Confession is good for the soul

Tears welled up last Sunday listening to the Gospel reading for Passion Sunday: Palm Sunday. The reading was LONG, but it didn’t matter. It pierces the heart, step by step –  the human psyche revealed under an electron microscope, humanity on parade. All in one long reading. The tears that welled up Sunday didn’t fall, but they will later this week during Tenebrae, the service of Light and Shadow by the end of which the church is left in darkness, every worshiper’s candle extinguished by recognition of our participation in betrayal, sleeplessness, flight, and denial. One by one, the individual candles get blown out. All of them.

Holy Week for liturgical Christians is a solemn time of confession. There is no escaping our participation in the passion: our readiness to betray, doze off when asked to “watch with me one hour”, flee in fear for security, throw the switch, consciously or unconsciously, into psychological and public denial. Yet there is, at the same time over it all, the faithfulness, the wakefulness, the courage, the embrace of reality in its horror for the sake of love’s transforming power, the light of Christ himself.

Christians live in the dynamic paradox of faithlessness and faithfulness, sin and grace. We include a Prayer of Confession in the Sunday liturgy. Last Sunday at Trinity Episcopal Church in Excelsior, Minnesota, the Prayer of Confession, which came following a dramatic reading of the Passion Narrative, expressed the conscious and unconscious nature of sin and grace.

God of all mercy, we confess that we have sinned against you, in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. Some sins are plain to us, some sins escape us, some we cannot face. We repent of the sin that enslaves us, the evil we have done, and the evil don on our behalf. Forgive, restore, and strengthen us through our Savior Jesus Christ, that we may not turn from your love, but serve only your will. Amen.

We barely know ourselves. Some sins are plain to us. Some escape us. Others are too painful to face. Holy Week is time to wade into the waters of self-reflection, confident that these waters are the healing waters of the deeper Self, the crucified-risen One who cannot finally be betrayed, fled, denied, or killed.

Sunday’s liturgy ended with the singing of the hymn “My Song Is Love Unknown,” lyrics by Samuel Crossman, 1664, music composed by John Ireland. 


Maundy Thursday Tenebrae

At Tenebrae, the ancient Maundy Thursday Service of Light and Shadow, there are no off-the-cuff remarks. Only Scripture. Only the story we do not want to hear. Our betrayal. Our cowardice. Our weariness. Our betrayal with a kiss. Our violence. Our denial. Our flight.

The church is dark except for the worshipers’ candles.

One by one, the worshipers blow out their candles as the nine readings are read from the midst of the congregation, as we recognize ourselves in the plot that leads to the crucifixion.

We know. We know this is our story. Our reality. Our dilemma.

Then, as if it were tonight, bread is broken. The wine is poured. In silence we share our common lot and wait for the good news we already know.

I, Judas

They will say I did it. And I did. We all did. But it doesn’t matter. The kiss, the “shalom”, I gave him in the olive grove was as real as real can be. I kissed him, and everything that was in me was in that kiss. My love, my affection, my admiration, my fear…and my belief that it would wake him up to what was really happening and what he had to do.

The world is a cruel place. It plays by hard rules. He wouldn’t play by the rules, which is why we loved him but also why we pushed him at the end. We pushed him over the cliff.

He’d escaped the cliff once before when his neighbors tried to throw him over it. He walked right through that crowd and went on with his life, and that’s why we gathered around him like newborn kittens with their mother. He became the source of nourishment, the mother whose eyes always saw the good in us, and he taught us to forget about the cliffs. Live to the full. Forget the cliffs! But there comes a time in everyone’s life when you can’t avoid the cliff.

We were standing at the edge of it right there in the Mount of Olives – a fatal cliff of soldiers, clubs, and daggers, a Roman battalion who’d come there, where we always met at night among the olive trees so they couldn’t hear us or see us. I led them there to the private place.

They will say I ratted on him. But I did what I knew I had to do, or thought I had to do, and then scurried away before it was over. I couldn’t watch. I hated those bastards as much as I loved him, hanging there where the skulls were left. As I ran, I looked back over my shoulder at the horror of it, hearing the sounds of the hammers and the grinding of the pulleys hoisting him up on those pieces of imperial lumber, and him screaming with pain suspended mid-air… half way between horizontal and vertical…and I fleeing for my life into fatal despair.

I understand why they’ll say what they they’ll say. They have to say it. Denial is one of God’s great gifts. They had to deny their own responsibility for what happened. We were all in this together, except for the Beloved Disciple, Lazarus, the only one of us who knew already that death is not the final Word, no matter how it comes, the disciple who will disappear into silence in the later texts about what happened. But Lazarus was there watching, listening, seeing what the rest of us could not see until after it was over.

Unlike the others, I didn’t give myself time to get it. I fled the scene, running for my life, never wanting to look back on it, howling in silence, rushing out into the field to hang myself from a tree. Symbolic, some will say: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and all that … but to me it was just a tree with limbs to throw the rope over, a place to end my pain.

I think now of the olive trees and of hiding among them and wonder why we hid. I think of him as the olive branch that the dove brought to Noah as the violence of the flood receded. And I wonder if that was maybe what he was all about, if the olive branch instead of clubs and daggers and scapegoating was why he let me kiss him there and turn him over before he rebuked Peter for drawing his dagger.

They won’t tell you that we all had daggers. Not just Peter. We were revolutionaries. Ready for the fight. Itching for the fight. Yeshua was the new Joshua who would throw the bums out, restore the fortunes of our people, give us back our land, our destiny, our power to rule ourselves as we had in David’s time and Solomon’s. There was that day in the Temple, Solomon’s Temple, when he went crazy with the whip against the money-changers, snapping the whip wildly, out of control, angry at the abuse of his religion and our’s, tossing the money everywhere, yelling about the money-handlers’ abuse of the poor who could barely afford to buy a pigeon for their sacrifices. For him, it wasn’t just about self-determination. It was about the Romans, about the end of foreign occupation and the collaboration of the religious establishment. But it was deeper than throwing out the foreign occupiers. It was about something so deep that the mind and heart can barely comprehend it: the fearful conspiracy of self-interests that betrays and kills all that is good and pure and decent and loving.

Only Lazarus understood what he was about in standing up to the rule of death enshrined in the Temple and imperial threats. He saw in Yeshua the scapegoat who could unmask the conspiracy, the new Joshua who would shift us from eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, dividing the world into the good and the evil, to eating of the fruit of the tree of life.

I broke my neck on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, certain that I, one of the “good” ones, had become as evil as the soldiers who crucified him, and that there was no redemption, no way to the tree of life, no way to atone, no way to erase the kiss that killed him and was killing me. Death was my just desert and worse. If only I had known that the kiss would be the kiss of death.

It gives me little comfort that they tell me he begged the Father from the cross for forgiveness, like a defense attorney pleading with a judge that those who were crucifying him didn’t know what they were doing. It is what it is. Or so I thought at first. But the weight of his words led me to the sound of them, coming as they did from the high heat of that awful scene, soft and genuine or loudly shrieking, invoking a mercy on us all that made no sense, no sense at all.

Peter will say, as will the church three centuries after my death on the tree and burial in potters field, that “he descended into hell” at his death and preached to those imprisoned there. If anyone was ever there in that place of self-hate, remorse, guilt, despair and hopeless self-loathing, it was I.

He met me there with a holy kiss. “Shalom,” said he. I kissed him back. And left my sorrow in the emptied cell.

– Gordon C. Stewart, January 10, 2014.


Peter's denial

Peter's Denial by Carl Heinrich Bloch

Any faith worth its salt recognizes our capacity for denial, betrayal, and flight, as well as our capacity for truth, love, and courage. Steve Shoemaker’s poem about the Apostle Peter, “the Rock” who crumbled, takes us into the heart of the matter. It;s a reflection on Peter denying that he knew Jesus (represented by Carl Bloch’s painting where he looks away from the woman who claims he knows him) and the post-resurrection appearance where the resurrected Christ offers forgiveness.

“DENIAL” – Steve Shoemaker, 2012


The future Bishop began badly.  He

was “rude, crude and lewd,” as they say.

His fist would shake, would hit,

his mouth could often be a sneer, or leer…

but Jesus chose him first.


The fisherman was big and brash, yes,

bold as well at times.  But after the arrest

a servant girl confronted him and

told those listening that Peter was with Christ.

He swore and then denied it, then again

and still again–she would not stop.


The cry then came of rooster telling of the dawn,

and he wept because he had told a lie.

But Peter felt forgiveness full and deep

when Jesus three times told him,

“Feed my sheep.”

Peter “the Rock” was no rock. Nor are we. He was sinking sand. So are we.

Like “the future Bishop,” we slip badly and yet we are raised up. Betrayal, denial, flight are part of every human story. But grace… even more….so much more, abounds! And to the likes of Peter and of us, there comes to our three-fold denial the Voice of forgiveness with a gentle but bold command: “Re-gain your courage. Live in love!”

Sermon: “Blogging on the Cross”

Sermon, Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church, Chaska, MN March 18, 2012.

Click HERE for the YouTube re-broadcast.