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Forgiveness: Part I The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Do you know the word “oxymoron”? It’s a figure of speech, a way of talking about

something, while using two words we might not think would go together…but they do. Here are

some examples: Freezer burn. Loyal opposition. Pretty ugly.


There are two more words I want to think with you about today. Having served quite a

few churches over the years, I’ve come to believe lots of Christians think that, when they find a

church, they’re going to be joining…well, a beloved community! “I’m so glad I’m now part of a

church where people really love each other,” some people say.


One church consultant suggested that, in the Episcopal Church, there are eleven

commandments. The Eleventh Commandment for Episcopalians, he said, is this: Thou shalt be

nice. Well, for those who believe that churches should always be nice, I have some news. I have

what some might think is an oxymoron: Church conflict.


But is it? Another church consultant described five levels of conflict in churches. Level

One is the normal, healthy give and take of people with different points of view. Level Three

could be described as “Call for back up.” Level Five? That’s war.


War in a church? War in a diocese or a denomination? War between Christians? We

may think that’s just moronic, but church conflict is definitely not oxymoronic.

Church conflict just happens, because people are different (even Christians!), and people

just happen to have different opinions. Especially people of faith. An old joke in the Jewish

tradition is that, with two rabbis, there will always be at least three opinions.


But it’s not just a difference of opinion that a rabbi named Jesus is talking about in

today’s Gospel passage. According to Matthew’s Jesus, life in the church, especially for church

leaders, needs to be about humility, not superiority - which is a sin.


“Whoever becomes humble like (a) child is the greatest,” Jesus says in the verses before

the ones we’ve heard today. “Whoever welcomes one such child…welcomes me. “(And),” he

continues, “if any of you cause one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better

for you if a great millstone were fastened about your neck and you were drowned in the depth of

the sea” (Matthew 18:4-6). That’s definitely. not. nice.


Sin is not nice. But for Episcopalians, what is sin? Our Catechism, our outline of faith

tells us, right after the section on the Ten Commandments, that sin is “the seeking of our own

will, instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people and

with all creation” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 848).


The collateral damage, the consequence of sin is found in distorted relationships.

Separation. Alienation. Hurt. Harm. Brokenness. Conflict within churches? Conflict within

families? Conflict between two people? It does not need to lead to sin. But it so often does,

because we just don’t handle or manage conflict very well. Not really.


Today’s six verses from Matthew’s Gospel are about Jesus telling his disciples, including

us, how to handle, manage and resolve church conflict. It all starts with when “a member of the

church sins against you.” When that happens, what should we do?


“Go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone,” says Jesus (18:15). Not “go

find some other person, then talk privately with them about that other, terrible sinner!”

Psychologists call that kind of behavior “triangling.” We triangle when we go to

someone else with a relationship problem we have, hoping they’ll “fix” it. Triangling never

resolves conflict. It distorts relationships, which means it’s another kind of sin.


“But,” we may ask, “do I really have to go and tell him directly? To his face? I’ve tried

speaking to him, but nothing seems to change. He just doesn’t listen.” Jesus says that if

someone listens to you, “you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to,” he

continues, “take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the

evidence of two or three witnesses” (18:16).


That’s the next step. That’s ”call for back up.” But be careful, because no one wants to

feel like they’ve been ganged up on. We need to do all our truth-telling in love.


Years ago two good, old Episcopalian friends paid me a visit. I’d asked them to help me

lead worship at the church I served. While we were sitting around my kitchen table, I began to

speak to them in a manner my friends found to be…well, arrogant. I had pontificated long

enough, when one of them said, “Tom! Sit the (you know what) down. Then my other friend

said, “Yeah, Tom! And shut the (you know what) up.”


These women knew me well. They loved me enough to do what the writer of the book of

Ephesians says: speak the truth in love (4:15). I did what they said. Then they said, “Now, listen

to what we are saying to you. And believe what you are hearing.”

Sit down. Shut up. Listen. Believe.


Sometimes, we just can’t do that. Sometimes, we just can’t believe what we hear about

ourselves - even from our church friends, even from our best friends. Sometimes, even though

we may need to hear it from more than a few people, we still. just. can’t. “If a member refuses

to listen,” Jesus says, in Step #3, “tell it to the church” (18:17).


That’s when a church can easily go to conflict Level Four or Five. That’s when people

tend to threaten to leave - or stay and destroy a church, because they just can’t listen to, hear, or

believe the truth. So…what does Jesus say then?


Last step: “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Really? But wait:

Jesus often ate with tax collectors and sinners, with the likes of them. So, here’s what I think

Jesus might have said, if he had used a few more words:


Those people who just don’t get it about loving their neighbors? Treat them as if they

were someone you had never, ever met before. And even if they’re not acting like you think a

Christian ought to act, try to love them. Try to love them anyway. Try to love them like I do.

Try to love them like you try to love yourself.


That’s not easy, sisters and brothers. Church conflict resolution isn’t easy, because it’s

forgiveness work. It’s all about forgiveness. Jesus has a lot to say about forgiveness in next

week’s Gospel. Y’all come back, now, y’hear?


~ The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg, Vicar

All Saints’ Episcopal Church

1508 S. White Station Road

Memphis, TN 38117

fathermom1949@gmail.com

https://www.allsaintsepiscopal.org

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