I hope I am not being too presumptuous, but I want to know your secret. Where do you hide it? Where do you put your dirty laundry? I know you’ve been there before. You have people coming over, and you have to get the house presentable. You vacuum, dust, scrub, get everything ready but then there is still that pesky dirty laundry. Because there is always dirty laundry, isn’t there? It does not matter how fast we wash, dry, fold, and hang it seems we can never get those laundry baskets completely empty. Maybe you are really lucky, and you have a dedicated laundry room that you can tuck everything into. For those of us who do not though, what do you do? Do you put the baskets in your bedroom, shut the door and hope no one looks? Do you put the baskets in the shower and then just pull the curtain? Do you jam it all into the washing machine, and then close the lid to take care of it later? Or do you do the really bold thing, and just let the laundry sit out where it normally is because dirty laundry is just part of life? Yeah, most of us probably do not do that. We hide that stuff. We get it out of sight, and out of mind. We always want to make the best impression, so we clean up the mess we can and we hide the mess we can’t. That is true for the cleanliness of our house but it is a deeper truth as well. There is a reason that the expression “airing dirty laundry” is used when hidden facts, secrets, and things kept within come out to the light of day. We hide our dirty laundry. The question is why? Both literally and figuratively why do we hide it? There is nothing shocking about a pile of crumpled clothes. After all, we all have them. It is not like dirty laundry is a secret, why do we go out of our way to hide what we already know exist. In the same the things that we try to hide in our lives is the same way. We try to hide the facts that we are not perfect, that we do not have everything all together, that we fall short, we are flawed, and that we fail. Why though? We know no one else is perfect, so why do we try so hard to hide all the evidence that we are not either? That is the question that this morning’s scripture, and this morning’s spiritual discipline really challenge us with.
As a reminder, we are in the church season of Lent which is a time of spiritual preparation and reflection as we approach Easter. This year we are being a bit more serious about lent around here, and as part of that each week we are focusing on a spiritual discipline, a practice that enhances and deepens our faith. Last week, the focus was on bible study. While study can be done in groups, and while it can be an aspect of corporate worship times like this, it is primarily a personal discipline. It is one that we take on and practice on our own. The discipline we are going to focus on this morning is a corporate or communal discipline. This means that this is a spiritual practice that we are meant to do together. It is a practice that is most effective, has the most impact and brings us close to God when it is done within a faith community. This morning’s discipline is confession.
Now I realize that confession does not sound or seem like something that should be done in a group. Yet, if we look at this morning’s scripture that is exactly what the bible is advocating. James was a letter traditionally associated to the brother of Jesus. James was written to Jewish Christians outside of Israel, and the letter was meant to travel from congregation to congregation. It was not written to address specific issues, but instead the letter was written to offer up general exhortations and help on how these new believers could live faithfully. James is a short letter with only five chapters, but it is powerful because it focuses on how we live faithfully by putting our faith into action. It is about how we “practice what we preach”, and how we do this as a group (as a church) and not just as individuals. This morning’s scripture comes from the end of James and the letter concludes with what we should do for each other and with each other as a community of faith. On the whole, we do fairly well with these things. First, when in trouble: pray. Check. We are good at that. When happy, praise God. Check again. We are also very good at that. If anyone is sick, we should pray over them in the name of the Lord that God will make them well. Double check! We, not just us but all churches, excel at this one. We are very quick to lift up our aches, pains, and physical ills. We are quick to pray for healing, and we have the stories to know that it works. Many of us can testify to the power of prayer, and the vast majority of those testimonies are related to the healing of sickness. We run into problems with the next part. James 5:16 reads “Therefore confess your sins to each other so that you may be healed. The prayers of a righteous person are powerful and effective.” Confess your sins. I think most of us are OK with the idea of confessing our sins, but we want to confess our sins to God; alone and in private. We want to keep our dirty laundry hidden. That is not what the scripture says though, is it? It says, confess your sins to one another. Not only does it say confess to another, but it tells us why: so that we may be healed, so that the brokenness that leads to sins, that leads to painful consequences, and that leads to separation from God can be miraculously overcome. James even includes an extra reminder why we should do this, because the prayers of a righteous person are powerful and effective. It really comes across that James is communicating is that God through prayer will heal all of what ails us, but spiritual healing is more important than physical healing; And spiritual healing can being when we confess our sins to one another.
If you are like me, we are not comfortable with the idea of confession. Like, not at all comfortable. I think this is in a large part due to the fact that we live in a culture that worships the false idol of perfection. We can see this everywhere. For example, at this point we are all extremely aware of the sorry/not sorry apologies of celebrities and politicians. Public figures have become experts at apologizing without actually admitting to doing anything that needed to be apologized for. These non-apology apologies exist, because a real apology is admission of being less than perfect. We see this in education. We all know from our own experience, that we often learn the most when we fail. Yet in education, kids are not allowed to fail, they are penalized for anything less than perfection. We are not comfortable with confession because when we confess, we admit that we are not perfect. We admit that we are flawed, deeply flawed even, and to confess we must humbly acknowledge that we were wrong in our actions.
I am reminded of time on a mission trip that I really scraped my leg up. It was after the work day, during the very dry summer of 2012. We were playing soccer and I slid for the ball, not thinking about the dry grass. That coarse, dry grass cut up my leg like sandpaper. There was a mixture of blood and dirt. When we got back to the facility where were staying I went to the shower to clean my leg, but it was very tender and sore. Honestly, I did not do a very good job at getting the dirt and grime out. Afterwards, an older man who came with me as a chaperone saw the wound and noticed how terrible of a job I did and he said, “That dirt has to come out of there one way or the other. Either you clean it or it festers and comes out with an infection.” He was right. I gritted my teeth, went back to the shower and did it right. Confession is like cleaning a scraped up leg, it is not comfortable to do it right but we need to do it because if not that dirt in our lives is going to fester, be infected, and cause more pain down the road.
Again, I think most of us realize that. Confession is required for repentance and seeking forgiveness for our sins. It may be uncomfortable and it may require us to face things about ourselves we do not like to admit, but we understand the importance of it. Our issue is that James said “confess your sins to one another.” In his book Celebration of Discipline Richard Foster wrote about this spiritual discipline, “Confession is so difficult a discipline for us partly because we view the [church] as a fellowship of saints before we see it as a fellowship of sinners.” Confession should be easy in the fellowship of our church family, because we should know that we are surrounded by people who are in the same boat as us. We should know that we are all sinners who have found forgiveness and new life in Christ Jesus. We should all know that the ground is level at the foot of the cross, and we all stand there in the same equal need of that saving grace. Yet, the cult of perfection has managed to infect the body of Christ as well. Far too often people show up in their Sunday best, proclaim they are blessed, while inside they are a mess.
When there is not confession inside a church there is not authenticity. Mark Hall, the lead singer of the band Casting Crowns, noticed this as well. At a concert once I heard him tell the back story of one of their songs. He talked about how at church camp as a teenager he decided to get serious about his faith. He came back from camp, excited to be part of a church. He was looking forward to being able to share the concerns of his heart, the deep struggles with sins that he had and wanted to leave behind. He was especially excited, when the church he went to had a time of joys and concerns, like we do here. However, this initial anticipation was dampened when person after person shared very similar sounding concerns. It was all health related. It started with big serious stuff like cancer and people recovering from heart attacks but as the concerns went on they eventually became things like requesting prayer for a sneezing cat. He mentioned how this bothered him, because he wanted to be lifted up in prayer, but he did not need a healed body. He needed a healed heart and soul. He wanted to confess, but he got the impression that he was the only one that felt that way, because no one else would lift that up. He got the impression that everyone else was just fine except for some aches and pains. Of course, we know that is not the true; that is never the truth. That experience led into the writing of the song Stain Glassed Masquerade. The song already says it better than I could, so listen to their powerful words:
Is there anyone that fails? Is there anyone that falls? Yes! Let me assure, with all sincerity, that you are not the only one in church today who may feel small. We all have our dirty laundry. We all struggle with sins in our lives. Perhaps you know that you are selfish and prideful. You are not alone. Perhaps you know that you are angry and slow to forgive. You are not alone. Perhaps you are wrecked by a guilt you cannot let go of. You are not alone. Perhaps you have destructive habit you keep coming back to despite yourself. You are not alone. Brothers and sisters in Christ, please hear me. You ARE NOT alone. We, every last blessed one of us, is right there with you. I do not know about you, but I want to be healed of those things in my life.
James tells us how to do it, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed, because the prayers of a righteous person are powerful and effective. The biggest obstacle to overcome with confession, is trust. In the song the band sings the fear that we have when we confess, “Would your arms be open or would you walk away? Would the love of Jesus be enough to make you stay?” For us to confess, we have to trust one another. I realize that it is a big step to trust 60 people, so it might be awhile before one of us during the joys and concerns says “I have a lot of anger in my life, please pray for me.” However, we can start small. During lent we can reach out to each other, and build trust with one another so that we can confess to each other, hold one another accountable, and truly pray for one another. We can be heartfelt about things like today. In a couple of moments, before we partake in communion, we are going to say a prayer of confession together. Today, for you, may that prayer not just be words to read off a page. May it be a genuine prayer, and may it be a declaration to each other.
May we be willing to admit to one another that we are sinners. May we be willing to let other see our dirty laundry from time to time. May we be a church, where we radically accept each other. Where it does not matter what you need to confess, may this be a place where you can feel comfortable doing so. And may we find that when we confess our sins to one another, when we pray for one another our hearts and souls are healed. May we find that the baggage, the dirty laundry, we have been lugging around for years is finally, FINALLY been washed white as snow by the blood of the lamb.