I was blessed to be asked to preach again at St. John’s Episcopal Church this past weekend. Heres’ the transcript, with a warning that it’s a bit longer than my usual posts. =)
Sermon of June 12, 2016, St. John’s Episcopal Church
Any prepared sermon is going to be undeniably challenged by a tragedy the likes of which we have witnessed in the past 24 hours. So as we begin, we also stop. We’ll take a moment to pray for those who have died and been hurt in Orlando, Florida, and their grieving friends and families.
“God of the Dance, God of Love and God of Life,
Our hearts break at these tragic deaths
and this horrible glimpse into the darkness.
Welcome the souls of all those who have died needlessly
in Orlando this past night, by an act of humanity’s deep
and dreadful love of violence, hatred and division.
For their souls we ask a place at your feast table,
at your home of light and life and love, forever.
For survivors, their families and friends we pray peace and comfort,
that your Spirit and your people will surround them,
hold them, and heal them in their rending grief,
and that they may know joy and healing in the coming days.”
“Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so
move every human heart in this our broken and needful society,
that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear,
and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed,
we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.” BCP pg. 823
Tonight’s Gospel Reading from Luke 7:36-50…
36 One of the Pharisees asked Jesus[j] to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37 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. 38 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. 39 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.” 40 Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “speak.” 41 “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii,[k] and the other fifty.42 When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus[l] said to him, “You have judged rightly.”44 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. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 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.” 48 Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Maybe you’re not like me and don’t have stories from your childhood which embarrass you. Maybe you matured faster than I did and you avoided the worst of decisions and moments we often experience as forming people, but I had some real doosies.
Tonight I’m thinking of 7th Grade Todd, and a time when I was at my worst. I was in the Art Club, and our much anticipated field trip to the Zoo in Dallas had arrived. We were going on a sketching trip! I was fired up, until we started assigning seats with parents to drive to the Zoo. My closest friends were all in one car, and I was assigned to ride with someone else and his mom. Now, this other guy… he was not a friend. In fact, he was a bully at whose hands I had occasionally suffered some hurt and harassment. He wasn’t smart, either. This is back in the day when they divided our seventh grade class into groups from the most smart to the least smart; our groups were labeled 7:1, being the smartest, all the way down to 7:6, being the least smartest. And this guy was a bit behind me and my friends. I’m also pretty sure his family didn’t go to church anywhere, and we know those things in a small town. I loudly proclaimed my horror at riding with him and his mom, “I don’t want to ride with him! Why is he in Art Club anyway?” I was told to quiet down and get in his mom’s truck, and I’d get to ride home with someone else. It was a tense, joyless ride to the Zoo.
And on days when I read stories like the one from Luke 7, I’m reminded of the lesson so painfully illustrated by 7th Grade Todd. Like Simon, I was the one who would invite Jesus over to supper, not the other person. I was the one who would be most likely to have Jesus over for supper (at least in my way of thinking), not them. I was the one, not them… I’m “the one most” (fill in any other descriptors you want): deserving, good enough, forgiven, allowed, expected, invited. But in a Gospel view of the world they are the one who is welcomed, grateful, forgiven, closest to Jesus.
Oh, Simon. I get it. I really do. Imagine working so hard to be ready for Jesus to come to dinner, making sure the right people are present, the food is perfect and you look your best. And then this sinner crashes the party. That word sinner says it all, huh? This sinner takes center stage. This sinner becomes the focus of discussion and begins to take Jesus’ attention and energy from your dinner party. Why is she here anyway? Wouldn’t a prophet know she doesn’t belong?
It’s easy enough to say that Jesus loves everyone. What takes a little more energy is really digging into Jesus and getting a hand on his way of seeing people, God’s way of seeing people. It differs so dramatically from the way I have so often viewed people. Did you notice in the words of Jesus that this sinner seems to be both responding to forgiveness and also still waiting to receive it? He says that her act of love flows from having much forgiven, and then afterward says to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
She seems to be responding to a forgiveness that has yet to be articulated, maybe even yet to be sought after, but that has totally consumed her. She teaches us something of how God sees people: forgiven before even asking. in the story she is returning a love that Jesus has yet to express directly to her. She’s an inspiration. Of course, Simon’s not all that inspired, because he only sees her as needing to be forgiven, while Jesus seems to have forgiven her before the first tear, before the anointing.
There’s a really good old theological term for this: prevenient grace. This is an term that states, in various ways in differing Christian traditions, that God’s grace and forgiveness pre-exists our seeking it and in fact enables us to seek it and understand it. This concept doesn’t in way lessen our turning to God and experiencing grace in repentance, but it does help us with taking what scripture teaches about forgiveness and form a daily Way of living with that understanding. So scripture teaches that Christ died while we were still sinners, that God predestined us, elected us, chose us before… these statements are familiar to biblical students, and they point us to way God sees us, viewing us in our intended beauty, in our intended state of grateful love, in our very best and deepest place of love and dignity. I especially like this as a counterpoint to the idea of Original Sin, that instead we are born into a state of Original Forgiveness. Perhaps, we are born into a state of Indelible Grace.
Wouldn’t that bring us to the feet of Christ, too? Do you think that maybe just hearing Jesus teach in the marketplaces and streets, maybe preaching on a mountainside, this woman got it, she understood, and that grace brought her to her tears? The story reminded me of times when scriptures instructs against partiality, judgement…
“1 My child, do not cheat the poor of their living, and do not keep needy eyes waiting. 2 Do not grieve the hungry, or anger one in need. 3 Do not add to the troubles of the desperate, or delay giving to the needy. 4 Do not reject a suppliant in distress, or turn your face away from the poor. 5 Do not avert your eye from the needy, and give no one reason to curse you; 6 for if in bitterness of soul some should curse you, their Creator will hear their prayer… 22 Do not show partiality, to your own harm, or deference, to your downfall.” (Sirach 1:6 & 22)
“2 My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 2 For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, 3 and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” 4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? 7 Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you? 8 You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 9 But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors… 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:1-9, 12-13)
And Jesus in Matthew 7:1-2
“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.”
I don’t think these passages are only good teachings in times of economic disparity, but must be applied to a broader sense of partiality which threatens to divide us, blind us and to honestly make fools of us. Simon seems to have had some justification for knowing that the woman was sinful. But Simon is intimately shown that he doesn’t understand forgiveness and his own love-debt to God’s grace. This sinner does. Simon is ultimately shown a new definition for “sinner,” which he may think means “undesirable” or unforgiven, but in actuality means deeply beloved and sought after.
After our trip to the Zoo I was relieved to be informed that I would get to ride home with my two closest friends. I crammed happily into the back seat with them, and then began one the of longest hour and half rides of my life. My friend’s mom figured that I didn’t go to the right kind of church, wasn’t good enough. So for the next hour and a half she illumined me on my impending damnation and sinfulness. To top it off, after I was dropped off at the school, she later called our home to accuse me of stealing a class ring from their car, a ring later found to have slipped between cushions and into the trunk of the car. Oh, Simon. You and me, brother. Some of us must learn the hardest lessons of life in the hardest ways to sink them through our hardest of skulls and into our hardest of hearts.
I will probably continue to fail at this, but I hope that every time I am confronted with someone I imagine to be the least forgiven, the least lovable, the least worthy, Christ might help me see them in their prevenient beauty and grace. I pray that the next time I feel so unworthy and believe the worst of myself, I will hear that call of grace, and my tears will be a thank offering for all the love and forgiveness God has already intended to lavish on me. 7th Grade Todd was not prepared to understand Martin Luther’s poignant exclamation, “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly.” 7th Grade Todd wasn’t ready to get it, and I can only hope I am before I’m 70.
Once more little gem from the Book of Common Prayer, one more cry to heaven…
“O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us
through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole
human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which
infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us;
unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle
and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth;
that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you
in harmony around your heavenly throne;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” BCP pg. 815