The Public Apology and Reconciliation of a Penitent

Sermon Preached March 18, 2007
Lent 4C

At Church of the Transfiguration in Palos Park, Illinois, we veil the crosses from Ash Wednesday through Easter morning. If you ask most folks why that is, you get a very Episcopalian answer – “because we’ve always done it that way.” However, a few weeks ago, a parishioner asked me for a better explanation and I was caught off guard. I am new to this practice myself, and had to admit, I had no idea. I am much more familiar with their being veiled during Holy Week. But thanks to this parishioner’s question, I spent some time doing a little research. Here’s what I have learned. The veiling of crosses, images, and altar that occurs during Holy Week comes from the Roman Rite whereas, the practice of veiling from Ash Wednesday through Easter morning comes from the Latin Rite according to the Use of Sarum.[1] Old Sarum was the oldest English settlement in Salisbury and the Sarum rite greatly influenced King Edward VI’s 1549 and 1552 Books of Common Prayer.[2] But, regardless of the tradition of veiling being followed - the Roman or the Sarum - the purpose is essentially the same. In the words of the Sarum Rite:

“in this time of Lent, which is a time of mourning, all things that make to the adornment of the church are either laid aside or else covered, to put us in remembrance that we ought now to lament and mourn for our souls dead in sin, and continually to watch, fast, pray, [and] give alms….,’ wherefore ‘the clothes that are hanged up this time of Lent in the church have painted on them nothing else but the pains, torments, passion, bloodshedding, and death of Christ, that now we should only have our minds fixed on the passion of Christ, by whom only we were redeemed.”[3]
The English language was ever so much more colorful in the middle of the 16th century! Pains, torments and bloodshedding. . . it is no wonder that so many people find Lent to be an overly dark and depressing season of the church year – a season many of us would just as soon ignore. And yet the joy that awaits us on the other side is that much greater for the journey through the Lenten darkness. Gathered here this morning, I suspect that among us we have experienced times of loneliness and isolation, times of sickness of body or mind, times of grief and despair. We can perhaps imagine the kind of anguish that might lead someone like the young son in today’s Gospel reading to return home saying, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” This well-known story of the Prodigal Son comes to us during Lent precisely because it speaks about a journey through darkness and because it invites us to find ourselves in the journey of that prodigal son.

Episcopal priest, Patricia Bird, writes, “The biblical evidence seems to point to the fact that the journey into God often leads through a black hole.” In addition to this morning’s reading from Luke, Mother Bird refers to other black hole moments in Scripture: the deep sleep which fell upon Abram – a lesson you may recall from a couple of Sunday’s ago – during which “a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him”[4]; Jonah’s time spent in the belly of a whale[5]; the prophet Jeremiah and the apostle Paul each spending time in prison[6]; and Christ’s time spent in the tomb.[7] Each of these experiences of darkness brought the affected one into a closer relationship with God. So too, our Lenten journey is intended to bring us into closer relationship with God. But, O, how we resist this! Like the young son, we often travel away to our own metaphorical distant countries, seeking a place beyond God’s watchful eye.

On Ash Wednesday, we were invited “to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” I’d like to talk a bit about self-examination and repentance or, as we commonly know it, confession – not the corporate prayer of confession with which we began this morning’s service, but private confession. Now before you start squirming in the pews, I want to reassure you that private confession is not obligatory in the Episcopal Church – a lot of things happened during the primate’s meeting in Tanzania last month, but that was not one of them. However, even though private confession is not required, there is a standard form in the Book of Common Prayer for confession and this “Reconciliation of a Penitent is available for all who desire it.” Moreover, the prayer book tells us that this ministry “is not restricted to times of sickness. Confessions may be heard anytime and anywhere.”[8] But really, what’s the point? Can’t we just apologize and get on with it?

It seems that everyday in the news we hear someone famous making a confession or an apology for one wrong doing or another. Michael Richards – better known as Kramer to Seinfeld fans – apologized on The David Letterman Show for his racist rant at a comedy club in LA last November.[9] Mel Gibson apologized for his caught-on-tape anti-Semitic comments during an arrest for a DUI.[10] Bill Clinton and Arnold Schwarzenegger have each had to apologize for sexually inappropriate comments and behaviors.[11] And some of you may remember a year ago, Olympian Bode Miller’s apology for comments he made during a 60 Minutes interview about skiing drunk[12]. Business leaders are also in on the act and, apparently the need for corporate apologies has become such a routine part of business that a leading global communications consulting firm has published a guide for CEOs called, “The Road to Reputation Recovery” which outlines the 5 steps to take after a corporate gaffe – step one is to issue a public apology.[13] So it would seem that everyone from television and movie stars to politicians, athletes, and CEOs are in on the public apology act. If you are like me, many of these apologies have left you unconvinced of their sincerity, a bit skeptical of their motives and cynical about the benefits of confession.

What’s really going on here? I would suggest that there is a huge difference between most public apologies and the self-examination and repentance called for during Lent. The editor of Duke Magazine, Robert Bliwise writes, “The public apology . . . seems inescapable in modern culture. What it signals, though, isn’t so much sincerity and repentance as shallowness and self-serving manipulation.”[14] Harsh words, but perhaps they are not too far off the mark. How many times do public apologies take the form of, “I’m sorry if I offended anybody” or “I’m sorry that my words were misunderstood”? In each of these cases, the speaker makes the appearance of having apologized but, in actuality, they have not accepted any blame for their action. In fact, they place the blame squarely on the victim – on the person who was offended or who misunderstood presumably because they do not have thick enough skin to take a joke or perhaps because they aren’t smart enough to have intuited the speaker’s intended meaning behind poorly chosen words.

Public apologies are frequently concerned with saving face with little or no concern for the individual or individuals who have been harmed. It is telling, for example, that Michael Richards’ apology was first to his public via The David Letterman Show and only later to those in the audience at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles whom he had directly offended. Even when a public apology appears to be sincere and authentic, one has to wonder what kind of transformation happens in that finite expression of sorrow. Like the Christian story itself which unfolds in story after story of human struggle and God’s saving grace, true confession – true self-examination and repentance – are part of a drama which culminates in God’s reconciliation[15] - the restoration of right relationship between the penitent and other individuals and communities and between the penitent and God. This is what Paul is trying to convey to the church at Corinth when he writes:

“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation . . . entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”[16]
Some of you may remember the words of the Exhortation which sometimes preceded the confession of sins used in the Rite I Eucharistic liturgy:

“Examine your lives and conduct by the rule of God’s commandments, that you may perceive wherein you have offended in what you have done or left undone, whether in thought, word, or deed. And acknowledge your sins before Almighty God, with full purpose of amendment of life, being ready to make restitution for all injuries and wrongs done by you to others; and also being ready to forgive those who have offended you, in order that you yourselves may be forgiven. And then, being reconciled with one another, come to the banquet of that most heavenly Food.”[17]
Self-examination, acknowledgement of wrongdoing, intention to change one’s life , prepared to make restitution, and an expression of remorse before God – a process, a drama unfolding leading ultimately to full reconciliation with God - “the strengthening of our union with Christ and one another” through the weekly celebration of the Eucharist which is “the foretaste of the heavenly banquet”.[18]

The Exhortation continues:

“And if, in your preparation, you need help and counsel, then go and open your grief to a discreet and understanding priest, and confess your sins, that you may receive the benefit of absolution, and spiritual counsel and advice; to the removal of scruple and doubt, the assurance of pardon, and the strengthening of your faith.”
We do not need to carry our burdens alone nor do we need to wait until such time when we feel beyond hope. Call upon your priest. And continue in your “observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word” and know this truth: “Our Lord Jesus Christ, who offered himself to be sacrificed for us to the Father, forgives our sins by the grace of the Holy Spirit.”[19]

[1] Consortium of Country Churches, “Lenten Customs,” Full Homely Divinity: Resources for Anglican Parish Life accessed online on March 1, 2007.
[2] “Old Sarum,” Wikipedia accessed online on March 1, 2007; Thompson, Bard, Liturgies of the Western Church: Selected and Introduced (Philadelphia, Fortress Press: 1980), p. 232-3.
[3] “Lenten Customs.”
[4] Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
[5] Jonah 1:11-2:10
[6] Jeremiah 37:12ff; Acts 23:35ff
[7] Cf. Matthew 27:60, Mark 15:46, Luke 23:53, John 19:42; Patricia Bird, “Black Holes,” Preaching through the Year of Luke: Sermons That Work, Vol. IX, edited by Roger Alling and David J. Schlafer, (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2000), p. 25.
[8] Book of Common Prayer, p. 446.
[9] “Michael Richards Apologizes for His On-Stage Outburst,” CBS, November 20, 2006 accessed online on March 1, 2007.
[10] “Gibson: ‘I am not an anti-Semite’”, CNN, August 2, 2006 accessed online on March 1, 2007.
[11] “Public Apologies of the Rich and Famous,” ABCNews accessed online on March 1, 2007.
[12] Rob Simmelkjaer, “Michelle Kwan and Bode Miller: Beauty and the Boozer: Should a Champion Skater be Given a Spot on the Olympic Team and a Bad Boy Skier Be Booted?” ABC News: Good Morning America, January 12, 2006 accessed online on March 1, 2007.
[13] Gaines-Ross, Leslie and Patrick Ford, The Road to Reputation Recovery, Burson-Marsteller, accessed online on March 1, 2007.
[14] Robert J. Bliwise, “We Apologize: The Sorry State of Remorse,” Duke Magazine, May-June 2004 accessed online on March 1, 2007.
[15] John Berkman, “Being Reconciled: Penitence, Punishment, and Worship,” in The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells, editors, (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004), p. 101.
[16] 2 Corinthians 5:18-20
[17] Book of Common Prayer, p. 317.
[18] Book of Common Prayer, p. 860
[19] Adapted from Book of Common Prayer, p. 448.