September 6, 2020

Pentecost 14A

Difficult Conversations


Jesus said, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Matthew 18:15-20




While the hurricane and the storm surge that assaulted the Gulf Coast two weeks ago, certainly commanded its own moment in time as well as our attention, I think it is safe to say that 2020 has other ways been the year of gale force winds, high tides, and frightening, death-dealing waves. 

On the one hand, we have been pushed for safety sake to isolate and shelter in our homes. There we have learned to maintain some semblance of contact and social interaction through our computer screens. And as we have hunkered down, we have listened to sobering news reports of a growing tsunami of Covid-19 related deaths with only a fool’s vaccine on the immediate horizon. 

On the other hand, in cities across the country, many have felt morally compelled to leave the safety of isolation and their homes to protest the social inequality to which we have, as a society, too long remained willfully blind and have accepted as our normal.

While we continue to face so much uncertainty, intensified by the experience of our powerlessness in the face of so much of it, and as we wait with varying degrees of hope for the return to whatever normal is or will reveal itself to be, God is extending an invitation for us to respond to those things which we can change – those things over which we do have some control. 

While we may not know when a responsibly tested and legitimately vetted vaccine will be discovered and made available, we can, while we wait for the Covid-19 cure, attend to the other death dealing virus that is screaming for our attention and for which we do know the antidote, and for which there is a cure.  Systemic racism can be undone.  The culture can be cured of this malignancy.  And if not cured certainly seriously shackled and neutralized. 

Yes, law enforcement can be made to be transparent and accountable.  Yes, racist law enforcement agents can be identified by their words and behaviors and be shown the door.  Yes, the Blue Wall can be dismantled, and moral integrity made the norm for relationships between and among law enforcement officers.  Yes, community-based policing is possible.  Yes, gun toting vigilantes can be disarmed, and membership in right-wing militias can be criminalized.  Yes, a system of checks and balances of the executive branch – one with teeth – can be legislated. Yes, the racist who occupies the Oval Office can be voted out and brought to much deserved and long overdue justice such that a lesson be made of him and his ilk.

The gospel provides us with a roadmap toward our becoming the Beloved Community that the Lord calls us to be.   It holds up a vision wherein all people experience dignity and abundant life and see themselves and others as beloved children of God who are deserving of the utmost respect. 

The path is not easy.  A great deal of talking, discernment, and action are required to get to that Holy Place, to that Promised Land.  Difficult conversations must be had. And just as people struggle in the most intimate interpersonal relationships to say when they have been hurt or how they have been offended, so too, we must struggle to have those conversations that address our social fabric and give space and voice for the hurt, pain, suffering and death it  routinely and systemically inflicts on people of color. 

In interpersonal relationships, sometimes people just walk away without ever expressing true feelings about the pain they have suffered because of the actions of others. When the conversation does not yield the desired result there is a tendency to shrug it off and to simply give up. The problem is that when those conversations are avoided, it can leave behind a toxic culture that permeates a community needlessly. We never know which incident, after evading a conflict, will trigger the crashing of waves once again at the shoreline.  Right now, the black community is speaking with a voice that refuses to be silenced and we must listen.  And we must listen in a way that gives precedence to their feelings and their experience rather than our own sensibilities and sensitivities.

Matthew’s Gospel challenges us to become involved in tough conversations. We are called to bravely stand up for what is right and against what is wrong and to raise our voices. If needed, the roadmap provides strategies wherever conflicts develop. 

Today’s gospel is thought to be a conversation that was created by Matthew. It is highly unlikely that Jesus said these exact words because Jesus never spoke about the church or resolving conflicts in the church. This text applies to conflicts that required attention after his death. The message, however, is central to an understanding of how to stay in conversation at the most challenging times.

Many within the wider Church have been struggling to find ways that will move us in the direction of transforming our ecclesial and social environment into the one Jesus preached about throughout his ministry. It is a daunting task.  Truly, it takes a lot of sheer will and great intentionality. It also requires a willingness to both talk and listen – with an accent on listening. Neither practice is easy and yet, it is possible to get closer to the goal with every attempt.

Amid a national pandemic, might we not summon up the courage to address systemic racism, look at the root causes, and find solutions that will reorder how we live together in a harmonious and loving community that celebrates the depth and breadth of our diverse humanity?  This is a remarkable moment to model for both secular society and other faith communities what brave conversations, that lead to healing, look like. 

Jesus understood that healing involves taking some risks. Every time he dined with tax collectors and Gentiles people were enraged. It was unseemly for him to fraternize with “the others,” they thought. Jesus continued to preach about love for one another.

People of color have been our long-time neighbors. There are a number of black churches in Kingston.  Might this not be a good time to find new ways to deconstruct the silos in which we live so distant, in too many ways, from each other?

In a year when many of the old societal norms are being challenged, the church is also tasked with confronting its own history of racism and social discrimination. For those who feel that the church has sinned against them, Matthew recommends that such sin be called out, first privately, then in increasingly public formats. We are at an inflection point where this work must be done with urgency – it can be done even at a time when in-person gatherings are conducted at a minimum. 

We can challenge ourselves to creatively determine how to facilitate dialogues with other congregations within our contexts and across denominations.  The last congregation I served was St. Andrew’s in Beacon.  It was a black congregation that came to be because the white folks at St. Luke’s did not want to worship with their black sisters and brothers.  During my tenure the two parishes engaged a shared food pantry ministry. A few years ago, St. Andrew’s and St. Luke’s become one parish.

Truth-telling creates vulnerability and sometimes leads to confrontations, where we act with love to continue the dialogue. We must not give up. If we are ever going to arrive at low tide where we love our neighbors as ourselves, we must all be willing to risk pain and suffering to get there. In an earlier chapter of Matthew, Jesus bids Peter step out in faith into the rocky seas and to come to him. Although the waves were crashing, Jesus beckoned Peter. He beckons us, his contemporary disciples, to step out in faith to eradicate this awful iniquity.

The goal of becoming the Beloved Community is not relegated to one or a handful of congregations. There must be a focused and concerted effort for everyone to engage. It is clearly understood that the past cannot be undone, but the goal of studying and revisiting history is to help understand what happened and learn from those mistakes. Too often, dialogues lead to superficial work that is ultimately unsatisfying. Jesus is inviting us to dismantle this sin once and for all so that the afflicted may be healed forever.

May God nudge us all to the shore where we can find the energy to listen to each other and develop a way forward that leads to lasting change. Amen.

The Rev. Frank J. Alagna                                                                                                                       September 6. 2020