Sermon at St Austin, Wakefield, as part of a Sion Community Parish Mission.
This morning I suffered a wardrobe malfunction. I looked down and saw that my belt had come loose. My first thought was it must have split at one of the holes – but no. When I looked more closely I saw that the cut end had come loose from its fixing.
Sometimes God speaks to us through the ordinary things in life. This felt like one of those moments.
When we’re in a bind, how do we get out? How can we be released?
We could just undo the belt. That would represent letting our standards slip.
We could cut the belt. In the New Testament, a belt represents truth. Breaking the belt would be to tell a deliberate lie. How often have we used a lie to avoid confronting a difficult situation?
But here, something different has happened. I have not let my standards slip. I have not told a lie. And yet, in a most unexpected way, I have been released.
On Monday night I spoke about Clare, who twice knew she was carrying a handicapped child, but refused abortion or even an induced birth. Each time, through God’s providence, she naturally went into labour just before the medics would have imposed a delivery on her.
In one of my parishes, I had a lady who had once faced a terrible dilemma. She had an ectopic pregnancy, with her unborn child growing where it could not survive and would risk her own health too. As a devout Catholic, she did not want a termination. The doctors saw no other alternative. The procedure was scheduled for a Monday… but by God’s grace, on the Sunday, she suffered a miscarriage. God allowed an impossible situation to be resolved with no-one incurring any guilt.
Sometimes the thing that binds us is our unwillingness give or receive forgiveness. The Prodigal Son was bound by his belief that he would not be welcome at his Father’s house… so he stuck it out with the pigs, until life became unbearable. But when he accepted the truth that he had sinned against his Father, he was able to go home and experience his Father’s outrageous generosity.
Last week, an elderly lady I know in Cardiff told me a remarkable story. When she was a little girl, her father sometimes beat her with a wooden ruler. One day the ruler splintered and left her with a scar on her hand, which she’s carried for most of her 80 years. In May, on a pilgrimage, she found the strength, for the first time in her life, to pray a deep prayer of forgiveness for her father. Emotionally, she felt better immediately. But even more – when she woke up the following morning, the scar on her hand was gone!
Jesus taught us the importance of forgiving others. In the Lord’s Prayer, we say, in effect, “Father, only forgive us as far as we forgive others.” God our Father wants to offer us total forgiveness, but to receive that we have to extend the same grace to those who sin against us. Forgiveness doesn’t mean saying wrong things are OK. Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting the wound or making ourselves needlessly vulnerable. But forgiveness does mean treating our enemies with courtesy, decency and respect. We don’t need to punish them. God will deal with any punishments when the time comes, for those souls who choose never to repent.
Confession is where we say to God: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your child.”
Confession is where God says to us: “Relax, my child. It was never about what you deserved. It was about the gift you were unwilling to accept, until now.”
How, then, should we prepare to make a good confession this evening? We start with our guilt.
As Catholics, we are famous for our sense of guilt.
Sometimes we suffer from false guilt, from our failure to achieve the impossible. We may have missed Mass due to a bout of ‘flu, or had a ‘bad thought’ to which we gave no wilful encouragement whatsoever. But if we didn’t have the power to do otherwise, such guilt is not a sign of wilful sin. The only thing binding us in such cases is a misplaced sense of duty. Trust your confessor if he says that you have not sinned, in response to what you confess.
Sometimes we suffer from residual guilt. Perhaps we have formed our own opinion, which is not the Church’s opinion, about abortion, or contraception, or weapons of mass destruction, or involvement in unfair trade, or any other case where we might pretend to ourselves that “the ends justify the means”. But after we have acted, or voted, in accord with our private views, perhaps our second thoughts chip in… our conscience says, “What if, when I meet Our Lord, it turns out that the Catholic Church was right after all?” Hold on to that thought!
Sometimes we suffer from true guilt. We have made a choice which is not a good and godly choice. Perhaps that was a once-in-a-lifetime major event which we’ve been trying to forget about ever since. Perhaps it was the beginning of a chain of addiction, to alcohol, pornography, or some other pleasure. Or perhaps it was some petty act of jealousy or spite towards another person. Whatever it was, it quite rightly causes us to feel guilty.
The great thing about being Catholic is that we have a way of dealing with guilt. Run to the confessional, plead guilty, let the priest pass sentence. The sentence is always the same – your sins, together with all the other sins of the world, deserve death. But by freely offering himself to die on the Cross, Jesus served that sentence for us. What we are called to, instead, is true repentance.
Now, it’s true that to make a good confession, we also require a “firm purpose of amendment”. If we have recognised that our actions are sinful, we must do what is within our power to avoid sin in future. If our sin is one of addiction, “what is within our power” may be to start getting help, by attending a 12-step programme like Alcoholics Anonymous. If our sin is one of being drawn into pornography, “what is within our power” may be to install blocking software on our computer, or confiding in a friend to be an “accountability partner”. God delights in our efforts to overcome sin. God will give us extra help to resist temptation, if we ask for this in prayer. But God’s love for us does not depend on our efforts to resist evil. God’s love is always there.
“Behold!” says Jesus. “I stand at the door and knock!”
Whose knock do you hear?
Is it an Inspector, coming to catch you out for letting your standards slip?
Is it a Judge, banging his gavel to pass sentence?
Or is it your Eldest Brother – not the Elder Brother who has sour grapes because your Father is merciful, but your Eldest Brother, Jesus himself, who says: “I’ve already paid your fine. Come with me – you’re free to go!”
True repentance means running to the God who loves us, no matter what sin we have committed.
True repentance means having the confidence of the prodigal son, to return to the Father’s House – and trusting that a joyful welcome awaits us.
True repentance means trusting that nothing we can do, no sin we might commit, can cause God to love us any less than than God does already – any more than a mother can stop loving her wayward child.
True repentance means rushing to the Sacrament of Mercy and saying, “Father, I messed up again.” In return, God says, “I love you! And I forgive you again!”
True repentence is taking to confession even that one small sin that you would really rather not disclose. It’s quite trivial really, but you know it’s there, and you know tonight is the night God wants to deal with it. You have the choice to deny it’s there (that’s cutting the belt) or quietly choosing to live with it (that’s undoing the belt). Will you answer Jesus’ knock, when he is asking to unbind you in an unexpected way?
We do not – we cannot – earn God’s forgiveness.
God loves us. God will never reject us, whatever our actions might deserve.
This is the God who commanded Peter to forgive seventy times seven times, who sent his only Son to die so our sins could be forgiven.
This is the loving Father who declares: “Return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning.”
Are you are suffering from guilt?
Rush to the confessional. Plead guilty.
“Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your child.”
But go with Christ when he knocks, and if you stay close to Him, you will hear these words:
“You are my beloved child, and with you I am well pleased.”
It’s time to open the door. Come.