Sermon from March 1, 2015. Text for this Sunday’s sermon is Luke 18:9-14.
Bless Your Heart
I’m sure many of you are familiar with the phrase, “Bless your heart,” as a way to soften a harsh statement. “Bless his heart, but he couldn’t drive his way out of a paper bag,” you might hear someone say. It’s an easy way to make an insult sound like something other than an insult.
Now as Southerners, politeness is more than just a virtue, it’s a necessity. And out of necessity, we have developed all sorts of other phrases to disguise what we really mean. For example, Southerners have such a treasure trove of ways to apologize without ever saying we are sorry, you could get a Senator to take notes.
There’s the classic “mistakes were made” apology. “I’m so sorry that happened” How did it happen? Who knows how that mailbox got run over, or how I got that scratch on my bumper? We’re both upset. And I’m sorry it happened.”
Or you can apologize for someone’s feelings, but not your actions. “I’m so sorry you feel that way.” I’m not sorry about anything I’ve done. But I’m sorry you feel that way.
Or there’s the pre-emptive apology. “I’m sorry for what I’m about to do” If you’re apologizing for something and then going ahead and doing it anyway, then you surely aren’t sorry enough.
If you’re a skilled Southern locutioner you might could do all of them at once. “I’m sorry if anyone gets upset by what I’m about to say, but those cupcakes are gone and we’re all just going to have to deal with it, regardless of how many crumbs there are on my sweater.”
Now like most Southernisms, these phrases have a time and a place when they are appropriate to smooth things over. I like to say that apologies and Thank You notes are the grease that keeps the wheels of society moving. But we’re talking about repentance for these first few weeks of Lent. And sincere confession is the first step to full repentance. See this type of insincere confession, the non-apology apology, gets nowhere with God.
In our Gospel story for today, Jesus tells a parable about a tax-collector and a Pharisee. The Pharisee goes to the temple to pray, and prays off by himself. “Thank you, God,” he says, “for making me more righteous than everyone else. Thank you that I am not like that tax-collector over there, and I am good and righteous and blessed.” The tax-collector on the other hand, doesn’t think of the Pharisee, because he is too focused on his own sinfulness. He said, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” And Jesus says he was in the right with God, even though he was a sinner, because he was the one who was earnestly reckoning with his actions before God.
The parable is about how we should stand before God. Be like the tax-collector, Jesus says, not in the way he sins, but in the way he repents. Because honest self-reflection is a fundamental part of meaningful repentance.
The book of Proverbs tells us that “No one who conceals transgressions will prosper, but one who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.” I talked last week about how repentance is an act of hope, when we confess we express our hope of redemption and mercy. But if we hide our sins, what can we hope for? Maybe you’ve heard about the man who went to confession and told the priest he stole a rope. What he didn’t mention was that there was a horse at the end of that rope. Can he go about his day with a clean conscience? Or is he still burdened with the same guilt he came in with? God wants a sincere and contrite heart because God wants to heal us. When we hide our sins or gloss over our flaws, we prevent healing from taking place.
When we aren’t fully honest with God about our flaws, confession and repentance turn into meaningless rituals that either bore us or do nothing. But when we confess our sins sincerely, we become better Christians. Paul tells us to examine ourselves to see whether we’re living in the faith. In other words we should be checking to see if our behavior is consistent with the Word of God. If you’re familiar with Twelve-Step programs, you’ll know that the first step in many if not all of them is to acknowledge that you have a problem. Because if you don’t acknowledge a problem how do you solve it? So it is with our own sins. If we’re going to rectify them, we have to admit that they exist. Honest self-evaluation is the key to reckoning with ourselves in a way that helps us to be better.
Now this isn’t just limited to individuals but institutions as well. One of the most difficult things for churches to do is to have real and honest assessments about what is and is not working. But it is something that most major companies have learned to do well. When a project is concluded, or at an assigned time for a long-term project, the principles get together and talk about what was successful, what was not, and what to do going forward. The military term is debriefing. When we do it well, we find ourselves getting more and more effective as we get rid of bad habits and encourage good practices.
Confession is an individual act of debriefing. It allows us to begin the process of rooting out the problems in our lives. It allows us to take responsibility for our actions. It encourages us to take responsibility for stopping the actions we don’t want.
If we’re serious about being better people, we have to acknowledge what we’ve done wrong. It’s why we confess, it’s why we apologize, it’s why we study history. So that we don’t keep on making the same mistakes. If we hide from our past we will be condemned to repeat it. Honest confession gives us the humility we need to strive to make our lives and our world a better place.
There is also something else that honest confession can do. When we are honest about our own flaws, it makes it much more difficult to judge the flaws of others. When we are honest about our need for forgiveness, it makes it much easier for us to forgive and overlook the flaws of others. Sincere confession makes us more generous and kind with the people we know and love.
There’s a story that comes from the tradition of the desert fathers, old monks in early Christianity. One of the brothers had committed a fault and was called before the council. They asked Abba Moses to come to the council, but he did not come. So they sent someone to get him. As he left for the council, Abba Moses a big jug with a leak, filled it full of water, and started carrying it. When the council saw him coming with this big jug of water dripping everywhere, they asked him what it was. He said, “My sins run out behind me and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the error of another?” When the other brothers heard what Abba Moses said, they cancelled the council and forgave the brother.
Abba Moses had it right. God’s mercy is poured out for each of us. When we confess sincerely and honestly, God has promised to erase our transgressions. God will wipe our slate clean, and remember our sin no ore. If we can believe it for ourselves, we can believe it for others. If we can believe it for others, we must believe it for ourselves. And if we can do it, we are invited to become not just better people but new people, freed from the chains of our own making rejoicing in the grace and mercy of the Lord.
 Shoemaker, Stephen. “Sheep and Shepherds” Living by the Word. Christian Century 117 no 20, Jl 5-12 2000. p. 714
I'm the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Pitman, NJ. I love camping, rhetorical criticism, and classic movies. I'm passionate about God's love, and the messy, beautiful ways it shows itself in our communities every day.