Sunday, September 10, 2017

"Are You Listening?" - Sermon, September 10, 2017

Community UMC, Quincy
“Are You Listening?”
Pastor Andrew Davis
September 10, 2017
Ezekiel 33: 7-11
Matthew 18: 15-20

A few weeks ago, after getting back from the East Coast and still being on vacation from my church activities, I was perusing DirecTV and all 200+ channels for something other than ESPN, Food Network, Travel Channel, or the news when I came across American Movie Classics (AMC).  I was kind of intrigued that the 1989 film, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation was on AMC, so decided, what the heck, even though it’s August, I can use a little Christmas in August.  After all, some of the big box stores are getting ready to start putting their Christmas stuff out, so may as well get my heart ready for Christmas a few months early.  Then again, I always get a good laugh at any of the Vacation series starring Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo as Clark and Ellen Griswold, as I needed a good laugh after all the stress of trying to get to and from the East Coast as I dealt with cancelled, delayed, and rescheduled flights both ways. 
Now Christmas Vacation is one of those movies that pokes a lot of fun at the high expectations that are placed on the holidays and how chaos and conflict can quickly happen because everything that can go wrong will go wrong, or because nothing goes to plan, or because family dynamics are, well, a little complex.  Plus, Clark commits a cardinal sin and doesn’t always listen to his wife or his mother, which oftentimes gets Clark into trouble and leads to one of his classic tirades in each film.  The complex nature and conflict among family is especially the case in Christmas Vacation when Clark decides to have both his and Ellen’s parents, as well as his Aunt Edna and Uncle Lewis over for a good, old-fashioned family Christmas.  What really could go wrong?  Just imagine having a houseful and all the conflict that can ensue with all the different personalities (with some of the relatives also being very abrasive), which is compounded further when unexpected guests show up, such as Cousin Eddie and his family in their run-down RV.
 Some of you may be saying, been there, done that when it comes to the holidays and conflicts during the holidays (heck, simply bring up politics and see what kind of fuse just got lit).  On the other hand, we don’t really see much in the way of resolution, or attentive listening in Christmas Vacation until the climax and end of the movie. 
          While Christmas Vacation is a parody and satire of life that shows how quickly conflict can happen, it does ask if we ever listen to our instincts and more important, are we listening to each other when we have a beef with someone or vice versa?  How many times have each of us been in a situation where we try to bring something to someone’s attention, only to see them just shrug it off or completely blow it off?  It happens more often-than-not, but there’s a solution for it!!  In our texts this morning, the prophet Ezekiel is telling us how God warns others through the voices of the prophets, especially when it comes to imploring people to turn from evil or wicked ways.  In other words, when the prophet speaks, it’s coming from God and you better listen!! Meanwhile, in our Gospel lesson, Jesus is teaching the disciples about conflict resolution with what will become the community of faith, since this morning’s Gospel lesson comes not too far after another instance where Jesus foretells his death in chapter 17, as the community of faith will carry on the work of Jesus after he is no longer physically on the earth.  Are we listening to what God tells us through the prophets, people, and are we listening to what Jesus is telling us through his teachings? 
          Whether we like it or not, conflict is inevitable among our families, our workplaces, our schools, organizations, the church, and in life in general.  A little conflict is not necessarily a bad thing because there are many ways of doing things, except we also don’t want conflict to become toxic or destructive either.  In our Gospel lesson from Matthew, Jesus is prescribing ways for the community of faith to deal with conflict among each other in a healthy and loving manner, first with trying to work it out among each other.  As I shared a couple weeks ago, I had to learn that lesson in sixth grade when our teacher had us try to work out conflicts among our classmates first.  But then Jesus tells the disciples that if trying to work out conflict among one another isn’t effective, or if the other person won’t listen, to take the complaint to the next step up and have two or three people present among the conflicting parties as witnesses.  If that step isn’t effective, take the grievance and complaint to the entire community of faith, who can expel the offender if they don’t listen and won’t change, or if they keep blowing the complaint off.  However, that also doesn’t mean that the person who is expelled can’t ultimately repent and receive forgiveness, because that door will ALWAYS be open.  Jesus will continue to offer forgiveness, love, and give that person a chance of reconciliation within the community and with God, just as he is still able to offer us forgiveness and love today through the Holy Spirit.  Nevertheless, we have to listen carefully when someone brings a complaint against any of us or whenever we find ourselves in the midst of conflict.  Because not listening can escalate conflict, as well as cause deeper rifts and deeper hurts among the greater community, even though Jesus preaches the necessity of forgiveness among the disciples, a message that is still relevant today. 
          A couple years ago, I had the opportunity to take a summer intensive class at Wesley on conflict management and resolution, especially since I am someone who does not like conflict or confrontation even though it will come up at times.  While a little conflict is healthy because of our diverse backgrounds, ideologies, belief systems, family backgrounds, etc., we don’t necessarily want conflict to escalate and become toxic either.  This class provided a number tools to work through conflict in healthy and collaborative ways; while instead of focusing on resolving conflict, the class focused on how to transform conflict into collaboration, which this morning’s Gospel lesson is essentially trying to do.  The method that Jesus is prescribing in our lesson from Matthew is a collaborative method that takes confronting the offense head on, except in a loving and even prayerful way, while still offering the chance of reconciliation at each step of the journey.  In one of our books for the class, Never Call them Jerks, Arthur Paul Boers explains that such a method that Jesus is prescribing fosters careful listening around both sides of a conflict, while “the priority of restoration and reconciliation is the reason for so many attempts [to address the offending party].  This procedure has been used as a tool for punishing people, but its evident hope is restoration and reconciliation,” which we should always be working towards as a community of faith.[i]  We should never give up the hope towards reconciliation and forgiveness in a broken world, which will be a part of next week’s Gospel lesson.  However, we need to keep trying to resolve complaints among one another when they do happen, whether it’s one on one, with one or two witnesses, or before the whole community. 
          One idea one of my colleagues had before leaving her appointment several years ago was to work on conflict resolution by doing similar to what Jesus is saying in our lesson this morning.  Her suggestion is that when someone has a conflict with another person in the church or a staff member in the church, they go and pray together, much like Jesus saying to work it out one on one and hoping both sides will carefully listen to each other.  Then after praying together, take the conflict to the pastor or SPRC for resolution, as the SPRC is the committee in the church that can help in resolving conflicts among staff members and members of the congregation.  Thankfully from what I have been able to see in a little over a year, ours is a congregation that we don’t see too much in the way of major conflict, as we are good about finding ways to work things out and talk things through together, and even in times of minor disagreements, find ways to love each other and look beyond what might divide us.  However, when the inevitable will happen, Jesus has given us an example of how we can resolve any conflicts that may arise here and there because we are still human.  Listening to each other makes a world of difference!!!  
As we go into this new week, how are you going to resolve or transform any conflicts that happen here and there, whether it's in your workplace, school, family, etc.?  And are you listening when people point out things that you could do better, or is the other person listening to what you are saying when you point out things that can be done better?  Hopefully it doesn’t result in a tirade like Clark Griswold’s in all the Vacation movies, but instead, hopefully trying to work things out brings about a way to talk openly and honestly, leading to reconciliation, restoration and forgiveness that Jesus is ultimately pointing the disciples towards when it’s their time to lead the community of faith.  Besides, we never know whose voice the voice of God may be speaking through, so are we listening? 
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, let the Church say, AMEN!!!



[i] Arthur Paul Boers, Never Call Them Jerks (The Alban Institute, 1999), 89.  

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