Sin is not a big topic these days from the pulpit. In most pulpits anyway. People think such sermons are a downer, and church hierarchy theorizes that it keeps people home. Who wants to ruin a perfectly good Sunday being told you’re lower than a polecat in a chicken coop?
Sin is a big topic in some pulpits when it has to do with preaching about what others are doing wrong. Plenty of time is spent nodding as the preacher intones how this or that group is doomed to hellfire for practicing this or that thing. That packs them in, and makes most people feel good by comparison.
We had a sermon on sin today. And it wasn’t a sermon that made me feel bad, rather I found it enlightening, and a good reminder. Sin: Self Ish Ness. Sums it up pretty darn good doesn’t it? That’s what our rector said. And I think she is very right here. So what to do? How about Soul in Need? Yep, that works too. Or self image needy? Uhuh.
None of these were my thoughts. But they all are worthwhile in describing what is gone amok when we sin. We are not trusting God, not listening, not acting. We are stubbornly thinking of ourselves.
What to do? Confession is, as they say, good for the soul. We, in the Episcopal Church, generally do a community confession each week. I do one daily with the Office. The Episcopal Church has a rite of reconciliation, and provides for private confession. If one asks that is.
The Roman Catholic church is big on confession. Strike that. They used to be. By the time I joined in 1994, they had pretty much stopped regular confession. The priest was ostensibly there on Saturday afternoon, before Mass to hear them. He probably would have been shocked has anyone made the request.
Most parishes had a communal confession sometime during Advent and during Lent. You walked up to the priest (usually a few extra priests volunteered to help out) and you gave one sin, and then you all got a communal penance.
So in reality, TEC does more with confession than most Roman Catholic parishes, at least all the ones that I ever attended. One Our Father, three Hail Marys.
I don’t know what Lutherans and Methodists and Presbyterians do. I am pretty sure Baptists don’t do much in that vein. I don’t know about Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons.
Many don’t consider it a sacrament. Many are especially against the concept that you confess to anyone other than God herself. I can pretty much understand that. I don’t think it’s required. But I’m still not sure it’s not useful.
My rector says she makes a private confession twice yearly. She thinks it is valuable. The more I think about it, I think I agree.
What stops most of us I suspect is that we develop relationships with our priests and pastors. We don’t want to tell them of some of the things we think and do. We’re ashamed. We’re not worried they will “tell” but we are concerned that they will think less of us. And most of us want our religious leaders to think well of us.
Yet, our clergy are trained to receive our confessions, at least those that use the sacrament. They have as they say, “heard it all before” and are all too aware of the foibles of the human being. After all, they know only too well their own sins, so I suspect they judge us a good deal less than we might think.
It is hard still to speak openly about our failures. It is painful.
But, I think it should be hard and it should be painful. As I sit at the kitchen table each morning and recite:
Most merciful God, 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. I have not loved you with my whole heart, I have not loved my neighbor as myself. I am truly sorry and I humbly repent. For the sake of your son Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, and forgive me, that I may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your name, Amen.
I confess, that sometimes I recite without thinking much. And that’s no confession at all.
Our rector says we are going to pause before recitation from now on, to give us all time to think of our sins. I think that helps. But I agree with her, that forcing yourself to sit and speak to another person is of greater help.
It has little to do with the absolution given. It has everything to do with being forced to confront our own culpability head on. I recall the very few times I made private confession. I felt ever so much more at peace with God. I felt reconciled. I felt forgiven. This is not to say that it is required to be done this way to be effective–that would be silly.
What it means is that the process is not for God–he knows without our saying a word whether we are truly contrite. The process is for us. And the process of private confession lifts a burden from us in a way that simply doesn’t happen in our private admissions of guilt.
I wish my church would return to a practice of private confession as normative. Being a Christian is serious business, and we don’t seem to take it as such all too often. This seems a good way to start.