Sunday, March 26, 2006

We’ve been undertaking a strange practice during worship this Lenten Season—the ancient act of public confession. We are all sinners. But I doubt many of us really want to stand in front of the congregation and confess publicly the many ways we have missed the mark. And so this awkward practice of shared confession emerged in the early church. It is awkward because it is actually quite difficult to create a prayer of confession that all members present can recite honestly. The confession has to be generic to the point of blandness. After all, you shouldn’t be pressured to confess you have lied and cheated if you haven’t, in fact, lied and cheated. So we make do with generalities. We beat around the bush. We say in unison that we are sorry for what we have done, and for what we have left undone. It is up to us to silently fill in the details of our brokenness.

But the practice is awkward in a much deeper way than mere logistics. Even as Christian people, we don’t particularly care to air out our dirty laundry. We live in a culture that requires us to say that we are fine even when we are not. Public admission of brokenness doesn’t jive with the American spirit. We’re supposed to be strong, independent, and capable.

The practice of public confession threatens the lie that we are all fine. It gathers us all under one umbrella of repentance as we collectively confess the truth of our condition, which is often so very far from fine. We might think that since we’re not thieves and murderers we’re in the clear. But as human beings living in a ruptured Creation, we are given to sinfulness. In large and small ways alike, we turn from the ways of Jesus. We fail to love the way that God loves.

There has been a movement away from this talk of sin in the Christian Church. After all, we’re supposed to be developing healthy self-esteem, and having your preacher point out your sinfulness doesn’t exactly nourish the ego. But given that we follow a Christ who suffered death to bring new life, perhaps we should reconsider the inverted wisdom of the Christian faith.

The need for confession is confirmed by a strange little book that is currently a bestseller. It’s called PostSecret. Frank Warren, the organizer of the project, simply provides an address and the invitation to submit anonymous postcards revealing secrets. The postcards rush in by the hundreds each week as people pounce on this opportunity to confess their secrets.

Some of them are joyful, some of them are silly, but many more are devastating. People plead guilty to the pain that they have caused others. People bear witness to the pain that others have inflicted on them. The response to the book has been astounding. One reader who struggles with a compulsion to injure herself commented, “I have tons of secrets and i cant get them out. i have turned the pages of this book day in and day out, looking for a way to escape the fears inside me. when i reached the page about cutting, i bawled my eyes out. i knew i wasnt the only one who did it, but i wanted to know someone who knew how it felt. to know that someone had the courage to confess it to the world. i still cant escape my fears and hurt inside. i'm trying but your book has helped me tremendously, for i almost killed myself.”

I see a culture that is paralyzed by its need to present a good face to the world. I see too many people who are convinced that their mistakes make them unworthy of love, unworthy of life. I see men and women who are so blinded by their shame that they wrongly believe that they are alone in their brokenness. I see a world that is, to paraphrase the apostle Paul, deadened by trespasses and sins.

We talk about sinfulness in the Christian church because we recognize that when we are caged by shame, we are separated by God. We refuse to believe that God loves us, because we believe we are unlovable. As Jesus explains to Nicodemus in the gospel of John, “all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.” When a man is flooded with feelings of guilt and remorse, he no longer simply believes that his actions were evil. He believes that he himself is evil, and he is so ashamed that he hides himself from the light that would expose him for who he truly is. He is terrified that a wrathful God will condemn him for his sinfulness, and so he simply burrows himself into a deeper darkness, ever further from the truth-bearing light of God.

The heart of our gospel lesson today is that this isn’t how it is supposed to be. Sinners need not go on the lam to avoid the punishment of an angry God. As it so happens, the One who knows how many hairs you have on your head isn’t actually out to condemn you for your failure to be a perfect replica of Christ.

Jesus explains his mission to Nicodemus not as a strict judge, denouncing humanity for its brokenness. Rather, he is the Savior, the liberator of a humankind that is trapped in a dreary cycle of sin and shame. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

And this salvation from sin and shame we experience in Christ Jesus cannot be earned. No matter if you are a gossip or a felon, you are saved from that deadening cycle of sin and shame by grace through faith. John 3:16 is wildly famous for a good reason: it reminds us how ferociously God loves the world. God didn’t send his Holy Spirit to rest on Jesus on account of our good behavior. The world that God so-loved that he gave his only Son isn’t a perfect world. It isn’t the Kingdom of God. It is our messy, broken, sinful world that God loved enough to intervene in a radical way to draw us back into his eternal embrace.

It takes a force beyond ourselves to unlock the cage of sin and shame. It takes the grace to entrust ourselves to our loving Creator, who seeks not to condemn us but to release us from that dark and lifeless prison. Confession is not a guilt trip. Confession of sin allows us to be cleansed and made whole by our gracious and merciful God.

Some of you know that I rejected the Christian faith for a few years. Like many of my peers, once I became of age, I intended to never darken the doors of a sanctuary again. Even when my heart began to give into the quiet calls of the Holy Spirit to return to Christian community, I avoided traditional worship. I was afraid that one superficial hymn or one theologically sour sermon would turn me off for good. So I spent a year worshipping in a silent Quaker meeting. When I was called to be a youth minister in an Episcopal Church, I knew that meant I had to come to terms with traditional Christian liturgy.

I went to worship that first Sunday bracing myself. I was particularly nervous about the prayer of confession. Some of my beef with the Christian Church was its reputation for inspiring guilt, and the act of public confession seemed like an unnecessary tool for humiliation. What surprised me was that joining my voice with the voices around me in a shared confession of sin felt great. I realized that my heart had been tightly clenched with guilt, and confessing my sin didn’t add to the guilt but released me from it. I experienced forgiveness. I experienced the grace and mercy of our compassionate and passionate God, who meets us not with condemnation but with love.

The Disciples of Christ pastor, Marianne Scott, tells a story of the power of confession—and forgiveness—in her Indianapolis congregation, Eastgate Christian Church. Their building is situated in a wooded area, adjacent to a park and residential areas, and its location makes it especially vulnerable to vandalism. Sixteen years ago, the building was in fact broken into.

Many people believe—or prefer to believe—that robbers would shy away from sacred objects. But as the culprit ransacked the offices and sanctuary, he snatched the Chalice from the communion table. Of all the hurt and anger that ensued from that fiasco, nothing stung the congregation more than the loss of that beloved symbol of their connection with the living God.

Fifteen years later—last spring—a man in his 30s showed up for ten o’ clock worship. Midway through the service, he stood up and asked to share something with the congregation. And then he stood before them to confess that he had broken into their building those many years ago. He explained that he was deeply sorry for his actions, and repeatedly apologized. As he confessed, he produced the long-lost Chalice and returned it to the table. It was tarnished, but more worthy than ever to be transformed into the cup of salvation. That day, Reverend Scott blessed and poured the consecrated juice into that beat-up old Chalice instead of the shiny, well-kept replacement. After the closing hymn, the members of the congregation greeted the Judas who had betrayed them with open arms. They embraced him, and shook his hand, and marveled at the grace of his repentance.

Not every story of confession engenders such a beautiful expression of forgiveness and healing. The light burns our eyes after spending an afternoon in a movie theater; imagine how much more the light scalds the hearts of those who have cowered in the dark, away from light, away from truth, away from God. But no matter the depth and gravity of the confession, God greets us with the open arms of reconciliation.

By no merit of our own we are made alive together with Christ, re-created in Christ to be a gift to God’s beloved world. We cannot earn God’s love, not by the strength of our good deeds, and not even by the vulnerable confession of our bad deeds. All we can do is accept the liberating grace of the one who loves us so much he cannot bear to let us remain dead in our shame. All we can do is trust that our God is a God of love, not condemnation. All we can do, sisters and brothers, is believe.


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