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  • Writer's pictureRev. Joel L. Tolbert

Teach Me

Wandering Heart, a Lenten sermon series, week 5 of 6, using the life of Peter beside Jesus and the hymn “Come Thou Fount”, from, preached March 17, 2024



Scripture Mark 13:26-29

26 “Then they will see ‘the (Child of Humanity) coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27 (and) will then send out the angels and gather the elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth and from the ends of heaven.

28 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that (the Child of Humanity) is near, at the very gates.


Small plants, one just dirt, one barely sprouting, one in bloom. What’s the difference?

That’s what Jesus is saying. He’s saying that God’s love and justice are coming and will cover every corner of creation. Maybe we don’t see it. All we see is dirt, or a plant that looks dead. But if we wait, and look closer, we will see some small sprout of love, justice, truth, or hope. That’s our sign that we can trust all the people, all the world will one day be covered with love, justice, and truth.

If you are having a really hard time, and things feel hard, dry, sad, don’t look for a quick fix. Look for the tiniest bit of love. It may come up somewhere or in someone you didn’t expect.

Or if someone around you is having a really hard time, you don’t have to fix it. Just be one little sprout of love for them, and give them hope again.



This Lent, we are studying moments between Peter and Jesus, and looking for ourselves in Peter, his beliefs and his doubts, his confusion and his faith. Along the way, we are signing the hymn, Come Thou Fount, and finding key phrases from the song parallel Peter’s feelings.

We read Luke 5, Jesus’ call of the disciples by the lake, and sang “Jesus Sought Me when a stranger”… Caitlan helped us see, we are never strangers to this God.

We read Matthew 14, the disciples in a boat in a storm, and we sang “He to rescue me from danger.” We saw the doubt in Peter’s faith as he stepped out, and discovered doubt is normal and needed for faith to grow, and Jesus helps us in faith and in doubt.

In Matthew 16, Jesus asks, “Who does the world say that I am?”, and then asked, “But who do YOU say that I am?” We told Jesus the negative doubting way the world talks about him, then promised we would believe and act as if he is prince of peace, and the way to life itself.

Last Sunday, in Matthew 16, Jesus confronts Peter. “Get behind me, Satan.” We admitted our fear of going where we don’t expect, and our grief when things change, how we get in front of Jesus and try to block or control him. Then we prayed for the courage to get behind Jesus and follow him anywhere.

Today, let’s pray, and listen for the word of the Lord from…

Scripture MATTHEW 18:15-22

15 “If your brother or sister sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If you are listened to, 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 that person 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 or a tax collector.

18 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.

19 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. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if my brother or sister sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven[i] times…

This is the word of the Lord… Thanks be to God.

Sermon Teach Me

Jesus is teaching his disciples how to respond after being wronged, accidentally or intentionally, by one of your own. Jesus predicts for himself and his disciples that his way of doing relationships and community will create conflict, even among those who say we are in this with him, together.

That’s something to pause on and think about. Jesus is telling us, following and serving him, together, toward love and joy, peace and justice will create conflict among us. He’s warning us, we cannot expect a life behind him to be without conflict between us, not just with the world but with one another. So we need to expect conflict, and train and prepare for it.

A recent “Life Kit” podcast episode interviewed John and Julie Schwarz Gottman on their new book, "Fight Right: How Successful Couples Turn Conflict Into Connection." John and Julie “are able to predict with over 90% accuracy if a couple will stay together after witnessing just three minutes of a conflict.” In their book, they make the case that the key to good, healthy, loving, long lasting relationships is knowing how to navigate inevitable conflict.

It’s one of the reasons why, when I do premarital counseling before a wedding, I ask the couple about how they fight, or to replay for me a recent fight. The most worrisome answer I can get is, “Oh we never fight.” Every couple, every relationship or community that tries to do love and justice will have conflict.

And according to the Gottmans, conflict itself isn’t the problem. WHY AND HOW we DO conflict might be. No one enters a relationship hoping it will explode. But our conflict habits and styles can lead us to conflict over the wrong things, then to defend ourselves, hurt one another, and damage the very relationships we hoped would bring us love, joy, and purpose.

That’s what Jesus is saying. In relationships, in families, in churches, in communities, people committed to one another for love and justice will have conflict with one another, and the sign of healthy relationships, or a healthy community is not the lack of conflict, but WHY we generate conflict and HOW we navigate through it.

As for the WHY, I’ve been doing church leadership for a while now, and I’ve seen some silly and serious conflict. I’ve seen people say and do things against one another in church over how to raise money or spend it or report it, or over songs and styles of worship or music or preaching, or over space, who gets to use what space when, and who does or doesn’t have control, or have to share. Not all of these are worthy WHYs for conflict in church. Then, I’ve also seen conflict in church over, will we risk changing something we’ve always done, or will we reevaluate what we’ve thought and believed for a long time in order to look and sound more like Jesus. Those are good WHYs for conflict. If we are looking to understand ourselves, each other, and God better, and then to do something loving and just together, with and for one another and God, those are good reasons, good WHYs for conflict, and if looking and sounding more like Jesus is our reason WHY, then conflict is worth it.

As for the HOW to navigate conflict, the Gotmman’s suggest there are three unhealthy styles of conflict… avoidant, validating, and volatile.

Avoidant means we avoid any subjects where there may be conflict all together, or quickly change the subject if it comes up. This method never grows deeper relationships of understanding, and can grow resentment. Its like when someone says we should never talk religion or politics at family gatherings, or when someone says we should never talk politics at church. That’s avoidance.

Validating means when someone expresses a concern, we instantly validate them and surrender to whatever they are asking, to make the issue go away before it becomes conflict. This method might resolve legit issues or problems. But it can also train people they get their way if they just complain. Imagine, if your toddler cries for candy in the grocery store, and you instantly validate them and give them candy each time to prevent the conflict. You are only teaching them crying in the grocery store gets them candy, not how to ask politely or be okay with boundaries, or hearing no sometimes, or managing money for important things, or choosing healthy options. That’s validating, caving to any complaint, no matter the reason behind it.

The third, Volatile, means when someone expresses a problem, explode all over them… with guilt, tears, accusations, How could yous, anger, whatever… make it so unpleasant to bring up real tough topics, they eventually stop trying to resolve any issues. This method often empowers the biggest personalities and encourages bullies. It can force others to oppress their feelings or needs, and leave them feeling unheard or numb, as if they have to walk on eggshells. Anger, passion for love and justice are one thing, but some use anger and passion not to grow love and justice, but to make sure we never talk about the hard path of change and sacrifice to love and justice. That’s volatile.

Avoid, validate, volatile… These three are typical styles of engaging conflict that do not lead to healthy resolution.

Jesus’ method insists we engage one another, first one to one, then in a small group so there can be a few advisors and witnesses, then publicly if needed. Jesus does not approve of being conflict avoidant. We must bring it up to one another. Jesus does not expect any changes just because someone complains or explodes. Jesus says speak the truth to one another, and LISTEN.

Did you catch that? If you are listened to… versus, if you are NOT listened to, or if the other refuses to listen… The first part of HOW might be increase the number of persons involved the conversation, from one to one, to a few witnesses, to the whole community… but the other part of HOW is to listen and to be heard, to understand and be understood, with the goal being so we move forward together toward love and justice, despite our preferences, worries, or doubts.

The other night, I went to the Kent County Public School board meeting. The Chester Valley Ministers Association was asking for a letter from the school board in support of our next attempt to bring a 12-month emergency homelessness response to Kent County, in hopes their support might help us raise funds from the state or federal government.

At the beginning of the meeting, in their optional remarks to the public, one board member expressed her frustration and disappointment at being disrespected by a fellow board member at the last meeting, and again behind the scenes in the latest closed session. As she was publicly expressing her sense of betrayal and injustice at being interrupted, being misunderstood, being misrepresented, being falsely accused by the other board member, that very board member interrupted her, spoke over her, and accused her of disrespecting him. I spoke briefly with both of them after the meeting, independently. It was clear she has spoken with him personally, then among the board. She felt she had to bring it publicly now. And still, he refused to listen. This was a Matthew 18 moment.

If we are able to engage good conflict, for good reasons, and then really listen, Jesus promises a path forward together. He repeats what he said before. Anything you bind, tie down, secure together here will be bound in God’s wider community. Anything you loose, set free, destroy together here will be loosed in heaven. Anything you agree on together and ask of God together will be granted.

Jesus is saying if your interest is love, peace, justice, and joy, and you can get through the difficult conversations and conflict, and come to some understqnding and agreement with one another how to love, love each other, love self, love God, love your neighbor, love your enemy, you will create the conditions of God’s beloved community all around you and God will support you in all you try to do.

The he says that little thing about wherever two or three are gathered. We often use this little verse, “wherever two or three are gathered” to justify a small attendance at a book club, bible study, or committee meeting. But that’s not really what Jesus is saying here. He’s not suggesting God’s presence is always in the midst of us just because we show up. He’s saying God’s presence is among even two or three when they are honest with one another about what they are feeling and what they need, what they want to do to bring love and justice into the world, and really listen to one another, find understanding, and seek God’s purposes together, and go through the conflict and compromises, boundaries and priorities, and commit to move forward together in a holy direction. THAT’S when Jesus is with even two or three.

I don’t know if Peter was paying attention through all the other stuff. Its like he is still stuck way back on the regaining or forgiving part. “Okay Jesus, so let’s say I do go to someone, and they listen. But then they do it again, and again, and again. How many times do I have to keep going back to them before I give up on them, as many as seven times?” Jesus’ answer is basically never. Never give up on someone IF they make mistakes trying to find God’s purposes with you. Some will avoid necessary conflict, and never uncover the path to love and justice. Some will complain along the way and expect to accommodated instead of moving forward together toward love and justice. Some will explode at every change, and expect all things to stop and go back like they used to be, and never show a sincere interest in building love and justice. These, you let go. They become like gentiles or tax collectors. You never work against them, but you don’t include them in the leadership team. But is someone makes a mistake while seeking God’s love and justice, and listens, them you forgive 77 times, and continue including them in the conversations, decisions, and plans.

Seek God’s will, even if doing so might lead into conflict. If conflict arises, ask questions to understand WHY? Why is this so important to you? Why are you against the other ideas? And really listen. Be honest and vulnerable. Look for the three unhelpful HOWs… avoiding, validation, or volatile… in the others AND in yourself? Do this one on one. If it gets nowhere, take a break then invite a few more. If it gets nowhere, take a break, give a warning, and take it wider group. Be ready to forgive so all move together toward God’s vision. But if they will not, love them and forgive them, but keep moving forward.

Let’s pray…




Now blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow be with you this day, this night, this moment, and forever more. Amen? Amen.

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