The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
Transcribed from the audio.
Please pray with me. Gracious God, help us always to seek the truth, come whence it may, cost what it will. Amen
Today’s gospel lesson offers for the disciples and us one of the seminal teachings in all of the Bible. It is the fourth major teaching section of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew— the first being the Sermon on the Mount, the second being about mission activity, the third on the parable teachings, and this very important section on conflict, reconciliation, what it means to be a caring community. Next week you’ll hear a little bit more in the gospel lesson about forgiveness.
What Jesus says to the disciples and us is critical about how to be a caring community. He notes, and I say this with a word of hope, that conflict in the Church is inevitable. The reason I find it hopeful is it didn’t start with us. Conflict has been around a long time; it’s how we deal with it that matters. Of course, part of what Jesus says is that forgiveness isn’t a luxury, it is a necessity. And it fits in with the central teaching of our Church that you can find in the catechism: that the mission of the Church is to unite all people to God and each other in Christ, to restore any broken relationships. Jesus says it is up to us to take the initiative. When I first read that gospel lesson two things in my own life immediately came to mind: one, a personal experience that happened many years ago; the second, a very important address I heard in this very Cathedral a few years back.
Speaking personally, many years ago, long before I became a priest, I was very active in my church, and a beloved member of that community came to me. This man was my friend, my mentor, someone I loved and admired and respected very deeply. He asked me from my position of being in lay leadership if I would attempt to get this one thing done in the church that meant a lot to him. I knew how much it meant to him and I also knew that it was a reasonable request. But he and I both knew that it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to make this one thing occur, just given the situation at hand. But I committed to trying.
Behind the scenes, I very quietly and discreetly tried to enlist the support of other leaders within my church community to help me with this. Each one of them in their own way attempted to get this one thing done and each one of them were unsuccessful. Time passed. More time passed, each one attempting to get this thing done. Being the eternal optimist, I continued to pray, ever hopeful that we might get a breakthrough.
Well, after a year my friend asked to meet with me again and I readily agreed. To my utter shame and horror, he proceeded to tell me how badly I had hurt him; how deeply disappointed he was in me. Because, you see, my sin in this case was one of the omission. In my immaturity and ignorance, I thought I was protecting him from further hurt and harm and the bad news that we were getting along the way. When, in fact, the most Christian and faithful thing to have done would’ve been to give him what I would call status reports, even though they were difficult to hear. I’m so grateful to him for bringing that to me because I had no idea how I had ruptured a relationship that was very important to both of us. Thankfully, I was able to share with him a little of what I had been doing and he graciously and generously forgave me and we were reconciled. He died a few months later. My mentor had continued to teach me a very important point which is that it is incumbent upon us to take the initiative when we have a relationship that is estranged or breached.
Most of the time, I think we are painfully aware when we hurt one another; but, as I learned in that instance, not always. Sometimes we can be woefully unaware of the hurt and the pain that we are causing one another. As one sage put it, forgiveness does not happen by default. Jesus teaches us that we are to take the initiative because we are created to be in harmony and community, one with another. If you think more broadly and you look around the world that surrounds us, we can attest to both the fact that there is a human capacity to hurt one another and a seeming inability to forgive one another. Whether we look around Washington, D.C., or Ferguson, Missouri, our southern and western borders or more broadly to the Middle East, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Africa, Russia, the Ukraine—seemingly almost anywhere we look—we see the need for reconciliation and restoration.
The second thing that came to my mind when I read the Scripture was the Centennial address given by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu on the 100th anniversary of this Cathedral seven years ago. It is titled, “The Spirituality of Reconciliation.” One of the things the Archbishop said that night very early in his address that caught me up short was “If we were to ask most people, “What is the heart of the Christian Gospel?” I expect that the vast majority would say, “Love.” It was certainly what came to my mind. And he said no one can argue with that, but he posited another view which is if we look at “the existence of sin and alienation that it caused that the heart of the Christian gospel could also be reconciliation, at-one-ment.”
Within that address, of course, Archbishop Tutu spoke of the extraordinary and nation-changing work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa in the wake of the Anti-Apartheid Movement. He made the point that it is risky to seek forgiveness and reconciliation. It is costly. And as Archbishop Tutu put it, “Forgiveness is not some sentimental namby-pamby thing.” Sounds like Archbishop Tutu. “It is costly. It cost God the death of God’s son.” He says that it is imperative that we look “the beast in the eye.” State the truth, as difficult as some of those unspeakable truths are because it is only when we seek reconciliation that we will have the gift of reconciliation that God intends for each one of us—reconciliation, healing, wholeness, restoration, light, life, love—the very things that God created in the very beginning.
As William Sloane Coffin put it, “We all belong to one another. That’s the way God made us. Christ died to keep us that way. Our sin is only and always that we put asunder what God has joined together.” Jesus teaches us how to seek that reconciliation and forgiveness and restoration and wholeness. If any of us have a relationship that is broken, take Christ’s words to heart and remember that forgiveness doesn’t happen by default. Amen.