We’re not perfect. I hope I’m not the one to break the news to you, but I’m not perfect. You’re not perfect. We’re not perfect. Simply acknowledging this fact is where worship can begin.
This morning, we continue our closer look at worship – its shape, its purpose, its intentions. And as we do, we linger over this moment of preparation.
Worship begins in the gathering; and as we talked about last week, the moment that we actually gather for worship is a bit of a mystery. It happens somewhere along the way so that, by the time we physically gather in the Sanctuary for the worship service, the moment of gathering in God’s presence has already happened.
From there, our worship moves into a time of preparation. Again, it’s not a cut and dried moment, but rather a shift, a second layer to this process of gathering.
You see, for Presbyterians, the fulcrum of worship is the Word. It is the high point. We elevate the Word, because we believe God is accessible in the Word. What do we mean by “Word”? Well, for one, it’s the Word as found in Scripture. And it’s more. It’s the Word that is spoken or heard in the sermon, or sung in music. It’s the Word we touch, taste, and feel in sacraments of baptism and communion. And it’s the Word Incarnate – that is, Jesus himself.
Before we get to the Word, though, we have to be ready. Prepared. And that preparation has three movements.
The first one is our honesty. If we really want to come to God, access God, hear and experience the Word of God, then we first need to be honest with ourselves, with each other, and with God. This is why our worship always contains confession toward the beginning. And boy, it can be a tough moment to face.
We have just gotten here. For those of us who have been here for a while, we have greeted familiar faces. For those who are relatively new, Oglethorpe Presbyterian prides itself on our hospitality, so I hope you have been welcomed warmly into this place and this time. There is a sense of eager anticipation as the music begins. We quiet down as the bells ring, and listen to a couple of announcements – possibly even getting excited about upcoming events in the life of the church, or in sharing good news. We rise to sing a song of praise, one that gets us going, puts a smile on our face. And then: sit down. Tell the truth. You didn’t get everything right this week, did you?
If we are taking worship seriously, this is the moment all of the air can get sucked out of the room. I’m not perfect. You’re not perfect. We’re not perfect. And it’s time to own it.
Before we pray, we are reminded why: if we say we have no sin, we are not fooling anyone but ourselves. But in the act of confession, we come before God honestly and openly. That word, “sin,” is a loaded one. And it means more than the meaning we tend to give it:
- “Sin” includes those things we should not do that we do anyway. We vent our anger at someone who had nothing to do with what made us angry in the first place.
- It also includes those things that we should do that we don’t. We miss an opportunity for generous compassion with someone in pain and agony.
- And over all of this, “sin” is our general state of imperfection. We are mortal. We get sick. Our bodies betray us.
Even at our absolute best, we will always miss the mark. Just as no bowler consistently rolls a 300, just as no basketball player has 100% free throw percentage, just as no singer hits the perfect pitch every time, no matter the excellence we strive for, we might make it most of the way, but we won’t get all the way there.
I want to be clear: this focus on “sin” is not meant as an exercise in flagellation or a belittling or a shame. For some, I know that this is how it can be received. But if that is the intent, then even our act of confession is missing the point. The reason, rather, is honesty. It is self-reflection. It is an effort at transparency before God and within the congregation.
Other manifestations of Christianity focus on the private act of confession: the intimate secrets told in the sanctity of a confessional booth. While we may not have a wooden box tucked away in a corner, we, too, believe there is purpose in personal confession. It happens, more often than you might think, in the pastor’s office, or with a trusted therapist. And it happens in worship.
You see, what we do during this one hour on Sunday should shape everything we do throughout the week. It is, at the very least, a touchstone, that one moment where we are reminded of what faith calls us to do. And among those things we are meant to do, being honest with others and with ourselves is central.
In the world in which we live, in the society of which we are a part, such an act of confession is counter-cultural – downright revolutionary, in fact. The public apologies we see and hear are rife with conditions: “I am sorry if my actions offended.” They become meaningless, and we who hear them become jaded.
So what would it mean if we were to offer apologies without following them with rebuttals? What would it mean to say, “I’m sorry” and not follow it with “but you have to understand…”? Isn’t it enough to be contrite, to confess? Aren’t relationships bigger than just the one moment? Can’t it bear the rest of the conversation? Where is the harm, really, in admitting a mistake? Is it because we are afraid that others will see us as weak? Is it that we are afraid that others will smell blood in the water?
It is my conviction that we have something very different to offer the world. Our vulnerability, offered without fear, speaks volumes. It may be the most important witness we can offer society. Where Christians can be seen as self-righteous and judgmental, we can be living proof that not only is there more to the picture, but that this other image is simply unfaithful.
And that is because confession does not stand alone. It is just the first act. And without the rest, then it does become a moment to beat ourselves up for what we do or don’t do. But our confession is always – always – followed by second movement: pardon.
There is mercy; forgiveness. We are reminded that this honesty about ourselves is not done in a vacuum. You see, the counterpoint to our imperfection is God’s perfection. When we get it wrong, God makes it right.
Our lesson this morning from the Letter to the Hebrews draws particular attention to the grand sweep of the whole drama. From the very beginning, God has been whole; while we, though beloved of God and created in the image of God, are broken. Think back to the many lessons of Scripture: Adam and Eve, violating God’s one request, and eating the forbidden fruit; Noah and his family, singled out among a world of corruption to continue this grand experiment; or Abraham and his offspring, selected to live in covenant with God; the Israelites, neglecting the promises over and over again; the prophets, sent again and again to remind them of God’s faithfulness.
Time and time again, our ancestors veered off the path. And we, unfortunately, have followed proudly in their wandering footsteps. And yet, this moment of Jesus brings it all back together, giving us the wholeness we so desperately need.
You see, as much as we are unable to make up for our missteps, God pulls it all together in Jesus. Our imperfect, broken vessels are filled with healing. And the light within shines out through our cracks. Jesus became, in the words of Hebrews, “like his brother and sisters in every way. This was so he could become a merciful and faithful high priest serving God, wiping away the sins of the people through sacrifice.”
As we say, week in and week out, in Jesus Christ, we are forgiven! This is what gives us the strength to rise, to sing praise to God, to prepare ourselves, truly, to hear and sense and experience and then live the Word of God. And that’s just what is meant to happen in worship. For the rest of the week, and for the rest of our lives, we are meant to carry this joy, this knowledge, this wisdom with us. And when we do, when we recognize that we ourselves are forgiven, then we might just have the strength and ability to forgive others.
We are honest. We are forgiven. And then, we are on the move.
My favorite moment in worship here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian is the passing of the peace. As one of our former student pastors once said, “It is the moment in worship when we are most ourselves.” Amen! One of you commented to me that passing the peace in many congregations is a formal, mechanical turn of 360 degrees, where you shake the hands of those next to, in front of, and behind you. For us, by contrast, it is the opening of the flood gates, the beginning of a moment of holy, almost unbridled chaos. We get up and out of our seats. We are on the move.
When you are visiting with us, I know it can be disorienting. You might be expecting a brief delay in the important business of worship. In truth, though, passing the peace is, in itself, an important part of our worship. It really is who we are, that holy image of God within. We are, at our best, a people who genuinely love and care not only for one another, but for all our brothers and sisters who bear God’s sacred imprint.
And whether we recognize it or not, it flows right out of that act of confession, of honesty and transparency. From where I stand, it is as though mercy enters our honest imperfection, and in so doing, fills us to overflowing. And this causes us to spill out of the pews, into the aisles, filling the air with greetings, laughter, and joy.
And so, in our honesty, in receiving forgiveness, and in passing that forgiveness along, we are prepared to hear the Word of God. We receive it. We rest in it. We are troubled and blessed by it. And as worship comes to a close, the hope is that we are carried by it, spilling out into the streets of God’s beloved, broken world.
May that be what we do this day and every day.