I knew of a woman who once said to her church leaders, “Why do we need a prayer of confession every week? I feel like I’m a good person. I don’t need to confess.”
What do you think—do we need confession? Are we perfect? Or at least good enough?
A clergy friend said that on his first Sunday as the new pastor of a congregation, they got to the prayers of the people and people said things like, “I thank God for three months of sobriety.” And this pastor thought, Ah, so that’s how it is. Okay then. Bring it. People were being real and authentic and vulnerable. What a powerful way to worship and to live in community as church. What an opportunity for actual salvation and connection with each other and with God.
In the days of Second Isaiah, that authentic confession was not happening. The Judeans had a fasting ritual. They didn’t eat for a day, they put on sackcloth and ashes, and they humbled themselves before God. But life was still a mess. Jerusalem post-exile was still in ruins. The promise that God would restore everything wasn’t working out according to the people’s expectations.
But through the prophet whom we call Second Isaiah, God says to the people, “Yeah, this isn’t real. You call this a fast? To make a show of humility when you’re still oppressing your workers and fighting among yourselves? The fast I’m looking for involves justice. It involves authentic confession that is then followed by a changing of your ways. I’ll help you with that. But that’s not what you’re doing. I have no use for this phony confession.”
Oh. Darn. Authentic confession and then change. That’s so much harder. Can’t we just do the one-day ritual and call it good? Can’t we just say, “Sorry for all the bad things I’ve done, whatever they were,” check that off the to-do list, and go back to what we were doing?
This Lent, we’ve been talking about cleaning house—our literal home as well as our soul. Rick Russell talked last week about the way of the prophet, and how the prophet is often called to clean house in the church, to reorient the church to God and all that is holy. Today we’re focusing on cleaning house in our relationships. We’re talking about coming clean—to each other and to God. We’re talking confession.
We can’t be right with God if we’re not also right with each other. We have to prioritize both. We can ask God for help in getting right with our neighbor, because sometimes it is such a struggle. Putin, for instance. There’s a challenging neighbor. We can pray for Putin and see if anything changes in us.
We may be able to fake some of our relationships. But you can’t fake with God. God and Santa Claus talk to each other: they both know when you’ve been naughty and nice. There’s just no hiding.
There is in the human animal a need to come clean from time to time. Our sins, our mistakes, weigh us down. Betrayal of a spouse, cheating in finances, starting gossip about someone who is your competitor, giving in to an addiction, plagiarizing on a paper—whatever it is, small or big, it keeps us from being our fullest and best selves. We feel like phonies if people say, “Oh, you’re so good!” when we know that we’re not. So those are the very things that we need to confess to God. That’s the beginning of the authentic fast, the making things right that God wants from us. So before we offer our gift to God, as in the Matthew reading, we need to confess—to God or to someone with whom we are not in right relationship—and do our best to make things right. Then come make the offering to God, because then it will be authentic.
I took some self-improvement courses a few years back. One of the messages we got over and over in those courses was to “be your word.” That means if you promise something, you deliver it on time and done to the best of your ability. If you promise to meet someone at 2:00, you are there at least five minutes early, maybe more—or you call and communicate if that is not possible. People know where they stand with you. You are dependable. You are your word.
I’m not perfect with this by any means, but I try. And when I mess up, I try to name that, too, and do better the next time.
When we say we are our word, as Christians we also understand that we are embodiments of the Word, capital W—the Word of God. And if we dare to lay claim to being a Christian, a follower of Christ and Christ’s way to God, then we need to be authentic about confessing where we mess up and try to do better in our relationships with each other and with God.
The Social and Environmental Justice Book Group has read several books on antiracism and several more on climate change. We talk about how we are culpable: we are part of a racist culture that has oppressed people of color for 400 years, and that racism is just in the air we breathe. We have benefitted from this system in our career opportunities, in our ability to inherit or build personal wealth, in the way we are perceived as we move through life. We talk as well about how we are a part of climate change, even when we try to conserve energy. It is unavoidable. But with awareness comes the power to confess and change.
There is a pastor in Denver, Colorado named Nadia Bolz-Weber. She dealt with her own addiction issues and went on to found a church called House for All Sinners and Saints. She is upfront about her own struggles, and in naming them, she gives everyone else permission to be just as real and authentic, too. In her book Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People, she writes about her one conservative friend inviting her to go to a shooting range and learn how to shoot a gun. This was not something that had been on her to-do list—she doesn’t like guns—but as part of trying to understand where this conservative, pistol-packing fellow was coming from, she went to the shooting range. And discovered it was really fun to shoot at the paper target, which she did for an hour. Shortly after this, George Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin on the strength of the “stand your ground” law. Bolz-Weber was appalled at the brokenness of a justice system that would let off the perpetrator of such a violent, obviously racist murder. So here’s Bolz-Weber on confession—and just a warning: her language is spicier than what you usually hear coming out of my mouth, and I’m just going to read it because that is authentically who she is.
Moments after hearing about the acquittal [of George Zimmerman], I walked my dog and called Duffy, a particularly thoughtful parishioner. “I’m really screwed up about all of this,” I said, proceeding to detail all the reasons that, even though I feel so strongly about these issues, I could not with any integrity “stand my own ground” against violence and racism—not because I no longer believe in standing against those thing (I do), but because my own life and my own heart contain too much ambiguity. There is both violence and nonviolence in me, and yet I don’t believe in them both. [Duffy] suggested that maybe others felt the same way and that maybe what they needed from their pastor wasn’t the moral outrage and rants they were already seeing on Facebook; maybe they just needed me to confess my own crippling inconsistencies as a way for them to acknowledge their own.
That felt like a horrible idea, but I knew she was right.
So often in the church, being a pastor or a “spiritual leader” means being the example of “godly living.” A pastor is supposed to be the person who is really good at this Christianity stuff—the person others can look to as an example of righteousness. But as much as being the person who is the best Christian, who “follows Jesus” the most closely can feel a little seductive, it’s simply never been who I am or who my parishioners need me to be. I’m not running after Jesus. Jesus is running my ass down. Yeah, I am a leader, but I’m leading them onto the street to get hit by the speeding bus of confession and absolution, sin and sainthood, death and resurrection—that is, the gospel of Jesus Christ. I’m a leader, but only by saying, “Oh, screw it. I’ll go first.”
I stood the next day in the copper light of sundown in the parish hall where House for All Sinners and Saints meets and confessed all of this to my congregation. I told them there had been a million reasons for me to want to be the prophetic voice for change, but every time I tried, I was confronted by my own bullshit. I told them I was unqualified to be an example of anything but needing Jesus.
That evening I admitted to my congregation that I had to look at how my outrage feels good for a while, but only like eating candy corn feels good for a while—I know it’s nothing more than empty calories. My outrage feels empty because what I am desperate for is to speak the truth of my burden of sin and have Jesus take it from me, yet ranting about the system or about other people will always be my go-to instead. Because maybe if I show the right level of outrage, it’ll make up for the fact that every single day of my life I have benefitted from the very same system that acquitted George Zimmerman. My opinions feel good until I crash from the self-righteous sugar high, then realize I’m still sick and hungry for a taste of mercy. [Nadia Bolz-Weber, Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People (New York: Convergent Books, 2015), 28-29.]
We are still sick in a sick and broken system, and we are hungry for a taste of mercy. That’s the kind of confession we all can make, even if we’re trying to live exemplary lives. Especially the white people among us are benefitting from a violent, racist society that lifts us up even as it puts others down—or kills them—simply for the color of their skin. Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breanna Taylor, and too many others over the centuries. We know. And we are outraged. And the white people among us do benefit from this system. And we don’t know how to change it. In naming that brokenness, in that authentic confession, in that true request for guidance on a different path, in all of that lies the energy for change.
And that’s where we start really cleaning house in a way that prepares us to follow Jesus. Nadia Bolz-Weber says, “Never once did Jesus scan the room for the best example of holy living and send that person out to tell others about him. He always sent stumblers and sinners. I find that comforting.” [Ibid., 30.]
We are all stumblers and sinners, doing our best to make a life that feels authentic, that does some good in the world. We fall down. We make mistakes—sometimes whoppers. It’s when we stop pretending that we have it all together and actually acknowledge the personal whoppers as well as the systemic brokenness that we are freed to become agents of change. Leonard Cohen says the cracks are where the light gets in. That’s the power of confession. We get to stop denying the cracks and start letting the light shine in.
We can’t do a one-day ritual of fasting, like the Judeans, and then check that off the list and go back to the very things that we needed to repent. God calls us to change ourselves and our oppressive systems, to shine a light in all the shadowy hidden corners of our souls and of our society. And then work to build God’s realm of justice and peace in our own souls, in our relationships, in our society, and with God.
A starting place is a prayer of confession, not as something to check off a list, but as a beginning. The woman who told her pastors that she didn’t need to confess—she wasn’t seeing the whole picture. We confess to lift the burden of our sins and to start anew. I invite you to turn to the prayer of confession in your bulletin and take in these words deeply as we pray….