February 17, 2015
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Mark 1:4)
Are there any two words more powerful than these? How many times have you longed to hear them be spoken by someone you felt has failed you? How many days and nights have been wasted in anger and bitterness; how many hearts needlessly hardened; how many broken relationships could have been repaired if only those two simple words had been spoken from a place of true repentance.
We could, in fact, say our Christian gospel begins with a call for sincere apology. The author of the Gospel according to Mark seems to believe so. That gospel account opens with: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” before leading us directly to John the Baptist proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
To repent means to turn around, to change the direction of your life. And as you have most likely experienced personally, this is not easy to do. But repentance is a process, one involving a series of steps we must take before we’re truly able to joyfully travel the path leading to glory. That first and essential step involves confessing to God and to others with these simple words, “I’m sorry.”
When John the Baptist told the people they needed to repent, they didn’t get their backs up and deny having anything to repent. We learn that they did quite the opposite. Upon hearing his call, “…people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” (Mark 1:5)
The whole community, it appears, repented of behaviors and actions, something that serves to remind us how repentance is not a solitary act. Repentance is a corporate act of righting things within a spiritual community so that community can restore its right relationship with God.
During Lent, we are called to self-examination, called to identify what holds us back from walking in the light of God. And this process calls us to say, “I’m sorry.”
For me personally and as your bishop, the process of repentance must begin with the Palermo family who suffered the unbearable loss of Thomas Palermo on December 27. I’m sorry for their loss and regret his death was by all accounts caused by the extreme impairment of my recently-installed bishop colleague Heather Cook.
I regret that my sister in faith, Heather apparently caused so much damage and suffering due to her disease of alcoholism, and sorry I was unable to recognize warning signs of her illness. I humbly repent not learning more about the “cunning, baffling and powerful” nature of alcoholism. I pledge to do everything I can to educate myself and churches of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland about the insidious nature of addiction.
I regret not knowing all the details of Heather’s September 2010 DUI. I humbly repent relying on the information we were given rather than insisting on getting more detailed information about her earlier arrest. I pledge to do everything I can within the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland to reexamine and revise a process that failed us at some crucial points.
Know that I received with gratitude the recent communication from the Episcopal Church’s President of the House of Deputies calling for a rigorous examination of processes for bishop searches and policies regarding alcohol and addictions, as well as our Presiding Bishop’s Lenten call for healing and wholeness.
As Lent begins, I call upon members of our diocese to join with the larger Church as we enter this season of repentance, and to do so with courage and conviction. Let us be willing to identify ways we fall short, individually and collectively.
Finally, for now, I commend to you two prayers that are guiding my journey this Lent. The first is the general confession found in the Book of Common Prayer (p. 360):
Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name.
The second is part of a longer prayer authored by American Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-Step recovery programs as The Serenity Prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
May the voices of the prophets lead you into repentance this season, and may you have a holy Lent.
The Rt. Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton
Bishop of Maryland