Last night, I had the privilege of preaching at St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church. I was truly honored to be invited to preach there. I came to some varied realizations during worship.
As we went through the Stations of the Cross Liturgy, standing, genuflecting, standing, kneeling, standing, changing direction of standing, and starting the process over again, I came to this realization: Roman Catholics must have great thigh muscles! That, and they have a deeper appreciation for the role of suffering in daily life...all of the genuflecting and kneeling honestly got me thinking about this being the very very least I could in response to Jesus death on the cross.
The second realization came I stood to read Scripture and then preach: I don't know how to appropriately read Gospel lessons in a Catholic church. I know in that setting it involves crossing myself with the congregation, and that other things are involved. That is all I know. So when I turned to the gospel and this suddenly dawned on me, I turned to the deacon and congregation and said "I know there is an appropriate way to read the gospel in the Roman Catholic tradition with which I am unfamiliar. I'm sorry." The deacon waved his hand as a way of saying "don't worry about it" and I led us in the Gospel as I always do: asking people to honor Christ by standing for the reading and closing with "this is the Word of the Lord" to which all reply "Thanks be to God."
That night, I preached using insights and reflections from Barbara Brown Taylor's book Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation. I really like this book. I have picked it up more than once. It talks of sin as being language of hope, for in confession we claim both our own responsibility for the sin and confess our hopefulness that between us and the Spirit there is forgiveness and the possibility for real change. This is at the heart of being transformed by God.
She also talks about the process being confession of sin, pardon/forgiveness, penance, and restoration to community. After the confession and pardon, we do penance, which is our ancient way of "making things right." Brown Taylor argues that penance was an abused concept at the time of the Reformation, but that it was thrown out as a baby with the bathwater when Protestants abandoned the idea. (I enjoyed laughing with folks about a United Methodist pastor preaching in a Catholic church about penance.) So penance is doing things like going back and apologizing for hurtful words, or going back to weed a garden you stole vegetables from, or going out into ministry among the poor if the sin is avoiding God's most precious ones (the poor). Penance is about concrete action to make things right again, not guilt. It as after this has been done that there is the possibility of restoration to community.
She also writes that guilt is the price we are willing to pay in order avoid any actual changes. I think she is so right. She makes the claim that there is a belief within many of us who think "if I just feel guilty enough about doing it, I can keep doing it and keep being forgiven for it." But without penance, a change of behavior, God cannot restore and reconcile us to God and to others. We are cut off from our source of life and remain trapped in our sin.
Finally, my last insight from worship came when, after worship, one man said to me "you don't hear many people apologize these days. Hardly ever hear a person say I'm sorry." It took me several moments to realize he must have been referring to my comment preceding the gospel lesson, apologizing for my lack of familiarity with their tradition. What this reminded me of was something I learned in the first church in which I was appointed. I followed a pastor who did not make any mistakes. The effect on that community of faith when I would say "I'm sorry" was amazing. It was my first year as a pastor on my own. I made LOTS of mistakes. But saying "I'm sorry, please forgive me" followed by earnest attempts to make things right knit us together in amazing ways.
(Maybe this only works in communities of faith, but I have fantasies about what it would like if instead of saying things like "mistake were made," our political leaders would take this learning about the power of actually apologizing to heart....I honestly think it could be transformative. But then again, I believe some pretty incredible stuff, like the resurrection for example...)