A Sermon On “…by what we have left undone.”

Since introducing different prayers and liturgical readings I find myself pondering specific phrases during the week. I start to become more aware of things that I wouldn’t have noticed if they weren’t there. So this morning I wanted to unpack one of the lines in our confession that we do before the prayers of the people every Sunday.

Confession is a way of life that the church has held to very tightly for a long time and is one of the seven sacraments of the Catholic church. It’s a weekly tradition that we follow as it continually reminds us that we fall short and are in need of God’s grace. Christians are to be a confessing people, constantly living in repentance and authenticity that we cannot be and we have not been who we have been created to be.

So each week we say the words.

“Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”

Q: What comes to your mind when we say those words on a Sunday morning?

For years I lived in a world of confession and feeling guilty for things that I had done. I swore, I stole, I lusted, I was selfish and I felt bad about all those things. Christianity in some ways became like a guilt remover. You do something wrong and then you have a big God up in the sky that tells you everything is OK, and then you do it all over again the next week. So confession was a way of removing the guilt of the things I have done.

But what I find with a confession like this, isn’t so much about relieving guilt, but it is a way of reminding ourselves of our constant need of grace, not just remembering the bad things that we’ve done, but a way of remember whose grace we are in need of.

But the phrase that I want to focus on this morning is this phrase “by what we have left undone.”

As we grow in our faith and understanding and start to realize what it means to follow Jesus I think that we slowly start to transitions away from confession all the bad things that we have done and move into the kind of language that we see here. We start to realize that more importantly, we leave way too many things undone. This is a lot bigger of a task. This can’t be reduced to list of rules to obey, this starts to cut into the heart of the matter.

I think we stay stuck in the idea that Christianity is a religion with a bunch of rules and traditions that we have to follow when we see confession as just admitting all the bad things that we did. We basically just admit that we didn’t follow the rules set out for us and we are sorry and we’ll try to do better next time. I think this is a childish way to see our faith.

But the kind of confession that we are doing here is one that acknowledges that our faith is more than just a list of things we can’t do. Rather it’s a way of life in the world where we have a duty and responsibility to be a certain way. This is a way that Jesus lays out for us and models. Where we can live our day to day and and not just be stopping all the bad things we are doing but also taking part in good things, actually doing things that should be done.

When you start to look at things this way, this makes Christianity an entirely different thing to behold. It makes us start to wonder what kinds of things Christians should be doing? The prayer gives us a head start a bit. We have not loved God, we have not loved our neighbours. But I think I could keep that list going on for a long time. We have not cared for the poor, we spent our money on ourselves, we have not gone out of our way to care for someone in need…

Q: What kinds of things do we leave undone?

To really open this up. We need to ask ourselves what is the thing that the Christian is to have done (to make sense why we are confessing things that we have undone).

A mature community cultivates a lifestyle of love in the midst of market-style exchanges: a lifestyle of joy in the midst of manufactured desire, peace in the midst of fragmentation, patience in the midst of productivity, kindness in the midst of self-sufficiency, goodness in the midst of self-help, faithfulness in the midst of impermanence, gentleness in the midst of aggression, and self-control in the midst of addiction.
– JR Woodward

Here is what a Christian community should be doing. This is our task. So when we look at it this way, it makes a lot more sense why we would be confessing for what we have left undone. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that we have left all this undone. It’s not a stretch for us to say that most of us don’t do what we ought to do. We aren’t called just to avoid certain things or avoid harming others. According to Jesus, it’s a sin to just “mind your own business,” especially if minding your own business means ignoring the pains and sorrows of others.

Jesus says “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” – notice that he didn’t say “don’t do things to others that you don’t want done to you.” So this goes beyond just a command to not do things, rather it’s a command of action, to act with love and to serve others. So we confess that we sin by the things that we’ve done to cause suffering of others but also the things that we have left undone in ignoring the suffering of others.

“There is a story of a man who committed adultery. It seems that after several months he decided that he had had enough of living a double life, and so he approached his wife and told her that he wanted a divorce. He made what he thought was a generous offer of the house, the car, and one-third of the value of his company and told her that he just didn’t love her anymore. She became angry and tore up the paper on which he had written his conditions. She then said she would be happy to grant his request for a divorce without any payment if he would meet two conditions. First she wanted to postpone all discussion of dissolving their marriage for exactly one month. Their son was preparing for exams and she wished to spare him the discussions of their broken marriage until his exams were over. The husband readily agreed.

The second request was that for each day of the month the man who had committed adultery had to pick up his wife and carry her in his arms out of their bedroom just as he had carried her in on their wedding day. In order to keep peace for the month the husband agreed to this unusual request. The first morning they were a bit awkward, for you see they had fallen out of the practice of intimacy. And as the month progressed the task became easier. The man reported that his wife even seemed to be lighter or maybe he was becoming stronger from performing the task. He soon began to notice the clothes his wife was wearing, her perfume, how gracefully she had aged, and he began to love her all over again. By the 30th day, he was a changed man. He told the other woman that he no longer planned to get a divorce and was ending the affair. He returned home with roses for his wife and a card that read “I’ll carry you out every morning until death do us part.” The only problem was that the note was too late. She had died that very morning. For you see the wife, without telling her husband, had been battling cancer and knew her end was near even as the husband had announced his affair.” [link]

This kind of story I think helpfully illustrates the two kinds of sins that we are talking about this morning. The sins that we done are obvious. The man had an affair. This is the kinds of sin we would normally look at and confess. I’m sorry for the sex, food, booze, drugs, anger etc.

But the other type of sin, those things left undone. Both the man and the women knew things had changed in their marriage and both failed to do anything about it until it was too late. James Keenan identifies this kind of sin as the “failure to bother to love.” So he would suggest that this kind of sin, things left undone, is the very definition of what sin is. He would call this a sin of strength because it is the failure to do something that one was capable of doing.

A sin of weakness, where we find ourselves helpless and end up doing something we shouldn’t have becomes commonplace for us humans. We start to accept the fact that we do things all the time we shouldn’t and it gets easier and easier to confess. It’s actually our preference to focus on things that we shouldn’t do. It’s easier to stop doing bad things then it is to start doing good things. But we can see that to constantly focus on what we have done and to ignore what we have left undone goes against what Jesus constantly preached and promoted in his life. Jesus seemed to rarely care about the bad things people did. He never called out folks on their weakness (sins of weakness). Jesus always pointed at the strong. The ones that followed the rules and never did the wrong things. He just tells people to stop doing those things and then start following him. The emphasis is always on the following.

Look at story after story with Jesus. Constantly Jesus is ragging on those that claim righteousness for keeping the rules and not doing all the wrong things. Jesus concern though is always with those who can do something but choose to do nothing. Consider this quote:

“When the [tax collector] and Pharisee are praying in the temple, the sin of the Pharisee is in his strength. He specifically considers all that he has. When the rich man steps over Lazarus and ignores him at the gate, the rich man’s sin is not in his weakness but in his strength. He could have done something, but he did not. The steward who asked forgiveness for his debt is forgiven, but he’s punished because he does not forgive the minor debt of his own employee. Out of his strength, the steward is convicted. Think of the parable of the Good Samaritan””where is the sin? Even the robbers who committed the crime of beating the poor man and robbing him on the road to Jericho are ignored. The focus is on the Levite and the priest; they could have acted but they did not. They sinned precisely out of their strength. The same is true of the goats that were separated from the sheep, the man who did not invest the talent, the virgins who were not vigilant and the son who did not go into the party.”
– James Keenan

In the end they all left undone those things which they ought to have done.

I have very little interest in being part of a faith that simply has rules of things that we cannot do. That is the faith from my childhood. I think though a faith that makes sense is one in which advocates for action and doing the good works that we were created to do. A faith that focuses on rules is a faith that doesn’t see the heart of the matter. We end up being blind to the world around us as we focus on trying to stop doing bad things.

So when we say that we confess that we have sinned by what we have done and left undone may it serve to continually remind us and open our eyes that there is so much left undone and we are called to do it. theStory is called to be a force for the kingdom in Sarnia, Ontario and that means not leaving things undone.

Let’s pray together.

Most merciful God
We confess that we have sinned against you
In thought, word, and deed,
By what we have done,
And by what we have left undone.
We have failed to bother to love
We have chosen the easy way

Show us what needs to be done
Show us what is undone
Open our ears to the cries of the suffering
Open our eyes to the injustice
Open our hearts to care when we don’t

Help us cultivate a lifestyle of love in the midst of market-style exchanges
a lifestyle of joy in the midst of manufactured desire,
peace in the midst of fragmentation,
patience in the midst of productivity,
kindness in the midst of self-sufficiency,
goodness in the midst of self-help,
faithfulness in the midst of impermanence,
gentleness in the midst of aggression,
and self-control in the midst of addiction.

Most merciful God
Bend us
Remove our apathy
Squash our selfishness
So we are free to love
So we are able to give
So we are strengthened to listen
So we become more like your son

Let us not rest in our sin, satisfied by the confession
Let us be stirred to action
Action that loves our enemies
Action that cares for those who aren’t like us
Action that dies for peace


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