St Andrew's Croydon

25 February 2001

Sunday before Lent

Lent is almost with us.

Like me, many of you will be going to a priest in the next day or two to make our confession.

If so, then you'll probably find this morning's sermon is going over familiar ground, so let me ask your indulgence. It's aimed at someone who has never made their confession, and others to whom it may come as a surprise to learn that the Ministry of Reconciliation 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 avail ourselves of it.

Think, for a moment of what happened last time you went to see your doctor.

The chances are that your reason for going was 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.

When you finally reached the surgery, what happened next? The doctor asked you what your problem was and you gave a truthful answer, by describing as accurately as possible the symptom that was troubling you. Then, in all probability, the doctor would examine the affected part and prescribe some treatment, usually in the form of a prescription for you to take to the chemist, but having first told you what, in their view, was the name and cause of your discomfort. Armed with the prescription you had it made up and followed the prescribed course of treatment; finally, depending upon what the doctor said and the treatment’s success or otherwise, going back to the doctor a week or two later to report how the treatment has worked.

Going to Confession is a process rather like that. Most Christians are aware that they are not perfect – or, if they think that they are, then it's a sure sign that they are lying spiritually at death’s door. However, most Christians, as I say, are well aware within themselves of some tell-tall symptom that all isn't a hundred per cent well with their Christian lives.

However, in trying to decide whether that tell-tale symptom is in fact something to worry about or not, the best judge is never the penitent himself, but someone else whose judgement he trusts and whose professional experience and training have qualify them to know the differences between spiritual health and spiritual sickness, and also between serious and mild illnesses of the soul.

Whichever kind of sickness it is, serious or trivial, it's worth trying to find out for sure. You remember, I’m sure, the relief you felt last time you 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"?

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. You and I are never the best judges of what's wrong with us. We're prone to worry quite unnecessarily about trivialities and at the same time be totally unaware of our more serious faults.

Let's take an example, suggested by this morning’s first reading from the book of Ecclesiasticus. It was all about "sinning by word"

In the Confession we talk about ourselves as sinning "in thought, word and deed". Most practising Christians in my experience know what is meant by "sinning in deed" and by and large manage to steer clear of it.

By the same token, many Christians are quite unnecessarily worried about "sins of thought" imagining that just because they have been tempted to do something wrong it means that they have sinned. Of course they are quite mistaken: sinning in thought doesn't mean anything of the kind, for if it did, 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".

So one reason for going to confession if we are being tempted by evil thoughts is simply to be reassured by the priest that such temptations are not in themselves sinful and therefore not to be worried about in the way that real sins should be; he may also be able to make some helpful suggestions, like the doctor would in the case of some minor bodily irritation, as to how we can deal successfully with such unpleasant thoughts when they occur to us. There are several well-tried and simple remedies available.

However, "sins of word" are a very different kettle of fish. Like the present foot-and-mouth disease which is presntly afflicting the farming community, word-sins 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. Suffice it to say, however that St James says in his letter to the Church:

"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.

Strong words indeed! Yet if we go back to the Old Testament word of Ecclesiasticus which we heard in the first reading it says:

"In a shaken sieve the rubbish is left behind, so too the defects of a man appear in his talk... the test of man is in his conversation.. a man's words betray what he feels. Do not praise a man before he has spoken since this is the test of men".

It should be clear from this that word-sins require our special attention and watchfulness. We haven't time to go into any detail about the different kinds of word-sin which are so often flying around like germs in the Christian community, but here are some types of evil conversation for you to beware of.:

Gossip, slander, dismissiveness, tale-bearing, backbiting, lying, exaggerating, boasting, breaking confidences, moaning, habitual fault-finding, and scandalmongering.

These and many others are examples of "sinning by word" – so easily done, so hard to stop doing, and so often done without realising that "I oughtn’t have said that" because we feel no tell-tale sympton beyond an uneasy feeling that what we said wasn't quite the truth, or wasn't said in Christian charity.

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 accept the treatment which each respectively gives 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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