Teaching Sermon: Confession & Healing
Let’s begin by exploring confession.
There are really two forms of confession.
First, our tradition has a general confession that we say at nearly every worship; which in a service of Holy Eucharist would follow the Prayers of the People. I promise, the point of the general confession is not to make us feel small, inadequate, and guilt ridden. Honestly, most of us talk to, or about, ourselves in harsher ways than God or anyone else ever would. The point of the general confession is to recognize that we are beautiful, beloved, and broken children of God and that we each have a dual capacity to love and to commit sin.
Now, there are different ways to think about the ‘sin’ we are confessing. One definition is missing the mark. Another is making choices that separates us from God. Lately, I have been thinking about sin as selfishness - or rather our capacity to be more concerned with our own advantages, pleasures, and well being than our relationships with God, one another, our communities and creation.
We all have the capacity for great acts of generosity and compassion, as well as, the capacity for horrific acts of incomprehensible selfishness. It is a spectrum, and most of us tend to live somewhere in the middle. The general confession, and the subsequent absolution, help followers of Christ to recognize that we are always in need of God’s grace, love, and mercy if we are going to be our healthiest selves.
The second form of confession is one of our tradition’s five sacramental rites, and is known as, Reconciliation of the Penitent. Sometimes, we do things that have really harmed others or caused a fracture in a relationship. This kind of burden tends to stay with us long after the general confession and absolution because our souls are seeking to receive a deeper kind of forgiveness. Our tradition’s approach to this rite is that: all can, some should, none must.* In other words, it is not required.
Scott Gunn and Melody Wilson Shobe describe it this way in their book Walk in Love:
“...reconciliation is an opportunity, a chance to name before God and someone else the things for which we are sorry or ashamed or that burden our conscience. And then in return, we hear from God and from another person the truth that we are forgiven and loved and reconciled.”*
Someone who felt like they wanted to partake in this rite would most likely contact their parish priest - priests and bishops have been empowered to offer absolution - which is when we “declare on behalf of God that a person’s sins are forgiven”.* That said, a lay person may hear a confession, and in lieu of an absolution would offer a declaration of forgiveness.* While there are a few Episcopal Churches with confessional booths, this liturgy is more likely to happen in the church, over zoom, or in the clergy office.
At the heart of it all - the rite of reconciliation is a ritual conversation. It begins with prayer; then the penitent shares what they’re carrying - naming aloud the burdens. Simply naming these things aloud to another, has the capacity to release us from the sense of secrecy or shame we might be feeling. The priest offers counsel, and may even suggest an action as a next step. Not as a punishment, but as an act of gratitude for the reconciliation, or as Scott & Melody write, as an “...outward and visible sign of inward work of forgiveness and reconciliation that is being done by us and God.”* The priest then pronounces absolution on behalf of God, and all one's sins are put away.**
Now, should someone who has committed a crime seek this rite, it could begin, but the priest would withhold offering absolution until the individual had taken responsibility for their actions. It is important to note that the prayerbook says, “The content of a confession is not normally a matter of subsequent discussion. The secrecy of a confession is morally absolute for the confessor, and must under no circumstances be broken.”**
Historically, this rite grew out of the tradition that when a grievous sin brought scandal to the church, one would be excommunicated for a season of penance, and then would be welcomed back and absolved at the Easter Vigil.*** This rite did not become prevalent until the 16th century, and in the Episcopal Church, it has always been one of our lesser known and utilized rites.
Let’s shift gears to talk about healing. There are three primary ways we practice healing; all were modeled by Jesus in his ministry and embraced by the early Church up until today. First, is the practice of offering healing prayers. Second, is the sacramental rite of unction, which means to anoint by pouring or rubbing blessed oil on a person.* Third, is the practice of laying hands on the sick.
We incorporate these practices in a wide variety of ways:
-Each week in the Prayers of the People we pray for a list of people who we know are experiencing some sort of illness in body, mind, or spirit, and would like to be prayed for.
-Our parish, like many others, offers a special time for healing prayers one Sunday a month, where individuals come forward while an ordained or lay person offers prayers for them, and often lays hands on their shoulders, back or head. It is our custom to also offer unction at that time, where the priest will anoint those who are in need of healing with blessed oil.
-Members of our Pastoral Care Team make visitations to folks who are in the hospital, a nursing home, or are homebound and are facing illness or isolation. They will often make a eucharistic visit and offer healing prayers. Molly and I make similar visits, but also spend a fair amount of time meeting with folks who may appear ‘fine’ on the outside, but are facing some sort of emotional, mental, spiritual, physical, relational, or financial stress and are in need of a conversation and healing prayers. I would say that the bulk of my time spent in pastoral care is actually with our lay leaders who are running our mission and ministries. Ensuring they are being well cared for spiritually, so they can continue to be Christ’s hands and feet, leading the ministries of our parish.
-When someone is suddenly facing a serious illness or has been in an accident, they will often call and ask for a priest to come and see them. We tend to bring our oil stock, containing healing oil that has been blessed by the bishop in holy week, so we can offer them the sacramental rite of unction during this time of duress. We press our thumb into the stock, which usually has a piece of a cotton ball, with a bit of oil poured onto it, and then we make the sign of the cross on the individual's forehead.
All those instances aside, the prayer book also offers a special set of prescribed prayers, referred to as ‘Ministration of the Sick’ when a more formal route is appropriate. This includes three parts:
This section also contains a large collection of personal prayers focused on healing.
While we do not often talk about unction as a sacramental rite, it is one.
We often lump unction together with extreme unction or ‘last rites’, which are offered when a person is nearing death.* These brief and beautiful prayers can be said once or many times, as sometimes folks seem close to death and then rally for a while longer. The prayers offered during last rites include an absolution, in order to release an individual of the burdens they may be carrying so they can depart this life. During the prayers, the dying person is anointed with oil. Molly and I tend to use chrism oil for last rites, so as someone departs this life, it is with the smell of the oil from their baptism, marking them as Christ’s own forever.
The rituals of confession and healing are tools meant to help followers of the Way of Love to be healthy, whole, and well. If you are curious about learning more, I’d recommend you take home a Book of Common Prayer - we have some available in the cupboards in the hallway to the office. Take the time to read through the Rite of Reconciliation, Ministration of the Sick, and Ministration at the Time of Death. They each have their own way of communicating God’s desire for our health and wellbeing. If you have more questions - please do not hesitate to ask. I know this was a flyby version!
* Scott Gunn and Melody Wilson Shobe, Walk in Love: Episcopal Beliefs & Practices, pgs 81, 83, 83-84, 85, 85, 87, 89 (in order of reference)
** The 1979 Book of Common Prayer, pg 448, 464 (in order of reference).
*** Marion J. Hatchett, Commentary on the American Prayer Book, 449.
In today’s story from Luke’s gospel, Jesus travels into new territory to free a man from terrible demonic possession.
Together these two narratives invite us to think about what enslaves us, and about how we can be liberators.
So let’s start with Juneteenth.
On January 1, 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Contrary to popular assumption, the document did not abolish slavery throughout the nation – that would not happen until the 13th Amendment was signed two years later, in 1865.
The Emancipation Proclamation changed the legal status of about three and a half million enslaved African Americans in the Confederate states: the Proclamation declared them to be free. (At the time of the Proclamation’s signing, another half a million persons remained enslaved in the northern states where slavery was legal.)
After the Proclamation was signed, actual freedom for those who were enslaved only occurred when either folks managed to escape north into free states OR where the Union Army was able to assert authority as the war continued on for more than another two years.
Freedom was not only delayed for persons living under slavery because southern landowners refused to recognize the authority of the Union government, but in some cases, because the information was not even available.
Mail service to many regions was extremely slow, and some historians have suggested that slaveholders may well have withheld information about their freedom from their enslaved agricultural workers, in order to continue to benefit from their labors.1
The final territory to receive news of the war’s end and the liberation of the enslaved took place when Union soldiers under Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas. Some newly-freed people left the plantations to seek opportunity elsewhere or to reunite with family, while others remained in place to explore what a new relationship of employer and employee might look like.
Regardless, the date of June 19 took on great significance for the communities of descendants of those who had lived under slavery, and its importance has now been recognized by Congress as an opportunity for all of us to pause and remember our complex history, but particularly, to celebrate that freedom was, eventually, proclaimed to all.
And on to this morning’s story from Luke. It’s a dramatic story that goes by a fancy name – “the Gerasene demoniac”.
The place the incident happened was not Jesus’ usual stomping grounds. It was Gentile territory that Jesus had not visited before, but unexpectedly decided to visit by journeying across the Sea of Galilee.
Once on land, Jesus was encountered – you could even say “accosted” – by a man possessed by unclean spirits, a “legion” of them. (A military legion customarily has 6000 soldiers.) According to Jewish custom that Jesus and his disciples followed, the young man was not only a danger to himself and others – he had often been chained up by local authorities - but was religiously unclean.
He was so much tormented by the spirits controlling him that he no longer lived among the in the local town but rather dwelt, naked, among the dead in the tombs. Tombs are another place considered ritually unclean.
The unclean spirits, recognizing Jesus’ authority, begged to be released into a herd of swine grazing nearby, rather than be sent back to “the abyss” (where they would be imprisoned and subject to God’s authority). Jesus allowed the transfer, and the swine immediately rushed into the lake and drowned.
The townspeople were not happy about this turn of events; Luke says “they were afraid.” Rather than rejoicing that the young man had been healed, they wanted Jesus gone and asked him to leave. In the context of this Juneteenth commemoration, I can help but see them as being like the plantation masters who undoubtedly did not want the convenience and familiarity of THEIR economic system overturned. We like things to be to our advantage, and the introduction of Jesus’ authority was not welcome in the country of the Gerasenes.
The young man, the formerly enslaved, asked to join Jesus’ circle and travel with them, but Jesus instructed to remain in his land, giving witness to God’s power.
So here’s what I make of this story.
Firstly, God shows up where God is needed. Even – and maybe most especially – among the tombs of our lives, where we are stuck and alone and helpless.
Additionally, God seeks freedom for us – the freedom to live abundantly and without restraint, among others.
And lastly, the way things can happen, can change, when God is at work, can be scary, because we don’t like change. We can even resist freedom and healing, if they upset our familiar patterns.
Adopting Heather’s familiar homiletic strategy of finishing with question to consider during the week, here are the questions I suggest that we think about this week.
What enslaves us, and where are we afraid of change? Many things in our lives can hold us back: health, financial circumstance, and various obligations can restrict our choices, but also, it is psychological and emotional shackles that often prevent our stretching ourselves to live fuller, braver, more generous lives.
God is ready to show up to help us make changes, if we choose to let her do so.
And where, as followers of Jesus, are we called to be the liberators? Where can we be the General Grangers, bringing the word that things don’t have to be the way they have been?
Where can we lend a hand to make space in lives that have been restricted, to provide new options where options have been few?
May God’s Spirit guide our thinking and our acting.
1 “What is the history of Juneteenth?”, brittanica.com
A Sermon for Trinity Sunday
Somewhat regularly my 5-year-old grandson says, hey Gugga, “who is God anyway”? I usually start with saying that I don’t know, that I’m always learning about that; then I segue into something about I think God is your super powers of kindness and Love. Wes being Wes, is fine with this, I think he’s trusting.
On this Trinity Sunday, I’m wondering if the Holy Trinity can help us imagine who God is?
I found this online from: “Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: (are you ready!) “While the Trinity doctrine purports to solve a range of theological puzzles it poses a number of intriguing logical difficulties akin to those suggested by the identity of spatio-temporal objects through time and across worlds…”
I found a much better resource, this great children’s book written by the late Rachel Held Evans and beautifully illustrated by Ying Hui Tan. (I’ll put it in the children’s corner so you can see it up close.)
What is God Like, by Rachel Held Evans and Matthew Turner
Rachel begins by saying that this question of who God is, is a very big one, one that “people from places all around the world have wondered about since the beginning of time.” She says God is too big for anyone to fully see, but we can know what God is like. “God is like an eagle, sharp eyed and swift, with wings so wide you can play under their shadows. God is like a shepherd, brave and good, a protector who loves her sheep so much that she watches over all of them and knows each of their names by heart. God is like a fort, strong and secure with walls that are mighty and safe. Inside there are hidden places to hold you when you’re scared or need a quiet place to rest.” And here, where the kids are in the midst of a cooking project and there is food all over the kitchen: ” God is kind, God is forgiving, God is slow to get angry, God is quick to be glad, God is happy when you tell the truth and sad when things are unfair.” “Keep searching”, Rachel says, “keep wondering, keep learning about God.”
So how can we imagine what God is like? Imagination, that human ability to form ideas or concepts about something which is not obviously present. Imagination is one of God’s greatest gifts to us. Imagination is what leads to creativity, and creativity to everything else. God must have had to use the ultimate power of imagination before becoming the Great Maker we believe God to be.
God has given us a fine gift, this gift of imagination. God knew that we, like the disciples, would have difficulty bearing things, that we would need guides along the way. God’s truth, as we know can be difficult stuff; things like love your enemies and do not worry about tomorrow for example. We may not have the answers, but we do all have imagination. Imagination, and all the tools God gives for understanding; some God given, like sight and touch, and some human made. Can our imaginations help us search for ideas about those big questions: who is God? where is God? what is God like, and, as Paul writes, how can God’s love be poured into our hearts, and the Spirit of Truth guide us into all truth.
How can we imagine God in our lives? God in three forms could be a helpful guide.
Have you ever needed a God who is all knowing, all loving, Strong, and sure, like a Mother hen gathering her chicks? This God’s truth is not always easy, but it is always right. This God is the parent who will love you, no matter what? God the Father, God the Mother.
Have you ever known a God who walks beside you, teaching, and encouraging, chastising, and cheering you on? God who endured human pain and suffering and showed us by the resurrection that we don’t need to be afraid of anything. God the sister, God the brother.
Have you ever felt your heart break open and your voice crack when you see the most beautiful sky, or read a poem that speaks to your life or hear music that lifts you up? A friend told me that last Sunday, during the chanting of the creed set to Quentin Faulkners’ beautiful organ music, the hairs stand up on the back of her neck! I’m sure there is a physiological explanation for this, but I believe it’s God the Holy Spirit calling out to us, telling us to pay attention, this is important. Last week in John’s gospel we were reminded that this Holy Spirit, which Jesus called the Advocate, will be sent by God in Jesus name, the Holy Spirit will teach us what we need to know about God’s truth.
Imagine God in a million ways and then, I imagine, we might be better able to understand God’s love and God’s truth and help to spread it in this world.
There are many tools for the imagination and if we look around us here and listen carefully, we will know some of them. We can imagine God’s love and truth in this community of faithful people. We can imagine God in beauty, the flowers and the candlelight, the iconic images, the table and the bread and wine we share, the vessels, and the flowing robes, all ingredients for the imagination. The words we read and the songs we sing. All lovingly human made and all fuel for our imaginations.
The beautiful poem in Proverbs 8 tells us that wisdom and understanding, which God made first, is out there, calling us, raising her voice, in the heights, in the depths of the sea, in front of the town, everywhere, if only we can imagine it.
Here’s a challenge for us this week; let’s try to imagine God every day in a different way. Imagine God and God’s love in glimpses of beauty, birdsong, the flowering tree, and garden, in relationships; the neighbor you don’t know, in the person you lose patience with, in the movement of your very own breath and heartbeat.
God has given us unlimited powers of imagination. We, like the disciples, will always have difficulty bearing and understanding the truth, but the Spirit of Truth will come, if only we can imagine it. Amen
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