a priest's musings on the journey

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Mystagogical Sermon- Sunday after the Ascension

Sermon Series on the Sacraments:
Reconciliation and Unction

Today we conclude our series on the Sacraments with the Sacrament of Reconciliation- sometimes called Confession- and the Sacrament of Unction- or the anointing of the sick. . The old adage, “all may, some should, none must” is quite apropos to both of these sacraments. Neither sacrament is necessary for salvation, in most cases; yet, both are powerful conduits of God’s healing and transforming grace. In both cases, any person is able, through the meditation of Jesus Christ, to cry out to God with a penitent heart and ask for mercy and forgiveness. You do not need a priest to receive the forgiveness of your sins from God, nor do you need a priest to ask God to fill you with God’s healing grace. God is a merciful God, full of compassion and love, and God will give mercy and grace to whoever asks for it. However, there are times when our hearts are so overcome with sorrow and guilt or our bodies and spirits are so heavy-laden with sickness or the cares of life, that we need the prayers and pastoral support of a discreet, compassionate, and understanding priest. It is during these times in our lives that these healing sacraments offer us the grace that we need to endure and to live in peace with the assurance that God is with us because God loves us.
While both Sacraments offer a conduit for us to receive God’s healing love, each offers that grace in different ways. The Sacrament of Reconciliation offers the assurance that no action that we have done can keep us separated from God, when we come to God with a contrite heart and ask for forgiveness. Confession of Sin is a means of cleansing our souls and ensuring us that we are still in communion with God and the people of God. The Church offers many ways for us to confess our sins: we are able to confess them in the General Confession of sin at the Holy Eucharist and in the Daily Offices, we are able to confess them directly to God in any manner that feels comfortable to us in our private prayers, and our participation in the Holy Communion is in itself a confession that we are sinners who need continually to be renewed by God’s grace- and through the Body and Blood of Christ, given to us in the Holy Communion, we receive the forgiveness of sins. For most sins- and for most people- any of these means of confession is adequate for the assurance of God’s love and forgiveness. Some circumstances, however, leave us feeling afraid, alone, and abandoned by God- not just abandoned, but forsaken because of some grave sin that we committed. Sometimes we might have prayed and asked for God’s mercy and help, and we indeed have felt the love and grace of God assuring us of God’s forgiveness; yet, we may still feel confused and concerned about the consequences of our actions. We might feel lost and incapable of seeking reconciliation with those whom we have injured. We might not know how to ask forgiveness from those whom we have sinned against. We might not know how to give restitution for our wrongs. The Sacrament of Reconciliation offers us the help we need to make right the wrongs we have done. It offers us the grace we need to discontinue bad and destructive habits. It offers us the peace we need when we have made a mistake so egregious that we think God will never love us again. When we make a confession, we bear our souls to a priest, who listens to our confession, assures us of God’s forgiveness, and offers counsel to us, so that we can seek reconciliation with others. Through this action, God gives us grace which heals our sin-sick soul and strengthens us for the work that we have to do to become reconciled with those whom we have separated from ourselves by our non-loving, sinful actions towards them.
Coming from an Anglo-catholic background, it was my practice to make a confession every Lent and Advent- in preparation for the High Holy Days. But none was more meaningful than the confession that I made to my bishop before I was ordained to the diaconate. It was the practice in my diocese for candidates for holy orders to make a retreat at the All Saints Sisters of the Poor Convent prior to the day of ordination. In June 2000 I made that retreat with 16 other candidates- and our bishop. Each day we said the daily offices, celebrated the Holy Eucharist, spent time in silent prayer, and listened to talks given by the bishop. One morning he spoke on the Sacrament of Reconciliation- and encouraged us all to make a confession to him or a priest on the grounds. So, partly out of obedience to my bishop, I did. I was nervous of course, especially when I heard myself confessing sins that I had not planned on confessing. But as I made my confession, it felt as if the weight of the world was being lifted from my shoulders; I was being liberated from a burden that I didn’t even realize that I was carrying. And the bishop was compassionate and loving and pastoral and offered words of advice that I had been longing to hear. I left feeling clean and renewed- ready to be ordained with the assurance that I was a child of God, and that I was worthy to serve God as a priest because of what Christ had done for me.
Is the Sacrament of Reconciliation for you? Perhaps not. But when you feel your sins have pushed you away from God and others, and you feel so lost that you cannot find the way back to union and love, you might consider seeking out a priest and receiving the sacramental grace that God offers to help you on the path of reconciliation.
While the Sacrament of Reconciliation offers healing grace for those afflicted in spirit by their sins, the Sacrament of Unction offers healing grace to those made un-whole in body and spirit by sickness, illness, and disease. Those desiring to receive the Sacrament of Unction ask a priest to lay hands on them, sometimes with anointing with oil, and to pray for healing. In times past, it was thought that this sacrament was for those dying- in some places only Extreme Unction was offered with last rites. But God’s healing grace is offered to us at any time that we feel overwhelmed by sickness and disease. This sacrament is offered weekly here at Trinity at the Wednesday Noon Healing Eucharist. It is also available when you are hospitalized or when you desire healing prayers at home. Through this sacrament of unction, God offers the grace and comfort of the Holy Spirit, and the strength of Christ’s love to help you endure the affliction until you are brought again to health and wholeness. The sacrament isn’t magic; it isn’t a magical cure for sickness. Healing and wholeness come in many forms- sometimes with the recovery from illness in this life- sometimes with the healing of the wounds of a broken heart- sometimes with new life with God in the life to come. But with the sacrament, we have God’s pledge to be present with us through our sickness, to walk with us as we seek to be liberated from our addictions, and to carry us in His bosom when we begin our journey through the valley of the shadow of death. Of course God is already with us and we don’t need to receive the laying on of hands and unction in order to make God present- but those sacramental actions enable us to be more aware of God’s presence. Many here can attest to feeling a sense of comfort and peace after receiving the laying on of hands with healing prayer.
The Sacrament of Unction is rooted in the directives for prayer for the sick in the Epistle of James: "Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church and pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven" (Jas 5:14-15). The sacrament of unction is not a replacement for medical care, but a means by which we invite the Holy Spirit to sanctify the healing actions of those health care professionals who care for us. It is a balm for our souls when we are afflicted by sickness. It is a way by which we strengthen our hearts to trust in God’s care and provision for us during times of sorrow, weakness, and brokenness.
One of the most heartening revelations for me personally was that because God loves us, God chooses to be present with us- to experience all that we experience- not just the good, but also the bad. The hope of the Incarnation- indeed of the entire story of Jesus- is not that God will make my life all rosey and pain free. Rather, that God will be present with me no matter what comes my way- that no matter how hard the struggle or how painful the circumstance, I am not alone- God is there to support me, love me, and refresh me. The healing sacraments of reconciliation and unction are conduits through which we can more readily experience God’s ever-abiding presence, particularly during those times when it is difficult for us to acknowledge God there. Don’t be afraid or intimidated by either of them- through them God offers God’s healing love and comforting embrace when you need them the most.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
:: posted by Padre Rob+, 11:13 AM


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