I’m Sorry

“I’m Sorry!”  a sermon on forgiveness and reconciliation Rev. Brian J. Kiely, 

Unitarian Church of Edmonton  February 7, 2016

Some years ago my colleague Dana Worsnop served as Interim Minister in Calgary for a year.  Whenever a settled ministry ends, most congregations bring in an Interim for a year or even two to help the community take a good look at itself while it prepares to call another permanent minister.

Worship-preaching-2015-2-largeSo Dana came up from California and spent a year in a foreign land.  She became a good friend.  Towards the end of her stay, we were at a gathering of ministers and after the meetings were done several of us were sampling the grape juice and telling stories.

Suddenly Dana piped up.  “The best thing about this year is that I learned the Canadian martial art.”  We stared at her blankly.  Up she jumped and assumed a martial arts stance and threw up her hands defensively yelling, “I’m sorry!” again and again.  Best take on our national cultural habit I have ever encountered.

So this is a sermon on saying I’m sorry.  It’s my usual length.  I finished it Friday..then went on Facebook and saw that someone had perfectly summed up my sermon in just six words in a meme:  The best apology is changed behaviour.  <Sigh!>  Well, I’m sorry, but I’m still offering the rest of my thoughts.12642498_10153850255537383_5289343255398814101_n

It’ a favourite joke about us, this sorry thing, but it has a basis in reality.

Karina Schumann a Canadian psychologist currently in California commented,  “It might be more reflexive for Canadians to apologize,” Ms. Schumann said. “But my sense is that this stems from a culture of being polite rather than from being passive-aggressive, and this politeness is generally a positive thing. As a Canadian living in California, I can say that the people here think very highly of Canadians, and seem to admire how polite we are.”

I like this quality about us…up to a point.  When two people bump into each other in the street and both apologize, the situation is immediately defused.  It’s a little like the ancient purpose of the handshake…which was the demonstration that neither party was armed.  Tensions stay low, even if we think the other person was kind of clumsy.  If there is an actual real problem, people can then address it at a lowered level of stress. That’s a good effect.

At the same time there is the shadowy side of the apology.  The words can be said instantly, reflexively and without any real meaning.  I am sure you have all heard this in some discussion – perhaps in a public meeting, perhaps at a family dinner.  It’s often spoken quite passionately: ”I’m sorry…but…” and then the speaker goes on to vehemently and unapologetically disagree with whatever has been said.

It’s disingenuous at best and probably passive aggressive.  I know…I used to do it when I was a young man.  Then one day a dear friend started interrupting me as soon as the ‘but’ left my lips. “But means NO!” she would say.  “You have just negated your apology and stated quite clearly that you disagree and are not the least bit sorry about it!”  And she was right.

I don’t do it any more…well not often…sorry about that.

As a social lubricant for daily interactions, the Canadian habit of apology is useful.  It eases the friction that can build up.  If we choose, we can see this bit of politesse as allowing us to focus on more important things.

But what about when a real and meaningful apology is needed?

I am sure many of us recall June 11, 2008 when then Prime Minister Harper stood up in Parliament and apologized to the survivors of residential schools. This is one of the darkest chapters of our history – our dirty little secret.

I read the full text of his speech again this week.  It sure sounded good and unreserved and contrite:

“Mr. Speaker, I stand before you today to offer an apology to former students of Indian residential schools. The treatment of children in Indian residential schools is a sad chapter in our history…

“The government of Canada sincerely apologizes and asks the forgiveness of the aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly.

“We are sorry.”

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I wonder if any of us believed it?  I didn’t.  Though he delivered it flawlessly, my recollection was that he lacked contrition.  It held no sense of personal pain.  It was less a speech seeking meaningful forgiveness than one hitting all the legally required marks.   It was an apology, in fact, forced on Mr. Harper by the terms of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement agreement reached 10 months earlier. 10 months it took to give that speech! That doesn’t sound very sorry to me.

I had thought that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was the only positive product of Mr. Harper’s apology, but nope.  That was part of the earlier settlement as well.

The federal government’s apology of 2008 fulfilled a legal obligation, but otherwise Not One Thing changed.  Like the Facebook meme says: The best apology is changed behaviour.

How can one have a meaningful apology without some altering of behaviour or policy? How can one expect forgiveness if there is no consequence to prove good faith?  How can one dare to say, “I’m sorry”, when there is no intention to make things better?  How can any of us expect to find reconciliation if we are not prepared to treat those we have wronged with respect and fairness?

“I’m sorry” just doesn’t cut it.

In the Jewish tradition the requirements for forgiveness are quite blunt.  During Yom Kippur you have one week to acknowledge your failings and then go and make amends to the people you have wronged before the Day of Atonement.

In the Catholic sacrament of Confession – now called Reconciliation,  admitting your transgression is not enough to gain absolution.  You also have to genuinely regret your action and be resolved to not do it again.  You can’t just say sorry and walk away and repeat the same offence.  And finally, there is a required act of penance.  One has to suffer some kind of consequence.

I’m sorry isn’t enough.  Even if heartfelt and honest, there needs to be something more.

We Canadians know how to be polite and apologize without ever leaving the comfort of our own space.  I know it.  I’m Canadian.  I do it all the time.  The polite ‘sorry’ doesn’t even cost us the pennies we no longer use.

We can say those words without ever leaning towards the person we are saying it to.  We can utter the sacred phrase never expecting anything but an equally empty ‘thanks’ or a mirrored ‘sorry’ in return.  That’s fine for social situations.

Let us never be lulled into thinking that is enough when there is a real or significant transgression.

Think about this for a moment, just to yourself.  Think of a time when you were wronged, when you were really hurt or harmed by someone else’s action.

What did or will it take you to get past that event?  Would, “I’m sorry” be enough?  What would be needed for you to forgive?

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Many years ago a young woman got up in this church during candles.  She told how she had been wronged by an ex-fiancee who never apologized. She plotted seven kinds of glorious and devious revenge… and acted upon none of them.  Lighting a candle, she delighted both in the delicious contemplation of revenge….and then took pride in rising above those base desires.  Sometimes we can figure out how to move on whether an apology comes our way or not.

Now think for a moment of a time when you wronged someone.  Don’t be shy…we’ve all done it.

Did you apologize?  Did you truly mean it?  Did you really try to reconcile and offer something of yourself in recompense?  Were you changed?

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Our Unitarian Principles don’t say anything directly about apologies or reconciliation and yet the concepts are embedded.

When we truly respect the worth and dignity of another being, then we wish them no harm.  And if we do harm even by accident, we genuinely want to help make it better.  Why?  First, because they are our fellow beings and we don’t want bad things to come to them any more than we want bad things to come our way.  It’s the Golden Rule at work.  We also want to keep a connection between us and them that is fair and just and compassionate.  Those are the basic building blocks of a good relationship – one that is as healthy for us as it is for them.

I know that in the years I have served this congregation I have made many mistakes.  I have caused my relationships with some of you to become strained or even broken.  When I have become aware that I am the cause, I have done my best to reach out and make amends.  It hasn’t always worked but that’s not the point.  In this month’s theme packet, Maureen Killoran writes, “For every time we make a mistake and we decide to start again: We light this chalice.”

All we can do is acknowledge our faults and try to make it better.  It won’t always work.  Sometimes people are too hurt to forgive. Sometimes the breach is too wide.  Sometimes their reaction is greater than our act warrants because of other things that have come their way.  That is out of our control.  Let it go.

All we can do is be genuine in our contrition, open-handed and fair in our efforts at reconciliation.  “The best apology is changed behaviour”, whether it is acknowledged or not. After all, part of apology and forgiveness is forgiving ourselves.  Changing behaviour is a big step towards self-forgiveness.  I would add one more thought.  We can be patient.  Sometimes those we have wronged need time before they can process it.  Sometimes they have a great deal to work through on their journey towards healing.  All we can do is be patient and leave our offer to reconcile stand for as long as is needed.

To go back to the Truth and Reconciliation process I have read and heard a good many Canadians from the dominant culture saying things like, “Hey! The government apologized.  We are settling school claims.  This all happened a very long time ago.  What more do they want?”

Sorry, but the side that did the wrong doesn’t get to demand that their efforts be accepted.  They are no longer in the driver’s seat.  It is the task of the government and the dominant culture to listen, to make the kinds of amends that actually mend.  The work of the TRC will last a generation or more.  We can get used to it and move forward collaboratively or we can keep facing the same frustrating and painful problems we have endured for decades.

Contrition requires consequence, whether it’s on the playground, in a broken love relationship, a workplace difference, a struggle between parent and child or between cultures in the world.

Sorry is an easy word to say.  For Canadians it’s effortless, bred to the bone.

Being truly sorry – that goes so much deeper than the word.  It requires something of us, something real and meaningful.  And we have to go that deep in order to begin climbing the ladder of reconciliation.