Monday, March 19, 2018

The Spiritual Discipline of Confession

Ephesians 6: 10-20
Luke 22:31-34, 54-62

                For our last sermon on our Lenten series focusing on spiritual disciplines I decided to take on something a bit controversial in our more progressive churches currently, and that is the spiritual discipline of confession.  For some of you it may come as a surprise to hear that this is controversial at all.  After all, we have a prayer of confession each week in our worship service.  For whom, you might ask, is this controversial?  I thought I’d start today by sharing with you some of the problems with this discipline and then moving forward into why I still see this as an important spiritual discipline, though one that I believe probably needs to be “tweaked” a bit in how we practice it.
                As I’ve shared with you before, for many of us, especially women, though this is an increasing issue for men as well, our biggest “sin” – or to put it in language that may be more meaningful to you – the biggest thing that separates us from God, is our guilt and shame.  I want you to think about this for a minute.  How many of you have ever been awoken in the middle of the night tormented by memories of things you’ve done that you wish you’d done differently?  How many of you are haunted by memories of shameful events or times?  A friend of mine said to me once, “I know that God loves me.  I know this.  But I have come to the place in my being where that love is not enough.  I am acutely aware that I have disappointed God; that I have not and cannot live up to God’s hopes and expectations for me.  God is not proud of me.  God is disappointed in me.  Knowing that God loves me, if anything, adds to the pain when I realize I don’t deserve it.  God loves me in spite of myself, not because of myself.  How can I possibly continue to live with God’s disappointment?”  Honestly, have any of you felt this way?  Have any of you been so filled with a sense of unworthiness, of guilt, of failure that you feel God’s disappointment to be overwhelming?  How would you then respond to my friends’ comments? 
Hildegarde de Bingen, who was, among other things, a Christian mystic, wrote, “A divine voice spoke to me, saying, ‘How fragile you are, Human, made of dust and grime, but I am the living Light.  I make the darkness day, and I have chosen you to see great wonders, though I have humbled you on earth.  You are often depressed and timid, and insecure.  Because you are conscientious, you feel guilty… But the deep mysteries of God have saturated you, too, and so has humility.’ When I heard the Voice, I began trying to live a godly life.  The path became difficult as I questioned myself again, saying, ‘This is pointless.’ I wanted to soar. I dreamed impossible dreams and started projects I could never finish.  I became dejected, so I sat and did nothing.  My self-doubt is my greatest disobedience.  It makes me miserable, and I struggle with this cross daily. “
Andy Kort wrote about his struggle with his five year old son who, in preparing for Santa Claus and thinking about the “bad” list and the “Good list” tearfully and desperately asked his dad if he was bad.  He wrote, “During lent we read from Psalm 51, ‘Indeed I have been wicked from my birth, a sinner from my mother’s womb,’ and I wonder how many, like (my son) are wondering to themselves, ‘Am I bad?’  Our book of Common Worship has the congregation pray in funerals, ‘We confess that we are unworthy of your gracious care.’ (We talk) about our inability to avoid and give into temptation, about our human weakness, our total depravity, our habitual practice of placing so many things before God.  How many are thinking, ‘Am I bad?’  To each child of God who, like (my son), may tearfully melt to the floor in guilt, shame and sadness, I want to say, ‘No Beloved.  Of course not!  You are so very, very good.’  I think God would agree.”
Our faith tells us that God created us good, but many churches emphasize our sinfulness to the point where it shuts us down, keeps us away from God (because who wants to be focusing on what is wrong with them all the time), stunts us by our fears of doing wrong, of carrying more guilt and shame, by our sense of being unworthy and our inability therefore to even try.  This is a big problem with our emphasis on confession.
Another big problem is that there are other metanarratives in scriptures.  There is the central and important story of God saving God’s people from slavery.  There is the key story of the exiles being returned home.  These relate to us as well – what are we enslaved to that only God can help us with?  In what way are we exiles searching for home?  But these metanarratives do not get a lot of air time, while we focus on the story of grace and forgiveness weekly.  Shouldn’t these other stories be given some of the attention and time we give to focusing on our mistakes?
But all that being said, there are also good reasons for confession, and I want to discuss those with you this morning, too.  First of all, in our church, the practice of confession is meant to be an exercise in letting go of guilt feelings.  It is meant to be a time when we can lift up the pain and struggles that haunt us, offer them to God, and then release them so that they no longer oppress us or keep us from being our best selves.  The prayer, and along with it the assurance of pardon, is meant to be a time of grace and healing. 
But there is even more to it than that.  We are called to follow in Christ’s footsteps, to be a light to the world, to overcome oppression and hate, to fight evil with love.  Today’s passage from Ephesians tells us: “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil…”  We have discussed evil before, and how many spiritual leaders tell us that true evil comes from that place of being unable to face parts of ourselves, putting those parts out there onto others and working then to destroy them.  We see, for example, that the people who are most violent towards LGBTQ+ folk usually are people who are unsure about their own sexual identity but cannot face that within themselves and so put it out there, declare it wrong and work to destroy it by destroying others who are clear about their sexual identity.  Those who fight “bullying” by killing others have likewise turned something within themselves and put it out there and in trying to destroy it have done true evil.  I think of the book, To Kill a Mockingbird, in which a family could not face the girl’s wanting of the African American man and could not face the father’s deeply and repeated abusive behavior and so they projected it out onto the innocent and destroyed the African American man.
  We are called into a battle against evil.  I know that’s an uncomfortable word for many of us, but destroying others, physically, emotionally and spiritually IS evil.  That’s a word we have to be willing to look at, face and deal with if we want to be true to our call to follow God and to be light in the world.  And the first place we have to start that battle is within ourselves.  What are the shadow parts of ourselves, the uncomfortable parts of ourselves that we are afraid to look at, to face, to own, to name?  Granted, not everyone avoids self-reflection.  But, just as with guidance, in which we are called to recognize that we do not always hear the voice of the Spirit clearly by ourselves, we do not always see the things we are avoiding within ourselves without the help of others.      
The prayer of confession then, along with the assurance of pardon, is an attempt, an effort, to help us to look at things we might not otherwise see.  To name and face parts of ourselves that we might not otherwise look at with any seriousness.  It is also an invitation to reconcile with God as well as within ourselves and with other people around those things that we do not want to face and name.
                In some other Christian traditions, including the Orthodox Church, confession and absolution together are considered a sacrament because they convey the grace of God.  Together, they are a sacred way of connecting with God, because together they have the potential to change and transform people.   Twelve step programs also recognize the transformative power of confession, acceptance of grace and reconciliation with others.  Steps 4 through 7 of the twelve steps focus on exactly this.
             Step 4 - Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves
             Step 5 - Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs
             Step 6 - Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character
             Step 7 - Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings
             Step 8 - Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all
             Step 9 - Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others
             Step 10 - Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it
 Over half of the 12 steps are focused on figuring out our mistakes, confessing them not just to God but to another human being, accepting God’s grace and ability to help us repent and then doing the work of repenting  – making amends for our mistakes, correcting them and turning in another direction.  There is a deep understanding through 12-step programs of the incredible healing and release that comes in facing our own “demons”, our own mistakes, our own hurtful behavior: facing it, naming it, repenting of it, fixing it.
As you know, in the Presbyterian Church we don’t do private confessions to another person.  Instead we confess corporately in our weekly prayers.  And there is good reason for this.  We recognize in this way that we fall short not only as individuals but as a body as well.  Additionally, we don’t have confessors because we recognize that pastors are just the same as everyone else.  Pastors are not “priests” in the Presbyterian Church who are believed to be more holy than the rest of the people.  We are members of the body as are all other members of the body, we are people like everyone else.  We have a call to teach in the church, as you have a call to do your work in the church and in the world.  Our call is not more important, more valued or more sacred.  Therefore, we do not get to claim status as your confessors.
However, there is a downside to this way of doing confession.  In confessing corporately, we often fail to internalize or really take inner stock of how it applies to us.  We don’t take ownership of what is really ours because we aren’t connecting, for one reason or another, with the corporate prayer, and we aren’t naming specific things.  In reading a corporate prayer of confession I wonder how much it really calls us into honest self-reflection.  Additionally, we then also fail to accept the forgiveness that allows genuine change, repentance and reconciliation with one another.  If we have not been truly and deeply honest about our shadow sides, we also will not be able to truly and deeply accept the grace and transforming forgiveness that is offered.  I know for myself, admitting to another human being what I have done wrong makes it real at a whole other level.  It also holds me more accountable for “fixing” the problem.  If someone else knows what I’m working to change within myself, then that other person can help me to stay accountable for apologizing, making amends, “repenting” and fixing what I’ve done.  While pastors are not priests, finding another person with whom you can partner – a “sponsor” as they are called in twelve step programs does help us to keep accountable.  It is one of the ways we can fight the “powers of darkness”  - by naming them, naming their influence on us weekly, and rejecting them through repentance and reconciliation.  Again, this is more than just saying we are wrong, it is accepting the grace of forgiveness at the deepest level, allowing that grace to free us to begin again, to open us to be transformed.
In most Presbyterian Churches our prayer of confession and assurance of forgiveness is followed by the passing of the peace.  Our Presbyterian Book of Order says this about the passing of the peace is:  “It is important in worship that we take the opportunity to seek and to offer forgiveness for hurts, misunderstandings and broken relationships among ourselves and that we respond to God’s act of reconciliation by exchanging signs and words of reconciliation and of Christ’s peace through the passing of the peace.”  (2.6001b)  So what does this mean?  The passing of the peace is a mending–of-hurts time, an act of forgiveness time, a reconciliation time.  In other words, the people we might approach during this time should be those with whom we feel the need for reconciliation, or for offering or seeking forgiveness.  You can pass the peace on to others as well, but it is as a sign that God forgives and reconciles everyone, and is not a “greeting time”.    It is supposed to follow the prayer of confession and acceptance of God’s grace because it is a sign that we have taken to heart God’s grace and now want to pass that on to each other.  And for this it is a wonderful gift to one another that we can touch and recognize the grace that is physically given to us.
One of my previous parishioners once asked me what they were supposed to do, then, if there was no one with whom they needed to reconcile?  They asked how they could pass the peace to their loved ones when they had never hurt them and had no grievances against them?
Well, frankly, I would challenge those statements.  As 1 John 1:8-10 tells us, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.  If we claim we have not sinned, we make God out to be a liar and God’s word is not in us.” There is always something we could have done better in relationship to those around us.  There is always something we could do better in the future.  The peace of Christ acknowledges our humanness and says, “and I love you and trust that you love me, even with all our flaws.”
As I have said each week, the point of each of the spiritual disciplines is to deepen our relationship with God.  The things we do that separate us from God, the acts that are less than loving, the areas of ourselves we don’t see or are uncomfortable facing, the guilt and shame that keep us from acting or working to be our best selves: we are called to name them, to own them, to release them, to change them, and to work for the reconciliation not only of ourselves with God, but of the whole world.  Confession is a piece of that, whether that be the private confessions you share with God or whether it be the corporate confessions we share in this place.  May the sacredness of release and acceptance of grace help transform each of us as well as the world.  Amen.