Good people crash and burn sometimes -- they do something really wrong, something that seems utterly unlike them. How can this be, their friends wonder. Surely there is some mistake. But no.
What happens then? The sinner must make restitution, if she can: restore what has been lost to the community. And then? The community must find a way to forgive. Does the community do this? Sometimes it does, but often it does not. The banishment is never pronounced, but it is real: nobody will approach the sinner -- he is radioactive. Perhaps his sin is contagious: if I am seen with him, people might think I had something to do with it. It is as if he has died. Nobody calls her. Nobody speaks of him -- if her name does come up, people exchange meaningful looks and change the subject.
Somehow today I am remembering someone. We were best friends in seminary. I remember the silly things we did -- our pillow fights, for instance, in which we whaled the tar out of each other harmlessly whenever the stress of getting educated got to be too much for us. Our coffee breaks, just about every day in his room -- "sludge," we called it, as in "Would you like to come up for a cup of sludge after class?" Our long talks about everything under the sun. He was not the most brilliant student in our class, but I'm pretty sure he was the most beloved. This would remain true of him throughout his life: people just loved him.
After graduation we went to different dioceses. We'd meet for lunch or dinner now and then -- we were close enough geographically that we could do so easily. But then he was called to another church farther away; our get-togethers were more difficult to arrange and therefore less frequent. Non-existent, actually -- we hardly saw each other for several years. I remember a dinner we did arrange once: I was excited about it, and travelled a fair distance to get there, only to find that he was inexplicably absent from the party. His partner was there, but he was not. That was odd, I thought -- but certainly I knew what it was to be busy.
In a few years, though, there was good news: both of us were joining the clergy staffs of big churches in New York. Finally! We'd be a subway ride apart. It would be like old times. And we did get together, a few times. Talked on the phone sometimes. But those huge churches are murder. We were both so busy.
One day I sat next to a colleague of his at a clericus meeting. The man was quivering with indignation: one of his colleagues had been revealed to have embezzled money from his former parish and also to have been addicted to crack cocaine since before he'd joined the staff in New York! "No wonder he never had any money," he growled. "When you had lunch with him, you always picked up the tab."
I thought I'd heard him wrong. I asked him to repeat the name, and then asked if it was the same man by that name who went to General Seminary. That was a dumb question -- of course it was. His was an unusual name, and Episcopal New York is a small town. His colleague went on to say that the rector had demanded that he go to rehab, and that's where he was now. "He should have just fired him," he said, shaking his head.
I wrote to the rector. Asked him to remember who my friend was, who he really was, as he considered the future. He wrote back and thanked me. I called his partner; my friend hated the rehab, hated the meetings, said he had nothing in common with anyone there. This was hard to hear: his partner had to mortgage their house to pay for the treatment. But of course, he did have something in common with those people, and in time he understood that. And when it came time to leave the rehab, his rector took him back.
This is almost unheard of. A misbehaving priest is normally sent packing. But not this time. My friend went back to his work. The parish, full of prosperous people who feel a responsibility to present a good face to the world, received him. Why? Because they loved him. It was not long afterwards that the rector retired; "You saved my life," my friend told him at the retirement dinner, and people wept. And it was not long after THAT that my friend informed his new rector that he had AIDS.
"It's easy to get a standing ovation," he said with a grin one Monday at lunch. "All you have to do is tell them you're a thief and a homosexual and that you have AIDS. Works like a charm." He and they had learned together that facing the truth together can make reconciliation possible.
His last few years in that parish were filled with grace upon grace. He was the right arm of the rector, the go-to guy for anything that needed doing. As had been the case throughout his life, he was beloved of everyone. When he died, the outpouring of grief in the parish was unprecedented. A few weeks later, his partner dropped off a couple of bags for me: his clerical shirts and collars, his ordination chasuble. I burst into tears at the sight of them.
I think of all this now, long after his death. Nobody would have blamed the church for not taking him back. But they took him back, and reconciliation took flesh in him and in them. All were empowered by it. Everyone witnessed the healing power of love. And everyone who had ever lost his way saw that it is possible to find the way back home.