March 22, 2015 by Ken Dale
I?ve decided to spare you all the confession jokes I read that I thought to use to open this sermon. The search was interesting though ? mostly Catholic in content and yes, there were even a few that could have been told from the pulpit. Growing up it seemed that the Catholics were much more intentional about confession than we Protestants. It was, after all, required of them. But then I?ve heard stories of kids that supposedly had to make something up to confess because they didn?t have anything to report. Confession ? someone once said that it was good for the soul.
There is one powerful story that is confession of sorts that I think makes the point. Many, many years ago I was once called to the hospital as the chaplain as a young woman in her mid to late 20?s was nearing her death after living with cancer. Weeks after her death, her mother called wanting to talk with me. She was burdened with guilt. She told me how early in her marriage, she was unable to get pregnant and her doctor prescribed a certain medication that may change that. She took it and it worked. But they later discovered that that particular drug caused a cancer that could develop later in life. It was that cancer that took the life of her daughter. She was feeling like she caused her daughter?s death. So we explored it and looked at the reason she took the medication. To keep it short, if she hadn?t taken the medication the daughter may never have been born. Her reason for taking the medication and what was and was not known about it were an important factors.
We might say that this woman was lugging baggage that when unpacked became so much a lesser burden for her to carry in many ways. It was self-examination. Marjorie Thompson says that this is an important and healthy spiritual discipline. As a child I think confession was always in the context of something you were really sorry for and it could lead to self-condemnation, it was after all, the things you had done wrong. The other possibility is captured in the idea of making something up to confess because you had to. In that instance confession is superficial.
Thompson says there are two basic truths we need to know in an experiential way when it comes to meaningful confession. The first is the truth that God loves us. That is not a general rule to which you personally may be an exception and it is not conditional. It is simply a statement of who God is. God loves us with a love that is so great none of our sins can erase it. God?s fondest dream, Thompson writes, is that we will receive and respond to it. The choral anthem this morning was Psalm 139 ? my favorite. It speaks of how near God is and how well God knows us. The question is how do we read it? Does it concern us that before a word is on our tongue God knows it? Do we read of God?s constant presence as a threat ? that there is no place we can be where God is not? We cannot hide from God. Or are we comforted that God knows and understands us so well ? and, well, loves us anyway? I?ve always found it a most comforting and assuring Psalm. If God knows me that well ? what of my life can I not bring before God in a search for wholeness, healing and peace?
The second truth is our human weakness and brokenness in relation to God. We are damaged by the disorientation of sin and for Thompson sin means being off target. Instead of being aimed toward God, we are by nature, aimed toward a distorted image of self. We are directed by self-centered desires, chained to unmet needs, compelled by illusions about who we are and what makes us important. We strive to be in control of our lives and as my theology professor in seminary said of the bumper sticker ? if God is co-pilot, who?s the pilot?
Marjorie Thompson?s approach to confession or self-examination has two basic forms. The first is examination of conscience which is penitential in nature. We name and acknowledge our weaknesses. We name and acknowledge the things of our lives that must be forgiven and put right. She goes pretty deep with this one ? comparing it to the 4th step in 12 step recovery programs ? ?make a fearless and searching moral inventory of ourselves.? This takes time and will undoubtedly elicit uncomfortable feelings of fear, guilt, embarrassment, even shame. She even speaks of ?life review? ? which I have always known in the context of hospice care as something that often happens with people as they near the end of their life?s journey. The life review gives one the opportunity to bring all of life before God ? those things that need to be forgiven, but also those aspects of life that are strengths and gifts to be shared. This self-examination is all done before God and relying on God?s grace and unconditional love and so for healing. I?ve barely touched this one but it?s worth a good look in her book.
The second phase of self-examination is examination of consciousness, which is becoming aware of the contents of our consciousness ? our level of awareness of both good and bad in our state of mind during any particular event. The purpose is two-fold, to notice where God?s grace has been present in our day and to see where we have or have not responded to that grace. It is looking at what motivated us to respond or react to something. Was it fear or pride or self-preservation or was it genuine concern for another, desire to do God?s will? Having answers to that question would move us either to give thanks to God for the grace or to confess our failure and seek the grace to be forgiven and find renewed strength. Quick reminder from Psalm 139 ? God knows before we speak.
Genuine confession is marked with humility and counterfeit confession is riddled with anxiety and pride. If we become fascinated by our sins or sucked into despair over our weaknesses, the humility is false.?? The importance of confession, of self-examination, or unpacking that which we feel guilty about is captured in that opening story I shared. As Jesus promised in John 8:32, ?you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.? That mother unpacked her guilt ? and the truth of it all did set her free. The spiritual practice of confession or self-examination will lead us to a healthy self-awareness. Knowledge of self and knowledge of God go hand in hand. As Thompson states, ?we only know who we really are in relation to God.? We are allowed to be real ? we no longer need to put on a good face or a false front, to impress or to hide ? we just live in simple honesty. Another important fruit of this spiritual practice that Thompson lifts and that I really applaud is that a result of that honest self-knowledge is greater compassion. The more clearly we see ourselves the harder it is to judge the weaknesses and failures of others. When we see the sin in our own lives we can identify with the brokenness of others. Instead of condemning them, we think, ?yah, been there, done that.? We get a fresh perspective on the wounds of another.
If we are at peace with ourselves we are more apt to make peace with others. Compassion bears the fruit of forgiveness and that is the ground of reconciliation ? the beginning of all peace-making. Not an easy process ? but well worth the effort. And well worth the effort both for ourselves and those with whom we share that incredible journey of life and faith.
Major contents of this sermon are from Marjorie Thompson?s book Soul Feast