Reading the gospels, it seems that Jesus isn’t interested in being anyone’s personal savior. For Jesus the work of faith is a team project. We who follow Jesus are an ensemble, not a collection of solo practitioners. 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 understanding of sanctity of relationship, with God and with each other. A group identity is foundational to the faith. We know Jesus as part of a community.
While a few seem to thrive on sowing seeds of discontent, community conflict is difficult for people of good will. Repairing damage caused by conflict is also difficult. Today’s Gospel is about dealing with someone disagreeable. That is an uncomfortable topic. It can grow more uncomfortable if we imagine ourselves in the place of the disagreeable offender (not our usual reading).
Today’s teaching is in the middle of a longer discourse that is all about living in community. The stories surrounding this passage highlight humility as a sign of greatness, the desire of God to bring a wayward sheep back to the flock, and the importance of forgiveness. Right in the center is today’s brief instruction, just five verses long, which is about mutual accountability. Jesus tells his friends that to be true to their identity as his followers, they must figure out how they can work together, especially when they have conflict. It is always more about building the Us – putting the relationship right – than it is about blaming Them for our failure.
In the church we use a technical word for this process. We call it reconciliation. Although reconciliation may involve a level of forgiveness, it is more than making peace or making nice. It does not mean that we are all of the same mind. Reconciliation is about returning to a fair balance. If we want to maintain a balanced relationship, ad we need to find the path to move forward together, beginning by listening with open hearts.
The process of reconciliation comes more naturally when we already 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, more adversarial, not already part of our team. Reconciliation is complicated. It won’t work if one party perceives that injustice or inequity are essential components of the system in which we dwell together. Justice and equity must be part of the process, or apologies and resolutions to do better will sound empty.
This weekend, the Episcopal Church commemorates the Rev. Alexander Crummell, who believed that the church could transcend its history of racial oppression. Crummell was born in New York and ordained in MA, but found that his work as a priest was restricted because he was a Black man. His vision of the value of supporting the leadership skills of Black people led to the development of the Union of Black Episcopalians. We remember him because of his prophetic witness and commitment to racial solidarity and to finding a way forward.
Some of us who remember the positive influence of churches in the civil rights movement in the 1960s may be surprised to learn the powerful role some American churches have played in the tenacious influence of white supremacy. (The Color of Compromise is a good resource to learn about this). There is a myth that White Christian people are somehow “better” than people of color and those of other religions. This has been part of European culture since the middle ages. Racism has infiltrated the water we swim in, even if we do not endorse it. Christians can be – unwittingly, I hope – as oblivious as the offender in today’s Gospel.
Let’s be clear: God’s way is love and respect for all.
If we want to work on racial reconciliation, and build a better and more just world, we need to speak out loudly and clearly in support of racial justice. Bp Loya this week: “Racial justice and healing is not primarily about feeling shame or guilt for the profound racial injustice that has always been part of life in this country. It’s about all of us, together, finding healing and liberation. And the way of Jesus shows us that we can only find that when we confront the full truth about who we are, what we have done, what has been done on our behalf, and the entangled and broken ways we are connected.”  This is about embracing the justice of the reign of God. Justice and service are the overarching commands of the entire corpus of biblical literature, which consistently demands fairness and equity. This is long-term, noble, and heroic work.
What then shall we do? Jesus often instructs us to build connection. SSEC has been invited to send a small team toThriving Together. This pilot program through Messiah University is designed to strengthen Christian congregations so they can help people deepen their relationships with God, build strong relationships with each other, and contribute to the flourishing of local communities. We were invited not because we are inveterate racists but because we already have a reputation as people who want to heed God’s call to work for justice in the world. We know that Christ calls us to reconciliation and repentance. This is already our moral and ethical choice. We build connections with our broad and very diverse community. Your cathedral – part of a very White denomination – is leading the way. Building relationship across lines of division is one of the more difficult pieces of community life. And we know that is what it is to be transformed into the Body of Christ. We begin with listening to the pain of our sisters and brothers. That may be a little uncomfortable. It is also good. With God, there is no Them. There is only Us. Stay tuned to hear more about this excellent adventure.
 Heng, Geraldine. “Race and racism in the European middle ages.” https://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/outcasts/downloads/heng_race_racism.pdf
 Bishop Craig Loya, “Weekly message to the Diocese of Minnesota,” 6 September 2023.