Benediction Online

Sunday, July 06, 2014

When I want to do good...

I just got back from a week away, and even though I ate carefully, I confess that I’ve put on two pounds in weight. As many of you know, for the last seven or eight years I’ve been trying to prevent my body from developing full blown diabetes. To some extent I have succeeded but it seems to be getting less and less easy. I’ve been putting on and taking off the same four pounds for the last year. Sometimes I get angry about it; sometimes I feel ashamed that I can’t just deal with it once and for all, especially when I meet people or read articles that make it sound very easy. For them it may be, but for me with my body and my personality it just isn’t.
So I find today’s New Testament reading quite reassuring. Apparently the blessed Apostle Paul also had some difficulties with his behaviors and his personality. “For I find it to be a law,” he writes, “that when I want to do good, evil lies close at hand.” Paul was contrasting the Jewish religious system where holiness was a matter of keeping the law, with the new understanding that in Jesus we are reconciled to God without having to obey a complex legal system. God still loves us even if we work on the Sabbath, forget to wash our hands before dinner or fail to lose weight. None of that is really important to the divine. What is important is that we turn towards God at every opportunity, which includes when we realize that we have done or thought something which is less than Christ-like. What is important is that, as we promised in our baptismal vows, we “persevere in resisting evil, and whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.”
So the fact that we often fail to live up to the standards set by Jesus’ example; the fact that we often get caught up in the sin matrix of the world’s violence are not reasons for despair. As Paul says, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” we are not left to sink further and further, unless we ourselves make that choice.
Which is why, on most every Sunday, we make our confession together. After the Prayers of the People, or during Lent at the very beginning of the service, we together confess our sins against God and our neighbor. This is not my favorite part of the service and I know it is difficult for some of you too. It seems to smack of God as judge or school principal, demanding  that we recite what we’ve done wrong so that we can be suitably punished, or suitably forgiven.
It’s hard to let go of images of God which are ingrained in our minds and our culture, but I suspect that this is one of the places that we need to consciously choose to image God differently. I’ve been reading Marjorie Suchocki’s book about prayer and I’m looking forward to sharing some of her ideas with you on Thursday evenings later this month. Suchocki is a process theologian which means that she thinks of God as a process that is in constant movement and change, like the wind or water, rather than as someone static like a judge.
If God is like water, then he’s not sitting in judgment somewhere waiting to hear about our sins. Suchocki thinks of God as being utterly relational, always in communication with us, constantly prompting us towards greater life, and at the same time being changing by the ideas and behaviors we have.  Why would we confess our sins to such a flowing God who knows them all already?
Because it is part of being honest with ourselves and with God about who we really are. If you don’t know who you are or you hide from your less than wonderful aspects, you cannot have true intimacy with anyone, and that includes God. As we name ourselves before God acknowledging the harm that we have done to ourselves and others, we are beginning the work of transformation. God always works with us toward our good and the good of all life. When we pray prayers of confession, truly acknowledging that we have not always worked toward the good we give God material to work with. We realign ourselves with the work that Spirit is doing in our world.
So confession is not a way to appease an angry God, or a way to persuade God to forgive us. It is a way to open ourselves on deeper and deeper levels to Spirit. It is a way to acknowledge our brokenness and our dependence upon God. It is a way to humbly realign ourselves with the divine. When we are full of ourselves and our abilities and our thoughts, we do not have the space or the attention to hear the quiet whisperings of the relational God.  Confession is the way to clear-headedly acknowledge that we are not perfect and that we do need the Holy Spirit to work in our hearts and our lives in that process of constant conversion which we call sanctification – being made holy.
God does not demand our confession in order for us to be forgiven. We are already forgiven. We need confession in order to be open to the promptings of Spirit. When we make our confession whether privately, in common worship, or in the individual sacrament of reconciliation, we are turning towards God and letting go of the things that pull us away.
Now, because this fluid God-like-water is in touch with all beings just as she is with us, we are connected with all beings through her. And so within the act of confession is contained the beginning of the making of amends towards those we have harmed.
Sometimes we can see overt and outrageous sins that we have committed, but more often our sins are subtle; the hoarding of ourselves by closing down and keeping others out or, alternatively, exploiting the vulnerability of others; the failure to open ourselves to God, preferring  to dwell in the superficial parts of our lives; and the failure to look after the richness Go d has given us, especially in our own bodies. As we confess these subtle sins, so we are giving God permission to work with us in the process of transformation so we are made new and whole and able to live life to its fullest.
In the old communion service, after the confession and blessing we would hear the so-called comfortable words – words of encouragement and strengthening. The end of today’s gospel includes some of those comfortable words. "Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."
When we turn to God in confession of our own weakness and failings we are letting go of the burdens which the world lays upon us; the burden to perform, the burden to appear cleverer than we feel we are, the burden to have answers to all the questions; the burden to be a wonderful father or a loving daughter; the burden to have a slender and attractive body. In confession we can let all these things tumble away as we offer ourselves to God in our nakedness, without all our public faces - and in their place he offers us gentleness, humbleness and rest for our souls.
So today, when we come to the confession together, let us use it as a deep prayer of our souls. Let us stand together, naked before God, with no pretence of cleverness or artifice of beauty, but just as we are, warts and all, and let us together acknowledge our complicity in ill-being and our desire to turn toward God and to live humbly in conscious cooperation with Spirit.



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