A Lent Sermon for Covenant
(Psalm 25:1-10, sort of)
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
February 26, 2012
When I write a sermon, I always, always start with the Bible. I ponder over a passage. I sit with it, think on it, pray over it, study it. I let a passage incubate, and, eventually, out pops a sermon. Some preachers begin with a topic (such as marriage or prayer), or they craft a series title and plug in appropriate Scripture passages later. But not me. I have this conviction that the task of the sermon is first and foremost to bring Scripture to life for the community, in hopes that God might make an appearance. This means my sermons don’t fit neatly into three points, and if it’s not always clear to you what my main lesson was, that’s probably because I didn’t have a main lesson to begin with. That is to say, I am a little “hands off” with sermons. I try to resurrect a biblical text, slap some flesh and skin on it, give a gentle push, and say, “Go.” But once I’ve given it legs, where that story chooses to walk inside of you is beyond my knowledge, my reach. It might take a stroll through your marriage, it might touch your prayer life, it might roll around in your identity or stir up your sense of vocation, it might stomp right through your finances, or it might make a tender appearance in that place where you store your hurts. But I never get to know where it’s been (I’m just sorta hoping it went somewhere worthwhile for somebody). My sermons rarely come back to me and give a report, and like a parent I have to find the grace to let them go, to give them their independence, to entrust them to God’s hands in the hopes that he’s a better steward of holy words than I am. Yes, my sermons are my babies, and like any mother, I am tempted to stifle them—to try and force them to grow a certain way, to accomplish a certain thing, and of course, to make me proud.
So whether my idea to do things differently this week was a heavenly inspiration or a maternal cry for control, I honestly don’t know. All I know is that after today, I’m going right back to the same ole’, same ole, because the regular pattern is easier, and I trust myself better when I start with the text.
This week I started with a topic, and tried to add the Bible later. If that offends you, please keep in my mind that I’ve already repented and come Tuesday morning, I’ll be back to the Holy Book with a renewed fervor to keep my own agenda out. But this week I have an agenda, to tell you the truth. It’s less of an agenda for you—what I, the Pastor, hope to teach You, the Congregation, and more of an agenda for myself and whoever else might want to listen in.
You see, I am on pilgrimage this Lenten season—I am seeking out the practice of confession—and if I had thought this over in advance, the first Sunday of Lent isn’t the best time to preach on the findings of my pilgrimage, seeing as how I’ve just begun. But here I am, standing before you, trying to give the missions trip report before I’ve left the country.
So, we’ll think of it more like this: I’m packing my bags for a pilgrimage, and you came over to help me pack (which you might regret later). Of course, the best way to pack for a theological journey is to start by unpacking, and words like sin and confession have a rather hefty set of baggage associated with them already. So we’ve got our work cut out for us. I suspect we won’t finish today.
I am on a pilgrimage looking for confession because I fear it has gone missing. If not on a universal scale, at least in my own life, and possibly in others. And if it is missing, there is a reason, and I think the reason is that we got tired of the judgmental and legalistic talk in the church, so we threw that vulgar language out the door, but discarded the wholesome language of sin, confession, and forgiveness alongside it.
Madeleine L’Engle writes, “I do find the lack of penitence in our . . . liturgies extraordinary. Here the world’s in the worst mess we’ve been in for generations and we no longer get down on our knees and say, “I’m sorry. Help!” Another writer says, “It is not that the Sacrament of Reconciliation has been tried and found wanting; it mostly hasn’t been tried.”
There is, I confess, a lack of confession in my life, and it sounds as if I am not the only one. This Lenten season I am not so much hunting for a theology of confession; I desire a practice of it, and practice has more to do with the look and feel and sound and regularity of a thing than it has to do with the philosophy of it.
So instead of reading about why we confess, I’m trying to read about the mechanics, the how, the action verbs, the words we say and the words we hear, the things we feel. Sometimes when your own tradition seems to have muddied the waters for you, it helps to visit your neighbors and learn from them. For example, Catholics have what they call the sacrament of penance, recently renamed the sacrament of reconciliation, and I am wondering if the concrete practice of going to confession helps them grasp something about sin and forgiveness in a tangible way, in a way I missed growing up in a church where confession was always, always private and never corporate, always internal and never out loud, always subjective and never filtered by a community, always a monologue without a response. I just wonder, sometimes, what it would be like: the physical act of getting up and going to the booth. The hard ground beneath my knees when I kneel. The sound of my voice saying out loud that I have failed, and most importantly, to hear a human voice respond, “Your sins are forgiven.” What would it do for my soul if my body knew a practice called confession?
The best thing to do might be to try it out for myself, but until I work up the nerve, Dorothy Day is helping me out. In the opening of her book, The Long Loneliness, Dorothy Day describes confession in sensational detail, and I invite you to listen and experience with me, not by thinking about what confession means, but about how confession feels, sounds, smells.
. . . (lengthy insert from The Long Loneliness) . . .
What strikes me about Catholic confession is the earthiness of it, the awkwardness, the regularity, the difficulty, the submission, both the embarrassment and the comfort of having someone listen, the obligation to tell to your secrets on a set day whether or not you are ready, and, the way you just get up and go about the rest of your day when you are finished. There are, of course, biblical examples where people pull out the sackcloth and ashes and make a grand show of their repentance, but that strikes me as an exception more than the norm. When I read about the regular, weekly confessions of a woman like Dorothy Day or when I read the lines of confession in a biblical Psalm, side by side with thanksgiving and joy, it makes me think that confessing my “drab, monotonous” sins as Dorothy calls them is meant to be less of an emotional, tearful upheaval and more of repetitive but healthy habit.
I certainly find this to be true in marriage. When Nate and I are in the regular habit of apologizing, no matter how small the offense—“sorry, dear, I shouldn’t have snapped at you”—that is when our marriage makes the most sense. It is when we let the offenses build up that we end up estranged from one another and in need of a massive overhaul to bring us back together. When we are in the regular habit of confessing our offenses and asking forgiveness, it is no big deal. Common-place apologies rarely cause tears; there is very little angst. A regular confession creates very little splash in our daily lives, yet neglecting it is like building a dam that holds back all the pressure. Eventually it will overflow, with a wave of regrets bound to hurt us both.
I wonder if Christian confession is supposed to be a habit, almost mundane in its ordinariness, but if we neglect the habit, our sins will overwhelm us like a flood.
I wonder if confession is less about realizing how awful I am, and more about a simple honesty and authenticity. If confession first involves admitting that I was made in the Image of God and then admitting my complicity in the marring of that image? But if I haven’t learned the truth of the first—my God-given goodness—then how I can possibly discern my sins appropriately?
I wonder if Christian confession is supposed to involve the community—not because we can’t pray alone, but because we can’t always pray alone. The priesthood of the believer means that we are as priests to one another, and faith is not an isolated experience.
I wonder if Christian confession isn’t really Christian when we don’t conclude with the assurance of pardon. Is it all that “Christian” to confess your sins, if you leave out Christ’s response: “Your sins are forgiven”?
As you can see, I am wondering a lot of things. A sermon, I suppose, tries to give answers. But not this sermon. And not me. All I know is to invite you along for the journey. I am hunting for confession this Lenten season because I fear it has gone missing. If not on a universal scale, at least in my own life, and possibly in some of yours.
Lent strikes me as the right time to bare my soul a little bit, to grow more honest, to be less afraid of who I am. I see Jesus’ diligent courage and his extravagant love on his way to the cross, and it gives me a bit of nerve to be myself. No matter what I find when I go to confession, it must be better to be myself, exposed to God’s love, than hidden and covered, lost in fear.
If it helps at all for me to say it out loud, when I look at all of you, I see something lovely. But just in case you’re worried that deeper honesty would reveal something ugly, it might be better if I quoted Jesus to you instead: “Beloved, your sins are forgiven.” Amen.