Summary: Quick! The Father is running down the path to throw a cloak on you to embrace you! Run forward and accept it!
A sermon on the sacrament of confession.
This sermon was preached at St Philip the Apostle Tottenham where I was a lenten guest preacher, 31March 2019.
One weekday morning I was in church and the doors were open. Someone - a stranger I had never met before - wandered into the church. I am not going to tell you if they were a man or a woman because you don’t need to know. They sat down in a chair in the empty church, about three rows from the front, bowed their head and began to pray. I gave them some space and then after a while came and stood next to them to see if She or He would like to talk. She or He did want to talk. They had made a mess of their life. I am not going to tell you the details, because again you don’t need to know - suffice to say that if you let your imagination run wild, at least some of you won’t be that far from the truth. He or she told me how they had done some stuff they really regretted doing over quite a long period of time. This destructive pattern of behaviour broken their connections with the people who were closest to them, perhaps irreparably. She or he told me how they felt guilty, broken and alone.
I asked this person if they would like to make their confession. And this broken child of God almost bit my hand off to do so. We went up to the sacrament chapel - this was the first time my visitor had ever done so, but they knelt down and made their formal confession, going into more detail, telling me (and more importantly God) all the things they wanted to say sorry for, hearing briefly my advice and the prayer task, the penance I gave them, and then, more importantly hearing the words that God forgave them.
After what she or he had done, this person’s loved ones had not yet and might never forgive them. She or he certainly couldn’t forgive themself yet. And yet this prodigal child of God, emerging from the pig stye of life that they had got into - heard the words that someone forgave them. That, despite everything they had done over such a long period of time, someone still loved them. God forgave them, God loved them. This prodigal had bared their soul. They hadn’t tried to hide the bad stuff. And yet God, hearing the tearful words, rushes out to put is arms around them, to tell this broken sinner the words they need to hear - “you are forgiven,” To put the cloak on them and to bring them to the feast with the fatted calf.
I can’t tell you to make your confession - well I can, until I am blue in my face, but unless Fr Lee kindly passes me a submachine to point in your face, I can’t make you confess your sins, and even then submachine in hand I can’t make you tell the truth - you could say anything. So yes I can’t make you make your confession…
But I can tell you of the tears in the eyes of those I have heard make their confession from teenagers to pensioners as they unburdened and the look of Joy as they heard that they were forgiven.
At the heart of Christianity is this story of the prodigal son. Or rather the story of the prodigal father. The son has shamed the father. He has said in effect “I wish you were dead - all I want from you is your money” - and he takes it ...and it’s gone…. He’s treated his dad like dirt, wasted money on hookers and drugs until he has to take a job any Jew would have found worst of all. Not just living among animals - but among unclean pigs. “Perhaps my dad would forgive me enough to give me a job as a servant?” he asks himself. But when he gets back to the farm before he can get any words out - there is the Father running down the path to meet him - not caring what anyone thinks of him, but running down the path to meet him.
That’s what God is like with you. Nothing you can do can make him turn his face from you, nothing you can do can stop God from running down the road and welcoming you home.
As Pope Francis puts it “The church is called to be a house of the Father with doors always wide open…. Frequently we act as arbiters of grace rather than it’s facilitators. But the church is not tollhouse; it is a house of the father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems” (1)