There are things I know about quite a few of you that you’d probably rather I didn’t mention in church, or in front of other people at all. It is an odd position to be in, as Pastor, to know things, to know family secrets and to have seen people at their most vulnerable, or as vulnerable as people allow themselves to be these days, and to have to hold those secrets close.
Because I use the things I know in order to write sermons. I mine the deep and rich vein of human fallibility, mostly my own, because those are the stories that I know the best but human fallibility in general to highlight our need for grace, our need for forgiveness, and the reality of what that can mean to us.
That’s one of the things that I like about this being a confessional church, a place where we begin the worship with the confession of our sins, or rather our confession of our sinfulness, the general state of Man as being unable to climb out of our sins and conquer them without help, without grace, without Christ.
Starting off that way brings us to a place of honesty, a place of common ground, a place of hope.We acknowledge that we are not all that we would like to be, not all that God would have us be. We look to the left and to the right and we see that everyone is speaking the same words, confessing the same situation, expressing common bonds with us. We are not alone, wailing in despair like the Psalmist, we are all in the same boat.
We are together and so the emphasis can shift from the personal guilt of each of us to the universal redemption available to all of us. We can also see that we and the person to our left and to our right are also redeemed, rescued from that guilt, that shame by the cross of Christ on Good Friday and we are promised a life that is fundamentally transformed by the empty tomb on Easter morning.
We see the distance, and we know that we are not alone.
But each of us has a story we do not want told. Somewhere within us there is something we are not quite sure is truly forgivable. We may think that we have lived a good life and we may hope that God will be gracious to us and kind, but there was that time in the war, there was that time in college, there was that moment that sits like a thorn in our psyche and makes us wonder.
I was thinking about the firebrand preachers that occupy the media’s imagination, the sweaty revivalist and his weeping confession, like Jimmy Swaggart did for us only he did it on television. The sermons where the preacher would actually crow, lay claim to his sins as if they were fuel for the fire of his own redemption, as if his confession that he had been to the pit, that he had wallowed in his sins that he had lain with fallen women and been seduced by the demon liquor and gambled his children’s food money away.
It was the setup, the prologue to the story of how Jesus had saved him. You get the whole crowd worked up about the sins, the great depth and horror of the sins of this man of God and it allowed those listening to him come to realize that there were depths of darkness that they themselves had never plumbed, that there were worse sins than theirs that had been set aside, that had been forgiven by the power and love of God made flesh in Jesus Christ.
These days though, there is less confession going on. These days adults are playing their cards a lot closer to the chest and we have an avenue for public confession but it involves the words Jerry and Springer and so even coming clean about the things that might be shameful in your life has taken on a sort of taint, a hint of the underclass that we do not wish to be associated with.
I think that’s why adults are as freaked out about social media as they are. There is an openness, a freedom of information inherent in social media that is so out of step with where the culture was heading for the past fifty years that is both a little uncomfortable and also seems so common, so ordinary, like an episode of daytime television talk shows, with the throwing of chairs and Geraldo repenting at leisure in his hospital room.
But the younger generation is much less concerned about the whole privacy thing, or at least in the way that we have become accustomed to. It freaks us out that they might be so shameless in their posting of images and stories that might be embarrassing to themselves, as if shame was something we needed to perpetuate and treasure.
But i wonder a little if what this really is about is the failure of memory in some of us, who cannot look back far enough to remember when everybody knew your business, when the neighbors looked over the fence and watched your kids in the street, and heard the gossip in church and saw your daughter “go away to visit her Aunt” when her belly began to swell only to return in a year with a “cousin” that the family was going to look after.
When the world was smaller, and people had more time to pay attention to the lives of the people over the fence, heck, when people knew the names of the people over the fence, there was a lot more transparency, we may not have wanted to admit it, but there was more knowledge and awareness of the fact that every family has problems, that everyone has something going on or something in their closet that they’d rather you didn’t see.
We have become more isolated from each other, less used to telling our stories, less used to being exposed as just the same as everyone else. Not only do we not know the names of the people across the fence, we have shrunk the amount of time we spend outside in favor of customized interior landscapes that allow us to wrap ourselves in a cocoon of self-referential living. The people inside the house are of our choosing, the pictures on the walls are of us, the TV shows us only our favorite things.
We can hide our shameful bits in such an environment. We can pretend that nobody knows. We can try and hold down the guilt we feel, the shame we live under because we are no longer called upon to speak about it and thus set it free.
Yeah, set it free.
That’s the second step of confession, you know: forgiveness. Sins you do not confess, wait, reel that back a little, sins you do not allow to see the light of day, that you do not expose to the fresh air of the grace of God, cannot be forgiven because we hold onto them as if they were precious legacies of the past or because we are just too ashamed to let people know that we are not, in fact better than they are.
I think that maybe we need to get a little better at that, at confessing, at allowing ourselves to look less than perfect in the eyes of others because, hey, nobody thinks we’re perfect anyway. I’d do anything and go anywhere for the woman who was kind enough to allow me to marry her and continues to be kind enough to allow me to live with her, but she’s not perfect and God knows that she knows that I am not perfect.
It might just make us a little more realistic about our sins, a little more hopeful about the prospect of God’s capacity for forgiveness despite our sinfulness.
It is weird to say, but it is a tremendous act of ego to think that our sins are special, or more heinous than other people’s, or to call into question whether or not God could ever possibly forgive us, even if we let the truth out and faced the confessional moment with the kind of bravery that we have when we face the judge in traffic court.
Can you think of someone in the Bible who has more of a need to feel the grace of God settle down upon his shoulders and lift his burdens than Peter? During the Passion Peter denies Jesus three times and as if he needed an exclamation point at the end of that sentence, the cock crows and focuses all of our attention on him, standing there, showing nothing more or less than the weakness of the flesh, the fear and the hopelessness that Jesus came to free us from.
His shame is not even secret, he is among the very same disciples and if it does not appear that they are holding his denial against him, but still, when Jesus comes to him, this is the third time since the crucifixion, don’t you think he gets a bit shy about hanging out? Don’t you think he’s a little nervous about how jesus might react?
A friend of mine, actually she did some supply preaching here while she was at PLTS, Carolyn Lesmeister, asked on Facebook yesterday why Peter was naked in the boat.
Now it would be easy to say that in those days clothing was not as readily available to the people as it is today. There was no JCPenney store, you could not just replace things as easily and so you took good care of them, stripping out of them if you were doing something too strenuous. That all makes sense, right?
But the reason that makes sense to me is that no matter what else was going on, Peter was naked before the Lord. Peter’s sin and shame is laid bare before the glory and grace of the Lord. The betrayal is known to jesus. The denial is as obvious as the skin on Peter’s probably tanned behind if he is accustomed to finishing in the nude, and in that nakedness is Peter’s confession.
He is vulnerable and aware of it. He is guilty and aware of it. He is forgiven and jesus makes sure that he knows about that too, that he is made aware of that by being given the ministry of reconciliation, the ministry of confession and forgiveness, the ministry of the church, bringing the word of god to the world.
Peter, the denier, Peter, the betrayer.
Do you love me Peter? Oh, yes Lord, you know I love you. Unspoken is the obvious, clear fact that Jesus still loves Peter, still forgives Peter, still comes to peter when his shame is laid bare for all to see.
What have you done that you think is so awful that you cannot confess it, that you feel you have to hide, that you wonder if God can forgive you?
Sit on that for a minute. Let that sink in and then let it grow just a little and try and figure out why it is we feel so comfortable holding the sins of others against them. We cannot seem to forgive ourselves and if we cannot manage that, then we will never be able to forgive others. We will stay wrapped in a cocoon of self-referential living, of secrets and shame, or judgment and lack of true relationship, lack of true community, lack of true church.
That is what is at stake. Feed my sheep is about food, to be sure, of there are hungry people, we ought feed them. But it is also about feeding them with the strength and hope of a community gathered in love and common confession, equal footing, neither jew nor greek, all one in the Lord, forgiven and empowered to change the world.
The church is what is at stake. When we come together and speak the truth, hear the love of God, and spread the word, we are feeding the Lord’s flock, nurturing the new world that jesus brought to birth, then left to us to tend and raise. A world that is run by hope and not by fear, a world that is marked by personal faith turned into public witness, a world that knows that things can get better, will get better for all of us when the naked sin is set aside, when the abundance of grace is known, when the blessings of a mission are known.
God redeemed Saul and he became the greatest evangelist of them all, walking the known world to feed the lord’s sheep. and Saul was the persecutor of the church!
Peter denied the Lord three times and his nakedness was clothed in the grace of God and he was given the keys to the kingdom.
What is holding us back from radical honesty, radical confession, and the subsequent radical forgiveness? God’s grace knows no bounds, and that is a banner worth picking up and running away with across the land, feeding the lord’s sheep when and only when we open our mouth and speak God’s love into the world.