Confession – The Rev. Eva Cameron

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I have to CONFESS: before I said I’d preach this sermon, I really didn’t know that much about the topic of Confession. I got interested in it when I was visiting the Unitarians in the Khasi Hills of India, and I noticed that in their weekly Wednesday evening services, they included a confession. It was a statement made by the whole group, which was printed in their hymnal. At first–being raised UU in churches that didn’t use a confession–I was a bit surprised. Then I looked at the words they were saying, and I thought to myself, “Hey! I agree with that!”

Then, upon further looking, I realized we have Confessions in our own hymnal—they’ve been there all along! Let’s turn in the back and read one right now, #476.

Is there anything there that seems out of keeping with your thoughts? There is a dwelling on the failures, the disrespects, the lesser choices in our lives. And I know that UUs have a tendency not to want to think about the darker side of human nature. We tend to want to see the good in people. And I am pleased with that tendency; but I think that does not meant that we should be blind to people’s failings, especially to our own failings. Acknowledging our failings, or the things that we have done that have severed bonds of connection, does not make us evil people. It just makes us people. At least for me, people come here as creatures both able to do good and evil; and many times, those two things are intertwined in ways that even make it hard to discern whether to think of an action as good or evil.

Say, for example, I make a pan of chocolate brownies for a neighbor who has just come home from the hospital. I make them in a disposable pan, because I don’t want her to feel like she’s got to get up and wash the pan while she’s recovering. Maybe I should have forgotten those brownies, if it means environmental degradation by creating extra waste. But she is very happy to see me, and we have a good time visiting. While I am there, she tells me that her condition is caused in part due to her weight problem. Perhaps I shouldn’t have made those brownies, because they will undoubtedly contribute to her poor diet, and may even get her into a downward sugar cycle. But, she confessed to me that she is passionate
about chocolate, and these brownies taste, “just like mom use to make.”
She’s feeling very connected to her life, and rather loved. And then I think about how my mother would have loved some brownies herself . . . and she lives just across town. Why can’t I have a great relationship with her, like this neighbor seemed to have had with her mother? I’m starting to wish I never came over—never made those brownies.

I could go on and on like this. Use of non-organic flour being a sin, use of non-free-trade chocolate being a sin. We live in a constant battle between positive and negative forces. And many of our simplistic actions can create ripples we scarcely understand. Francis Moore Lappe helps us all to understand this with her landmark publication of Diet for a Small Planet back in the mid-1970s. Suddenly she urged us to see that our personal food choices, our being consumers, gave us incredible power in the forces of the market economy.

We sang today, “This old world is full of sorrow, full of sickness, weak and sore. If you love your neighbor truly, love will come to you the more.” I believe that UUs are right to extend radial and inclusive love we extend to the world. But I think that sometimes we can better understand what it means to love, how to love, if we look at our mistakes, our sorrows, our hard times, the things that have hurt us. As we acknowledge our capacity to cause these things to happen to others, to ourselves, to the world—we also realize we now have the squarely between the eyes. And so with coming, this, far to terms with the concept of confession, I began my research into the topic.

At first I decided to get my mind wrapped around what the word meant. Actually, it means a bunch of different things!

Some of them are religious, like these:

1) A personal and/or communal statement of beliefs, as in the primitive Christian confession that “Jesus is Lord.” Later, the concept was elaborated into longer, more cognitively detailed statements of belief on the theological level. This includes our old Universalists, who belonged to the “Winchester Confession.”

2) A verbal avowal of personal misdeeds. In the Christian era, a ritualized
group avowal of sin as part of Sunday worship. In the Roman Catholic Church, confession is only one part of the entire sacrament of penance (also known as the rite of reconciliation) that leads up to the act of absolution (forgiveness). In Judaism, the parallel phenomenon developed communally in the annual congregational confession of sins on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). In Eastern and Western Christianity there also developed the individual confession.

3) Among New Age churches, the semi-formal rite of relating one’s sins or trespasses to absolve oneself of guilt.

There are also the non-religious meanings—like to speak of a preference or failing, or to make a formal statement in front of a lawyer or court about a misdeed or crime. Sometimes you can get a different understanding of what something means by how people use it in context. I went back and looked as some ancient Christian writers to see how they were using this word.

The Didache, an old document also called the Teachings of the 12 Disciples from somewhere around 60 CE, writes:

“Confess your sins in church, and do not go up to your prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of life. . . . On the Lord’s Day gather together, break bread, and give thanks, after confessing your transgressions so that your sacrifice may be pure” (Didache 4:14, 14:1).

The Letter of Barnabas, written in 74 CE, instructs people how to be together as a congregation. He says:

“You shall judge righteously. You shall not make a schism, but you shall pacify those that contend by bringing them together. You shall confess your sins. You shall not go to prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of light” (Letter of Barnabas 19).

Tertullian from 203 CE writes:

“[Regarding confession, some] flee from this work as being an exposure of themselves, or they put it off from day to day. I presume they are more mindful of modesty than of salvation, like those who contract a disease in
the more shameful parts of the body and shun making themselves known
to the physicians; and thus they perish along with their own bashfulness” (Repentance 10:1).

Aphraahat, a Persian Sage writing in 340 CE advises the Christian priests:

“You, then, who are disciples of our illustrious physician [Christ], you ought not deny a curative to those in need of healing. And if anyone uncovers his wound before you, give him the remedy of repentance. And he that is ashamed to make known his weakness, encourage him so that he will not hide it from you. And when he has revealed it to you, do not make it public . . . .” (Treatises 7:3).

These readings reflect a sense of purity, reconciliation, acknowledgement of the difficult that people have in confessing, as well as comparing life without confession to life with an untreated disease or wound.

Next I explored some of the world’s religions to see what their thinking was on Confession. First I looked at the Catholics, and found this good Poem by Michael J. Farrand:

I used to rush
To church each week
My venal sins to expel
Just a good
Little Catholic boy
Trying hard to stay out of Hell.

But my efforts
At piety
Were a real sacramental mess
Because I rushed
To church each week
With nothing at all to confess.

So we’d sit there
The priest and I
Fulfilling our sacred duties
I’d make up things
He’d fall asleep
It really wasn’t very pretty.

I thought to be
A good Catholic boy
I had to make full confession
Even if against
The Lord I’d
Committed no transgression.

The only sin
I had committed
Which might require absolution
Was fabricating
Venal sins to
Lie about during confession.
At last the priest
Had had enough
Of my absence of moral strife
He woke himself
Threw back the curtain
And told me to “Get a life!” (© 2001)

This is only the first half. In the second half, he goes on to sin! I included this, because when I’ve spoken with people who were raised Catholic, they often will tell of just this experience. That their time in the confessional was scary, mostly because they didn’t have anything to confess . . . and they felt in many ways the construct of this practice really did invite them to sin—just so they would have something to talk about in confession.

What interests me most about Catholic teachings, are that this is actually a sacrament—a way to experience God’s grace intimately and personally. However, because confession is only one aspect of the sacrament, it is no longer officially called “confession.” Official Church publications always refer to the sacrament as “Penance and Reconciliation,” or shorten it to “penance” or “reconciliation.” Catholics believe that no priest, as an individual man, however pious or learned, has power to forgive sins. This power belongs to God alone; however, God can and does exercise it through the Catholic
priesthood. Catholics believe God exercises the power of forgiveness by
means of the sacrament of reconciliation.

In the Eastern Orthodox faith the confession is to God in the presence of a priest, not to a priest in the presence of God. In addition, the “penance” is not assigned in order to receive absolution — which is granted upon sincere confession — but is understood as a “spiritual callisthenic” to help avoid further sin.

In Protestant teachings, of course understandings vary quite a bit. Some Lutheran churches also advocate private confession with a pastor. However, ever since the 18th century, it is very rarely used. A more frequent practice is the corporate confession of sins at the beginning of a worship service. In his 1529 Catechisms, Martin Luther praised private confession (before a pastor or a fellow Christian) for the sake of absolution, that is, for the sake of the forgiveness of sins bestowed in an audible, concrete way. The Lutheran reformers held that a complete enumeration of sins is impossible (Psalms, 19:12); and that one’s confidence is not to be based on the sincerity of one’s contrition, nor on one’s compliance with the works of satisfaction imposed by the priest. In fact, works of satisfaction, as taught by the medieval Church, were rejected. Faith, that is, trust in Christ’s complete active and passive satisfaction, is what receives the forgiveness and salvation won by him and imparted to the confessor by the word of absolution. That’s a bit about Western teachings, but what about Buddhism and Confession?

Risho Kosei-kei, (the liberal lay-Buddhist organization in Japan that my father belongs to), have a practice they call ‘hosea.’ This is a small group of lay-people who gather together to talk about the difficulties and suffering in their lives. The groups help each member think about their lives with the lens of Buddhist teachings.

To quote Nichiren, another Japanese Buddhist, “Your mastery of the Buddhist teachings will not relieve you of mortal sufferings in the least unless you perceive the nature of your own life.” In this spirit, Buddhists must come to terms with who they are, what their actions are, what their thoughts are, if they want to be free from suffering. Just understanding things mentally, philosophically, isn’t enough.

Tibetan Buddhists actually have confessions to recite. These confessions
include all sin (and I mean ALL), since you are confessing for not only the actions of this current life-time, but for all your lifetimes, going back through the eons. Their purpose of the confession is to “dwell in pleasant contacts.”

Thirty-five tathagatas, or 35 confession buddhas, are buddhas that each has an area or realm they oversee. It’s an interesting list (too long to do all 35 of today!), which includes: Tathagata Most Powerful Victory Banner who purifies all obscurations motivated by pride; Glorious Sorrowless who purifies the negativities motivated by ignorance; Pure Light Rays who purifies all obscurations of speech. Buddhism comes from Hinduism, which differs from Western thought. Western theologies tend to consider sin a crime against God, whereas Hinduism views it as an act against dharma, moral order and one’s own self. The absence of reincarnation or karma in Christian thinking makes their understanding of sin far different from the Hindu.

In Hinduism, part of the steps of purification is first confession, then repentance; then there are other things to do, based on what you did that made you ‘unclean.’ Sometimes you make an offering, such as cutting off your hair and leaving it at a temple, or bathing in the Ganges River.
Looking at all these different views on confession, one can see that confession serves to allow you:
∑ to experience God’s grace;
∑ to be reconciled;
∑ a spiritual callisthenic;
∑ a part of truly participating in teachings;
∑ understanding of global nature of sins/errors (back into time);
∑ part of purification.

To move from the most ancient religions to the most modern approaches to spiritual life, I move now to “Online Confessions.” Yes, online confessions are becoming popular, perhaps offering a sense of a listening ear for people who are accustomed to communicating with a community of cyberspace instead of actual place. Several I saw are in BLOG form, where people submit confessions; and others comment about those confessions. Anybody can make a comment. Others offer a ‘listening ear’ in a very universal sense, like this website from the Universal Life Church I found that said:

“Many people find that the act of confession is useful in moving past
mistakes of the past. It is also a useful way to begin a commitment to a
better life in the future. It helps eliminate the toxic residue of guilt from
your life.” “As you unburden yourself of past sins, remember to also
forgive those who have wronged you. This will help greatly with the
process and bring additional peace.”

“Write about your sins here. If you don’t want to write about your sins, you may enter an ‘X’ to signify that you have thought about your sins and wish to turn from them and seek forgiveness.” Then there is a short questionnaire with yes, no buttons–the buttons being defaulted to ‘yes.’
Have you forgiven yourself for your sins? Yes No
Have you forgiven others who have harmed you? Yes No

It is easy to dismiss as very humorous all the things you can find on the internet these days. Yet I find that there is a large and active community of people who seek first in cyberspace to meet their needs. That these sites are out there recognizes a need.

So what does this all mean to the modern day UU? Should we care about confessions? Is there a place for them in our lives? As we looked at the readings we saw a sense of purity, reconciliation, acknowledgement of the difficulty that people have in confessing, as well as the interesting comparison of life without confession to life with an untreated disease or wound. And as we reviewed the world’s teachings, we can see that confession serves to allow you (as noted above):
∑ to experience God’s grace;
∑ to be reconciled to god, or to others you have hurt;
∑ a spiritual callisthenic;
∑ a part of truly participating in teachings;
∑ understanding of global nature of sins/errors (going back into time);
∑ Part of purification.
This is an impressive list of things that might be useful in a life.

Being raised UU, I was never taught I sinned, or that I ought to come to some reconciliation with God, or with the god-within that makes up part of each human being. I found I had some spiritual growing up to do, as I wandered in this world. There is great strength in knowing your weakness and failings. It is good to think of yourself as ultimately good. But it is also
a bit simplistic, as my brownie illustration pointed out. Each day we
wrestle with our own limitations. We aren’t perfect, not a one of us. And sometimes it must be comforting to come to church and be allowed to be really, really imperfect.

One of the things that some UUs have shared with me over the years is
that this is a hard religion to belong to when something really painful happens to you. We have a hard time dealing with pain, suffering, being limited, and evil. I’ve had people tell me (none at this church yet, by the way)—but I have had people tell me that on certain painful anniversaries they just didn’t feel like coming to church because they felt there was no place for their strong feelings in our services. Its easy to get judgmental at times like these, particularly when you are the minister in charge of putting on the said services!—but what I have come to see, upon talking with other ministers who have had similar experiences, is that this is a legitimate comment about my religion.

And wrestling with it, living with it, got me paying attention to something in a different light. Pima Chodron, Buddhist monk and author of When Things Fall Apart: Heartfelt advice for difficult times, commented that people who only notice the good, tend to have little refrigerator magnets that read things like “Every day and every way, things are getting better and better.” And the truth of it is, when things are just rolling along, or they are improving, these kinds of sayings are a nice affirmation. But when your life is really rotten, when a loved one is dying of cancer and the only thing you can do is watch in mute silence, when you lose your job and your children suffer—things are not better and better.

Pima Chodron’s message she would have us print on that refrigerator magnet instead is: “Abandon Hope.” Now, when I first heard this, I really mentally rebelled. ‘I like hope,’ I thought. ‘Hope is good,’ I thought. And truthfully I still do—but modified hope. Hope that’s been run through this lens that she is speaking of. By ‘Abandon Hope’ she means, by clinging to hopes that things will be different, will change, will be better, we have no capacity to seek joy or goodness in what is currently our lives. We have no appreciation of the now. We are living in a dream world of what may be, instead of what actually is.

This has been a very meaningful reflection for me. And I think it’s in undertaking to live with her “Abandon Hope” advice that the idea of confession began to make more sense. Public confessions, things that a group says, as they reflect on the fact that in some ways they have failed themselves, failed each other, failed the larger cause—they allow us to still be human, to live in the very real now, with people.

I don’t think it means we are bad to say that we each do things wrong sometimes, say the wrong thing, forget to do something, hurt someone by thinking first of ourselves, or our wants. This doesn’t make us evil, or bad. You could say we were ‘sinners’ if you were okay with thinking of sin as those acts that separate us from each other, or from the Ultimate—from God.

And this is where confession steps in. I think if we know that making mistakes is human, there is some merit to reminding ourselves that the trajectory of those mistakes often separates us from each other, separates us from our true selves. If we take the time to stop and think, to confess. It puts us in the right place for reconciliation and beginning again. In this way, in the way of being okay that we each are very human—and perhaps not getting better and better each day—it opens our hearts in new ways to truly loving each other.

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