Gratitude: A Matter of Life and Death

On November 23, we finished our series of messages dealing with the shape and structure of our worship service by considering how we can respond to God’s movement in our lives.  Yes, it’s November, so it must be “the sermon on the amount.”  Sort of.  Scriptures included passages from Exodus 35-36 (quoted below) and Matthew 6:19-24

Turns out this isn't in the Bible after all.  Better come up with some new ideas for Christmas...

Turns out this isn’t in the Bible after all. Better come up with some new ideas for Christmas…

Did you ever stop to think about all the stuff that Jesus never, ever said? Sometimes he gets blamed for these things, but he never actually said…

God helps those who help themselves

You are pathetic. I could never use a loser like you

I want you all to have really nice, shiny things. Go ahead, and treat yourselves!

If you only acted a little better, I wouldn’t have to send hurricane Katrina or Ebola or AIDS to wipe you out.

There’s another thing that Jesus never said that might be especially confusing because it sure sounds like something that people like me say that he said…

You ought to give your money to the church.

Nope, he never said that. As a matter of fact, Jesus never went to church even once in his earthly life, but that’s a whole ‘nother sermon. But this morning, you need to know that according to scripture, Jesus never once told anyone to fill out a pledge card and put it in the offering plate.

What he did say, unfortunately, was a lot more inconvenient. You heard it a few moments ago: “No one can serve both God and mammon.” What did he mean by that?

The Worship of Mammon (1909) Evelyn De Morgan.

The Worship of Mammon (1909) Evelyn De Morgan.

Well, “mammon” is one of those words that we only hear in church. As it turns out, it’s an Aramaic word that was apparently well-known enough that none of the folks who wrote the Greek New Testament seemed to think that it even needed to be translated. Just like all of you, even the non-Spanish speakers, know what I mean when I say “adios”, the first readers of the New Testament all knew that “mamon” referred to wealth of any kind. It’s pretty straightforward: “You can’t serve God and wealth.”

What Jesus does here is to indicate that each of us is held captive by something. The question is not, “will you serve?”, but “whom will you serve?” In this brief statement, Jesus acknowledges the core truth that something or someone has a hold on our hearts, and whoever or whatever that is will wind up controlling us. Each of us serves a master. Who’s yours?

There are a lot of “masters”, a lot of motivators on the prowl in our world. One of the most prevalent is fear. We wonder if there will be enough for us. We worry that they will come and take what is mine. Others of us spend a lot of time and energy serving a master called shame or regret. We spend large portions of each day remembering that great failure, and as we wallow in our guilt we keep saying (to God, to our kids, to ourselves), “Oh, don’t you worry…I’ll make this up to you. Somehow, I’m gonna make this right.” And some of us are owned by anger or power. “Nobody pushes me around. I’m the boss of me, and I do what I want, when I want…”

If you stop to think about it, each of us winds up shaping our lives around an unconscious commitment to the thing that drives us, owns us, or motivates us. We order our days in such a way as to avoid fear, triumph over shame, or maximize our power. Whatever motivates us, that thing owns us, and therefore receives our attention and our energy.

The theological way to name the thing that receives our attention and our energy is worship. Worship is simply acknowledging the hold that someone or something has on you, and the ways that that thing or person can make you behave.

We have talked for the last few weeks about how our worship of God, as made known by the Holy Spirit in the person of Jesus, shapes who we are.

We show up here in worship, not because we thought it was a nice or polite thing to do, but because we believe that God has invited us, or called us to worship. We confess our sin, and in doing so we let go of what has bound us, we acknowledge where we have fallen short, and we accept the wholeness and forgiveness that God offers. And we experience the mystery that we call “the Word”, wherein we hold onto the truth that God is willing to reveal a part of God’s self to us, and in that revelation, we find out that the Story is for us.

Because we have been called toward the Word and been given a glimpse of the Word, we can respond to that Word in joy. We sing with energy and depth of spirit. We share in the sacraments of Communion or Baptism, not because we think God likes us better if we do those things, but because they are ways that we can participate in what God is already doing. We bring prayer – our words – to God, because God has spoken God’s Word to us! And we bring our offerings to God as well.

Ha! There it is. It’s November, and the preacher is going to get around to preaching about the almighty dollar.

Well, guilty as charged – sort of. But you need to hear me saying that we don’t give out of a sense of guilt, or shame, or pride, or duty. In fact, if those are the reasons why you give this morning, I’d just as soon have you hold onto your money, because maybe you need it more than we do.

When I was a kid, the messages I got about money from the church all seemed to revolve around the theme of “You know, this church doesn’t run itself. Everyone needs to do his part and kick in a little. Who do you think pays the light bills around this joint? We’re trying hard, and if you just give us a little more of your money, we’ll get by all right.”

Please. As if God needed me, or my money, or my voice. If those things we’ve been saying and singing about God all morning are even halfway true, God doesn’t need me for anything. I’m not dropping my money into the plate so that God can go ahead and splurge on something nice for himself that he couldn’t otherwise afford if I wasn’t here for him to count on!

I give because I need to give. I give because I am responding to what God has done in my life. The reason that our offering is near the end of the worship has nothing to do with how you rate the sermon or the music or the overall ambiance of this establishment. It’s all about responding, in gratitude, to the amazing things that God has done and is doing. And because I am grateful, I bring what I have to God in an act of worship.

Construction of the Tabernacle with Bezalel. Johann Christoph Weigel (c. 1720)

Construction of the Tabernacle with Bezalel. Johann Christoph Weigel (c. 1720)

My all-time favorite story of grateful giving is found in Exodus. Check this out. The people have been slaves in Egypt. For 400 years, they’ve been serving the Pharaoh, making his mud bricks, building his cities, living in squalor. And God sets them free, and sends them into the desert, on the way to their own place. They are someplace, and they are stuck, and God moves towards them, and God releases them and God directs them. And they say, “Wow! We want to worship!” And God says, “I’m good with that. Here’s how I want you to worship.” And God goes on to give the people the plans for some amazingly beautiful and costly worship structures.

And Moses said to the people of Israel, “See, the Lord has called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah; and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability, with intelligence, with knowledge, and with all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold and silver and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, for work in every skilled craft. And he has inspired him to teach, both him and Oholiab the son of Ahisamach of the tribe of Dan. He has filled them with ability to do every sort of work done by a craftsman or by a designer or by an embroiderer in blue and purple and scarlet stuff and fine twined linen, or by a weaver—by any sort of workman or skilled designer. Bezalel and Oholiab and every able man in whom the Lord has put ability and intelligence to know how to do any work in the construction of the sanctuary shall work in accordance with all that the Lord has commanded.”

Great! There’s a plan! God’s tabernacle is going to get done. But how? I mean, where is all this stuff going to come from?

And Moses called Bezalel and Oholiab and every able man in whose mind the Lord had put ability, every one whose heart stirred him up to come to do the work; and they received from Moses all the freewill offering which the people of Israel had brought for doing the work on the sanctuary.

Ohhhh, I get it! The people are so excited to be included in on what God is doing that they bring their own treasures to God’s house. Wouldn’t it be awesome to have enough extra stuff laying around that you could bring some of it to God for God to use?

They still kept bringing him freewill offerings every morning, so that all the able men who were doing every sort of task on the sanctuary came, each from the task that he was doing, and said to Moses, “The people bring much more than enough for doing the work which the Lord has commanded us to do.” So Moses gave command, and word was proclaimed throughout the camp, “Let neither man nor woman do anything more for the offering for the sanctuary.” So the people were restrained from bringing; for the stuff they had was sufficient to do all the work, and more. (Exodus 35:30 – 36:7)

Did you hear that? Moses had to send out a group text saying “STOP trying to give your gold and treasures to the people in worship. We have way too much stuff and it’s just getting in the way.”

Remember, who were these people? Escaped slaves. Do you think that they had a lot of extra gold and fabric and bronze laying around? Did they have 401(k) plans to cash in? Of course not. What do you think the net worth of the average escaped Egyptian slave was back then? These people had nothing…but they brought it to God because they were so overwhelmed with gratitude.

Can you even begin to imagine something like that today? What if the ushers had to, I don’t know, turn around and empty the plate a few times into a garbage can or something because it was so full it kept spilling? What if you got a letter from the Financial Secretary in August, saying, “Look, folks, we really appreciate all your good intentions and everything, but the fact of the matter is that our budget is fully funded for the entire year and we’re solid. If you’ve got more money you’d like to give away, maybe try the folks down at the Pittsburgh Project, or someone like Doctors Without Borders. But really, we’re good here…”

That’s hard to even imagine, isn’t it? But it could happen. I mean if a group of impoverished slaves could do that, what if we decided to respond to God’s grace in our lives according to our means? I give, not because God needs me to, or because I want you to like me more, or because the IRS gives me a tax break. I give simply because I am grateful. I’m grateful for a lot of amazingly wonderful theological truths, but let me break down for you this morning five things for which I am amazingly grateful.

My Cumberland St. castle for the last 21 years...

My Cumberland St. castle for the last 21 years…

I have a home. On any given night, 610,042 people in our country are homeless[1], and right now there are about 44 million people around the world who have been forced to flee their homes due to war or some other disaster – they are crowded into refugee camps, sleeping on the ground, exposed to the elements.[2] And I have a home. That is amazing to me.

Artist's representation...

Artist’s representation…

Inside my home there is a huge box filled with food. More food than I could eat in a month, I’d say. I have never, ever in my life worried that I could not feed my family. 18,000 children died of hunger-related causes in the last twenty-four hours,[3] but somehow I have always had more than enough to eat. How can I not share?

kitchen-sink-base-cabinetAlmost a billion people in the world lack access to safe drinking water. I have these things all over my house. When I need fresh water, I just turn a knob and BOOM! There it is. Pure, clean, water. I have so much water in my house, do you know what I do with it? The typical American uses 24 gallons of pure, clean drinkable water flushing our pee down the drain. Crazy! Across the world, there are people who will walk miles to fill a bucket of river water to cook with, but the average American uses 90 gallons of water a day – ¼ of which goes to get rid of our waste.[4]

ShoeAnd look at these babies: I call them “shoes”. Not only do they keep my feet warm, but I am protected from sharp objects, parasites, filth, disease… And, get this: I have more than one pair! I have brown shoes and black shoes and boots and… I am loaded! How can I not be grateful?

You may be familiar with the internet meme indicating if you have a roof over your head, clothes on your back, food in the fridge, a bank account, and cash on hand, you’re wealthier than 92% of the humans alive today. And do you know what? That’s not even what makes me think I’m rich.

These people love me.

These people love me.

Get a load of this! I have people to love and who actually love me back. How can I not be grateful every second of every day?

Yes, Dave, I hear you, but let’s be honest. Your house is OK, but this neighborhood is a little sketchy. And I’ve seen what you eat. You could do better. And some of your clothes are older than many of the people in this room. You could do better, Dave.

Listen for it, people…

You deserve better, Dave. You’ve got some nice stuff…but why not freshen it up a little bit? Go ahead, Dave. Take more.

goldencalf2You see? That’s the God of Mammon coming back to try to exert his control. Hours after we profess to being soooooo grateful for what we already have, we’ll trample each other in the stores in our quest to pile up more, better, shinier stuff.

Look, I’m not going to try to talk you out of doing anything. If you think you need to get up at 4 a.m. on Black Friday in order to get out there and buy the latest doo-dad, well, who am I to tell you otherwise?

Cornucopia_SuppliesBut I’m not your friend, and I’m a lousy Pastor, if I don’t at least remind you that this isn’t The Hunger Games and that pile of loot you’re rushing for isn’t the cornucopia filled with things that are going to save your life. Stuff won’t save you. Mammon doesn’t love you. It only wants to own you. And at the end of the day, in fact, it will kill you.

So today, as we finish out the Christian year and turn the corner towards Advent, I dare you to be grateful.

I dare you to remember the fact that you were called into this world by a God who is crazy about you. That you have been forgiven. And that – this is truly amazing – you are a part of the story that God is writing across the pages of history. God has spoken a Word, and it includes you!

Do you see? In our service of worship, we say that God has called us, come to us, and invited us. How will we respond?

Look at what God has done.

Love God.

Celebrate your freedom by acting like and walking with God. Do not let fear, shame, regret, or power motivate you. Point to this truth with thanksgiving. Demonstrate it with thanks-living. In worship and gratitude, share what you have. It is, quite literally, the only way to live.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] http://www.endhomelessness.org/pages/snapshot_of_homelessness

[2] http://education.nationalgeographic.com/education/maps/mapping-displaced-people-around-the-world/?ar_a=1

[3] http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/world/2007-02-17-un-hunger_x.htm

[4]  http://magazine.good.is/articles/americans-flush-5-billion-down-the-toilet-every-year

The Gift of Story

We are looking at the various components of our worship – this week, it was The Word.  What is the “Word of God”, and how do we experience it?  Scriptures included Exodus 19:1-9 and Mark 1:14-20.

When is the last time you found yourself holding something that you wanted to throw away, but you didn’t know how to do it? Some things are just impossible to get rid of, aren’t they? What would you say is the hardest thing to dispose of?

97717028.datNuclear waste would be a top contender, of course. Unless you’ve got a huge desert or underground bunker somewhere, you’re out of luck. The City won’t take that, even on recycling days.

If you live in the city, you know that we can’t throw away electronics, or batteries, or certain kinds of light bulbs without causing damage to the environment. Leftover paint is also a concern.

FlagDisposalWhat about a torn US flag? We’ve been taught that the flag should never touch the ground…what do we do with it when it’s so weathered that we don’t want to use it? We can’t just throw it away, can we?

We could go on and on. Have you ever tried to dispose of used motor oil? Acne? An old boyfriend? Some things, you just can’t get rid of…

old_bibleHere’s one more challenge that many of you have faced: old Bibles. I know that, because I can’t tell you how many times someone has shown up with a box of beat-up, torn, musty and even moldy books and said, “Um, well, Pastor Dave, I needed to get rid of these, but I couldn’t throw them away, so, well, I thought maybe the church could use them.”

Yeah, because nothing says “We’re moving forward” like raggedy old books that appear to be coated with penicillin.

No, seriously, I get it. Nobody wants to be seen as disrespectful. Do you take a Bible and just throw it in the trash? Can you shred it? What do you do?

TorahburialWhen Muslims encounter a copy of the Quran that is beyond repair, they are instructed to burn it. When scrolls containing the Jewish Torah were ruined as a result of hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, they were buried in a cemetery alongside the grave of their beloved former Rabbi.

I you don’t think me to be a heathen, but when I am given an unusable copy of the Bible, it goes into the recycling bin. That’s what I do with old paper.

“But Pastor Dave! It’s a holy book! It’s the Word of God! How can you do that?”

Let’s talk about the Word of God. We are in the midst of a series of sermons wherein we’re looking at worship, and how what we do shapes who we are becoming. Let’s say that this is the first time you’ve ever heard of the Christian faith. You’ve stumbled in here this morning and were handed a bulletin that contains an order for worship. If all you knew about this congregation or the church was the bulletin, you would assume that whatever this thing called “The Word” was, it was pretty darned important. The major headings in our service are “God’s People Prepare for the Word”, “God’s People Receive the Word”, and “God’s People Respond to the Word.” Our whole time together is designed so that we can somehow encounter this thing called the Word.

What is the Word of God?

It’s not the Bible.

“Oh, snap! Come on, kids, it’s time to find a new church. Pastor Dave just said that the Bible is not the Word of God.”

Stay with me – I would much rather say that the Bible contains the Word of God, or even better yet, the Bible is the primary means that we can come to know the Word of God. But I don’t think that this volume of 1095 pages of beautiful onionskin paper IS the Word.

TheWordIt actually says as much in here: John 1 says that Jesus is the Word of God. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God…”

Jesus is the ultimate message from God. Jesus is the means by which God has chosen to communicate most intimately God’s self.

In today’s scripture reading, we have two accounts of ways in which the Creator bursts into human reality and says, “Hey, listen! I have something to tell you.” Whether it is God approaching the Israelites in the wilderness of Sinai or Jesus calling fishermen along the shores of Galilee, the story that is The Story is that God longs to give himself to his creation. And the way that God does that, it seems to me, is through the Word.

In Genesis 1, God goes about the business of creating a cosmos, and how does it happen? “God said.” Everything that you can see and a bazillion times more that you can’t see is a result of God’s saying. And all the way over here on page 1095, in Revelation 22, the Spirit says, “these words are trustworthy”. God uses words, or, more precisely, God’s Word, forms creation and all that is.

The Bible is composed of words that are from, or about, or to God. This book is the most important book ever written, published, or read.

It is not so important because of the kind of paper or ink that has been used, or the beauty of its lettering. The language of publication doesn’t particularly matter. If this book is important at all (and, as I’ve said, I believe it to be the most important volume ever assembled), it is important because of what it says – the message to which it points.

When we look at the bulletin and see that our worship is shaped to enable us to prepare for, receive, and respond to the Word of God, we embrace the truth that there is a Story. There is a great narrative to which we are privy and, in fact, in which we are included. The Bible is unlike any other book. It’s not a recipe, as much as some people would have you believe that if you do these certain things and add those specific ingredients, then that result is guaranteed to occur. And it’s not a textbook, wherein we are given the answers to all our questions. And it’s not a work of history that allows us to have a perfect chronological understanding of all the places we used to be.

If this book is valuable, it is valuable because it testifies to the fact that God has spoken and that God still speaks.

Raphael, The Miraculous Draught of Fishes (1515)

Raphael, The Miraculous Draught of Fishes (1515)

We don’t come in here and read the Gospel and say, “Wow! Good for Peter! He met Jesus and his life was changed.” We read the Gospel and we remember that somehow, somewhere, Jesus invited us to get out of whatever particular boat we were drifting around in and summoned us into new purposes and callings. We read, we listen, we look for, and we submit to what is written here so that we are better able to play our own part in the Story that is still being told.

That’s why it is so important that our Order of Worship contains a little piece called the “Prayer for Illumination”. The whole of our worship is built on the Bible – but before we read it, we pray that the Spirit who caused the Word to be uttered and the words to be recorded and preserved will allow us to hear the Word in ways that bring life and health and peace to our world today. This book isn’t magic, and when Jason and Lindsay come up here and read it, there’s no hocus pocus. In fact, unless the One who began everything by speaking a Word empowers us, we can’t hear or receive a blessed thing.

One of the most humbling things that I have ever heard was told to me by an eighth-grader in Rochester, New York more than twenty years ago. We were talking about the “Prayer of Illumination” and Christina said, “Look, I don’t know if this is going to make any sense or not, but here’s what I think happens. I think that after the Bible is read, then an angel shows up and freezes everyone – you know, stops time. And the angel goes right up to Pastor Dave and whispers in his ear the things that God needs us to hear right then. And because time is frozen, none of us know it – and Pastor Dave doesn’t know it either – but somehow, the combination of the Bible being read, Pastor Dave being willing to help us learn more about it, and God’s Spirit wanting us to know what it means in the right now – it all ends up us being better able to follow God and Jesus today.”

Do you see? I don’t think that my young friend was actually describing her belief about how God interacts with the space/time continuum. I think that she was pointing to the amazing truth that the letters on this page and the noises that come out of my mouth are unintelligible unless somehow God’s Holy Spirit gives us a sense of the Story that is bigger than we can imagine. We come in here to Worship the Storyteller, not to venerate the book.

Having said that, however, I want to caution us against treating what this book says too lightly. I believe we are called to learn the Story, and the Bible is the way that God has given us to do that. When I say that we can learn the Story, I mean that we approach this volume with humility and anticipation, expecting that there is much here to shape and form us. I mean that we are called to walk around inside of the Bible and seek to learn who’s who, where things happened, and what was being communicated in places like Philippi or Babylon or under the oak tree in Mamre or beside the pillars in Solomon’s Porch. We are invited to hear the voices of the captives who cry out and the kings who refuse to submit to God and the Pharisees who arrested Peter and John and the One who preached a sermon on a hill outside of Capernaum.

You see, we know that those things – the chronology and the cast of characters and the geography – do not save us. And yet, it is in those things that we discover the meaning that the Story contains. We read the songs and the histories and the love stories and the terrible things that happen and from it all the Message emerges. Learn the story.

And don’t just learn it, but love the Story. Allow it to wash over you in ways that remind you that God’s intentions for you and for this world are life and joy. Love the story by walking into it again and again, and by inviting others to hear the parts of it that resonate most deeply with your own spirit. Hold the story up to your world and see that it is true in new and fresh ways in 2014.

“But Pastor Dave,” you say, “I can’t do all of that. Some of it bothers me.” Then hold that up, too. This summer, I was reading a book that was totally engrossing – it held my interest and called forth the best from me. And then I got to a paragraph that just did not make sense at all. I took the book to a couple of friends and I read them the paragraph and said, “Help me see what I’m missing here.” And they were stumped. So, since it’s 2014 and I’m a big boy with a computer and the internet, I emailed the author and I said, “Hey, what’s up with page 214?” And to my delight, a couple of days later, the author got back to me and said, “This is what that means…” If you are having trouble with part of the Story, then talk to the author about it! Love the story, and love the Story Teller enough to say, “OK, Lord, you’re gonna have to walk me through this part of it one more time…”

And finally, if you learn the story and come to love the story, you will be equipped to live the story. Again, the purpose of this book is not so that you will be able to give everyone you meet a day by day account of what Moses did in the wilderness, or the recipe for the communion bread that Jesus used, or name five significant differences between Hittites, Jebusites, Amorites, and Edomites. To quote John again, this is “written that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31).

Let me put it this way: God didn’t tell us a story so that we could know what happened once upon a time in a faraway galaxy. God has spoken so that we, God’s people, might embrace the message and live in such a way that the Story continues to be heard and received.

In one of the foundational documents for our church, we read that the church is to be “the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.”[1] I think that means that the way that we live together and treat each other and respond to the world around us ought to reflect the purposes that God has for the world. The world should know the Story that is contained in the Bible simply by watching the way that the church acts – and in our living of this Story, we can perhaps inspire others to want to learn it and come to love it.

One of the most significant theologians of the 20th century was a German pastor named Karl Barth, who thought amazingly profound thoughts as he taught a congregation in Switzerland while listening to the guns of the World War pounding in the distance. As he considered the importance of the Bible for his era – and for ours – he said this:

“What is there within the Bible?” It is a dangerous question. We might do better not to come too near this burning bush. For we are sure to betray what is—behind us! The Bible gives to every man and every era such answers to your questions as they deserve. We shall always find in it as much as we seek and no more: high and divine content if it is high and divine content that we seek; transitory and “historical” content, if transitory and “historical” content that we seek. Nothing whatever, if it is nothing whatever that we seek. The hungry are satisfied by it, and to the satisfied it is surfeiting before they have opened it. The question, “What is in the Bible?” has a mortifying way of converting itself into the opposing question, “Well, what are you looking for, and who are you, pray, who make bold to look?”[2]

When we worship, we seek to learn this word in order that we might love The Word to the end that those who might never find a copy of this book might hear an eternal Word and know that the Story is for them. As it is for you. I have a hunch that if we are able to live like that, I’ll have a lot more heavily-read, worn-out Bibles on my hands. I’ll take it. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] This is the sixth “Great End” of the church and has been a part of our official polity for well over a hundred years. F-1.0304 contains all six of the “Great Ends of the Church”.

[2] Karl Barth, The Strange New World Within the Bible, (published in The Word of God and the Word of Man, Pilgrim Press, 1928).

Who Told You?

We are looking at the various components of our worship – this week, it was confession.  What’s it for, and why bother?  Our scriptures included Genesis 3:1-11 and I John 1:5-10. This message is, incidentally, the first time in my life I have used the phrase “as the Good Book says” in a sermon, and I found 1100+ sermons on my computer this afternoon.  Hmmm.  Cliche much?

When I was an eager young pastor I was in the practice of making unannounced visits to congregation members. I walked up to one house, and the door was slightly open; I could hear the sound of the TV on inside, and I rang the bell. And then I knocked. I knew someone was home – but they were clearly ignoring me.

Eager to impress with both my knowledge of scripture and my willingness to get to know people, I took my business card and I wrote “Revelation 3:20” on it. That verse says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock, and if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in…”

On Sunday, my card was returned in the offering plate, and I noticed that there was an addition: someone had scrawled “Genesis 3:10.” That verse reads, “I heard the sound of thee in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.”

OK, that never happened. But it should have. Maybe one day, it will.

This morning, we are continuing to explore the practices that we associate with the worship – and the Worth-ship – of God. You might recall the last time I was up here, we remembered that our public gatherings start with an announcement that we are a new people who come together in a new time and a new space – we “waste” our time in order to be fully present to the one who has created time and placed us within it. Today, we’ll talk about how we move more deeply into that presence by clearing the decks – by preparing our hearts, minds, and spirits to encounter the Word that is promised.

The Confession (1860?) Alphonse Legros

The Confession (1860?) Alphonse Legros

That is to say, this morning, we’re going to be talking about confession.

I know a pastor who sat with me for forty-five minutes one day and said, “You know, Dave, I just don’t get it. Why do you want a prayer of confession in your Sunday morning worship? I mean, we come in, we get together and sing a few great songs. We finally get to the point where we’re really “up” and feeling good about ourselves, and then you want to stop us and say, ‘I know, God, I’m a worm, I’m no good, please don’t be too mad at me…’ It’s such a downer, Dave. I hate that.” And so, to the best of my knowledge, this pastor does not have confession as a part of his regular worship services.

My own experience, on the other hand, is closer to the man who had been searching for a church in his town and couldn’t find one where he felt welcome. He came into one congregation as they were beginning their prayer of confession, and as the congregation intoned, “Almighty and most merciful Father; We have erred, and strayed like lost sheep. We have followed too much the desires of our own hearts. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us…” he was able to relax and he thought, “Finally, a church I can relate to. These are my kind of people!”

One thing that I have learned in more than three decades of walking with people toward Jesus is that I hardly ever need to remind someone of the fact that they have screwed up. Oh, there are particular instances where I’ve helped someone to see that a particular action or comment was not right, but by and large, by the time they get to 11 on Sunday morning, most of the people I know are pretty well-prepared to own the truth that their lives are not what they are supposed to be. We know that we are broken. In theological language, we know that we have sinned. There is something that is not right about us. There is something that is not good within us.

So if we all know it anyway (which is a part of the reason my pastor friend didn’t like a prayer of confession – he said it was just a waste of time that we could use singing or preaching), why bother? If everyone knows that we’re sinners, why bother confessing?

Let’s go back to the questions from Genesis. The Lord discovers the man and the woman and he asks, “Where are you?” and, a little later, “Who told you that you were naked?”

Oh, for crying out loud, Lord, everybody in the garden knows what’s happened here. We feel bad enough already. What difference does it make who told whom?

I am unable to find the source of this image.  If you are aware of it, please

I am unable to find the source of this image. If you are aware of it, please let me know!

Listen: let’s say that I have a friend who is a 22 year-old woman. The honest to God truth is that she is a beautiful, beautiful woman. How does she know that she is beautiful? People have told her. Everybody tells her that she is beautiful. It is the truth.

One of the regulars at the restaurant where she works told her. He has told her many, many times, really. He keeps telling her, three or four times a week, as he complains that his son is a loser and his wife is emotionally dead and he himself is so lonely and my friend is so beautiful, so beautiful, and can he just buy her some dessert and coffee, or maybe something more some time…

One of her teachers told her she was beautiful. There’s an art professor down at the college who has her own photography business on the side, and she sells “stock” images for advertising and marketing to large corporations. She has told my friend several times that she is so beautiful, and does she want to sit for a few photos – nothing, much, really – and if she sits for the photos she can get extra credit, especially if the professor is able to sell those photos for a tidy sum…

Her little sister has told her. The younger sibling does not share the smooth, clear skin that her older sister has, and as she cries out over her acned face, my friend tries to comfort her, only to be told “What do you know? What do you care? You’re so beautiful! You have no idea…”

All these people, all day, telling her what everyone already knows: she is beautiful. But why do they say this to her?

And then, last night, a young man took her to dinner, and as they sat in the quiet restaurant he pulled a small box from his pocket that was full of a ring and the promises of a lifetime, and he told her she was beautiful.

Do you see? All of these people are telling the truth. This woman is beautiful. But why do they tell her that? I know, truth is truth…but how you learn it, and from whom, affects your ability to enter into it.

You and I both know that you are a wreck. You are a sinner. Like me, your life is broken and marred and incomplete. That is the truth.

Who told you? And why?

Statue of the Fallen Angel, in Retiro Park, Madrid, Spain

Statue of the Fallen Angel, in Retiro Park, Madrid, Spain

In Genesis 3 and in Revelation 12 and on just about every page of this Bible there is one who is called “the accuser” who stands with you as you look at yourself and who says, “Yes, you really are a screw-up. You never do anything right. I doubt you ever will. You are disgusting, and God is going to be so disappointed in you. You had better go and hide, you pathetic wretch…”

Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

And similarly, from start to finish in the Bible, we hear another voice, sometimes called “the Advocate”, who tells us the same truth: that parts of our lives are bent and twisted and we are deeply scarred, but who then goes on to say “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

Both the accuser and the Advocate will tell you the truth – but how? And why?

There are good, moral, upright people who will look at the brokenness of our world and of your life and who will shame you. They will judge you. They will instill you with fear, saying things like, “Oh, for crying out loud, who do you think you are? Confess, you dirty sinner! Repent! Turn from your evil, or burn in hell forever.”

These people have, in some measure, a portion of the truth. They know who you are. And yet their voice is invalid because the truth that they claim to possess is truth that is aimed at you like a weapon. Truth, told thusly, is not gift. Truth like this brings fear, guilt and shame – and, ironically, more brokenness, more scarring, more running, more hiding.

When we confess in our morning worship, it’s not because anyone here is holding the answer key and is eager to demonstrate how you have failed. We confess because we already know the truth – and we need to release that knowledge, that fear, that shame so that we are ready to enter into the fullness of the Story that is about to be told. We have a prayer of confession in our worship because we need to lay down the things that we know about ourselves so that we’ll be ready to hold onto the hope and healing that are the proper fruits of truth.

We do not confess out of a posture of fear or shame, but in order to acknowledge the situation and then to let it go. In fact, the fathers and mothers of our church have indicated that a worship service may include or omit a prayer of confession. That’s an optional part of a Presbyterian worship service. However, they go on to instruct me that it is wrong for me to invite you to confess your brokenness unless I immediately follow that with an acknowledgement that the promise of restoration and forgiveness is bigger than your confession. If you ever come in here and are invited to confess, you had better leave here knowing that you are forgiven. A half-truth is no truth.

That’s why we confess.

How do we confess? You’ve already heard a significant part of that – we confess by sharing a unison prayer, standing together and laying our sin and disruption before the Lord. Almost always, we share a common prayer and a few moments of silent, personal prayer.

The congregational prayer of confession is difficult for some. I had a man call me once, very angry, because in his mind I was making him confess to all these terrible things by reading this prayer. “I don’t do that stuff!”, he said. “Why should I have to confess it?” I simply replied, “OK, that’s fine. Just tell me what kind of thing you do do and I’ll be happy to include it in this week’s bulletin.”

nakedandashamedWhen we confess as a congregation and in public, we are saying that this is a condition: we are a greedy, racist, selfish, fearful people. Oh, I get it – today, you may be a little less greedy, racist, selfish or afraid than you were yesterday, but by and large, our common prayer covers most of us. Our common prayer names the world we live in, and identifies the air we breathe.

The confession we share here on Sundays is a part of the confession we’ll need if we are to move forward in our discipleship. In addition to our congregational and corporate confession, I believe that we need to have a personal and private confessional. Such a practice is not generally a part of our public worship – unlike in, say, “joys and concerns”, I’m not likely to stand here and say, “Does anyone have a particularly juicy sin they’d like to confess before the body?”
Yet each of us needs to have someone who knows our particular brokenness, fear, and shame so that they are in a position to help us see the power of release and redemption and healing that is available. For some in the Christian family, that means going into a little room and sliding a screen and saying, “Bless me, father, for I have sinned…” For others, it means hiring a therapist and asking them to help us sort out the messy truth that is our lives.

For me, it means that once a week or so, I put myself in a position where I am with a trusted friend who loves me and who knows the truth about me. In this kind of friendship, I am able to talk about where I struggle, where I fall, and where I celebrate. Those people are the ones who help me to see the difficult truths about myself without shame or fear – and when I let go of shame and fear, it’s easier to hold onto the promise of God’s best.

As we walk through worship today – and most every week – we name the truth. We are sinful people. We are damaged. We have scars. And as we walk through worship, we are met by the One who made us, who calls to us, who Advocates on our behalf and says, “Yes, of course you are like that. I have known that about you for a long time. Let’s take care of those things…”

And once this worship service ends, as you go through the week, there will not be many days when you will fail to be confronted with the truth of your own brokenness. And you will need to remember that what is true in here is true out there – that it is possible to let go of that brokenness and walk without fear towards healing.

I have a hunch that most weeks, most of you can wrap your heads around that truth when you are here…but out there, you might not be so sure. If you find that you have a hard time believing that the truth – the whole truth – is a gift; if you find that you are more and more listening to the accuser, rather than the Advocate, then call a friend. Call me, or Pastor George, or one of your elders, and we will sit with you and remind you of the truth that is true FOR you.

Acknowledge that truth. And remember that the sinfulness and brokenness of our human condition is not eternally true – but the grace, and peace, and mercy of God are, as the Good Book says, from everlasting to everlasting. Remember that. And help your neighbor to do the same. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] The Confession (1860?) Alphonse Legros

[2] Statue of the Fallen Angel, statue in Retiro Park, Madrid, Spain

[3] Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil