Not An Apology
A Sermon by The Rev. Jered Weber-Johnson
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St. Paul, Minnesota
March 6, 2019
My wife Erin spent a goodly portion of her childhood in North Dakota, her parents ancestral home, a place where grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles still live. When I joined the family she clued me in that people in her tribe apologized, a lot, for almost anything, even asking a question. When we moved to Minnesota, a state we were not completely unfamiliar with, friends who were from here warned that the same might be true here too. Truth be told, much of our experience living in and having family across the midwest, is that we’re a culture quick to apologize. It’s rooted, at its best, in our desire for harmony and civility. We don’t want to be seen as presumptuous or insensitive, and we certainly don’t want to inconvenience or put anyone out because of something we did. So, before we ask a question, we apologize – “I’m sorry. I hate to interrupt.” Or, if we need something we apologize, “I know you’re busy. I will only take a minute. I really hate to bother you.”
Yesterday at a crowded intersection, I found myself in a near fender bender as I and another driver sought the quickest way around a traffic jam. Our hasty and inattentive driving almost resulted in greater damage and slowdown. As we sat in our respective vehicles, bumpers only inches apart, we both summoned our most apologetic grimaces, our faces contorted into inaudible expressions of guilt and shame. “I’m sorry,” we mouthed through our car windows. And, we meant it.
Apologizing is a part of life, yet even in spite of the cultural overlay and our regional proclivity for apologizing, it isn’t always second nature. I live with two humans under the age of 10, and I feel like the work of parenting is a constant struggle to own my own mistakes as a model for them, a task that exhausts me as I am always screwing up as a father. There were young eyes in the back seat when I almost smashed into the other driver, and I confess, my instinct was toward anger and not contrition. But, there they were, soaking up every moment, impressionable minds so malleable. I called upon the better angels of my nature. So it is true too that despite our tendency to apologize for things innocuous, sometimes, especially in the big stuff, apologizing doesn’t come naturally.
Of course, it doesn’t take living with children to recognize that apology sometimes takes work. Just turn on the news and see that we live in a world with a very complicated relationship with naming and owning our sins. Some of our elected leaders brag about sexual exploitation and how much money they make, while others equivocate about graft and bribery, about racist statements and antisemitism. Still others only apologize out of expediency and self preservation. When we see apology modeled in the wider world, we are more often confronted with inadequate and unsatisfying apologies – “I’m sorry you feel that way…” or “I’m sorry that my actions caused harm, but… [insert litany of excuses here]”
When we observe Lent, there is a part of us that is mindful that we are here to confess, to admit to and take ownership of how we have wronged God, each other, and ourselves. We are here, and we endeavor over the next 40 days to express our sins, to show that we regret how our activity and agency in the world has degraded our relationships and the planet we inhabit. But, if we inquire closely of Ash Wednesday, we see that it is not merely apologies we make in preparation for this season. We are here not just to confess and express regret. We are here to engage in an act of penitence. Regret might imply that we are willing to change, that we are desirous not to commit the sin again. But, penitence, as we have come to practice it in the Christian tradition, is a commitment to not only confess and regret, but to repent – to turn our lives around, and with God’s help, to amend our ways.
In order to do this, I believe we need to get very specific. Christians, or at least Episcopalians, have gotten comfortable with what is known as the “General Confession” – that act of naming generally and broadly our sins, most Sundays just before the Eucharist. But, fewer and fewer of us are familiar with the act of going to confession – what we now call “the Rite of Reconciliation.” In that rite, as with our litany of penitence which we will say together today, we are invited into a much more specific listing of wrongs committed. We do this, not so that we might feel demoralized and terrible, but so that we can be very clear and specific that we are people with agency, that our lives do have a very real and concrete impact on others and on the world around us. Getting specific is an act of truth telling.
I think this can be liberating.
Just as our sins are specific and not general, so is God’s forgiveness to us specific and not general. God’s grace and love is given for each of us, uniquely, specifically, and personally, touching places deep within us that we hide from the world and which might even remain partially hidden from ourselves. If nothing else, today’s odd practice of imposing ashes on one another’s foreheads, reminds of that grace. We are all human, of the dust, and one day we will return to the dust. We are flawed and broken and prone to sin against each other and against God. But, we are not helpless. God who is faithful, who created us from dust, and who, at the last, will raise us from the dust, will not abandon us to our sin. There is grace and forgiveness to live changed and renewed, to amend our ways, and to make reparation for wrongs we’ve committed and for wrongs committed on our behalf.
Friends, today we are here not only to make apology, but to begin anew. We are here to claim our identity as humans, of the dust, and as beloved, forgiven, grace-filled, and restored children of God.
Remember that you are dust. And to dust you shall return. Remember that you are forgiven, and to God you will return. Remember that you have taken, and to them you have wronged you can return. Remember. Confess. Regret. Repent. Turn.