In our Gospel this morning John the Baptist is inviting people to be baptized after they confess their sins as a sign of God’s forgiveness and their intention to turn their lives around. Then John gets arrested and Jesus’ ministry takes off and what does he do? He says, Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!”
Change your lives! Confess your sins! Trust that God has forgiven you! They both yell it out as though it is so simple, and yet it is the hardest thing we’ll ever do.
As we began Lent last Wednesday, we practiced giving up the masks we often wear- the mask we put on when we go to work or hang out with certain friends; the mask we use to save face with people we can’t quite trust or the mask we put on to go to the gym. The mask we wear to meet our neighbors. We all wear all kinds of masks in our daily lives, and yet God calls to us that we don’t have to put on a mask to be with God. That in fact, when we leave parts of ourselves behind- either the parts we’re unsure of or the parts we’re ashamed of or the parts that we don’t quite understand— when we leave any part of ourself behind in our relationship with God, than we miss out on all that God can do in and through us to experience God’s healing love and to share that love with the world. So we shed our masks, and took on our true identity as children of God.
You see we are wholly imperfect- which sets us up for holiness. If we were perfect by ourselves, than we wouldn’t need God. We wouldn’t need each other. And we would be terribly lonely. Our imperfection is a gift. But as with all gifts, it can also lead us down the wrong path. The vulnerability that makes us able to open ourselves up to God’s love can also open us up to pain. And in an attempt to avoid that pain, we often mask our vulnerability in unhealthy ways. So God gives us a tool- a way of acknowledging those masks that keep us from God- and that tool is confession. God gives us the gift of being able to confess both privately and with others.
Now, some of you come from traditions that make an attempt to acknowledge our human weakness by having a corporate confession of sin as the first words out of everyone’s mouth on a Sunday morning. Still others of you come from a tradition in which the first words declared in worship are about how unworthy we all are. And indeed these statements of confession are true. None of us is blameless before God. All of us fall short when compared to God. And yet I have not found that with these practices, the church has gotten any more honest about its weaknesses. And I have also not found that these practices create a healthy relationship of faith with God. Imagine what would happen if every time you saw your spouse or your best friend or a colleague that you look up to, what if every time you saw them the first thing you said to them is “I’m so sorry I have not been the perfect spouse or friend or colleague. I am so sorry I have not lived up to your expectations or mine.” After time, and probably not a whole lot of time, your relationship would begin to falter. Your focus on your faults instead of the gifts of the relationship would cause it to crumble. So many people I know who have prayed those prayers all of their lives have internalized their own unworthiness instead of the grace of God.
So then sometimes we go the other way. We get rid of all of our prayers of confession and we get sucked into thinking that if we just live good enough lives, that will be enough. But this too is a trap. For now, instead of spending all of our time focusing on ourselves and how bad we are, we again focus on ourselves and feel helpless to change even our own habits, let alone huge societal ills so we become disillusioned and troubled when we find that we cannot do it on our own.
Confession, when used appropriately, frees us up to live in God’s love. We confess where we have gone wrong, and by naming what is wrong we can move in a different direction. By naming our sin we loosen its grip on us. Our sin has less control over us when we can name it as sin- when we can point out the things that are keeping us from having a healthy relationship with God and each other. And when we’re willing to do this in community- with one person or a small group of people- God works in amazing ways.
Richard Foster, in his book, Celebration of Discipline, shares a story of being in a time of life when he felt God wanted more for him, but he couldn’t figure out what he should do. In the course of prayer, he began to wonder if there was something in his past that was keeping him
from God so he came up with a plan. He began to keep a diary of anything he could think of that he needed to confess. If he thought of something from his childhood, he would write it down. If he experienced something that very day, he would write it down. When he had as comprehensive of a list as he thought he was going to have, he went to a trusted friend to confess his sins. He read him the entire list- pages and pages of things- and felt very much the same when he got done. But as he was talking to his friend afterwards, his friend was able to confess something he had never been able to confess before and after that day he found that something inside of him had shifted in a way he could not describe.
Jesus’ ministry shows us that what he wants from us is our trust— that we trust God enough to be honest with God and with ourselves, and that we trust God’s grace enough to live in that and not in a place of unworthiness. Jesus calls us to confess and repent- to change our hearts and lives—but Jesus also calls us to trust in the good news. Trust that God loves you as you are. Trust that God’s grace is more than enough. Trust that no matter who you are or what your practices are, you are loved. You are forgiven. And that’s what’s important— to live out of God’s grace— to trust in the good news.
A woman was having visions of Jesus and the stories began to get back to Rome. So Rome sent an Archbishop out to question her and figure out if she was legitimately seeing Jesus or if something else was going on. When the Archbishop reached the woman he talked to her for awhile and he said, “the next time you see Jesus, I want you to ask him what sins I last confessed.”
Well the woman was astounded. “You actually want me to ask Jesus about the sins of your past?”
“Exactly.” the archibishop replied. “Call me if anything happens.”
So a few weeks later the woman sent a letter that said, “Please come.”
The archbishop flew out to see her again and asked her if she had seen Jesus.
“Oh yes,” she replied.
“And did you ask him what I last confessed?”
“Oh yes,” she said. The Bishop leaned forward, his eyes narrowed. “And what did he say?”
The woman leaned forward and looked the Bishop straight in the eyes. “His exact words were, I CAN’T REMEMBER.”
“Now is the time!” Jesus says, “Here comes God’s Kingdom!” So let’s not waste any more time wearing masks that don’t fit or trying to be someone we’re not. Let’s instead find ways to practice being honest with one another. To practice being vulnerable in our imperfection and offer to each other compassion and understanding. Let us confess our sins not so that God will love us, but instead because we trust that God already loves us— has, in fact, already forgiven us and will continue to call us to live out of that love. Let us live as those humble enough to understand where we need to change, and confident enough to trust that God calls us to use our gifts, to share them with the world, and to call others to experience the amazing love of Jesus Christ.
One Tuesday night in the basement of a church twenty people sat around in metal folding chairs. They meet every Tuesday evening like clockwork and they are committed to each other in one major way- to support each other in sobriety. That Tuesday after they opened the meeting with the Serenity Prayer and the reading 12 steps and then it was opened for anyone to share. Phil’s hand immediately shot up and he began to speak. “Many of you know I was in Pennsylvania last week to visit friends and family which is why I wasn’t here. But what you don’t know is that after 7 years of sobriety, I spent last week drunk.” The room was silent. “I let myself be vulnerable by being consumed with anger and instead of calling someone, I bought a drink.” Phil’s head went down with a sob. And then one by one, people began to speak.
“That happened to me too, only I was drunk for a year.”
“Thank God you’re here Phil.”
“Let’s meet tomorrow and talk through why you needed relief.”
“I’m so proud of you.”
“I’ve never been close to making it to seven years.” (The Ragamuffin Gospel, pp 67-68)