St Stephen’s Lewisham
11 March 2001
Second in Lent
The Season of Lent has begun.
The other day I went, as is my custom every Lent, to another priest to make my confession. Nothing unusual about that. Some, at least of you will no doubt have done the same.
If you are in the habit of going to Confession, then you'll probably find this morning's sermon is going over familiar ground. This sermon isn’t intended for you. It's meant for those of you who have never made their confession, or not for a very long time, and for others who may even be surprised to learn that the Ministry of Confession (or Reconciliation as it’s sometimes called) even exists within the Church of England.
Well, it does: and even the good old Book of Common Prayer recommends it when it says (in the service of Holy Communion):
"... if there be any of you who... requireth further comfort of counsel, let him come to me, or to some other discreet and learned Minister of God's Word, and open his grief... that he may receive the benefit of absolution."
Well, nothing could be much plainer than that, could it? But, like many things in life, it's one thing to know what one should do and a very different thing to know why one should do it. All too often parents and teachers tell a child "Don't do that!" or "Do this!", – no doubt with the best of intentions; but when the child quite sensibly and politely asks "Why" or "Why not?" that parent or teacher can give no better answer than "Because I say so!"
So this morning let's take a thoroughly grown-up look at the Sacrament of Confession and ask ourselves whether just plain common-sense if nothing else suggests that we should make use of it.
Try and remember what happened last time you went to see your doctor.
The chances are that you went because of some symptom: a pain, a lump, a discharge or a general feeling of being off-colour prompted you to go to the surgery, perhaps at some considerable inconvenience.
Well, you probably spent some time in the waiting room, but when at last your turn came to see the doctor, what happened next? Didn’t the doctor invite you to sit down and tell him or her all about your symptom? So you gave a truthful answer, by saying as accurately as possible what the trouble was? Then the doctor examined the affected part, told you what, they thought your symptom meant and gave you a prescription to take to the chemist. You then followed the course of treatment suggested by the doctor, perhaps going back to the surgery a few weeks later to report how well or otherwise the treatment was working.
Going to Confession is like that. Most Christians know that there’s something wrong with them – or, if they think that they don’t, then the chances are that they’re spiritually at death’s door. "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us", St John says. He goes on to add "but if we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." If we’re serious about our Christian discipleship then we shall become well aware of some tell-tall symptom within ourselves that suggests that our Christian lives aren’t a hundred-per-cent healthy.
Whether we’re thinking about spiritual or physical health, its little use trying to decide for ourselves how serious that tell-tale symptom in fact is .Should we worry about or not? The best judge of that is never the patient or penitent himself, but another person whose judgement we trust and whose professional experience and training have qualify them not only to know the differences between health and sickness, but also between serious and mild illnesses. That "someone" is usually a doctor in the case of bodily illness, or a priest in the case of those spiritual sicknesses which are called "sin"..
Whichever kind of sickness medical or spiritual we’re suffering from, it's always worth trying to find out for sure both what it is and whether it’s serious or not. Most of us can remember occasions when we went to the doctor with a worrying lump or pain and the doctor said "It's really nothing to worry about, Mrs Cressingham, it's called a such-and such and if you use this ointment (or whatever) it should disappear in a week or two"? What a wonderful relief that was! Almost as good as when the priest says "… and by his authority committed to me I absolve you from all your sins in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit… go in peace for the Lord has put away all your sins"
Even should the doctor say to us "Hm! I don't like the look of that: It think you ought to see a specialist" it means that we've taken a step in the right direction before things have gotten any worse. The pain my be no better but at least we've now done something about it.
It's the same with spiritual illnesses and their symptoms. We're quite likely to be totally unaware of our more serious faults and at the same time worry quite unnecessarily about trivialities.
Let's me take an example of the three different sorts of sin we hear bout in the General Confession at the beginning of Mass and explain why it’s a good idea to bring them to the Confessional. It talks about sinning "in thought, word and deed": Three different kinds of sin, not always equally easy to recognize.
The easiest to recognize is "sinning in deed". Most of us know what that means and as a result manage to steer clear of it. But if we do fall there’s usually no doubt in our minds about recognizing it: it’s the easiest of the three to spot.
However, many Christians worry quite excessively about what they believe to be "sins of thought". They imagine that just because they’ve been tempted to do something wrong it means that they have sinned. Of course they haven’t!: Being tempted isn’t at all the same as sinning in thought: If it were, then our Lord who was, you remember, "tempted at all points like we are" would have been the most sinful person who ever existed, whereas the writer to the Hebrews goes on to say "yet [he was] without sin".
A good confessor will help us to tell the difference between real and imaginary sins, so if we are troubled by temptations it’s worthwhile going to confession simply to be reassured that such temptations aren’t sinful and therefore something to be worried about. Just as the doctor can reassure us that some irritating swelling is not cancerous and may be able to prescribe some ointment which will make it subside, a priest will suggest how to deal with unpleasant thoughts when they occur to us. In either case there are several well-tried and simple remedies available.
But those sins of the third category, "sins of word" are a very different kettle of fish. Word-sins spread like the present foot-and-mouth disease – they are an epidemic to which Christian communities are especially prone. Why this should be the case is an interesting question which would take another whole sermon to answer. Let’s just say that word-sins have been around from the very earliest days of the Church. As St James says in his letter:
"The tongue represents the world with all its wickedness... it pollutes our whole being... it is an intractable evil, charged with deadly venom. We use it to sing parishes to our Lord and Father, and we use it to invoke curses on our fellow-men who are made in God's likeness.
St James leaves us in no doubt that word-sins require our special attention and watchfulness. There’s many varieties of word-sin which fly around like germs in the Christian community, but here are some types of evil conversation for us to beware of.:
Gossip, slander, dismissiveness, tale-bearing, backbiting, lying, exaggerating, boasting, breaking confidences, moaning, habitual fault-finding, and scandalmongering.
Those are just a few varieties of "sinning by word" – so easily done, so hard to stop doing, so often done without realising that "I oughtn’t have said that" because we’ve got so used to committing them that we’ve stopped noticing it. There was a time once when telling a lie, or speaking uncharitably about someone made us feel a bit uncomfortable; now it’s become habitual. Like that lump we failed to tell the doctor about because we were afraid it might be malignant, we’ve stopped noticing it because it’s become part of us. Moaning, lying, gossiping and the other word-sins become part of us because we never confessed to committing them.
As with any other illness, spiritual or medical, the first step towards putting things right is to seek for qualified help – which probably means going to a priest or a doctor whichever is appropriate. The second step is to be perfectly honest with them. Just as it's not the slightest use saying to the doctor "I have a lump somewhere in my body but I'm not going to tell you where it is or allow you to look at it because it's too embarrassing". The doctor will immediately show you the door and tell you to come back when you are prepared to be honest; so it's equally useless saying a priest "Bless me Father, for I have sinned" if you go on to say "but I'm not going to tell you in what way."
The third step is to allow them to bring their expertise to bear upon the problem, whatever it is; and the final step is to persevere with the treatment which they prescribe, and allow it a fair chance of doing its work.
So what more need I say? Only this: "Try it for yourself and see!"
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