Kavanaugh, Empire, and Confession
I’ve come to a new understanding this week of how the wrath of God can be comforting.
Now that’s a pretty scary statement, isn’t it?
Well, I’m just trying to make sure you’re awake, and after all, Halloween is only a few weeks off. Let me explain what I mean.
I don’t mean “the wrath of God” as in God dangling people over a lake of fire and taking delight in punishing them for their sins.
What I mean is that there comes a time when human beings really lose their way, when they elevate petty, selfish goals over ideals like truth, defending the oppressed, and protecting the vulnerable.
We do that as individuals, and most of all we do that as a body politic.
And when that happens, in the church and in the world, we lose both the ability and the credibility to articulate justice.
At moments like that, we need something more and something higher than humanity’s best attempt at righteousness. We need God’s righteousness.
We need the searingly clarifying reminder that the other pole to God’s mercy is God’s justice.
Mercy always triumphs, but justice creates the conditions for mercy to flourish.
I was reminded of this by our passage from the Letter to the Hebrews today.
“The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.”
Remember that when we talk about a Word of God that is sharper than a sword, living and active, piercing our hearts and unveiling our deepest stirrings of both good and evil, we are talking about scripture. But we are also talking about the Word made Flesh, Jesus Christ.
I felt a longing this week for a piercing Word of God, an eye that can see deep into the hearts of men and women, because of our current political situation.
The Kavanaugh hearings left me near despair.
I don’t know what happened at that party in the 1980s; no one does but the people who lived it.
And I don’t know what it feels like to be falsely accused of sexual assault; it must be horrible.
And I do know what it is like to have my voice, my witness, my reality as a woman dismissed and demeaned, or worse, given lip service and then ignored.
I know what it is like to speak the truth, to tell my story, to be patted on the head and told thank you, and then watch as absolutely nothing changes because of what I said.
And this is with all the privilege a straight, white, middle class clergywoman can bring to bear. I can’t image the frequency and ubiquity of this experience for LGBTQ+ folks and people of color.
You might be in despair right now too.
You might be in despair because like me, whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, you struggle to attribute good motives to “the other side.”
But there is hope for us. There is Good News.
And it comes in the very next verses of our Hebrews text: “Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
I think we can all agree that we are in an almost unparalleled time of need. And it is encouraging to hear that Jesus can sympathize with our weaknesses, to know that he has been tested as we are, but he found a way through.
But what I want to focus on the most in this passage is this exhortation: “Let us hold fast to our confession.”
That jumped out at me in two ways this week that both hold my feet to the fire, and also awaken my hope.
What does it mean to “hold fast to our confession”? Well, the most obvious meaning is to hold fast to our confession of faith.
Every week in worship, right after the sermon in fact, Father Davies or I will say, “Let us confess our faith in the words of the Nicene Creed.” I’m going to talk more in a moment about what it means to confess our faith.
But this phrase, “let us hold fast to our confession,” spoke in another voice to me this week.
What is the other type of confession, besides a confession of faith?
A confession of sin.
And we do that in worship every week as well. Father Davies or I say, “Let us confess our sins against God and our neighbor.”
First we confess our faith in the words of Creed, then we intercede for others with the Prayers of the People, and then we confess and are absolved of our sin. All three of these are key in our preparation to receive Holy Communion.
And notice that both of these confessions are corporate.
We don’t say, “I believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty,” and “Most merciful God, I confess that I have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed.”
We say, “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty,” and, “Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed.”
But the call to confession needs to ring out much more broadly than just Sunday morning liturgy.
If there is anything the last few weeks in politics has taught me, it is that we are in deep need of corporate confession. We need, both as individuals and as a collective, to confess.
We need to confess the truth, both of our sin and of our faith.
We need to confess the truth that millions of people in this country have been the victims of sexual abuse and assault, and millions of people in this country have been the perpetrators and enablers of it.
We need to confess the truth that although there may be lack of effective due process for the accused in the context of things like confirmation hearings, the decks are and always have been stacked against survivors being believed and perpetrators facing real consequences.
We need to confess the sin that almost every single one of us, by virtue of some category of privilege we inhabit, is complicit in a system of toxic power that teaches, excuses, and allows some men to assume ownership and use of others’ bodies.
I name my own complicity in this system here before God and the world.
When the author of Hebrews tells us to hold fast to our confession, and we realize that includes our confession of sin, that can be a painful place to inhabit.
We’d rather rush to absolution.
But confession of sin is a spiritual grace and blessing. It is cleansing and can pave the way to healing and redemption.
God absolves us fully and freely of any sin sincerely confessed.
But it’s up to us to face up to the confession.
And remember, the other part of holding fast to our confession is holding fast to our confession of faith.
Think about the context of the early church when it came to making a confession of faith.
This wasn’t just about saying a rote series of doctrinal statements halfway through a liturgy like we do today.
In the early church, your confession of faith was what you said when you were arrested and hauled into court for being a Christian.
You were brought before a judge and asked whether you would confirm that the Roman emperor was divine and you would henceforth abandon your Christian practice and make religious sacrifices to Caesar.
You knew that if you didn’t agree, you faced the death penalty. You would be executed.
That was the moment you made your confession of faith.
If you had it in you, the courage and the grit that it took to abandon yourself totally into the hands of God, you confessed the truth that you believed in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord.
That is the power of a confession of faith.
It cuts through the poisonous stranglehold of empire with the world changing power of willing self-sacrifice and radiant truth.
It is the gift of the self to something higher, and trusting the self to the love of God, because of the needs of the community.
It is speaking truth to power no matter the cost because the Body, the gathered faithful, has need of your voice.
I think this is a worthy lesson for us today as we consider how we make our own confession of faith.
It’s a tall order. But those early Christians who made their confessions of faith knowing it would end their earthly lives did not do so in a spirit of despair.
All the accounts of them show them as confident, even joyful. Some of them went to their deaths singing hymns.
Why? Because they knew that the community of healing, of truth, of love, that they were building, would long outlast the empire of greed, militarism, and hypocrisy that demanded their deaths.
And that made their hope stronger than their fear.
We have it so much easier than they did—our confession of faith will not result in our execution by the state.
Where we have it harder is that the empire, the system of toxic power, that they confronted, was all external.
We have to face up to the reality that the system of toxic power we face is partially inside of us.
That’s why we begin with our confession of sin, before we make our confession of faith.
“Let us hold fast to our confession,” the author of Hebrews tells us.
This is our call in this hour.
The good news is we don’t have to do it alone. Jesus has been through the dark days of empire himself, and “has been tested in every way as we are,” our lesson says.
He is with us now, as we seek the inner resolve to hold fast to our confession.
And so we take the words of our scripture to heart: “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
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