Jesus, Conflict, & Choirs

Matthew 18

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 faith 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 sometimes 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 among those differing people as they duke out their points of view. Which is why I often say, it isn’t Christian community unless there is at least one person who drives you crazy.

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 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, tell them what hurt you, and—this is important—be ready to listen to them, too. The point is to be heard and come to a solution, not necessarily to get your way. 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. In especially difficult situations, distance may be the only way to protect the community.

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 himself. 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 be 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 Sharon arrived to sing. One of our members, a woman named Danni, 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 Sharon to the group. But Danni spoke out against Sharon, finding all sorts of reasons why she shouldn’t be in the group. To make a long story short, we found out there was a history of conflict between these two women. Danni wasn’t sure if she would be able to stay if Sharon 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 big personalities. But they each felt threatened by the other, 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. Danni had spent some time in prayer, and she didn’t feel right about holding this grudge anymore. So we asked Danni to make the call to Sharon 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 Danni and Sharon 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, “Wherever 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. As imperfect as we are, God has not written us off. God continues to work for reconciliation in and through us. We are living proof that Jesus is with us, and that when he is with us, grace happens.

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