Ordinary Sunday 10: 7th June, 2015
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill
Gen. 3:8-15; 2 Cor. 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35
[After the woman and the man had eaten from the tree] they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden (Gen. 3:8).
I remember well my first retreat at a Roman Catholic Franciscan retreat house in Auckland in the 1990s. It was a silent retreat and once I had unpacked my things I decided to go for a little walk. On the ground floor near the chapel I discovered an ornate old-fashioned confessional booth. I listened for a moment. It didn't seem to be occupied, so I cautiously opened the door to peep inside. Fortunately there was no priest or penitent inside, but I found something rather unexpected: a rather large collection of brooms.
One of the sweeping changes of Vatican II was to encourage face-to-face confession in a "reconciliation room" rather than talking to the priest through the grill of a traditional confessional. I'm sure there are now many ornate broom cupboards in monasteries and churches around the world. Around the time I opened the Franciscan broom cupboard the Dominican, Matthew Fox, was being expelled from his order for writing books such as Original Blessing: A Primer in Creation Spirituality (1983). As the title suggests, the book sets out a fairly radical critique of the doctrine of original sin. It was a remarkable time of renewal but some prophetic thinkers became casualties as the authorities deemed them to have gone too far.
As Anglo-Catholics I think we have also been deeply challenged and changed by the theological and ecclesiological changes at the end of last century. Some things can become outdated or cumbersome and are better left behind. Sin and penitence are no such thing. On arriving at St Peter's in 2012 my inaugural sermon was entitled "Vices and Virtues." I noted that, "as Anglo-Catholics we should be familiar with the discipline of confession ... it is up to each one of us to take up this discipline for ourselves, and the team of priests at St Peter's will gladly journey with you if you ask us." To my surprise, soon afterwards, I was informed by a parishioner "we don't do that sort of thing here." Well I am pleased to announce, to the contrary, that once again we do that sort of thing here. Fr Graeme hears confessions each Friday in the Handfield chapel from 5pm, and I am available at other times by appointment. There are not large numbers of parishioners who come, but some do, and others come from beyond the parish. And there is not a broom cupboard in sight.
The theology and the reality of sin are vital for us to acknowledge as Christians. Yes, of course we need to rethink our doctines, revise them and make them relevant for today, but we abandon them at our peril, as is becoming all too clear through the Royal Commission into sexual abuse. The closing of the old confessional booths, and embracing the original blessing that lies at the heart of who we are, doesn't mean that anything goes. I'm not saying that we need to be puritans, but seeking to live a virtuous and holy life was integral to the Oxford Movement as much as to the early Church, and it should be a high priority for us too.
As much as what we do, however, we need to be aware of our inaction, the things we have not done. Ogden Nash puts it rather well (Bruce Hucker, "The Church as Bystander" 2003):
- It is common knowledge to every school boy
- and every Bachelor of Arts,
- that all sin is divided into two parts.
- One kind of sin is called a sin of commission,
- and that is very important,
- and it is what you are doing when you are doing
- something you ortant.
- And the other kind of sin is just the opposite
- and is called a sin of omission
- and is equally bad in the eyes
- of right-thinking people,
- from Billy Sunday to Buddha.
- And it consists of not having done something you shoulda.
Sins of omission are bystander sins. They are more often than not communal sins, and are just as heinous, if not more so, than common-or-garden personal sins of commission. Thousands of ordinary Europeans committed this sin, as they quietly watched the Jews in their neighbourhood being herded off into ghettos and camps, and did nothing. Colleagues of child abusers committed this sin when they noticed that something was wrong but said nothing. I would argue that we are all guilty, as Australians, of allowing successive governments sustain a policy of imprisoning children in detention centres. Doing nothing when we witness violence against women and children is another sin that is currently under the spotlight.
Sin, whether what we have done or failed to do, is essentially a turning away from God. Like Adam and Eve, when we sin we inevitably end up hiding from the presence of God. Making things right with God and our neighbour, turning back to God and making restitution with those we have sinned against is a powerful and a moving thing. It realigns us with God and with others. Edward Pusey describes this turning back to God in his tract "Penitence" (1884): "Only one gift doth the penitent seek after, the Face of God; that He Who turned His Face away amid his sins, will 'show the Light of His Countenance upon him, that he may be whole.'"
May this earnest seeking the Face of God in penitence be the lived experience of each one of us today; and of our churches, of our homes and workplaces, of our communities and of our nation. Amen.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.