10 January 2021

Reconciliation That Hits Home

Speaker: Mark Mullins

Well, Don picked a good theme when he chose “reconciliation” for this month, huh? This week’s events were a climax in social trends that have been building for decades, and I don’t think we’ve seen the end of this kind of violence, unfortunately. Our country is in desperate need for reconciliation.

The song that Calvin just sang for us, “Reconciliation Song,” is one of those songs where I really, really like 90% of the lyrics, and really like the spirit it conveys. But it brings mixed emotions for me when I hear it.

It was one of the theme songs of Promise Keepers, the evangelical men’s organization that flourished in the 1990s. They had huge events at stadiums and arenas, with dynamic presenters speaking to all-male audiences. I attended Promise Keepers events three times in the late 1990s—twice at the Oakland Coliseum while I was a pastor in the Bay Area, and once here at the Rose Garden with a group of guys who drove down from Spokane.

Promise Keepers was very careful in its external communications to emphasize just one part of what they were all about—encouraging men to be faithful to their wives and supportive of their churches and communities. The song we just heard hits on those themes. And reconciliation with oneself, with the divine, with partners, and with the community was definitely a part of what they preached. Racial reconciliation was a big theme of theirs that I definitely appreciated, especially when working with a mixed-race church in the Bay Area.

But other speakers made me very uncomfortable. There was quite a bit of homophobic content, and even some testimonials from men who had supposedly cured themselves of being gay. Other speakers got very specific about how men should take control of their wives, and punish them if they don’t obey. There were condemnations of women who left their husbands because of domestic violence. Even the speakers who advocated a less domineering approach to home life definitely agreed that men should be in charge of the marriage.

When I was at the event at the Moda Center, one speaker railed against the fact that more and more churches were giving leadership positions to women. Then he said that all companies should be male-led, and that no man should ever have to suffer the indignity of having a female boss. I told my friends I had to get out. I walked outside and sat in a patch of grass, watching the MAX trains go by.

I had recently left the Bay Area because transphobia had broken my church apart to the point that it couldn’t function—even as we had modestly expanded women’s roles. Now I was hearing sheer misogyny preached from a supposedly Christian pulpit. Before too long, the rest of my friends came out and joined me, and we drove home early. Interestingly, it was soon after that that media reports starting noting that Promise Keepers rallies weren’t as packed as they used to be, and I remember looking at their website a year or two later to see a handful of events at smaller venues, rather than dozens of events at NFL stadiums.

So if the Promise Keepers were imperfect at inspiring a generation of reconciliation, what would be a positive example? How can the Reconciliation Song be redeemed? I love the story that we read a short snippet of today from Genesis. Joseph and his brothers had been estranged for decades after they sold him into slavery to some passing Egyptians. But then Joseph became second in command in Egypt during a famine, and sent for his family to join him. He could have left them there to die—just as his brothers sent him off to die. But he sent for them, and when they were actually in his presence—and didn’t recognize him in his royal attire—he broke down crying.

And then we have Matthew 18. It’s probably not from the historical Jesus, but it’s a solid part of our Christian tradition. If you look at the portion of this passage that’s also found in Luke (17:3-4), you see that there it’s just saying that people should rebuke those who sin, but must forgive them if they subsequently repent.

Matthew expands the teaching, and at first glance it appears to just be a longer procedure for church discipline reflecting a more hierarchal church structure. But there’s an important difference. In v15, Matthew makes it personal—“If a brother or sister sins against YOU.” And he places the onus directly on the one who feels aggrieved—“YOU go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”

Don’t go and tell that person’s boss, or that person’s friend, or that person’s spouse, or that person’s enemy, or someone who hasn’t made his or her mind up about that person. Go and try to resolve it one on one with the one who aggrieved you. And by the way, in most instances, both parties feel that they’ve been aggrieved by the other person, so they really ought to be tripping over one another as they both try to go work out the conflict.

[Slide 25: Matthew 18 with 2 bullets]

Step two is in verse 16: “If you’re not listened to, take one or two with you so that the evidence can be confirmed.” Notice that this sentence is written from the perspective of the person who feels aggrieved—you’re not being listened to so you need witnesses to prove the other person is wrong. But what this is really talking about is mediation, bringing in a third party to help with reconciliation.

Of course, step 3 gets the larger community involved. But I think the main point of this teaching is reconciliation rather than church discipline. The assumption is that if you really go to that person in good faith and a loving attitude, you’re not going to have to go to steps 2 and 3 in the vast majority of cases. Interestingly, the secular literature on dispute resolution today says the same thing.

Now that SOUNDS really easy, but how difficult it is in real life! It’s really hard to muster the courage to initiate that dialogue, and people rarely do it. Now a disclaimer is in order here. There are a few cases where I’d say this rule doesn’t apply, such as situations of domestic violence or child abuse or emotional abuse—situations where the priority is to get yourself or the victim out of the situation at all costs, as a matter of safety. But absent those situations, the best and most efficient way to manage conflict is to just work it out one on one.

After talking about how to deal with conflict, Jesus continues in v20: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” This verse was often quoted in my evangelical heritage to highlight God’s presence in a small gathering of believers in the same way that God is present in a big worship service. I agree with that concept, but in the context of this passage, what two or three people are Jesus talking about? Well, there are two people in the room for step 1 of the process. And there are three people in the room for Step 2. AND JESUS IS THERE IN THAT PROCESS. Because Jesus is all about reconciliation.

Being able to forgive is often a part of this whole process, so it’s interesting that Matthew puts Peter’s question about forgiveness right after this story. “How many times do we have to forgive someone who sins against us? As many as seven times?” That would have been seen as exceedingly generous, but Jesus says, “77 times.” There’s no limit to the need to forgive.

I want to close with a recent example that involves Southminster—or at least it feels recent to an old guy like me. It was probably a decade or more ago that a Meetup group made up of atheists and agnostics started meeting to discuss different topics. They ended up contacting pastor Peg to come to their meeting to represent Christianity in the discussion. Somebody from the mosque across the street wound up participating too, and eventually the pastor from the very conservative Presbyterian church across Hall. I don’t remember all the details, but I remember Peg remarking that it was a very unlikely group of people to be getting together with each other—let alone with a group of atheists.

But those discussions wound up being very fruitful. It was the beginning of our relationship with the ICP mosque, which has just recently moved in across the street. We became one of the few churches that had a relationship with both the Sunni and Shia mosques in the Portland area. And Southminster wound up having a couple one-on-one meetings with the other Presbyterian church. And while we agreed on almost nothing, I think we came out of those meetings with some mutual respect.

Our tradition calls us to radical reconciliation, and Matthew 18 calls us to be proactive about stopping conflict before it ever starts.