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.

On not giving up social media

Like Mother Ruth, I was pondering yesterday a number of people who have decided to give up social media for Lent. It strikes me as a very odd thing to do.

On the one hand, I suppose I can see that sometimes religious people feel the need to withdraw from the world for a time and simply be in a different place with less distraction. That is the essence of going on retreat. However, I can only conclude that those who are giving up social media for Lent use it for different reasons than I do. For me, Facebook and Twitter and blogging (and email, come to that, for email is social media) are ways of connecting and communicating with others. On Facebook I hear about things I want to hear about – other people’s passions, other people’s loves, other people’s lives. But they are not simply the Other, out there. Those people are part of my life too. Social media adds layers to life that I think are good, not bad and that makes me puzzled by people wanting to give that up.

I could understand someone saying that they are going to give up being bad-tempered on twitter or give up posting photographs of other people’s kittens on Facebook. Both of those seem commendable. Giving up social media entirely seems like giving up speech for 40 days in order to conquer bad temper – a strategy that one suspects might well backfire.

Here’s a few things that were part of my day on social media yesterday:

  • Being fascinated by the reports of people in the USA that I know going out into the streets with their ash yesterday to offer “Ashes To Go” to anyone.
  • Learning with delight, on the sly, that the choir had been talking about the subject of my Ash Wednesday sermonette (“How would you live today if tomorrow was your last?”) whilst in the pub after the Ash Wednesday service, where presumably they had gone for a sip of water.
  • Making a connection with the Dean of another cathedral that I’ve not been in touch with for four or five years.
  • Sharing a joke with a couple of people scattered in parts of the Scottish Episcopal Church that I think are remote (and which they probably think are Pisky Central).
  • Sharing a few pictures of beautiful things I’ve spotted over the last couple of days.
  • Making contact with a member of St Mary’s of a few years ago who was saying she missed Lent here and asking her what it was she missed – her answer, “Beauty from Chaos”.

Why would I want to deprive myself of any of those things? What spiritual discipline says that to miss out on any of that that is good?

My life is richer for social media. It is also diminished by those who step away from it, (yes, from me) for Lent.

I’m puzzled by this devotion and believe it, not social media, to be a temptation.