Ten days ago John Peterson, the Cathedral’s Canon for Global
Justice & Reconciliation, and I met with several theologians from
Yale Divinity School about a hopeful document that has been produced by
a group of Islamic scholars from around the world. It’s called
“A Common Word.” Its purpose is to denounce violence of any
kind in the name of religion and to urge Christians and Muslims along
with Jews and all people of faith to work together for reconciliation,
understanding, and global peace. Throughout the centuries, the
Christian-Muslim relationship, in particular, has been marked by war and
conflict, and this document declares the common ground between our
religions. It points to the ethic of love—love of God and
neighbor—that is central in the sacred scriptures of all three
Abrahamic faiths. In this morning’s first reading we hear St. Paul
telling the church in Rome that anyone who loves another fulfills all
the requirements of the law and that all the other commandments are
fulfilled by loving neighbor as self.
Our meeting was about the role the Cathedral might play in helping
disseminate this document in the Christian community and call on people
of faith everywhere to embrace more fully the commandment to love God
and neighbor above all else as a means toward global reconciliation and
During these weeks of political conventions we have also been hearing
a lot of hard charging, who is tougher than who, testosterone fueled, (I
might add regardless of the speaker’s gender), political talk
about good and evil, right and wrong, keeping strong, and of course
peace-on-earth and goodwill for all. At times the political conventions
felt like portraits of two different America’s for all to see.
There were moments of profound inspiration, but for too many nights, at
least to this political junkie, it felt like a high school pep rally on
steroids—posturing about who is best qualified to kick you know what.
Whatever your take, I think we’d all agree there wasn’t much
talk about an ethic of love that might lead to more truth telling and
reconciliation as the way to peace on earth and goodwill for all.
Now perhaps you’re thinking, here we go again, more naïve
religious gobbledygook. The gospel, like the text we have just heard
about forgiving our neighbor and speaking the truth in love to friends,
colleagues, and neighbors is great for church—in fact
that’s why we come here on Sunday, to get a little respite from
the hard scrabble of life—but this stuff doesn’t really
have much application outside these limestone walls—out in the real
world of family, work, or national politics. Whether you’re for
Obama, McCain, or the new star of the season, Sarah Palin, the
conventional wisdom goes that these people need to be tough, unwavering,
and right, even if it turns out they are not.
Religious talk so often doesn’t seem to have any relevance to
reality. But then the Gospel isn’t intended just to affirm our
present reality; rather it’s about God’s dream for how the
world might be, how we might live in relationship to one another, how we
might love God and neighbor, how we might move beyond the enmity that
defines too much of our common life. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote,
“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a
friend. We never get rid of an enemy by meeting hate with hate; we get
rid of an enemy by getting rid of enmity. By its very nature, hate
destroys and tears down; by its very nature love creates and builds up.
Love transforms with redemptive power.”
The text we’ve just heard is one of only two places where the
word church is used in the Gospels. In its context we
probably wouldn’t recognize church then as we know it today. But
nonetheless, the point is that it is in the community of the church that
we’re to hold each other accountable—in love—by
growing into Jesus’ command to love thy neighbor as thyself, to
get rid of enmity, and to care enough for one another that we can tell
the truth even when it might be hard to speak and even harder to hear.
Bishop Jane Dixon always tells seminarians, “Make sure you have a
friend who will tell you the truth about yourself. Make sure you have a
friend who cares enough to hold you accountable.” That’s
what Jesus is saying to the church in this morning’s Gospel. This
text challenges us to have the courage to speak to the one who has
wronged us and the humility and honesty to hear the one speaking. It
all sounds so naïve or at best impractical in today’s world.
Too often our way of treating conflict and division is to ignore it.
Wounds and inappropriate behavior go unchecked. Perhaps like me, you
identify with those who don’t like conflict. If the problem is
ignored, so our rationalizations go, it will somehow resolve itself, or
go away. But the problem is more systemic than that. Our fierce
individualism too often keeps us from real engagement with one another.
On the one hand we say “Who am I to judge” and on the other,
if I’m wronged, retribution is too often the first course of
action. In our litigious culture we’re told not to talk to our
offender or, God forbid, admit to any wrong doing on our part.
We’ve lost our ability to forgive and to take responsibility for
our broken relationships.
Bishop William Willimon, who was a guest preacher here at the
Cathedral several months ago, tells a story about an ethics class he
taught when he was on the faculty at Duke University. He introduced his
students to Aristotle’s idea that ethics is rooted in the virtue
of friendship. He described Aristotle’s argument this way,
“Only a friend knows when to press and when to hold back. A friend
has the right to tell you the truth, and truth telling can be inherently
painful.” During the semester the students were asked to present
case studies of some ethical dilemma in which they were involved. They
were to tell what happened and how they responded. At the end of the
semester Williamon shared what the students had taught him. It seems
repeatedly in their case studies the students avoided challenging a
friend who was involved in some hurtful or self-destructive behavior
such as drugs, cheating on an exam, driving drunk, being promiscuous.
Their justification was always along the lines of “Who am I to
judge?” or “I didn’t want to risk our
friendship.” Williamon told them, “You give friendship a bad
name. Whereas Aristotle made friendship the basis for ethics, you make
friendship the excuse for unethical behavior.” How often in the
church do we ascribe to the same MO as these college students? Oh for
sure, we don’t actually condone hurtful or immoral
behavior—but in an effort at “keeping the peace” and
not judging, we in fact keep our distance from one another so that we
don’t have the capacity to speak or the capacity to hear.
“Who am I to challenge you?” “Who gave you the
authority to question me?”
Today’s gospel was written for a community of faith that
understood that reconciliation is the vocation of the church. It’s
too important to be left to our rationalizations that it will somehow
take care of itself. And it requires hard work, commitment, and
engagement all around. It requires that we care enough about one another
to be able to tell the truth and hear the truth, even when it’s
hard to speak and painful to hear. Those of you who are married know the
deliberate work involved in staying in communication with your
partner—caring enough, loving each other enough to tell each other
the truth, and to hear the truth without getting defensive or turning it
back around on the truth teller. In the short term, we all know, it can
be easier to just keep quiet, keep the peace.
Real Christian community takes intentionality and hard work because
it’s rooted in real caring and concern; otherwise it is not much
more than a pleasant social club.
We all know too well, most wrongs are suffered at the hands of those
we love most. We can probably all remember some terrible intended or
unintended hurt. And we can acknowledge how important forgiveness was
for reconciliation to happen. This is exactly what Jesus is talking to
us about. In his book Forgive and Forget, Lewis Smedes says, “In
forgiveness, we create new beginnings. We turn toward the future. We
turn toward freedom.” Fr. Theodore Hesburg, the former president of
University of Notre Dame, writes, “I think of God as the great
forgiver of sinful humanity. The greatest story of Jesus is the Prodigal
Son. We are not asked to forgive so much from our small position, but as
a surrogate for the almighty and all-forgiving God.”
Jesus envisions the church to be a beacon of light in a darkened
world. In us, in our life together in the church, the world ought not to
see division, and rancor, and self-righteous judgment, but forgiveness,
reconciliation, and humble judgment rooted in an ethic of love that
points to the breaking out of God’s kingdom here on earth. That,
my friends, despite how naïve it might sound, is the real path to
peace on earth and goodwill for all. Amen.