P: In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
C: Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you and worthily magnify your holy name, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
P: In the mercy of almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for us, and for his sake God forgives us all our sins. As a called and ordained minister of the church and by Christ’s authority, I therefore declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins both known and unknown, the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
P: We boldly confess our sin in the presence of God and of one another, trusting in the forgiveness promised to us.
P: Most merciful God,
C: we confess that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your holy name.
Grace to you and peace from God our creator, from Jesus Christ, our redeemer and friend, and from the Holy Spirit, our sustainer and guide.
Have you heard the story of the young bride who wanted to make her new husband’s favorite dish, pot roast? She called his mother and got her recipe. She got the roast, cut off the ends and tossed them away, just like her mother-in-law had told her. She put in the other ingredients and it turned out great. They had it often. Eventually they had children and they liked the pot roast too. When her little boy grew up and got married, his wife wanted the recipe. When the woman was giving her daughter-in-law the recipe, the young bride asked, “Why do you cut the ends off the roast? Does it make it taste better?” but her mother-in-law said, “I don’t know. It is just the way it is done. My mother-in-law did. Her mom did. It is great-grandmother’s recipe. Maybe she knows why it makes a difference to cut the ends off the roast that way.” The next holiday, when the whole family was together, the young bride asked her husband’s great-grandma “Grammy, why do you cut the ends off the pot roast? How does that make it better?” Much to her surprise, the old woman said, “Oh, honey, it doesn’t make it better. I always had to cut the ends off because my pot was too small.”
There are some things we do that we don’t know why we do them or how we got started doing it that way. There are some things we do because we have always done them, even though they have outlived their usefulness.
In Brennan Manning’s classic book “The Ragamuffin Gospel” which we are using as our text this Lent, he recognizes that some things in the church have become habits, but they are not necessarily helpful habits. Let me read you a little section where he wrote about the Church’s long history of emphasizing good works:
Something is radically wrong.
The bending of the mind by the powers of this world has twisted the gospel of grace into religious bondage and distorted the image of God into an eternal, small-minded bookkeeper. The Christian community resembles a Wall Street exchange of works wherein the elite are honored and the ordinary ignored. Love is stifled, freedom shackled, and self-righteousness fastened. The institutional church has become a wounder of the healers rather than a healer of the wounded. Put bluntly, the American church today accepts grace in theory but denies it in practice. We say we believe that the fundamental structure of reality is grace, not works—but our lives refute our faith. By and large, the gospel of grace is neither proclaimed, understood, nor lived. Too many Christians are living in the house of fear and not in the house of love.
Our culture has made the word grace impossible to understand. We resonate to slogans such as:
“There’s no free lunch.”
“You get what you deserve.”
“You want money? Work for it.”
“You want love? Earn it.” “You want mercy? Show you deserve it.”
“Do unto others before they do unto you.” (pg 15-16)
Our huffing and puffing to impress God, our scrambling for brownie points, our thrashing about trying to fix ourselves while hiding our pettiness and wallowing in guilt are nauseating to God and are a flat denial of the gospel of grace. (pg 18)
In the Forward to the 2005 edition, Michael W. Smith, a contemporary Christian musician said this about discovering God’s radical grace by reading this book:
I discovered how little I had to do to deserve and receive the love of God and that He loved me more than I had ever imagined. Suddenly, instead of fearing and denying all of my real or imagined shortcomings, I could embrace my humanness. I could see God pursuing me through it and in spite of it. Here was the purest picture I’d ever seen of God’s relentless pursuit of His raggedy creation. Not that I could sin more so grace might abound (see Romans 6:15), but grace abounded more because I could find it in the darkness as much as in the light. God wanted me just as I am. I am loved. (pg 7-8)
The church has a problem. Too many people don’t feel lovable. Too many people have a sense that God must be disappointed in them. How in the world did the church fail all these years to be able to adequately convey the good news of God’s loving grace?
I see part of the problem in the way the liturgy is written. I have always thought it was backwards. We say we are saved by grace and all our life is a response to that grace. Then why have we always said the confession and then get the absolution? I think “It is no surprise that people think they have to earn forgiveness. The confession is the price we pay to receive it, right? Wrong.
You may have been startled this morning, when the words of absolution were given BEFORE the confession. But we have been forgiven ages ago… at our baptism. We are washed in the waters of baptism, whether you were sprinkled with a few drops of water or immersed in a whole river, you are clean. It isn’t about being physically clean. It is about being pure in spirit. Technically, we received forgiveness even before that; when Jesus taught people to love each other, when he went to the cross, allowing himself to be crucified, died and was buried and rose again, he broke the hold sin has on all people. So the “price” has already been paid. Grace says the absolution should be before the confession BECAUSE IT IS ALL ABOUT GOD’s SAVING LOVE… GOD’S ACTIONS, NOT OUR OWN.
I am certain the liturgy has been written with the confession before the absolution and “survived” for so long because it feels right in our transactional society; do something to get something. BUT THAT IS NOT THE GOSPEL. That is the same old-same old bad news. The GOSPEL is that God saves us because we cannot. God loves us because God is love. God forgives us because God is forgiving.
I hope this feels like it is going to be a different kind of Lent to you. I hope you will keep coming back to hear the Good News of God’s saving love again and again. I’ll be keeping up this theme on our Wednesday evening services as well as Sunday mornings.
We are also going to keep doing the confession “backwards” to see how it feels to receive God’s saving grace up front. See how it feels over the course of Lent. Let it speak to you. Later we can decide if we want to go back to “normal” after Lent. I don’t know how it will go. You get to be the guinea pigs as we experiment a bit. But most of all, we recognize we don’t need to, in fact we dare not, do things the way we have always done them just for the sake of tradition. There has to be a good reason to continue. Switching around the confession is my way of getting a bigger pot so we can cook the whole roast.
Please join me in prayer.
Holy God, come into our hearts and increase our faith. Inspire us in serving your people and being the church for the good of the world. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Manning, Brennan. “The Ragamuffin Gospel” Multnomah Books, 1990, 2000, 2005.