October 25, 1998
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA
based upon Luke 18:9-14
One thing newcomers to our fellowship notice about our worship is that we donít always have a formal time for "confession of sin" - that along with repeating a creed every week. Oh, we do it now and again, like today. However, itís not a structured-in part of our week-by-week life together, at least not at this present time - for good or for ill. On the liturgical map, we belong on the less formal end of things. Of course, there are Brethren churches where it is even more informal, or so weíve been told by some among us whoíve been there. There are also churches of the Brethren which are higher up liturgy-wise.
One of those persons who is new in our midst shared with me about teaching Sunday School in the Catholic Church in which she grew up, and how she found herself having more and more problems with making the children repeat a "confession of sin" in class. "What do those little ones really know about the huge sins they were confessing?" she wondered. Of course, as the father of four children, I think mine know a great deal more about sin than they let on. I have to agree with this new friend, though. Our tradition teaches that children are covered by the grace of God up to the age of accountability (whenever that is), a time when they can conscientiously take responsibility for their lives. Thatís why we donít baptize children. That step, we believe, is reserved as an adult decision.
Back to confessions of sin, I recall a phone call, a while back, with someone checking out churches in the area. She spoke of attending another nearby church and being offended by the confession used that Sunday. Obviously, she wasnít going back. As she told me about it, I recognized the words used, for it quoted King Davidís well-known psalm of confession:
"Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me." (Ps. 51:1-5)
This woman found those words offensive, especially for her children to repeat them and see themselves as sinners even when they were in their motherís womb. I imagine she was trying to escape a background which taught the way of Christ through fear rather than love. She may, though, have been among those in my generation for whom "sin" is an outdated term.
Iím reminded of a Doonesbury cartoon where a couple is "interviewing" the pastor of the Little Church of Walden. "So what would you like to know about our church, folks," the bearded minister asks. "Donít hold back - I know how difficult it can be to choose a church."
"Well, whatís your basic approach here, Reverend? Is it traditional gospel?" the husband asks.
"In a way. I like to describe it as 12-step Christianity... Basically, I believe that weíre all recovering sinners. My ministry is about overcoming denial. Itís about recommitment, about redemption. Itís all in the brochure there."
"Wait a minute," the wife interrupts. "Sinners? Redemption? Doesnít all that imply ... guilt?"
"Well, yes, I do rely on the occasional disincentive to keep the flock from going astray. Guiltís part of that."
"I dunno," the husband replies. "There so much negativity in the world as it is."
"Thatís right," the wife agrees. "Weíre looking for a church thatís supportive, a place where we can feel good about ourselves. Iím not sure the guilt thing works for us."
"On the other hand," the husband interjects, "you do offer racketball."
"So did the Unitarians, Honey," she counters. "Letís shop around some more."
(Gary Trudeau, 4/23/95)
I remember some other folks who once were among us, but have since moved on - though they return periodically. They didnít have so much a problem with the concept of sin, but with the words we sometimes use to describe it. They didnít like that our new hymnal returned to the original language of the first verse of Amazing Grace. Our old hymnal went, "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saveth men like men..." In a desire to be more inclusive, (and hey, if weíre going to be more inclusive, we need to involve the concept of sin, as well, donít we?) those who put together our new hymnal went back to John Newtonís original word: wretch - how God "saved a wretch like me."
Speaking of Newton, the author of this hymn, which is perhaps better known than any other hymn - John Newton had quite a life. At age eleven he went to sea, where he remained for 19 years, first working with his father, a shipmaster; then as a midshipman in the Royal Navy of Great Britain; and then, for six years as master of a slave-trade ship. At the time, Africans being transported as cargo were not considered human, but rather soul-less, wretched beings, for whom even a minimum of comfort on the journey was not a consideration. They were packed in like sardines and treated like dirt. Itís interesting that when this atheist slave-trader discovered God and turned from selling what he once saw as wretched slaves to sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ, he took for himself the title "wretch." He recognized his sin, like the tax collector in that story Jesus told, and simply came to his God, saying, "be merciful to me, a wretched sinner."
Such a step is not an easy one to make, is it? I hope you found that story of Jesus offensive, the one dramatized this morning. The laughter at a "well-behaved cool student" and a "troublemaker," is like sugar to make horrible tasting medicine go down. The story should trouble us. Most of the tales Jesus told were intended to be like that grain of sand in an oyster, which disturbs and disrupts but ends up creating a pearl.
Confession is the reality check which we need in order to live in this world. You and I can harbor a pretty unrealistic image of ourselves, like that Pharisee. In contrast to the "wretches" around him - the thieves, rogues, adulterers, and tax collectors - he was a pretty "okay" guy. He did some of the right "stuff," refraining from eating for two days out of every week for religious reasons, giving 10% of his salary back to God. These latter items are nothing to sneeze at. They are steps in the right direction. Unfortunately, the Pharisee is headed that way backward. Heís not really faced in Godís direction. Rather, heís presenting to the Lord his rear end, thinking heís showing off his best angle (I guess). The problem is, even if a man does the right things, and is moving, albeit backwards, in the right direction, how can he truly seek first the kingdom; how can he embrace what God freely gives; how can he be embraced by someone who cares not so much about what he does, but rather who he is?
Many of us try to "back" our way into the Kingdom of God. We concern ourselves first with what we need to do to get there. Mind you, these things are not unimportant. Fidelity to a spouse; faithfulness to others; honesty; fairness; treating others as you wish to be treated yourself; taking care of your body, mind, and spirit; charity ... these are all significant parts of what we would call "good character," arenít they? While Jesus painted the Pharisee with somewhat exaggerated strokes of his brush, the intent was to place all of us into the picture. When we exclude ourselves, we are doing exactly as the Pharisee did.
Iíve heard a lot about "character" recently, especially in relation to the upcoming impeachment hearing in Congress. I really donít want to get caught up in it, for I believe too much has been said already, a lot of it suspect on the side of the right or the left. Most of us are just plain tired of it all, and angry that itís being shoved down our throats. My mother wonders what weíre saying to our teenager about it, what with all the graphic details in public view.
Iím angry at the President for his behavior, and for seeking to cover up with lies, though I am not naive enough to believe that such actions are peculiar to only the White House. If the magnifying glass were turned around - my, what might be found. Am I right? One positive is that this provides a nice lesson for how a lie grows and grows and does not disappear... Iím also angry at the other side, for unleashing this barrage of pornography upon us in a self-righteous attempt to prove how bad the President is, under the guise of just providing the facts "so the American people can decide." Do two wrongs make a right? Furthermore, Iím angry at the press and its obsession with this sad episode. Where is the power of discretion? What we have been given is toilet journalism... Iím angry at all the opportunists on every side trying to make the most out of every sickening detail. Theyíre all a bunch of thieves, rouges, adulterers, and tax collectors....
Ah, this story of the Pharisee and the publican hits right between the eye. You see, in this sad state of affairs we are given what we ask for. The opportunist wouldnít jump on board if we werenít willing to pay the buck to buy their product. The press is only providing what sells. The politicians know us all too well, and supply what their polls tell them we will vote for, or not vote for - depending on how you look at it. The circle of guilt, strange as it sounds, returns home, my friends - and all our protests otherwise do not change the reality.
Back to confession - confession is a reality check. When it comes right down to it, weíre all no different from that tax collector, the quintessential "hated guy" of that era. Up to that point in time, this "bad guy" had taken few or no steps along the path God intended, backward or forward. When it came right down to it, though, the only difference between him and the Pharisee was that he was facing in the right direction. He had turned toward God. Was the tax collector a wretch? Not in Godís eyes, but thatís not a reality he could know until he turned around - not him, nor the Pharisee.
Confession is a reality check. With it, we ground ourselves and pop our hot air balloons, those things we think lift us up. The goal of confession, no matter how it is worded, is to help us turn around and face God. Whether we do it formally in a liturgy (which, by the way, can prove to be just as much a backward step, as the Phariseeís fasting and tithing), or informally in our private times of prayer, or more public asking for the forgiveness of another, we come back down to the ground and set our feet once again on the path where Jesus leads, just simply trying to follow him home.
By the way, do you know what the most simple prayer ever written in our Christian tradition is? "Kyrie Elieson" Latin words for the heartfelt step toward God: "Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner." Reality Check.
©1998Peter L. Haynes
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