July 16, 2017/ Summer NL Lord’s Prayer 5// First Congregational United Church of Christ, Ashland, Oregon // Rev. Christina G. Kukuk // “Teach Us To Pray: Making Concession”; Psalm 103:8-13; Luke 11:1-13; Mark Berry version of Lord’s Prayer
Among the books in which I can lose myself for hours is PostSecret: Confessions on Life, Death, and God. It’s one of the collections curated from Frank Warren’s PostSecret, a public art project begun in 2004 when he first invited people to share their secrets with him on one side of a postcard, mailed to his Pennsylvannia address. The particular collection on my shelf specifically includes, well… confessions on life, death, and God. Some of them are funny. One confessor draws a bright pink pig, decorates it with pastel six-pointed stars and the words, “I’m starting rabbinical school, and I love bacon!” Others are more poignant. One of the first Frank received said, “I’m a Southern Baptist Pastor’s Wife. No one knows that I do not believe in God.” And in the same stack, Warren keeps a postcard of its opposite. “I’m an editor for a large online atheist newsletter and I believe in GOD!!!” (with three exclamation points) Even after moving this analog project into the digital universe, there is no sign that the impulse people have to accept Warren’s invitation to confess their secrets will abate any time soon. (Pause)
When I look through these postcard confessions, I can’t help thinking of words Jesus says in another place: “You will know the truth. And the truth will set you free.” Confession takes that knowing a step further to make it concrete. Tell the truth, and “the truth will set you free.”
But it’s interesting that at the same time changing technology is making possible a surge in confession in popular culture – with PostSecret or bare-all blogs or serial podcasts – (there seems to be no limit to the ways human beings are trying to expose themselves to the world) – at the same time this public confession surges in popularity, many Christian churches quietly folded it away in an ancient drawer. Traditionally, every Christian liturgy had some moment of confession and absolution, some air-time dedicated to telling the truth, out loud, about the brokenness of our world and of our ways, some getting more and some being less specific about individual sins. Yet many of Jesus’ followers have more recently left prayers of confession out of their corporate worship services for a host of reasons, and rationales do vary. Some of them I really do understand. Some of the early church planting literature said, if what we’re selling is good feelings, talking about our screw-ups doesn’t feel good, so let’s leave that part out. (That’s the “customer is always right” philosophy, that’s capitalist consumerism taking over the church.) There are other reasons, though, for why we struggle with how we confess, how we admit what we might call “sin” together as a group: We don’t believe people are inherently bad. (I agree.) We don’t buy into original sin. (Me neither.) And depending how religion shaped you – whether Catholic or Baptist guilt – plenty of good reasons to move away from shame-based forms of religious coercion. (Praise God and Hallelujah! That’s long overdue.) But I feel the absence of confession not as freedom but as constraint. Often I feel we leave worship a few sentences short of the whole truth about who we are as human beings on this planet. And I wonder if some of the contemporary impulse to bare body and soul online is rooted in a widespread loss of the kind of community in which we can really tell our truth – especially the broken parts – and be reminded of unconditional love, over and over again. (Pause)
Throughout this summer series, I’ve been using – and you’ve been hearing – Luke’s version of the Jesus’ Prayer. And Luke’s version is shorter than Matthew’s version. Luke’s version is much briefer. It doesn’t have that line about heaven. But Luke’s version I notice that forgiveness gets the most air time. “Forgive us our sins,” he prays, which quite inconveniently forces us to admit we have some. It’s a confession. It’s a confession grounded in God. “Forgive us our sins as we also forgive those who have wronged us.” No less than John Calvin says that line is not quid pro quo but assurance: Just as we have experienced ourselves the glorious release of forgiving others their wrongs against us, of letting the weight of resentment and bitterness go, Calvin says, so can we be confident that God just as eagerly forgives us. So I love how in Paula’s song that phrase is in the past tense: “As we have been forgiven by you, help us to forgive others, too.” To tell the truth about our human limitation and then to hear back the truth told about God: that God’s love is infinite and Divine power greater than we will ever know. To heal those broken places. To mend what is fractured and make it whole. That’s been an essential practice of the people who learn from and follow Jesus. (Pause)
Any given week, the list of ways that I myself and my own human race disappoint me can run long. There’s something about coming together to name those things as “we,” as “us.” I was amazed back in January that one of our Native American neighbors could stand in this chancel back in January and to share his story for the Interfaith MLK, Jr. celebration. That he could stand in a Christian church and talk about love when part of his story is that it was Christians who tried to obliterate his family’s heritage and spirituality, language and identity, through the “Indian schools.” There’s a lot that we need to confess. So this communal confession and invocation of forgiveness – that first person plural – matters. It really matters. William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas write, “We are conditioned to think of sin as a personal problem, a private slipup… Yet the most interesting sins we commit are utterly corporate and communal.” There’s that radical first person plural again. (Pause)
As long as our lists feel some weeks, there is something about coming into this space that doesn’t leave us confessing our sins, but helps us move on. Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “There is something powerful about kneeling with other people and saying true things about our failure to live up to God’s high call, but if all we do when it is over is climb in our cars and go our separate ways, then I wonder if God really cares.” She writes that where it’s made a difference for her is when another person helps her remember the thing she wanted to do to change. That’s when she realizes church offers something more: a place where members as expected and supported to be about the business of new life. True repentance, she writes, “calls whole communities to engage in the work of repair and reconciliation without ever forgetting their own culpability for the way things are.” We start it with this simple and complicated line: Forgive us our sins as we also forgive those who have wronged us. (Pause)
Some church planter I’ve read writes a story about a worship service that is written by the people more than the pastor. In this church, the different pieces and parts of the worship service are shared, assigned to someone each week, including the prayer of confession. This pastor tells a story that one Sunday, a younger person newer to Christianity stood up to lead the prayer of confession, but began by explaining that the roommate had gotten the call, written the message on a note, “Brad. You’re on for the prayer of concession this week.” And then he begins to pray. “Oh God, we concede… We concede our attempts to hold onto power…” He goes on, line after line, conceding our human attempts to control, conceding that we fall short. By the end of the prayer, there is this beautiful affirmation of God’s grace and love that can hold all of that and begin to make it whole. It made me wonder what might happen here at Ashland UCC if we got crazy and invited different people to write a prayer of confession for us each week. Three groups this summer are dreaming, are imagining… If we listen to what Spirit is saying to us this Spring, if we listen to those insights gathered in little groups of three over those 100 Days of Discernment in which we met and talked and prayed… these three groups are imagining what we might look like in 5 years if we let God make us this community that is transforming and reconciling and equipping people to journey with the radical Jesus of this prayer. The pastor’s story made me wonder where we might make room for the kind of truth-telling that is honest about who we are, but also about who God is. (Pause)
I started the sermon thinking that at the end I’d have to make my own confession: That I hit up against a limitation last night, and that I have no end to the sermon. (Pause) But I think there is one. In Jesus’ Prayer, we concede. And one of the first things we concede is that we can rule the world, that we are God. We concede our limitations, our failings, our faults. “Forgive us our sins,” we say. We aren’t left alone, though, to do that in some anonymous, even if artful, PostSecret project way. Jesus’ Prayer helps us make confession and gives us a community in which to hear God’s forgiveness affirmed back to us every day. We don’t just gather here to tell the truth about our brokenness. We gather here to tell the truth about God’s love, over and over again. That kind of truth-telling sets us free.
May it be so as we dream about our future together, too.