09/15/13 Sermon (September 15, 2013): Confession/Telling the Truth

posted Sep 25, 2013, 11:56 AM by David Hawkins   [ updated Sep 25, 2013, 12:04 PM ]

09/15/13 Sermon (September 15, 2013)

Scripture Reading: 1 Timothy 1:12-17 (Liturgist)

I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners-of whom I am the foremost.

But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

Sermon: "Confession: The Discipline of Telling the Truth"

Today is the second of an 8 week sermon series on the classical spiritual disciplines of the church. Last week we looked at the discipline of Spiritual Guidance, and next week we will examine Prayer and Meditation.

We find Paul today writing to his friend and student, Timothy. He is offering some guidance for Timothy’s church, which is obviously causing Timothy some problems. Some of his advice has to do with social conventions, and some of it has to do with his concerns that there are some people in his congregation that are teaching a message that is contrary to the Gospel.

Paul doesn’t spend much time discussing the problems that these teachers are causing, but he does indicate that they are guilty of placing on Timothy’s congregation an unhealthy burden of particular behaviours, behaviors that reflect their interpretation of the law. He is especially angry at their insistence that a certain lifestyle is intrinsic to receiving the grace of God.

Now it is curious, that Paul would be so very angry at these teachers linking the Gospel to a certain set of behaviors, while in the very same letter he sets out quite a laundry list of his own expectations of how members of Timothy’s congregation ought to conduct themselves. I’m not going to go into that paradox today, although I do want to point out that Paul’s instructions are offered as advice to Timothy in order to help him restore some order to an unruly congregation, not as commands that must followed in order to receive God’s blessing.

It might be helpful for us as we read the rest of Timothy to remember the context of the letter itself. It is written in response to some problems in the congregation, and while these problems are not named, they are implied in Paul’s instructions. And, above all, Paul is very critical of those who would use the threat of the law in the service of teaching the Gospel of Christ.

And it’s this wrongful use of the law that provokes Paul to tell Timothy of his own testimonial, if you will, a personal history of how Paul, while under the authority of the law, was the ultimate law breaker, a man of violence, a persecutor, a blasphemer. He remembers his own life that was lived under the weight of the law, and he finds it difficult to believe that God could ever have forgiven him the acts that he committed.

This is the same man, after all, who held the coats of those who stoned Stephen to death. He was a participant in some of the bloodiest raids against the early church. His name was feared by the Church, and he was proud of that.

But now he looks back at his past with amazement that God and the church would have forgiven even him. That even though he was one of the worst persecutors of the church, he would be welcomed into the ministry, and given the commission to plant churches all around the mediterranean. And he can only account this forgiveness to a grace that he cannot understand and cannot escape. God has forgiven him, even him, and though he cannot understand why, he can trust it, and move forward with his life.

Paul gives us a beautiful description of what the spiritual discipline of confession looks like. It it is truthful, it is real, and it recognizes a deep break inside his own soul. Paul knows that he has killed people, killed people that loved Jesus, people who had dedicated their own lives to bringing a Gospel of peace and forgiveness to a hurting world.

And this knowledge is very nearly overwhelming for Paul. That he was, and, if truth be told, still is, capable of such evil. Paul can hardly stand himself. And it could have been paralyzing, this awareness of the break inside him.

He could have been brought so low by the realization of how bad his past really was that he could have simply quit, curled up into a fetal position, and given up on doing anything, on trying anything, on risking, saying, attempting anything. He could have withdrawn inside himself, and left the world to it’s own devices.

But he didn’t. And this is an important part of confession. It’s not just admitting wrongdoing. It’s also recognizing that wrongdoing has been acknowledged, and forgiven. Paul’s confession is not just that he has done bad things in his past. It’s that he trusts that God knows all about these bad things, and yet has forgiven them.

He trusts that knowledge to the point of going back to those very same people that he harassed and persecuted, and killed, and asking for their forgiveness as well, to request that he be allowed to work alongside them, that he be accepted by them as a fellow worker in the kingdom of God.

Confession is not just admitting that we did something wrong. It’s about telling the truth about ourselves, that we are all quite capable of deep evil, that we are all capable and some of us a even guilty of the worst kinds of sin.

And even those among us who are not aware of their own sin live in a world that makes us complicit. We enjoy the fruit of an economic system that is built on the cheap labor of workers third world countries who live in deplorable conditions. Our amazing gadgets and smartphones are built in countries that do not recognize the same kind of human rights that we do, in factories without fire exits, in buildings where suicide attempts are so frequent, they have installed netting around the windows.

We are broken, whether we know it or not, as individuals and as a people, and Confession is the truth-telling of that brokenness.

But Confession is not limited to simply recognizing our brokenness. Confession is also telling the truth about a God who has given us the grace necessary to confess, who has given us that safe space we need in order to cry out our words of guilt, and sorrow. Without that grace, we would be unable to speak about the great weight that rests on our souls. Without God’s grace, we would never be able to conquer the fear that is in each of that that somebody might find out who we really are, what we’re really like.

It’s God’s grace that makes it possible for us to confess. And it’s God’s grace that takes the confession from our lips, and carries our confession as far from us as the east is from the west, as far as the cross of calvary is from the throne of heaven.

Let me say controversial thing: Confession is not necessary for salvation. God can save whoever he wants, whenever he wants, under whatever conditions that he wants. That’s why he’s God. But confession is a part of salvation. Without confession, we would carry our chame, our guilt, our burdens forever. Confession is healing for the soul.

Confession is telling the truth both about what we have done, and what God will do. It is both trust and honesty. It is both convicting and saving.

But there is just a little more about confession that I think we sometimes forget. Last week we talked about how Spiritual Guidance is not limited to the attitude and receptivity of the one receiving the guidance. Spiritual Guidance has a lot to do do with the posture of the one offering the guidance.

And we see some of that same dynamic in today’s text. Paul is not talking to God in this letter. He’s talking to Timothy. He’s laying his heart out, not in the privacy of his own room, on his knees, but rather putting pen to paper and writing a letter about his own shameful behavior for all the world to see, for 2000 years.

He could have only have done this if he had trusted Timothy with this information. And I don’t mean trusted him to keep it confidential. I mean, that he trusted that Timothy wouldn’t turn from him in shame when he told Timothy these things. That Timothy wouldn’t think less of him, wouldn’t abandon him, wouldn’t accuse, or forsake him.

And that is also a part of the discipline of confession. It is both private and public. It is trusting that those whom we would give the truth of our hearts might still love us and accept us afterwards. In other words, there is a not just a discipline of making a confession. There is a discipline to hearing a confession. There is discipline in giving enough room to someone for them to confess.

Because if we sense that we are going to judged, and found wanting, if we feel that we will be shunned, or abandon, or mocked, or accused, the last thing we will do is confess. Who would open themselves to that kind of abuse?

Let me offer two different examples of experiences I’ve had with confession. I remember when I was in the Army, I had a very good friend, who I respected very much. He was a great musician, a wonderful Christian man, and was a kind of a role model for me. One night he had a little too much to drink, which was pretty rare for him, and made some advances toward a friend of Karen’s. It was uncomfortable, and awkward.

The next day we talked about it, and I remember him saying how sorry he was for the way he acted, but I would have none of it. I was so very angry with him. I didn’t accept his apology, and I stayed angry at him for quite awhile. I’m sure some of you have had an experience like that, where you discovered that someone you looked up to had feet of clay. It’s a terrible feeling of disappointment.

It took a long time for our friendship to recover from that, and in fact, I’m not sure that it really has. And it’s not because I haven’t forgiven him. I have. It’s that he knew on some level that I had not forgiven him. And so, we have been in contact several times since then, and we talk as if nothing happened, but there’s this thing there that we probably won’t be able to ever talk about, and I regret that I was not able to provide the sort of safe space that true confession and forgiveness could have occurred at the time that it would have been most healing.

It is hard to hear a confession.

Of course, it’s hard to offer one as well.

During my time in seminary, there came a moment when I realized the toll that I had I imposed on my family by how much I had been yanking Karen and Wiley from the people and the places they loved. And something broke inside of me. Who was I that I would do this?

Yes, I felt a call to ministry, and I loved what I was doing, but did that give me the right to simply jerk them around the world to follow my own dreams? I realized how very selfish I had been to force this itinerant lifestyle on them.

Karen and I had a long talk and I told her how very sorry I was, that my dream to be a pastor was not worth the toll it was taking on their lives. I told Karen the truth, that I loved them more than I loved the church, and that I just couldn’t do this to them any more.

But Karen urged me to reconsider, to finish up seminary, to go ahead and complete the journey to ordained ministry. And so, it really is a testimony to her faith, rather than mine that we are here. I confessed to her my sorrow for the way I had torn her and Wiley from place to place, and she showed me the grace that I needed to keep going.

And because she was willing to stick with me, we were able to come here, and meet some of the most amazing people in the world. And I will always be grateful for that.

So confession is more than just talking about sins. Confession begins with grace, it ends with grace, and it means looking deep into our souls, and realizing that there is something broken inside us.

But it also means that we believe that that brokenness is redeemable. Confession is naming our trust that whatever we have done, it can be forgiven. And that our sins do not define, ultimately, who we are. Rather, we are defined by a love that can never be shaken, a love that continues to embrace us through the best and worst parts of our lives.

The discipline of confession is about telling the truth, and about hearing the truth. It is a discipline of both offering and trusting grace. It is the work of listening, and the work of being honest.

And the blessing of confession is the knowledge that whatever you have done has been known, fully known, and yet, also fully forgiven. And it is this knowledge that lets us get up and keep going, filled will gratitude rather than guilt, lifted up by forgiveness, rather than beaten down by failure.

In this week, I encourage all of us to explore the discipline of Confession. Let us be more ready to say I’m sorry. Let us take the blame for something that has gone wrong. Let us give grace to those around us, and give them room to admit their own mistakes, rather that being quick to assign blame. Let us hear those who confide their failure with careful and loving ears.

And above all, let us tell the truth about ourselves, and about our God, remembering the grace that allows us to do that, and the grace that forgives our worst impulses. All of us, and each of us, have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. All of us, and each of us have participated in a fallen and broken world. And yet all of us, and each of us, are worthy of the love of God, and the welcome of Jesus Christ.

Thanks be to God. Amen