September 11, 2016
24th Sunday of Ordinary Time – Year C
(Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14; Psalm 51; Philemon 9-10, 12-17; Luke 15:1-32)
11 September 2016 – St. Austin Parish, Austin, TX
In the seminary, one of my professors was Jim Coriden, one of the greatest American authorities on canon law. Jim taught our canon law class in full, and he taught about one-third of our class on the sacrament of marriage. But he only gave one lecture to our class on the sacrament of reconciliation. He began the lecture by saying something I’ll never forget: “The most important thing to know about the sacrament of penance is the fifteenth chapter of Luke.”
Today, our gospel passage is the entire fifteenth chapter of Luke, which may very well be my favorite chapter in the entire Bible. It tells how crazily God is in love with each and every one of us. And yes, folks, one of the goals of my homily today is to urge those of you who haven’t gone to confession for a long time to come back to the sacrament!
Pope Francis has made the word “mercy” the central focus of his papacy. Before we hear Scripture selections that explore God’s mercy, let us pause to reflect how God shows mercy to each of us.
When I was first ordained, I was petrified to hear confessions. Wouldn’t it be ugly and embarrassing? Actually, it’s a beauty and a privilege. In this sacrament, I witness the transformative power of God’s love and mercy. In confession, we can confront our fears, release the burdens we’ve carried, and strengthen our resolve to fight habitual sins.
Pope Francis proclaims, “the name of God is mercy.” In confession, I often refer to Luke 15. For someone coming back after a long time away, I say, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people.” For someone ashamed of their sins, I tell them that God is like a woman with only a dollar to her name who loses a dime and extravagantly lights an oil lamp to sweep the house from top to bottom. When she finds the dime, she invites her friends over and presumably shares the little she has with them.
Many of us are hesitant to go to confession. It’s hard to admit how we’ve failed. (The priests in Austin will soon know me, so imagine how I’ll feel when I go to confession!) If we don’t find the courage to be vulnerable, we miss an opportunity to recognize how much God loves us.
There’s something very powerful in naming our sins aloud – bringing our sins into the light robs Satan of his power. Many priests become experts about human behavior. That darkest, deepest secret of yours that you’ve never shared with anyone? There’s a good chance that I’ve journeyed with hundreds of people who’ve struggled with the same thing, and I might have some practical suggestions for how to heal hurts in the past and fight temptations in the future.
This is a sacrament, so it’s not just about you and me. It’s about us and God. You’ll hear me say this many times: Sacraments are not rewards for a job well done. They’re graces for the journey ahead. The graces don’t just cover the sins we’ve committed; they also strengthen us against the temptations we’ll face in the future. And now, five practical tips from a priest for celebrating the sacrament:
- Penance is effective for people who’ve been away for decades and for people who celebrate regularly. It’s effective for people who have committed horrendous sins and for people who lead exemplary lives. But since you don’t hear other people’s confessions, it’s hard to realize how well it works!
- We always receive grace from sacraments, but the experience of penance is dependent on the individual priest. If you have a bad experience, don’t blame the sacrament. Just go to a different priest next time. Ask friends for recommendations.
- Confession offers a way to visualize our personal relationship with God. If you have the nerve, talk to the priest face-to-face, rather than from behind a screen. Once you’ve found a confessor you like, consider seeing him on an ongoing basis, the same way you have an ongoing relationship with God.
- Go to confession at least as often as you go to the dentist. We hopefully brush our teeth several times a day, but we still need a deep cleaning every once in a while. Likewise, we may pray and talk with God every day, but there’s a need to sit down every once in a while and talk about the tough stuff.
- Celebrating the sacrament of reconciliation gives us a chance to wipe the slate clean. It makes us more aware of our motivations the next time we find ourselves facing temptation. And the greater our awareness, the more likely we will dialogue with the Holy Spirit about making better choices in the future!
To have a personal relationship with God, it’s vitally important for us to identify with the lost sheep, the misplaced coin, and the wayward son. But as Christian disciples, we’re also called to act as agents for the good shepherd, the searching woman, and the loving father.
Reconciliation is more than a sacrament; it’s a lifestyle. At St. Austin, it’s our identity. All are welcome. It’s how we answer the phone: when someone calls baptisms or weddings, Sharon says “Congratulations!” not “Are you registered?”
To make reconciliation a deeper part of your spirituality, consider becoming a Paulist Associate. Associates pledge to live the Paulist charism of evangelization, reconciliation, and ecumenism. (You can learn more about the Associates here.)
Luke 15 tells us that God does not consider us to be just one in a group of a hundred sheep, not one of ten coins, not one of two children. God is willing to give everything for us. Everything for me. Everything thing for you.
So, if it’s been a while since you’ve celebrated the sacrament of confession, come on back! I’m happy to set up an appointment with you. Why go to confession? Because unless we experience God’s mercy on an ongoing basis, we cannot share God’s mercy with others.