"Conflict and Amazing Grace in Church"
Proper 18 A 2014
A new family joined the church.
The music director was excited, because the husband was a great tenor-
and the choir needed tenors.
But there was one problem-
Turns out one of the basses had worked with the new tenor in a job in years past
and there was some bad blood.
So the new guy wouldn’t join the choir.
You’d think that this sort of thing wouldn’t happen in the church.
We are Christians, and you would think that the people Jesus gave his life for
would be the happiest, most forgiving people in the world.
The church is a community, and so you would think that people would be accepted as they are,
that no one would be lonely, and that people would live in harmony.
But that’s not the way it is.
That’s because the church is not a club where you choose your members.
The church is for all comers, it welcomes all people—
and let’s face it, people , including you and I, can be difficult, selfish, and unreliable.
A community that welcomes all people has some diversity— which is a good thing, right?
But that means there will also be conflict as those differing people and points of view duke it out.
Which is why I often say, that it isn’t Christian community unless there is at least one person you can’t stand.
Things weren’t any different back in early Christian days,
so Jesus included some instructions for the life of the community—which we read in our gospel.
Jesus had just finished talking to the disciples about not to putting stumbling blocks in front of ‘little ones.’
The vulnerable need to be treated with great care,
and as it turns out, the community itself has vulnerabilities.
It isn’t big enough to have two people not talking to each other;
it is torn apart when people talk behind one another’s back instead of addressing the matter directly.
So Jesus lays out a process for expressing grievances-
first, go to the person who wronged you, and tell them what hurt you, and be ready to forgive them.
If that doesn’t work, then ask another person to sit down with the two of you.
If a solution cannot be worked out, then the offender is to be treated as a “tax collector and Gentile.”
Ideally, this process helps both parties to listen and forgive,
because often the situation is not as cut and dry as one person offending, and another person being hurt.
But what does it mean to treat a person as a ‘tax collector and Gentile?
Some in the church have assumed this meant to cast the person out of the community.
since both tax collectors and Gentiles were outsiders to the Jews.
As in so many aspects of our lives, when reconciliation fails, it seems that the only solution is to part ways,
write people off, and vote them off the island.
But Jesus didn’t treat tax collectors and sinners that way.
Sure, they were outsiders— tax collectors were traitors and Gentiles were foreigners
But to Jesus that meant they needed a special invitation, not a kick out the door.
Jesus was famous for hanging out with tax collectors and sinners--
In fact, Matthew, who gave us this gospel, was tax collector.
Jesus’ emphasis is always on bringing back the lost ones, the wrong ones.
The aim is toward reconciliation.
Which reminds me of another choir.
It was the a cappella choir I sang with in seminary, called “the Sacramental Winers.”
When I joined the choir, it had been around just long enough to perceived as a clique—
singers joined by invitation only.
So the group decided to hold open auditions for the first time.
The day of the audition, things ran smoothly, until a woman named Sherri arrived to sing.
One of our members, a woman named Dahn, was rude to her, for no apparent reason.
Sherri auditioned well nonetheless, and so afterward when we mulled over the candidates,
someone suggested we admit Sherri to the group.
But Dahn spoke out against Sherri, finding all sorts of reasons why she shouldn't be in the group.
To make a long story short, we found out these two women had hated each other from day one.
Dahn wasn't sure if she would be able to stay if Sherri were in the group.
I was in a tough place, because I was friends with both women.
Actually, they had a lot in common with each other, both strong leaders with many gifts to share.
But they each felt threatened, and a few misplaced comments early on in their relationship
had turned them against one another.
I wasn't hopeful that a solution could be found.
But coming back to the next rehearsal, I was surprised to hear the decision of the group.
Dahn had spent some time in prayer, and she didn’t feel right about holding this grudge anymore.
So we asked Dahn to make the call to Sherri to let her know she was in.
Our first rehearsal with our new members was the occasion for some frank discussion
led by one of the founding members of the group.
She talked about how we were about making music together.
That entailed trusting one another, and being open to each other.
Slowly the Dahn and Sherri shared how they had been enemies,
and how glad they were for this opportunity to overcome the hurts of the past.
When all that needed to be said was done, we sang together for the first time.
We held hands and sang Amazing Grace.
Being a part of Christian community doesn’t guarantee that there will be no conflicts.
It doesn’t mean some people won’t take their ball and play elsewhere.
But it does offer a different way—
a way that is ultimately more healing and more growth filled
than the places in life where we can just write people off.
Jesus said, “where ever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there.”
I often think of this saying when we have an unusually small bible study
It has been an assurance that numbers are not as important as God’s work in whoever shows up.
But when you consider it here, in the midst of dealing with conflict,
it functions as a reassurance that despite our careless words or negligence or unwillingness to listen,
God is nonetheless present in the midst of conflict.
God continues to work for reconciliation in and through us.
I don’t know if the two men in the choir will work it out.
But I do know that they are each men of faith, and Jesus isn’t done with them yet.
I am still holding out for that new tenor to join the choir.
Maybe it will happen someday—you just don’t know.
But for now, I’m singing the song of God’s amazing grace and its continued possibilities among us.
It’s the reason why you and I, a bunch of rag tag sinners, are here.