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Sunday, March 8, 2020
Scripture: 1 Timothy 1:12-17 & Luke 15:1-7
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
For the third Lent running we are turning towards spiritual practices to guide us through this season. I’ve been using Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline to chart the course. Two years ago we looked at the inward disciplines of meditation, prayer, fasting, and study. Last year we turned to the outward disciplines of simplicity, solitude, submission, and service. This year concludes with the corporate disciplines – practices we do together. So, in the coming weeks we’ll dwell on worship, guidance, and celebration. We begin today with the discipline of confession.
To understand confession, we have to begin where Lent ends – at the cross. Even if you’re in church today only vaguely familiar with Christianity, there’s a good chance you know that Jesus died on a cross and that his death makes it possible for God now to forgive all the things – big and small – that we have done wrong. It’s often a picture of an angry God who satisfies the need to punish people for their sin, but Jesus steps in between God’s wrath and us – like someone pushing us out of the way of a speeding train only to get hit by it himself – so that his death would give us life. While there is truth to that view, it so skews the full picture that we can miss out on what I believe the message of Scripture is about the cross. Richard Foster writes, “At the heart of God is the desire to give and to forgive….Love, not anger, brought Jesus to the cross. Golgotha [where Jesus was crucified] came as a result of God’s great desire to forgive, not his reluctance.” God’s power is perfected in weakness, and this is most clearly displayed on the cross of Christ. On the cross Jesus bore in his body all the darkness of the world and defeated it through sacrificial love. Death is the final power to be broken, and Jesus does this through the cross and resurrection. The significance of what Jesus accomplished on the cross and through the resurrection cannot be understated. It is the greatest thing to ever happen. It has changed the very fabric of time, space, and reality.
So, confession. What Jesus did on the cross must always be the backdrop of what we believe about confessing, about speaking the truth about how we act in ways that are destructive to us and to others. “Without the cross the Discipline of confession would be only psychologically therapeutic.” That is, it is healthy to admit the wrong we have done, but if it is disconnected from the cross, then it misses all the power of what Jesus accomplished through the cross. “[Confession] involves an objective change in our relationship with God and a subjective change in us. It is a means of healing and transforming the inner spirit.”
So, what is confession? It is both a grace and a discipline. It is grace because it is the means by which each of one us can experience the healing love and call of God. It is grace because forgiveness is a gift from God, like a present waiting for us under the Christmas tree. When we come to the point of opening that present, we begin to experience the forgiveness and love that God has always had for us. Since it is a gift, however, it is never something God will force us to accept. So, confession is a means of grace, but it is also a discipline. What do I mean by that? Well, confession is something we actually have to do. When we confess, we open our lives to the overwhelming light of God’s grace, a light that floods our own darkness, calls out the worst parts of ourselves, and shows us a new and better way to live.
Christians approach confession in many ways, but let me take a moment to draw attention to how Presbyterian Christians practice confession, since I know that many of us – myself included – are not lifelong Presbyterians. You’ll notice that we don’t have confessionals in our building. I don’t expect you to come to me to confess your sins so that I can offer your God’s forgiveness. Pastors are not priests – mediators between the people and God. Because of how we read and interpret the Bible, we believe that Jesus is the only mediator and that you can take your sin and pain and hurt directly to Jesus. Now, you certainly can come to Pastor Kristine or me or to trusted friends if you’re carrying a burden that has become too heavy to bear. Having another person to listen, to help, and to keep you accountable can be really useful, but the good news is that God knows everything you’re carrying in the first place and is eager to lighten your load. God’s just waiting for you to be ready to give it up. Individual confession is an important part of our tradition, and it is vital to each of our lives as God’s children. We certainly practice corporate confession as Presbyterians, but I’ll get back to that a little bit later.
A little over a week ago our church hosted the Pastors’ Prayer Gathering. You may not know this, but many pastors in our community are committed to praying with and for each other. There is a core group of pastors who show up most of the time, but there are also many who come for a while and then don’t come for months on end. Here’s what’s interesting about that to me. Often those pastors stop coming because they’re going through a rough patch personally or professionally. That is, at the time these pastors most need the support of others, they pull back from community. At a time when they could confess, “I’m hurting,” they disappear. At a time when they could confess, “I’m not sure why I’m doing this,” they go into seclusion. It’s really tragic, to be honest. Pastors do this to their own detriment, and so do all of us. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve known people in my ministry who pulled away from the church when they most needed it and only came back when things started getting back in line. Now, I completely understand why we do this, but I have to point out it’s the exact opposite of what we should be doing. The church is a hospital for sinners, not a club for the holy. When things are falling apart around us, the support, challenge, and welcome of community is essential for each of us.
Confession is a discipline that brings life and health to us. It is also a discipline that is both individual and communal. One of the standard elements of the way we worship includes a time of confession as well as an immediate reminder of God’s gracious forgiveness. Why do we do this? As part of the flow of worship it is an acknowledgement that we are sinners doing our best to worship a perfect God, and yet we know that not a day goes by where we live perfectly. God, of course, knows this about us, which is why we speak of God’s sure forgiveness each Sunday. This puts us in the place of hearing God’s Word together with fresh ears. It allows us to bring our prayers and petitions before God. It readies us to once again enter the world knowing God’s ever-present forgiveness.
Psalm 32 begins, “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered….While I kept silence, my body wasted away.” What an insightful observation this is. Keeping our pain and brokenness to ourselves slowly causes us to waste away. Think about how true that is. If a person has a drinking problem, the first step to health is admitting the problem. What are the things we do in secret that we would be ashamed to admit to others? If we have things like that in our lives, there’s a good chance they are things that are slowly eating away at us. All of the worst things function this way – anger, lust, greed, envy. Confession takes those things from inside of ourselves and brings them into the daylight. We do this before God, of course, but one of the healthiest things we can do is have a trusted person in our lives hold us accountable in taking steps towards health. It’s why those in recovery from addiction have sponsors, right?
That’s what Paul is doing in his letter to Timothy – he tells the truth about himself. “I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy,” he writes. He has a past. It’s part of his story, but it does not define his present. He goes on, “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost” (1 Tim 1:15). Paul brings himself into the blinding light of God’s forgiveness, confessing who he is and receiving who God says he is, someone in whom the grace of Jesus overflows now. I’ve wrestled with this passage for years. Is Paul saying that he alone is the foremost of sinners, or is he saying that each of us should bear that title of foremost of sinners? I’m still not sure, but I do think there is health to be had in not thinking somehow we’re better than others. Paul’s story is Timothy’s story is the church’s story and is our story. Like Paul, we live in the grace of God but we are also aware that that grace has saved us from our worst inclinations, which still try to fight their way back into our lives.
Just as individuals and groups need to confess, so it’s important for the church as a whole to do so. The Lord knows there are countless times when the church has fallen short of its calling in the world. This reminds me of the story Donald Miller tells in his book Blue Like Jazz. Miller had grown up a fundamentalist Christian in Texas but somehow enrolled in Reed College in Oregon, which is one of the most wildly progressive colleges in our country. The school has an annual Renaissance festival, which is really just a gigantic party. He recounts, “Security keeps the authorities away, and everybody gets pretty drunk and high, and some people get naked. The school brings in White Bird, a medical unity that specializes in treating bad drug trips. The students create special lounges with black lights and television screens to enhance their mushroom trips.” Sounds pretty wild, right?
Miller was one of a handful of Christians on campus, and he pitched the idea of setting up a confession booth on campus in the middle of this party. He was joking, but another friend of his took the idea and ran with it. They would set up the booth, but with a twist proposed by a friend named Tony. “We’re not actually going to accept confessions….We are going to confess to them. We are going to confess that, as followers of Jesus, we have not been very loving; we have been bitter, and for that we are sorry. We will apologize for the Crusades, we will apologize for televangelists, we will apologize for neglecting the poor and the lonely, we will ask them to forgive us, and we will tell them that in our selfishness, we have misrepresented Jesus on this campus. We will tell people who come into the booth that Jesus loves them.”
I’ve loved this story for years because it removes the way that we can be judgmental and shows people how great the mercy of God is. The church has lots to confess because it is made of millions of people who are prone to sin. Churches get selfish. They try to impose themselves on others. They have piled shame and guilt on people who need the warm embrace of God’s grace and forgiveness. While we individually may not feel we have done this or that wrong, as part of the church, we can be complicit in bringing harm. For that we should confess and by God’s power do better.
Finally, Lent begins in sorrow and ends in joy. The same is true for confession. It begins in sorrow and ends in joy. Often in Lent people give up something, a practice that we call fasting. For years I’ve thought about this practice. Usually we think, “What am I going to give up?” and often the answer is sugar or alcohol or fatty foods, as though this was a chance to get back on our New Year’s Resolution. The hope is that there’s a benefit at the end – perhaps a healthier body and spirit. But this past week I read an article by Scot McKnight in which he pointed out that we’re all missing the first step in this type of fasting. Really the first step is sorrow. It is owning the grief that comes from experiencing loss. It is the sorrow that comes from sincere repentance for the wrong we do. So, in fasting, we own that sorrow then abstain from food or drink as a reminder of that sorrow and then, perhaps, there is a resulting good for us. If we skip the sorrow, have we really confessed?
And yet the promise of God is to take us from sorrow to joy. After all, God delights in forgiving. Think back to the parable I read from Luke. The shepherd loses one sheep. Surely that caused him sorrow. He grieves his loss. Yet he is honest about the loss – the sheep is gone and he must do something about it. So he goes through the work to find the sheep and actually does find it. His sorrow turns into joy. It turns into such joy that he calls his friends and neighbors and invites them over for a party. Confession takes us from sorrow to joy.
In the end confession is about honesty. We are far from perfect. We hurt others and ourselves. We lash out in anger. We hoard our blessings. We do many things that cause ourselves harm and that diminish the humanity of others. Yet God’s grace is greater than our sins. In confession we learn to tell the truth. In confession we experience the gravity and sorrow of our sin. In confession we remember the costliness of God’s grace. But also in confession we encounter the joy of forgiveness. In confession we also experience God’s great delight in forgiving us and welcoming us to the table as part of God’s renewed humanity.
 Foster, Richard. Celebration of Discipline, 143.
 Foster. 144.