Friday, October 23, 2015

"Humility, not Humiliation" - sermon 10/18/2015 on confession and forgiveness

“Humility, Not Humiliation”
Sermon, Year B, Proper 24, October 18, 2015
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
©2015 Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: Hebrews 5:1-10

I mentioned before that I am going to talk a bit about confession. The spiritual discipline of confession. And I know that there are some, and I feel the same way as well sometimes, that there can be a fear reaction or a sense of not liking confession because sometimes it can be done in a scolding, not-helpful way. In a commanding and demeaning way that leads more to humiliation than it leads to spiritual growth. The confession can feel that you are being scolded, or that you ought to feel bad. But I don’t think that is the intent. I don’t think the Bible says that, nor remotely similar to what Jesus said about how we should and can approach God. It’s not about feeling bad, feeling miserable, or that we’re terrible people that God doesn’t like. God loves us! Always loves us!

I see confession more as an act of humility. Not of humiliation, but of humility. It is an act of self-critique. It’s our way to look at our lives and our faith journey. To look at it seriously and find those places that we’ve missed the mark, where we’ve made some mistakes. The word “sin” in Hebrew means, “to miss the mark.” To make, in a sense, an archery mistake. So we can ask, “How was I not faithful? What did I do this week that was not as faithful as it could have been, or as it should have been?”

Also, because being a Christian, being a follower of Jesus, is a communal act, then we as a community can also confess. To ask, “What did we as a community do that was not faithful?” Whether as a church, or a city, or a nation.

That’s all that confession is: it’s a looking within, to find the places where we missed the mark, and then admitting to them so that we can change our behavior and correct it. By admitting them, then we become less susceptible to falling prey to them again. I think another benefit of confession, in admitting that we are not perfect, from knowing and being aware of the type of mistakes and errors that one makes, one can also find compassion for accepting and understanding and making allowance for the mistakes in others. If I make a mistake, and if I understand this is the type of mistake I make, how can I be judgmental toward others for making the same or similar mistake? How can I be judgmental toward them for any mistake they make? Through understanding my own limitations I become compassionate toward the limitations of others. Because we all make mistakes and mess things up. We all hurt people and do things we wish we hadn’t. We’re all that way. So if we can see that within us, we’ll have more compassion toward others. Less judgmentalism, more communion with one another. More community.

Confession is never about trying to make God less angry. Unfortunately, it can come across that way. That we are trying to appease God’s wrath by trashing ourselves. I don’t think that’s what confession is. It’s not about making GOd less angry, but trusting God’s love for us. Recognition that we don’t have to pretend to be something other than who we are. That we don’t have to earn God’s love, don’t have to live in fear. Confession is the way of saying that I’ve made mistakes, but I know that God loves me and that I am right with God and everything is okay.

As the writer of Hebrews says, "5:1 Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness; and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people. And one does not presume to take this honor, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was. So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, "

In this passage the writer is talking about the human priests that would make the sacrifices on behalf of others. But I think the writer is also, by claiming Jesus as the high priest, and Jesus being Emmanuel - God with us - the sense that God understands what it is to be human. That’s why God loves us. Our God understands.

There is also in the act of forgiveness and confession the act of atonement or penitence. The beauty of Jesus, though, is that the only act of penitence or atonement needed is simply to confess - which means simply that one needs to aware enough to see that one did something against God’s will. And quite honestly, at least as far as I can tell from reading scripture and just thinking about it, even that isn’t necessary to have God’s forgiveness.

I see confession as an act of humility, not humiliation. That’s why we have confession at the beginning of worship. It allows us to worship by getting the confession out of the way so that we can move on, and not spend the rest of worship worrying about how horrible we are. Confession leads straight into the Assurance of Pardon so we know that we are loved and forgiven, and that we can let go of the guilt and anxiety and come into the rest of worship knowing that we’re okay with God. That we are not here to prove our worthiness, but to celebrate the love that God has for us. The grace that has already been bestowed on us. We get rid of that anxiety and fear, and come into this holy time in this holy space knowing that we’re loved because God knows that we need it, and because God can’t do anything but to love us.

That is what confession ought to be. A self-corrective looking within oneself, or a community looking at itself, admitting to mistakes, asking for God’s help to do better in the future, and to trust in God’s love and move forward.

I had an experience this past spring when Jens Nielsen and I went down to Madison to hear a Lutheran pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber, who you may have heard of. She’s been gaining fame the past couple years, and has a couple books out. She pastors a church in Denver called “House for All Sinners and Saints.” Nadia had a long life of addictions and other issues and came out of that, and then felt the call to ministry, especially to serve as pastor to people who are in the life she had or have come out of it. She has a lot of tattoos, wears a vest over her clergy shirt, not what you’d think of when you think “Lutheran pastor”. She serves people who have been pushed away from other churches, or felt that they are not allowed to be at a church, people who have been made to feel bad about who they are. That’s who she has been reaching out to, so a lot of addicts, homeless people, people on the margin. At the end of her presentation that day she opened up for questions, and the topic of confession came out. After she talked about it a bit, a woman in the audience asked of Nadia a question that was something like, “I’ve been going to church years” (and maybe she was in her thirties) “and every Sunday we do the prayer of confession and have the assurance of forgiveness, and I’ve talked sometimes to the minister, but I’ve done some things in my past that I don’t think God can forgive.” She was having a very serious existential crisis here, anxious about feeling that God forgives, sure, but not the stuff she did. Nadia gave her a great answer which was that there is no simple answer in a large group setting like this because it needs a lot more time to talk about it, but I can to you that I don’t know who you are, or what you’ve done, but I believe in a God who forgives and I say with confidence “As a called and ordained minister of the church of Christ, and by his authority, I therefore declare to you the entire forgiveness of all of your sins.” [That might not be exact, but that is one of the Lutheran formulas, and it’s very close] And there was a hush over all the church. I hope that the woman was able to believe it.

I hope you trust those words as well, the words that I say in our Assurance of Pardon. I say those words because I truly believe that they are true, that we are forgiven. I think we’re forgiven even before we make the confession. Even before we’re aware that we’ve done something that we need to confess, we are forgiven.

That is one of the great messages of the church, though used incorrectly can make us feel bad instead of liberated. There is so much guilt in the world, so much guilt pushed on people, and unfortunately the church has been part of that. But even just in the culture in general is a tendency to want to define people by their sins. We love tearing people down, especially celebrities and other famous people. We offer forgiveness so rarely. We tear them down and blow them away. Let their sin define who they are. But I think the message of the church is the exact opposite of that. We are not the carriers of the message “you are a sinner!” we are the carriers of the message “you are forgiven and loved!” Recognizing we are sinners is helpful; recognizing that we are forgiven is far more important. Humility, not humiliation.

I’ve met people over the years who say they no longer go to church because they aren’t good enough. The people in the church or the pastors or both had given off the message that the church was only for “perfect” people like them, or that have it all together. What a horrible message to send to people. Church is for everyone.

I talk to people who have stopped going because they were tired of being judged by the other members, or the pastors, or even by the liturgy, made to feel always guilty. Or people who are afraid to go to a church because they know they have had a sinful past, or maybe are living a sinful life in the present, and so they feel that they are not worthy to enter a church. Wow.

There is a message “out there” in the culture that people outside the church hear about churches: that sanctimonious self-righteous gathering of people who think they’re perfect.

But of course, the church is a gathering of saints and sinners. Everyone ought to be welcome in a church. None of us are good enough, but we are all loved enough by God.

So confession is good to remind us who we are, but it’s essential to move past the confession into the pardon to know we are forgiven and go into the Gloris to give praise to God for God’s active presence and love in our lives. We don’t stay in the place of guilt, but move on. Let it go, throw it away, and enter the life that God wants us to live. Dwelling on our sinfulness, making people feel guilty, is abusive. The Gospel message is not “you’re terrible” it’s “God loves you, however messy or good your life is. You’re forgiven, so move on, go love your neighbor, be in relationship with God and other people and be God’s light to the world.”

God doesn’t keep score, doesn’t keep track of our sins or failures, doesn’t hold them against us. Seriously, I can’t, with any intellectual or spiritual integrity, believe that God holds our sins against us. I think that is unbiblical, it’s not the Gospel, and that wouldn’t be a god worth following anyway.

Let it all go. You’re forgiven. Jesus’ entire lifetime of preaching and teaching points exactly to a god opposite any thinking of a god of shame or guilt or that wants us to wallow in our self-loathing. As I read the Gospels, what I hear in Jesus’ words is what I say when people ask me, “What do you think Jesus’ core message was?” I say that I think what Jesus was saying the most was, “Look, people, stop being afraid of God. It’s not about making the right sacrifices, or saying the right words in a prayer, or doing some ritual in the right way. Stop thinking that you must spend every second being anxious about doing something wrong and being smited. God wants you to know that you are free. That you are forgiven, that you need not fear God’s wrath because there is none because God cares about you, God cares about your neighbor, God loves all of us. The point of being alive isn’t to spend our lives worrying if we’re doing the right thing to get into heaven. That’s already taken care of, so stop worry about it. And you religious leaders, stop pushing this on your people. The point of being alive is to spend your time living; and God would like you to live in a way that is loving and just and that furthers the agenda of your neighbor, that chooses peace over violence, hope over fear, love over apathy, doing what is right over what is easy, but also knowing that we’re all going to make mistakes, all going to miss the mark, and that’s okay. God won’t hold it against us. You’re forgiven, always. Don’t be so worried about making mistakes that you don’t live as God would have you live. You are forgiven so that it doesn’t weigh on your heart or make you anxious. Forgiven so that you can spend your time being alive. Spend your time following me.”

I believe that was the main point of Jesus’ message. To stop worrying about our relationship with God, or of losing God’s love. We can’t lose it. We have it always. So go, live, share that love with others so that all may hear and know that message of the good news that we are all God’s sons and daughters, beloved by God. I hope that’s a message that you all hear when you come to Plymouth, and that you live in your lives outside these walls with the people you interact with. That’s the core message of the church. To say to all people of the world, You are God’s people, we are all connected through God, and God loves you. Don’t be afraid, don’t worry, don’t be anxious. There are enough other things to worry and be anxious about, don’t worry or be anxious about whether God loves you, because God does.