Content warning: Later in this sermon, I am going to speak briefly and non-specifically about sexual harassment and family violence. If that might be hard for you to hear, it’s a beautiful day for a walk on the grounds, and I do post my sermons on the website if reading later might be easier. OK? OK.
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.”
This is advice for how to be church together, right along with what we heard last week from the apostle Paul in Romans: weep with those who weep, rejoice with those rejoicing, treat one another with care and respect, and so on.
Because despite our call to new life in Christ, Jesus knows that sin will continue to be an issue in churches and in the world.
What do we mean by sin?
Let me quote a little from Francis Spufford’s book Unapologetic.
He notes that the word sin has been compromised by some combination of church history and modern marketing.
Looking at the use of the word “sin” in popular culture, he writes, “‘Sin’ … always refers to the pleasurable consumption of something… [and] always encodes a memory of ancient condemnation … Everybody knows, then, that ‘sin’ basically means… ’enjoyable naughtiness.’”
The church’s historical witness has made people think that when we Christians talk about sin, we mean various forms of indulgence, particularly having to do with food or S-E-X.
Which is ironic because Jesus himself seemed not particularly bothered about that stuff; he was even accused of being a glutton.
The sins Jesus got really angry about were things like hypocrisy, the powerful harming the vulnerable, self-righteousness and judgmentalism.
Stuff that, sadly, churches as institutions have not only tolerated but perpetrated aplenty over two thousand years.
The corruption of the word sin is why Spufford proposes an alternative term you’ll hear me use now and then: the HPtFtU, or the Human Propensity to Eff things Up. He explains that what he’s talking about here is “our active inclination to break stuff, ‘stuff’ here including moods, promises, relationships we care about, and our own well-being and other people’s.” (29-30)
So. Jesus knows humanity well enough to know that the faith communities he is founding will have to grapple with sin, with the HPtFtU. And this is his recommended process.
I don’t think this is intended for every place where we fall short of God’s intentions, but for the stuff that comes to the attention of the church because our actions are harming others or ourselves.
This process is not meant as a mandate for policing one another’s behavior. In fact both Jesus and the apostle Paul have a fair bit to say about not to do that. Both are well aware of the profound dangers of self-righteousness and judgmentalism.
It’s very easy to mistake our will for God’s will, or our taste for God’s taste, and to get tangled up about whether something that offends or upsets us is actually therefore sinful.
It can take some real discernment to tell the difference between harm and ordinary disagreement. We can easily go to war, in churches or elsewhere, because somebody doesn’t like your favorite thing or asked a question about your big idea.
Sometimes we have to really sit with something – get a good night’s sleep, eat a good meal, talk with a trusted friend, pray – to figure out whether some slight or wound is real harm, or just the low-level friction of living a society – or is even, perhaps, a nudge towards change.
What if I’m actually the one who caused harm, even unintentionally, and the thing I’m mad about is actually that somebody called me on it!
Sometimes we have to tolerate and work through that discomfort!
We all need to learn and grow. That’s just a given.
But I do not want to diminish how hard it can be to sit in that space and do that work.
For that matter, it’s hard even when you CAN see and acknowledge that the HPtFtU is clearly at work in some situation.
I’ve had people tell me that I have caused harm.
I’ve had people call on me as a leader to address someone else’s actions that caused harm.
Neither situation is any fun at all.
I’ve had all the feelings you’d expect: Defensiveness, anxiety, shame. I’ve thought all the thoughts you’d expect: Was it really that big a deal? Can’t we just let bygones be bygones? This is such a messy situation; it’s not clear exactly what happened; maybe it’s best for everyone just to leave it be. If they really knew me they’d know I didn’t mean it that way. What if this person gets angry? What if this person leaves the church? What if this person gets angry, gathers all their friends, and leaves the church?
It can be hard and scary to handle this stuff. Which is why Jesus felt the need to say something about it, I think!
So, how would Jesus’ process work, in an ideal situation?
First I, as the person affected, go to the perpetrator alone. We’re assuming here that the relationship makes that safe to do.
I explain, Hey, that thing you said or did hurt me.
And in the best case scenario they say, Wow, I had no idea, I am really sorry. Help me understand, let me know how I can make it right with you, and I’ll do better next time.
And that happens, actually! Which is amazing.
Alternately, they say, How dare you speak to me like that, that’s not what I meant, you’re hurting my feelings.
And then, says Jesus, you go away and gather a couple of folks who understand the situation. You all go back to the person together and try to help them understand.
And if that doesn’t work, if the person still just cannot tolerate being asked to re-examine their own words or actions, acknowledge harm and commit to reconciliation and change, then that person should be to you like a Gentile and a tax collector.
Let me say something important about that phrase.
A tax collector in Jesus’ time meant someone who collaborated with the Romans, the colonial power dominating Judea and Galilee, to take money from his own people. Tax collectors were hated because they were seen as traitors and predators.
Three of our Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, show Jesus calling a tax collector to follow him.
(And people being kind of mad about that.)
In Matthew’s Gospel, that tax collector is named Matthew, and becomes one of Jesus’ disciples, his inner circle.
The Gospel of Matthew is called the Gospel of Matthew because the early church believed that that tax collector-turned-Jesus-follower wrote it. Most modern Bible scholars disagree.
But it’s still very safe to say that for Jesus and for this gospel, being treated as a tax collector might mean that you’re back at square one in terms of faith and discipleship.
But it does not mean you’re beyond hope or redemption.
So, that’s how Jesus envisions this process of accountability in churches: a series of conversations seeking repentance and reconciliation. But we all know that there are approximately a zillion ways that situations can be more complicated. Right?
Which is why this thing Jesus says here about how whatever you bind on earth is bound in heaven weighs so heavily for me. Jesus said the same thing a couple of chapters ago, just to Peter; here he’s saying it to all the disciples. It seems important!
This statement is a big part of the Church’s understanding that priests and bishops are given authority to forgive sin on Jesus’ behalf.
That happens regularly in Sunday worship. But that weekly confession of sin and pronouncing of absolution, even if we enact it thoughtfully and seriously, is kind of like the tooth-brushing of personal repentance and amendment of life.
You need it; but you also need regular check-ups for your spiritual hygiene, and perhaps recommendations for changes of habit or new tools.
And we need to seek out care if we start to feel like something is really wrong or causing us pain or difficulty.
The church expects and at least to some extent trains its priests to have some comfort and competence with the more routine manifestations of the HPtFtU.
I may need to make a referral or bring in additional expertise if you need a root canal or Invisalign!
This is an aspect of my vocation that feels weighty at times. But there’s grace, for me, in remembering that it’s about both binding and loosing. There’s the responsibility of calling people – including myself – to self-examination, repentance and ongoing amendment of life, and there’s the joy of being able to proclaim God’s grace and forgiveness.
So, that’s how some of this works out in parish life. But what about in the larger church? …
The Episcopal Church has disciplinary rules and processes, called Title IV, that come into play when a member of the clergy is accused of misconduct.
(We don’t have a similar formal process for laypeople, non-ordained church members – which both makes sense and does not make sense!…)
It has been interesting dwelling with this Gospel for the past week-plus, because we have a couple of high-profile Title IV situations going on the larger church right now.
The provisional bishop of two dioceses in Michigan has been accused by his ex-wife and adult sons of a longterm pattern of physical, psychological and verbal abuse against his family. Bishop Singh’s sons are also calling diocesan and Episcopal Church leaders to account for being slow to open a Title IV investigation, and for doing things like minimizing their allegations by calling them “internal family dynamics.” A Title IV investigation is now – belatedly – underway.
Meanwhile, the President of the House of Deputies of the Episcopal Church, Julia Ayala Harris, sent a letter to the church last week revealing that she has been the complainant in a recent Title IV case. Shortly after she was elected President of the House of Deputies – a tremendously important role in our denomination – at the General Convention in 2022, she was approached by a retired bishop who physically overpowered her and made inappropriate remarks. Ayala Harris filed a Title IV complaint, supported by eyewitnesses to the encounter. However, the church attorney handling the case recently decided not to pursue any form of church discipline for that bishop.
That’s what spurred Ayala Harris to go public with the situation – to tell it to the church, in Jesus’ words. She writes, “My motivation for sharing this story stems from a deep love for our church. It is from this place of profound care and concern that I raise important questions about safety and accountability… If the president-elect of our House and deputy chair of the Legislative Committee on Sexual Harassment… can experience unsafe treatment right at the door of the House of Bishops during the General Convention, then who in our church can truly be safe? If there is no discipline for well-documented violations, then under what circumstances would discipline be imposed?”
It was interesting to observe my own reactions to President Ayala Harris’ letter – which came as as bolt from the blue for most of us. My initial gut reaction was, honestly, discomfort. Boy, she sure is rocking the boat. This seems… unseemly. Indecorous. Attention-seeking. Awkward. I noticed those feelings and thoughts within myself, and I wondered: Is this really how I feel? What I think? Or is this heard the voice of inherited institutional culture and middle-class respectability speaking inside me? …
Then I watched friends and colleagues in the church whom I deeply respect speaking out in support of Ayala Harris, and joining her call for greater transparency and accountability in our denomination – especially with respect to bishops, who’ve been given a lot of deference and protection over the centuries.
And I repented of my first gut reaction.
I’ve spent my whole life in the Episcopal Church, immersed in its culture; and the Episcopal Church has historically handled a lot of unpleasant or hurtful situations through… tactful silence.
I’ve seen how destructive that can be. I believe that transparency and accountability are a better path. But I still need to wrestle with my own inculturation into the church – in the Midwest, which is an added layer! – in an era when you just internalized the impact of that sexist or racist comment, rather than making a fuss.
When people kept their “internal family dynamics” to themselves instead of making a website.
When you just avoided the handsy bishop instead of complaining.
Listen, there will continue to be situations that are best handled with a phone call and a few quiet conversations. But that can’t be our only tool. We have to be willing, as a church, at every level, to take appropriate and proportional action to address harm by and among our leaders and members.
Because the harm needs to be addressed and also because what credibility, what witness do we have in the world, claiming to be God’s people, if we can’t handle violations of trust and safety better than this?
I have hope – I really do. There are churches in which a culture of abuse and silence is rooted in their theology. That’s not true for us. I think our theology is pretty good. What’s messed up is our inherited church culture. And we can change that – we are changing it.
We’ve got a lot of bold voices in our House of Bishops and elsewhere in leadership, formal and informal, at every level, who are calling for more transparency, more courage, more compassionate accountability.
As I’ve worked on this sermon, a line from Leonard Cohen’s song “Democracy” has been stuck in my head: It’s here we’ve got the range and the machinery for change, and it’s here we’ve got the spiritual thirst.
I think that’s true about the Episcopal Church. I think we can change – and that most of us want to.
I think President Ayala Harris means it when she says she’s speaking up because she’s committed to helping our church do this better, going forward.
I think Michael Curry, our Presiding Bishop, means it when he says, “For the sake of the Gospel, for the sake of our integrity, and, above all, for the sake of the well-being of every child of God who is a part of this church, we cannot, we must not, and we will not sit idly by when any one is hurt or harmed in our midst,” when he calls on the appropriate church commission to examine and improve these processes, and when he calls on all of us churchwide to commit to this “hard, holy and hopeful work.”
Churches – like other human organizations – will always have to contend with the human propensity to eff things up. Sin will always be among us.
To protect one another, to create room for flourishing, to grow in grace together, we have to tend and exercise our individual and collective capacity to handle – not just disagreement, which is hard enough – but harmful words and actions (or inactions) committed by people with whom we share church and community.
May we – St. Dunstan’s, the Diocese of Milwaukee, the Episcopal Church at large – have the range, the machinery for change, and the spiritual thirst to follow Jesus’ counsel and continue becoming a church that handles these moments with wisdom, care for all involved, the courage of our convictions, and a God-given desire to seek amends and restoration.
Sources and links:
An overview (with links to other documents) of President Ayala Harris’ situation:
Bishop Curry’s statement: