Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
“Look out the window,” he’d ask. “Do you see someone walking by? Describe that person theologically.”
The context would be an ordination exam, a couple hundred Presbyterian pastors and elders gathered to test a future pastor’s knowledge of Scripture, theology, worship, church government, and really anything else they wanted to ask. This particular gentleman made sure to ask the same question of every person being examined, so his colleagues grew to expect it. The candidates themselves, however, would often be caught off guard.
“Look out the window. Do you see someone walking by? Do you know that person? No? Good. Describe that person theologically.”
How might you answer the question?
Some would reply: “that person is a flawed human being, a sinner, unable to save himself. He needs the saving power of Christ to restore him to a right relationship with God.” Others would say things like “that person is made in the image of God, loved by God, of infinite value, precious in God’s eyes.” The gentleman I mentioned would ask the question primarily to learn about a soon-to-be pastor’s approach to pastoral care. What was their starting point when they encountered new people? Did she see them as essentially godly or deficient? Did he believe he was speaking primarily with a divine image bearer or a fallen sinner?
Interestingly enough, though, both types of answers are consistent with the teachings of Scripture, and that brings us to today’s focus as we continue our fall sermon series on worship. Why do we include a prayer of confession and an assurance of God’s pardon every Sunday?
After all, not all Christian traditions do. Why focus on something as depressing as human guilt? some suggest. Why not keep things cheerful and upbeat? Sin is a real downer; isn’t it better to embrace a sort of “I’m ok, you’re ok” spirit? But if we were all ok would the world be in the shape it’s in? I’m afraid no amount of positive thinking can wish away the selfishness and arrogance, the greed and hypocrisy, the cruelty and violence we see around us. And as easy as it is to notice the sins of others, we don’t have to look farther than our own hearts to know all is not sweetness and light. “Why do you notice the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but .. not… the log in your own?” asks Jesus. (Matthew 7:3) So we confess to God where we have disobeyed him in thought, word, and deed, through what we have done and what we have left undone.
Prayers of confession are a form of truth telling. Every time we confess our sins we’re saying: this is the way things are; this is the way we are. We’re admitting the state of our lives, owning up to parts of ourselves we’d prefer not to think about. Doing this regularly is essential to our spiritual formation, for how can we grow if we can’t acknowledge our starting point?
So why do we confess our sins every Sunday? Because we tell the truth in this church, even when the truth makes us squirm. We don’t look away. We don’t pretend things are better than they are. We’re unafraid to speak openly about our failures.
Sometimes, though, in a rush to tell the truth about human sin, the Christian worship pendulum can swing to the opposite extreme. The message can become all guilt all the time, the primary focus our unworthiness or the unworthiness of others in God’s eyes. But why take perverse pleasure in beating ourselves up, or beating one another up, when God doesn’t seem to share that interest? Certainly, it’s important to admit the mess we’re in. In our actions and our attitudes, we all fall short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). As we sang just a few moments ago, we’re all in need of God’s healing grace. But as Bryan Stevenson reminds us in his book Just Mercy, “each of us is [also] more than the worst thing we’ve … done.” And God stands ready to offer forgiveness to all who repent – that is, all who are ready to turn themselves around. When we do show ourselves willing to make a midcourse correction, we’ll find God eager to restore us and set us on a better path. This is why it’s important not only that we regularly confess our sins, but also that every prayer of confession in worship is followed by an assurance of God’s pardon.
Again, we tell the truth in this church. And the truth – thank God! - is that God’s grace is bigger than any mess we could make of things.
To those who’d argue humans are able to progress onward and upward on our own, with infinite potential to solve all of our own problems, our biblical faith says it’s simply not so. And I’d have to say our biblical faith has a point. Look around you. Give history even a passing glance. Does humanity, left to its own devices, really inspire you with great confidence? Hardly!
Instead Scripture teaches the importance of God’s law to guide us in right paths, and the necessity of God’s prophets regularly calling people back to justice and righteousness. We find powerful prayers of repentance like the one we heard today from Psalm 51, apparently authored by none other than Old Testament hero King David after he’s called out for committing adultery and murder:
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin. (Psalm 51:1-2)
In the New Testament, too, we see Jesus offering forgiveness right along with physical healing. And again the apostle Paul teaches that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) Biblical faith has no room for platitudes like “I’m ok, you’re ok.” No, for “if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (I John 1:8)
At the same time, lest we wallow in our guilt, Scripture also tells a story of divine mercy and forgiveness. Flawed leaders like David are used as God’s instruments. The people of Israel repent and are delivered and restored. We read throughout the Old Testament of the steadfast love of God and throughout the New Testament of the riches of God’s grace.
Maybe this all seems obvious to you. Maybe you wonder why we’d bother to emphasize these truths every single week in worship. But I’d wager a guess we all have days when we really need to hear one piece of this message or the other. Either the word of judgment calling us out, or the word of grace holding us close. Either the note of humility, or the note of hope. Our worship tradition ensures neither can be forgotten.
And it’s not only individual sins that need to be confessed and forgiven. As we continue as a community to wrestle with the sin of racism, for instance, remember that here too our weekly prayer of confession offers us a helpful framework. If we’re learning things that make us feel ashamed or guilty, especially as white folks, let’s not get stuck there. For guilt, correctly perceived, can function as a spotlight on situations that need to change. Guilt can prompt repentance, and repentance can bring God’s forgiveness and transformation. This is why we’re trying our best to speak honestly about what’s wrong, pointing it out when we see it.
Things won’t get any better if we don’t tell the truth, and Bryan Stevenson reminds us there’s a whole lot of painful truth that needs to be told openly and often in this country to turn things around. The truth about the genocide of indigenous people, the truth about slavery, truths about mass lynching and mass incarceration. Truths about white supremacy and about racially motivated police brutality and about a so-called justice system that is in fact deeply broken and unjust. Just this week, a white man the whole world witnessed killing a black man was allowed not only to leave jail after posting bail, but to leave the state where he was being held… while, as we’re learning through the book Just Mercy, black men can be jailed indefinitely, imprisoned for life, or even condemned to death, without any evidence at all.
Things won’t get any better if we’re afraid to tell the truth. So we can’t afford to look away or pretend things aren’t so bad. We’ve got to speak openly and honestly about the way things are.
In the Christian tradition we call this kind of truth telling confession. And we’ll tell the truth in this church, even when the truth makes us squirm.
But here’s the good news. We also know God’s longing for our repentance in order to transform us. You heard it in our assurance of pardon this morning: while it is true that we have sinned, it is a greater truth that we are forgiven through God’s love in Jesus Christ. And God’s been known to restore not only individuals but whole communities when they openly admit their sins, and ask for forgiveness from God and one another, and – in the true sense of the word repent – that is, when they turn themselves around, changing course, and moving in a new direction.
We tell the truth in this church. And the truth – thank God! - is that God’s grace is bigger than any mess we could possibly make of things.
If we ever find ourselves tempted to despair at the state of our nation, I hope we’ll hear prophets like Bryan Stevenson reminding us that “hopelessness is the enemy of justice.” Friends, it’s time to dig deep and remember that we are people of resurrection hope. We’ve been grounded in the good news of the gospel - that God can bring new life even to situations that seem to us far beyond repair.
So in this church we’ll keep on telling the truth – about human sin, yes, but also about God’s grace, and God’s power, and God’s inclination to use weak creatures like us as instruments of God’s peace.
Meanwhile, try looking out your window. Or around the grocery store for that matter. Or pick any face in the morning paper or in the news app on your phone. Who do you see there?
Look around your Zoom screen this morning. Or look in the mirror. Who do you see there?
The answer’s potentially the same no matter where you look, isn’t it? You’ll see sinners and saints: broken and restored, flawed and forgiven children of God. And God’s got work for us to do.
 Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy (Spiegel & Grau, 2014), p. 17.