Confession is Good for the…

February 26, 2023

Series: February 2023

Speaker: Rob McClellan


Today's Sermon


"Confession is Good for the…”


Reading (s)

Psalm 32
1   Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,
          whose sin is covered.
2   Happy are those to whom the LORD imputes no iniquity,
          and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
3   While I kept silence, my body wasted away
          through my groaning all day long.
4   For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
          my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.               
5   Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
          and I did not hide my iniquity;
     I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,”
          and you forgave the guilt of my sin.                                                                                                                             

6   Therefore let all who are faithful
          offer prayer to you;
     at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters
          shall not reach them.
7   You are a hiding place for me;
          you preserve me from trouble;
          you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.                        
8   I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go;
          I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
9   Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
          whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle,
          else it will not stay near you.
10  Many are the torments of the wicked,
          but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the LORD.
11  Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, O righteous,
          and shout for joy, all you upright in heart. 

Good for the…

            “Confession is good for the soul.”  The saying is attributed to an old Scottish proverb.  It may have biblical roots in the book of James which ties confession to prayer and its capacity for healing.  Today’s psalm sings like an aria of delight about the experience of being forgiven.  It you have experienced being forgiven, been shown grace, you’ll know how sweet this melody is.    Like too many things in religion, we may have taken something beautiful and allowed it to fall out of tune.  It is Lent, a season of reflection and repentance, so let us see if we can reclaim it and make it sing again. 

            How have we gotten confession wrong?  In some corners we have obliged individuals to submit to personal confessions, which may feel like a sentence more than liberation and genuine instruction in how to grow.  In other corners, that of this tradition, we often begin our worship service with a corporate confession, which is a long list of how we have gotten it wrong which becomes internalized to how we are, at our core, wrong.  The Reformed tradition teaches of our “total depravity.” Corporate confession has gotten so out of proportion in some churches, its led Celtic teacher, with whom I was on retreat this week, John Philip Newell, to ask—and I’m going to swear here, fair warning-]—why should we want to begin our worship of God with a litany of what shitbags we are (dirtbags if children are present).  It’s an intentionally crude statement because it represents the way we’ve allowed the liturgy to speak crudely about us.  Scott Clark, pastor of first Presbyterian, San Anselmo, puts it another way.  Just once, he said, I’d like to attend a service in which the assurance of pardon, the part where we talk about grace, forgiveness, and the possibility for renewal and growth, is as long as our long acknowledgment of sin.  A pastor under whom I served once said we must remember not to verbally beat up the congregation because they’re among the ones who are trying!  They’re here. We may have invited people to come and drink from a spoiled cup. 

            In this particular church, thanks to the wisdom of my predecessor, in place of a Prayer of Confession we have a “Community Prayer.”  It does not dismiss our capacity, even our tendency, to commit harm, does not dismiss that destructiveness or sin is a force in the world, it simply puts that in the context of other prayers as well, such as prayers seeking wisdom.

            It’s unfortunate we’ve allowed this practice to spoil because there is clearly a benefit in confessing, in looking within and around and seeing where we contribute to harmfulness.  I did what many of us do when religion fails us, turned to the secular world to see what wisdom we could find and reclaim about confession.  I read a paper out of Harvard called, “The Power of Apologies” that enumerates what makes a good apology, clearly acknowledging and accepting responsibility for one’s part in an offense, when and when not to apologize, and when and how to request an apology.[1]I read a moving piece in Psychology Today entitled similarly “The Power of Apology” – interesting, isn’t it that science keeps associating apology with power? In it, the author describes how a long-time estrangement from her mother began to be healed when the mother finally, after years, offered an apology.  The author who had suffered emotional abuse by her mother recounts, “by apologizing she had acknowledged that I had a reason to be hurt and angry, and that was extremely empowering for me.”  She says succinctly and profoundly, “Apology changed my life.”[2]

            Now, I want to stop here and honor the weight I may be inviting into the room.  There are likely people here who are in desperate need of that kind of receiving that kind of apology from someone, that kind of accepting of responsibility that opens a door to healing.  There are those who grieve because they know the hope for that has or will pass unfulfilled.  There may be those here who themselves need to offer that sort of apology and they still struggle to claim their part in a wounding or have missed the opportunity. Let’s do what this community is formed to do, just hold all of what we carry in a loving and gracious space. Remember what James believed about the community being in prayer and generating healing.

            For those struggling to confess, it may be helpful to shift the language from the loaded “confession” to simply “telling the truth about ourselves.”  There was a ministry in downtown Philadelphia that translated everything into nonreligious language and they would say, “Now this is where we tell the truth about ourselves and the world.”  There’s an innate need for that.  Many years ago now, I listened to a memorable episode of the NPR show, “This American Life,” that featured a vignette called “Apology Line.” It told of a man named Allan Bridge who in 1980 set up a phone number that people could call and without having to face a live voice could simply leave a message and apologize for something. It was astonishing what people will reveal when given a safe space to do so.  Some of the apologies were quite mundane, youthful transgressions that have lingered with the offender.  Others are rather extraordinary, even shocking.  You can listen to them on the episode, but I caution you before listening about what you’ll hear. 

            When Bridge died suddenly in 1995, his spouse Marissa realized how much the apology line meant to people.  She said the line was flooded with hundreds of people grieving having lost this accepting space where they could tell the truths about themselves, dare I say “sacred space.”  Marissa felt the own void in her heart of a presence who would receive with grace. She recounted,

…one thing that really struck me was after he died, I really turned into an Apology Line caller. Someone I would define as Apology Line caller. And the line was over, so when I really needed the line it wasn't there. I was just completely lost and I would have loved to have been able to call The Apology Line and have someone like Allan on the other side, very sympathetic and understanding, to help me get through it. But unfortunately, that didn't happen. I'm a much darker person than I was before he died and I think that I understand the callers and the line much better than I even did before.[3]

            Okay, you may be thinking, you’ve brought us pretty deep into the pit, here.  How about pulling us out into the light? This is the gift of the faith played well.  We make space for what needs to come up into the light and be released for healing and transformation.  Confession should lift you up not beat you down, in part in order to give you the energy to make repair.  Recall the words of the Psalmist, “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,” but the word can also be translated, “Blessed,” and that has an appropriately deeper connotation.  It is blessed to be set free, which is why we often say after the Community Prayer, not only are we forgiven but we are “set free,” more on that on a moment. 

            One enters a state of blessedness by releasing the truth about one’s self in search of healing and strength to make amends and live better, trusting in a grace that will abide and direct.  And yet, we resist entry into this gracious space.  Remember, hiding from God is the image we use for not opening our whole self for healing, for accompaniment, for receiving the divine presence and direction. And, while it may sound counterintuitive, we hide not because we think God is so bad and will do bad things to us. We thinkthat’s why we hide. We really hide because we somehow deep down know God is so good and we can’t take it. 

            A preacher tells the story again of a young child, Benjamin, who was vehemently protesting his bedtime.  The father was unwavering, and the child’s frustration escalated, leading them to blurt out, “Daddy, I hate you!”  Oh, if we only knew the wounds we can inflict.  The dad, having an enviable presence of mind and spirit, kept his nerve, and simply responded, “I’m sorry you feel that way, Ben, but I love you.”

            Ben’s response, “Don’t say that!”  He couldn’t take the goodness.

            “Ben, but it’s true—I love you.”

            “Stop saying that, Daddy!”

            “Benjamin, now listen to me:  I love it or not.”

            In the face of unconditional love, not the love based on whether or not we go to bed, the preacher concludes we can only flee that grace or accept it.[4]

            So, will we accept it, the invitation to step out into the divine presence and receive a grace that’s overwhelming, but not overbearing?  What’s the sin, the mistake, of the garden, you know the story of Adam and Eve and the whole getting in trouble thing.  We obsess about the apple, and layer all kind of misplaced guilt on that story.  We miss the golden image of the story.  After they have made their misstep, God is walking through the garden looking for them—God is looking for them—and the confess they have been hiding from God, the divine presence.

            You don’t need to hide.  That’s the point of confession.  You don’t need to hide.  I was struggling with what to say today and so I did what I often do when I get stuck, I get up and move around.  This time, I got up and decided to do something.  I had sitting on my bookshelf for sometime these silver polish wipes and I went to the sink to work on this cup one of you brought me from Scotland, and it hit me.  It’s called a quaichand has this beautiful Celtic design, and it is shaped this way because it is meant to be a cup that’s shared as an offer of friendship.  One drinks from one side and passes it to another to be drunk from the other. That’s it, the Scottish proverb took on deeper meaning through this Scottish cup.  Confession is not about being a dirtbag, but being fertile soil to grow; not about being imprisoned and guilty, but being set free; not about being okay in isolation, but being restored in relationship.  What’s good for the soul is good because it’s good for the whole.  It’s Lent, don’t abstain, drink up.






[4]David Lose, “Dear Working Preacher: Like It or Not!” (March 13, 2011).