Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Psalm 32 and 1 John 1:5-2:2:
Years ago, the chaplain of the football team at Notre Dame
was a beloved old Irish priest. At
confession one day, a football player told the priest that he had acted in an
unsportsmanlike manner at a recent football game.
"I lost my temper and said some bad words to one of my
"Ahhh, that's a terrible thing for a Notre Dame lad to
be doin'," the priest said. He took
a piece of chalk and drew a mark across the sleeve of his coat.
"That's not all, Father. I got mad and punched one of my opponents."
"Saints preserve us!" the priest said, making
another chalk mark.
As I got out of a pileup, I kicked two of the other team's players in
the in a sensitive area."
"Oh, goodness me!" the priest wailed, making two
more chalk marks on his sleeve. "Who in the world were we playin' when you
did these awful things?"
"Ah, well," said the priest, wiping his sleeve,
"boys will be boys."
Today we continue in our series for the season of Lent looking
at some of the spiritual disciplines. Last week we discussed the practice of
fasting and today we look at confession.
I know some of you are probably thinking, man we’re chanting psalms and
lighting candles and now we’re talking about confession, we’re quickly becoming
roman Catholics. But some of that is the
point, and what I always try and remind people is that for the first 1500 years
all of us were Catholics, and while I agree with much of what happened during
the Protestant reformation, as well as obviously agreeing with Protestant theology,
on some things we threw the baby out with the bathwater, and so we are
Protestants are rediscovering some of those earlier church practices and
claiming them as our own, although sometimes for very different reasons.
The idea of confession as a practice is not new to Protestantism;
it’s been there right from the beginning because it is central to what we do in
seeking forgiveness. Martin Luther said,
“When I admonish you to confession I am admonishing you to be a Christian.” But what we are going to talk about is not
just confessing to God, but also sometimes confessing to others, and this
return to an older practice came about to a large degree from Richard Foster,
who is a Quaker, in his seminal work, Celebration
of Discipline, which even 35 years later is probably still the best book
published on the subject. Foster divides
the disciplines up into three categories, inward, outward and corporate
disciplines. He includes confession
under the corporate disciplines, although he says that they are also inward and
outward as well, that’s it not an either/or but a both/and.
During the season of Lent, it becomes a corporate practice
because we pray together a prayer of confession, since season is a time of
repentance. Another time in which we
usually pray a prayer of confession is before communion since we are to come to
the table with a clear heart and conscious.
But for many people, that may be the only confessions they may make, and
for some even that is too much. I once
had someone come to me and tell me that he didn’t like praying the prayer of
confession because he didn’t think he had committed any of the things which he
was supposed to be confessing. Because
the prayer is so broad, what he was basically saying to me was that he didn’t
sin, that he had done nothing in his life for which he needed to confess. John, the author of the passage we heard this
morning, might have something to say to him about that. The first is that he is not only lying,
because we all sin, but he is also making God a liar. And the psalmist would then say that by
making this statement he is hurting himself the most. But perhaps some of this is because we don’t
really understand what sin is and so we don’t know what we need to confess.
A number of years ago, a survey was done on the idea of sin,
and what researches found was that that “although 98% [of people] said they
believe in personal sin, only 57% accepted the traditional notion that all
people are sinful and fully one-third allowed that they ‘make many mistakes but
are not sinful themselves.’” I think I
understand where some of this is coming from and that is because the idea of
sin has been used and abused, and almost always against the other. Very rarely do you here people who harp on
the issue of sin talk about their own personal sin, usually it’s directed at what others are
doing and how bad and evil and wicked they are, and people get sort of tired of
hearing that. The only time it’s usually
leveled at ourselves it’s because we’ve been caught with our hand in the cookie
jar, and then we are more likely to say, as the title of James Moore’s book
says, “Yes, Lord, I have sinned; but I have several excellent excuses,” if we
even call it sin itself.
In scripture the word sin fundamentally means “to miss the
mark.” We were aiming at something, but
we missed it. I think a better way to
understand it is as brokenness. That we
live in broken relationships with each other and we live in broken relationship
with God. It’s not because that’s what
we want to do, that’s not the goal we are aiming for, but that’s where we end
up. So when we look at it that way and
sort of remove the word “sin” from it, then we understand that we all fall short,
even though we have excellent reasons. I
mean I don’t want to covet, but Porsche keeps manufacturing the 911 and so it’s
so hard not to. Martin Luther actually
used the 10 commandments as his check list when he was doing a personal
inventory of his faults, and that’s not a bad idea, but the other misconception
about sin is that it therefore makes us bad people, and we don’t want others to
think of us that way, and we certainly don’t want to think of ourselves that
way, but that’s where confession and God come in.
The purpose of confession is not to make us feel bad about
ourselves, to drag ourselves through the mud, to punish or flagellate ourselves
over what we have done. Confession is
about seeking forgiveness. God does not
want to see us in misery, and God doesn’t want to punish us, regardless of what
you might hear from others. The cross
does not represent punishment, it represents love. God loves us and God wants to forgive
us. In fact as Methodists we believe
that God’s grace has already been given to us, but we must take the step to
seek that forgiveness. That’s how
forgiveness acts as a discipline, because it’s something that we must
consciously choose to do it, and not just every once in a while, but on a
regular basis, knowing that God is listening and that God is ready to
In the psalm we heard today, the Psalmist sits in torment,
but it’s not his or her sins that torment, it’s the silence. The silence is a rejection of God’s grace,
and they need God’s forgiveness, and what we see is that once that happens, the
psalmist moves from torment to joy and happiness. In fact, after the pronouncement of
forgiveness is made, the word for sin is not used again in the psalm. It is not really the confession that changes things;
it’s the forgiveness that changes things.
Confession and repentance are not about punishment, but about
transformation, of moving from sorrow into joy and happiness, and joy and
happiness come not because of human accomplishments but because of God’s grace
in the world. Indeed, it is said that
St. Augustine had Psalm 32 written above his bed so that it would be the first
thing he would see every morning so that he would be reminded of God’s
graciousness and of the power of forgiveness.
Now one of the powerful things that happened in the
Protestant Reformation was the movement to recognize all of us as being part of
the priesthood of all believers, and that meant that we didn’t need an
intermediary in order to make a confession, that we could confess directly to
God, and there is great power in that.
And yet, as I said, in throwing out confession, we lost the baby with the
bathwater, because there is also something powerful about having to make a
confession to another person, and there are some things where that becomes
necessary, because as much as we might try and confess them to God, we never
really have that sense of assurance of forgiveness, and thus making a
confession to another can be freeing. In
the Book of Common Prayer, after the call to self-examination and repentance,
it even says “If there be any of you who by this means cannot quiet his own
conscience herein but require further comfort or counsel, let him [or her] come
to me or some other minister of God’s word and open his [or her] grief…”
That is to free ourselves of our burdens, sometimes we need
to confess that sin, that brokenness to someone else, and three things to keep
in mind here. One is their ability to
keep your information in confidence.
Second is their spiritual maturity in dealing with this subject, that
you know that they know what confession and forgiveness entail, and third that
they are prepared to make the proclamation at the end of the confession,
because that is what this is all about, it’s about seeking forgiveness and
being forgiven because we have been given the advocate who will not only
forgive us our sins but cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Righteousness is not in being sinless,
righteousness is in being forgiven. Joy
and happiness are not found in repentance, they are found in forgiveness. Our redemption is not found in self-loathing,
it is found in God’s love and God’s love is not found in confession, it is found
in forgiveness. Confession is about
transformation, it is about turning around, about seeking healing for our
brokenness and forgiveness for our transgressions.
The truth is, we all sin, we all live in brokenness, and if
we don’t believe that they we are deceiving ourselves. But the answer has been provided, the answer
has been given, and that is confession so that we might receive forgiveness,
and the almighty grace of God. John
Wesley said that repentance and faith are tied together, and that repentance
leads to faith. He said that is repentance
we say that “without him I can do nothing,” but in faith we say “I can do all
things through Christ Jesus who strengthens me.” I pray that it will be so my brothers and