Apologies That Count

Apologies that Count                                                        Peace Presbyterian Church

Matthew 5:17-26                                                               After Epiphany

Elizabeth M. Deibert                                                          February 12, 2017

We are here today to talk about the two most important words in the English language – I’m sorry.   I think the biggest problem in our families, schools, communities, and country is our failure to say those two words and mean it.  

Being able to admit your fault has enormous potential to heal relationships that have been wounded.   But many of us do not like to acknowledge our own fault.   When is the last time you heard someone in a powerful position say, “I’m sorry.   I was wrong?”  It doesn’t happen anymore.  There is never any acknowledged regret.   We prefer to shift the blame to someone or something else – make excuses.  

Or we like to apologize for selfish reasons.  That’s what I do.  I am good at apologizing, but I often do it for selfish reasons.   I want to reassure myself that the relationship is ok, so I rush to say, “I’m sorry” so that you can tell me “it’s okay” so that I can feel better.   But a real apology for the right reasons is not so concerned with how I feel as how you feel.  

Jesus’s concern in the Sermon on the Mount is that people who handle anger inappropriately by insulting the other are liable to judgment, just like a murderer.   He says before bringing a gift to God in worship, go apologize.   That’s why we have the sharing of the peace in worship.   It is to celebrate that God has forgiven us and we are called to forgive and to ask forgiveness of others.

Hear the Gospel:

Matthew 5:17-26

"Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 21 "You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not murder'; and 'whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.' 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. (NRS)

Wounding another without apology is redoubling the offense, adding the sin of callousness to that of cruelty.  Think about that quote from Rabbi David Wolpehttp://time.com/3992721/politics-and-apologies/

In her outstanding book, Why Won’t You Apologize?  Harriet Lerner says there are three levels of “I’m sorry”   The first level is easy, because it’s nobody’s fault.  It just takes paying attention to another person.    “I’m sorry you have cancer.”  The second level of “I’m sorry” is a bit harder, because it is expressing regret over a previous choice or forgetfulness or poor planning that disappointed someone.   “I’m sorry that I missed your game, son.”   The toughest apologies are the ones given when the other person is still blaming you, still very upset, wounded deeply.   It is tough to keep the apology sound when the other begins to come back at you.   It is so easy to get defensive.

Can we make apologies that count?  

There are several ways to ruin an apology(with credit to Lerner):

1.     The hurt party wants to know the apology is heartfelt.   One of the most common bad apologies ends up accusing the person.  “I’m sorry for yelling at you about the dishwasher, but you never lift a finger to help at dinner.   Do you think I am here to be your slave?”   Not an effective apology.   Yes, the other conversation about the lazy one pitching in needs to be had, but not as part of the apology.   Watch out whenever your apology moves to but.

2.     I’m sorry you feel that way is another way to ruin an apology.   A true apology keeps the focus on your actions, not the other person’s response.   “I’m sorry you overeacted to my unkind comments at the party.” That’s not an apology.   Instead say, “I’m sorry I was unkind in my comments.   I will sincerely try never to embarrass you at a party again.”

3.     Another word that can ruin an apology is “if”   I’m sorry IF I hurt your feelings.   I’m sorry IF the comment I said was offensive.   The blame shifts to the person for being overly sensitive when you use “if” and focus on the hurt person’s reaction

4.     Apologies that are seen as automatic tickets to forgiveness, that are intended to reassure the offender, are also ruinous.   Doing something you know is offensive, and then quickly apologizing, without really meaning it is not helpful.   You cannot demand forgiveness by quickly apologizing.   The hurt party must be given time to sit with her or his anger and pain.  

5.     A good apology is not about you.   Mary, a thirty-four-year-old social worker, told Lerner this story:  I can’t talk to my mother about anything she might take as criticism.   The same thing always happens.  Her apologies are so full of remorse and self-loathing that I end up needing to reassure her that she was a good mother and that she did the best she could.  Later I feel terrible.   So it is not helpful to say you are sorry and then to act so miserable like the wounded person rubbed your face in a plate of wet dog food.    Being too sorry or too quick to call yourself a loser is a kind of defensiveness.

Now let’s think about fake apologies.   They seem real and right to the one apologizing, but they don’t feel right to the one who was hurt.   When I read this part of Lerner’s book, I was horrified.   The fake apology sounded just like something I would say.  

Twenty-six year old Gabby went home for the week-end with her mom, Kathy, who had divorced from her Dad when Gabby was nine years old.   Out of the blue, Gabby says, “We have to talk.”   And she unleashed a string of criticisms.   She said Kathy had neglected her during the divorce, neglecting her, the young daughter.  She blamed her mother for her problems with men and relationships.   She also blamed her mother for her father’s subsequent drinking problems.   Kathy managed to hold it together and avoided attacking Gabby in response.    She said, “I’m sorry that you had such a hard time with the divorce.   I never meant to hurt you.   I did the best I could.   So whatever I did wrong, I’m sorry.”   Not bad you would think, but let’s decode this apology from Gabby’s perspective.

I’m sorry that you had such a hard time with the divorce shifts the blame to Gabby for her reaction to it.   I never meant to hurt you.   (I am a good person and did not do anything wrong.)   I did the best I could.   (What can anyone say to that!)  Whatever I did wrong, I’m sorry.   (If I did something wrong, I’m clueless as to what that is, then I apologize.)

So, under the circumstances, Kathy handled herself fairly well, but there’s still a significant break in the relationship which cannot be bridged, even though she sent a simple “I care and I love you” card after a week had passed.  There’s emotional distance, a huge wedge of mutual misunderstanding and hurt.   Gabby feels unsatisfied and unheard.   Kathy feels attacked, thinks she’s apologized, and is waiting now for Gabby’s apology which is not likely to come. 

We’ll come back to this mother-daughter story, but first let’s talk about chronic non-apologizers.   The greatest risk factor for being a non-apologizer, studies show, is that one is born male, and the greatest risk-factor for being a manipulative over-apologizer is being born female.   I do believe culture is changing, but we still have many prominent examples around us of people who seem to think it is a sign of weakness, not strength and security, to make an apology, to admit wrong.  

To offer a serious apology, not a ruinous or flimsy one, you need the inner strength to allow yourself to feel vulnerable.   You need to be able to think about how the other person feels, not just you yourself.  You need to be in touch with both your competence and your limitations.   Nothing destroys self-worth more than shame – the feeling of being essentially inadequate.   The husband refuses to apologize, because he knows she will use this to further shame him, just as his mother did.  

Guilt is different from shame.   Guilt is what we feel when we behave in a way that violates our own sense of values and beliefs.   Guilt is tied to behaviors.   That’s why parents and all of us should work to say, “I am very disappointed in what you did.” Instead of saying “I am disappointed in you.”  Shame goes beyond specific behaviors to core person.   A person racked by shame is constantly living with the threat that if someone really sees them, they will see worthlessness.  

Shame can cause a person to fold up and hide in a corner, sometimes with a bottle or it can turn into contempt and superiority that seeks to demean others.   For a person to face his or her harmful actions and to become genuinely accountable, he or she must have a safe place, foundation of self-worth on which to stand.

That’s where our Christian faith is a true platform of grace.   That’s where knowing that God loves you and that there is nothing can separate you from that love gives ultimate security.   And we can learn the fine art of apologizing by confessing our sins weekly to God, in the full embrace of God’s love.   Good confessions of sin show us where we have marred the good character of Christ in us.   Good confessions do not shame us into thinking we are worthless, but that we are of great value, treasured and precious in God’s sight.   Therefore, we can live as the beloved children of God.   Even if our mother and father have taught us to be ashamed of ourselves, God can show us we are beautifully, wonderfully made, woven together by the same one who made the whole creation.   As the Heidelberg Catechism states, we are so valuable no a hair can drop from our heads without God knowing.   We are precious in God’s sight.   God longs for us to live according to our real identity in Christ, not according to the defensive facades behind which we hide.   So I will end with the loving, open, and respectful letter that Kathy wrote Gabby, her daughter after much time had passed and a growing wedge was dividing them.   (adapted from Lerner’s book)

Dear Gabby,

I’m sitting here on the red couch wondering how you’re doing.   I’ve continued to think and pray about your last visit.   I’m sorry things got so intense between us.   I assume from your silence that you need more space at this time.  I appreciate the courage it took for you to share your feelings so directly with me.   I want to have the kind of relationship in which we can talk openly, something I never had with my mother.  (She goes on to describe the pain of past family history)

I realize now how much I hope you and I can have a better mother-daughter relationship than the mothers and daughters of our past….I think of people in our family who no longer speak to each other.   I can’t imagine anything more painful than happening in our relationship.   So when you are ready, let’s try again, and I’ll do my best to listen well.    Love, Mom