June 16, 2013

posted Jun 19, 2013, 12:36 PM by David Hawkins   [ updated Jun 19, 2013, 12:36 PM ]

06/16/13 Sermon (June 16, 2013)

The Service of Forgiveness

Scripture Reading: Luke 7:36-8:3 (Liturgist)

One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee's house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.

Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him-that she is a sinner."

Jesus spoke up and said to him, "Simon, I have something to say to you."

"Teacher," he replied, "Speak."

"A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?"

Simon answered, "I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt."

And Jesus said to him, "You have judged rightly."

Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment.

Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little."

Then he said to her, "Your sins are forgiven."

But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, "Who is this who even forgives sins?"

And he said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace."

Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod's steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

The Service of Forgiveness

For the last couple of months, we’ve focused on the theme of service, the idea of doing things for other people. And we started off with a bang, celebrating the amazing service that Karen Sandlin has provided for this church for 25 years. And then the Youth offered their services to the church in a profound Youth Sunday in which the Youth explored the ideas of true freedom and unnoticed captivity. And then on Pentecost, I talked about the idea of serving in ways that we are called and gifted by the Holy Spirit.

We welcomed 7 new servants of Christ into the church, four of them by baptism on Trinity Sunday, a Sunday in which we recognize the ways that God put himself in a position to serve us in the person of Jesus Christ, and in the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit. We looked at the Trinity as a model of community and mutual servanthood.

And then, y’all followed that same model of servanthood, by letting Karen and me take a trip to New York City to put our son on a jet plane to Germany, and to see some of the sights on the East Coast. We had a wonderful time, and we have been so grateful for those who served in our absence, especially in the office and in the pulpit. Thank you Dee Rice, Richard Morgan, and Sue Lewellen especially for all your hard work. Our family appreciates it so much.

As I was looking back at all the ways we have discussed and actually lived out our ideals for what it means to be a servant in the church and in the world over the last few weeks, I wondered briefly what more there was to say about the idea of service. Surely we had covered the bases. Serving was about giving of your time and energy, helping others, doing something selfless, filling a need. It seemed pretty simple.

But then I read today’s scripture, and I realized that there might be a different kind of service that perhaps I had overlooked. A deeper kind of service, a more difficult and demanding kind of service, one that doesn’t come as naturally to us.

I realized that I had always read this scripture from the point of view of the woman, with her extravagant gift being the main point. And I still think that this is a valid reading. Her gift of anointing, her uninhibited and unrestrained worship and adoration is something that we can all admire, and in our own ways, strive to emulate.

But I realized that as hard as it is to think of ourselves in her position, laying our own hearts so bare to Jesus, weeping at his feet, offering to him our very deepest love and service, there might be something even more difficult going on in this Pharisee’s dining room, and that it’s a lot closer to us than we think it is.

It’s been another hot, dry, and dusty day in Galilee for Jesus and the disciples, and  Simon, a teacher of the law, decides to invite them over for dinner. But this will not be a private, intimate, affair. There will be many guests, some invited, some, not so much.

Jesus comes to the Pharisee’s house, and is shown in. But strangely, he is not offered the normal hospitality of those parts. The host doesn’t offer water to wash his feet after the journey. He doesn’t offer a balm to soothe his skin after the harsh day in the sun. He doesn’t even offer the customary kiss of greeting.

It’s as though you invite someone into your house, and you never shake their hand, you never ask them to sit down, and you don’t even offer a glass of ice tea. Well, you might as well as put beans in their chili at that point. It’s obvious that you really don’t want them to be there.

It was a chilly reception for Jesus at Simon’s house. But I can imagine it was even worse for the woman who followed Jesus into the room. All eyes are on her. Apparently, she’s committed some shameful act, though exactly what it is is never mentioned. In fact, the not naming of her sins makes it even more salacious, doesn’t it? She has done something so bad that we can’t even say what it was. Now that’s a bad sin. An unspeakable sin.

And even though we don’t know what the sin is, it looks like everybody else in the room does. They know this woman. And they know what she’s done. They’ve gossipped about her. They’ve eyed her from across the street. Her mere presence is embarrassing to everyone there. Her existence is a stain on this dinner. She is unwanted, and should be ashamed of herself that she would force herself on the good people in that room.

Doesn’t she know that she’s not wanted? Doesn’t she know that she is causing a scene, just by showing up? What will the town think, now that she’s in the Pharisee’s house? What will the other religious leaders think, now that she has disgraced her host by coming to dinner?

It’s a scandal. She’s a scandal. And everybody wants her to just go away.

Well, almost everybody. There is one person that doesn’t seem to resent her being there. There’s one person in the room at least that isn’t sending every possible signal that she should leave. In fact, it’s the very teacher that she’s heard about, the rabbi Jesus that she’s been watching for the last few days.

She’s heard the stories of a prophet, of a healer who was not afraid to touch those with diseases, who was not afraid of being in the presence of those who were possessed by demons, who was quite willing, in fact, to talk to, and eat with people who existed on the other side of society, those who weren’t welcome in the nice parts of town.

And for whatever reason, she has gathered her courage, and followed him to this house, in hopes that she might hear him talk, and that he might talk to her. And with a desperate kind of hope, she has even brought an alabaster jar of scented oil as a gift, that she might have something to offer, if she was only given a chance.

The conversation in the room dies down as these three, the religious leader, Jesus, and this shameful, unnamed woman take stock of each other. Nobody knows what is going to happen next. But it’s obvious that Simon wants her gone, and Jesus wants her to stay. It’s obvious that the Pharisee is looking at her with contempt, and Jesus is looking at her with love and acceptance.

And nobody dares to say a word.

But the tension is broken by the woman. She begins to weep. For the first time in a long time, she finds herself being looked at with understanding. For the first time in a long time, she has been welcomed into the presence of another human being, a teacher, a holy person. For the first time in a long time, she realizes that even she has worth, that even she is a person, with dignity and feelings, and is a child of God.

And this revelation is too much for her. She falls apart. She weeps, and weeps, and her tears bathe the feet of Jesus. She is embarrassed by her tears, and does the only thing she can think of and that is dry them, but she has not brought a towel, so she uses her hair. And when she realizes what she is doing, she stops and anoints Jesus feet with the oil that she had brought as a gift.

It makes no sense to us, really, these expressions of her relief and joy. We can hardly imagine ourselves doing these things. But we can understand this: that, for once in her life, she was not judged, or accused, or shamed in public. And the simple act of recognition and understanding from Jesus was all it took to bring this woman to her knees in complete and utter abandonment of all common social conventions. She can't help herself. Jesus’ acceptance is too much for her to bear. And so she does what her heart tells her to do.

And, apparently, the scene is a bit too much for Simon as well. Look at this woman, embarrassing herself, and everyone in this house. And this so-called Prophet, Jesus of Nazareth. He’s no prophet. If he was, he would know better than to let her touch him, to allow her to even come near him. He should running from her. It’s not just embarrassing, it’s a matter of law. She’s impure. It’s a corruption of my house, and of his ministry. He’s finished as a rabbi. No one will be able to take him seriously anymore, not after this.

It comes as a shock then, for Simon, that when Jesus turns to him, rather than telling him that he should really tell this woman to get out, he reminds Simon of his own rudeness as a host. And that stings. That Jesus would take the side of this unknown, unnamed woman, and rather than point out her sin, and her unworthiness to be in his presence, Jesus instead points out the ways that Simon had failed to welcome Jesus himself into his house. No water for his feet, no oil for his sunburned skin, no kiss for his cheek. It’s as though Jesus is insinuating that maybe Simon didn’t really want Jesus to be in the house at all.

But the real kicker is that it’s OK with Jesus that this woman dares to show her face in his house, as though she belonged there.

It’s all wrong, isn’t it? Simon, the religious person, hearing about the ways he has forgotten his obligations, and this woman, the shamed outcast, hearing that her sins are forgiven. It makes no sense to a man who has spent his life pursuing purity, or to a people focused on their own reputations and standing in the community, or to a society that substitutes shame and exclusion for love and welcome.

The hard part of this scripture for us is not the spectacle of the woman’s heartfelt, almost groveling worship of Jesus Christ. While we might not ever get there, we understand, at least metaphorically, her response to Jesus’ love.

No, what’s harder for us, I think, is that Jesus is showing us how to accept, and love those in our assembly who have not been, according to our standards of ‘whatever’, traditionally welcome in the church.

Maybe they bear the social shame of poverty. The political shame of non-citizenship. The shame of the wrong address, or the the wrong education level. The wrong skin color, or the wrong sexuality. I’ll leave it to each one of us to identify for ourselves who those people might be.

The hard part about this scripture is that we all harbor a little bit of the Pharisee in our hearts. The reality is we like to gather together with those who think like us, or act like us. And it’s not a white thing, or a brown thing, or a black thing. It’s a human thing. Birds of a feather flock together.
But as Jesus shows us, we are not living fully into our own understanding of Christian hospitality when we refuse to accept folks into our community who are stigmatized by something they’ve done, or by something they are. In fact, this story makes it clear to us that we might find ourselves rejecting Jesus at the same time, and not even be aware of it.

It’s a rude surprise for us when Jesus reminds us that all people, even those labeled as impure, shameful, sinful, are worthy of our service of kindness, forgiveness, and hospitality toward them. But the good news of the Gospel is that when we do offer ourselves in service to them, we are promised that Jesus himself is in our midst as well.

Thanks be to God. Amen.