Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
Owe no one anything, except to love one another. (Romans 13)
A couple of weeks ago I was down at our place in Hillsboro, walking one morning along Main Street toward the Post Office. Now, for years the big issue in Hillsboro has been people speeding through town — Main Street is also State Highway 152, and drivers passing through often pay little attention to the posted speed limit of 30 mph.
So the common practice is for us locals to wave our arms up and down at speeders in that universal sign that means, “Slow down!”
Well, sure enough, that morning, somebody came ‘round the bend going at least 50, so I waved my arms at him. His response, however, was to floor the accelerator, and by the time he was out of town he must have been going at least 80.
There was something about that episode that really unnerved me. Why is it, that we are in a time when people are so mad and arrogant? Why such anger? And what’s the alternative?
That question stayed with me the rest of the week, until one morning I woke up with a very clear thought in my mind: Brother Roger (Frère Roger) of Taizé, now there’s someone who knew how to live peaceably. Perhaps in the back of my mind was a comment made by Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, who said that “Brother Roger was someone whose presence gave us the hope that it is at least possible to live peaceably in this world.”
Now, peaceable is not a word we use very often. We are more accustomed to the word “peaceful,” implying a certain state of tranquility. But to live “peaceably” is a more active thing, something one has to lean into. It means to be civil, conciliatory, nonviolent, amiable—all words easily applicable to Brother Roger.
He was born in 1915 into a Swiss Protestant family. Then as a young man having survived tuberculosis, he set out to find a place where he might form a religious community devoted to becoming what he called “a parable of reconciliation.” In 1940, he ended up in the tiny village of Taizé, in northeastern France, where he started his community, first by sheltering Jews from deportation.
But it was still France, a Catholic country, and so one of his first decisions was that his community would transcend the Protestant/Catholic divide that was still strongly felt. He was, it has been said, an “innocent,” someone who saw things such as the imperative for Christian unity as being so self-evident, that he needed no deep theological argument for it. He simply set about living it out in his own life.
Brother Roger’s peaceableness came to manifest itself, therefore, as a refusal to be drawn into conflict. He would be neither Protestant or Catholic: he would live as both.
We live in a day when we are constantly reminded of what side of the divide we stand on: red or blue, liberal or conservative, mask or no mask. But to live peaceably, as Brother Roger did, means to move beyond the imprisonment of such labels.
It means, for example, what Brother Roger said was his deep wish “to seek to understand everything in another person.” For him, a conversation always started with what the other person had to say. This longing to know the other came from the fact that he saw everyone as being offered the very same gift from God: mercy and forgiveness. The question is never who is worthy of such a gift, but only how we can help one another to remove any obstacle that might block us from receiving it?
And this uncompromising belief in the mercy of God, was grounded in turn in another of Brother Roger’s intuitive convictions, that God is capable of doing only one thing: to love. God doesn’t do anything else. The divine unity that we speak of in so many prayers and hymns, means this one thing: God’s whole activity is to love. Not to judge. Not to condemn. Not to divide. Not to punish. But only to love, to draw people into communion with God and with one another.
That belief was at the core of Brother Roger’s peaceableness. But it also goes further. In a letter that he dictated in August, 2005, on the afternoon before he was murdered by a deranged woman during Evening Prayer, Brother Roger spoke of the peace that comes out of love as enabling us “to look at the world with hope, even though it is often torn apart by violence and conflicts.”
It is not our place to judge, to condemn, to divide, or to punish, when God does not. It is our place to contribute to unlocking the goodness of people by helping them simply to receive God’s mercy.
Red or blue. Liberal or conservative. Mask or no-mask. The dynamic of human life, regardless of who we are, is that we are offered, and have to learn to receive, the gift of God’s mercy. And therefore, Brother Roger said, we have reason not only to hope, but to trust. There is, as the prophet Jeremiah said, a future of peace open to us.
That is not to say, that Brother Roger did not struggle with doubt. One of his favorite Taizé songs was one that we have sung here at St. Michael’s: “Let not my doubts or my darkness speak to me.” But even doubt is held in the mercy of love.
The last words that Brother Roger uttered in public were those with which his dictated letter left off, he being too exhausted to continue. He had said, “To the extent that our community creates possibilities in the human family to widen …” And there it ended.
Community. Possibility. Widen. Those are three words by which we as followers of Jesus might also try to live peaceably, rather than angrily, in the days ahead. Perhaps we too need to slow down. Amen.