Sunday, October 19, 2014

Our Weakness Is

Confession: Our Weakness Is. . .
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
October 19, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Isaiah 59: 9-15
Hebrews 4: 12-16

Let us pray, for a welcome mind and a loving heart
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
            For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do.
14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.[1]

So back in April when I had the first was considering the idea of using the Order of Worship as a way to preach about the status of the church as part of my idea for a prolonged Stewardship Sermon Series, I was drawn first to this Sunday the most. In many ways the Prayer of Confession is a special part of the service, one unique, one that has a really important Theological place. When you consider the patterns and rhythms of our Order of Worship, there is real significance to laying ourselves, our lives, our weaknesses, our shortcomings, in short our Sin on the table first. When we confess our sin weakly, and weekly, we symbolically and ritualistically are laying our lives, all of it, every piece, wrinkles and all, at the feet of God, holding nothing back, we put it all out there, so that we can be wholly present for the rest of it. There should be no part of us that we are ashamed to bring with us, for we have stated who we are, imperfect, broken, and real, and then we are proclaimed forgiven, proclaimed to be children of God, not because of this ritual, but because of Christ. We are not washed clean every week, but instead we testify to the idea that our brokenness does not separate us, does not single us out, does not render us outsiders, but instead brings us together, for our brokenness we all share, and our forgiveness we all share. . . and it is nice to be reminded of it. It is centering, much like the Call to Worship reminds us of the hugely perfect and awesome nature of God, the Confession at once admits our bond of brokenness and our bond of forgiveness, acknowledging how truly great it is that Christ has redeemed us.
I was excited about this part, not only because it is such a great and important part of our worship service, but because I think that the act of confession, the act of laying it all out there, being honest about where we fall short is such an important part of what it means to live in community. How much of our trouble, the trouble of any group, of any work place, any collection of people stems from lack of communication, that people hold back because deep down we are all insecure, and we all fear being truly honest because there is risk. . . what will people think? Am I the only one? How can I let someone know my weakness? How can I ever be respected? How can I ever be of use? We get so worried about our weakness that we let it rule over us, despite ourselves. But through confession we can be made whole. Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians. . . and I derived my sermon title from this verse. 2 Corinthians 12:9
But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me.

It is one of those great glorious ironies about Christianity, and it is one of the biggest things that mark a distinction between the followers of Christ and the world, and that is that our weakness is our strength. Our weakness is our strength, or it should be. For if our strength is born in Christ our weakness is what forces us to cling to the Rock, fully relying on Christ, laying it all on that sure foundation, that we are strong not it what we can do on our own, but in what we can do in and through Jesus Christ. So rather being ashamed and fearful about our weakness, about our Sin, the fact that we are lost, we wear it like a badge of honor. Strange isn't it. . . counter intuitive completely, right. We've been told forever to be our best, to put our best foot forward, to strive in a competitive game of status and hierarchy, but that it is in our weakness that we are made strong, it is in turning the other cheek that we truly fight, and to quote, St. Francis's famous prayer, "It is in dying that we are born to eternal life."
It is a common misreading of The Scarlet Letter to look at the heroine Hester Prynne's punishment of having to wear the Letter A for adultery in public humiliation, that the Puritans are horrible uncaring, prudish, judgmental, hypocrites. . . they may be, but that Letter is not symbolic of the town's condemnation, but as a badge of honor, the beginning of Hester's redemption. The other symbol, as is shown in the Prayer of Preparation is the child that was the natural sign of her "Sin," for her pregnancy was what gave her secret away first. That child, "Pearl" is the symbol of her redemption, she is the glorious example of what God does with Sin. He doesn't take it away from us, he doesn't take away the punishment, the shame, the fear, the worry, and the doubt, instead he makes a wonderful miracle, a life giving purpose, just like he does with Cain, marking him to be untouched, and Jacob, forever to have a limp. . . the letter and the child become not a mark of shame, but one of God's undying grace, forgiveness, and favor. Hester is the heroine of the novel, the tragic figure is the Rev. Dimmesdale, her partner in crime, unknown, hiding, imploding in secret, a secret shame which slowly destroys him. The hidden sin is the cancer, whereas the acknowledge badge of need, of weakness, of sin, is the beginning of God's work and glory in our lives. Hawthorne so brilliantly shows, though, our human tendancy to run away from this glory, in our shame. Hester doesn't always see Pearl as a gift from heaven, and she doesn't see how she has been blessed. She wallows in her guilt, though surrounded by God's favor, and at one point she tries to remove the A, and in great literary symbolism, Pearl can't see her mother without it. It is as if her redemption is based upon her acknowledgment of her Sin, her wearing of it in public, and we hate to wear it don't we. It's there from the beginning, in the Garden of Eden, though Adam and Eve share the Sin, and know that God already knows, when he comes the hide, and they cover their nakedness. . . and then they play that blame game. It is a tendency. We have a real problem with standing naked before the world and before God, but that is what confession is about.
So this morning I'm going to talk not about our strengths as a church, but about our weaknesses, and I'm going to do my best to leave them out there, to not cover them up, to not couch them in excuses, to not render them benign with explanation, to not balance them off in a sandwich of positives, like we are told to do when we write progress reports at school, but instead just to let them hang out,  just to let them be, and to just nail them to the cross, and place them at the foot of God, and then at the end we will acknowledge them, and we will thank God that we are forgiven. So while I do this, confessing my own weaknesses alongside the weaknesses we share collectively as a church, I want you to think of your own, and if I start to explain or give excuse, trying to mitigate, I'm want to remember Pearl, and remember that fig leaf, and try to fight off that all too human self preservation temptation.
The weaknesses that I'm going to talk about all have to do with our work here at church, not necessarily out in the world, but things where we fall short here. There is a great joke, that isn't in good enough taste to tell from such a sacred pulpit as this, but the punch line is, "Damn Brother, I don't believe I would have told that. . ." It is not for that type of discomfort that I speak, but for honesty. The conversations that we are going to have over the next five weeks, will be much better in the clear air of honesty. Wouldn't a little honesty go a long way in our world, even if it was painful in the short term.
 Let me start with me. I have been your minister now for three years now, can't believe it, and I have learned some things about myself in that time. I have learned that I have some strengths as a minister. . . well Pearl. . . but have many more weaknesses. And probably the biggest one, that stands out more than any other is that deep down I am still the shy kid who fears new and uncomfortable situations, and I hate the telephone. I do, when I need to call someone, I am still the 7th grader, on the upstairs phone, breathing hard, and staring at the crinkled up paper with Amy's phone number on it. "Who is going to answer? Will I recognize their voice? What if I do, should I say their name? Should I ask if she is there? What if she answers the phone? What if her dad does? What if her brother does and I think it's her dad?" Add twenty some years to that and the same questions come around. . . ok I'm calling, but I'm calling for so and so, what if her husband answers the phone, sure I'd want to talk to him to, but I'm not calling for him, I'm calling for her, how long do I talk to him, . . . whew answering machine. . . I start mumbling, wait what, did that make any sense?" Silly I know, juvenile, I know, but absolutely true. And it is the same thing for a visit. . . would they want me to come over? Would I if I were them? How often? How long? It's pretty amazing what I can do to convince myself that the time isn't right, and that oh well I can just do it next week, and then months go by, and then it is worse now than it would have been. Childish right, yeah, but there you go, it's out there. . . and it has created some issues. I've dropped the ball when I shouldn't. It has led to some miscommunications and challenged relationships. It really has. I know it, and some of those I'll never get the chance to repair, because sometimes it really is too late, death has a way of being final doesn't it.
But that leads me to my next thing. . . and I'll own this as part of me too, and a weakness that I have, but many of you share it, and that is that we are all too nice, and so we fear conflict, or maybe we don't fear it, but we sure avoid it whenever we can. And it leads to division and problems because we aren't honest and up front with each other. We don't own our opinions, and we don't fight battles, and we go along to get along a lot, and rather than confronting issues head on and actually working to fix them, we do the go around route. We talk to this person, and they talk this person, and we agree to each other's faces, but then later we change our mind, and then when we are found to have been silently right, then we say things, like, "Well I never really wanted to do that anyway." It happens. We all do. I do too, and it hurts us. Conflict is scary because sometimes it seems that there is always a winner and a loser, and that just doesn't work for us, we don't want anyone to feel bad, we don't want ourselves to feel bad, and so we put it off, and hope that the winds will die down, but it usually doesn't. Just like the phone call I didn't make, it only gets harder down the line.
Now the little fearful voice in my head is screaming out, man are you opening up a can of worms. Really do you want people to be more honest, to be more blunt, to be more frank? Do you want more friction? Are you just inviting hard feelings? We're a small church, can we weather a storm like that? Can we get through divisiveness? Any divisiveness will destroy us. You are right it will, but you never resolve conflict by avoiding it, just like I never make phone calls I don't make. We all have fears, and our fears may be real and warranted, or they may just be the silly juvenile voice of insecurity that sometimes has too much voice, but we all have them. . . and a little faith goes a long way, and not just faith in ourselves, but faith in each other. Oooh Pearl there I go, just let it lie. . .
but before I do, I just want to share one last story. We've been struggling through a tough football season. And we've gotten to a point where we've made decisions as coaches and players that we can't get back this season. We can't undo some of what we've done, and it all revolves around faith. Us as coaches having faith in the players. . . . and for us it was stuff like, "Well can they handle it? Can they handle us being tough on them? Where is the balance? Are they going to quit? We can't expect too much of them can we?" Well we didn't and so now we don't get much. . . lack of faith. And the players, they lack the faith in themselves, the confidence, and from their lack of faith in themselves they also doubt each other. And it is too late now really to undo some of that because there just isn't enough time left. Isn't that it, there just isn't enough time is there. There never is. That's the difference with God. God is infinite, there is always more time. . . there is always more, the end is our illusion. . . and since there is always more time, there is no such thing as too late, yesterday would have been ideal, but today will have to do. Today will have to do. . .
Now when we do our unison prayer of confession and we have things that we share that are very human, and sometimes connected very much to the teaching of the sermon. . . well the teaching of the sermon is next week, and it will be filled (I hope- Pete don't build this up too much what if you can't deliver, you're right I can't deliver, but Jesus will, so go ahead) with hope, with vision, with possibilities, with forgiveness, and love. . . but right now, as we do every week, I want us to silently think about how we each fit into this picture, where do we fall short, what could we do better, bear your soul, naked and without excuse before God, for his love is steadfast and his ways are sure. . . I began this with a reading from Hebrews. . . it went:
14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.[2]

Let us in our weakness go before God. . . .
Who is in a position to condemn? Only Christ, and Christ died for us, bearing our Sin, Christ rose for us, showing us the possibilities of what forgiveness can do, and Christ reigns in power over us, what more shall we fear, know you are forgiven and be at peace. Amen.

[1]The Revised Standard Version. 1971 (Heb 4:12). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
[2]The Revised Standard Version. 1971 (Heb 4:12). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.