Pastor Devin Strong, Spirit of Peace Lutheran Church.
Martin Luther was deeply concerned about the excessive power of the clergy— both their political power and the power they held as the doorkeepers for their parishioners’ salvation. For this reason, Luther placed less emphasis on individual confession than the Roman Catholic church that he came from. He, himself knew the near-sacramental power of one-on- one confession and forgiveness, but he wanted believers to understand that they don’t need the priest as a go-between interceding for them with Jesus. Everyone can go to Jesus directly!
Consequently, in the 500 years since our founder wrote, Lutherans have all but done away with individual confessions with the pastor. Instead, we confess corporately. There is definite power in hearing the whole gathered community confess their sins every time that you come to worship. Still, when we do it in unison, we know that we are sinful, but we comfort ourselves in the knowledge that we are only as messed up as the lady next to us and the guy behind us!
Confession is nearly extinct in our culture. Corporate CEO’s, politicians, and our neighbors have all become experts at the “non-apology, apology.” We say things like, “I’m sorry that you feel that way” or “I’m sorry that happened to you,” but I rarely take direct responsibility for what I did to hurt you. We have reasons and excuses but few confessions.
That’s why we Christians observe Ash Wednesday. It is the one service of the year where we get completely honest with God and each other, acknowledging our deep brokenness and guilt. Traditionally, the ashes that the pastor places on our foreheads in this service are made from burning the palms from last year’s Palm Sunday service. Church nerds will remember that Palm Sunday reenacts the crowds cheering Jesus’ arrival into the great city of Jerusalem, just five days before many of those same people were jeering Jesus, screaming for his death. The palms are a symbol of our fickleness as followers. As such, they are fitting ornaments of our confession. On Ash Wednesday, we stop blaming others. We don’t pull any punches. We admit publicly and privately that we are sinners who need God’s help. You and I claim our guilt.
But there is a big difference between guilt and shame. Guilt says, “I did something wrong. I am responsible. I am sorry.” Shame says, “I am a bad person. I am unworthy. I am unredeemable.” Ash Wednesday does not shame us. It invites us into confession so that you and I can come clean. Confession sets us on the journey toward forgiveness, forgiveness from God and sometimes hardest of all, forgiveness of ourselves.