Updated: Aug 5, 2021
This past week I had the unfortunate task of sharing what is called a “notice of accord” with the vestry of Grace Church. In the Episcopal Church, when a clergy person is accused of unethical or illegal behavior they undergo a disciplinary process specified in our national canons (rules) called “Title IV.” This is different from the secular justice system because clergy people are disciplined not for breaking civil laws, but for betraying the vows we take when we are ordained. These cases are also unique because they end not with a “judgment” but with an “accord.” Judgments are decisions about guilt. An accord is an agreement between the church and the clergy person being disciplined indicating that both recognize that a sin has been committed and that they have agreed in community how they will respond to it.
It is always very hard news to hear that a friend, colleague, or pastor has broken their ordination vows. Despite the fact that we all acknowledge that clergy persons are human beings and are no different than any other human being, historically people have thought that ordained ministers are somehow better able to control their baser urges – or at least more willing to confess when they cannot. Not anymore. A 2018 Gallup poll indicated that trust in clergy was at an all-time low, with only 37 percent of respondents agreeing that clergy people have high or very high standards of behavior. Among the groups of professionals people ranked as more trustworthy than clergy were doctors, nurses, high school teachers, and police officers. Those figures may have changed in the last year and a half, but I doubt that the clergy numbers have gone up.
You can’t blame people, who watch as countless members of the clergy are implicated in financial and sexual scandals. And just as individuals wearing clerical collars no longer conjure positive emotions, so too has the word “Christian” been appropriated to represent support of and approval of violence, cruelty, fear-mongering, and vengeance – things specifically condemned by Jesus. Not a day goes by when I don’t read about religious leaders who regularly break faith with Americans of all persuasions by terrifying and threatening their flocks into endorsing specific policies and politicians. Such behavior is not only damaging to the individuals involved, but to God’s church as a whole. That’s why the Episcopal Church decided that when one of our clergy breaks faith, it must be shared not only with every parish and clergy person in the offender’s diocese, but with leaders throughout the entire Episcopal Church. As painful as it is to air our differences this way, it is a crucial part of reconciliation and healing. As Christians, we “cannot ignore the deep pain of those who have been sinned against, and we cannot minimize the difficulties of forgiveness.” Balancing the trauma and pain of both the sinner and the victim demonstrates the complexity of what it means to forgive – again and again and again, if necessary.
In some circles it is popular to justify judging others by saying you can “love the sinner and hate the sin,” but this is NOT something Jesus said. What Jesus said was, “Love one another and forgive one another” – and then he told a story about two sinners. One of these people owed a ridiculously large amount of money to a wealthy man and was told he would have to give everything he had – including his family and freedom – to pay it off. Unsurprisingly he begged for mercy – and received it in proportion to the size of his large debt. There was a second man who owed money to the man who had been forgiven. Instead of forgiving his debtor what he owed, the first man refused to have mercy and threw the second man in prison. Horrified by what they had seen, members of their community told the wealthy man what had happened – and the first man was given over to be tortured. This seems very harsh, but it is consistent with Jesus’s deep concern that his disciples seem to be unable to understand that no human being is in a position to judge another – that we are all sinners and we are all in need of forgiveness. Like Peter, however, we are always trying to find a loophole when we have to forgive people. We convince ourselves that if we can only prove that we are right then we don’t have to apologize or forgive the “wrong” party. We can even congratulate ourselves on trying to love such wrong and difficult people -without recognizing that even labeling them as sinners is a form of hatred. It has also become acceptable to identify numerous behaviors as “sins” that do not appear in our Holy Scriptures. It has become “increasingly common to see people hating both the sin and the sinner; it has become all too common for us to regard people as personifications of some particular sin or evil – [to equate the sin with the sinner]. Indeed, today we see Christians who not only hate the sin and the sinner, but are energized by their hate.” When we say we “love the sinner” we are implying that we are being virtuous by even trying to love a “bad” person. We are suggesting that our ability to “love” them places us above them. This perspective assumes that we are “right” and they are “wrong.”
This is not what Paul says we should do. What Paul suggests to the Romans is that we should try to love not like humans but like God – God, whose love is beyond judgment. This means not forgiving someone and trying to love them in spite of the fact that we think they are sinful. Doing that proves that our desire is to prove we are right, while God’s desire is to remove our need to be. Paul tells us to love others simply because they are, like us, children of God. This means we can’t merely tolerate those that we consider to be weak in faith and wrong in their thinking. It means remembering that they are no more sinful than us, and we must welcome them into our community, invite them into the way of Jesus, and share with them the grace that we have received. That is radical grace – and personally, I don’t like it. I would prefer to accept the common interpretation of the Golden Rule as reversible, meaning that I only have to do onto others what they have done to me -or at least be able to offer half-hearted apologies like: “I know you are sorry for all the horrible things you have done to me and I am sorry for whatever it is you think I did to you.” I like to be right. I certainly don’t want to be told that who’s right doesn’t matter. I want judgments -not accords.
Unfortunately, forgiving someone superficially because I have to – because I am afraid of what will happen to me if I don’t -is not an option for followers of Jesus. Saying I love my neighbor (even though I continue to think he’s wrong) is also not enough. Forgiving, like repenting, requires action. It involves hard and ongoing work. It demands that we let go of our need for judgment and accept the necessity of mercy – because it is only by forgiving those who hurt us that we can start forgiving ourselves. It is only through real forgiveness that we can escape the torture chamber of our own anger and guilt. It is only by forgiving that we can learn to live in accord – to live in love. AMEN.
Carol Kuruvilla, (December, 2018), “Americans trust clergy less than ever, Gallup poll finds,” Huffpost, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/gallup-poll-clergy-honesty-ethics_n_5c23d864e4b0407e907f752f
Charles Campbell, (2011), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 69-71.
William Greenway, (2011), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 64.
Jeanette A. Good, (2011), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 63.