In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus looks at the city of Jerusalem, to which he had in a significant sense been sent, in order to save it, and he cries out: “How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! Behold, your house is forsaken.”
This is often enough the way it is with us too. Jesus would come to us, would shower his graces on us, if only we were willing, if only we would say with sincerity, “Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord!” – if only we were not so wrapped up in our own agendas.
Two weeks ago I preached about the five elements of a full Lenten rule. Four of them are not especially provocative: retirement, prayer, fasting / abstinence, and almsgiving. But one of them can be very provocative: confession. Today I will speak of sacramental confession.
Perhaps the first thing to be said is that confession has been a regular part of Anglican practice from the beginning of Anglicanism. Confession was in the English Book of Common Prayer of 1662, and it is in the American Book of Common Prayer of 1979. Anglicans have never NOT practiced sacramental confession.
But what is it? Well, it is one of the seven sacraments of the Church. Sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given to us by Jesus himself, God-incarnate, man-divine, as a sure and certain means of receiving that grace. Sacramental confession is a wide road leading us prodigal sons back to the house of our forgiving Father. It is one of the Lord’s primary means of gathering us together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.
God has given us all of the sacraments because he is not a fairy godmother and he’s not a big wizard in the sky. He doesn’t just zap us full of the grace we need for salvation. Instead, he has given us the sacraments, to be gateways to that grace. And sacramental confession is one of the widest gateways to his forgiveness.
The question inevitably arises: why go to confession? Can God not forgive me anywhere and at any time? Of course. God can do whatever he wants to do. And God does forgive. He is all forgiving, all merciful, all the time. But the question is: how am I going to appropriate the grace that God gives super-abundantly, 24-7, no matter what I do? To put it another way: in order for me to experience God’s forgiveness, in order for me to receive it, something is required of ME. No matter how much you may want to give someone something, if they won’t receive it, your hands are tied. What is required of me to receive God’s forgiveness is called “repentance” in scripture. I have to be sorry for my sins, ask for forgiveness, and then amend my life.
So why should I go to confession? I will give you three reasons: 1) because God tells us to in his word, 2) because it is one of the most beautiful gifts and effective spiritual tools available to believers, and 3) so you can KNOW you are forgiven.
Jesus said to [the Apostles] again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
God himself came to earth and gave his ministers the power and authority to forgive sins. And of course this power and authority, by right, belongs to God alone – but it is refracted through his Church through the agency of his priests, whom he endowed with his own power and authority in this respect.
In Matthew chapter 18 Jesus enjoins that sins should be disclosed “to the Church” – not to God privately, but to the Church, so that God’s forgiveness might be ministered. And the epistle of St. James says, “…confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed,” (James 5.16). The picture that emerges, therefore, from Scripture, is that we should confess our sins to one another, within the context of the life of the Church, so that God can minister his forgiveness to us through the agency of those to whom he has entrusted this power and authority. And that’s exactly what sacramental confession is.
There is also a therapeutic dimension to confession. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen penitents leave the sacrament of confession visibly lighter, having finally been able to unburden themselves of unbearable loads that they had been lugging around in their consciences, sometimes for years, or decades, or a lifetime. And this relief, this elation, is something I have experienced both as a confessor, and as a penitent. I make my confession regularly and frequently.
But to me, the most important reason to go to confession is so that I can KNOW that I am forgiven. Sacraments are given to us, according to the Prayer Book, as “sure and certain means” of the grace that they signify. To be honest with you, there are a number of ways of experiencing the therapeutic dimension of confession: you could confess your sins to a tree, or pay for a therapist to listen to you, or write your sins down on a piece of paper one by one, and then burn it – and all of that might provide you with some measure of relief. But only a priest of God can say to you, with God’s own authority: “I absolve you from all of your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” Only a priest can say those words WITH REAL AUTHORITY, in the Name of God. You may make your confession to ANYONE – to other laypeople, to your spouse, to a deacon, but only a priest can speak those words to you with authority. Only a priest can absolve you.
Hearing those words from my confessor is a source of immense joy and peace for me – every time. And – to be perfectly honest with you – I cannot imagine practicing the Christian faith without making regular use of the sacrament of confession. I know there are Christians who do not, but I just cannot imagine the shape of such a life.
So HOW do you do you make your confession? You tell a priest every sin you have committed, and how many times you have committed it, since the last time you made your confession, to the best of your ability. “That could take days!” you say. No. There are a finite number of sins, and you go through the list, and you state them, and the number of times. It should not take more than ten or fifteen minutes at the most.
Here are some common pitfalls: don’t confess other people’s sins. Husbands, don’t confess your wives sins. “She nags me, and I find it irritating!” Don’t do that.
Don’t confess things that aren’t sins. Don’t confuse negative emotions with sins. Don’t confess being sad or angry. Those aren’t sins in themselves. You can overly-indulge sadness and anger and such things, and the over-indulgence can become sinful, but the emotions themselves are not. Likewise, don’t confuse sin with the temptation to sin. An alcoholic seeing a bottle of booze and really wanting to drink it has not yet done anything wrong. If he doesn’t take the drink, no matter how badly he wants to, he’s won the battle. Temptation has three elements: SUGGESTION, which leads to DELIGHT, which leads to CONSENT. If you catch it early, you will win the battle, and avoid the sin.
Don’t rely on your memory. Make a list. Take a clinical, systematic approach to examining your conscience. Its like cleaning your house. You don’t want to just wave a dust mop around and call it quits – not if you really want your house to be clean. When it comes to confession, some of the best advice I have heard is: be brief, be brutal, and be gone. Be brief: don’t extenuate; don’t chat; don’t drag it out. Be brutal: be brutally honest and candid, both with yourself and with the priest; state your sins, one by one, as though you were telling them to Jesus himself. And then be gone: go in the renewed peace and assurance that your sins have been put away!
The thing about this process is that it is almost impossible to avoid contrition and humility. Every time I make my confession – and name my sins one by one in this way, in all their hideous, embarrassing banality, I have to “get low” – as Robert Duval put it in one of our Movie Night films. And then they’re gone! And God’s mercy flows in, palpably.
A few things to remember: you confess your sins in order to be forgiven – not to be condemned. Remember that. I have never heard of a priest recoiling in horror from a confession. I certainly never have, and I have heard many confessions. Hundreds, probably, in my relatively short career. And I have heard just about every sin under the sun. Except genocide. Still waiting for genocide. And I have confessed some whoppers myself – or what I thought were whoppers – and never once has my confessor expressed shock or disgust or anything but sympathy.
Also remember that, as the Prayer Book says, the secrecy binding confessors is morally absolute. Under no circumstance is a priest allowed to bring up your sins after you have confessed them – he may not bring them up even with you, without your permission, and he may certainly not bring them up with anyone else. UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES. If a priest is faced with jail or a firing squad, he is under a solemn moral obligation to divulge NOTHING of any sin confessed by ANY penitent EVER. And every priest I know takes that solemn obligation deadly seriously.
Jesus said, “How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! Behold, your house is forsaken. And I tell you, you will not see me until you say, `Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’”
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.