Sunday, June 16, 2013

4 Pentecost

June 16, 2010

Luke 7.36-8.3

+ This past Tuesday, as many of you know, I celebrated the 9th anniversary of my ordination of the Priesthood. As many of you almost may know, I am meticulous record keeper. And so, in nine of years of priesthood, I have counted that I have celebrated Mass 927 times. I have presided over about 150 funerals (45 of which were while I was here at St. Stephen’s), and have presided over almost 100 weddings in those nine years.

And I have heard about 45 confessions, at least according to sacramental confessions. That, of course, does not include the confessions I have heard on airplanes, on car rides, in the hospital, in restaurants, in bars (let me tell you, I have heard many confessions in bars), and elsewhere.
Confessions? You might wonder. We’re Episcopalians. We don’t have confessions.

Au contraire!
We do have confessions.

One part of the Book of Common Prayer most of us probably have never even ventured to look at is found on page 447. The service for “The Reconciliation of a Penitent” is a service very few of us here this morning has probably taken advantage of.

But it is an important service and it is one that certainly deserves our attention, even if we have no desire to take advantage of that service.  Confession in the Episcopal Church is often described in this way:

“All can, some should, no one must.”

And it’s nice to take a look at it at a time other than Lent, when we are almost overwhelmed with talk of sin and forgiveness. The service of Reconciliation is service in which a person seeking to ask forgiveness of whatever shortcomings they have goes to a priest (and in the Episcopal Church only a priest can grant absolution) and having prayerfully and thoughtfully shared these sins, received words of comfort and counsel and then is given absolution by the priest. It really is just like Confession is in the Roman Catholic Church, though for us we don’t go into a little cubicle and whisper our sins through a screen to a priest. Mmmm. Maybe that should be something we introduce here at St. Stephen’s. Uh…no thank you….

So, on those occasions when we describe the Episcopal Church as “Catholic lite,” and we get the inevitable question of whether or not we have “Confession,” we can say yes, we do, but then quickly add that it’s not a requirement.

I think few of us want to take advantage of this service, but, occasionally, we sometimes do find the need.

And, as I said, it is not a requirement for any of us, though it is a very vital and, at times, helpful service

Not a lot of people know that I take advantage of it on a fairly regular basis.

I go every few months to an Episcopal priest I know who is my confessor.

Although I usually go dragging my heels a bit, I feel good once I have done it.

I come away from Confession feeling better.

There really is something very positive and good about being open and honest about one’s shortcomings, about sharing those shortcomings with someone else, about getting some practical and helpful council and advice and then hearing from that person that I am forgiven for the wrongs I have done.

When I was in seminary I read two books on confession. One was a book for priests who would serve as confessors. It was the classic text for Anglicans entitled A Manual for Confessors by “the Honorable Canon of Birmingham” Francis George Belton, originally published in 1916.

The other was more modern and much more helpful for all people (not just priests) seeking the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

The book is called Reconciliation: Preparing for Confession in the Episcopal Church, by Martin L. Smith, a priest and former member of the Episcopal order of the Society of St. John the Evangelist.

Both of these books discuss in detail what we find summarized on page 446 in our Prayer Book:

“The ministry of reconciliation, which has been committed by Christ to his Church, is exercised through the care each Christian has for others, through the common prayer of Christians assembled for public worship, and through the priesthood of Christ and his ministers declaring absolution.”

So, as we’ve just heard, we realize that Confession is not something the Church and bunch of male priests invented.  It was something commended to us by Jesus, who knew full well how important it was for us to confess and to hear the words of forgiveness.

As a priest, one of most important responsibilities has been to be a confessor.

On that night that I was ordained, as part of the ordination service, the Bishop declared to me that among my responsibilities as a priest was “to declare God’s forgiveness to penitent sinners…”

Now, that may sound like some “special” power we priests have. But, more than anything, what a priest does when she r he declare God’s forgiveness is just that:

We declare God’s forgiveness. Nothing magical. We just state a fact. But, it IS important. It is important to hear. It is important to hear that we are forgiven. It is important to hear, when we fall short in any way in our lives, to hear those words, “You’re forgiven.”

Hearing those words, I can say, is a truly powerful experience. There is a sense of a weight being lifted. There is a sense that something which was bound up has been loosened and released.

To hear those words of pardon and forgiveness are important to us because we sometimes do need to hear that we are forgiven. Without those words of forgiveness, we continue on in our self-pitying and our self-loathing. Those words of pardon and absolution restore us. They help us rise above the wrongs we have done so we can live fully and completely.

When we hear Jesus say to that penitent woman in today’s Gospel, “Your sins are forgiven…Your faith has saved you. Go in peace,” we can almost feel a weight being lifted from her. Whatever shortcomings that woman brought with her into that place, we know are gone from her as she leaves. This is the power of confession.

At the end of “Form Two” of Confession in the Prayer Book, the service is concluded when the priest, echoing this very Gospel reading, says,

“Now there is rejoicing in heaven; for you were lost, and are found; you were dead, and are now alive in Christ Jesus our Lord. Go in peace. The Lord has put away all your sins.”

To which the penitent replies, “Thanks be to God.”

Those are words that cause us to continue on, despite the things we have done. The forgiveness of our sins transforms us and changes us. It frees us from whatever might hold us down. So, let us together strive, when we have done wrong, to seek those words of forgiveness.

Some of us might actually wish to seek out the Sacrament of Reconciliation as found in the Book of Common Prayer. I encourage you to do so.  It is good to have a regular confessor—to take time to confess your faults and failings to some one. It is good psychologically and it is good spiritually. Certainly, as your priest, I am always available for this service, but any priest will do.

Any priest can grant absolution. But you do not have to be a priest to remind people of  God’s forgiveness and love.  All of us can  carry those words of forgiveness from Jesus close to our hearts when we do fail and we do fall short in our relationships, and when others wrong us.

Let us humble ourselves, but let’s not despair in those moments. Let us come before Jesus and seek that forgiveness that lifts us up from our tears. Let us unloose from within us whatever is holding us captive so that we may be truly free to love God and love others with no regrets, no recriminations, no undue guilt.

Jesus’ words to each of us are “go in peace.” That peace we find in this forgiveness is truly a liberating peace. It is a peace that destroys not only what others do to us, but we do to ourselves and to others, which sometimes can be much worse. That peace we find in reconciliation truly does liberate.

So, let us take the peace offered to us by Jesus and go forth in that peace. And doing so, let us rejoice in the freedom that peace gives us. Amen.

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