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.

Good Friday Preaching – The Servant Girl


The truth is, I only really noticed her on Sunday. I’ve never payed her the blindest bit of attention before.

I guess no-one ever did.

The servant girl who answered Peter back. She’s a woman in John’s gospel but a servant girl in the version that Matthew and Cedric were watching on Sunday. There’s more detail there too.

Peter warms himself by the fire. Cold. Human. Miserable.

She sees him and simply says, “You were with Jesus the man from Nazareth”.

He says no.

She says, “yes you were.”

He denies it again.

A third time, “But you are a Galilean”

Scripture rather euphemistically says that Peter began to curse and swear an oath and said, “I do not know this man you are talking about”.

I think it is important not to mistake what is going on here.

Three times she says – you were with that Jesus.

And Peter’s response is, “Look you, fuck off! I didn’t know the man you are talking about at all”

That’s what scripture tells us happened.

And then the cock crows.

And I’ve preached on Peter on Good Friday plenty of times. And I’ve preached on the cock crowing. The triple betrayal. The cock. The shame of it all for Peter.

But I’ve never really noticed her.

Until this time.

You always notice something or someone new when you come to the passion again.

This time for me it was her. The servant girl. The one who spoke up, spoke clearly and spoke the truth.

And we don’t know her name.

There is a, perhaps rather fanciful, tradition about names in the New Testament. There’s all kinds of small bit parts in the gospels and in Acts – people who appear and disappear rather suddenly. Simon of Cyrene is an obvious example in the passion. The tradition is that those whose names we know from scripture are probably people who found faith and became part of the early Jesus movement that was to become the church. There’s some sense to it. If they joined the movement they would be known by those who collected the gospel stories. They would still been around. In the case of Simon of Cyrene, we even know the names of his sons – surely he had contact with the early church if they were all remembered by name.

But this servant girl is one of those who appear with something very significant to say but whose names go unrecorded.

Looks like she never joined the movement and probably was never much taken seriously by anyone at the time.

But she speaks the truth and we should listen very carefully to what she says.

She speaks the truth to Peter even in the face of his shame and betrayal of all the love and values that he once professed.

Ever meet this servant girl?

She was around at the recent investigations into child sexual abuse in the church.

I don’t remember her name but there she was giving testimony against all kinds of be-dogcollared bigwigs.

Her testimony can be summed up easily:

“You knew Jesus? You knew this to be wrong? Why didn’t you do something?”

And she made those bigwigs wriggle with shame.

The servant girl in the courtyard with Peter speaks truth to power. She persistently calls out his lies.

She is a better priest than Caiaphas. She is a better judge than Pilate. She knows right from wrong. She knows she is being lied to and she says so.

And Peter – yes, that’s Peter, the rock on which the church was built has no answer.

I still don’t know her name, and I’m not sure she wants to have much to do with the church anyway but I’m sure I’ve started to hear her voice more often recently.

The woman in the courtyard accusing Peter.

I hear her speaking truth to power.

I see her holding up slogans demanding gun control following a shooting in her school.

I was there she says. I know what really happened. I saw it with my own eyes and heard it with my own ears.

“You knew that man Jesus didn’t you and yet you ran away when he was vulnerable and in trouble”.

I know not her name but I hear her speaking out about abuse in the world of showbiz, the world of politics, the world of religion.

And she speaks the truth.

She knows that those in power, no let’s name it – men in power will wriggle when trouble comes and try to cover their backs. Try to say – I was not there. I didn’t see it. I knew nothing about what was going on.

The darkness of the courtyard, Peter stands warming his hands by the brazier and the light of the fire causes her to see the badge he is wearing that no-one else can see which says plainly – “It wisnae me”

She she’s fooled by nothing.

She knows that cheating is wrong in business, or education or relationships. She knows that abuse is wrong in the classroom, on the sportsfield or in clergy training programmes. She knows that in this world in which everyone has an opinion, there’s still such a thing as truth. Black and while truth.

She knows what’s what and she has found her own voice. And she speaks the truth.

I found myself on Sunday listening to the passion and asking myself why I’ve never heard her voice before.

But I’ve never heard it because I’m part of the system too.

Patriarchy is the system that we all find ourselves negotiating and most of us find ourselves making deals and compromises with patriarchy. And voices go unheard.

Are things changing.

Is the servant girl – no let’s call her a woman, is the woman in the courtyard finally being heard?

I don’t think we can know yet.

But I do know she’s finding her voice. I do know she’s speaking truth to power. I do know also that the powerful are going to put up quite a fight to shut her up.

But she looks into that patriarchal world and she calls us to live by the company that we have kept with Christ.

Love is both the goal and the weapon. Love is the destination and love is on the horizon but love is the weapon by which we nip away at patriarchal assumptions, rules and systems.

She knows the truth, does the woman in the courtyard. And this is her time.

Who needs a crowing cock.

These days she posts on twitter.

And she uses the hashtag #metoo.