When Saying "I'm Sorry" Isn't Enough


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church

September 23, 2018

Texts: 1 Samuel 12:1-14; Psalm 51

         As a kid, J.D. Vance had heard those two words “I’m sorry” plenty of times. More often than not, his mother as she sank ever deeper into drug abuse, losing her job, and passing through numerous relationships, said those words. They came as well from his grandparents as the family moved from their Kentucky birthplace to Morristown, Ohio, and became what is usually called a dysfunctional family.

          From time to time in his book Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis, he explores the important question of how repentance differs from regret but only in the intrapersonal family situation. Now a graduate from Yale Law School, he has a successful and very upscale life, one totally different from the one he experienced as a child growing up.

        And although he asks the question of why society has overlooked an entire population of those in white rural and working class poverty, he has not looked much beyond the regret that a Nation ought to feel when confronted with our unwillingness to care for a generation of lost and aimless souls.

         There is a difference between true repentance and regret. It was a difference David the King found difficult to acknowledge and, unfortunately, it is also a difference that many of us have also found difficult.

         The ancient liturgy of the church designated Psalm 51 as one of the “Penitential Psalms" to be read during Lent, a time when we are supposed to reflect on our sins and failing. One verse of this Psalm was read this past week during the Jewish Days of Awe, the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as a prelude to prayer. “Do not fling me from your Presence and take not your holy spirit from me” is the plaintive plea of the Psalmist, lines ascribed to David.

        Well, as you all may remember, David certainly had enough sin that needed forgiveness. He sees this woman bathing and is overcome with lust, sends for her and lays with her, as the text puts it. However, she is the wife of Uriah; she tells David she is pregnant. First David hatches a scheme and brings Uriah back to his house figuring he will lay with his wife and clean them both of suspicion; how-ever, Uriah sleeps at his door because his own men are still in battle. Frustrated, David orders his commander to put Uriah in the front line of battle, a sure way to rid himself of the woman’s husband.

        After Uriah is out of the way, David brings Bathsheba to his house and she bears David a son. But, as you heard in the first reading, this thing that David did displeased the Lord. After Nathan rebukes David in front of the court, he realizes his sin and begs forgiveness – but saying I’m sorry here was not enough, certainly not enough for Uriah who was killed in battle as David intended. The Lord decides on a punishment for which “I’m sorry” is not enough.

        For comic relief in this tragedy you have to watch the 1951 film David and Bathsheba. Other than the minor historical inaccuracies like having David wear a blue Star of David that was not even designed until the 12th century CE, the story is presented as a great love story wherein Bathsheba is a temptress who draws David into her lair. The trailer is almost comical.

         Of course, it was not comical for David for he had more to lose than God’s anger over his taking the lamb. Nathan tells David that the child, the result of his forced adultery with Bathsheba, will die. Begging God for another chance, David pleads with God not to take the child. But the child dies anyway. We hear it in our daily parlance from the drug user begging for one more chance to the domestic abuser trying to explain his way out of an assault – or worse.

        There is a significant difference between regret and repentance. Often we may regret certain actions because things turned out the way we didn’t expect but we may not repent – that is, be truly sorry for our part in those actions. And, even when we truly repent, often we cannot restore things back to where they were before.

        We tend to think of regret and repentance as affecting our personal lives, such as in the failure of a relationship. But this not so fine line affects more than our personal relationships; it affects how we live in commun-ities as well, whether that community is the church, a town or a Nation.

        We may regret how a relationship worked out – or didn’t – as the case may be, and find ourselves saying “I’m sorry.” Politicians, especially during election seasons, often find themselves regretting what they said or didn’t say about a particular issue. The Congressional races in New Jersey this year are examples of regret without repentance.

Cities and towns not to mention archdioceses paying out vast sums of money to victims of bad policing or abuse are often payments of regret. But the question remains whether the institutions paying out these sums are also repentant; that is, will the practices change.

       In January the Asbury Park Press published a series of articles entitled “Protecting the Shield,” a revelation of how much of our tax dollars go to paying for bad policing. At least 68 officers made secret deals with their towns en-abling them to move onto other towns following serious disciplinary complaints over excessive force. Payouts to officers and to plaintiffs in lawsuits in such cases are often sealed so we do not know how much is paid to whom and the amounts are buried in municipal records as well. This is an example of regret, not repentance.

         Even in cases of repentance, often saying “I’m sorry” is not enough. We want to believe in restorative justice but sometimes there’s not much to restore. Like the Psalm at-tributed to David, we cry out, “Create in me a clean heart.” But in this action David offended more than God, For Uriah was killed.

        David cries to God: “Avert your face from my transgressions and blot out all my inequities.” Bargaining with God. David promises God that he will expand his re-pentance to teaching other transgressors what God re-quires of them. This Psalm reflects how we go through the process of repentance. We recognize our wrongdoing; we repent, but in crying for God’s mercy, we promise to do this or that to encourage God to show us mercy.

        Although we may not be able to restore a situation

to where it was prior to the offense, we can try to make amends to help us and those whom we have offended to move on. J.D Vance’s story shows how amends can be made but it also serves to tell us that we neglect the world around us at our peril. That world is reflected in the high death rate of middle-aged white men, drug use among so many who feel left out, and unreasonable fears of people whose news only comes from right-wing talk radio feeding into fear and hate.

       Saying “I’m sorry” is often a statement of regret which enables us to avoid making real changes in our own lives as well as serious systemic changes in our Nation’s life to address poverty and despair. We here in Monmouth County enjoy a household median income one and a half times the national average, well over $90,000 as opposed to about $59,000, Our average is higher, $112,000 while the average U.S, is lower, about $51,000. And, as you can imagine, there are real differences between the various towns in the county.

        We also have pockets of real poverty. The median means that half of the population has less household income, and when we look at the per capita income, the differences are more startling. Larger families have less; smaller families have more. We may regret that there are these pockets of poverty but what do we do about them?

         It’s election time, time to put the candidates’ feet to the fire. It’s time to ask them whether they repent of their prior inaction, bigotry, and hateful speech and will really move beyond a social “I’m sorry” to making real change. Healing the deep divisions in our society requires more than token speech,

       This past week New Jersey heard Bergen County sheriff Michael Saudino asking “forgiveness” for his remarks caught on tape in response to the Governor’s inaugural address in January: “Let the blacks come in, do whatever the f--- (he used the full four-letter word) they want, smoke their marijuana, do this, do that, and don’t worry about it. You know, we’ll tie the hands of cops and then saying that Attorney General Gubir Grewal was appointed because of 'the turban.'”  

        “These remarks are not indicative of who I am,” Saudino said in a prepared statement. Then he offered his “sincere apology to the people of Bergen County for the insensitive recorded remarks that were made public.” So, what do you think? Is this regret or repentance? His response indicates more like regret that they were made public. A footnote: he and four undersheriffs resigned Friday.

         The Psalm notes that God desires a sacrifice not of only bulls but of that clean heart, of true repentance even when the broken cannot be repaired. And often, no matter how truly repentant we are and how much we offer re-compense for the wrong committed, repair is impossible.

Repair of the broken relationship, whether individual or societal, requires reaching out on both sides. It requires true contrition and a willingness to accept such. In Long Night’s Journey Into Day, the documentary about Bishop Desmond Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a young soldier has come to beg forgiveness from the mother of a man he had killed during Apartheid, and the mother refuses to forgive.

       Tutu implores her admonishing her that Christ forgave all his enemies on the cross, “I am not Christ, I am a mother without a son.” And then she went on to compare herself to Mary asking whether she forgave.

        As we think about our future, the broader future of this society, we pray that the future will forgive us our failings because as a society reflected in many of the people we send to elected office, there are few if any attempts to truly repent from the sins of the past in order to build a more just and equitable society.

        Let us come to God in prayer: Create in us, O God, clean hearts and sustain in us willing spirits so we offer sacrifices that are acceptable in your sight. In the name of him who came to show us how to live, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.