Sermon: The Path to Unity: Embracing Diversity and Resolving Conflict in Faith Communities

The Mealtime Prayer  --  Fritz von Uhde, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin, Germany

[RCL] Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

Good evening, dear friends, cherished members of our Church family, and those joining us for the first time. As we come together, I invite you to pause and contemplate the extraordinary path we've travelled as a congregation, beginning from our modest beginnings in 2019 to the grounds of Southport Uniting Church we now call our spiritual home.  I want to extend my deepest gratitude to my husband, whose presence at every service is both remarkable and deeply cherished. Your incredible support means the world to me, and my love and appreciation for you, your patience and dedication are beyond words.

Friends, we are not alone in this journey; we are part of a larger family, a congregation, and today, we extend a warm welcome to all, especially our LGBTIQ+ siblings and Allies. We recognize the deep bond between MCC and the Uniting Church, which has been an affirming church for many years. 

We are privileged to have Reverend Julie among us tonight, the inclusive Minister who officiated the first LGBT+ wedding right here at Southport Uniting. Her warm welcome has been truly meaningful to me. Additionally, we are fortunate to be joined by Heather and Jan this evening, a couple who celebrated their marriage in that very ceremony.

You are not just attendees; you are the living body of Christ, and this is your church. Today marks a significant moment in the history of MCC as well. For the first time since its establishment in Brisbane in 1974, MCC now extends its presence to the Gold Coast and gathers in a church building for the very first time.

Let us now turn our attention to the topic at hand from our lectionary reading today – conflict resolution. 

Leadership has been the topic of discussion the past few weeks centred around Peter and his interactions with Jesus and today we are going to look at how that flows through to our community. 

Congregations are communities of people. And for the most part they usually function well. Some have very strong central authorities, and others work better with leadership by consensus. And all of them, from time to time, have conflicts that arise between members.

Speed Leas, who is a well-known expert in church conflict resolution, identifies levels of conflict which range from “Level One: a problem to solve,” to “Level Five: stubborn and difficult situations where personalities have become the focus, and energy centres on the elimination of the persons involved.” 

In this extreme condition, it is often necessary to bring in an outside person to deal with the explosive situation.

Keeping congregations healthy is a mutual responsibility that requires the participation of everyone. In unhealthy churches, people often create a toxic triangle made up of the victim, the persecutor, and the rescuer. Once the triangle is established, it becomes more difficult to resolve a condition or address an issue. Often, the pastor is drawn in and expected to rescue everyone, but sometimes the pastor is the victim or even the persecutor. Wise leaders try to avoid getting triangulated so they can help resolve the situation from a detached perspective, but it isn’t always possible.

In Matthew’s text for today’s Gospel, Jesus addresses personal conflict by urging people to resolve their differences directly first, and then, if necessary, to bring others into the discussion.

We aren’t given details or examples. Jesus’s mission is to create committed communities of believers that will witness God’s love to a battered and broken world.

There are some basic premises at work here: One is that Jesus teaches that God loves all God’s children and that our need to be right is not always helpful. 

The organization for families of alcoholics, AA, teaches this premise and reminds its members that all of us, including the alcoholic, have a Higher Power who is not taking sides and is welcoming. 

Congregations serve as spaces where people can resolve differences within a supportive community, prioritizing listening over lecturing and understanding over the demand to be understood, irrespective of one's sexual orientation or gender identity, or race.

Now, as we delve into the challenges of conflict resolution within our faith community, it's important to recognize that similar divisions can be found in our broader society. Just as some churches grapple with acceptance, our nation faces a critical decision – whether to grant First Nations people a voice through a referendum. This issue has stirred debates and divisions.

In these challenging times, let us recall Matthew's Gospel: "For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." As we navigate these divides, may we seek unity and guidance, both within our faith community and in society, working together for justice and reconciliation.

Another key aspect of Jesus's teachings is that effective leaders demonstrate love and exhibit primary concern for others, including LGBT+ individuals and marginalised communities who may have faced discrimination or exclusion in the past. 

I recall a small church in Ipswich that nurtured a healthy leadership core over many years. They skilfully directed individuals facing challenges, including those from the LGBT+ community, toward environments where they would be embraced and cared for, while also preventing them from assuming leadership roles that could potentially harm others due to their own unresolved pain.

This works, not because there is some secret group that puts people in their place, but because the entire leadership core cares about all the members and helps troubled newcomers and long-time members fit in without being tagged as problem people.

The opposite situation is also common: a church where conflict is the main menu whenever the community is gathered. 

Some churches revolve around conflict whenever the community assembles, potentially excluding LGBT+ members who may feel unwelcome. I recall a small church nearby that was plagued by internal conflicts, a situation that some members seemed to take pride in.  Various clergy had made efforts to mediate, but all had been unsuccessful. The congregation's taste for conflict became glaringly apparent when a new folk arrived, only to witness a heated argument among members and promptly left, never to return. 

While the pastor attempted to address the harm caused by such behaviour, those involved insisted it was part of their identity – take it or leave it! It took years of persistent conflict for a compassionate and loving priest, welcoming of all, including LGBT+ individuals, to move into the community and gradually introduce new, healthier behaviours by modelling them.

If you've been listening attentively, you've likely contemplated how your own faith community (past or present), including its treatment of LGBT+ folk, compares to these anecdotes. Assessing a congregation's health can take numerous forms, with some methods being more effective than others. Each faith community possesses its unique lifestyle, deeply embedded in its identity and history, making change challenging if the current state is unhealthy, including any exclusion of the LGBT+ community or first nations people.

The passage from Matthew for this Sunday concludes with the well-known teaching: "Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, I will be in the midst of them." This serves as a reminder that God encourages us to be in community, whether in small or large groups, and this inclusivity extends to the LGBT+ community. Solitude can have its merits, but it may lead to isolation and arrogance. The Divine Triune God embodies relationality, a dynamic force that nurtures our spirituality and anchors us in faith, regardless of our sexual orientation or gender identity.

The Trinity serves as a model for our relationships, emphasizing unity while welcoming diversity.  As I reflect on my own personal journey and the teachings of the Bible, I am reminded of the significance of Genesis 1:26: “Let us create humankind in our image.” This powerful verse reinforces the idea that all human beings, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity or race are created in God’s image.  The fact that God is referred to in the plural in this passage could even suggest the idea that God contains a diversity of identities within God’s own infinite self. This is a beautiful reminder that God’s image is broader than our own experiences and understanding. We must embrace and celebrate the diversity of all the identities that make up God’s creation, including those who may look or love differently than we do.

Congregations may experience a sense of stagnation and even depression when they admit only like-minded individuals or those similar to their existing members into the community of believers. True revitalization occurs when new relationships are formed, embracing all individuals, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity or race. Some smaller congregations organize themselves into clusters with shared leadership precisely for this purpose. Vitality emerges when new faces and ideas are introduced, rejuvenating the traditional ways of doing things.

Jesus did not envision the Church as a battleground of contention and discord, yet historical accounts reveal tensions and disagreements among the Early Church and its leaders, as documented in the Book of Acts. As the church expanded into the Greco-Roman civilization of the West, it had to adapt and embrace diverse norms and customs, including the recognition and acceptance of LGBT+ folk, a challenge it continues to face today.

The Church's perpetual challenge lies in discovering and implementing fresh ways to proclaim the Good News, while ensuring that all individuals, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity or race, feel embraced and welcomed. When we engage in this mission, prioritizing service over self-preservation, conflicts diminish, and we find joy in both the individuals God sends to us, including those from the LGBT+ community, and those we are sent to serve.

The health of any congregation, especially in today's world, rests on its sense of mission, inclusivity, and its willingness to be flexible and welcoming, as Christ welcomes each of us, regardless of who we are or who we love. Amen, and may our faith communities continue to flourish in unity, diversity, and inclusivity for all, including LGBT+ folk and first nation individuals and Allies. Amen.

Sermon: The Path to Unity: Embracing Diversity and Resolving Conflict in Faith Communities Sermon: The Path to Unity: Embracing Diversity and Resolving Conflict in Faith Communities Reviewed by Shane St Reynolds on September 10, 2023 Rating: 5

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