On the TV show The Office, which provided us a sermon illustration last week too, there’s another episode where the boss Michael walks in on an employee talking to their HR manager complaining about a co-worker. The HR manager, Toby, tells Michael that normally he just listens and sometimes oversees mediation and basically handles things professionally. Michael tells Toby that he’s wrong and that’s a terrible way to handle problems. He raids Toby’s office and finds all the complaints anyone has ever filed and starts reading them out loud to everybody in the office. He believes airing all their dirty laundry will make the office a better work environment. But his idea backfires. It is not only unprofessional and a breach of confidentiality, but ends up getting everybody mad at each other. He treats conflict resolution like a gossip session and hilariously ends up making matters much worse.
In today’s Gospel reading Jesus gives a lesson on conflict resolution as well. His is much more helpful I’d say. He tells the disciples how to handle conflict within the church. He talks about how to act if someone sins against you or if you have a grievance against someone. He gives the disciples a lesson on how to deal with the messy issue of human relationships and conflict.
I think this Gospel reading may just be Jesus’ most practical and direct teaching. It’s something that is literally in a lot of church constitutions. It might be the most this-worldly thing he covers. How to deal with conflict, hard feelings, and forgiveness.
Now of course Jesus was a spiritual teacher. Some of what he taught was very mystical and focused on spiritual transformation. But he also taught a lot about very practical matters. About things like money, social justice, and human relationships. He was concerned with both the deep insights of spirituality and the everyday practical matters of life, like the messiness of human relationships.
We might consider conflict resolution a very ordinary, even boring topic compared to the deep spiritual insights of the Sermon on the Mount or his fascinating and mysterious parables. We may find topics like this too close to home for Jesus to be concerned with, too human for the Messiah to be worried about. But this is basic human stuff about how to best relate to other people. It’s where the rubber meets the road in Christ’s teaching, where high minded spiritual values meet real life.
Spiritual practice is important. Things like prayer and meditation. The reading of scripture and religious devotionals. The practice of centering prayer (which starts meeting again soon!) Spiritual retreats and periods of silence. Awe-inspiring worship experiences. All these are important, maybe even necessary for spiritual growth. But where the rubber meets the road is in human relationships. If our spiritual practices are not making us more loving, more compassionate, more genuine in our way of interacting with others, then our inner spiritual life is not bearing fruit in the real world. That’s why Jesus calls us to view human interaction itself as a spiritual practice. To view things like conflict resolution as important spiritual experiences.
Jesus knew the church would be imperfect. He knew he was dealing with imperfect people who would create imperfect organizations and behave very imperfectly. So he knew conflicts would come up. He knew forgiveness would be needed, even within the church. And unlike the way the world responds to conflict, unlike the revenge seeking culture of imperial Rome or the legalistic justice of the Pharisees, Jesus wanted his disciples to follow a different route. That of second chances and forgiveness. That of accountability and the priority of healthy relationships.
Jesus is clear that accountability is important. We shouldn’t just look the other way or passively accept it when someone wrongs us. “Turn the other cheek” doesn’t mean accepting abuse. It means not seeking revenge and not holding on to grudges, anger, and resentment. But he’s clear here that holding someone who harms us accountable is important. Both for us and for them. It gives them the chance to learn that they wronged us, which they might not even know. It gives them the chance to change. And it frees the person who was wronged from having to hold on to resentment and anger. Forgiveness liberates us and allows for relationships to be restored.
Jesus says that if someone sins against you talk to them about it one-on-one. This takes courage. It’s hard to do. It’s so much easier to talk about someone behind their back. It’s so much easier to just feel resentful and not talk about it. But the right way isn’t always the easy way. The healthiest way to respond to conflict is to have the courage to talk it through, to be accountable, and to be genuine in offering forgiveness. Then if someone isn’t willing to work things out or apologize, bring another trusted person into the conversation with you. And only if that doesn’t work do you make the situation known to the larger group.
But publicly calling someone out isn’t the focus of what Jesus is saying here. For Jesus, the focus is on the person-to-person interaction. Working things out between yourselves or with the help of one or two trusted friends. Rather than spreading gossip or holding grudges, we are called to enter into uncomfortable conversations and make healing the relationship a priority. We are called to put our egos aside in favor of accountability, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
Jesus invites us to view this conflict resolution as a spiritual practice. As something of utmost importance. Because for most of us, our relationships are the primary arena where our lives play out. The main area where our inner spiritual journey manifests in the world is how we interact with others. We may think we have a wonderful inner spiritual life, but if our outer life is filled with conflicts, it may be a sign that we should twice about that.
Twentieth century spiritual author Ram Dass once said: “If you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your family.” He said this because nobody knows how to push your buttons better than the people who raised you and the siblings you grew up with. Nobody is better than them at shining a spotlight on your issues. Bringing to the surface unconscious patterns. Exposing your blind spots, your shadow side, your unhealed emotional wounds. As many recent college grads find out when moving back home after years away at school, living with your family of origin is not for the faint of heart. But, as long as your childhood wasn’t abusive, returning to that environment can be a truly eye-opening and educational experience.
In the same way, our interactions with other people in daily life—friends and family, people we work with, members of our church community, reveal to us things about ourselves that we would not see if we were completely solitary and private. That’s why most monks and nuns still choose to live in communities rather than as solitary hermits. Because it is in community—in relationships—that the inner spiritual journey is made manifest, where our inner world takes shape and form. Where the rubber of spiritual insight meets the road of concrete lived experience.
And so this week I invite you to try and view your relationships as spiritual practice. Be mindful of how you treat others. Look at every human encounter as a way of putting into action the love that God wants to flow through you. We won’t always do it perfectly, and that’s ok. Jesus knew we wouldn’t be perfect, that’s why he gave us this teaching in the first place. But as followers of Christ, even though we’re not perfect, we are called to practice this way of being in honest, genuine relationship with one another. We are called to have uncomfortable conversations, to hold ourselves and others accountable, and to offer genuine forgiveness and reconciliation.
And we know that genuine love, forgiveness, and reconciliation is what God gives to us. Because of Jesus Christ we are forgiven, redeemed, and reconciled with God. And we as the church are called to give others the same things God gives to us—openness, forgiveness, and love. To model in our relationships the love God first gave to us. Amen.
Pastor Brian, September 10th, 2023.