We are in the midst of what promises to be an extremely long election season, especially when you consider that we still have one election day before the actual election we’ve been hearing all about lately. The presidential election in 2016 is already taking up a lot of our energy. What are you looking for in a candidate? I’ll tell you one thing I’m looking for: a candidate who can apologize well, and can apologize sincerely, can apologize with humility. A candidate who can simply and clearly admit when they are wrong.
I remember back in 2008, when Sarah Palin was on the ticket for the office of Vice President. She was speaking in Boston, one day, and talked about Paul Revere’s famous ride, and she made some reference to him riding to warn the British, instead of warning the colonists. Palin made a mistake, and in my opinion, the media went a bit overboard in jumping on her words, which seemed to me more like misspeaking than misunderstanding. Still, though, Palin’s reaction was even worse. Instead of saying: “Yes, I got that wrong. I screwed up. Sorry,” she dug in her heels, and insisted that Paul Revere also rode to warn the British, like to intimidate them. It would have been so much better if she’d just admitted her error. But she just dug herself in deeper and deeper because apparently, that was preferable to saying “I’m sorry. I was wrong.” Sarah Palin is certainly not the only candidate to adopt this behavior. That particular incident just sticks clearly in my mind. Republicans and Democrats and Independent and all the rest of the politicians do the same thing all the time. I’m not sure what the strategy is. I guess we have a cultural belief that people who are powerful and are good leaders are never, ever wrong. That they are above needing to apologize, perhaps. Certainly, the impression is that apologizing, admitting a fault is a weakness.
Good thing we’re not like that, right? Well… It seems that apologizing is something that we are remarkably bad at as a whole. Some of us say it too much. I have a colleague who has a bad tendency to apologize constantly. I keep telling her I am going to make her an “I’m sorry” jar – a jar to put $1.00 in every time she says I’m sorry. But she probably couldn’t afford it. Maybe you fall into this category – apologizing for everything you do and say. I’m not sure that kind of apology is particularly powerful – except in being powerfully harmful to the self-worth of the person who is apologizing all the time. But for others of us, we apologize too infrequently, not too often. Think of these things we do to avoid having to say “I’m sorry” or “I was wrong.” We say, “I’m sorry, but…” and follow with basically an explanation of why we are not sorry at all. Or “I’m sorry that you got upset with me.” This is another non-apology, basically a criticism of the other party, rather than a sincere admitting of wrong. How about the phrase, “My apologies.” I find myself slipping into that phrase when I’m telling someone that I’m sorry I haven’t emailed them back more promptly. In my experience, the most powerful apologies are sincere, and direct. “I’m so sorry. I was wrong.”
Today, we’re talking about a particular aspect of prayer: confession. As Protestants, and as United Methodist Protestants in particular, we don’t always focus a great deal on confession. When Martin Luther sparked the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, one of his critiques of the Church was against the idea that we needed to confess our sins to a priest or to an intermediary instead of directly to God. And indeed, although some parishioners of mine over the years have sought me out to share a confession that had been weighing on their hearts, there is certainly no requirement that you would seek out your pastor or anyone else and confess your sins to them. Indeed, in our individualized, privacy-focused culture, such a concept is a hard sell. I taught a study once on Richard Foster’s Spiritual Disciplines, and in one chapter, he suggests the discipline of confession. He encourages readers to seek out a trusted person and indeed confess to that person in full one’s sins. What would you think of that? I can tell you my class struggled more with that chapter, that discipline, than any others. It can be so very hard to say, “I’m sorry. I was wrong.” And maybe even harder to admit exactly what it is we are sorry for.
In our tradition, individual confession is something we usually do on our own. And in worship, we might participate in a corporate confession. I tend not to include a prayer of confession each week, but often our morning prayer has a confessional nature, and usually when we are preparing to receive communion, our service includes a prayer of confession – the very one we shared today, and a couple weeks ago on World Communion Sunday. It’s easier, perhaps, to confess our sins if everyone else is doing it too!
I think, over time, we’ve come to approach confession in our relationship with God in the same way we approach apologies in the rest of our lives. “I’m sorry, God, but…” “I’m sorry, God, that you don’t like what I’m doing.” “My apologies, God.” We have occasional times in our church year when we’re a bit more comfortable talking about repenting, turning our back on the ways we’ve wandered away from God. We start off Lent on Ash Wednesday with a time of penitence, admitting our sins, our brokenness, and seeking forgiveness. But most of the time, I think we’re convinced that as long as we don’t confess our sins to God, God won’t notice what we’re doing. I’m reminded of many parents telling children that it isn’t the wrong they did that is so bad – it’s the covering up afterwards, the lying, the hiding of the wrongdoing that’s so upsetting. Our failure to confess to God, to say “I’m sorry,” to say, “I was wrong,” is not so different from lying to God. Certainly, we’re lying to ourselves!
Part of our prayer life with God if we are to be a prayerful people is becoming a people who are willing to be honest with God about our shortcomings. Not because God doesn’t know them otherwise. But because true growth and strength in our discipleship comes when we bear our hearts to God and acknowledge our failure. We can’t move on, we can’t experience the fullness of forgiveness, we can’t embrace the new direction that is repentance if we’re still unwilling to acknowledge the truth about what we’ve said and done, or left unsaid and undone. So, we’re starting with some of the hardest parts of prayer with God.
The scriptures are full of prayers of confession. That shouldn’t surprise us, given that some people who end up dedicating their lives to serving God, following in the footsteps of Jesus, have very colorful beginnings. God seems to like to show just how very much our lives can be turned around when we’re ready to admit we’ve been going the wrong way. This morning, we’re looking in particular at a prayer of confession from the Book of Nehemiah, a book of the Bible you might not be very familiar with. Nehemiah was written in the late 5th century BC, and is a unique book among books of the Old Testament because it is primarily told in the first person point of view – a rare voice in the scriptures. We hear directly from Nehemiah. The events he describe take place after the Israelites had been exiled to Babylon, conquered by the Babylonians, and after the Israelites had finally been allowed to return to Jerusalem. But all is not well, “back to normal,” and Nehemiah returns to oversee the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem.
Nehemiah, is the cup-bearer to King Artaxerxes in Susa, the capitol of Persia. Cup-bearers were positions of high status. Because of the constant fear of plots to harm the ruling king, a person had to be considered highly trustworthy to hold the position of cup-bearer. The cup-bearer had to guard against poison or tampering with the drinks served to the king, sometimes even required to taste-test for the king. But this role also brought the cup-bearer a degree of closeness and confidence with the king. Cup-bearers had influence with the king.
Nehemiah, cup-bearer to Artaxerxes, learns that the wall of Jerusalem had been destroyed. As our text opens, we find him praying to God after receiving the news. He prays that God will give him strength and success as he asks Artaxerxes to let him return to Jerusalem to oversee the rebuilding of the walls. After our text for today, the king agrees, and Nehemiah is appointed governor of Judah. He rebuilds the walls, he wards off enemies, and he rebuilds the community to conform again with the law of Moses, making many reforms, including reforms to combat oppression of the poor, like cancelling past debts and mortgages. He meets with a lot of opposition, especially from the Jewish nobles, but he eventually prevails.
But our focus today is specifically on Nehemiah’s prayer. Before any of the events unfold, before everything turns around for Nehemiah, right in the first chapter, we read his prayer, his starting point, before he begins to carry out what he believes is God’s purpose for him. Nehemiah’s prayer is beautiful and flowing, but we shouldn’t be put off by the beauty of his words. The heart of the prayer is always what matters to God, just as a child’s “I’m sorry” is as powerful to a parent as an adult child’s more eloquent communication. Nehemiah confesses his sin, his family’s sin, and in fact confesses the sin of the whole nation. The people have turned away from God, and Nehemiah knows he, too, had turned away from God. From the scriptures, we know that Israel understood its time in exile as the consequence of failing to follow the commandments of God. And that’s exactly what Nehemiah says in his prayer: God, I confess for me, for my family, for my nation, that we’ve sinned, and we’ve stopped following your commandments. It’s pretty simple, his confession. And he follows it up by saying that he understands the consequences of his wrongdoing. But he understands something else, too. He understands that when people return to God, when they repent, turn back to God’s direction, God delights in offering forgiveness, reconciliation, new hope, and new life. So Nehemiah confesses, deeply sorry for how off track he and his people have been. But he doesn’t despair. Because he knows that it is God’s nature to forgive and rebuild and keep God’s promises even when we don’t keep ours. His prayer, his confession, is a turning point, a restart.
Confessing our wrongdoing is hard work. It involves some soul-searching, and a lot of vulnerability. It involves saying we are sorry, that we’ve been wrong, without trying to lessen the impact by couching our confession in explanations. But if we know, as Nehemiah did, that we serve a God who keeps promises, who forgives again and again, and who in fact loves to build wonderful stories of transformation from the most unlikely beginnings, we take heart. God is waiting for us to say that we’re sorry. And God is ready to say, “I forgive you. I love you. Now come this way. Follow me.”
God, I am sorry. We are sorry. God, I was wrong. We have been wrong. Please forgive me. Please forgive us. Amen.