Year A; Proper 18; 9.6.2020
Romans 13:15-20; Matthew 18:15-20
During my time as assistant rector at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, I was befriended by a couple who were pleased to help me navigate small town life in North Carolina. John and I had just moved from New York City where I’d finished seminary. John wasn’t very thrilled that I’d chosen to move to this small town since I could have gone to a much larger city. But I wanted to learn how to be a rector from one of the best in the diocese of North Carolina. And he was in Rocky Mount.
The couple, Fred and Jean were kind, generous, faithful and were almost as devoted to Duke University their alma mater as they were to Jesus. At almost every parish supper, they would invite John and me to sit with them. They weren’t even offended when John stated his dislike for all things Southern: I don’t like NasCar, he would say. I don’t like watermelon. I don’t like basketball, he would say! That’s how kind and gracious they were. They loved him despite all the things he said he hated!
One day, well into my time at Good Shepherd, Jean asked if she could see me. She had a pastoral matter she wanted to discuss with me. She looked very serious and worried. She came into my office and sat down, wringing her hands. She told me about her only grandson who had graduated from the University of North Carolina and had a great job at a tech company in Raleigh where he wrote computer programs. He was shy and nerdy. He hadn’t dated much.
He had met a woman at work who was also writing computer programs. She was an immigrant from India and they had fallen in love. In a shock to the family, he announced that she had become pregnant. The problem for this North Carolina family was not only that she was an immigrant and pregnant out of wedlock. She was black. She wasn’t African American. She wasn’t African. But she was black.
Jean began to cry as she told me that she was ashamed that she couldn’t accept that her only grandson was going to have a baby with this woman. She said that her daughter and son-in-law were at the point of disowning him. She was imagining what people would say to her when they found out she has a non-white great-grandbaby. She went on to worry about the woman’s family and she wondered out loud if this woman hadn’t “trapped” her grandson into marrying her for a path to citizenship. She worried that no one knew her family. She was from a strange faith, Mar Thoma, a Christian sect, and asked if I knew anything about it. I didn’t.
I sat with her while she cried.
As she cried, I was surprised by the love I felt for her. She really wanted to have a different attitude because she loved her grandson so much. I felt love for her because I knew her heart. It was true, kind and good. But she couldn’t muster any good feelings about this situation.
I suggested that she wait and see. I suggested that she keep the connection with her grandson. Wait until after the baby is born and revisit her feelings.
I had left to lead a church in New Jersey by the time the baby was born. But I received a wonderful letter from Jean a few months later. She wrote to thank me for listening to her worries. She shared that she had held the baby and fell instantly in love with her. She said, “She is brown and beautiful. I couldn’t love her more.”
Jean could have chosen to turn her back on that baby. Jean’s culture would have made that choice easy. Instead, she chose love. She chose to love her grandson. She chose to see the beauty in that baby. I knew Jean had it in her to love that brown baby. I knew she would find it in herself to be a witness of love and acceptance to her circle of friends and those who would reject her for having a brown great-granddaughter. Best of all, I knew that her love of her grandson was more powerful than any cultural hatred that surely would be coming their way for the rest of their lives.
When the Apostle Paul writes about love, he means the love that Jesus followers choose. It’s a choice like Jean’s – usually against forces that fight it. We may read First Corinthians Thirteen at weddings and tear up when we hear those words in the context of a couple in-love. But the words are for you and me and all of us who are presented each day with a decision to love or not to love. The words are for those in faith communities that are serious about following Jesus and his commandment to love God and love our neighbor.
Paul’s letters are full of words of love. And they are hard words for struggling and divided communities. “You who are divided. You who are in disagreement. You who have sinned against one another in this community. Listen! ‘Let love be genuine….love one another with mutual affection; live in harmony with one another.’ ‘Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.’ ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.’”
“…and the greatest of these is love.’”
We are at a fever pitch of division and hatred in this country. As the election approaches, the escalation of distrust and arguments is palpable. There are two areas of my life that I’m tending to with care in making decisions to love. One is my immediate family. I choose to love my family members. I choose not to confront any of my family members with political arguments.
I have to work at it daily. I have to choose love daily. It doesn’t always work because my anger gets the better of me. “Why don’t they see it my way?”
The other area is my faith community. While this community is easy to love, not everyone sees eye-to-eye on everything. There are members of this parish whom I love deeply and with whom I share probably very little in common politically. Paul calls me to “love one another with mutual affection and live in harmony with one another.” That doesn’t mean we sweep our feelings under the carpet. We must speak truthfully to each other. But not with the venom that is so common in the culture. Is it possible to disagree with someone in our family or in our faith community while showing love, humility and respect? Of course!
The two bedrock tenets of our faith are clear to us in both the epistle and the gospel readings today. Love and reconciliation. I’ve just spoken of choosing love. And in the Gospel reading from Matthew, we learn of Jesus calling his community to the high ground of reconciling broken relationships. Disagreements and hurt are inevitable in all communities.
Pastor and writer, the Rev. Jin S. Kim shares this truth in his commentary on this passage in Matthew. He writes, “What makes us Christian is not WHETHER or not we fight, disagree, or wound one another, but HOW we go about addressing and resolving these issues. Jesus calls his followers to the higher task of reconciliation and provides a way to carry it our when divisions inevitably arise.”
Choose to love. Go, and be reconciled.
I think we all know that we are in for a hard ride in our country these next weeks and months. But our faith community is not without solid direction from our most holy and sacred Scriptures to choose the opposite of hatred and division. Imagine if all the people of God chose love and reconciliation!