Sin and Penitence

Sunday 12th September 2004
Year C, The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Holy Eucharist and Baptism
Exodus 32:7-11;
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-10

(Inaugural sermon as Admitted and Licensed Reader)

Just imagine coming to church as usual on Sunday to find the place crowded out with people you've never seen here before. Worse still, there's a man who cheated you over a second hand car; there's a dodgy builder; she shouldn't dress like that to come to church; he smells of gin before ten in the morning; he's just come out of prison for downloading child pornography; she abandoned three infants to run off with another man. And they're all shamelessly packed into the front pews.

That's how today's Gospel begins. Luke says that the sinners and publicans - a rather odd word which means extortionists granted concessions by the hated Romans to meet tax targets - all crowded round Jesus to hear what he was saying. Meanwhile, the supposedly virtuous stayed on the fringes.

I say "supposedly" because it's very easy to become complacent. Not long ago on a trip to North America, as part of the drive against crime and terrorism, I was routinely interrogated at check-in about my baggage: had I packed it myself; had I been with it at all times? Routinely I said "Yes" but on one of my long flights I thought of porters, taxi drivers and colleagues. I had left it unlocked in unlocked offices. And I thought of the Baptism vow we are about to make together at Bethany's Baptism; the one about renouncing the Devil.

Of course, at the beginning of the 21st Century we don't believe in the devil, do we? That grotesque creature with the horns and tail is more a figure of fun than fear. All that nonsense about burning in hell. So it's easy to make this vow without thinking about what it means and whether we really mean it

Turning, then, to today's three readings about the forgiveness of sin, do we believe in sin? Do we believe that if we die with a major sin unconfessed and unabsolved we will become a charge of that horned creature supervising his incendiary world? I doubt it. But on that same trip to North America my flights were late, making the time differences worse. I arrived late, had an extra measure of rum to help me sleep, woke late and rushed to meetings; and in no time at all my carefully cultivated prayer life was gone. Instead of trying to pray for an hour a day I was reading holy snippets in airport lounges. It is that easy to get cut off from God; and that is what sin is. It isn't a series of big and small offences making up a heaven and hell score card; sin is a small word to describe the biggest thing that can go wrong for us, our impaired relationship with God.

Of course that relationship becomes impaired in different ways and to different degrees all the time and only God knows the way he made us and what he expects of us; and this is why it is foolish as well as presumptuous to judge sinners and to divide ourselves from them by enjoying our own righteousness. In failing to do what we should have done, through sins of omission, through complacency, we might be far worse sinners than those obvious miscreants I described at the beginning. You would be hard pressed to judge between a person who steals to fuel a drag habit born of God knows what cruelty and rejection and a person who produces the best of reasons for not giving to the poor.

But we cannot know the circumstances in which people live out their impaired relationships with God. Starting from an admission of our own ignorance we will be better placed to listen and to bring hope, the impartial hope of one who believes in the forgiveness of sin without judging the sinner. We will then be bringing Jesus, through ourselves, to those who are crying out for him.

All three of today's readings proclaim that God will forgive our sins if we honestly repent and seek forgiveness. I think many of us have seriously misunderstood this issue because of Protestant parodies about what used to be called by Catholics the Sacrament of Confession, now more commonly referred to as the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It is, of course, ridiculous to assert that Confession is automated, like putting your dirty clothes into a washing machine, chucking in the washing powder of Grace and then repeating the same process time and time again. Most of us may never want to seek absolution for our sins from a priest but it is all too easy simply to say "sorry" in private, in a cursory sort of way and then get on with our comfortable, physically and morally comfortable, lives. It is easier still if our main sins are, as they usually are, sins of omission.

Which leads to my final point and one which is directly relevant to Bethany and those who have promised to be responsible for her growing love for God her creator, her growing imitation of Jesus her brother and her growing power to hear the good Counsel of the Holy Spirit. When the shepherd found his sheep he called in all the neighbours. When the woman found her piece of silver, she called all her friends in. When Moses pleaded for the Jews who had fashioned and worshipped the golden calf, he pleaded for the whole people. When Paul says Jesus came to forgive sins he meant the sins of all the world, not just a few.

So although we pray today that Bethany will grow in the love of God in her home and with her family and friends, saying her morning and evening prayers, we hope she will learn that being a Christian is a corporate experience, that church is a place for acknowledging our faults and for rejoicing in the act of penitence and forgiveness. I would not go as far as to say that this spiritual medicine will not work unless it tastes awful; but penitence that costs us nothing must be deeply suspect. We are here to help each other in humility, love and hope; if we cannot do that for each other, how would we manage if the house of God was filled with the kind of sinners who flocked to hear Jesus?

Well, that is a lot to ask; but, in the meantime, let us make our bargain with Bethany; that we will welcome her among us, whatever her apparent shortcomings and, until she is ready to act for herself, her family and friends will see us as the body of Christ, always ready to help her to love the Father who made her, to imitate Jesus who took human flesh in order to forgive our sins, and to help her to be open to the good counsel of the Holy Spirit.

He may not have horns and a tail; but we still need all the help we can get; from God and from each other.