Forgiveness in worship

January 10, 2011

For more commentary on this week's readings, see
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Century.

I am among those called to lead people in confessing sin and
announcing God's forgiveness in the Sunday liturgy, an essential action never
altogether free from the threat of routinized going-through-the-motions. This
action is anything but routine, however, when it occurs in the setting I described in my lectionary column for the Century on this week's Gospel lesson
(subscription required).

In thinking through that unforgettable moment again, I am
reminded of what a momentous thing happens when the words of confession and
absolution are spoken in the worship gathering. If the liturgical form means
the same words are spoken again and again, year in and year out, it is well at
times to find fresh language to speak what is literally death-dealing to sinful
pride and life-giving for discipleship.

Can liturgy breathe sufficiently to occasionally allow such
innovation to replace overly familiar language? Or--can such an action be prefaced
by silence, enough to allow people to have their wits about them before
speaking to God and each other of the deep things of the soul? Or--can the
confession and absolution be relocated in the liturgy at times, so that it
falls after a sermon that calls people to confess and forgive with unmistakable
reference to vexing issues in the congregation and community?

Humbling
oneself before God in confessing sin and holding onto forgiveness for dear life
is the most countercultural action imaginable in our distracted, conflicted
times. Where else in town does this kind of thing take place? Who else summons
people to deal with what's killing them on the inside and what lifts guilt
away?

It's good news that we're free in Christ to leave the
garbage at the foot of the cross and keep forgiveness moving into the daily
relationships where it is priceless.