Teaching sermon on Confession and Absolution

During Lent, I’m preaching giving simple teaching addresses focussing on different things that we do during the Eucharist.

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

I don’t know whether you’ve given something up for Lent.

These days I often tend to think of taking something up for Lent rather than giving up a bad habit.

I remember in one of the churches that I used to work there was a wonderful woman who came to the midweek service. She came from a very churchy family – the sister of a priest, was married to a priest and was a powerful church woman herself.

And she used to come along to worship at the midweek service that I usually took. We met in that church on Wednesdays and so the midweek service always carried on with the same congregation plus a few more on Ash Wednesday.

And the thing I remember about her today is an Ash Wednesday when there was a lot of chatter over the post service coffee about what they were all giving up for Lent – it certainly wasn’t biscuits.

And someone said, “What are you giving up for Lent Margaret”.

And she looked them straight in the eye and said, “I’m giving up what I usually give up”.

“What’s that they all chorused”.

And she waited just long enough to get the attention of the entire room and said, “Bad thoughts”

I thought it was the perfect answer. If only it was easier to do.

But easy isn’t what Lent is necessarily about.

The hardest Lenten discipline that I ever undertook was the first one I undertook when I joined the Episcopal Church.

I grew up in the Salvation Army where we didn’t have Lent though we did dedicate February to something similar called Self Denial.

We also didn’t have any alcohol or intoxicants.

Which is how I managed to make it to being a postgrad student in my mid twenties who had never had a drop to drink.

I recognise that it is more normal to give up alcohol for Lent.

However, I did join the Scottish Episcopal Church in my second year as a theology student and may well have been the first student in Christendom ever to give up being teetotal for Lent.

I’m not sure that I have much wisdom to offer from that time other than that whisky and cider don’t mix nicely.

And to be honest, although I’ll occasionally have a drink now, it is a very rare one.

But all of this is a long-winded way of getting me to what I’ve given up for Lent this year.

Well, I’ve given up preaching on the bible readings for Lent this year.

And am going to preach a series of teaching sermons for Lent this year and instead of focusing on the bible readings, I’m going to let them speak for themselves.

I’m going to preach us through the Eucharist for the next few weeks.

Stopping at a different key point in the order of service each week to give us pause to think about what’s going on.

This week I’ve stopped us at the Confession and Absolution. Just to rest a moment and think about what we’re doing when we say these words.

It is important because I think that if we become Eucharistic people and put ourselves in the way of the liturgy, it will resonate around inside us and reappear in our consciousness when we need it, not just when we’re in church.

The words that we say each week make and remake us. They shape us. They take their part in building us into being the people that God wants us to become.

God is love and we are his children. There is no room for fear in love. We love because he loved us first.

May those words come back to you when you need them.

There is no room for fear in love.

Countless times in scripture we  encounter people being afraid. From the shepherds on the hillside at Christmas to the disciples startled by the risen Christ, the message from on high is “Do not be afraid”.

We remind ourselves of that before the confession because the confession is part of making us able to live without fear.

God our Father, we confess to you and to our fellow members in the Body of Christ that we have sinned in thought, word and deed, and in what we have failed to do.

What we acknowledge when we confess is a bit like what most people acknowledge when they think about the world today or read the papers. Things are not the way they should be.

In the confession, we acknowledge our part in it.

And we do the thing needed to sort it out.

We are truly sorry. Forgive us our sins, and deliver us from the power of evil, for the sake of your Son who died for us, Jesus Christ, our Lord.

Now, confession relates to two aspects of life when we’re not together.

Firstly, confession together in church is part of what shapes us into being people who will own up when we get things wrong in our lives when we are not in church.

That how the liturgy in church is supposed to affect you.

It shapes you and makes you different.

That should be the consequence of coming here. And for goodness sake, if the liturgy here doesn’t do that, go and find somewhere where it does.

Secondly, remember that our church also offers the chance to engage in the sacrament of confession privately with a priest.

I have received the sacrament both as a penitent and a confessor and I would describe both as being a gift and a place where God does business with us.

The rule in our church about private confession is very clear – all may, some should, none must.

It is simply available and something which every priest in the church has to offer to everyone or point the person towards another priest who can hear their confession.

That is available in this church and the clergy are happen to be approached about it at any time. Lent being a particularly good time.

I was involved in a trial recently and one of the most important bits of it was when the sherrif said, “I have heard the crown witnesses and they have been both credible and reliable”.

I already knew I was telling the truth.

But it was something else to hear someone say they believed me.

Confession is about telling the truth to God. Knowing who we really are in the world and facing up to the stuff we would rather not face.

And  the promise is the same.

If we do so. We will be forgiven.

For God, who is both power and love, will forgive us and will free us from our sins,

Will heal and strengthen us by his Spirit, and will raise us to new life in Christ our Lord.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

All may, none must, some should.

The title of this post indicates the teaching that many Anglicans/Episcopalians would give to people when asked what Anglican teaching about the sacrament of confession is. It isn’t defined anywhere I don’t think though the practise of the church and canon law back it up.

Ash Wednesday seems to me to be an appropriate day to say something about it.

At most of our services in St Mary’s we make a general confession, usually for us near the start of the service. In its modern form, it goes like this:

God our Father, we confess to you
and to our fellow members in the Body of Christ
that we have sinned in thought, word and deed,
and in what we have failed to do.
We are truly sorry.
Forgive us our sins,
and deliver us from the power of evil,
for the sake of your Son who died for us,
Jesus Christ, our Lord.

Then, whoever conducts the service says:

God, who is both power and love,
forgive us and free us from our sins,
heal and strengthen us by his Spirit,
and raise us to new life in Christ our Lord. Amen.

This exchange is a form of corporate confession. Together we get the chance to think about all that is going on in our lives that we would like to change for the better. We get to voice the idea that sometimes we do things that are wrong. We are then reassured of God’s forgiveness. Crucially, we have to assent to that with an Amen. (Forgiveness doesn’t just have to be given, it has to be received). And then we get on with the business of being joyful, hopeful and blessed in serving the world.

I think that a corporate confession is important as it can also be useful to bring to mind those times when we are not simply involved in doing personal wrongs but are also implicated in systems and powers beyond our own immediate control. The idea that we are aware of those and want to change them is central, I think, to what it means to bring an offering of worship to a God who is holy and true and who desires the best for us.

I wouldn’t say that the “All may, none must, some should” admonition applies to the corporate confession of the church. No indeedy. I think that is for everyone who is part of the church and everyone who wants to find a way, through the life of the church to live in friendship with God.

The “All may, none must, some should” thing applies to people chosing to seek out a priest to hear their confession individualy. Sometimes people are surprised that this is on offer in the Scottish Episcopal Church, thinking that it is “just something for the catholics”. It isn’t, of course. We offer all the sacraments in this church – the whole shebang, and the sacrament of reconcilliation is one of them.

I don’t find that it is something that very many people take up. I do find that those who do sometimes find it life changing.

This is how it works.

Firstly, it is canon law that if someone wants to make their confession and approaches a priest, the priest needs to offer to hear that confession or point the person to another priest who can hear it. (Yes, that’s the law!)

If someone approaches me, I usually arrange to see them in my office first. I offer the person the chance to talk about what it is that they want to bring in confession and what it is about their life tha they want to turn around. They may ask for advice. I may have something to say. Sometimes something from the Bible will pop into my mind and I’ll share that. Essentially though this is about listening.

Then we’ll go into church and I’ll hear a formal confession in a quiet corner of a chapel. I’ll wear a purple stole and we will follow a simple liturgy together. (Something like this one: http://www.bcponline.org/PastoralOffices/reconciliation.htm). The person brings to God the things that they want to confess. God will hear them. And then the absolution assures them that they have been heard and forgiven. Then we part, usually with me asking them to pray for me, a sinner.

Now, the deal is that you don’t talk about what is said in confession. One of the gifts that God gives me is that I tend to forget what people say anyway. (I’ve heard other priests say the same). However it is important to know that the seal of the confessional is supposed to apply to the penitant not just to the priest.

Of course, it doesn’t always work like this. I vaguely remember someone once stopping me in a railway station and asking to make a confession there and then. I heard it and he knelt to hear forgiveness and the world was still for the two of us whilst the bustle of daily life carried on all around. You see that kind of thing in other countries more than here but it happens.

People often have questions about confession. “What if you hear a confession of someone who is about murder someone?”, “What if they’ve done X?”, “What if …?”, “Would you ever go to the police?”, “Would you ever withold absolution?”

Almost always these are the questions that movies are made out of, not penitence.

So there we are. It exists. And it changes life. And all may, none must and some should, as I said at the top of this piece and as the church goes on saying as it offers the sacraments to all the world.