Oh Lord, uphold Thou me, that I may uplift Thee. Amen.
The truth is, there have been conflicts in the church as long as there has been a church. We are sinful creatures, and we often fail when it comes to following our Lord’s command to love our neighbor as ourselves. Our Gospel reading for today gives us a glimpse of how the early church dealt with conflict, and the painful issue of deciding when someone or some thing had become so disruptive that it required decisive action. This section in Matthew’s Gospel is unique, you don’t find it in any of the other three Gospels. The point seems to be that sometimes, in order to protect the community, there is no other choice but to let someone or some thing go.
When I was a young seminarian, one summer I served in a wonderful small church in Northern Virginia that had about 100 people on any given Sunday morning. I will never forget when I arrived that summer; the congregation was in the midst of a conflict. It turns out, there was a member of the church who had a habit of speaking out during the Nicene Creed. Not every Sunday, but quite often, when the congregation got to the part of the Creed where we say, “For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate,” this man would yell out – “By the Jews!”. To him, it wasn’t the Roman Empire that crucified Jesus but the Jewish people, and in his twisted mind they needed to be held responsible. As you might imagine, this kind of anti-Semitism was quite upsetting to the community. First, the rector spoke to the man and asked him to refrain from speaking out during worship. But, he refused. Next, several members of the Vestry sat him down for some conversation and pleaded with him to stop making these kinds of remarks. But, he refused. Finally, and this is when I came on board as the summer seminarian, the Vestry, after speaking with the Bishop, voted that the man was no longer welcome in the parish. Sadly, they had to remove him from the church family. Some thought this was the right thing to do and some didn’t. But the rector and Vestry were trying to protect the community. It was a difficult time.
I know many of you heard this past week that the Cathedral Chapter (the leadership of the Cathedral) voted to remove two stained glass windows depicting Robert E. Lee and Thomas Stonewall Jackson from the nave. I know some of you are relieved that this decision has been made and others are quite sad, disappointed, even angry that these two windows have been removed from the sacred fabric of the Cathedral. What I can tell you is that this was not an easy decision, a quick decision, or one that anyone took lightly. Rather, after almost two years of conversation and programming around these windows and the larger issues of race, racism and the legacy of slavery, the Bishop and I, along with the Chapter, came to the decision that these windows were an obstacle to our mission to be a house of prayer for all people; they were an obstacle to the work of building the Beloved Community, and we needed to let them go. In short, as the body of Christ we came to the decision that the people we serve are more important than the fabric we protect.
“Love one another,” Paul says in his letter to the Romans. “’Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor.” Friends, for those of us who are white, I don’t think we often fully realize the extent to which Confederate monuments can be deeply painful to our African American brothers and sisters. In many cases they are not just benign monuments that remind us of our history, but reminders of ongoing racism and white-supremacy. This is not political correctness. The tragic events in Charlottesville showed us how those who promote hate and racism claim them as icons. To be sure, these monuments are indeed markers of our past, a past that should not be forgotten or erased if we are to live into the truth of who we are as a nation and a church. But, if I am to understand the pain and struggles of my brothers and sisters who bear the legacy of slavery and deal with racism every day, if I am going to truly love my neighbor as myself, then I have to be honest and say that I do not think these windows belong in a worship space. They have history to teach us, but we need to let them go and place them in a more appropriate context – a context where they can be exhibited as the historical artifacts they are.
The prophet Ezekiel says, “Our transgressions and our sins weigh upon us, and we waste away because of them; how then can we live?” My friends, I don’t think this wonderful country of ours can ever find real peace and prosperity until we deal with the recurring sin that lies at the heart of our society, and has since the beginning – the sin of racism. Yes, we have made great progress since 1953 when these windows were installed, but we have more work to do. We have to try harder to listen to one another, to respect one another, even when we disagree. We have to work harder to see ourselves in the other person’s shoes. Currently, we live in a climate where we seem to be pulling apart rather than finding strength in our common identity as Americans. There is a resurgence of white supremacist voices espousing the kind of hatred we thought a thing of the past. We are a nation of immigrants, and yet, there is a trend in our country to blame immigrants for economic issues that are far more complicated than whether or not someone is a legal resident. What are we doing? Can’t we see that we need each other, that we are in this together?
In recent weeks, we have all seen the terrible devastation left by hurricane Harvey and most recently hurricane Irma. But in the midst of these tragedies, how wonderful is it to watch the way so many Americans have rallied to help the victims of these storms. I know these are unique circumstances and that people can do amazing things when there is a crisis. But, to me this is a grace that has come out of these disasters. People from all over the country – white, black and everything in between – stepping up, driving hundreds of miles, taking off time from their jobs, using their own resources to help those in need. The so-called Cajun Navy, volunteers from Louisiana with bass boats and pickup trucks working around the clock to help people stranded in Houston’s flood waters. They are doing it, not because they have anything to gain, but because they want to help the people of Houston the way the people of Houston helped them following hurricane Katrina. These stories and so many others like them are examples of America at her best. They show us that we can rise above our prejudices and self-centeredness and be amazingly kind and generous to one another. These acts of kindness have nothing to do with race, creed, religion or socioeconomic status – it is just people caring enough to help people.
St. Paul says, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Yes, there are and always have been conflicts in churches and communities since the beginning of human history. We are sinful creatures and we often fail to honor one another. But, we have been given a vision of a different way. Love lies at the heart of every lesson, every action, every teaching of Jesus. And Christ-like love requires sacrifice. It means letting go of those things, those attitudes, even those individuals that would seek to pull us apart rather than bring us together. Therefore, let us, “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” and really listen to one another. Let us, “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” and strive to place ourselves in the shoes of those who differ from us. Let us, “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” and work to forgive those who have wronged us. Let us, “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” and let go of everything and anything that serves as a barrier to deeper community. After all, we need each other, we are stronger together, and none of us can make it on our own. Amen.