September 6, 2020
Outdoor and Facebook Worship
Christ Church Gardiner
We heard this morning in Matthew’s Gospel some very specific instructions for how to deal with conflict within the church community. Which is a little odd since there wasn’t really a “church” during the time of Jesus—just a band of disciples following Jesus from town to town, learning what the Kingdom of God would look like. These directives, therefore, must have been meant for the community to which Matthew was writing, some forty years after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. By that time, there were people regularly gathering to worship together and learn about the ways and promise of Jesus. And I am sure they had arguments and disagreements from time to time.
So while this passage from Matthew may be anachronistic to the time of Jesus, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t wisdom to be gleaned from this passage. Conflict within communities is nothing new. And while, we may not choose these exact conflict resolution steps if we were writing a church handbook, there’s something to be learned here. Because there’s a lot of talk in that passage about confronting and listening. Tackling the problem head on. Things we don’t always do well.
When we encounter conflict today, the tendency for many of us is to avoid talking it out. Some day in the future, when they look back at our time and how we dealt with conflict, these might be the rules they attribute to our times: Don’t face conflict head on. Don’t talk it out in person. Instead take your argument to Facebook or Twitter. There you can point fingers and call people names. You might even find an insulting meme to help make your point. And let your resentment be bolstered by your social media followers who are already on your side.
That sounds healthy, right?
So maybe I am exaggerating a little bit. But you get my point. And these tendencies of ours are increasingly dangerous as we navigate a polarized nation where the response to serious problems like a pandemic, racial injustice, climate change and increasing poverty is too often finger-pointing and name-calling. And because of our impulse to take these serious debates to social media rather than having them face-to-face, we are emboldened to say hurtful things because we don’t have to look the other person in the eye. And we certainly don’t bother to listen to their side. Sometimes we don’t even acknowledge their humanity.
There is one thing, one very important thing, often missing from these national debates and even our interpersonal conflicts. That thing is love. Paul reminds us in his letter to the Romans of the need for love to be our foundation. He wrote, “Owe no one anything except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
But what does it mean to love one another even in the midst of conflict? Perhaps what we need to understand first is what loving in the midst of conflict does not mean. It does not mean failing to speak up for the principles of justice, mercy and humility that we find in the person of Jesus and throughout the Bible. So the question becomes: how do we speak the truth in love?
I found some insight into that question when I was reading the Working Preacher commentary this week to prepare for my sermon. In a note about this Matthew passage, I learned about a poet and spoken word artist, Joe Davis. Davis talks about the dangers of our “call out” culture. The temptation to publicly shame those we feel are on the wrong side of a controversial topic. A “call out” culture makes civil public discourse very difficult. We observe this all around us. But Davis insists that our desire should be to call people in, instead of calling them out.*
This distinction that Davis makes reminded me of my grandmother who died a little over a year ago. My grandmother felt strongly about most everything in her life, especially politics. She was the first woman to be elected mayor of her small town and served two terms before retiring. My grandmother taught me many things, but one of the most important things I learned from her was how to love people with whom we disagree. She had no fear in speaking her mind. She would tell you why you were completely wrong about an issue. But she preferred to tell you over coffee and pie. In doing so, she made space for the relationship to exist beyond the disagreement. She didn’t call people out. She called them in.
Michael Chan, an Old Testament professor, says it like this, “As we point the finger, do we also open the door?”*
As we move further into this polarizing election season, I hope you will find the courage to speak the truth, to call out speech that demeans and dehumanizes others, to stand on the side of justice and mercy. But I also urge you to use your voice to call people in instead of calling them out. To open a door instead of just pointing a finger.
As we hear in Paul’s letter to the Romans, it is in loving one another that we glimpse that salvation that God desires for us. Because love is the most transformative force in the universe and the only thing that can bring healing and justice to a broken world. Amen.
*References about Joe Davis and quote from Michael Chan found in this post, “Opening the Door to Reconciliation” https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5453