May 28, 2017

Dirty Laundry

If you went away to college or when you were first living on your own (and I’m aiming this particularly at the guys in the room) what kind of laundry bag did you use?  Was it canvas or mesh?  If it was canvas, how frequently did you do your laundry (or at least bring it home for mama to do it)?  What happens to dirty clothes that have been forgotten in the bottom of a canvas laundry bag for very long?  If you have had this particular experience you can probably still remember the smell.

My mom was really smart and sent me to school with a mesh laundry bag made out of nylon that could be washed (not that I ever washed it…).  I was always amazed at just how many days’ worth of clothes I could cram inside of that thing.  I usually filled it up to the point that it was almost too heavy for me to carry to the car before I’d go home and do laundry.  And, yes, I did usually go home to do my laundry.  And, yes, I think I probably did leave it for my mom to do more often than not.  But I did at least generally fold my own clothes.  But in my (weak) defense, doing laundry at college was not only expensive, it was a pain in the neck.  The machines were all the way in the basement on the extreme opposite side of the dorm from where my room was.  It was a long ways to walk to get there.  Now, sure, it was closer than the 170 miles I drove home, but at least I didn’t have to carry it by myself that whole way.  Plus, half the machines didn’t work, you couldn’t wash everything in two loads (which was necessary if you waited three weeks to do laundry), and for whatever reason they had twice as many washers as dryers meaning once your clothes were clean you had to sit there with them wet until a dryer came open (never mind having to wait on a finished dryer whose user had forgotten to set a timer).  Home was much easier.

The point is, though, that I didn’t often let my laundry become a science experiment.  See, I was a responsible college student!  I had some friends, though, and you probably know some folks (maybe very personally…) whose laundry did become a science experiment.  There’s just something magical about the mixture of dirty clothes, time, and a warm, humid, dark laundry bag.  It creates an environment perfectly suited for the thriving of tiny little creatures; creatures who digestion process results in a particularly…memorable…aroma.  If, however, you like clean clothes and more positively memorable aromas, you’ve got to get some air in there.  You’ve got to get air and light…and perhaps an air freshener or twelve.  Airing the laundry makes it smell better.

Well, this morning we are in the fifth part of our series, How to Do Life.  If this is the first part of the series you have caught, let me encourage you to go to the church’s website which is printed there in your bulletin and catch up what you’ve missed.  The big idea for this whole journey is that as followers of Jesus, we are called to do life better than folks who aren’t following Him.  Indeed, the life of Jesus, if lived consistently, will yield better life results than any other approach.  It won’t always be easier in the short term, but on the whole, it will be better.  In fact, I would even be willing to go so far as to offer that as a guarantee.  If you want a life that is better than any other approach you might take, following Jesus consistently is the way to go.  Just do what Jesus says and everything else will fall into place.

Still, generalizations like that are only so helpful in terms of daily application.  We live our lives in a series of personal moments.  Understanding we are supposed to do something in the large and applying it in the small is often a tough leap to make.  As a result, in this series we have been talking about ways to do life well in the small.  We started out in the first two weeks with money and sex.  The bottom line there was that we need to learn to think rightly, to think as Christians, about both of these critical areas or we’re not going to get them right.  We are to love people and use money, and to treat sex as the gift that it is rather than merely an appetite to be satisfied.  From there we talked about family.  We saw that faith grows best in a family.  As a church, we need to be prepared to be a person’s family if their own biological or adopted family haven’t gotten the job done, but faith grows best in a family.  Finally, last week, we focused in on prayer.  We saw with the help of James, the brother of Jesus, that prayer is a tool.  It is a tool that can undergird and empower our doing life well in all the other areas we have, will yet, and even won’t talk about in this series.  It is an incredibly powerful, multi-functional tool.  But it only does us any good if we use it.  Prayer is a powerful tool, but only if we use it.

Still, there is something that can get in the way of our incorporating the practice of prayer into our lives well if we let it.  It’s actually something whose solution James mentioned in his writings on prayer.  I think the best way to understand it is like this: What is prayer at a fundamental level?  It’s a conversation with God.  While we can have a conversation with a stranger, the best conversations are always going to be had with folks with whom we have a close relationship.  Do you know who it is almost impossible to have a conversation with, though?  Someone with whom you are currently estranged because the relationship you used to have is broken because of something you did.  Are you with me?  If you have deeply offended another person, having a long, meaningful, life-giving conversation just isn’t going to happen until the breach is repaired.  What’s more, while conversation may be impossible because the other person is nursing the wound and won’t forgive you for the offense, in at least as many cases, the other person is ready to forgive and move on with the relationship, but conversation remains impossible because you won’t forgive yourself, accept their forgiveness, and do the things you need to on your end to make things right again.

Well, when we have sinned against God, our relationship with Him has been interrupted because of something we have done.   When that relationship has been interrupted, having meaningful conversations in the form of prayer aren’t likely to happen.  And this is not because God is sulking and won’t talk to us, it’s because we won’t receive His forgiveness, forgive ourselves, and do the things we need to do on our end to make things right again (namely, receive the forgiveness He has already offered through Christ and start doing what He says).  If we want to see that relationship restored so that prayer can once again have the place of power it should have in our lives, there is something we have got to do in order to get the ball rolling again.  That thing is to confess our sins.

This morning as we continue our conversation about specific areas of life that are essential to doing it well, I want to talk with you about the practice of confession.  And I want to talk with you about this through the lens of something Jesus said that, at first read, doesn’t seem to have anything to do with confession at all.  But, if you look a bit more closely, I think it gets to the heart of what confession is even if the path it takes to get there isn’t what we would expect.  You can find this passage in Matthew 5:21.

In this first part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spends time recasting and elevating some very familiar teachings of the Law of Moses and subsequent commentaries that had over time gained a status similar to that of the Law itself.  (And just as an aside, this elevating to the level of Scripture things that weren’t Scripture wasn’t a fault limited to them.  Think for a minute about all the things, be they traditions, preferences, or the like, that we treat a sacrosanct because of the length of time they have been a part of our cultural framework even though they aren’t Scripture.  Perhaps that’s something we should confess…)  In any event, one of those teachings was the command, “Thou shalt not murder.”  In recasting this particular command, Jesus had some things to say about resolving conflict that, again, I think point us right to the heart of what confession is: An effort to make things right when we have made them go wrong.

Check this out with me starting at Matthew 5:21: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother [or sister] will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother [or sister] will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”  Let’s pause there just a minute to say, “Yeesh!”  That’s tough stuff!  Jesus takes the fairly easy to meet standard of not murdering someone else and jacks it up to the sky.  I mean, come on: Making a moral attack on someone’s character and identity (the operative Greek word translated “fool” is the word from which we get our English word “moron”) will make us liable to the hell of fire?!?  Really?  How is anyone supposed to keep a standard like that?  There are two quick answers to that question.  The first is: That’s the point.  A significant part of Jesus’ goal in the Sermon on the Mount (or at least in this first part of it) was to make it abundantly clear that self-righteousness will not get anyone to God.  When you read the whole chapter here—and you’ve got to read your Bibles—it becomes clear that He succeeds in this rather brilliantly.

The second answer points forward to where we are going this morning: God takes broken relationships really seriously.  The reason for that is fairly simple: We can’t have a broken relationship with another person and be fully right in our relationship with God.  The reason for that is equally simple: Broken relationships are always the result of sin.  Always.  Now, it may be that we didn’t sin, or that we’ve done everything we can do to repair the relationship and that the brokenness is remaining in place because of a decision by the other person.  That’s a different story but one which we need to be exceedingly careful in telling ourselves because the heart is deceitful above all things and we can easily convince ourselves that we aren’t the problem we really…we are at least part of the problem.   More often than not, though, we’ve injured the relationship because of something (stupid) we’ve done and making things right rests in our hands.

In light of that and to avoid the trouble Jesus just mentioned, stay with me in v. 23 now: “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother [or sister] has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go.  First be reconciled to your brother [or sister], and then come and offer your gift.  Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison.  Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.”

So then, let’s just ask the question: What is Jesus talking about and what does this have to do with confession?  In order to answer that, let’s go back for a minute to what confession is.  Confession is an effort to make things right in a relationship when we have made them go wrong.  That makes sense, right?  If we didn’t make things go wrong, then we don’t have anything to confess.  And in confessing, what we are doing is acknowledging the things we have done to contribute to the relational breach.

Well, what Jesus is saying here is that this intentional effort to restore the relationship is more important than going through the rituals of worship no matter how inconvenient that may be.  Look again here at what He said.  “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother [or sister] has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go.”  Now, because we aren’t so familiar with their cultural situation, that doesn’t sound like such a big deal to us, but this would have been mind-blowing for Jesus’ audience.  There was only one altar where first century Jews (Jesus’ audience) could legitimately bring offerings: The Temple in Jerusalem.  What’s more, Jesus wasn’t teaching a bunch of Jerusalem natives in Jerusalem.  He was in Galilee, a couple of days’ journey to the north.  For these folks, this imagined a situation in which they had planned, maybe for a year, to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in order to bring their offering before God.  The offering itself would have been a sacrificial one for them.  It would have cost them a lot to make it.  It was likely an animal of some kind.  Probably from their own herd.  For them to have obeyed Jesus’ command here, if they remembered suddenly that they had sinned against a friend just as they were next in line to bring their offering to the altar, they would have had to pay to leave the animal in the care of someone trustworthy so that it would be there waiting for them when they came back.  Then, they would have had to travel two days back home, take the necessary steps to reconcile with the person, travel two days back to Jerusalem, make their offering, and travel another two days back home.  In the best case scenario, you’ve got six wasted days here.  In a day when having your daily bread provided was a much more tenuous thing than it is today, the cost of such a venture of obedience would have been almost unimaginable to most people.

And yet Jesus was clear: Getting right with another person when you have blown the relationship open is worth all of that and more.  To put that another way that is a little more on point: Confessing your sins in order to get them dealt with so they aren’t interrupting your relationship with God or anybody else is sufficiently important that you shouldn’t bother trying to worship until it’s done.  You’ll be wasting your time.  And perhaps even more importantly, if you have committed some sin of which you need to confess, trying to get into the presence of God is pointless because you can’t get there until you’ve dealt with the sin.  Now, Jesus makes dealing with the sin really easy (that’s not to say dealing with the consequences of sin is really easy), but until you do it, trying to get to God is a fool’s errand.  And maybe to put that in yet another way: Confession is a big deal.  It is the tool God has given us for bringing light and air to the dark, smelly places in our life so that we can walk in the spacious, clean air of God’s grace.  Confession brings light to life’s dark places.

Still, though, that’s pretty abstract.  We should confess our sins.  Okay…what does that look like?  How should we do it?  Knowing we should confess our sins and actually implementing the practice into our lives are two very different things.  With that in mind, I want to spend the rest of our time together this morning getting really practical on all of this.  When I say, “We should confess our sins,” how does that play itself out in our lives?

Well, let’s start with some ways to not do it well.  This has become a minor theme of this series, but confession cannot become merely a religious ritual.  When confession becomes merely a checkbox activity the likelihood that its impact in our lives will be positive declines precipitously.  In thinking about this kind of confession, a lot of folks will let their minds drift to the Catholic church which is famous (or infamous, depending on who you ask) for its expectation that all members will regularly attend confession with a priest.  The priest will listen to the various things they have done wrong, assign a certain number of prayers to recite, and assure them that God has forgiven them.  The problem is, in most cases this doesn’t really seem to act as a sin deterrent.  It’s more like an unloading of one load of sin in order that the person can go and load up with another.

But, lest I leave you thinking this is merely a Catholic problem, it’s not.  Protestants have our own version of this.  It’s called 1 John 1:9.  First John 1:9 says this:  “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  See, we make our version even less of a burden than the Catholics do.  At least they have to actually go to a priest and tell another person what they’ve done.  The far-too-common thinking among we Protestants puts it like this: We just have to say to God, “Yeah, I’m sorry for doing those things,” He’ll forgive us (after all, the Bible says He will), and then we can go and sin some more.  But here’s the thing: Confessing our sins without the additional intention to walk away from them and not commit them anymore is a little like pulling the shirts from the bottom of the laundry bag to the top without actually doing the laundry.  It shifts things around and they may look a little better for a little while, but it’s just going to result in the same problem on down the road.  Confession brings light to life’s dark places, but unless we intend to stay in the light, we haven’t done ourselves any favors.

There are some other ways we can get this wrong as well.  Confessing for the purpose of elevating the opinion others have of us won’t do us any good either.  In this instance, we aren’t really confessing anything, we’re just putting on a show.  We shouldn’t confess to someone who is not a trusted friend who is willing to help hold us accountable to walk in the light now that we have stepped into it.  Confessing to a complete stranger my offer a bit of a massage to a guilty conscience, but a stranger, particularly a non-Christian stranger, won’t be able to offer us any meaningful help in walking the path of Christ and thus we aren’t helped in the long run.  Sometimes such an effort is pursued as a substitute for confessing to the person to whom we actually need to confess.

One more here: We shouldn’t confess an offense we feel like we’ve dealt to another person when they aren’t aware of the offense.  Now, that may be a bit harder of an idea to get your mind around so let me unpack it for just a second.  Let’s say you’re harboring really negative thoughts toward a friend, but she doesn’t know about it.  Going to her and saying something like, “I really need to confess that I’ve been struggling lately with thinking you are a total jerk,” is not going to do anything particularly positive for the relationship.  That’s a feeling you need to get worked out between you and God or possibly you and a trusted, mature, Christian accountability partner who will be able to objectively help you process through why you’re feeling that way.  That’s another conscience-massaging move that isn’t actually helpful in any meaningful way.  Confession brings light to life’s dark places, but if you’re using a black light you’re not going to be able to see very clearly.

That’s all well and good, but how should we handle confession?  We can start with God.  Even though 1 John 1:9 is often misused, that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.  We can confess our sins directly to God and receive the forgiveness He offers.  We need to confess with a repentant heart and the intention to walk in the light once our dark places have been illuminated, but we can always go directly to God in Christ.  That’s part of the beauty of the new covenant we have in Him.

I’ve mentioned an accountability partner a couple of times.  The Christian life is not something we can live well by ourselves.  No one is that good.  We need community.  We need friends.  We need close confidantes; people who know our junk, love us anyway, and are willing to help us walk in the light even as we do the same for them.  Choosing this person or group of people takes a lot of wisdom, but it is something we need to do.  Where I’m going is this: This accountability partner is someone to whom we can safely confess our sins.  We can confess to this person because we know they will maintain confidence, but will also challenge us to live better.  Confession brings light to life’s dark places.  But sometimes we need help walking in that light.  A trusted accountability partner can provide that help.

One more and we’re out of here: Sometimes, the best place to confess our sins is to go directly to the person who has been their victim.  If we have sinned against another person, they know it, and the relationship is on ice because of it, then once we’ve gotten things settled with God and have the prayer backing and help from an accountability partner, we need to go directly to this person and graciously, humbly, honestly own up to what we’ve done.  They may not be willing to forgive us or work with us toward restoring the relationship yet, but our confession may very well be the first step on that journey.  At the very least, we can be sure it won’t start until we do.  Confession brings light to life’s dark places.  Sin-broken relationships are a world of darkness we don’t want to live in for even a moment longer than we absolutely must.  Confession will shed the light we need to begin following the guidance of the Holy Spirit in making them right again.  Too often in life we live with a load of dirty laundry that has been allowed to sit in the dark to the point that it is festering and smelly.  Confession is what will bring light and air to the mess so that it can be cleaned up and made right.  We have to handle it with a lot of wisdom and make sure that our goal is repentance, reconciliation, and restoration, but we have to do it.  Confession brings light to life’s dark places.  May you walk in the light in order to do life well.