“When Two Agree”
Sunday, September 7, 2008
Matthew 18: 15-20
Rev. Dean Snyder
For a graphic presentation of Thomas and Kilmann’s theory, click here.
In chapter 18 of his Gospel, Matthew has put together a collection of parables and sayings of Jesus concerning community. It is a loose collection of parables and sayings that sort of fit with each other. Right in the middle of this collection is a saying of Jesus that when I finally heard it took my breath away – Matthew 18: 19.
“Truly I tell you,” Jesus says, (which is his way of saying I’m about to say something important that you may have to think about for a while to understand)…“Truly I tell you if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father [or my Parent] in heaven.”
Try to absorb that – Truly I tell you if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, God will do it. Or as Eugene Peterson puts it in the Message, God “in heaven goes into action.”
When I thought about it, it occurred to me that this saying is characteristically Jesus. Jesus was always saying things that if we hear him make us say: Whoa! It is an outrageous unbelievable saying, like so many of Jesus’ sayings.
The meek shall inherit the earth. The kingdom of heaven is in your midst here and now. Love your enemies. The last shall be first. Inasmuch as you did it unto one of the least of these, you did it unto me. The camel getting through the eye of a needle.
Truly I tell you if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, God will do it.
This is characteristically Jesus – bold, frame-bending, unbelievable.
Notice Jesus doesn’t qualify it. He doesn’t say if two of you agree on earth about anything and it is a good thing to ask for or something God approves of, then it will be done for you by my Parent in heaven. No. It is just “anything.”
Jesus is saying that God is phenomenally responsive to that which persons have reached agreement on. One of my Hindu friends says the universe ultimately gives us what we really truly want.
The key to understanding Jesus’ saying, I think, is the word “agree.” The Greek word used in the Greek manuscripts is the work sumfwnevw. The Greek word that we get our word sympathy from is the word sumpaths– which means “with one feeling” or “with one heart.” Sumfwnevw means with one voice or one will.
If two people really will one thing with one heart and one mind and one desire, God responds, Jesus says. If two people are really united by one will, the universe will respond, my Hindu friend would say.
We had a staff offsite this week and we were talking together about this verse and one of our staff suggested that there is a sort of edge to what Jesus says here. It is almost as if he is saying that if two of us ever managed to finally agree on any one thing, God would be so surprised and relieved that God would do it. It is as if Jesus is saying that agreement among his followers is so rare that God would jump at the chance to do anything we agree upon if we ever could manage to agree on anything.
True agreement is a rare thing. The kind of agreement Jesus was talking about is a very rare thing even in the most intimate relationships of our lives. It is certainly rare in the place we work. It is rare in church. It is rare in our communities and very, very rare in our national lives.
There is a tool we use in our Pre-Cana weekends – our weekends for couples preparing for their committed relationships and marriages. It is the Thomas-Kilmann theory of conflict – which is really about how we manage our disagreements and differences. It is a theory developed by Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann. I think Thomas and Kilmann’s work is very relevant to Jesus’ saying so I’d like to review it with you.
Thomas and Kilmann have identified five ways of dealing with disagreement or differences. Each of them may be appropriate in certain situations but most of us tend to overuse one or another of the.
Here are the five ways of handling disagreement.
The first is avoiding. You avoid talking about or dealing with things that you know or even suspect you might disagree about. So it may appear that you are in agreement but it only appears that way because you avoid issues or topics that you might disagree about. Many of us have things in even our most intimate relationships that we just avoid talking about because it just feels too painful. I once heard a pastor say that his church never had any disagreements because they avoided talking about controversial topics like politics or religion. (Think about that for a minute.)
So we can have relationships that appear peaceful and loving on the surface but in which there is no real agreement – not the kind of agreement Jesus was talking about – because we avoid the hard the conversations.
There is an animal image we use for avoiding and for those of us who prefer to deal with disagreements by avoiding them – the turtle.
The second characteristic way of dealing with disagreement is accommodating. When there is disagreement, one person accommodates the other. One person lets the other have their way either because they don’t really care that much or they don’t want to disagree. Remember there are times when each of these, including accommodating, makes sense, but accommodating is not agreeing. It is not the kind of agreement Jesus was talking about.
The animal image for accommodating is the teddy bear.
The third way of dealing with disagreement – competing. Fighting it out until someone wins and the other person loses. This is the way we tend to do sports and politics. The animal is the shark. Competing is not the kind of agreement Jesus was talking about.
The fourth way of dealing with disagreement according to Thomas and Kilmann is compromising. In compromise you split the difference. No one gets everything they want but no one loses altogether either. Everybody gets something and nobody gets everything. The animal for compromise is the fox. There is lots of compromise in life.
Compromise is not the kind of agreement Jesus was talking about. Compromise is a settlement. It is settling. It is not agreeing.
Thomas and Kilmann’s fifth way of dealing with disagreement is collaborating. Collaboration, they say is rare. It is rare because it is time consuming and usually requires lots of work. Collaboration is when we work through disagreement to a place of full agreement. Our hearts and wills are fully at the same place. Usually for collaboration to happen, it takes two person’s minds and hearts being changed.
The animal image for collaboration is the owl. But Thomas and Kilmann emphasize that collaborating is time consuming, long term, and takes a major commitment.
Thomas and Kilmann add these arrows to their chart. The arrow for assertiveness or task or mission, getting something done, runs from the bottom of the page to the top. The arrow for relationship or community runs along the bottom of the page. Avoiding is weak in both task and relationship. Accommodating emphasizes the relationship and sacrifices getting what you want to do done. Competing emphasizes the task and devalues the relationship. Compromising splits sacrifices some of both.
Collaborating maximizes both the task and the relationship – both mission and community. This is why this kind of agreement has the power to move heaven and earth.
In our intimate personal relationships, we are always balancing our goals in life with preserving and strengthening our relationship. Freud called it balancing love and work. Really powerful relationships have one or two or three aspects of defining agreement where there is profound collaboration – where your mission in life and your relationship are totally shared. But, as Thomas and Kilmann remind us, this does not happen except through profound sharing and transformation in which both partners are changed by the process.
In organizations there is often a tension between the task or mission and community. This may be true about the place where you work or worked. It is certainly true about congregations. There is often a tension between the mission we are called to and preserving and building community. There are churches that don’t get much done because they so emphasize community that they avoid anything that might feel like disagreement or so accommodate everyone that they can’t get much done to make a difference in the world.
And then there are churches that are so focused on getting the mission done that community is lost. There is lots of disagreement and competition for resources because everybody wants to do their own thing.
The powerful congregations are those in which there is profound agreement about one, two, three, four or five things. But in order to get there, there has to be enough conversation and sharing and wrestling with differences and disagreements that everybody is transformed in the process.
One of the most important ways this happens is when we study together. It happens some when we listen to the same sermons, sing the same hymns and pray the same prayers. But it happens most powerfully when we sit around a table or in somebody’s living room and read a book together or watch a video and encounter one another’s deepest thoughts and feelings. Study together changes everyone engaged in the study and brings people together to a new place. That’s collaboration. That’s agreeing.
the reason we put such an emphasis on Christian Education for children and
youth is because this kind of agreeing may take more than one generation.
Annie Dilliard wrote her book entitled “Teaching a Stone to Speak” while she
was living on an island off the
It is sort of like that with the faith. To reach the depth of agreement we need to move the heavens may take more than one generation, so we engage our children in the conversation early on.
And our conversation and study benefits from being wide. Sometimes small groups within a congregation develop a strong sense of agreement but the groups are not talking to each other much.
When we engage in studying Scripture together – sitting together at a table wrestling with the Bible – we are building a collaborative spirit. This is why Christian education is critical in our life together. In fact, we increasingly call it Christian formation – because we are being formed as individuals and a community united by a shared vision and mission.
The symbol of this is the Lord’s table – the perfect union of mission and community. It is where we are broken and re-formed as God’s people. As we share Holy Communion this morning, may it be an expression of our willingness to be one body in the service of God’s vision of love, inclusion, justice and peace.