Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The 4th Sunday in Lent: Belief & Confession

From the 32nd Psalm:

While I held my tongue, my bones withered away,
because of my groaning all day long.

For your hand was heavy upon me day and night;
my moisture was dried up as in the heat of summer.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
and did not conceal my guilt.

I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.”
Then you forgave me the guilt of my sin.

I have only had one ‘major’ surgery in my life. In 1998 I had my gall bladder removed and a hyalite hernia repaired, which actually is more like of a minor procedure than in years past thanks to advancement in medical treatment. I was not particularly concerned about undergoing the knife, but an interesting thing happened while I was waiting by myself in the quiet of my pre-op room. I felt an overwhelming need to make my confession. I was not weighed down by guilt of a particular sin, nor did I think I was going to die during the surgery, but still, something deep within me emerged to say, “It might not be a bad idea to clear the decks.”

Now, this was not really consistent with my intellectual or theological position, nor was it something I would insist on for a parishioner in a similar situation, yet it was there… in my soul… and so I prayed in silence as best I could,

Almighty God, heavenly Father,
I confess that I have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed;
by what I have done
and by what I have left undone...

When finished, I felt compelled to say the words of the Venite from Morning Prayer:

Come, let us sing to the Lord,
Let us shout for joy to the rock of our salvation.
Let us come before the his presence with thanksgiving
and raise a loud shout to him with psalms.

For the Lord is a great God,
and a great King above all gods…

And having gotten all of that out of the way, I felt ready to engage a procedure just slightly more risky than a brisk dental cleaning.

I have never forgotten that moment and as a result I am never critical of any parishioner I visit before surgery who has a similar desire. Right or wrong, good or bad, necessary in God’s eyes or not, I always offer to help lead a person through confession because that, in fact, is what I wanted and needed to do when I was in that position.

If you have been there, then, like me, you can identify with the poet who wrote the 32nd Psalm. He or she is more than ‘under the weather’. The poet is in very bad health; seriously afflicted with an aliment we cannot identify. Its symptoms seem to include dehydration, fever, and tremendous joint pain. Even in this grim condition, the poet does not feel led first to pray for health, but for forgiveness.

Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven,
and whose sin is put away!

Happy are they to whom the Lord imputes no guilt,
and in whose spirit there is no guile!

The psalmist uses three different Hebrew words for ‘guilt’ in these opening verses of the psalm. One denotes ‘breaking away from God,’ one denotes ‘failure’, and one denotes ‘perversion/distortion.’ Being liberated from the crushing burden of this guilt is more important to the psalmist than physical recovery. In fact, the rescue of forgiveness is integrally linked to healing. The psalmist is grateful for the forgiveness he/she has received and praises God for the wondrous way this forgiveness has restored him/her to fullness of health and life.

Unconfessed and unresolved sin lingers with us and eats at us. Most of us find it possible to let go of most of our sins through participation in the General Confession in public worship. But, for some of us (maybe many or perhaps most or possibly even all of us) some specific sins are rather resistant to this weekly practice. They haunt us and weigh us down and drain us of the kind of life and vitality God seeks to offer to all people. It is often the case, as with the psalmist, that a personal crisis of one kind or another brings this burden to the forefront of one’s consciousness and it becomes unbearable.

In my priestly ministry of 22 years, one of the least used liturgies in the prayer book is the Reconciliation of a Penitent, what the Roman Catholics refer to as ‘Confession.’ I suspect it is underutilized for two reasons. First, most of us find the General Confession sufficient most of the time, and second, we in the Episcopal Church simply are not in the habit of making a specific confession to a priest.

If asked to recall the worst thing I have ever done, there is not doubt in my mind as to what it is. One memory comes to me swift and sure. For many years I struggled with letting it go and the General Confession was not enough to help me receive God’s mercy. I went to a priest and he led me through the sacramental rite of Reconciliation. I made my confession and the priest pronounced not God’s general absolution for my general sins, but rather God’s specific absolution for this specific sin. I won’t pretend that it was a 100%, fail-proof remedy, but it did give me a sacramental moment and memory to place beside the memory of the wrong I did and the pain it caused. Whenever I revisit that transgression in my mind, I now can add to it the memory of the words of forgiveness… and being able to do this has helped me a great deal.

Great are the tribulations of the wicked; *
but mercy embraces those who trust in the Lord.

Be glad, you righteous, and rejoice in the Lord; *
shout for joy, all who are true of heart.

We heard again this morning the parable of the son who greatly offended his father. It tells us something very important; namely, the single thing that separates us most from God is not our sin, but our lack of faith. Only once we come to believe that God’s love and God’s mercy and God’s compassion and God’s forgiveness is infinitely greater than any breaking away we have done, any failure of our own making, and any perversion or distortion of our own doing – only then – can we be reconciled to God. We are reconciled not because we have confessed our sin, just as the son is not ‘saved’ by his confession. For the son and for us, the act of confessing is a way coming home’ a claiming of and clinging to the promise that nothing can separate us from the love of God, save our fear of coming to God.

We desperately need to know this for our own sense of peace and wholeness, but even more, we need to know this for the sake of the world. Let me explain. I don’t like to call today’s gospel reading “The Prodigal Son” because the story is just as much about the older, unforgiving son as it is about the younger, wayward son. The older brother simply cannot forgive his younger brother and rejoice that he has returned home. And let’s be honest, if we were in his position we might hold a pretty significant grudge too.

But let’s lay this next to the reading from Second Corinthians where Paul says “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” This is exactly the experience of the younger son when he returns home, makes his confession, and is restored in right relationship with his father. Paul puts it this way: “All of this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ.” But the next part is the part I want you to listen to very carefully: “God entrusted us [we who have believed in and received the blessing of forgiveness] the ministry of reconciliation… we are ambassadors for Christ… and we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” In other words, we who have found the faith to believe in the power of God’s forgiveness can now encourage others to make the same journey we have made. But if we have not found the faith to believe that God will receive our confession with a kiss of mercy, how can we possibly encourage others to seek reconciliation?

As a child of God I want to offer my witness that God is always more ready to hear us than we are to pray, more ready by far to forgive than we believe or we deserve. As a priest, I have taken a sacred oath to declare God’s forgiveness to penitent sinners. If you, in a moment of weakness, find yourself in that place where the poet of the 32nd psalm was, where I was before my surgery, or if you find yourself unable to let go of a lingering and unresolved sin, as I once did, I, as your priest, stand ready to help you make your confession, to pronounce God’s forgiveness, and to rejoice with you as you rejoice in being reconciled to God. As a sinner forgiven and lovely embraced by our heavenly Father, I have been drafted as an ambassador who witnesses to the reality of reconciliation. Let all of my fellow ambassadors say ‘Amen.’

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