When I clean my house, I always start with the upstairs bathroom. But strangely enough, that doesn’t mean that I clean the upstairs bathroom first. Because, you see, our cleaning supplies are stored under the kitchen sink.
So the first thing I need to do, in order to clean the upstairs bathroom, is head to the kitchen, where I inevitably find dishes in the sink, dishes that must be washed before I can get the cleaning supplies out from under them.
Once the dishes are done and the counter is wiped down - because who wants to come back to a kitchen with crumbs on the counter - I bring the cleaning supplies up to the bathroom, drop them on the windowsill and proceed to transfer things like the trash can and the bathroom rug out into the hall where I inevitably find…socks.
Maybe it’s just my house, but for whatever reason, there are always socks… like, everywhere; socks that need to be picked up and put in the laundry hamper, which is usually… full. So before I return to the bathroom, I typically take a load of laundry downstairs and get that started, because that’s just an efficient use of time.
Then, on my way back up the stairs, because I no longer have cleaning supplies or a laundry hamper in my arms, I collect all the things on the stairs that have been sitting there waiting for some one else to take them up to the second floor.
As I return shoes to their places under the beds and books to their respective shelves and papers to the requisite desks, you’d be amazed how many other shoes, books, and papers are also lying around mere feet from where they rightfully belong, alongside tissues and wrappers that really ought to be in the trash but somehow never quite made it into the bin, adjacent to cans and boxes that need to be recycled and various and sundry glasses that never made it back down to the kitchen sink which is * sigh * about to be full again, darn it.
Oh, but where was I? Ah yes, I was cleaning the upstairs bathroom, because you see, when I clean my house, I always start with the upstairs bathroom.
Does this sort of pattern resonate with anyone else? I find it holds true when I cook. I’ve met people who assemble, prep, and lay out all of the ingredients they will need in a line before they even turn on the stove! But who has time for that after cleaning the bathroom? Nope, there is nothing linear or orderly about my patterns in the kitchen.
My style is more everything everywhere all at once; chopping garlic while the oil is heating, shucking the corn while the water is boiling, setting the table while the chicken is sautéing. It looks more like a football strategy board than anything you’ll ever see on Pinterest.
I confess that I’m reading not one, not two, but three books right now. And don’t even get me started about my writing process. Let’s just say, I have never in my life been able to sit down and just write a sermon from start to finish.
(You know what I do if I’m really stuck? Clean the upstairs bathroom ; ) .
And I don’t think I’m the only one. Tackling things head on, sticking with a project, staying focused, seeing one thing and one thing only through to completion before starting another (I’m looking at you knitters!) getting directly from point A to point B without any detours or breaks? It’s hard.
Being direct is hard. It doesn’t come naturally to me. I weave, I dodge, I pause, I pivot, and God help me, I triangulate all over the place.
And no where is this more apparent in my life or, I dare say in the lives of most of us, than in the area of interpersonal conflict.
"If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” says Jesus. Can’t get much more direct than that, can you?
If someone offends you, tell them.
If someone hurts you, let them know.
Face to face.
Heart to heart.
One on one.
Go straight to them and work it out right away, says Jesus.
But 9 times out of ten that’s the last thing most of us want to do.
It’s just so much easier to complain about that person to someone else. Am I right? It’s not productive. It doesn’t solve the problem. But boy does it feels good.
You know what else feels good? Posting a pointed quote on your Facebook page in the hope that a “Certain Someone Who Knows What They Did” will see it and get with the program. (Yeah. I stole that one from Molly Baskette, who has a new sub stack you should all subscribe to). Again, probably won’t work, but it does feel strangely satisfying.
Personally, I find it’s easier to take a good long walk and have an imaginary conversation in my head with the person who hurt me. An imaginary conversation wherein they see my side of things, completely understand why I’m upset, and apologize, without ever calling me out on any of the ways I may have contributed to the problem. I’m super good at those conversations.
Some of you, when it comes to conflict, might find it easier to just let it go and pray things blow over. Anyone?
Or you might be the sort of person who figures that the best form of offense is a good defense, and so, rather than deal with things in the moment, you’ve learned to hold on to the offense and file it away so that when the time comes you will have an easy out from a difficult relationship, just the right amount of straw to break the camel’s back, all the evidence you need if it ever comes time to wash your hands of that person, bring them down, or turn them away.
Honestly, I could probably stand here all day and come up with indirect ways to deal with conflict. I’m good at that game and from what I can tell, the church has been too. In fact, rather than read these words of Jesus as a straightforward 3 step process to restore relationships, far too many people in the church have read Matthew 18 as a template for how to end them.
“Jesus lays it out plain as day,” they’ll tell you. If someone sins against you then you need to confront them. If they won’t listen to you then you are to go and get two more people from church and confront them again. If that doesn’t work then you are to bring them before the full body and if they still won’t apologize or change their ways or do whatever it is that you want them to do, then you win and they’re out.
(And please note here that Jesus says, “sins against you,” here, not just sins in general. But boy have Christians also been quick to point out other people’s sins that have nothing to do with them at all, gang up on those poor folks, and use that as an excuse to kick people out too.)
Jesus is clear, they point out. He himself said, “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Which to them means that if people won’t change their ways we are now free to move about the cabin and treat them as we would treat any other unbelieving, unrepentant, social malfeasant.
All of which sounds like a nice straightforward blueprint for ridding the church of difficult people…, until you stop and really consider how Jesus treated the Gentiles… and the tax collectors… and all the other unbelieving, unrepentant, social malfeasants in his life.
Do you see where I’m going with this? I thought you might. Jesus may not have always approved of the behaviors of the people around him, but that never stopped him from reaching out to them directly with grace and healing.
He may not have loved what they said or did, but that never stopped him from loving them. Sure there are certain types of behaviors or abuses that do not belong in our lives or in our churches, but certain types of people? I’m afraid not.
Jesus never gave up on anyone and if we are going to go around calling ourselves Christians, then loving our neighbors means we don’t give up on people either.
And yes, I know it’s complicated. So I hope you will always remember that loving others begins with loving yourself enough to maintain good boundaries. I pray you will always remember that taking care of others begins with taking good care of yourself.
Loving others - even people we adore - always involves setting limits. And sometimes loving a person means wishing them well while not being in their life at all. But whatever shape or form your love takes, let it begin with a conversation.
Face to face.
Heart to heart.
One on one.
Don’t ghost. Don’t stew. Don’t gossip.
If you’re not able to manage the conversation on your own, bring someone along that you both trust.
If need be, lean on your community for more support.
Be open. Be direct. Be clear….because clear is kind.
And then see what Jesus can do…because the promise of this passage is that Jesus will be there, for both of you… always and forever. And that is also the challenge of this passage, the fact that Jesus will be there, for you both, always and forever. That is actually the funny little twist a lot of us miss because we’ve taken these last few verses out of context for so long.
“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 my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
We tend to quote that last line when we’ve gathered for a church event and only a few of us have shown up. We say it to make ourselves feel better and reassure ourselves that even if only a handful of people are present, our efforts are still worthwhile because Jesus is with us. And that is still true, but that’s not what He is on about here.
Friends, Jesus came to heal and reconcile all of creation back into oneness with God. All of it, including that person you’ve been avoiding. He came to help us clean up our mess and repair the world, because God’s ultimate goal is to bring all of creation back into loving relationship.
That reconciliation and repair begins one heart at a time as we come back to God and come back to one another, as we make peace with God and make peace with one another, as we are forgiven by God and forgive one another.
It’s all of a piece, because here is the thing: having been created by God we’re all now stuck with each other…. forever. God’s not giving up on any of us. Which means that if you don’t deal with people now, you will need to deal with them later.
When you resolve conflicts now, you’re doing your little part to repair the world. When you don’t, you’re only putting off the inevitable, stretching out the pain for as long as possible, allowing the cracks to widen and deepen until repair seems all but impossible.
Like a woman who somehow manages to wash her dishes and do the laundry and straighten every room in her house before finally cleaning the bathroom, you can be as indirect as you want for as long as it takes, but eventually you will need to deal with the mess that has been made.
The good new is that Jesus will be there when you do, just as he is with you right now, and also with you know who?… that person you really need to go and work things out with. So maybe take him up on his offer to help, sooner rather than later, and if you need a hand, know that we’re here to help too. Amen.