As faithful Catholics, you and I know how important it is
to go to confession regularly.
But let’s be clear why. Yes, it’s good to have a clear conscience.
When I was a boy, there was a game called “Hot Potato.”
We’d use a ball or something,
and toss it quickly from one person to the next.
If you got stuck with it, you were out of the game.
Sometimes I suspect we think about confession that way:
Mortal sin is the “hot potato,” and we don’t want to be caught with it.
That’s true, but it’s not enough.
Our goal is a lot more than that: not only to be forgiven of our sins,
but to be set free from our sins.
The grace of a good confession is not only to get us “off the hook,”
But even more, to turn us from the wrong path, to the path of life.
There’s a knock on the Catholic Faith that people bring up,
maybe you’ve heard it. It goes like this:
“You Catholics believe that you can sin your whole life long,
and then you can go to confession right before you die,
and then you’re home-free!”
And you know what? That’s correct. We do believe that!
It is true that someone can sin his or her entire life,
and with one confession, wipe it all away.
That is true!
But there are two problems with that scenario.
The obvious one is,
who says you’ll have a priest conveniently available
in your last 5 minutes of life?
Maybe you will, maybe you won’t.
But there’s a much greater danger.
Let’s say you actually have a priest there, right at the end.
He’s ready to hear your confession –
and wipe away a lifetime of sin.
That assumes something: that you’ll want to go to confession.
Why do you assume that?
After a lifetime of not wanting to repent,
What makes you so sure you’ll suddenly want to, at the end?
I can tell you, I’ve been at those bedsides, in just that situation.
I’ve offered to hear people’s confessions.
And they’ve said, no thanks.
Sin isn’t just a stain on our clothes.
Clean clothes, dirty clothes, we’re the same person.
No, sin is something that changes me.
One lie, two lies, three, four, ten—at some point,
it’s not a thing I do, but it’s who I am. I’ve become a liar.
We become our choices;
and that’s ultimately what heaven and hell are.
What I’m going to say is easy to misunderstand. Listen closely, please.
We don’t go to heaven because we’re good. I’ll say it again:
You and I do NOT go to heaven because we’re good.
It’s the other way around. We’re good because we’re going to heaven!
With each step, and each choice that is guided by heaven,
we are changed, and shaped—we become good;
until one day, we arrive at the place where we are truly at home.
This is where purgatory fits in.
We say it’s about punishment,
but it’s clearer if we see it as being about change.
Purgatory is for all of us whose hearts are heaven-bound,
but our lives still show the effects of our sinful choices.
Purgatory probably won’t be fun,
but we will be grateful.
Likewise, we don’t go to hell because we’re bad.
It’s the other way around.
We’re bad to the extent we are influenced by hell.
And that’s what sin is: a choice guided by hell, not heaven.
Notice this man in the Gospel.
Jesus was able to look right into his heart.
He saw what that man needed.
And notice what happened: “he went away sad.”
He wanted to love God; on some level, he did.
But not quite as much as he loved his possessions.
For us who live with so much abundance and convenience,
this should trouble us.
I’m not saying it’s sinful to have a good job,
money in the bank, and nice things, because it’s not.
But many of us have learned this lesson:
the things we own, own us.
This helps us understand the value of priests not getting married.
Those of you who have a spouse and children,
you can’t just “walk away”; but I can.
If the Archbishop needs me to pick up and go 100 miles away, I can go.
Celibacy brings freedom.
Likewise, our possessions, if we’re not careful,
can take that freedom away –
because the more we have to lose,
the more afraid we can be to put it on the line.
Or as that great theologian Janis Joplin said,
"Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose."
The advice Jesus gave to that man in the Gospel wasn’t for everyone.
He saw what that man most needed to surrender.
For each of us, it is likely to be different.
And this, by the way, is why we do penance,
especially during Lent, but not only then.
When we give up beer or candy,
it isn’t because they’re bad; but because we love them too much.
It’s the same question as is posed by the Gospel:
is there anything in our lives we love so much,
that if Jesus said, give it up,
we’re not sure what we’d do?
Imagine Jesus said to you, today:
You are lacking in one thing.
Go, and give up…now fill in the blank.
Go and give up pictures on the Internet.
Go and give up alcohol.
Give up getting married.
Go and give up sports.
What would we do?