Conversation on Forgiveness: Michael O’Connell

March 19, 2017
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen
Michael O’Connell

Luke 17:1-4

Hart-Andersen: This morning we continue our exploration of forgiveness in the season of Lent through the lens of other traditions. We’re delighted to welcome back to Westminster Mr. Michael O’Connell. Michael has been a friend of this congregation for decades. He was here as Father O‘Connell during Lent 2016, when he delivered what turned out to be his final sermon as a Roman Catholic priest. He gave up his ordination last year and married a lovely woman who is here with us today…welcome Sue!  Michael, is it safe to assume this is your first sermon as Roman Catholic layman?

O’Connell:  If I may correct you a little bit, Tim. Language means everything, words mean everything. I am not preaching. I’m not allowed to preach…I’m having a dialogue talk with you before a lot of wonderful people.

Hart-Andersen: The passage we just heard from the gospel of Luke culminates a series of teachings by Jesus on forgiveness. Instead of focusing on the one who forgives, as we have the last couple weeks, this time Jesus turns his attention to the one who needs to be forgiven, the one who needs to repent. For two chapters in Luke’s gospel he teaches about repentance, starting at the 15th chapter and culminating in the 17th chapter we heard read today.

All of us know how hard forgiving someone is; it may be even more difficult to ask to be forgiven. Apologizing, repenting, saying we’re sorry. Think of where we need to do that in our own lives, and then think of all the reasons why we haven’t offered the apology yet.

“I tell you,” Jesus says as he begins his two-chapter-long discourse on repentance, “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:7)

Then Jesus launches into his teaching on repentance. Jesus tells several stories to illustrate his point, the best-known of which is the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Most of us know how it goes…A man has two sons. The older son is all about obedience and keeping the rules. He goes to work for his father. In contrast, the younger son asks for his inheritance, leaves home, goes to a far land, and squanders everything. He comes to his senses, realizes how wrong he was, and decides to go back and apologize to his father. The son gets home, repents, and owns the error of his ways. He throws himself on the mercy of his father.

The Parable of the Repentant Son. Or the Parable of the Angry Older Brother.

The older brother, who had remained home to help the family, is furious when his father forgives the prodigal. He thinks his brother should be condemned, but instead the father accepts the younger son’s sincere repentance and gives him a grand welcome.

Jesus tells this story leading to the text we read this morning. “If another disciple sins,” Jesus says,

“And if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.” (Luke 17:3-4)

Michael, you and I have been in ministry together here in downtown Minneapolis for many years. I know the Parable of the Prodigal Son is a favorite of yours, in a way defined your ministry at the Basilica and at Ascension.

O’Connell: Tim I want to start by thanking you. I always want to take that opportunity…Melanie, your great choirs, your wonderful people. Thank you for your hospitality. I don’t think I have to remind you that your Pastor is highly esteemed in the Metro area for good reason. It is a privilege calling you “friend.”

Yes, the Prodigal Son, the repentant son, if you will, is a favorite story of mine from scripture. A friend of mine, a father, a husband, once said to me, after hearing this Gospel, “Do you know what the younger son actually said to his father when he returned?” Of course, I had to go along with that. “No, I don’t.” He asked him for more money. This sound familiar?

This is a favorite story of mine. It illustrates almost more than any other story in scripture who God is. The story of the Prodigal or repentant son is so powerful because it compares the two brothers’ reactions to their loving, generous father. The younger, repentant, son comes to his father’s merciful love through the lens of his own weakness and sinful behavior. He sees his father waiting joyfully for him with outstretched arms.

The older brother’s righteousness and judgmental-ness, blinds him to the merciful, compassionate love of his father. The older brother, because of his pride, has forgotten his own sinful weakness and cannot appreciate or understand what his father meant when he said, “For this, my son, was dead, and he is alive again. He was lost, and now he is found.” The older brother would rather that his father greet his wasteful son, not with arms outstretched, but rather with the folded arms of judgement.

At the great Easter Vigil service on Holy Saturday at the end of Lent the cantor sings o felix culpa, “oh happy fault” of Adam, meaning like Adam who sinned, we too discover God’s love for us by humbly repenting and confessing our sins. And thus, through our weakness, we experience God’s merciful, compassionate love over and over and over again.

Hart-Andersen: Jesus is clear in his teaching about forgiveness: If someone repents, we must forgive. If someone acknowledges their sinful behavior and its impact on us and says they are sorry, we must forgive them.

Forgiving someone does not excuse what they have done or mean we have to forget what happened. Nor does it absolve someone of the responsibility to make things right. This may be why it’s so difficult to say, “I repent” or “I’m sorry.” We intuitively know those words are only the beginning. Reconciliation takes time. It starts with repentance and forgiveness.

Catholics understand that the process of repentance and forgiveness; reconciliation is one of the seven sacraments. We Protestants have only two sacraments, baptism and communion, both of which have to do with forgiveness in their own ways. But Catholics see things differently. I can remember growing up in my Chicago neighborhoodand how my little Catholic friends used to say they had to “go to confession.” I was always a bit jealous; I never got to go to confession – and I had a few things I should have confessed! I realized as I grew up that we do that every Sunday. We confess in our worship, together, and then individually.

But I always wondered what happened there when they went into the confessional booth, because we Presbyterians didn’t do that. Michael, has Catholic understanding of “going to confession” changed in recent years?

O’Connell: When you said your “little Catholic friends…” I resemble that remark.

When I was young growing up in the Catholic Church in the 1940s and 50’s and 60’s, Catholics went to confession every other week in the evening on Saturdays. There were often long lines waiting to see one or two or several priests. The story that is always told among Catholics of my age, or even of my children’s age if I had them, the story that is always told about “those days” is: a man would walk into a Catholic church on Saturday afternoon not knowing anything about the particular parish to make the confession. He would make the mistake of going to the wrong confessional which was usually the old pastor. The rest of us would be lined up for the young priest. There wasn’t anybody in the old priest’s line. But this guy that came in said, “I’m going there, there is no line.” And then there was quiet. And then the next word you would hear out loud was, “You did what?!”

A famous, if not infamous comedian, George Carlin, put out a record back in the 60’s called, “Class Clown.” He and his Irish friends grew up on the upper west side of New York, by Columbia. When they went to confession they went over to Spanish Harlem to Father Rivera because he didn’t understand English.

The Catholic Church is slowly revising the sacrament of reconciliation. It is being renewed by putting more emphasis on God’s mercy and forgiveness and less on reminding people of their sinful behavior. We grew up, and, I don’t think Catholics were alone in this, we grew up in a sin-soaked culture, always being reminded of how broken we were.

The saying “confession is good for the soul” relates to a basic human need: honestly telling another trusted adult in confidence that we are weak, we sin, and we are sorry for what we have done wrong and failed to do right is fundamental to human nature. The fifth of the twelve steps of AA outlines this basic human need. “We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being, the exact nature of our wrongs.”

Pope Francis has dedicated the four years of his papacy to teaching about divine mercy. God’s unrelenting message for us, that, despite our all-too predictable ways of showing disrespect for ourselves, our neighbor, and our creation, if we repent and humbly admit our sins, God’s overwhelming, unconditional mercy overshadows that sin. It heals, it binds back together, it renews, it forgives us.

The Prodigal Son, Jesus wanted us to see ourselves in the lost son, but also in the proud, judgmental son. He wanted us to see that we are both these people. But, and here is the real point. Jesus’ purpose in telling the story of the Prodigal Son is not about the two sons, it is about the father. It is the lesson of who God really is, what God is mostly like. When you hear this story, Jesus says, keep your eyes on who the father is. God is all merciful, all reconciling, always saying, “Come home into my loving, embracing, eternally-spread arms. I will not, not forgive.” The real purpose of Jesus’ parable is to call us to be like the father. We are to be God-like. To err is human, to forgive is divine.

By the way, start the kind, compassionate, act of forgiveness by forgiving yourself. The first act of the humble, repentant sinner, is to forgive the person he or she is looking at in the mirror in the morning.

Hart-Andersen: Michael, I’m glad you raised Pope Francis and his emphasis on mercy. Catholics may not realize how important Pope Francis has been to us, to Protestants. I daresay that if you went back over my sermons in the last four years, you would find me quoting Francis more often than John Calvin. Maybe I shouldn’t say that, but Francis has introduced to the 21st century Christian the heart of the matter: mercy. I remember one of the first things Pope Francis did during his papacy during Holy Week, on Maundy Thursday, when we went to a juvenile detention center and knelt and humbled himself and unburdened himself and washed the feet of the young people there, some of whom were not even Christian.

O’Connell: And he kissed their feet.

Hart-Andersen: He kissed their feet. Is there no better image of what Jesus was trying to teach us?

In a sermon a few weeks ago I described our denomination’s formal apology for our treatment of Native American children in the 19th and 20th centuries in mission schools. We have been working to come to terms with the damage we did in those schools, both in terms of our having stripped away the identity of the students and of the abuse that took place in some of the schools. Last summer at our national assembly we voted to issue an apology. We communicated that apology a few weeks ago, but the church’s repentance is only the start of the process of reconciliation.

Michael, the Roman Catholic Church has been dealing with its own painful history of clergy abuse. What perspective can you offer us on the church’s attempt at following Jesus’ teaching on repentance?

O’Connell:  Before I do that, Tim, let me just say about Pope Francis. If he never said anything else about mercy, his famous words “Who am I to judge?” would have been enough. That phrase coming out of the mouth of a Catholic Pope. He had been asked the question by the press, “Holy Father, what do you really believe about gay and lesbian people?” And he paused. And he said, “Who am I to judge?” That says it all.

Back to your question, Tim, needless to say the Catholic Church around the world has faced, and continues to face, the monumental issue of clergy sex abuse. Sex abuse is always an abuse of power of the weak, by the strong. When it comes to ministry, the priest, the minister, the rabbi, the imam, has the greatest power, you could argue…God power. The power to do the greatest good and the greatest evil.

The Catholic Church has to face its own unique problems of the abuses of power and what is called clericalism. The church must honestly – and this would be repentance…real repentance – the church must honestly, humbly, and courageously deal with the patriarchy and privilege that it gives its priests. It is a unique special power that sets them apart, high on a pedestal. The bishops have borne special responsibility because they have perpetuated this scandal with their knowledge of priests who are perpetrators and have failed to remove them from ministry.

Pope Francis and some bishops have made progress and committed to helping victims and their families and making financial reparations in the billions of dollars. Our Archdiocese has made progress with new leadership in exercising new policies of not tolerating abuse and publicly repenting and helping victims and families. Our whole church has much left to do, especially in addressing its core issues with the ordained ministry: patriarchy, privilege, and power.

Finally, at the Last Supper, Jesus got up, put a towel around his waist, knelt down and washed the feet of his disciples, and he said, “I’ve come to serve and not be served.” All Christian ministry, the priesthood of the baptized, and ministerial priesthood, must get down on its knees by washing, if not kissing, the feet of God’s beloved people.

Hart-Andersen: Michael, you and I met on Friday to prepare for today, and Friday, of course, was St. Patrick’s Day. You frequently travel to the Holy Land, to Ireland, and you described to me some shocking statistics about the church abuse scandal in that land and the toll that it has taken. How do you get beyond the scandal and begin to restore trust in the clergy?

O’Connell: Well I did tell you about that and it is lamentable, if not tragic. I would say 25 years ago, 70% of Irish Catholics would go to church every Sunday. Today it is something like 15%. That is a very short period of time…in Ireland of all places.

What happened over there, most of that has to do with the clergy sex abuse scandal. One of the reasons over in Ireland as compared to the United States, is in the second Vatican Council, the council, pointed out, the people of God, the baptized, are the primary definition of what and who the church is. In Ireland, they never taught or preached that. The priest was way up high on a pedestal and his authority was enormous.

In this country, it started to dissipate, certainly with sex abuse scandal. But certainly, we preached and we taught that the community of the baptized is the church, and the ministers are meant to serve it, not be served by it. I think that is part of the reason it happened over there. Will it change? I certainly hope so. I think in some ways the whole definition of who God is and who Jesus is and what ministry is meant to be – to basically proclaim the good news – is changing. I hope and pray for that.

Hart-Andersen: –Pope Francis is doing much to restore the faith of the people, both Protestant and Catholic, in the Christian Church, and we are grateful.

Jesus is adamant about this – and we see it over and over again in his ministry – that to be a Christian, we’re going to have to learn to forgive. There’s no way around that. And right next to that, we’re going to have to learn to ask to be forgiven. To own our brokenness. To go to those places in our lives where we must apologize, or say we’re sorry. The theological term is repentance.

“There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents,” Jesus says, “Than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”

Every one of us has a place in our lives where that strikes home. Let us in this season of Lent learn to practice the way of repentance and forgiveness. Jesus expects it of us.

Thanks be to God.


Pastoral Prayer ~10:30 am Worship

David Shinn

Loving and gracious God, thank you for your promise of renewal each and every morning. Your never-ending mercy and grace move us from sin to repentance and to forgiveness as we take the first step to the work of reconciliation. Great indeed is your faithfulness that prompts us to follow you.

We come this day seeking for your living water to flow into our lives. May your deep compassion lead us to pray for fractured and broken world, to pray for those who without voice and power, and to pray for all people in need.

Eternal God, your kingdom has broken into our troubled world through the life, death, and resurrection of your Son. Help us to hear your Word and obey it, that we may become instruments of your saving love. Lord, we pray for ever increasing threat of famine in South Sudan, Yamen, Somalia, and Ethiopia. May the leaders urge their people to put down their weapon and turn them into plow shears. May they collectively seek to overcome the draught and begin to plant seed for food and life. We also pray for the hundreds of thousands of people in Peru affected by the flood. Cover them with your love and may the international effort to help be swift and effective.

Help us, O God, to be obedient to your call to love all your children, to do justice and show mercy, and to live in peace with your whole creation. We pray for our elected leaders to seek for the common good and greater good in our land. May the needs of the poor, marginalized, and forgotten be the focus of our legislative policies and actions.

Healing and comforting God. Guide all through the desert of life, quench all who thirst with the living waters, satisfy all who hunger with the bread of heaven. We lift up our community to you. May you walk alongside those whose hearts are broken by grief. May you sit with those who are heavy laden by illness, surgery, and challenging treatments. May you be with those who are facing difficult changes in health, employment, and life situations. May you give peace who are troubled and lost. Give us strength to serve you faithfully by loving all who are in need in our community, in our city and in the world.

God of love, as in Jesus Christ you gave yourself to us, so may we give ourselves to you, living according to your holy will. Pour your Holy Spirit upon us, so we may keep our feet firmly in the way where Christ leads us; make our mouths speak the truth that Christ teaches us; fill our bodies with the life that is Christ within us, and empower our hands and our feet for your service. In Christ’s holy name we now pray the prayer that you have taught all of us to pray. Our Father…

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