Disagreement is difficult, even for people of good will. Repairing damage to relationship is also difficult. Today’s Gospel is uncomfortable for those who may fear dealing with someone disagreeable. It might be even more uncomfortable if we imagine ourselves in the place of the disagreeable offender (not our usual reading).
Have you noticed that Jesus always describes faith as a team endeavor. We who follow Jesus are always part of a group of faithful people, an ensemble not a bunch of soloists. That’s the reason so many of our prayers use the words “We” and “Our.” The prophetic voice of Christian churches is rooted in the sanctity of relationship, with God and with each other. If there is no understanding of group identity in the flock, it doesn’t matter much how hard the pastor works.
Jesus’ teaching for his followers in today’s gospel is in the middle of a longer discourse that is all about living as part of a group. The stories surrounding it highlight humility as a sign of greatness, the desire of God to bring a wayward sheep back to the flock, and the necessity of forgiveness. Right in the center is this brief instruction, just five verses long, which is about mutual accountability. Jesus tells his friends that in order to be true to their identity as a group, they have the responsibility to figure out how they can work together, especially when they have conflict. It is always more about putting the relationship right than it is about rules.
In the church we use a technical word for this process. It is called reconciliation. Although it may involve a level of forgiveness, reconciliation is more than making peace or making nice. Neither does it mean that we are all of the same mind. Similar to reconciling the checkbook, reconciliation is about returning to a fair balance. It means that we want to maintain a balanced relationship, and we need to find a path to move forward together, beginning by listening with open hearts.
The process of reconciliation comes more naturally when we have positive feelings, such as in a good marriage or a friendship. It is more challenging when we are working with people who are less amicable, not willing to be part of a “team,” or adversarial. Reconciliation is complicated when one party perceives that injustice or inequity are essential components of the social and ethical system in which we dwell together. Until issues of justice and equity are part of the process, words of apology and resolutions to do better sound empty and have no impact.
When I step back and look at the Church – not in the narrow context of our parish or the individuals in it, but the Church at large – I can see ways in which we have abandoned our responsibility to those who have needed us to restore balance in the world. Our silence is remarkable and disgraceful. Anglican and Episcopal Churches still need to reckon with the fact that we benefited from the enslavement of human beings. We do not comment on an economy that continues to benefit from the labor provided by mass incarceration of human beings. The poor suffer because our school funding is inequitable due to decades of unjust public policy. The Christian tradition of implicit White supremacy, misogyny and homophobia has incited violence. These are moral failures. This is larger than our individual attitudes. It is systemic and must be addressed.
It is not surprising that many young people have written off the Church and Christians as irredeemable bigots. We are like the offender in today’s Gospel, and the wider community is trying to confront us for our sins. That is a painful truth. Like that lost sheep, we have wandered off and need to return to God’s way.
If we want to work on reconciliation, we need to hear the just criticism, repent, and reform our ways. This is not about responding to cancel culture. It is about embracing the justice of the reign of God. Justice and service are the overarching commands of the entire corpus of biblical literature. Justice and service demand fairness and equity. This is long-term, noble, and heroic work.
What then shall we do?
Jesus instructs us to work to build connection. We need to be connected with each other in the parish, of course. We also need to rebuild connection with our broader community. Your cathedral can lead the way. Building relationship across lines of diversity is one of the more difficult pieces of community life. And that is what it is to be transformed into the Body of Christ. It must begin with listening to the pain of our sisters and brothers. That may be a little uncomfortable. With God, there is no Them. There is only Us.
As people of faith, we must decide whether or not we shall heed God’s call to work for justice in the world. Christ calls us to reconciliation and repentance. This is a moral and ethical choice, not a political one. If we abandon this call, we dare not call ourselves Christian.
Eliza Griswold. “How Black Lives Matter is Changing the Church.” The New Yorker. Aug 30, 2020.