We have such joy when we are in right relationship with God and with one another. But it’s pretty easy for us to slip out of that right relationship. We all do things that make life less than wonderful for others around us whether we mean to, or not. As toddlers when we spilled our milk, or grabbed a toy from another child’s hands the grown-ups around us taught us to say, “I’m sorry.” This is the first step in restoring joyful relationships with the people we’ve affected.
Along with the simple words of confession comes the harder lessons of learning to consider about the needs and feelings of others so that we can stay in joyful relationships longer. When we repent we move toward another, trying to understand what they feel and need and doing our best to give them those things.
Repenting and confession are habits we can develop to help our relationships with one another be joyful.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation.
When we say “I’m sorry to God” and turn toward God’s vision of what can make life wonderfully joyful we are practicing the vertical habit of confession. One of the best examples of this restoration of relationship in scripture is this parable of Jesus known as the Prodigal Son.
But that title focuses our attention on only one of the three main characters. If we look at each of them in turn I think we will better understand the vertical habit of saying I’m sorry. Open up the Bible in the pew to page 72 (15:11) and look at this story with me.
We start with the younger son who seems eager to grow up and leave home. He asks his father to give him his inheritance right away. This is not only a bold request for a young man to make of his father, it’s actually kind of rude. Inheritance is usually something one gets after a parent dies. Asking for it up front is like saying, “Dad, I wish you were dead.”
But the father gave his son the money and before the week is out the son was gone. He turned his back on his family and went far away. Then he quickly earned his nick-name, “Prodigal.” One who squanders what he has. He blew through the cash in no time, wasted everything he had, indulging in whatever food and drink suited his fancy.
Then, when he had spent everything his situation became more severe, there was a famine in the country. People were less willing to share with strangers, unemployment was high. The only work this broke Jewish boy could get was to feed the pigs – an animal nice Jewish boys have nothing to do with. And the wages were so low the young man was still hungry enough to eat the corncobs in the pig slop.
Here, at rock bottom, he finally “comes to himself” realizing that his father treats farmhands much better than this and decides to go home, confess to his father and ask if his dad might take him back as a servant. He didn’t even dare to ask to be restored as a son, let alone have joy. He just wanted to stop suffering.
He rehearses his speech all the way home. “Father, I’ve sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son. Take me on as a hired hand.” When came within view of the house his anxiety increased and all of a sudden his dad was right there.
“Father I’ve sinned against God” he started his speech. But his father didn’t listen. To the boy’s great surprise the servants quickly helped him change into new clothes, including new shoes and the family ring. Before he knew it there was steak on the grill and neighbors were showing up for a party.
Then we meet the older brother. The responsible one who never left home. He was working so hard he didn’t get the news of his brother’s return until he got home from work, smelled the steak and heard the party going on. When he found out it was to honor his brother’s return the older brother stalked off in an angry sulk. When he saw his father he complained. “Look how many years I’ve stayed here serving you, never giving you one moment of grief, but have you ever thrown a party for me and my friends? Then this son of yours who has thrown away your money shows up and you go all out with a feast!” It’s not fair.
While this guy thinks that his dutiful actions deserve reward, his speech also reveals that his relationship with his father and his brother is just as broken. He doesn’t even acknowledge that the younger one is his brother. With a heart like stone, he stands back and judges his brother. “Who does he think he is? Look at him waltz right home and become the guest of honor.”
The older brother may not have physically left home. He may have continued acting like a dutiful member of the family. But it is clear from this episode that just like his brother he had emotionally turned away from his father and family. The lack of joy is a clear sign that the older brother is as lost as the Prodigal. Though he is too angry and stubborn to admit it, the older brother’s heart cries out, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation.”
I’ve been learning a lot about anger this year from Marshall Rosenberg. He says that anger is not caused by another person’s actions – but by what we think about another person’s actions. Our judgements and evaluations of others lead to anger. The older brother’s response to the prodigal’s return is a great example. He stands in judgement of his brother who deserves to feel guilty. He wants his brother to feel shame. So he makes judgments “My brother is selfish, rude, and lazy. He squandered what Dad gave him and now he’s back asking for more.” Judgments lead us to want to punish others. The little brother deserves to work as an unpaid servant until he earns all the money he wasted. Or maybe the offense is so bad he deserves to suffer the consequences out there in the world. Let’s just put a restraining order on him.
But this anger, fueled by these judgements, do nothing to restore the joy of salvation. If we let ourselves be directed by them we will stay stuck in a lifetime of broken relationships, unable to truly love God or our neighbors.
But now let’s look at the father and we will see, he’s not a father of the world. He’s not the dad in the old Hanna and Barbara cartoon from the 70s Wait Till Your Father Gets Home. This is a father who knows how to love. When his younger son asks for his inheritance early, the father gives it to him without a fuss. And when his son turns his back on him and walks away the father stands at the gate, watching and waiting for the moment his boy will turn around. We don’t know how long he stood there. But it takes a while to squander an inheritance – days, weeks, months, maybe years. The Father keeps watch, just waiting for his boy to turn around. Jesus says, “When the son was still a long way off, his father saw him.” And it is clear from the story that this father wasn’t standing there fuming to himself, imagining what punishment to dole out. No, for when he saw his boy coming back his heart was filled with compassion and he ran to him. He didn’t care how he looked or what the neighbors would say – he ran, put his arms around him and kissed him.
This father, who is like our heavenly father, had no interest in hearing his son’s confession. He immediately did all he could think of to remove all guilt and shame from the boy. Put on some new clothes, here, put on new shoes and give him the family signet ring. Then hurry and make a feast – throw a party – invite the musicians so everyone can dance. My son is back, safe and sound. Let’s restore to him the joy of salvation.
And this father doesn’t only wait for his children to repent to offer them this joy. When he noticed his older son was not at the party he stepped outside to find him. He listened to his complaints, hearing the need for reassurance that he was just as beloved as his brother underneath. The father had compassion for this son too - the one who had been trying to earn his father’s love by working harder and harder trying to earn it, and thereby denying himself the joy of living in the father’s house. The father said, “Son, you don’t understand. You’re with me all the time, and everything that is mine is yours.” The story ends, like a soap opera, leaving us to wonder how big brother will respond. Will he drop his angry judgements and turn around, repent, and join the celebration of life restored. Or will he hold back remaining as separated from the love of his father as his brother had once been?
Restore to me the joy of you salvation.
This is our heavenly Father’s love for his children. It is by studying this father carefully that we come to understand the God we deal with when we practice the vertical habit of confession. We shy away from true honest confession, I think, because the world has taught us that anyone who is bad deserves to wallow in guilt and shame. Bad people deserve to suffer for their sins. Even the church has been coopted by the world on this matter turning penance into punishment, and placing too much emphasis on guilt and shame.
But that’s not what our heavenly Father wants for us. Our God is full of compassion and mercy for us. God came as Christ to set us free from bondage of guilt and shame. Christ is here now ready to restore to each of us the joy of salvation. The goal of the vertical habit of confession is about the return of that joy.
So true confession is not about making a list of “our manifold sins wickedness.” It’s about repenting – turning – turning toward the ones who have been hurt by our actions. It’s about being willing to listen carefully to the feelings we have triggered in another, and learn how our actions have prevented his need from being met. Finally, when we turn toward another, and really hear their unmet needs, we will experience compassion. Holy compassion that leads us to run toward the other, reconcile with her so that the joy of our relationship can be restored.
This is why, in worship, we never say a prayer of confession without also hearing words of assurance – these words that assure us that God is quick to forgive, full of compassion and wants nothing more for us than to be restored to the joy of full salvation. Every time we say the Great Thanksgiving at communion we say to God, “When we turned away and our love failed, your love remained steadfast.” I think it would be well to hear those words before we make our confession as well. It would give us courage to fully turn toward God and stand “wide open” and ask, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation” if we always remembered that our God is merciful, full of compassion, loving kindness and steadfast love. This is the meaning of grace.
Restoring joyful relationships is also the point of passing the peace after our confession in worship. It is the horizontal habit that corresponds to the vertical habit of confession. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus teaches us that before we give our offering to God, if we remember that we have offended anyone we need to go and reconcile with him or her. Then we can return to worship and make our offering. If we were authentic about passing the peace of Christ in church it wouldn’t be a time of chit chat. And it would probably take much longer so we could ask one another how we have done harm, listen with compassion until they feel heard and seek to change our ways.
So if the father is God, and the father’s house is the church, where do you find yourself in this story? Are you more like the younger brother, or the older one? Notice the times, in either case, that you have your back turned away from God, working on an empty love tank, and you find yourself miserable and outside of the joyful celebration. Repent, turn around, no long drawn-out confessions needed. Just open yourself to the father’s love and let him restore to you the joy of salvation.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation.