St Stephen Lewisham

22nd February 2004

Checking our Foundations

Year C 7th Sunday Ė Preparing for Lent

Not so very long ago, a year or so perhaps, where Lewisham Police Station now stands there was, if you remember, just a hole in the ground. Before that it had been the Army & Navy Stores that stood there, and further back still it was Chiesmanís.

But itís that hole in the ground that interests me. The transition between Chiesmanís and Army & Navy was a mere blip on the screen compared with the second change involved when it became a police station. Some people may have wondered why it needed all that demolition and rebuilding in the first place. Well, the answer is that the new building which replaces the old one was to be a completely new sort of building with a different purpose in life Ė a purpose which couldnít be achieved without a complete rebuilding of the whole structure. Whilst it is possible to make a transition from one department store to another by doing a bit of tinkering here and there, a complete make-over is another story altogether. Trying to do that by mere tinkering is only going to end up by satisfying nobody. Better to pull it down and start again using the same site but different construction using different materials.

What happened just over the road from St Stephenís can be used as a parable of what is happening, or should be happening inside St Stephenís itself, especially during the season of Lent which begins, remember, in just three days time on Wednesday.

We, the people of St Stephenís, are, St Paul tells us, Godís building (or Living Stones as St Peter puts it). Each one of us, during our life on earth, has become, through baptism a Temple of the Holy Spirit.

But itís not a one-off process, St Paul goes on to say. We are a building that is continually growing and being added to. Whatever materials we bring to the construction of that building, whether gold, silver, fine stone, wood hay or straw will have to be tested by fire. What the fire consumes will have to be replaced by better material. Itís only the Foundation Stone who is Jesus Christ which will remain unchanged and unchanging throughout time and through eternity.

Now you and I go through many natural changes during our lifetime, from infancy to childhood, through adolescence to adulthood, through old age to the grave. But all these Natural Changes are like the tinkerings which transform a Chiesmanís to an Army & Navy Ė they make no fundamental difference to ourselves.

But the change which Christ seeks to bring about in us is much more closely related to the progress from Department Store via Hole-in-the-Ground to Police Station Ė much more like a complete rebuild rather than an adaptation of something which is already there. Itís a rebuild which has, so-to-say to be undertaken over and over again. Being a Christian baby requires little or no input from us; becoming a Christian child requires rather more; a Christian adolescent more still; whilst becoming a Christian adult requires at the very least a full yearly servicing which may include a good deal of repair work and replacement of worn-out or defective materials in the process.

Thatís why Lent is such an important season in the Churchís year. At Easter we are to be risen with Christ that is to say we are to become new creatures. Something more is required than a new coat of paint. We have to examine our foundations which is more like the hole-in-the-ground process than anything else. Everything, but everything needs to be examined carefully to see whether itís strong enough to support the weight of the structure which is being built upon it Ė and just remember that structure is by no means finished yet. God has many more years of work on us improving what his hands have made before He can stand back from his work and say "It is finished".

Now this process of reconstruction can only take place if we are prepared to cooperate with the Master Builder. Thatís because we are his special creation who have been given the gift of Free Will, that is to say we can always say No! to what God wants to do with us and the plans he has for bringing us to perfection. Of course if we go on saying No that will mean that we continually fall short of the glory of God, and the technical term for that is Sin. The chief problem with Sin is that we get so accustomed to it that we cease to notice its effect on our lives. Weíre like those people who live in a building whose foundations are sinking, whose walls are cracking, whose roof lets in the rain and the window-panes all have cracks in them, but because theyíve been like that for so long we come to believe that nothing should, or perhaps even can, be done about it.

In the Sacrament of Confession God has provided us with a way of tackling this problem. If we go back to our model of a building, getting a priest to help us examine our lives is no more far-fetched than calling in a structural engineer to look at the foundations of our house, or an interior designer or architect to make some suggestions as to how it could be better designed or furnished.

People are hesitant to invite a priest to help them inspect their lives. There are two reasons for this, one understandable, the other thoroughly misguided.

The understandable reason is the fear that somehow by doing so one is going to spoil oneís relationship with the priest. Well, Iíve made my confession to a number of different priests, including Father Riley and I havenít noticed that itís made any more difference than it has when I have been to my doctor or lawyer and asked them to help me with some embarrassing problem or complaint. Because what passes between penitent and priest is "under the seal" just as it is between doctor and patient or lawyer and client it simply cannot make any difference. It will never be mentioned or alluded to or passed on to a third party even after one is dead.

The bad reason why people shy away from getting help with their problems and shortcomings is the fear that they will be brought face to face with some truth about themselves that they have spent all their lives trying to avoid. We shun the structural engineer for fear he may shake his head and say "Iím afraid the whole buildingís got to come down" or the electrician saying "Thereís nothing for it but a complete rewiring."

Well there are two answers to that. Firstly, itís only rarely that a complete rebuild is needed. More often than not one comes away from talking with the engineer with a great feeling of relief that the problem, though costly to put right, isnít quite as disastrous as one had feared. So too with Confession. But secondly our confessor though he may indeed reveal defects of which we have been unaware, may equally often uncover within us virtues for dealing with those defects which we never knew we had. What weíll have been doing all our lives is misapplying things which are good in themselves but using it in the wrong way. To have been helped to discover how to use them properly is one of the most gratifying things that can ever happen to someone.

And just like one comes away from that meeting with the architect, the doctor or the lawyer with an enormous sense of relief that the things that are wrong arenít as bad as one had feared, people often come away from making their first confession asking themselves "Why on earth didnít I do that years ago!"


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