Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 17th November 2013
17 November 2013 at 10:00 am
The Reverend David Stanton, Canon in Residence
The series of sermons at Matins this month focus upon the theme of prayer.
Two weeks ago I spoke about prayer as intercession. How as Christians we have a duty to pray for others, and not just for ourselves. For example, prayer being particularly made for the victims of typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines and for the victims of the terrible atrocities in Syria. Last week, as a nation, we kept Remembrance Sunday calling to mind the horrors of war and praying for (and remembering) the departed. Today I shall be speaking about prayer as confession, and next week, on the feast of Christ the King, I will be talking about prayer as adoration.
So, prayer as confession! When we talk about prayer as confession we are concerned with two fundamental things: firstly, recognising and acknowledging that even in our contemporary society each of us really do sin and, secondly, taking on board the fact that we all fail and fail and fail again. The more mature amongst us will remember the indomitable Edwyn Hoskyns who once said, in his typically pithy style, ‘When a Christian declares that the four times repeated response in the Litany of the English Church, “Have mercy upon us miserable sinners”, has no meaning for him, he has as yet no understanding of the Christian religion’. Being able to prayerfully confess our sins helps us in a quite natural way to allow that sin to come out into the open, and by this I mean not keeping it wrapped up in the depth of our minds and out of sight, but accepting the great fact that through confession and forgiveness we find new life and eternal hope. To really accept this, and to deal with it at any significant level, it is important that we are open and alive and receptive to the beauty and majesty and grace of God; alive to the goodness of life and to the glory and love of God.
From my experience, if we can take that positive view, prayers of confession flow that much more easily. My mind instinctively goes to a lovely poem by George Herbert: ‘Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back’. It is packed with the fundamentals of the Christian faith and echoes holiness and love, the things to which we so often fall short:
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lacked anything.
‘A guest’, I answered, ‘worthy to be here’:
Love said, ‘You shall be he’.
‘I the unkind, the ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on thee’.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply.
‘Who made the eyes but I?’
‘Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve’.
‘And know you not’, says Love, ‘who bore the blame?’
‘My dear, then I will serve’.
‘You must sit down’, says Love, ‘and taste my meat’.
So I did sit and eat.
Well, at every Evensong and Holy Eucharist that takes place daily within this Abbey, confession and forgiveness are central parts of the liturgy, and even when we quietly make our personal prayers we really should make special space for looking again at our lives and saying sorry for the times when we have fallen short. But, of course, this is not startling, breaking news. Its certainly not new to the Church.
The very young early Church was in fact far more rigorous over sins committed after Baptism than we are today. In those early years, you had to formally become a penitent, you had to wear special penitential robes – and join other penitents in a special part of the church. This could last from anything between forty days of Lent to several years. But this only happened once. If you then committed grave sin it was just too bad. And so, over the centuries, a pattern of regular confession (whether to a priest or directly to God) becomes established practice.
It is also interesting to note that the saintly John Keble saw prayerful confession as absolutely central to growth in the faith: He memorably said: ‘We go on working in the dark, and in the dark it will be, until the rule of systematic confession is revived in our church’. In other words, confession isn’t just there for the super –pious and ultra religious, it is a fundamental part in every Christian's spiritual growth and an integral part of the Kingdom of God.
I think it is helpful to remind ourselves that when we confess our sins we are not telling God anything he doesn’t actually know. Today's New Testament reading, about the kingdom of heaven as hidden treasure, reminds how fundamental it is to do all we can to be at one with God. When we fall short, or distance ourselves through sin, we must go the extra mile to regain that treasure, to be united with God, recognising that his presence makes each returning day a thing of hope and joy.
A few days ago the Daily Telegraph ran a leading article entitled: ‘Confession boom attributed to Pope Francis Effect’. Here John Bingham, Religious Affairs Editor, spoke about a worldwide recognition that many more people are taking advantage of the Sacrament of Reconciliation (confession) with a notable increase in younger people, including increasing numbers who attend with a smart phone in one hand, making use of a range of special confession apps to guide them through the process. Just the other day I heard such a confession here after Evensong. Such prayer isn’t just therapy and counselling, it is prayer at an intimate level in the context of relationship with God and relationship with others. It involves being part of the mystery of Christ’s reconciling work.
But how can this this Gospel command for confession and forgiveness become a living reality in our daily prayer lives? Well, if we take it seriously, it helps us not only to understand better our own faults; it helps us to know ourselves better and to discern where real danger lies; it helps us know God better and to understand the true meaning of his forgiveness. Perhaps the real key lies in how we understand sin when most around us refuse to acknowledge its existence. To my mind, sin is not so much the breaking of rules as being separated from God, being distanced from his love. I finish with inspiring, and enduring words from the fourteenth-century The Cloud of Unknowing: It is certainly not contemporary language, but the message could not be more contemporary and relevant for today's society; one that struggles greatly with the concept and reality of sin:
'Do thou…fill thy spirit with the ghostly meaning of this word SIN, and without any special regard unto any kind of sin, whether it be venial or mortal: pride, anger, or envy, covetousness, sloth, gluttony, or lust, What recks it in contemplatives what sin it is, or how great a sin… For all sins they think alike when the least sin separateth them from God and hindereth them from their ghostly peace. And feel sin a lump…and cry SIN, SIN, OUT, OUT! In the same manner shalt thou do with this little word GOD. Fill thy spirit with the ghostly meaning of it without any special regard to any of his works… or to any virtue that may be wrought in man’s soul by any grace: not considering whether it be meekness or charity, faith or hope…. For all virtues find and feel in God … And because thou must always feel in some part the foul and stinking lump of sin as it were one and congealed with the substance of thy being: therefore shalt thou alternately mean these two words SIN and GOD… If thou hadst God, then shouldest thou lack sin; and mightest thou lack sin, then shouldest thou have God'