Rev. Sabrina Ingram
1 John 1: 5-10; Romans 7: 14 – 25; Luke 18: 9 – 14

A minister walking down the street came upon a dog surrounded by a group of 11-year-old boys. Concerned the boys were hurting the dog, he asked, “What are you doing with that dog?” One boy replied, “This dog’s a stray. We all want him, but only one of us can have him. So, we’ve decided the one who tells the biggest lie gets to keep the dog.” The reverend was shocked. He launched into a ten-minute sermon against lying, beginning, “Don’t you know it’s a sin to lie,” and ending with, “Why, when I was your age, I never told a lie.” There was dead silence. Just as the reverend was beginning to think he’d gotten through to them, the smallest boy gave a deep sigh and said, “All right, give him the dog.”

The Church has a problem with sin. First, we sin, which is a problem we have in common with every other human being. When we sin, we’re being human; there’s no escaping it. The problem particular to the Church is that we pretend we don’t have a problem. We don’t talk about our sin. We talk about sin in general and about the sin of others, but we don’t talk about our own sin. People are okay discussing a physical ailment. A student would readily tell a professor he had a learning disability. We actually pay a therapist to listen to our emotional woes. But within the Body of Christ, we feign righteousness. We’re okay with talking about past sins. “I was a – drug addict, a child molester, a wife beater, a murderer, fill in the blank – but then I found Jesus,” followed by the unspoken words, “and now I sin no more”. When it comes to “I used to” sins, the worse the better. We encourage people to tell that story. We treat them as heroes, as if they’re responsible for their own redemption. Yet, we tacitly agree that our current struggles and failures will never be mentioned.

When it comes to confessing sin, we either sin by hiding our sin or we sin by pretending we have no sin. A grandpa visited his grandchildren. One afternoon, Grandpa had a nap. The grandkids decided to play a joke. They put Limburger cheese in his mustache. When he woke up, he said, “This room stinks!” He went into the kitchen. “It stinks in here, too.” Then he went outside for a breath of fresh air, and said, “The whole world stinks!” Self-righteous people can sniff out the sins and shortcomings of everyone around them, and they think everyone stinks except them. If we can admit we’re the source of the smell, we can be washed clean. When we can’t admit that we too are tainted, we pay a high price. Forgiveness requires confession. In denying our sins we call God a liar (1 John 1:10). We also lie to ourselves (1 John 1:8) and we come to believe our own lies which results in being disconnected from reality and from ourselves. On top of these personal consequences, denying our sin has resulted in the destruction of the Church’s reputation – Christians are thought of as religious, self-righteous hypocrites. We’re dangerously close to the Pharisee in the parable: giving thanks that we’re faultless, judging others, and comparing ourselves to people whom we consider are morally beneath us. Contrast the Church’s notoriety to the reputation of AA. No one says the members of AA are self-righteous or hypocritical. Why? Because just by going to a meeting they’re admitting they have a problem. They are imperfect. There are no re-covered addicts, only people in the process of recovering. They know that as soon as they think they’re “cured”, disaster follows. Christians live in a paradox. Jesus has died for us and we are “washed clean” of our sin; and we still sin. Like the AA member, we are in a recovery process. The Spirit is still at work in us making us the person God sees in Christ. To be the best “me” we can be, we need to live in the flow of the Spirit, with honesty, humility and sincerity. We need to own our humanity. We need to join the human race.

The ancient Romans appreciated the beauty of Greek sculptures. To own one was a big deal. But the statues were old, and often damaged. Vendors discovered that if they filled a crack in the marble with wax and polished it, the statue would look unblemished. Eventually, people who thought they’d bought the real deal discovered they’d been taken because, over time, the white wax would yellow, revealing the true state of the object. There were long lines at the return counter. Business slowed down. So, if a vendor had a statue in good condition or with the cracks untouched, they’d label it “sine” meaning “without” and “cera” meaning wax. Without wax. Sine cera; sincere. A sincere person is one who doesn’t try to dupe people by leading them to believe they’re getting a faultless product, when, in reality, it’s cracked and damaged. Scripture encourages sincerity. When we’re in the flow of the Spirit, we’re real. Honest. Sincere. We can admit we’re human beings with cracks and faults.

In James we read, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so you may be healed.” (5:16) Some of you may be thinking, “We’re Presbyterian, we confess our sins directly to Jesus.” Calvin (Institutes XX.20) refuting the practice of asking dead saints to pray for you, is clear that Christ is the only Mediator of our sins. He writes, “… Christ appears before God’s presence that the power of his death avails as an everlasting intercession on our behalf. Having entered the heavenly sanctuary, even to the consummation fo the ages, he alone bears to God the petitions of the people…” So, the only way our prayers reach God’s presence are through Christ. In his Commentary on James, Calvin speaks against one-sided confession to a priest, in favor of mutual confession for the purpose of reconciling an injury between two Christians, and of confession as a means to “be helped as to God by the prayers of our brethren; for they who know our necessities, are stimulated to pray that they may assist us.” He concludes that “confession is required for no other end, but that those who know our evils may be more solicitous to bring us help.” So, while Jesus is our only way to God, we support one another through prayer, and all the better if we know each other’s needs.

But we’re caught in a Catch-22: to be able to admit our faults, we need to feel safe and confession doesn’t make us feel safe. It makes us feel exposed and vulnerable. Ashamed. We fear we’ll be judged because we know our tendency to judge others. We worry we’ll be diminished or rejected if our Christian brothers and sisters know the truth about us. We may lose our role in our community. We’d be like the tax collector. Standing in the corner, alone and contrite; exposed because everyone knows we are a sinner. So, we protect ourselves with a veneer of righteousness. Even as clergy, the most we’ll admit to is failing to witness, being unfocused while praying or disliking cats. If a minister confesses to a non-scandalous sin, people think he’s inauthentic and untrustworthy. If a minister confesses to a grave sin, people think she should leave the congregation. A heinous sin leaves you searching for a new career. If a minister can’t risk owning up to a sin more serious than having a messy office, what hope is there for anyone, let alone the one burdened by an ugly secret? Yet, the Bible is full of examples of people who sinned. David was Israel’s greatest king – he was a murderer, an adulterer, a liar, a coveter, a polygamist, a conniver, a manipulator and he didn’t exactly excel as a Dad. His sins are spread all over scripture. His confessions are all through the Psalms. Yet, we’re told “he was a man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13: 14). Sometimes it’s the people who struggle with sin the most, who long for God the most. Sometimes, it’s the people who struggle with sin the most, that God uses most effectively. The Bible doesn’t put people on pedestals. We do that. Three Presbyterians are sitting outside watching the front door of a brothel. The local Priest appears and goes inside. “Well!” says the first person, “Didn’t I always say he was a hypocrite?” Soon after a Rabbi goes in. The second person says, “Another one lying to everyone with his pious preaching!” Shortly their own minister whom they love, and respect enters the brothel. “How sad.” says the third person, “One of the girls must have died.” We’re all sinners; no one belongs on a pedestal. When we’re on the ground the fall isn’t so bad. The tax-collector could not be humiliated because he’d already humbled himself. When we confess our sin, there’s nothing left to expose. As Jesus said, “If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself” Luke 18: 14).

Confession feels safer when we consider Jesus’ response to the two men in the parable, “This tax man, not the other, went home made right with God” (vs. 14). Rather than condemn him, Jesus commends the tax collector over the pious Pharisee. This story raises the question of whether we prefer to be like the Pharisee or the tax man. Self-righteous or humbly transparent? It also causes us to reflect on whether we can be like Jesus. Can we be compassionate and accepting of those who admit their guilt? Is there room in our church family for less than perfect people? There had better be or none of us will be able to attend. A gym would not do well if everyone had to be in good shape before joining. Can we embrace people who admit they’re just human beings?

When someone shares the depth of their soul with us, they honour us. It’s the height of trust. It’s the taking down of barriers. If we love someone because they’re perfect, we don’t really love them at all. To love someone, you need to know them and knowing them means receiving them as they are, which is: sinful. Confessing to one another gives us the opportunity to really know someone and be known by them. Pretending we’re perfect isolates us. Hearing the confession of another is an opportunity to receive them with grace. We’re safe when we know we won’t be judged, and we know our story will be kept in confidence. We owe that to one another.

The hymn “Just as I am” speaks of coming to God without pretense. There’s nothing more wonderful than to come to God just as we are and hear the words, “you are forgiven.” There’s nothing better than knowing we’re loved just as we are. After all, we can’t come to God in any other way. We are always who we are. When we accept our own humanity, it’s easy to accept the humanity of others, just as they are. The truth is, the Church is made up of human beings being human, welcoming other human beings being human, just as God in Christ has welcomed us.