Confession, Accountability and Vulnerability

As the season of Lent begins, this message seems like an appropriate one. Below is the manuscript of the sermon I preached at Saint Peter’s Church on Jan. 24, 2016. And here is a link to the audio.

Psalm 32:3-5 (NIV)

Blessed is the one
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
2 Blessed is the one
whose sin the LORD does not count against them
and in whose spirit is no deceit.
When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
4 For day and night
your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
as in the heat of summer.
5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you
and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess
my transgressions to the LORD.”
And you forgave
the guilt of my sin.

Luke 18:9-14 (NIV)

9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Well so as many of you know, we’ve been in a series since the beginning of the year called Unimaginable, and what we’re trying to say with that title, is that often we find ourselves in a place in life that we didn’t imagine we’d ever be in. We don’t know how we got there. It’s not what we hoped or planned for. But we’re there, and we’re stuck. We’re stuck, or we feel like things are out of control.

But where we’re going in this journey that the Christian faith takes us on, is to a place that, we also could not have imagined, because it’s so good. But it’s probably not good in the way that we expected it to be. And it may not be good in the same way that the world and culture around us often tells us it should be. And so, understanding the difference between what the world we live in tends to call God, and what God views as good, is at the heart of why we gather as a church, and how we discover what our purpose is. That’s the big picture of what we’re talking about.

More specifically, though, in just a moment, we’ll get into what is really the 5th step of the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous — even though it’s the third week of the series (we’re condensing a little bit) — which is the step that deals with the importance of confession and accountability in the process of recovery, but also, more broadly, it’s a key step in the process of discipleship, that is, following Jesus.

So this past week in the Connect Group that I’m part of, which meets every Wednesday, as part of in initiative at our church right now called Illuminated, we watched a documentary about human trafficking and sex slavery. And as expected, it was difficult and eye-opening to sit through, but it was gripping. I think all of us were really on the edge of our seats. Not because it was entertaining but because for me, and I think for many of us, it revealed the nature of sin in the world in a way that makes it very difficult to deny how much we’re all susceptible and all caught up in this problem, however removed or indirectly — how much we’re all responsible at some level and keep the cycle harm turning.

It makes you think about how every time we buy something that was made by a company that uses slave-labor, we’re part of the problem. Every time someone looks at pornography, that’s part of the problem.

One of the biggest themes of the film is that the more these investigators started to learn and uncover about the relationship between the sex trade and prostitution, the more it became evident that prostitution is almost never something that any woman chooses for herself. It’s almost as if, because of the incredibly grim circumstances of her life, prostitution chooses her. It has a power over her that she doesn’t control.

And one story in particular really showed this. There was the woman interviewed in the documentary talking, her employer, and how he would abuse her, and manipulate and deceive her, and how terrifying and tormenting this all was — but then a little while after she got interviewed, she ended up going back to this guy, even though she had been rescued from this situation and given the opportunity to find another job.

And apparently, this is not unusual at all. And in almost every instance, what the movie demonstrated is if the women or girls have the right kind of caring and supportive community around them, during the recovery process, they can perhaps move on and see transformation in their life. But if they don’t, the chances of going back into the business are very high.

1. Because there is no freedom in isolation. And without encouragement, accountability, and someone in our life who fully knows us, we’re very likely to fall back into some form of slavery. But much of the time we’re in denial about that.

You see, a “me-too” church, which is what we’re trying to be, happens when we become willing to say, yeah, I’m not the person that I want to be a lot of the time either. I yell at my wife or my husband, at my kids. I put money first in my life. I’m impatient. I’m easily aggravated. I’m not living very generously. I’m mostly living for myself. Being a me-too kind of church, means creating an environment together, in our community, where it’s ok to not be ok. And to talk about is ok! Because we’re all not ok. So what was the first step that we confessed together?

Step 1 – “we admit that we are powerless over our attraction to do wrong and that our lives have become unmanageable.” This is huge. It can’t be skipped.

And then last week, TJ preached on steps two and three, which state that “We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us.” And then that “we made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God.” And as TJ said last week, even if you’re not sure what you think about God, or Jesus, or the Bible, you can still take this step, and many people have.

Of course, these steps are ones that many of us are trying to make, and it’s one that we have to repeat over and over, because if we’re earnestly embarking on the journey of following Jesus and pursing spiritual growth, we’re always going to be discovering new ways that that our lives are not turned over to God’s care.

And then we come to steps Four and Five, which are the focus of our time this morning: “We resolved to make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” This one’s fun…

And fifth —  “We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” (James 5:16a) And here, this is where so many people get stuck and hit a wall. Here’s what the Big Book says:

“But of the things which really bother and burn us, we say nothing. Certain distressing or humiliating memories, we tell ourselves, ought not to be shared with anyone. These will remain our secret. Not a soul must ever know. We hope they’ll go to the grave with us.”

This is why recovery groups can tend to look pretty different from regular church groups. Recovery groups are full of people that in same area of their life are actually willing to admit that they don’t have control over something, that it’s become unmanageable, and that the only way they’re going to heal from it is if by crying out for help. But we prefer to hide!

It’s like in the story when Adam and Eve realize what they’ve done, and God confronts them about it. God asks Adam, “Where are you?” Adam replied, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.” And then of course, Adam blames Eve, and Eve blames the serpent. It’s just classic. It’s the story of all of us.

We’re like children hiding behind closed doors when we get into trouble — this same fear that Adam had lives in us and leads us to conceal stuff – to cover up our baggage and our shame.

But I think we know that when we hide and when we cover up, and when keep things inside, they start to eat away at us. In AA, they found a person who could follow each of the first few steps with as much conviction and sincerity as possible, but if they stop there, it was almost impossible to stay sober.

Whitney and I have been married for more than 7 years, but we also knew each other for more than 7 years before we got married. And we were very young when we met. We dated off and on throughout high school, and when we finally got engaged, it wasn’t a very romantic time in our lives. In fact, at times it was a pretty bumpy road. There was a point in our engagement when I realized that there were things I had kept from Whitney, some sin that I hadn’t acknowledged, that needed to be dealt with, and that she had a right to know about, and confessing that to her almost delayed our wedding. It was not good. But by God’s grace and because of Whitney’s love for me, and her forgiveness, we made it.

2. But the simple lesson is this: we cannot heal what we do not acknowledge – to God, ourselves, and at least one other person.

There’s a famous researcher and author by the name Brene Brown, and she has specialized in studying vulnerability and shame. Here are some of the things she says about vulnerability:

  1. Vulnerability entails emotional risk, exposure and uncertainty. Which is partly why it’s so scary.
  2. Brown tells a story in one of her TED talks about how all these businesses called her after one of her videos went viral and said hey, we want you to come speak to our company, but we’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t say anything about shame or vulnerability. We just want you to talk about creativity, innovation and change.Brown responded by saying that’d be ok except that, she had become convinced by her research, that vulnerability is actually the birthplace of creativity, innovation and change.
  3. Finally, Brown makes what she feels the most important observation of all, which is that vulnerability is not weakness; in fact, it’s the most accurate measurement we have of courage.

The story of David and Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11 is maybe the most famous example in the Bible of the consequences that can follow in the wake of unacknowledged sin. David sleeps another man’s wife while he’s away at war, and then basically after this man Uriah proves his faithfulness to David, David makes certain that Uriah dies in battle so that no one finds about David’s adultery. Which of course doesn’t ultimately work. A little secret needs a bigger one to remain hidden, and it ends up costing David almost everything.

3. The cost of concealment is always greater than the cost of confession!

As it turned out, the first sin that David committed was not the biggest problem or his biggest enemy. It was his unwillingness to face it! But what’s crazy about David is that, in spite of this story, he’s still so revered by the Jewish people. Because he does finally repent of his wrongdoings. He’s considered a model for how we’re to be related to God, and yet he was the worst of sinners!

This is why AA starts off every meeting by saying, “My name is [blank], and I’m an alcoholic. Not, “I’m a pastor, I’m a realtor, a teacher, an entrepreneur… I’m a mother, a parent, I live in Mt. Pleasant, or whatever!

Again though, like David, most of us have to be forced to do this. We won’t choose it. The test of whether you actually want to change is simple: Are you willing to tell another person? We will dare to be that vulnerable?

Now, before wrapping up, I want to say just a couple of things about what confession and accountability is not:
Look at the quote in your bulletin for a minute.

“God does not love us if we change; God loves us so that we can change. “

See, the reason we confess our sins, is not so that we will be forgiven. Now, we do experience, we do receive benefits of forgiveness when we confess our sin. But the offer is always already there. We confess our sins because of the reality of God’s love — that we get to live in it.

God does not love some future version of you. God loves you right now, exactly as you are. Sin and fear, hurt and shame, guilt and all.

Another thing that confession and accountability is not about is the pursuit of moral perfection. As grow in our dependence on God’s grace for restoration, and practice vulnerability, the fruit will be a change our character. But if you just to manage the behavior itself, on your own, you’re either going to fail, or worse, think that you can succeed.

This is what Jesus’ parable in Luke 18 about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector is trying to tell us. Who does Jesus say went away justified? The guy who does what he’s supposed to, or the guy who realizes there’s no way he can do what he’s supposed to do, and because of that he cries out for mercy and help? This principle gets illustrated over and over again in the Gospel stories.

This is what the cross is all about! This is how God lures us own and woos us: by loving us in spite of ourselves in the very places where we cannot or will not or dare not love ourselves.

So yes, ok: God loves us and meets us at our worst. But God loves you too much to let you stay that way. So we gotta confess. And we ask others to hold us accountable.

The more you have hidden, the more alone you’re going to feel, and the more in danger you are! Seriously, this is what can ultimately lead to affairs, to financial ruin, to broken homes — to suicide. I know you’ve all seen it.

But even when we know this truth about God’s grace, it’s not like it becomes easy to do. It’s embarrassing to confess sin. It doesn’t make us look good. It’s possible that people might think less of us because of it.

Here’s what happens though when we do confess. You’ve all experienced this at one time or another. When you confess to another person, you feel immediate relief. And it literally, almost instantly, lifts weight and produces a new sense of humility and gratitude, even though it stings and there are still consequences.

Grace sometimes feels like punishment at first. It burns like fire, because it’s purging. It destroys the parts of us that don’t belong. But then what it ultimately does is purify, heal, and mature us. This is why the fire, is such a common biblical image. We think of it as a bad thing, but it has a refining purpose.

The sex trafficker from the documentary, King David, the tax collector in the parable — they all go on this same journey of being refined by the acknowledgement of their sin to others.

So I do invite you, encourage you and challenge, to, if you don’t have this kind of relationship in your life, to commit to establishing it. And praying, that God would make it clear to you, who that person should be.