Sunday, February 28, 2010

God Cuts a Deal: The Joy of Confession and Repentance

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
February 28, 2010

Year C: The Second Sunday in Lent
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
Psalm 27
(Philippians 3:17-4:1)
Luke 13:31-35

God Cuts a Deal: The Joy of Confession and Repentance

As part of our service of Holy Eucharist we always say some form of the confession and then either Lauren or I stand and offer God’s forgiveness for our sins. When you stop and think about what we say and do and believe happens each Sunday, the only response is to feel awe. We offer our repentance and each time God offers forgiveness.

But, the truth is that for those of us who come to church a lot the service can become pretty much rote – often we don’t stop and think about it much at all. The confession and the absolution can become simply the words we say and hear before we get to the peace – when we get to take a break and say hi to our friends, our parents, our kids. Or, for some of us, the peace is the time which we just grin and bear it until we get to announcements and the rest of the service.

Since confession and absolution can become overly familiar and routine, during Lent, during this season of repentance, we start the service with the Penitential Order. Hopefully putting our confession and absolution up front gets our attention and prompts us to say these familiar words more mindfully.

But, sometimes putting the confession at the start of the service may still not seem like enough. Sometimes – maybe because we believe we have done something so serious –we still don’t feel forgiven. When we feel that way then it might be time for sacramental confession, one-on-one with a priest. As our friend Bernie Poppe, rector of St. George’s in Maplewood, recently pointed out in a sermon, most Episcopalians are unaware that we have that kind of confession in the Episcopal Church. But we do –it’s right there in the prayer book, “Reconciliation of a Penitent” starting on page 447.

Those of you, who, like me, grew up as a Roman Catholic, may be feeling a little anxious right now. I went to a Catholic grammar school, and by and large I liked the nuns and priests of the school and the parish. But, the thought of going into the dark confessional and revealing my sins to the priest was terrifying.

I can remember us as kids lined up, waiting to go in and face the music. To be honest, at least some of us strained to make out the mumbles we could hear coming through the confessional door. When our classmates would come out, we’d scan their faces to get a hint of just how bad it had been and what kind of penance they now had to make. Usually the boy or girl who had just received absolution of all of his or her sins, would shyly avoid eye contact, head back to a pew and begin to recite the required number of Our Fathers and Hail Marys.

The confessional itself was a weird and forbidding space – a small, dark room with a screen separating me from the priest. Most of the time I worried that the priest could recognize my voice as I revealed the sin of not being nice to my sister, talking back to my parents, and not cleaning my room.

This was the 1970s – a time of great change in the church. During that time the confessionals were ditched and replaced with face-to-face confession in an all-too-bright room. They actually had a screen available if you’d still prefer that level of privacy. From my point of view we had gone from very bad to even worse.

My last confession as a Roman Catholic was in high school on a retreat. Confession was offered as an option, and I remember thinking now that I was a mature teenager it was time to get over my fear of confession. I sat face-to-face alone with the priest, took a deep breath and told him my sins. So far, so good. Then he told me to say the Act of Contrition. At first I thought he meant later. But then as he looked at me, waiting, I realized he meant, say the Act of Contrition now.

There was just one problem – I had never memorized the Act of Contrition. Not good. So that was the last of my unpleasant experiences with confession.

I think I can speak for Lauren, that if you should ever decide to make your confession to us, it will be a much more positive experience.

The result of those childhood confessions is that it wasn’t until I was an adult, with sins much bigger than not cleaning my room, that I came to appreciate the joy of confession and repentance.

The joy of confession and repentance sounds like an oxymoron – but it’s true. And this might come as surprise but the source of this joy can be found in today’s strange and gory lesson from Genesis.

We’re dropped in the middle of the story of Abraham, or Abram as he’s still called here. He has already received instruction from God to leave his homeland in Mesopotamia and headed to Canaan. The passage we heard today is set right after Abraham has won a victory against Eastern kings and rescued his nephew Lot who was being held captive.

Despite his victory, Abraham is still concerned that he is childless – a major problem for the leader of a people. Yet, despite the hopelessness of his situation, God makes a bold promise to Abraham – God promises that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the night sky – and Abraham takes God’s word for it; Abraham places his trust in God.

Then God makes a seemingly bizarre request for a heifer, a female goat, a ram, a turtledove and a young pigeon. Abraham acquires these creatures and cuts the heifer, goat and ram in two.

Then as Abraham is sleeping the author of Genesis tells us, “a smoking pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram…”

In turns out that this strange story reflects the way contracts or covenants were made in the ancient Middle East. Animals would be cut in two and the people making the contract or the covenant would pass between the two parts, symbolizing that they would end up like the animal if they violated the covenant. In fact, in Hebrew the expression is to “cut a covenant” and may be the source of the English expression to “cut a deal.”

So God makes a covenant, God cuts a deal, with Abraham and his descendants. But notice it’s only God who passes between the broken animals. Abraham is not required to pass between them. This is a profound image and statement.

In the covenant God is promising to be faithful to God’s people. God is willing to be held accountable for God’s end of deal. But since God knows that the people’s faith will falter and since God knows that the people will not hold up their end of the covenant, God spares them – spares us - the consequences of breaking the deal.

At first this covenant is understood as a promise of land, but over time the meaning of the covenant will deepen. The covenant – this deal cut by God - will be understood as God’s total faithfulness, God’s persistent reaching out to be in relationship, and God’s constant offer of forgiveness.

Through this weird and gory ancient ritual, God cuts an amazingly good deal with us –if we repent, if we turn back to God, then God stands ready to forgive.

Which is a very good thing, since throughout history and throughout our lives, over and over we turn away from God and are in need of forgiveness.

Which brings us to Jesus and today’s snippet from Luke’s Gospel. Whatever their motive, some Pharisees warn Jesus that his life is in danger.

Then Luke packs a lot into this little passage. Jesus looks ahead to the Passion and the Resurrection. He says, “on the third day I finish my work.” Jesus looks back to the history of Israel – over and over God has inspired prophets and over and over they were rejected, just as Jesus himself will be rejected.

But what jumps out at me is the way Jesus describes God’s feelings toward Jerusalem, toward God’s people: “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

“As a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” What a beautiful image of God’s love and care for us.

No matter what sins we are carrying around with us, it’s not too late. God has cut a deal with us. No matter what we have done or not done, God is still like a hen gathering her brood under her wings; God is still ready to gather us back in with forgiveness. We can make our confession – alone in our room, or here in church, or with a priest.

We can make our confession because God has cut a deal with us - and we can know the joy of confession and repentance.