you, involve others from your community; but keep talking, and above all, keep listening! Remember, as we all know from the final verse in today’s gospel, verse 20, whenever two or three are gathered, Jesus is among them. This is a comforting thought, for who doesn’t want Jesus to be with them in times of conflict? But don’t be fooled, verse 20 is actually both a promise and a warning. Yes, it is a promise that we will never be alone in times of conflict, but it is also a warning that what we say and do together is always done in the presence of God. We sometimes forget this, intentionally or unintentionally, especially in the heat of conflict. Verse 20 is only a comfort if you are comfortable with Jesus being with you, even as things get messy.
“Conflict is a sign of possibility” as our former Presiding Bishop said, but this can be very difficult to remember when we are in the thick of it. If we keep our heads about us, take a deep breath, and remember to pray, we will be more likely to be mindful that Jesus is with us throughout the entire process. Jesus urges us to keep talking to one another, to keep listening to one another, and to remember that he is with us. When we come together as a community and as a country to discuss, listen for, and discern God’s will in the midst of conflict nothing is out of our reach. Conflict is a sign of possibility, but working through it with the help and guidance of God will help us to transform conflict into change and growth. With God’s help, we can learn to love our neighbors as ourselves, both in times of conflict and in times of growth. AMEN