There are those Bible passages that, when they are read in church, you wonder what on God’s green earth the preacher is going to do with them. Did any of you feel that way when the Gospel reading from Matthew was read, with all that crazy stuff in it…? Yeah, me too. And I’m the preacher for today!
Really though, we need readings like this. This Bible reading reminds us that the Bible isn’t all hugs and puppies and rainbows all the time. Being a follower of Jesus isn’t always easy. Jesus tells the disciples of all the crud his followers will have to endure, including conflict within their own families.
It’s no secret that the American family is in general decline. Many people have different ideas about what that looks like and why it’s happening, but it’s pretty clear that it IS happening. Even back in 1991, the bipartisan National Commission on Children issued a report citing reasons why the family unit isn’t what it used to be, including household family numbers decreasing in size, the fact that families have turned over many of their previous functions to other groups (such as child care and food preparation), and the general value of family decreasing in our culture.
There are other research groups that cite other reasons as well—just do a search on Google, something like “decline of the American family” and you’ll get more information than you know what to do with.
What I find interesting about all the research and theories as to why families in America aren’t what they used to be-- no one cites Jesus as a reason for the family break-down. We don’t usually like to think about Jesus that way, but it’s in our reading—verses 34-36:
34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.35 For I have come to set a man against his father,and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;36 and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”
So Jesus will be a “sword” that will pit family members against one another. Contrary to being “the peace the world cannot give,” in this passage Jesus describes interpersonal and intrafamilial war, not peace. Jesus says that your enemies will be members of your own household. Can you imagine! Your own family as enemies!
I’m not telling you something new when I say religion can be a point of contention within families. While one family member goes to church on Sunday morning, another may still be in bed sleeping away. While one family member is a Christian, another may be of a different faith. While one family member may come to faith later in life, another family member may not understand or care about that faith. Jesus already talked about persecutions from others in the community, and here he hits (literally) closer to home.
Being a Christian means that those in your own family, sadly, may not understand you. You have most likely been at odds with at least one family member who did not share your values and faith in Christ. Whether it be your own child, an aunt, and uncle, a parent, or a spouse, each of us know of at least one member of our family who just doesn’t agree when it comes to Jesus. We have been and will continue to be at lager heads with other family members who, for some reason, do not share our love of and service to Jesus.
And even if you all share the Christian faith in your family, you will still likely argue at some point about the best way to live out that Christian faith. What one person thinks is the best way to follow Jesus, another will think is a bunch of hooey. What one person thinks is an important issue in how they are following Jesus, the other will consider unimportant or blasphemous. These are the joys of faith in daily life!
The thing is, most of us hate conflict, especially with those close to us. There are a few rare exceptions, like people who thrive on conflict and confrontation (my brother, the lawyer, is one of them! Growing up with him was an adventure!), but most of us don’t like arguments and do everything necessary to avoid them.
But Jesus tells us these conflicts are unavoidable in the Christian life. If you are a follower of Jesus, you will come into conflict-- whether it be with your blood family, your church family, your friend family, or your work family. Conflict in your life WILL happen. It’s just a matter of when.
It’s only when we embrace the truth from Jesus-- that conflict WILL happen-- that we are able to work towards conflict resolution with the people in our lives. If we go around avoiding conflict like the plague, sticking our fingers in our ears and singing “lalalala”, we will not be able to live out the Christian faith in a full and abundant way Jesus wants for us.
OK, so we know Jesus tells us conflict is going to happen, no matter what. How do we work through conflict with others?
The basic answer is actually in our reading from Matthew.
Jesus says in verses 29-31: “29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30 And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31 So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”
So God values YOU so much that God knows how many hairs are on your head. Raise your hand if you know how many hairs are on your head…? Some of us may have more than others! You see, God knows you so well, so intimately-- better than we know ourselves. You are of ultimate value to God.
So what does this have to do with conflict? Well, the amazing part about God is that God is able to know all of God’s children just as intimately and just as well, at the same time. God values all of us so much, as God’s own children.
So if Jesus tells us God values all of us, that means that we are all valued by God, equally and unconditionally. God loves us all, no matter what.
And because God values us and loves us all, no strings attached, we can remind ourselves of this when there is conflict with others. We are going to treat the other person we disagree with very differently if we remind ourselves “he/she is a child of God, and valued by God, just as I am.” So even in the midst of conflict, we are called to treat each other as children of God and with respect.
That valuing the other person just as God does is the basis of not only how we handle conflict, but all our interactions with other people. No matter their station in life, everyone is loved by God-- and we can remind ourselves of that whenever we talk to anyone we meet.
If you’re looking for a practical way to deal with conflict in a respectful and child-of-God way, check out Matthew 18:15-17: Jesus says, “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. 16 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. 17 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.”
So, first you go to the person and talk to them alone. Honestly, that solves most of the problems right there much of the time. Talking with one another is key. Then if that doesn’t work, you have a one or two other people to come in and help mediate. Most conflicts not solved the first time can be solved that way. But, in the rare instances that doesn’t work, then the congregation should be involved, and in the very rare instance that doesn’t work, then that person has to be avoided, at least for a while.
You can see that the basis for this formula for how to deal with conflict, is love and respect for the other person as a child of God. Each person is given a chance to talk and to work the conflict out, together, with God’s help.
Because-- God is there, even in the midst of our conflicts with one another. God is always loving everyone involved, and guiding us so that we can get back to working together to build up the kingdom of God here on earth.
A man was driving down the road. Everything was going fine, until he was held up by a broken down car in front of him. He just sat there and sounded the horn while the woman driver in front was desperately trying to start her car. He sounded the horn even more impatiently as each minute ticked by, and finally the lady got out of her car and walked around to his car. She leaned into the man’s window and said sweetly, "Why don’t we change places? I’ll sound the horn and you can start the car!”
That woman took a very stressful and conflict-filled situation and dealt with it in a way that helped the man get perspective, but also treated him with the respect and love of God. She could have easily gotten out of the car and yelled at the man with some choice words, maybe even shared some choice hand motions. But even though the man was doing something very unhelpful, she knew that conflict is never solved by more anger and yelling.
It’s also important to notice—in the story, her treating the man in a helpful way didn’t immediately solve the problem at hand. It didn’t fix the car right away. Sometimes, when there is conflict, the problem underlying the conflict is more complicated, and will take longer to solve. Sometimes, honestly, it can’t be solved. Not all problems are solvable, and sometimes it’s better to just cut your losses and let it go.
But whether the problem is solvable or not-- the interaction between people in the middle of that conflict—that was made so much better by how that woman treated the man honking the horn. How we treat one another in the midst of conflict—that makes all the difference.
God’s love is in us and filling us, every day, so that when we interact with people—even people who do annoying things like lay on the car horn when we can’t do anything to fix the car immediately—we can share the love of God with them and deal with conflict in healthy and respectful ways. God’s love is amazing like that.
So whenever conflict happens between you and someone else in your life, you can remember—the other person is also loved and valued by God, just as you are—and that your interactions with them can be dealt with in a child-of-God way, with God’s help. Amen?