Confession and the Road Back Home
by Rev. Jack King
Psalm 32; Luke 15.11-32
For an audio version of this sermon, see Confession and the Road Back Home Audio.
I made a bittersweet trip yesterday. I went to a place I love, maybe for the last time. I went to my grandparents’ home in Kingston, TN, for perhaps the final time before the property undergoes an estate sale and begins to court a new owner after my grandfather’s death. I’ve taken that trip from my earliest days when I traveled in a car seat to the recent days when I’ve buckled my own children in their car seats. Wherever I have lived—on Black Oak Ridge, in West Hills, and now in Farragut—I’ve made that familiar journey to the Zirkle family homeplace. It’s been an unchanging route all these years—I-40/75 until I-40 veers to the west; take exit 352 and follow Kentucky St. to the middle of town. Blink and you’ll miss it. A few turns off Kentucky St. and I make the final upward climb along Lakewood Dr. until I enter the two stone pillars framing the Zirkle driveway.
I learned to drive a straight-shift on their circular driveway. I played hide-and-go seek in the expansive infield under towering pines before the menace of pine beetles ruined all my best hiding places. Whatever fun happened outside as kids, it was the persons inside that made this place a homeplace. Regardless where life would take me; no matter the struggles and sorrows, the joys and happiness I have known; this place would always ground me in who I am. The smells, the photographs, the rooms all trigger the thoughts and comforts of a family home, but the people who dwell there make the home.
I always relaxed a bit more when I broke off I-40/75, taking I-40 due west to Kingston. I settled down even more at exit 352, knowing my soul would soon rest. I was returning to a family homeplace; I would soon enjoy a homecoming with not only grandparents, but cousins, aunts, and uncles; I would be in a place that would remind me who I am and to whom I belong.
For almost a month now, we’ve been traveling a familiar road this season—it is the Lenten road. Each year we begin traveling the Lenten road on Ash Wednesday, an annual occasion when we recite Psalm 51, that great penitential, confessional prayer of David after he conspired in murder and committed adultery with Bathsheba. This year, the Lenten road takes us into Psalm 32, the prayer we sang together a few moments ago. Here is another prayer of confession that David seems to have composed after his fall from grace. As the psalms lead us in this Lenten season, they lead us to these prayers of confession. We fear confession, we run from confession, we make half-hearted confessions, usually because we fear sinking further in embarrassment or guilt. Maybe no one has told you; maybe you have forgotten. Confession isn’t some cold exercise for the super-religious. Confession is a road, for anyone and everyone—it is the road that leads you back home. / Confession is the route we travel when we have forgotten who we are, when we are estranged from the ones to whom we belong. /Confession is never an end itself; confession always ends in homecoming.
And this is how we ought to hear and pray a psalm like Psalm 32. David prays, ’Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity.’ Confession has brought him into a place of strength—the place of blessing. Psalm 32 is the song of a strong man, but David is a restored strong man, a man who has been strengthened from his hour of greatest weakness.
He remembers the suffering of that weakness in vivid imagery: ‘my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long’; ‘my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.’ Then he recollects the turning point—the resolution to acknowledge his sin without pretense. No softening; no hedging; no victim-speak or shifting of blame here. David has suffered long enough. The heat within is too brutal; the pain too chronic. Only full confession suffices here: ‘I did not cover my iniquity.’ //
We’ve undertaken this emphasis on the Psalms during Lent to become more skilled in prayer. Prayer is a skill; one doesn’t master prayer in a week, a month or a year. Growing in that skill means learning the different kinds of prayer we need in a lifetime; thus, the Psalms give us the full range of prayer needed for a lifetime of faithfulness.
Today the skill of confessing well comes into focus with Psalm 32. Yet I would suggest that other psalms of David enhance our understanding of this psalm about confession. Broadening our scope into the whole Psalter, we see that David always desires truth regarding his character. In Psalm 51, David says to the Lord, ‘Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being.’ But this desire for truth takes different shape in David’s life, not only in confession.
In the beautiful, mysterious prayer that is Psalm 139, we hear David asking for discernment about his inner heart. He asks the Lord to examine his heart for the sake of living in truth. Psalm 139 begins,’O Lord, you have searched me and known me!’ God knows the truth about David and David wants God to reveal to him the truth about himself. So Psalm 139 concludes with a more earnest prayer for discernment, ’Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!’ /
There are also times when David has examined his heart with the Lord and he is innocent, such as Psalm 18 when he prays about his persecution from Saul. Then David prays, ‘The Lord dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me. For I have kept the ways of the Lord,
and have not wickedly departed from my God.’ When he is faithful, David desires to tell the truth about himself.
But even when he examines his heart and finds innocence, he remains ever watchful of his heart with the Lord. Take the opening verses of Psalm 26, for example, when David prays in innocence, ‘Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have walked in my integrity, and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering. Prove me, O Lord, and try me; test my heart and my mind.’
With this broader context, we see that David seeks to know God’s truth about himself—truth that confirms his innocence; truth that prompts further discernment and watchfulness; truth that leads to a plainspoken, heartfelt confession of his sin. For David, confession is telling the truth about your sins to God. //
Toward the end of my sabbatical, I noticed God had been doing an inner work within my heart that I didn’t detect for about 12 weeks. God was helping me become at home in myself again. I want to be a good priest, a good rector, a good husband and father. All good things. But even when you pursue good things like being a good priest it still can be too much for you. I noticed that in the pursuit of good things, I became impatient, irritable, and insensitive; not all the time, but too much of the time. God was guiding me to face the truth about myself. / What is it if you gain a fruitful ministry and lose your soul? I confess I held good things too closely and that affected my soul. Strange how in the letting go, I become more at home myself. /
Holding things—even good things—too closely isn’t something forever in the past tense for me. In my forgetfulness and haste, I’ll pick it up again. I already have. But here’s the difference—confession built a road back home for me during sabbatical. So when, not if, I fall back into old patterns, I only need to rise from that place and take the road back home by acknowledging the errors within. //
And this leads us to the place of the prodigal son story in Luke’s Gospel, the story of a son who faced the truth about himself and decided to come home. I hadn’t considered this until this week, but it seems to me that our liturgy reenacts, at least in some way, the prodigal son story every week. It’s not a pure allegory, the analogy doesn’t hold all the way through, but there are patterns of the prodigal son story in our worship. The liturgy of the Table is a liturgy for prodigal children coming home.
During the prayers, we are called to confess our sins. We confess our sins from an intermediate distance. Some of those who are able, choose to kneel during these prayers. Kneeling is a confession itself that we have followed the prodigal path away from our heavenly Father. After we confess our sins, joy is about to break out—there’s a cue that movement is about to happen. The first person to move is the priest-father. As he comes forward, he’s a sign of God the Father coming to his children of love. But at best, he’s a symbol, because he, too, is a prodigal sinner, having knelt himself in confession.
Even still, he represents the Father by moving toward the kneeling family. And then he speaks words of love and grace—you are forgiven. When words of forgiveness are declared, what does the priest say next? ‘Please stand.’ Change your position. You do not belong in a far off country, exiled in some forgotten place. Standing is a sign of dignity restored.
Then we offer exchange the peace with one another. More movement happens because grace is in the room. This is the occasion for the elder brother within us all to come to the feast by offering peace to all. Homecoming is happening, and we begin moving toward the family feast. The feast begins when the priest lifts the bread and wine and says, ‘these gifts are for you, the sons and daughters of the Father.’
Then the priest moves again, coming to the floor, reminiscent of the heavenly Father coming to embrace the sons and daughters of God. Today I’ve begun to see this center aisle as a road. Confession makes this road, and confession has made this aisle the road back home. This may be the most important movement we make every Sunday. You move from your seat to receive the Father’s feast; the priest moves to meet the children of the Father, giving them the food of eternal life. No more intermediate distance. You eat the bread, you drink the wine so that there is no distance at all. Christ lives within you, ‘making your sinful body clean by his most precious body, washed by his most precious blood.’ /
And then the most interesting thing happens. We are sent from this place into the prodigal world that has forgotten where their home is; that cannot find the road back home. But sons and daughters who have returned to the Father know the way back home. With Christ living within us, we become guides along the prodigal way. We can say from experience, ‘there is nothing to fear in confessing your sins. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy. I know the way back. I walk it often. Let us walk the road together back home, for the Father desires all his children to return home.’
So let us all walk this familiar road to embrace our heavenly Father. And then let us take that road from here, walking the highways and byways of this world, announcing to all that will hear that God is overjoyed to make his home within us again. In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Note: Apostles Anglican offers the ministry of General Confession every Sunday and Wednesday and the ministry of private confession by appointment. If you would like to speak with one of our priests, simply contact the church office to make an appointment at firstname.lastname@example.org or 865-385-6686.
Image by Thomas Leuthard (used by permission via Creative Commons).