Tuesday, August 14, 2007

“...[H]er sins, though many, are forgiven;
hence, she has shown great love.”
(Luke 7:49)

Year C Proper 6
2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15
Psalm 32:1-8
Galatians 2:11-21
Luke 7:36-50
Jan Robitscher
Trinity Parish
Seattle, WA
June 13, 2004

Said General Oglethorpe to Wesley, “I never forgive.”
“Then I hope sir,” said Wesley, “you never sin.”
(George Eliot, Nineteenth Century)[1]

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Whatever possessed the creators of our lectionary to place these readings right at the beginning of the long, green season? We might have expected to find them during Lent for--in a rare confluence, they all have to do with sin and forgiveness, with law and grace, with repentance and love. But green is the color representing growth--growth in our life-in-Christ--so maybe there’s a purpose here.

All of the people in these lessons acted in ways that separated them from the truth. King David is in a heap of trouble. He desires Bathsheba, and, after committing adultery with her, he has her husband Uriah killed off in battle. God is not pleased, but David does not “get it” until Nathan comes to him with a parable (a one-point story) about the ewe-lamb, which finally breaks through to David and prompts his confession. God is merciful and David is forgiven, though his sin does have consequences for the child that is born--but that’s another sermon.

Our Gospel reading presents another illustration of God’s forgiveness and how people respond to it. Jesus visits the home of a rabbi, a Pharisee--one who would have prided himself on his ability to keep the whole Law to the letter, and who would have looked down on those who did not. We don’t know why Simon invited Jesus to dinner. Perhaps he admired him or even wanted to entrap him. Probably, he was just curious, as Jesus had become a celebrity. What Simon has not anticipated was the presence of the “woman from the city, who was a sinner”. How could such a notorious person--a woman, considered to be an outcast and at the bottom of society--get into the Pharisee’s house? How could she come right up to Jesus? Then she did the unthinkable and broke open her vial of perfume, something often worn by women, and began to anoint Jesus’ feet and, weeping, to wipe his feet with her hair. This was an incredibly sensuous gesture and the Pharisee was scandalized, though he did not voice it. He didn’t “get it” any more than King David did. So Jesus, reading his thoughts, and seeing through the woman’s acts to a love much deeper than sensuality, tells another parable, the story of the creditor and the two debtors.

At the end of the story, when both of the debts are forgiven, Jesus asks, “Now which of them will love him more?” And he answered, correctly, “The one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” Jesus then explains that this notorious woman has done for him all of the customary things which the Pharasee-host is supposed to do. Then comes the heart of his message:
“Therefore I tell you, her sins, which were many,
have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.”

This is the part that is so hard for us to understand. We often remember that other verse of Scripture, “Love covereth a multitude of sins.” (I Peter 2:8) And it does. But what we think that means is that we can earn God’s forgiveness with our love, by our own efforts. In this lesson, we think that Jesus said that those who love much are forgiven much. But listen carefully. What Jesus says of the woman is that her response to being forgiven overflows into acts of love. This is what St. Paul is trying so hard to say in our second reading--that we must act consistently with the truth of the Gospel because “we are justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing works of the Law.”

Now what does all of this have to do with us? In an age where many folks are saying that they can’t find God anywhere, it is important to remember that, in order to begin to find God, we must first be willing to admit our personal and corporate sinfulness. This is not easy. Look at the headlines and see how hard we try to justify (and we even lie to do it) all sorts of things. Take the reasons for going to war in Iraq. Most were exaggerated at best and fabricated at worst. And, according to one commentator, talk show host Phil Donahue was the lone voice raising questions about this, and for his efforts, his show got canceled. Or how about the greed of multi-national corporations like Enron. While California burned, the corporate execs laughed--all the way to the bank. Add to these the pollution of our earth; and all the various forms of discrimination which still pervade our society...

But if we think the Church is exempt, we would be quite wrong. One only has to see the split over the issue of homosexuality, for example. On one side are extreme conservatives who are trying to exclude anyone unlike themselves. On the other are extreme liberals who are advocating a hedonistic society in which anything goes and there is no sin. This is not the only issue, and we are not alone. Our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters continue to struggle through a sexual abuse scandal of monumental proportions.

On a more personal level--perhaps the hardest to see--we might ask: What do we lie about? What separates us from the truth? What angers or resentments or jealousies keep us from loving God and one another?

Now lest we fall into despair over all of these kinds of corporate and personal sin, we have only to look at our Psalm to find help:
While I held my tongue, my bones withered away,*
because of my groaning all the day long.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you,*
and did not conceal my guilt.
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.”*
Then you forgave me the guilt of my sin.

Our liturgy provides us with a way to do just this. In a few minutes, after we have professed our faith and prayed for the Church and the world (Heaven knows they need it!) we will say the General Confession. Here is our best opportunity to confess not only our own personal sins, but also the sins we commit corporately: as a parish, as Christ’s Body, the Church, and as a society.

The truth is, as St. Paul has said,
For there is no distinction, since All have sinned
and fall short of the glory of God...
(Romans 3:23)
But he goes on to say:
...they [and we] are now justified by...
grace as a gift, through the redemption
that is in Christ Jesus...

After the General Confession, we exchange the Peace. This is an ancient act of reconciliation and a sign that those who desire it are now ready to participate in the Holy Communion. No one is worthy and, as your rector, Paul likes to say, all are welcome. And Jesus is there, willing to accept us, just as he was willing to accept that notorious woman, who knew that her many sins were forgiven, and whose gratitude overflowed in love.[2]

So maybe the lectionary writers weren’t wrong after all. Maybe, in order to find God, to grow in our life-in-Christ during this long, green season, we must begin by first recognizing our own sinfulness--and that of our parish and our society. Then, thankful for God’s unfailing mercy, we can, like the woman of our Gospel story, be overflowing with acts of love.

[1] From A Reconciliation Sourcebook, LTP, p. 53
[2] Some ideas for this sermon came from the Rev. Nicholas R.D.Dyke’s sermon on the website, Worship that Works.

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