True Confessions

Date: April 29, 2009
Scriptures: Luke 24:36b-48 and Acts 3:12-19
Sermon: True Confessions
Pastor: Rev. Kim Wells

In Kurt Andersen’s novel, Heyday, set in the 1840’s, there is a troubled soul, Duff Lucking, who sets fires to buildings out of vengeance and retribution. The fires have resulted in numerous deaths. He doesn’t get caught because he is a firefighter, and knows what he is doing. At one point he has a sort of religious awakening of sorts and, since he is a Catholic, he decides to go to confession.

Duff goes to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, on the first Friday of the first month of Lent, when the Bishop himself hears confessions for just one day. Duff stands in line with 400 others. It has been 8 years since his last confession and he wants to make “a clean breast of it.” [p. 173] Of what? Of the fire set in the sugarhouse, in which three men died fighting the blaze. The fire to a distillery. Three other fires. And there were the Catholics he killed in the war in Mexico, before deserting and joining the ranks of the other side, against the Americans. Oh and there was just one more thing. Duff tells the bishop, “A mortal sin, when I was thirteen. I told you about the abuser, the vile old banker who ravished my sister when she was a girl? I avenged the crime, Excellency. I killed the man. And I am sorry to God for that sin, as I am for all the lives I have taken – in the war, I mean, in Mexico. And deaths I may have been responsible for. And for all of my other sins. I pray and promise I will never take another life again. I am a repentant sinner, and I wish with all my heart for God’s forgiveness.” [p. 175]

After the confession, we are told: “Bishop Hughes instructed Duff that for the rest of his life he must say an entire rosary twice each day, the Act of Contrition twice each day as well, and a novena once a month.” And he is to perform “works of mercy in the name of Jesus Christ to please your Lord God and Savior. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Excellency.’”

“And no more fire-setting, eh? You’re finished.”

“Yes, Excellency.”

Duff waited for some additional penance. But he heard only an energetic clearing of Hughes’s throat.

“O my God,” Duff, said, “I am heartily sorry for having offended thee. I detest all my sins because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell. But most of all because they have offended thee, my God who art all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve with the help of thy grace to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life. Amen.”

“Ego te absolve,” replied the Bishop, “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” [p. 176]

That was it. Duff confesses, the Bishop absolves him, tells him to say some prayers, help others, and don’t do it again. To me, this seems like a fairly small consequence for the crimes committed. You can read the novel to find out whether he sets any more fires or is responsible for any more deaths.

So just what is reconciliation and forgiveness? In this case, it doesn’t involve any kind of public admission, any kind of restitution to those harmed, no process of setting things right with the individuals, the property owners, or society. I think it makes the church’s forgiveness seem cheap and easy.

There was a Baptist who moved to an all Catholic town. Every Friday night, he would grill steak on the barbeque. This drove his Catholic neighbors crazy during Lent when they weren’t supposed to eat meat on Fridays. The neighbors discussed what to do, and decided to convince the man to become a Catholic, and he agreed. On the big day, the Baptist stood before the priest who sprinkled Holy Water on him saying, “You were born a Baptist; you were raised a Baptist; you are now a Catholic.” The town breathed a sigh of relief until the first Friday in Lent when the familiar smell of grilling steak wafted through the town. “He’s forgotten,” the Catholics said. “We’ll go remind him.” So they walked to the new Catholic’s house and into the backyard, where he was grilling a huge, juicy steak. He stood before the grill with a cup of water and said, “You were born a cow; you were raised a cow; you are now a fish.”

Part of the trouble I have with confession in church is that it can seem so superficial, so platitudinous. Words are said, but does it really mean anything? Is there justice or conversion involved? Someone from the church family recently asked me about having a confession in the service and you can see my ambivalence about that. I’ll say a bit more later.

In the story that we heard from the gospel of Luke, the disciples are together and they are undoubtedly revisiting their betrayal, abandonment, and desertion of their beloved master and teacher at the crucifixion. They all fled. Not one was there for Jesus in his hour of need. And Peter outright denied even knowing Jesus. Can you imagine the psychic pain they were experiencing?

Think about when a couple has a knock down, drag out fight in the morning then both go off to work for the day, and one is killed in a car accident. The other is left with the regret of that last encounter with a loved one. For the rest of that life, there will be that sharp-edged, cutting memory never to be erased. It’s hard to find peace in that kind of circumstance. It can be done, but it is very difficult.

So here are the disciples, living with this kind of pain and despair. And there is this story, of Jesus, appearing among them, saying “Peace be with you.” Not saying, “What happened to you, you worthless bunch of slugs? Where were you when I needed you most? What happened to you, when the chips were down? You can’t be counted on for anything. You’re useless, disloyal, and untrustworthy. You have as much value as grass that’s trampled underfoot!” No. Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” And in the days ahead, the disciples are transformed. They are released from their fear and shame and become courageous witnesses to the power of the gospel.

This story conveys the importance of reconciliation and forgiveness, and the way it needs to be embodied. Jesus comes back to let his friends know that they are forgiven. He brings them the peace they so desperately need. He spares nothing. Even coming back from the dead. Then he tells them to forgive as he has forgiven them. Go to any lengths necessary to set things right. Be as lavish and generous in their forgiveness as he has been with his.

And in the story from Acts, we see that the disciples have taken this message to heart and are offering forgiveness to those who were involved in the death sentence of Jesus. They are embodying the forgiveness they have received from Jesus. They are going to any lengths to be forgiving.

Traditionally in church we follow the gospel directive that before you come to the altar you should set things right if you have any unresolved problems with others. So there is the time for confession in the service and the passing of the peace. But realistically, this is not an actual process for setting things right in our relationships. It could be the opportunity to solidify our conviction about our desire and intent to seek reconciliation, but true forgiveness and reconciliation usually involve more work, more time, and more mess. And does it mean anything to seek forgiveness from God if that forgiveness does not result in a process of reconciliation with those we have wronged?

And in our case, that can be quite sticky. There are the workers in sweat shops that make our clothes, and those in the fields who pick our food, there are the soldiers and civilians being killed in the military action that we fund, there is the damage to the earth itself that we cause with our consumptive life style, there are the children who will go to bed hungry in this country and around the world as a result of our failure to overcome the distribution issues, and on and on.

Does engaging in confession in church do anything about the 29.4% of the national budget being spent on the military [St. Pete Times 4/28/09] while children comprise 36% of Americans in poverty but only 25% of the population? [Sojourners Magazine, 1/09] Does saying something in church do something about that?

And what about reconciliation in our personal lives? Making peace and restoring relationships with those we have wronged in some way, and who have wronged us. This is complicated and difficult.

In Montana, families of crime victims and families of perpetrators came together to abolish the death penalty in Montana. Crime victims’ families, death row inmates’ families, former death row inmates who were proven innocent shared experiences of forgiveness, redemption, justice. They told their stories, demanding an end to the death penalty in their state. This is the kind of difficult, significant sharing that can lead to transformation and reconciliation. It is not simple or easy. [Sojourners Magazine 2/09]

I am not saying that it shouldn’t be done. Of course, I believe we should always be working toward reconciliation each and every day. But it can be a life journey.

For me, I don’t want saying a prayer in church to trivialize the complexity of living a life of forgiveness and reconciliation and the transformation that is involved.

While I may have some doubts about the role of a ritual of confession in church, I do see that the church is needed for the pursuit of forgiveness and reconciliation. The disciples reinforced each other in their common witness. And they invited those who had a hand in the death of Jesus, not just to receive a verbal reprieve, but to become part of the faith community, to be brothers and sisters with Jesus’ friends, and to live a life of transformation and reconciliation in community. They are not assuming that this will be quick or easy.

The church is needed to make sure that we don’t just utter a prayer and go our merry way, but that we pursue a transformed life.

Indeed, the church is desperately needed to foster forgiveness and reconciliation. The church is needed to help us to see the power and hope and new life that are possible through forgiveness. The church is needed to inspire us and affirm our ability to engage in the process of forgiveness of ourselves and others. The church is needed to help us see where forgiveness and reconciliation are needed in our lives and in society. The church is needed to train our vision to see those who are victims and wronged by us directly and indirectly. The church is needed to train us to treat others with dignity and respect so that there is less hurt and abuse in our midst. The church is needed to help us learn to engage in conflict in productive, constructive ways that do not involve violence. The church is needed to help us know that we are frail human beings, capable of incredible wrong. And the church is needed to help us see that we are vessels of the divine, forgiving love that is desperately needed in the world. The church is needed to remind us that regardless of what we have done to ourselves, others, or the earth, reconciliation and peace are possible. The church is needed to be a community of support encouraging reconciliation, right action, moral behavior, and enacting grace.

During World War 1, Harry Emerson Fosdick published a prayer for the Germans: “O God, bless Germany! At war with her people we hate them not at all. . . We acknowledge before Thee our part in the world’s iniquity. . . We dare not stand in thy sight and accuse Germany as though she alone were guilty of our international disgrace. We all are guilty.” Charles Biddle, an American pilot, responded to Fosdick’s prayer by pledging to kill as many ‘Huns’ as he could, saying that ‘if Christianity requires us to forgive them, I am afraid I am no Christian.’ [Christian Century 5/5/09, p. 8]

Fosdick is articulating the challenge of the Gospel dictate to love your enemy. And the man who responds is honest. He shows an awareness of the challenge of forgiveness and reconciliation, and he consciously decides that he does not want to go there. There is integrity to that. The damage the church does is when we ignore the call of the gospel and undermine the powerful significance of forgiveness and reconciliation.

There was an old man who died and there was a wonderful funeral with the preacher extolling all of the good traits of the deceased — what an honest man he was, and what a loving husband and kind father he was. Finally, the widow leaned over and whispered to one of her children, “Go up there and take a look in the coffin and see if that’s your father.”

The fact is, we will all sin. In personal ways and as part of society. The gospel calls us to transformation and reconciliation. And in that process, we find peace.

Jewish rabbi and theologian Martin Buber tells this story of his grandfather:

My grandfather was lame. Once they asked him to tell a story about his teacher, and he related how the holy Baal Shem used to hop and dance while he prayed. My grandfather rose as he spoke, and he was so swept away by his story that he himself began to hop and dance to show how the master had done. From that hour on he was cured of his lameness. [Quoted in Resources for Preaching and Worship- Year B: Quotations, Meditations, Poetry, and Prayers by Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild]

When we talk about forgiveness and the grace of God, people should see it in us, as they witnessed it in Jesus and in the disciples. We have powerful testimony to share of how we have given and received forgiveness. We have incredible tales to tell of reconciliation in the face of tremendous loss. We have amazing stories to tell of new life and hope and transformation. May we not simply pay lame lip service to the power of God’s grace, but may we live that grace with infectious joy and peace. Amen.

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.