Be the Bridge: Confession

October 11, 2020


Robin McGonigle
University Congregational Church
Oct. 11, 2020

Be the Bridge: Confession
James 5:16

“A boy like that who’d kill your brother. Forget that boy and find another. One of your own kind. Stick to your own kind. A boy like that wants one thing only. And when he’s done he’ll leave you lonely. He’ll murder your love, he murdered mine, just wait and see.”

Do you remember that song from West Side Story? It premiered in 1961. “Stick to your own kind.” How much has the message changed since then?

Our next-door neighbor and one of my mom’s best friends was a white woman who married a Hispanic man. Mom often had to do her grocery shopping in the 1960’s and even 1970’s because there were people who would not serve her since she was in a mixed-race marriage. She no longer has that problem – and her husband recently served two terms as the mayor. Real progress has been seen.

Yet, not far from us there is a controversy about DNA testing and who can benefit from the proceeds of casino gaming. What percentage of native American blood determines indigenous heritage? And isn’t cultural identity more about environment, family, meaningful connection, and relationship than a vial of blood?

We are continuing our sermon series on “Be the Bridge” and our focus today is about where healing begins. When we started this series, I said that one of the things I really liked about the book by LaTasha Morrison was that she wrote one of the few books about reconstruction. Many books about injustice only speak to the problems… but this one speaks to some solutions and putting things back together. Paul and I have spoken about being humble, speaking the truth, lamenting, and freeing ourselves from shame and guilt. Now… we are ready to talk about starting the healing process!

Healing begins with confession. The Bible gives us many instructions about how to confess. One of those texts is our traditional word for today:

Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. James 5:16

In some more liturgical congregations, prayers of confession are spoken each week. A confession of sin, while it might seem unnatural to some of us, is an important habit to form, in my opinion. One simple confession from the Anglican tradition says: “We confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and what we have left undone. We have not loved you with out whole heart and mind and strength; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”

As a mom and as a theologian, I think it is important for us to be in the practice of confession and to be accountable to one another for the things we do and the things we leave undone. Whether or not you like to think of it as sin or wrongdoing, we all make mistakes.

More than that, we are also part of systemic sin, or communal sin, in which our individual culpability may vary, but we participate by being a part of humanity or being a part of a group. This may feel uncomfortable – or even unjust – especially if we think about it (as Paul talked about last week), from an individualistic context. Why should I confess sins done by my country, or sins from another time, for which I’m not personally guilty? Isn’t that its own injustice?

Gregory Baum says, “Personal sin is freely chosen; social sin is collective blindness. There is sin as deed and sin as illness.” Social sin (or systemic sin) exists within any structure in a society that oppresses human beings, violates human dignity, stifles freedom and/or imposes great inequality. The only way we can recognize these structures is if we step outside our own world and consider the world from another person’s perspective. For example:
• Men need to understand the frustration of women who cannot achieve economic equity in society, despite equal training and hard work.
• People who do not live in poverty need to look outside their own experience to find ways to identify with people who do live in poverty with little to no means of escape.
• Anglos need to understand the debilitating effects of racism on others before moving together to address the structural roots of racism.

When we think about sin, most of us think about our personal sin. But the Bible emphasizes systemic injustice over personal sin. God’s work in the Bible is with a who group of people – the Hebrew people (the Israelites). God calls them to be an alternative society – a holy nation. They are to exhibit a more humane way of living – they are to treat the poor and foreigners better; they are to help vulnerable people; to be equitable with land and resources; they are to forgive debtors; and be more humane in their punishments than the other people around them. God structured them as an alternative society – a witness to God’s justice and righteousness. The Hebrew Bible is rife with the stories of the people failing to embody God’s commands.

Moving to the time of Jesus… remember that the stories of Jesus and the writings of the New Testament were read orally to the early church. These writings were understood to be communal teachings. They were read aloud in people’s homes to small groups. These writings were understood as a way for them to share life together!

Failure to live as God’s people in community was failure as a group to embody God’s justice. There is an inseparable relationship between the human heart and the systemic injustices of our world. Let me give you some specific examples…
• Sex trafficking is rooted in lust and greed. If we create a society where lust and greed flourish, we create the possibility for sex trafficking.
• Genocide is rooted in rage and pride. If we raise children (or create places where children are raised) with rage, there will be genocide.

Confession of our social sin and our personal sin is a critical step in healing. I cannot over emphasize this. It is true in our relationship with ourselves. It is true in our relationships with our families and friends. It is true in our relationships with our neighbors and our co-workers. It is true with our acquaintances and it is true across borders and around the globe. Confession puts us in alignment with God. When we confess our sins, we can begin the process of healing. It is that simple.

Even Alcoholics Anonymous includes confession, or “defects” in steps 5, 9, and 10. Step five is often called “Confession.” In this step participants “admit to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrong.” This step follows a written inventory of wrongs and it is critical to share this as soon as possible.

There are numerous reasons that confession is a vital part of healing. One of the best reasons is that it can be so freeing! Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “(The one) who is alone with sin is utterly alone…”

Many of us are considering who we will vote for in this season. I would not presume to tell what candidates you should check on the ballot. As a minister, I do think it is important, however, for all of us to think about what systemic sins our communities are participating in. And then, what candidates running for city, county, state, and federal offices are willing to address – head on – those systemic problems to our moral standard.

Can we look at this candidate or that candidate and feel confident that they will address greed? Can we hear the answer to the questions they have been asked and ascertain their moral stance on providing for the poor and vulnerable? Do they follow the moral imperatives for justice and equity Jesus taught? Are they complicit in our social sins?

For all of us, it is a mistake to understand our personal responsibility and social injustice against each other. The biblical narrative invites us to see them as inherently intertwined. Let us confess and free ourselves and one another from the harm we have done.