Sermon of the Week
Elements of Worship:
Path to Reconciliation–Confession, Assurance, and the Peace
Keywords: confession, sin, forgiveness, reconciliation, peace.
A couple of months ago, I was in a Starbucks
minding my own business.
There were a couple of guys at a table
on the other side of the store.
One of them looked like he might break out into tears.
They had been talking
at times quietly
at other times, quite loud
with some phrases like “I can’t believe you did that”
and “I was trying to” something or other.
After a few minutes, the one guy said
“Look, I know I’ll never be able to make it up to you.
I know I was wrong. I am so very sorry, man.
I was wrong.”
And the other guy looked at him for a second,
and he just stood up and went around to the other side of the table
and they hugged it out, apparently.
A few minutes later they left the store, and I didn’t get to see them again.
It was a bit remarkable,
this public moment of confession and repentance and what looked like forgiveness.
We read about things like this in the bible:
look back at the story of the prodigal son,
or Jacob preparing to meet up again with Esau
and you see a familiar pattern:
recognition that some relationship has been broken
that the breaker understands that, feels contrition for it
wants to make it better, and steels himself for the encounter:
I will tell the truth, and accept the consequences…
and then, after some beautiful dramatic pause,
there’s the moment where it all unfolds:
I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m so very sorry.
Have you ever worked to mend a broken relationship?
Either on the side of expressing regret for something you’ve done,
or maybe receiving that sort of apology from someone else.
How did that go?
A while ago, I had a guy that I knew way back in high school
reach out to me on social media
wanting to connect after years and years.
I was shocked. I wanted nothing to do with him, to be honest.
Did he remember how he broke my confidence
as happens, sometimes in high school
by sharing stories about me behind my back
laughing at me at my vulnerable moments
metaphorically kicking me when I was down?
So I asked him:
I’m confused. Why are you sending me friend requests
when you were pretty much a jerk to me twenty years ago.
And he wrote back:
I am sorry for being a jerk twenty years ago…
And that was enough, actually.
For me, at least, for that particular hurt and that particular relationship
to hear him say “I’m sorry for that….”
It turns out that he himself didn’t much like what he had been in high school.
Maybe the expanse of time helped put it all into better perspective for both of us.
Every Sunday, after we gather together
with a call to worship and an opening hymn,
the next thing we do is we center ourselves with a prayer of confession
and an assurance of forgiveness.
It has always been interesting to me
how this movement of confession and assurance of forgiveness
found its way out of favor with a good portion of the Christian worshipping community
back in the 1990s, when the seeker-sensitive movement began to wonder
how to make worship more attractive, less threatening.
Back then, I was a teenager
trying to figure out what worship was all about,
and I remember that we would prepare ourselves for this prayer
with a call to confession.
Our liturgist would quote from the bible, from First John, and say something like:
“If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves,
and the truth is not in us
But if we confess our sins,
God, who is faithful and just
will forgive us our sins
and cleanse us from all unrighteousness….”
And then we’d go pray the prayer of confession for the morning.
I guess some people find all of that admitting that we might deign to sin annoying,
too much airing of our dirty laundry to admit in polite society,
maybe too powerful a reminder of all those things we do wrong
that we’re trying to forget:
having to go through the list of all the things I know I did wrong
since the last time we did this is just no fun, Jesus,
do I have to remind myself of all that?
I get the impulse to just want to skip over the whole thing, I do.
Some churches do skip it, actually…
the whole so-called contemporary worship phenomenon
that started right about then, in the 90s,
featured two things:
a rock band playing often upbeat Christian hymns
and an order of worship that conveniently left out a confession of sin.
Over time, I’ve come to appreciate some of the guitar and drum centered music
of some of those services
but I’ve never been able to find worship fully worship
without the confession of sin and the assurance of forgiveness.
If I am being fair
some of that music occasionally has a confessional tone to it.
I’m sometimes too judgmental of that sort of worship. I confess.
But I’m mainly trying to note
how tempting it is to just move right past this part of our worship life,
or our personal life,
and turn to the next thing, thank you very much
nothing much to see here
move along, every body.
And we might ask ourselves why that is,
and if it reveals something about ourselves in the first place?
I’ll pause right here for a little joke.
I know it’s cliché for the pastor to include a joke in the sermon
and maybe a sermon about confession and forgiveness isn’t quite a laughing matter…
but many of us try to soften any tension about the topic
with a joke. Sets the mood, so to speak.
So, here’s the best one I found this week:
A man in Amsterdam feels the need to confess, so he goes to his priest.
“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. During World War II, I hid a refugee in my attic”
“Well,” answered the priest, “that’s not a sin.”
“But I made him agree to pay me 20 guilders for every week he stayed.”
“I admit that wasn’t good, but you did it for a good cause.”
“Oh, ok. Thank you, Father. That eases my mind.
But I have one more question.”
“What is that, my Son?”
“Do I have to tell him the war is over?”
We might like to joke about sin, but not talk about it very much.
I get it.
It’s a very judge-y word. Sin.
It carries with it powerful connotations,
and, when wielded uncritically, without care, by those who traffic in talking about it
hearing people talk about sin can be exhausting, even quite damaging.
It is one of the most powerful accusations we can make,
from a theological point of view.
In its best formulations, at its most useful,
the idea of ‘sin’ has helped us understand were we err
how we mistreat one another
how we mistreat ourselves, our bodies, our spirits, our potentialities.
At worst, to call something a sin, or to call someone sinful, promoting sin,
even my favorite (which I say sarcastically), so called “living in sin”,
these, at our worst, have condoned some serious abuses as a church.
Even a quick look back over our relatively recent history
reveals moments where women, considering serving the church
as adult church school teachers or ruling elders or, gasp, even preachers,
brought accusations of sinfulness.
It wasn’t that long ago, fifty-two years ago,
where the supreme court ruled in Loving v. Virginia that laws prohibiting
mixed-race intimate relationships were unconstitutional…
those were considered sinful by some.
Just four years ago, this past week
the Supremes thankfully did something similar for same sex marriage
in Obergefell v. Hodges.
That case continues to elicit cries of sinfulness,
even as many who so cry continue to support leaders
whose personal lives are replete with atrocious behavior.
Today, many of us, myself included,
don’t find any authentic biblical foundation
for calling same sex or interracial relationships sinful in themselves.
But it is clear that calling something, or worse, someONE, sinful
can be a quite painful thing.
A hurtful, damaging,
dare one say, a sinful-in-itself sort of thing.
A life and death thing, tragically, for some who feel that judgment,
if you look at suicide statistics for LGBTQIA youth in our country.
God help us for our complicity in that hurtfulness.
These things are no joke, we know. We know.
And, clearly, we get sin wrong sometimes.
But does that mean maybe we just shouldn’t talk about sin?
It is not uncommon, these days,
to have people who see that I’m a pastor
ask me about the kind of Christianity I practice,
often having had bad experiences in a sort of judgmental, evangelical community.
It’s just been too much for them.
Sometimes they ask me if we’re going to talk about judgment
They’ve had enough of communities that are teaching them to judge their neighbor.
They’ve had enough of preachers telling them that they are sinful
that they must repent of that sin
in order for God to love them
in order to be eligible to receive God’s grace
in order for salvation to be possible for them.
Tell me, Chad, is that your church, too?
I have to be honest with them:
I don’t even recognize where that comes from.
I mean, I’ve heard those sermons too.
I’ve read those books.
Seen the effects of that judgement,
particularly among those who are really good people trying hard to live good lives.
But when I read the bible,
when I see what God has done in the life of Jesus,
when I study the best of Reformed theology,
(that’s our Presbyterian branch of the Christian family tree),
when I read our confessions and put the question to reflection in prayer,
I can only affirm that God’s grace is freely given,
it isn’t earned by good behavior, or anything we might do or not do.
God’s grace in Jesus is the only thing we need to be made right with God.
We don’t earn it.
We don’t merit it.
We don’t buy it.
I believe that God looks at us,
all of us, you and me and our neighbor
and says that we are joyfully, wonderfully made
from our first day to our last
and that anything we do called sin doesn’t change how God looks at us.
Did you hear that, in the reading from second Corinthians today
when Paul talks about God’s ministry of reconciliation with the world?
Paul is working with some heady topics here:
God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
What the heck does that mean, Paul?
In Christ, God as reconciling the world to Godself,
not counting their trespasses against them,
and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us….
Please, Paul, speak in plain English, my man.
This is Paul, trying to explain something he believes
about what Jesus is all about:
Salvation is a recognition that we are, at our core, going to be all right with God.
We don’t earn it.
We don’t merit it.
We don’t buy it.
God does it, because God loves us
so much that Jesus came and taught and died and lives
so that we might get it.
When you see Jesus working for justice,
standing up for the hurting,
feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty,
and living water to those with a deep thirst:
that is God at work in our world
seeking to free us from guilt and suffering.
It is not a denial of the reality of sin, though, is it?
It’s an argument that our sin, whatever that is, doesn’t ultimately define us
that forgiveness is possible
and healing and reconciliation are available to us
if we can just get things right in the first place.
Or, to put it another way,
sin matters, even if, too often, we get wrong what things are sinful, and what are not.
And too often we’d rather not think about those things we KNOW we do wrong–
the harm we’ve caused our neighbor
the injustices we’ve overlooked
the jealousies we’ve harbored
the blazé way we’ve treated the real evils of our age.
There are reasons why we’d rather not think about our sins. Fair enough.
All of this is a good reason why, every Sunday,
we nevertheless take a moment to practice admitting all these things
aloud, to one another
and maybe to admit them even to ourselves.
Just what is sin, anyway?
Is it something that brings shame?
A violation of a natural or theological law?
Something than angers God?
In its simplest form, the word for sin in the bible translates to “missing the mark.”
It is a term borrowed from archery,
when the archer fires at a target, and misses the bullseye.
Sin, according to scripture, is what happens
when we fail to live the life God intends for us
when we do harm to ourselves, our neighbors, our families, our communities
when we don’t build societies of shalom, of peace and justice.
We look to Jesus for a full understanding of what God’s intentions are,
and in Jesus, we see him nudging us to be concerned about this
to try to form good, loving, honest relationships with those around us
to care about people in need
do serve others as God serves us.
Jesus taught us that the heart of the law
is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength
and to love our neighbor as ourselves,
which is a pretty good yardstick for evaluating things sinful.
Sin is personal. It is also structural. And it is part of our reality, as finite creatures.
The prayer of confession we used today
is one of our oldest prayers of confession.
It is a great way for us to look at sin, actual sin,
sin that misses the mark.
God, we confess that we have sinned against you
by what we have done, and what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart.
We have not loved our neighbor as ourself.
This is true, for all of us.
We all fail to love God, or ourselves, or our neighbor perfectly.
Every effort at describing God’s law
is based on this requirement to love:
don’t steal, don’t covet your neighbor’s stuff or their spouse,
don’t lie, use honest measures, treat people fairly,
honor your elders…all of this is about loving our neighbor
All those commandments about
honoring the sabbath and not taking the name of God in vein
and keeping from loving money or fame or success more than we love God
all those are about loving God fully, truly, healthfully.
Sin is about the ways we fail to do that.
Big or small, sin is always about a failure to love,
harm done to someone,
and missing the mark about what God wants for us and for this world.
We need to talk about that
because we know we aren’t perfect
and we know we mess up from time to time.
Sometimes in little ways
and man o man sometimes in big ways.
Confession is always about healing that part of our lives.
It’s not about forcing someone else to comply with what we think ought to be.
Instead, confession is always about taking the first step to making amends.
Truth telling. Keeping it real, rather than failing to take responsibility
for the things we do to harm others,
things that put our relationships with God or with others in peril,
that jeopardize our love of ourselves.
And every time we do that, offer confession,
we affirm that God hears us,
and relieves us of the burden, setting us free from guilt.
That rhythm, confession and assurance, confession and assurance
is a constant reminder that God knows, and God sees us trying
and God is trying to help us make better choices,
free from the guilt of our awareness of the ways we mess it all up.
Doesn’t it feel better to be able to honestly talk about those things?
Doesn’t it help to admit, among people you trust and who you know love you,
that you are not perfect, but that you’re trying to hit the bullseye better every day?
Doesn’t it help to receive God’s forgiveness,
even if we aren’t sure the people we harm will be able to forgive us?
I think so.
That’s one reason I am so grateful that we practice this every week, in worship.
Because I need it.
I need the routine of truth telling about my failings and an awareness
that it’s going to be ok, with God’s help.
One of the real benefits of confessing every week
that we all fail, that we all regret some of the things we do,
is that it gets us focused on truth telling.
It helps us with introspection
and gives us the courage to bravely carry
an awareness that we are imperfect.
We need something like that in our lives,
so that we can work on being better,
You can’t reconcile with someone who thinks they’ve done nothing wrong.
And if we have a ministry of reconciliation,
if part of our job, as Christians, as people of faith
is to work on nurturing relationships,
then we have to be able to acknowledge when our own actions
are the cause of hurt or pain or suffering.
Reconciliation isn’t possible without truth,
because truth is required for justice,
and justice is required for peace
and peace is a prerequisite for reconciliation.
So we gather to worship every Sunday
and, as part of our worship,
we offer silent prayers of our own contrition to God
and then, together, say a collective prayer of confession and reflection.
It is a way for us to get into the practice of saying I’m sorry
and to hearing someone that loves us say “I know, I understand, and I forgive you”
so that, just maybe, we’ll be better prepared to do that with people we encounter.
May we reflect on the importance of confession and reflection and renewal
so that we’re ready to practice it ourselves
and pick up that work of reconciliation
in this divided world of ours,
and may we know that this is God’s work
so that we may take comfort in it
and trust that God’s got our back
and that God will enable us to pursue the peace
that comes from honest confession and true forgiveness.
May it be so.