Monday, September 05, 2011

"A Different Kind of Triangle" Pentecost 12 (September 4, 2011)

"Reconciliation"  Duke Divinity School
Matthew 18:15-20
Jesus said, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by our God in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”


Will you pray with me? Holy Three in One, teach us how to be your beloved community of faith; give us wisdom to understand each other; to accept each person’s unique gifts and graces which you have given. Show us the way to speak the truth in love—not to wound or shame but to support and guide; help us to show love without anger or vindictiveness. Remind us of your presence wherever we may be, whoever we are with, for wherever we are, you are there with us. In your many names we pray, amen.

One of the most important concepts I learned in my pastoral counselling class was triangulation—that classic communication and relationship style in which one person doesn’t express their issues to the person they are angry with but a third person—thus creating a triangle. I’m sure many of you are familiar with this idea!  Friend A is upset with Friend B, but instead of talking to Friend B, they complain to you…. Many organizations, whether churches or businesses have a policy in place to deal with this and prevent the issues it creates. It’s called a face-to-face policy. If one person is upset with another, they are supposed to first go directly to that other person to discuss the issue—face to face. Not to their cubicle neighbour, not to their sister or hairdresser or best friend—that puts the other person in middle, especially if that third person also knows the person who is the cause of annoyance.  If the issue isn’t resolved, then they go to their supervisor or boss or human resources manager. This makes sure—ideally, anyway—that the issue is resolved and not left to hang. It means the community—the workplace, the organization, the church—can work more smoothly, without hidden resentments or anger or frustration.

I’m sure some of you have been in this position. When I served as an interne in seminary, some of members of the congregation were unhappy with the new pastor. Rather than take their concerns to her, or to the lay leader (like our Vice Moderator), they came to me. It was flattering, I have to admit, and I had my own issues with her, which made me want to join right in with their complaints. I am relieved to be able to say that I did not give in to that impulse, and declined to discuss the pastor with them—suggesting they talk with the lay leader if they were upset with the pastor. Yes, I then was accused of covering up for my boss…. Monkey in the middle isn’t just a child’s game, is it?

This is the kind of situation Jesus is talking about—and he offers a way around it. Open dealing, one on one, rather than a whispering campaign or rumours or innuendo—plain talking, face to face. If the person doesn’t want to talk with you alone—or at all—try again with some friends or other church members. If that doesn’t work either, then bring in the congregation. And if the community can’t bring about reconciliation, then you will know you have done all that you can.

Notice that this progression also protects the other person—the one who upset you—you in the generic sense. If you go to them directly and privately and ask them about it, you give them an opportunity to apologize before anyone else knows about it—or has a chance to comment on it. You defuse the situation. And who knows, perhaps the issue was unintended—they didn’t realise you would be offended by the remark, or they knew it was stupid as soon as they said it but didn’t know how to approach you to say so, or whatever the scenario might be.  Remember Jesus said, “wherever two or more of you are gathered in my name.” So begin with prayer—even if it’s just you praying to yourself—and God will be present in that conversation.

But if that person denies doing or saying anything, or says you took it the wrong way—then you bring in others, just a couple people. Again, God will be present in that conversation. With only a couple of people there, the other person will have to face the fact that is not misinterpretation or over-sensitivity, but that it is a real issue. At the same time, it’s not being dealt with in a public way—they can still save face and make reparations.

A continued denial means, though, that the issue has to be brought to the attention of the community—whatever that community might be, in this case, the church. If the conflict is not dealt with, if it remains underground, it will fester and worsen, like a hidden infection, and reappear later in more malevolent ways.

Let’s face it, churches, and the people in them, do not like open conflict. The truth is that we are human beings and given a group of a large enough size-say, two people—there are bound to be differences of opinion and things about each person that annoy the other or others.  So in churches, it is common that people who have conflicts with another person will seek to simply avoid that person, or won’t talk to that person about the issue. After all, it’s church, and we are “supposed” to get along with each other, love each and accept each other.

But there is another truth, and that is that conflict is not necessarily a negative thing. This is difficult for many people, including me—we want to be liked, we want to be seen as “nice,” as friendly, and so on. But conflict, in and of itself, is not really bad or evil—it simply is a way of dealing with a problem. What can be negative is the way the conflict is expressed and dealt with. War, for example—or whispering campaigns, or manipulating others to get what we want or maneuvering the person we oppose out of the group—whether that’s a work situation, a family, a group of friends, a social club or a church.

There is a distinction to be made between conflict and differences, and too often they are confused. In a face to face conversation, we can learn what the other person is thinking, and whether we have a difference—I think one way, you think another, it won’t affect whatever we are trying to do together—and a conflict—it will affect what we are doing. How two people interpret a passage from the Bible doesn’t prevent them from teaching Bible study together, even if they have very different understandings of the passage—that’s a difference. On the other hand, if one of them believes the Bible is the inerrant, perfect, literal word of God and the other thinks it’s a collection of folktales—that’s a conflict.

And that’s why we begin with the face to face. Of course, how this face to face is done matters too. Remember, this is the first stage—done with love and hope, with the knowledge that we too are human and may have misunderstood, or that this is not really a conflict but a difference, mindful of God’s presence.  We have to remember our basic psychological understanding, and make our “I-statements” and so on…not confrontation and anger. That’s a sign of not only psychological maturity but spiritual maturity as well, to recognise that we all make mistakes, we are all imperfect people, even—even!—if we are Christian and in a church setting.

I am willing to bet that most issues that divide churches and other organizations could have been resolved without all the pain or departures and alienations if this model had been truly followed. Not all of them, of course—nor am I saying that the splits or departures would not have happened. But they would have happened in a more positive, fruitful way—which is the best way to begin an endeavour—in hope, not in anger.

Think of how much better it would be to change all relationships this way. Isn’t it interesting that weddings and commitment ceremonies are celebrated with hope and joy and celebration, with gifts and parties and special ceremonies---but the changing of relationships are not? There’s no divorce service or recognition of the end of a relationship. Oh, there are official forms to be filled out and a judge to see, in the case of divorce and many authorities that recognise commitment ceremonies or domestic partnerships, there are also forms to fill out. But there is no gathering of friends and family, no presiding clergy to recognise the changing of the relationship. I say changing, because no relationship is ever really over—in addition to children, property, shared friends and so on, which ensure continued contact on some level, there is the fact that these people shared a life—as friends, as partners, as co-workers, and therefore affected each other in some way.

But there is no real recognition of changes in relationships in society. Individual couples may put together a ceremony, and even bring in their clergy member and family to share the event—but that is rare. Generally, there is simply packing, some words—angry or consoling, hurt or supportive—and everyone moves on.  Perhaps it is because so few relationships change in a way that is not hurtful to one or both people; or perhaps it’s because it takes a while to come to a place where we recognise that the relationship could not have continued as it was.

The closest we come, I think, is the “farewell” when a co-worker leaves. In the US military—and perhaps the Canadian military too—there is the tradition of the “Hail and Farewell,” at which newcomers since the last Hail and Farewell are greeted and welcomed into the group, often with a gift symbolic of the unit—perhaps a unit coin or a nameplate with the unit crest on it. Those leaving are given a farewell—often a roast by their colleagues, with a variety of gifts—a plaque commemorating their accomplishments, joke gifts referring to events during their time with the unit, or maybe something they will find useful in their next posting. Civilian companies usually at least get together for lunch and maybe a couple of gifts for the departing co-worker. These offer a time to remember the good times, let go of issues, and move on. In pop psychology terms, it offers “closure.”

This is what we are asked to do in this process Jesus is telling us to follow. We are to deal with each other face to face, honestly but without hostility, and to recognise that God is present at every conversation, in every group. In doing so, we can truly name and accept differences and find ways to work through true conflicts to healing and reconciliation.

And finally, Jesus is realistic in his understanding of human nature. There are some people who do not want, are not capable, of coming to this reconciliation, this healing. For those people, there is nothing more to be done. But if we have done the work of reaching out, speaking face to face in love, seeking understanding and reconciliation, then we have done what is needful, and Jesus says, “There is only so much to be done. You have done what you can; let go.” And I would say, too, that this is perhaps a cycle. Sometimes it happens that someone leaves a group or relationship angrily, with no intention of reconciliation, no desire for healing and the group has to let them go in that way—but later, the person changes—for whatever reason—and does desire reconciliation and healing. The door of the group should always be open to that return, to that hope of the prodigal coming back for healing and understanding.

I know some of you already practise this in your life; if you don’t I would invite you to try this for a week. Just try it—face to face, no hostility, one on one—then a small group, and only then authority. For those who do so already, think about how and why you follow this practise—and then do so more fully.

God is present in all our interactions. I would suggest that the crucial point in this process is the knowledge that God is there, and invoking the divine presence through prayer—your own or the group together—to remind yourself and the other person of that presence.

It’s not a magic formula—it does not always bring healing and reconciliation. But it is the best hope for both.

In the name of God in community, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, amen.

Creed
We believe in the God who made every man and woman in God's image. We believe in the Christ who died to reconcile every human being to God, and to restore our common humanity. We believe in the Holy Spirit that has always hovered over creation, and ignites love's fire in our hearts. We believe in the community of faith that worships God, follows Jesus, and lives by the Spirit. And we believe in the time when all things will be made new, and all things will be brought together under Christ. Amen.

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