This sermon was delivered by Bill Wilson, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dalton, Ga., at McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta, Ga., on March 31, 2009.
Happy are those
whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
Happy are those
to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
While I kept silence,
my body wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night
your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
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.
Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you;
at a time of distress,
the rush of mighty waters
shall not reach them.
You are a hiding place for me;
you preserve me from trouble;
you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.
I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Do not be like a horse or a mule,
whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle,
else it will not stay near you.
Many are the torments of the wicked,
but steadfast love
surrounds those who trust in the Lord.
Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous,
and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.
Psalm 32 (NRSV)
Observing Lent is a bit of an acquired taste for many Baptists. A bit like wine. Where and when we grew up, it was off-limits for us…but now, we’re discovering what a rich experience we missed out on. Why bother with Lent? Because it allows for us, for me in particular, a form of what Peter Gomes calls spiritual practice.
Lent is Christian practice time. It is spring training for the Christian who wants to stay in shape, or who wants to get into shape. Such spiritual health and the means to it is not a luxury. It is a necessity.
No one is so well off spiritually that he or she can afford to skip Lent. And no one is so bad off spiritually that Lent can’t be helpful. And the topics you have addressed in Chapel in recent weeks certainly are helpful: praying, trusting, contemplating, lamenting…but CONFESSING? That remains on our list of spiritual practices to be avoided. At least it does at my place.
But there it is…clearly articulated in this Psalm, and in a host of other texts as a command. Hard to miss if you take the Bible seriously. We are to confess our sins to God (Psalm 32), and to one another (James 5:16).
As part of preparing for today, I went back and read Augustine’s Confessions…ok, I tried to read it. And I read the Bonhoffer’s Life Together…in which he uses the last chapter to spell out the place of confession of sin in the community of faith. He makes a convincing case that without the confession of sin to one another, we remain utterly alone and incredibly lonely. He calls the act of confessing our sin the “final break-through to fellowship”. Owning our sin to each other frees us from isolation and acts as an antidote to the poison of sin in our life.
It is a needful and necessary humiliation…it puts us in touch with the cross, helps us break with our past, reassures us of divine forgiveness, and prepares us to truly receive communion. I would suggest it is a wonderful Spring practice to prepare us for Holy Week and Easter Sunday. He is right…most of us are not ready for the good news of that week.
Sure enough, Psalm 32 reads a bit like doctor’s orders for a people suffering from the debilitating effects of sinful living. The word “Maskil” in the heading means something like “didactic song” — a musical piece that teaches. You can hear the Psalmist and God bantering back and forth with one another. As one of the penitential psalms in the same genre as Psalm 51, this particular song speaks of spiritual health and vitality as being the result of a comprehensive program of confession, repentance and forgiveness.
So this Lenten season, I am interested in confession. Both to God and to one another. But…is there really a place for confession in our church life? It is so ripe for abuse, but what would happen if we honestly invited people to confess their sin, to own it, to be honest and forthright about it?
The other reading I have done in preparation for today has been the work of Frank Warren. You probably don’t know that name the way you know Augustine or Bonhoffer. Warren is a secular artist, who began a community art project a few years ago by handing out self-addressed blank postcards to people and inviting them to write on them a secret that was
2. something they had never told anyone.
He quickly began receiving hundreds more cards than he gave out. This year, he will publish his 5th book that is a collection of these messages. He has 5 million views a month to his web site, and each week he posts 20 of the most compelling cards he has received that week. He is currently touring college campuses and the reviews of his presentations are compelling.
Reading them is sobering…
- I haven’t spoken to my dad in 10 years, and it is killing me.
- My husband wrote my master’s thesis. I did the footnotes.
- I am not smart enough to convince my son not to smoke pot.
- The reason I don’t go to church is I’m too scared.
This online confessional has been mimicked by many, and criticized by nearly everyone, especially the Catholic church. For all its flaws, it means something…that people want to talk about the parts of their heart and their life that are broken…fallen. The Psalmist had it right: “when I kept silence, my body wasted away…your hand was heavy upon me…my strength dried up.”
Maybe practicing confession during Lent is one of the very best ideas we’ve had in a long, long time.
I really thought about handing out blank postcards to each of you today. I thought about having a time of verbal confession…where I would ask you to just lean over to someone else and share one of your most troubling sins. Maybe when we know each other a bit better.
Instead, how about this: in just a moment, we are going to have a time of silence. During this silence, whisper your confession to God…let it be true, and let it be something you’ve never told anyone…it may be simply a word, a name, a phrase…breathe it out, and breathe in the words of the Psalmist: “You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.”
Would you join me at our Lenten Spring Practice…in our time of confession?
Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Healthy Churches (CHC) housed at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee.