Each month, on Communion Sunday, we recite a prayer of confession together. There are other traditions, like Catholicism, that lift up confession as a sacrament and other churches that use a personal or unison prayer of confession more often, and I think there were times in the past when even MCC used the prayer every week in worship. However, when I arrived here at MCC and began looking at the liturgy some people mentioned to me that they’re uncomfortable with reciting a prayer of confession — and I’ll admit that I shared some of their concerns. “Confession” seems like such a harsh word and speaking out loud a list of things we may or may not have done wrong just… feels weird. So, I tried to soften the language a little – in the bulletin it’s referred to as “acknowledging our shortcomings” and I cut out a few references to the word “sin” – but we still say these words together about once a month.
I’m not sure if you’ve noticed but we have pretty much used the exact same words every Communion Sunday for the last five years. The prayer comes from the UCC’s Book of Worship . Each time I prepare the liturgy I consider changing them but whenever I review them I find that I can’t. The words are concise and universal and they’ve become familiar. I like that, but maybe they’ve feel too familiar.
Whenever we say the same thing over and over again there’s always a danger that rote memorization will replace an actual understanding of the words. Our lips may be moving but there’s no real intention behind what we’re saying. But sometimes, that’s what it takes to learn to do something that we’re uncomfortable with, sometimes we have to start out just going through the motions. Whether we call it a “prayer of confession” or “acknowledging our shortcoming” this ritual gives us an opportunity to feel what it’s like to say those words, to express our regret for hurting another by what we have done or what we have failed to do. It gives us a chance to practice apologizing to God, to ourselves, and to our neighbor.
The act of apologizing is something that many of us learned as children. When we said or did something hurtful to a sibling or friend, we were told to say “I’m sorry.” And we had to go through the motions; our lips had to say the words even if we didn’t mean it at the time. It’s an important habit to develop and, as we grew up it should have turned into a regular practice, genuinely apologizing for our intentional and unintentional acts that have caused harm to someone else. But that doesn’t always happen.
Why is it so hard, even as adults, for us to apologize? Why is it so difficult to admit that we’ve done wrong and to say “I’m sorry?”
Our theme this Lent is “creating new habits of love and forgiveness.” We can all agree that this is important. There are too many divisions in the world and it’s becoming harder and harder for us to have civil conversations with others if we disagree with them. We can all agree that behaviors need to change and we need to work on mending relationships. But I think that many of us also find it too easy to blame someone else for the problem. “Yes, the other side needs to be more civil,” we say. And maybe, if we’re feeling really magnanimous and generous we’ll declare that we are ready to put in the hard work of forgiving everything that they’ve done wrong.
As I mentioned last week, I realized on Ash Wednesday that I kept forgetting that I had ashes on my forehead until I saw someone else with ashes on theirs. Like the workers who toiled since the early morning were more worried about those who showed up later, it’s easy to acknowledge someone else’s shortcoming, easy to name what someone else has done wrong. It’s easy to say that we’ll forgive. But it’s much more difficult for us to ask for forgiveness.
The first step is learning to say we’re sorry. Once a month we can say those words together and practice asking for forgiveness and apologizing to God and ourselves and, maybe, our neighbors. The next step is learning to mean it. More than just moving our mouths, we have to understand not only that we’ve hurt someone else but how our actions have affected the other person’s life.
When I taught the class on emotional awareness and healing at the prison last year we spent a lot of time on forgiveness and apology. The men in the class took time to think and write about their offenses and about how it affected their victim, the victim’s family, the victim’s community, their own family and community and others in their life. As they delved deeper into the practice, many began to realize how much damage their crime has caused.
I think we can all admit that the people in prison aren’t the only ones who have hurt someone. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” We all make mistakes. We all have caused harm to another. When we can take the time to understand that, to take ownership of that and to apologize, healing can truly begin and I believe our world can get one step closer to the kingdom of God.
It’s hard work and there may be pitfalls. What if we can’t apologize directly? What if the other person won’t even talk to us? What if it’s someone from long ago in our past? What if they are no longer alive? When an inmate was in such a situation, it was suggested that he write a letter of apology. Letters can be written over and over again. The letter never has to be sent. It can be penned then torn up. But by writing a letter we can try to find the words to confess that we’ve hurt the other person and we can find the words to say “I’m sorry.”
Would you try that this Lent? Would you reach out to someone to apologize? Talk face-to-face, send a letter, or maybe even just write down the words.
Saying “I’m sorry” isn’t easy. Meaning it is even harder. But we come to church to practice our faith. We can start with our joint prayer of confession, moving our lips to try out the words, to see how they feel in our mouth – and then we can spend time silently apologizing to God on our own. Because the good news is that, in Jesus Christ, God knows us and loves us as we are. We are forgiven and God keeps giving us another chance to get it right.
So, let’s say the words together again. Turn to the part of the liturgy that’s called “acknowledging our shortcomings” and let’s give this another try. And this time, think carefully about the words so that it’s not just lips moving but your heart moving as we all move forward into the next step of asking for a deeper forgiveness from God, ourselves and from others.
Let’s pray together: Holy and merciful God, if we have hurt anyone through word or deed, if we have failed to speak out against injustice and prejudice, if we have been insensitive to another’s pain, if we have failed to keep our covenant with each other and with you, grant us the forgiveness we need to continue as faithful followers of Jesus Christ. Amen