February 6, 2022

Confession is good for the soul

Passage: Isaiah 6:1–8 (9–13), 1 Corinthians 15:1–11, Luke 5:1–11

About 25-26 years ago or so when I was a minister in Yorkton Saskatchewan, I was called upon by one of our congregants who was the director of an in-residence addiction treatment centre near Yorkton Saskatchewan.
She wanted me to fill in at the centre very part-time to do second and fifth steps in the twelve-step program.
The minister who was working there had a heart attack and while he was recuperating, I was asked to fill in.

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the 12-step program. It is the program that came from Alcoholics Anonymous and it has a spiritual or religious component.
The two men behind AA, Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith drew their inspiration for the 12 steps from the Oxford Group, a group that originated in the United States but really took off in England.
The Oxford Group was not a church and there was no membership, but it was movement to let God be in control of your life, and thereby change you and change your moral compass, and change the way you deal with others.
The Oxford Group basically met in small groups. The philosophical foundation was based on four absolutes. Absolute honesty, absolute purity, absolute unselfishness and absolute love.

So, the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous took these principles and turned them into a set of twelve steps believing that the way people needed to deal with addiction was to turn their life over to a higher power and in so doing deconstruct their egos and rebuild their lives.

Step 1: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
Step 2: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
Step 3: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.
Step 4: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
Step 5: Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
Step 6: Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
Step 7: Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.
Step 8: Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
Step 9: Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
Step 10: Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
Step 11: Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God’ s will for us and the power to carry that out.
Step 12: Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

My job when I was working at Whitespruce Residential Treatment centre those many years ago, was to focus on step two which was to talk about a power greater than ourselves and to hear fifth steps.

In the fifth step young people would sit before and basically confess all their sins. And it would be a long list. And for these alcohol and drug addicts some of the things that they did were pretty awful. Not just what they did to other, but how much they hurt themselves.
They would go into great detail because they were trying to be completely honest.

After their confession I would tell them that God forgives them. I would tell that the I representing society forgive them.
And then I would ask them to forgive themselves.

I have utter and great respect for the Oxford Group and for Alcoholics Anonymous and believe with them that confession and truth telling is a huge part of mental, physical and spiritual wellness.

I also believe that confession is a bit of a lost art in the Protestant Church.

Our denomination does not believe that you have to confess to a priest in order to be forgiven, but it does not mean we don’t believe in confession. First of all, we have a prayer of approach every week in church which includes a prayer of confession. In the service I pronounce the forgiveness of sins: In Jesus Christ your sins are forgiven.

But more than that we have always believed that we should confess on a regular basis directly to God and I believe that it is helpful to have another human being to confess your sins too.
That confession is good for your soul. Your mind and body too.

All this talk of confession came to me because of our scriptures today.
Isaiah when he encounters the terrible glory and otherness of God says that he is a man of unclean lips and is part of a people of unclean lips.
Paul wrote to Timothy that he was the chief of sinners, and in today’s reading in Corinthians he says he is the least of the apostles and unworthy to be an apostle.

And in the gospel lesson while there is the miraculous catch of fish it causes Peter to fall on his knees and say:
“Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

So, I wondering today that when we really encounter God up and close and personal. When we feel the call of God to minister, to help, to go, to serve, to care….
That instead of feeling wonderful love and amazing grace as the first and predominant feeling, that a real encounter with God produces a feeling of unworthiness and a need to confess.
I don’t want to straitjacket everybody into having to have the same experience of God.

I remember being at bible camp aeons ago and hearing a four-year-old sing: “Years I spent in vanity and pride, Caring not my Lord was crucified.”
She was only four. Hardly seemed that she had spent years in vanity in pride, although the terrible twos have their fair share of vanity and pride.

So, I am not saying that everybody has to experience as their first experience of God, unworthiness and a need to confess, but I wonder if it is at least a fairly common experience of a real encounter with God.

I believe in what I have termed a real encounter of God. I believe that you can talk to God and that God hears. I believe that you can listen for God.
When you read the scriptures for instance, imagine what God might be saying to you.
I believe that in your encounters with others, in your service to other, in the books you read, the movies you watch you can be intentional about looking for or listening to God.
Where was God in that movie? What would God be trying to teach me from that story, that movies, that encounter, that occasion where I lost my shit, from that moment of being hugged…
I believe in encounters of God, and I believe that as we draw close to God, there will be this need to confess…

Because…because I think Jesus is the truth, and as you draw close to Jesus, the truth, you will want the truth in your own life. You will want to stop living the lies you tell yourself.
In some ways confession is telling the truth and nothing but the truth to God, to yourself and to others, no matter how defaming, how negative, how terrible your sins or moral failures.

So, if you need an encounter with God today, maybe the way to start is make a list of everything you need to confess, every failure, everyone you hurt, everyone who didn’t understand, everyone you turned away, everyone who you didn’t speak a kind voice too, and everyone you have just ignored.
I could go on and on, with the kinds of things you could list, but you get my point.
And put yourself at the feet of Jesus. Kneel before him, maybe even literally kneel and have that encounter with Jesus.

Maybe I could tell you that after almost 39 years of ministry the sense of my own sin and unworthiness is just as strong as ever. I don’t think I am a worse sinner than 39 years ago, but I am more aware of it.
Sometimes I think it makes me a better minister and a better preacher, because I am in touch with ego, and self, and sin, and temptation, and failings.
You can’t kid a kidder is the old saying. In the church, you can’t fool an experienced sinner like me, because I have been down that road and know the terrain.

And I have a deep sense that to be called is not because I am better or more worthy, but that I am unworthy and I am called anyway. And unworthiness is part of the tools of the trade of those who serve Christ and serve others.

Maybe it is easier to forgive when you are one of the chief sinners.
Maybe it is easier to understand marvellous love and grace when one has a lot to be forgiven.

I do know that Jesus has an abundance of grace. That is what I think our gospel fishing story is about.

I know when Jesus says that he will teach us to fish for people we get all caught up in the church about numbers.
I am sure there are a few at First Church who wish we would have an encounter with Jesus here at First Church and we would let the net over the side of the boat and thousands of people would swarm into the church and we would declare the great miracle of Jesus in our midst. Sometimes we even idolize churches that have big attendance numbers.
I myself have preached using the fishing metaphor. What is the right bait to catch people? What kind of fish or people should we be aiming to catch?

But today I am not going to equate the fish with people. Today I am going to say that the abundance of fish is an abundance of grace and love.

To all of us who recognize our unworthiness and our sinfulness, God who reaches out to us and not only forgives us, but calls us into the ministry of serving others, calls us with an abundance of grace and love.

When you reach out to others… when you serve others… when you try to be Christ to others… when you minister to others…
…it is not perfection. We don’t always know what to say and what to do and how best to do it. We make lots of mistakes. Mistakes that we can learn from, but also mistakes that can hurt ourselves and hurt others.

Ministry is not easy. Serving others is not easy. That is why we need an abundance of love and grace. And that is why there will always be the need for confession, the need to tell ourselves the truth, and the need to own up to mistakes and failures.

The minister, Frank Buchanan, who started what became known as the Oxford Group, had been working at a hospice and left in frustration, believing that they 6 Board members were stingy and were not treating him fairly.

He was attending the Keswick Convention in 1908 in Keswick, England and during a sermon had a revelation:

I quote:

"I thought of those six men back in Philadelphia (the hospice board) who I felt had wronged me. They probably had, but I'd got so mixed up in the wrong that I was the seventh wrong man.... I began to see myself as God saw me, which was a very different picture than the one I had of myself. I don't know how you explain it, I can only tell you I sat there and realized how my sin, my pride, my selfishness and my ill-will had eclipsed me from God in Christ.... I was the center of my own life. That big 'I' had to be crossed out. I saw my resentments against those men standing out like tombstones in my heart. I asked God to change me and He told me to put things right with them. It produced in me a vibrant feeling, as though a strong current of life had suddenly been poured into me and afterwards a dazed sense of a great spiritual shaking-up."

I have often wondered why the church is not a safer place for absolute honesty.

I have been to AA meetings. I have sat in an Aboriginal Healing circle and I felt safe to work on Absolute Honesty.
I have taken Spiritual Direction and have felt safe to work on Absolute honesty, to confess my sins, and to talk about the nitty gritty things of life with absolute honesty.

But I don’t think I would feel safe sharing Absolute Honesty in church.
And I am guessing that I am not the only one who would feel that.
And I think it is because we would be afraid, that instead of finding a netful of grace and love, an abundance of forgiveness and understanding…
…that we might find an abundance of judgement and condemnation from some people.

And yet, how many of us need to confess. To get down and dirty and frank and open about sins, temptations, failings, moral lapses and difficult situations.
To seek Absolute honesty, so that we can clean the soul, set ourselves on a new and right path, and also experience wonderful love and grace.

Guy de Maupassant was a French Author who wrote many short stories, some with surprise endings or twists at the end. He lived and wrote in France in the late 1800’s. Maybe his most famous short story is called “the Necklace” which I am pretty sure I read in high school, in our high school reader.

Recently I read his short story “Confession.” The story is about two sisters who never married and stayed together and the younger of the sisters is on her death bed even though she is only 56 years of age.
The story is that the older sister was about to be married and her betrothed died suddenly just before the marriage and the older sister as an act of fealty promised that she would never love another man.
The younger sister who was only 12, promised to be with her older sister forever and kept that promise.
So, the story starts with this incredible sense of duty and commitment the sisters have.

The younger sister on her death bed calls for the Priest for last rites; and when the priest arrives, the younger sister confesses that as a 12-year-old she was enamoured of her older sister’s paramour, and became so determined her older sister wouldn’t marry him, that she took poison that the gardener used and put it in her sister’s fiancée’s food. She had killed him.
Then being overcome with guilt and a tortured self, she committed herself to her older sister for life.
And now she was asking forgiveness.

And in the story the older sister says to her dying younger sister out of an abundance of grace that she forgives her.

It is a moving short story, and while the lesson of forgiveness is an important lesson. While the abundance of grace, a netful of love is important, what I want to suggest to you and to myself is this…
that we like that younger sister don’t live whole lives of guilt and regret, but that we take the time to confess now.
That we cast ourselves on the mercy of the one who produced an abundance of fish and an abundance of grace.

Today I believe that Christ is calling us, just as he called those fishermen years ago, just as he called Isaiah, and just as he called Paul.
He called those unworthy people, not because they were good enough to receive grace, but in spite of the fact of their unworthiness.

And while he did do that marvellous miracle of an abundance of fish, he wasn’t promising them that their lives would be easy, that they would have an abundance of money, or fame, or adulation, or numbers in their churches.
In fact, he made it pretty clear that they would be lots who would hear and wouldn’t understand; lots who would see but still be blind, lots who would oppose them and make life difficult.

But what Jesus did promise Isaiah and Paul and Peter and us, is that there would be an abundance of truth, an abundance of forgiveness, an abundance of grace and an abundance of love.
And one of the ways to access that abundance is by confession.