The Rev. Becky McDaniel. This sermon is based on Matthew 5:21-37.
When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.
Several weeks ago when I was leading our Trinity College book group, a question came up about confession. We were discussing the dilemma of sin as both a personal and a communal struggle. Yes, we understand that individuals sin, but we also recognize that our sinfulness is the result of a larger web of human misunderstandings and wrongdoings. Sin is not just something that “I” do to “you”; sin is a corporate, relational web. Our responsibility for our sinning is shared, and we commit sin more as a group than as individuals. In the words of the spiritual teacher, Martin Smith: “We co-opt one another into our sinful behavior, goading, tempting, and seducing one another in the partnerships and groups we belong to. But acknowledging this is not enough, and does not go very far beyond our individualism. The Word of God in the Scriptures goes much farther in insisting that sin is primarily social. We resist God’s will in our communities. Nations sin. Churches sin. Classes sin. Families sin. We sin by participation in and collusion and solidarity with the faithless, unjust behavior of whole groups. The Law and the Prophets in the Old Testament make unmistakably clear that God has expectations of peoples, not just of individuals.” And this is one reason why when we say the confession each Sunday, we say it together, as a group, and our statements begin with “we,” not “I.” We say together “most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you.” We call out our corporate sin, and then we are granted absolution. For many of us, this is one of the most powerful moments in our week.
And yet, there seems to be a deep yearning in many of us to name before God our individual sins, even as we acknowledge the role that the community may have played in the choices that we have made. And that is where our conversation shifted that day in our book group. Someone asked, “what do you think about Catholic confession?” I was surprised by the question, because of course, we, as Episcopalians, also have the sacrament of reconciliation as part of our tradition. But the truth is, few Episcopalians practice personal confession, and many Episcopalians don’t even know that this is a sacrament in our tradition. But it is, and I believe that it is an absolute gift. If you open your prayer books to page 316, you will find something called the Exhortation. It is a call to deep awareness and self-examination, stating the following:
Examine your lives and conduct by the rule of God’s
commandments, that you may perceive wherein you have
offended in what you have done or left undone, whether in
thought, word, or deed. And acknowledge your sins before
Almighty God, with full purpose of amendment of life, being
ready to make restitution for all injuries and wrongs done by
you to others; and also being ready to forgive those who have
offended you, in order that you yourselves may be forgiven.
And then, being reconciled with one another, come to the
banquet of that most heavenly Food.
And if, in your preparation, you need help and counsel, then
go and open your grief to a discreet and understanding priest,
and confess your sins, that you may receive the benefit of
absolution, and spiritual counsel and advice; to the removal
of scruple and doubt, the assurance of pardon, and the
strengthening of your faith.
Our own Book of Common Prayer echoes what Jesus himself said, “when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”
As a seminarian in preparation for the priesthood, it was expected that I sit with a confessor, a priest, for a life confession. This was a rather terrifying prospect at first. I was to spend several weeks reflecting upon my life, including my earliest childhood memories of wrongdoing, and write down all of the sins I could remember, and then I was to share these with a priest for confession. I chose, appropriately, to do this during Lent, and it turned out to be one of the most therapeutic experiences in my life. You see, in the sacrament of reconciliation, the priest is there as a fellow sinner; he or she is not there as a judge. The priest is in need of God’s mercy just as much as the penitent and stands beside the penitent in his or her vulnerability and need. It is a humbling experience for both individuals. The intimate reality of the experience of reconciliation is that God is unfailingly ready to forgive us. It is ultimately an experience of trust, because as we turn to God in the honest release of our sins, we undoubtedly feel that binding presence of love and trust that all shall be well in God’s time, because God has reconciled himself to us through Christ, and that gift of reconciliation and forgiveness is beyond time.
But the gift of reconciliation is not just a gift from God to the Church. The gift of reconciliation is also the Church’s gift to the world. We are called to carry the ministry of reconciliation beyond the walls of the church, beyond the intimacy of penitent and confessor, outward as a sign to the world that we are not afraid to accept our weaknesses, to learn from our mistakes, to heal, and to transform. This is what is means to bear the Cross of Christ: not to fear vulnerability or to hide from one another. To bear the Cross is to put down our gifts before the altar, to walk with an open heart to those whom we have hurt or who have hurt us, to turn to God as we ask for and offer forgiveness. There is no greater gift than the gift of forgiveness and renewal. This is what allows us to live a resurrection life; each day is death and resurrection in the Christian life, a daily death to sin and a rising into new life. But we cannot do it alone. We need our brothers and sisters, including those for whom we leave the gift before the altar and seek forgiveness. And the world needs us, a living example of this cross-bearing love. So as you leave this church today and prepare to go out into the world, carry God’s gift of reconciliation with you. You are the Church, and reconciliation is the Church’s gift to the world. Do not be afraid to open your heart, to accept your weakness and vulnerability, and to transform through forgiveness and renewal of life.