I recently came across an old Lutheran hymnal from 1901. The morning service began with these words, “We poor miserable sinners…” My first reaction was “Ouch! No wonder the church has driven people away (grumble, grumble)!” A few days later, I read an article about Donald Trump responding to an inquiry on whether he’d ever asked God for forgiveness with, "I am not sure I have…I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don't bring God into that picture. I don't." To which my immediate reaction was, “Ouch! This is exactly why people need the church, to counter a culture which teaches us to never apologize and do whatever you need to do to rise to the top (grumble, grumble)!” I have to wonder if my mind does so many mental whiplashes around the topic of confession and forgiveness as a vicar, that perhaps your minds might do the same when you pause to think about the practice we find ourselves doing almost every week before worship.
I think my own mental gymnastics is not that I don’t believe that we are all sinners (we are, in fact, all poor miserable sinners) but I find my tension in constantly reminding folks of their sinfulness because it can often act to reinforce unhealthy narratives connecting sin to guilt and shame. At the same time, I find the act of confessing deeply freeing. Standing with others, everyone admitting that in some way, somehow we’ve messed up and not treated each other as well as we could have – I feel as if I’m not only asking God for forgiveness but the people around me. There is something comforting and a little bit surprising each week as the promise of God’s forgiveness is proclaimedin response to the confession. I think it has become more surprising and intriguing over the last few years as I am continually learning how hard it is for me to forgive as a human and what a gift that is for God to forgive me (and those around me) for all that we do to each other (or lack doing for each other) – over and over. If I’ve learned anything from my own relationships or chaplaincy work, it is a sense of how complicated, emotion-filled, and transformative forgiveness can be in one’s life. I also think it’s important to both bring and receive words of comfort and reassurance stating that whether or not one is able to forgive, God forgives and continually forgives us.
One reason why I (or, perhaps we?) might have an uncomfortable relationship with confession and forgiveness is that our history as Lutheran Christians is linked to a complicated relationship and resistance to it. Luther wrote strongly against the notion that there was anything we must do in order to receive God’s grace and forgiveness, particularly through the selling of indulgences, which was often linked with individual confession during his time. It was not that Luther was against these practices – in fact, he thought they were necessary for our life with God and each other, rather, he wanted to simply reform them. Even after the reforms happened, it was still (I’d argue is currently still) seen as a primarily Roman Catholic practice. Currently, the act of confession and forgiveness holds a prominent spot in worship, but it is almost always in a communal form. In many ways while we shifted from individual confession, we never shifted away from the private aspects of it even when we stand together publicly on Sunday mornings.
During the season of Lent you are invited to explore the act of confession and forgiveness with others at St. Paul by reading “Standing Naked Before God: The Art of Public Confession” by Molly Baskette. Her book elbows us to look deeply at our own stories, thoughts on sins, vulnerability, and communal practices surrounding the act of public confession. There will be two opportunities to discuss it with others immediately following Thursday evening prayer on 2/25 and 3/10 (~8:00 pm). Pastor Goodman and I are excited to read and explore it with you! With hope, we share Baskette’s words that “…in seeking meaning, we find it: God gets to reveal where She was in our story all along, and we begin to see the glimmers of grace and redemption, the outlines and contours of Her shape, the mark of Her prints all over it. Confessing, we get to meet God face to face.”
P.S. Molly Baskette, the author of the book we will be reading together, was the keynote speaker for New England’s Synod Assembly this last year. Below you will find a link for her talk and also your fearless pastor sharing a confession with all those gathered. You’ll find Ross’ example at 45:53 and one from a college student at 18:59. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=08GrzF9QtQQ