Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Yes, Lord, I Have Sinned, But I Have Several Excellent Excuses

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 opponents."

"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.

"There's more.  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?"

"Southern Methodist."

"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 forgive.

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 sisters.  Amen.

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