It is easy to overlook the power of simple advice like that given in Matthew 18:15, but even after 20 years, I can still remember the first wise person who gently admonished me in private. I spent the summer of 1985 with a traveling Mime Ministry that started and Sleepy Eye, Minnesota and went all the way to New York City and back, much of the time with me behind the wheel of our van. As the driver, I also felt responsible to be the time-keeper and make sure we got to our appointments and performances on time. Getting a group of mimes together was much harder to do than the driving. Ok, we did talk with each other when we weren’t performing. We were like any six people working together with different senses of time and urgency.
One day I felt a strong sense of urgency that we were cutting it too close and I didn’t like rushing somewhere that I didn’t know well. Two of the women in our group had been sitting talking and seemed to ignore everyone else rushing around and loading the van. I was angry and snapped at them that we needed to go and I wished they would be more responsible. They asked for a couple extra minutes and I said that we needed to go right that instant. We all got into to the car feeling tense and frustrated.
The next day one of the women came to me and asked if she could speak with me. Wendy was always very soft spoken and probably the group member with whom I spent the least time talking. She very quietly told me that she had been going through a major problem the day before and was in the middle of getting a friendly ear from another team member. She said she felt crushed by my harsh tone and abruptness, but later realized the pressure of being the driver. Not wanting her anger to fester, she told me about her feelings and expressed her hope that we could work it out and communicate better in the future. This was done with such great care that it was easy for me to apologize without losing face. It was a revelation to me that both of us might have legitimate perspectives and needs in the situation. It was an even bigger revelation that someone could be angry with me and not hurt back.
The gift of that moment has stayed with me for a long time. There are many times when I want to really give it to someone who has acted foolishly. I don’t suffer gladly people who bully, act arrogantly, don’t listen to others or want their own way all the time. I may want to have a head on confrontation with people who act this way and maybe even bring them down a peg in public. But I have never found that effective. The majority of the time, the quiet approach of sitting down with someone and sharing how I feel without blame leads to better understanding and even reconciliation. No technique in dealing with conflict guarantees success. Some people do refuse to listen. The rest of the passage talks about what to do with someone who just won’t get it. Jesus recognized the need for church discipline for the harmony of the community. However, few churches suffer from not having enough admonition and discipline. Many churches, perhaps the majority, suffer from persistent conflict because people don’t know how to talk with each other when they are angry or disagree with each other.
You know how church conflict usually works. The 3rd Grade Sunday School teacher gets mad at the Superintendent and tells the her best friend about it, who happens to be the head of the board of Deacons. Then the Deacon, much to the surprise of the pastor, says at the end of the Deacons meeting, “I think we have a problem with the Sunday School Superintendent.” Soon the whole church is talking about it, except the people who are actually upset with each other. This creates patterns in the church and soon the pastor is spending more time smoothing ruffled feathers and trying to get everyone to get along than in preparing sermons or reaching out to new people.
Conflict saps the life out of the church. Pastors that want to survive learn to tell people to talk to the person they are angry with first, then come back if they can’t work it out. I’m sure Jesus had to do this all the time with an unruly group of fishermen, a tax collector, a zealot and two brothers known as the Sons of Thunder. There may have been days when he felt like he would be better off without disciples, but his whole purpose was to create a community of believers, not just individuals interested in spirituality. He wanted the spirit of the living God to dwell in a gathered group of believers.
The second half of the Gospel lesson testifies to the power of a group of believers who can find unity work with common purpose. If two people can agree and pray to God for help, it will be done for them, Jesus says. Sometimes that’s all it takes even in a large church. A small group of people who have a unity in Christ can bring a whole church together or tear it apart, depending on their spirit. If we really practice the idea that wherever two or three people are gathered in Christ’s name he is present to us, then we have the power to create true community, true compassion and true unity, and whatever is done in heaven will be done on earth.