Confession, Repentance, and Charlottesville

Over the past week, many in this nation have been reflecting and speaking up in response to the events that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia. Paying attention to the tragedy and response, one gets a sense that our nation stands at a crossroads. Turn one direction and we head down a narrow road to an unknown destination, with many bumps and potholes that make the journey difficult. Or, turn the other and go down the road that is wide, and smooth, and heads to a familiar place.

Two Paths

The easy path leads us back to where we are. We remain a people who fail to see the humanity of one another, refusing to recognize the image of God in which we are all created. The other path is difficult. It requires that we recognize the deep divisions in our country. It forces us to acknowledge that some are relegated to second-class status, and see those who are considered “less-than” simply because of who they are. Rather, the stony road forces us to confront the ugliness of our common life, the hatred, the evil, the sin that surrounds us and pervades our lives. This path leads us to look beyond the overt evils present in our society in the forms of fascism, racism, and white supremacy. It urges us to look beyond the sin of violence and prejudice of all kinds.

It calls us to recognize the subtle ways we fall into the trap of sin when we fail to love our neighbors.

Confession and Repentance

As United Methodists, we proclaim something dangerous in our baptismal liturgy and our membership vows. We promise to “renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin.” We profess our confidence in the power of God, and accept the power that God gives us to “resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” These words are hopeful, they are powerful, and they are dangerous. They remind us that we are not yet the people God desires us to be.

God has already extended grace and forgiveness to us. We proclaim that Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. Thus, we should know that confession and repentance are gifts from God. They are gifts that invite us into a deeper relationship with the people against whom we have sinned, wittingly or not. But, as important as confession and repentance are to our walk with Christ, the Gospel calls us further. The Gospel tells us to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” To make our repentance of sin a lasting transformation we must live as though we have truly turned away from sin and toward God.

The Difficult Choice

If we truly believe God gives us power to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they take we must choose to walk the difficult path. If we truly reject the evil powers of this world, we must choose to risk standing alongside those who hope and struggle for a brighter tomorrow. Further, we ought to risk living into the hope that comes to us through Jesus Christ, who came to offer us true life. And, perhaps most difficult of all, we would risk seeking out that new life – the transformation that occurs when we invite the Holy Spirt into our lives – as we confess our sins and ask for forgiveness. Forgiveness at the hands of both God and our neighbors against whom we have sinned.

This is not easy. The events of the last week – the events of the whole of our history – show us that repentance is difficult and dangerous. Jesus offered us two commandments to guide our lives:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
As a result, we know that our love of God is empty if we do not love our neighbors. Just as there is no loving our neighbors if we do not have love for God.

Concluding Thoughts

Finally, I offer you these words from Bishop Palmer from a letter this week to pastors and church leaders in response to the violence in Charlottesville. You can read the whole letter here.

The ugliness that results from failing to know and love all our neighbors and to see how deeply we are connected as a human family has left three persons dead and nearly three dozen injured. Charlottesville and other communities are in turmoil specifically about the matter of race and inclusion. Competing visions of what is and who is America are leaving wreckage in every community. Physical deaths and injury – to speak nothing of the moral injury of hatred and divisiveness – is taking a toll on all of us. We must cry, weep, and grieve for the loss of life and of soul. The unwillingness and failure to do so will only put us in more moral and social peril. “Blessed are those who mourn…”

We are called to confess. I continue to be astounded at the vast resources that we have as the Church to shape our prayers, especially confession. We should turn to them frequently as they might well be a gift God intends for the Church to give to the world. Pray again with me this prayer intended for personal and private use:
Merciful God, we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart. We have failed to be an obedient church. We have not done your will, we have broken your law, we have rebelled against your love, we have not loved our neighbors, and we have not heard the cry of the needy. Forgive us, we pray. Free us for joyful obedience, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Prayer

May God strengthen us for the work ahead, and grant us the courage to truly repent of our sins and seek to live in peace with one another. And, may we be set free to joyfully follow where Jesus leads us into paths of life that bring us to new heights of love for God and for our neighbors whom we have sinned against for far too long.