To Whom Do You Confess?

Sermon by Rev. Sue Browning
Minister, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at Easton


An excerpt from the publication Epic Pew, by Tatiana Federoff

“My first confession was a nightmare. I was the very first in line out of all the kids in the group, and the confessor that day was Fr. Mike, a huge ex-military guy with a bald head and a terrifyingly constant glare. Tiny, shy me was scared stiff, and I promptly forgot every one of my sins.

I ran into the confessional, said the first thing that came into my head (I think it was “I stole M&Ms from the jar this morning”), rattled off my act of contrition at record speed, and ran out while poor Fr. Mike was still pronouncing the words of absolution.

My dad was waiting outside and tried to push me back into the confessional, saying I definitely had more sins to confess, but I managed to escape and hide under a pew until it was all over. I’m still not entirely sure if that confession was valid!


To Whom Do You Confess?

So what does it means to confess something?

Movies and reality shows offer one extreme. ‘Confessions of a housewife”…‘Confessions of a shopaholic..’ These confessions signal that something juicy is about to be revealed. Breaking news: Prepare to be enticed.

These are in sharp contrast to the image of the scared little girl we heard of earlier, making her first confession in the Catholic Church, in a private confessional, panicking to recall at least one sin, followed by words of contrition (the “I’m sorry, I won’t do it again” part) and skipping out before the priest clears her through absolution – the good part, the lightening of her load.

Two extremes. Both are about breaking trusts; about falling short of moral standards. Let’s, for at least a bit, call this breaking of a standard – whether stealing M&M’s, adultery, or gluttonous shopping – let’s call the breach “Sin.”

When in our use of free will and make choices which hurt ourselves or hurt others it’s not good. Let’s hang with the term “Sin” for a bit. I can feel the resistance, but hang in there. Might there be a value to reserving an attention-getting word like “Sin” for the times we screw up; times we are careless, hurtful or violent?

Possibly naming “sin” starts the repair – the mending and healing part. When we give our attention to something we have hopes of healing. All of us will err and make mistakes. It’s tempting to gloss over these moments or episodes, and move to a quick fix. Doing so is easier than dwelling on the sin – confessing the sin.

The term “Sin” does come with some baggage. We can find 50 reasons not to label what we’ve messed up as “sin.” Sin raises philosophical questions. Are we innately sinful creatures?  Do humans naturally lean toward the bad? Do we need to build a life around resisting temptation? Or is our human nature more random.

This has been an age long debate – humans as innate sinners, or not. Centuries ago Pelagius argued that when using our in free will as humans we will make bad choices, and as humans we have the power to get ourselves back on track. On the other hand St. Augustine’s view was we are flawed creatures leaning toward sin and continually require God’s intervention to get back on track.

Debates as old as time. What’s behind the sinning? Who and what helps sinners get back on track?

Even in my leaning toward a more random view, the Pelagius camp, I’m going to stay with this word ‘Sin” and consider what gets us back on track when we sin.

Imagine the breach is one of the seven deadly sins – envy, gluttony, greed or avarice, lust, pride, sloth, and wrath. The list can be longer, the brokenness expanded. Maybe you broke a confidence and gossiped in a way that broke trust, possibly you judged another based on stereo type, or you littered, or didn’t listen with patience.

If there language more comfortable for you than “Sin” – great. Use it. The focus this morning is a focus on what it takes to begin the process of real repair. This is where the concept of confession in its many forms comes in.

Confession practices value naming what is broken. The little girl who stole from the candy jar. Possibly a mess you left for another, or the time you didn’t speak up in the presence of another being harmed or disparaged. What can you name, and name specifically?

Confession begins formally in the Catholic tradition, and in Jewish practices of atonement, and in Protestant prayer with internal work – noticing the wrong and internally naming the wrong. The examination of conscience.

What did we do? Who was harmed or inconvenienced? Power in noticing, in naming.

In some traditions, after the examination of conscience the sins are confessed to a priest, who is not God, but is God’s representative in the tradition. Some religions collectively confess sins during worship, in more general ways. It’s easy to have knee jerk reactions to practices used in other traditions.

What might be at the essence of traditional confessional rituals which might help us live into our Unitarian Universalist values?

In our reading we hear the little girl rushed through her act of contrition, so we don’t have her words. We can imagine she might have offered a typical prayer of penance, something like,

My God, I am sorry for my sins with all my heart.
In choosing to do wrong and failing to do good,
I have sinned against you whom I should love above all things.
I firmly intend, with your help, to do penance, to sin no more, and to avoid whatever leads me to sin.
Our Saviour Jesus Christ suffered and died for us. In His Name.
My God have mercy.

Traditional to be sure. Implied is a breaking a moral code – stealing those M&Ms. She hadn’t lived up to the a basic standard. Whether ‘Thou shalt not steal” from the Ten Commandments, or from another principle, stealing something that belongs to another is wrong. It breaks covenant.

The girl has named her wrong. She’s asked for forgiveness. She’s offered her intention to not steal in the future. She’s declared she’ll rely on her sense of the holy to meet this tall order.  

Sin – confession – prayer. Maybe not the format you rely upon, and yet a practical path. Name the screw up. Admit to yourself it was wrong. Claim accountability. Vow to do better, i.e. to turn your ways.

There is power in those confessional steps.

For some, a sense of seriousness is set by including God in these steps; finding power and commitment in naming the holy. For those who find the holy (what is most tender, most sacred) in human community and human relationships, maybe confession is to the other person. Here I’m not imagining a “spill it all out” on Facebook ‘tell all’ confession, but a confession offered in honesty and humility to whomever was harmed – a family member, a close friend, or possibly to a third person. There is acknowledgement of the concern, a taking of accountability, and ask for forgiveness, and a sharing of intent to do better.

In Unitarian history there has been a drifting from confession, specifically the naming sin, likely in part to the age-old debate on human nature. Yet to me, these are separate debates. Unitarians of course err and break trusts.

Yesterday we held our New UU class, and the topic of theology and religious language came up.

“Why do we (I) consider Unitarian Universalism a religion?”

“Why do we sometimes refer to ourselves a church?”

“What are our shared beliefs, if our core focus is not a shared sense of a God?”

For me, theology as the process used to make meaning and find purpose in life. Theology addresses the major issues of living and dying, leaving space for the mystery and unknown dimensions of both.

When we talk of confession, we’re in the midst of issues of living and dying. We’re asking what ethical principles will guide our life’s decisions? We are asking about inspiration. We’re looking for the “how to” of living into core values? We’re wondering what will help us each respond compassionately and move creatively toward the collective good?

Far from anything goes, and more about setting the bar high and staying true to what we value most.

If theology is the process of making meaning, I see religion is the holder of the great truths of a culture and its local communities. Religious tradition is sustained through narrative and ritual. Religious practices help us (among other things) to express our connections and build relationships. Religion reminds how others have answered big questions.

While as UU’s we stress openness and flexibility, we face the same challenges humans have always faced – dealing with mess ups and keeping us on a path of growth and healing. Together we find language that keeps our attention on the important stuff.

It’s more than language. It’s about practices. In this mix we need to address suffering, and the harm we may cause, individually or collectively.

UUs have long struggled with sin and confession, our optimistic roots have had many discard concepts of sin.

James Luther Adams was a Unitarian minister and scholar in the early and mid 20th century. Too much optimism worried him; in the midst of war and much suffering he saw humans causing harm. He wanted Unitarian’s to name sin, and saw paths of accountability through this naming. Adams concluded that Unitarians and many other Christians, caught up in progress and achievement, were distancing themselves from evil – from suffering. He found liberals (religious liberals – not political term) erred by avoiding the term “Sin.” He found in our beliefs that optimism and reason alone could solve all ills, we missed the social complexity.

Adams described man as “a creature of impulse and passion and emotional preference, who only through strenuous social discipline can transcend his incompatible desires and direct them toward some intelligent end.”(Adams, James Luther. “The Changing Reputation of Human Nature.” Berry Street Conference Address , 1941) Likewise, Paul Tillich, a Protestant scholar, found naming sin helps convey the moral truth that humans bear responsibility (Dorrien, Gary. American Liberal Theology: Idealism, Realism, and Modernity, 1900-1950) And UU minister William Murry in his discusion of evil notes, “…perhaps at a deeper level we humanists and religious liberals have not wanted to think about evil because we have been afraid to face it within ourselves.” (Murry, William R. Reason and Reverence, Religious Humanism for the 21st Century)

These theologians are not asking that we make things right with God, per se, but rather that we be real. Until we clearly name what is broken, and admit our role, there is little hope of facing challenges; little hope in healing that avoids repeat errors.

This is where I see hope in confession. There is a lightening of the load, and the hope of turning. Accountability is heavy, yet once shared we work together in healing.

Confessing is a start. It is not about blaming, shaming or condemning, but about naming and making space for the turn toward repair. Confession may move toward repentance where we shift assumptions and realign behavior. In the humanist language this may be seen as pointing toward ethical action. It’s about a change in outlook. Confession helps assure that our intellectual (rationale) commitment to change is accompanied by a change of heart and soul. For there to be actual change, the heart needs to engage. The move toward atonement and reconciliation begins when we clear the space and not rush through the pain.

To whom do we do this confessing? For me, not on Facebook. Beyond that the path isn’t clear. In all cases, we need to first do an honest accounting with ourselves. I sense then there is power in sharing somehow. Together in worship at times; with someone you trust; in the form of an apology, possibly. Jewish, Catholic, Protestant and other world religions have all arrived at practices – different, but in the essence the same acknowledgement that there is power in naming a challenge, that taking responsibility is hard, and too knowing there is power in searching and claiming a new path (or getting back on the path). Some may call the antidote to sin, mercy, forgiveness, or grace.

For many UUs our antidote is a trust that love is the healing force. Our goal is to be open to the healing and the release that comes when we’re aware and honest about what it is that needs repair. Confession, in its many forms opens doors to healing and wholeness. A start to a longer process.

May It Be So


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