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Sermon for February 19, 2017

Scripture: Luke 7:36-50

Pastor Anna V. Copeland, Preaching

                                       No Shame

         Imagine the world’s most embarrassing dinner party. For some reason still unclear to you, it happens that you chair the committee to create a dinner party for someone really famous whom you admire and respect. This is someone you’ve appreciated from afar, but never imagined you’d see up close and personal. But here you are. It’s summer, and the dinner party takes place outdoors at Hartley-Mason Park across from the York Harbor Inn. It’s a picnic and everybody is sitting or reclining casually on blankets.

         Your famous guest is having an uncharacteristically fabulous time. Suddenly he kicks off his sockless loafers and leans over on one elbow to hear one of Ed Forbush’s famously bad jokes. (Ed, for those of you who don’t know him, moved to Florida last year, but not before leaving a string of bad jokes in his wake).

         Anyway, the committee passes beautifully appointed platters of food among the guests. Anticipation builds for the moment your guest will speak after the luncheon.

         Just at that moment a woman you recognize from the news comes walking up the hill from the Cliff Walk behind Jesus, who is facing the other direction. You remember her from that Zumba studio incident in Kennebunk that led to the madam’s arrest, and you are mortified that she’s here. What could she possibly want? You remember her as proud and confident on television, but you notice here that she is weeping, not just little sniffles but great sobs, the puffy eyed, drippy nose kind of weeping.

         Kneeling down on the grass behind your honored guest, she starts crying all over his feet. Then she pulls out a jar of extremely expensive perfumed oil that overwhelms the scent of lunch, and begins rubbing your guest’s feet, then o my gosh, kissing his feet, then drying his tear stained feet with her hair.

         All chatter ceases, everyone is mortified, everyone that is, except the one most in the position to be embarrassed.

         You know where this is going. The honored guest in today’s story is Jesus. He could have pulled his feet away and turned his back further from her, shutting her out. He could have shot you a pleading look to rescue him. He could have done any number of things to diffuse the tension created by this awkward situation. But Jesus didn’t do any of those things. At first he talked about her as if she weren’t there, but not in a judging tone. It was more like a parent telling a neighbor how proud she is of her daughter’s accomplishment, saying it loudly enough that the daughter who sometimes lacks self-confidence can overhear it.

         “Simon,” Jesus said to his host. “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 (as was the custom), 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.”

         Notice that there’s a pattern to Jesus’ teaching. Whenever one of the religious leaders gets’ into a discussion about the letter of the law, Jesus calls them to account for missing the point. Whenever and wherever the sinner, the sick, or the lost, trust God with humility and vulnerability, Jesus forgives, heals and saves them.

         Notice Jesus didn’t say of the unnamed woman, “Her sins, which ARE many will NOW be forgiven.” He says instead, “Her sins which WERE MANY, HAVE BEEN forgiven.

         “Hence, she has shown great love.” Now we don’t talk like that do we? I love words but I’m pretty sure I’ve never used the word “Hence” in a sentence. I had to look it up. Hence means, “consequently, or as a consequence of.” In other words, Jesus was saying, “the sins of this woman, however many there may be, have already been forgiven because of her faith, because of her trust in God. She just didn’t realize she had been forgiven until she encountered Jesus. It was her faith that saved her, not JUST her love of Jesus. It was her trust in God AND God’s forgiveness above all else that set her free. Hence, that is consequently, she now shows great love.

         How great is that? She weeps uncontrollably perhaps in gratitude that her burdens, the weight of the world, the sins of her past have been lifted from her. She’s now set free to love and to live. Jesus then speaks to her directly for the first time. He tells her what she has now come to know. “Your sins are forgiven.” This time it’s Simon and the others who are overhearing the conversation. “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you: not your actions, not your words, not your tears, “your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”

         Perhaps there isn’t a more important message for us to hear this morning than this. We’re experiencing a shift in ministry here at First Parish whose consequences will only be understood looking back on this time from the future. We’ve begun the second year living into a new governance process and by-laws for First Parish Church for the first time in 350 years. Today we begin the second week of shared commitment to our newly passed Vision and Mission that we read on the cover of our bulletin. What happens next will determine what story of faith future generations will tell about us and whether or not God will say of us, “Well done good and faithful servants.”

         It will be easier than we think to miss the mark, as did so many of the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ time. They frequently got so wrapped up in HOW they fulfilled the law that they forgot who they were and more importantly, they forgot God. NONE OF WHAT WE HAPPENS NEXT WILL MATTER AT ALL IF WE FORGET GOD FOR EVEN A SECOND.

         Some of the scribes and the Pharisees judged people based on whether they followed Robert’s Rules of order and were blind to God’s redeeming work in the world. Last Sunday’s Bible story ended with their judgment of John the Baptist who neither ate nor drank in the wilderness. They accused him of having a demon. When Jesus ate and drank they accused him of being a glutton and cavorting with sinners. No one was exempt from criticism.

          The writer of Luke’s version continues where we left off. The story moves from the judgment of John and the judgment of Jesus to the criticism of the previously sinful woman. It will be easy for us to get off track in the weeks ahead, getting ourselves tangled up in the details and forgetting the point.

         We have a great deal of work ahead of us to bring this new Vision and Mission to fulfillment. As Followers of the Way of Jesus, we anticipate that God will work through us in big ways. As the church council appoints an Implementation Team next week to draw all of us into the ministry of fulfilling God’s new vision for us, we may think that our future as a church depends on what we do with it. After all, we’ve committed now to throwing our lot in together, from those who have been here for generations to the four newest members of the church who will join this morning. It will be tempting to think the future success of the church depends on what our new letterhead says, or how snazzy our new website will be, and it will, or how helpful and accessible we find our newly developed on-line giving opportunity.

We may imagine that the success of our church will depend on how effective our newly expanded ministry of congregational care to the home bound will be when it launches under the guidance of Pastor Vivan Martindale in a few weeks. It will be tempting to think that our righteousness before God depends on the hours and hours we will spend pouring over our new by-laws and word-smithing it to be sure that it reflects who we are and who God calls us to be. And it will be tempting to judge the success of our new associate pastor by how fast he grows the youth groups and how many new families join. Some will try to judge the relevance of our church based on how courageously we engage in ministries of justice and mercy that may start a conversation or fuel a movement.

         Make no mistake, we will engage all these ministries in fresh ways, and we do now commit to a common vision and mission to serve God as followers of the Way of Jesus through this church for our time. Nevertheless, all our beautiful labors will be meaningless and they will not endure unless we put first things first.

Beloved in Christ, the most important thing that will ever happen through this church has already taken place.

         For God so loved the world that he gave us Jesus, his son, that when we trust in him we’ll have life, a whole life, an abundant life. God helped us incorporate as a non-profit church to set us free from worry. God revealed a new path through our Vision and Mission to set us free to love and to serve according to our gifts. God wants us to experience the great joy of God’s abundant life rendered impossible when we’re weighed down with sin and when our energy is caught up criticizing others or ourselves. We don’t have to carry shame over what we’ve done even when we’ve hurt ourselves or others, and we don’t have to blame ourselves for what we wished we’d done that would have pleased God yet we failed to do it. God has forgiven you.

         Hear Jesus speak to the woman at his feet, to you in your pew. “You don’t have to be ashamed of who you are or what you have done. God loved you into being and created you for good. You are forgiven.” (Repeat back to me.)

Long before we thought to ask for it, God forgave us, and has already forgotten those things we think no one knows about that we secretly locked away in our soul.” God sent Jesus into the world to set us free.

         Because we are so loved, and because we are wholly forgiven, hence, consequently, we are set free to love as outrageously, courageously, unabashedly as a woman crying all over the feet of Jesus, massaging his feet with fragrant oil at a dinner party and wiping his feet with her hair.

         When we’re set free to love so extravagantly, people get nervous. We’re going to have to give one another and ourselves lots of room to experiment and make mistakes. We’re going to have to support one another’s efforts even if they don’t all bear fruit. The outpouring of love that will take place may at times be embarrassing.  

         Some of our efforts may miss the mark. We’ve messed up in the past. We’ll mess up again. Every human is born with the ability to make spectacular mistakes. We are not alone. Screwing things up is not our special talent. We have to get over it. Dragging around guilt and self-criticism, and throwing rocks at other people when they’re doing their best to be faithful is a sure-fire way to become small and bitter and mean. If God doesn’t keep score of our sins or those of our neighbors, who are we to be so hard on ourselves and everybody else.

You may have heard the famous quote from Martin Luther King, the founder of the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago. “Sin Boldly.” It has often been misused as permission to get us in trouble. In his letter to a close friend, what he’s really saying is that we’re all going to mess things up while we’re here. That’s what humans do. But don’t let that be the focus of our attention.

Be a sinner,” Luther said, “and let your sins be strong (sin boldly), but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.”

         We have important work to do. We have important work to do in our personal lives, as a church, and in this world. When we start with essential things, weeping on our knees in gratitude for God’s gift of forgiven, abundant life, God will set us free.

Jesus said; “Your sins are forgiven.” Your faith has saved you: not your actions, not your words, not your tears, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”

Amen

        

Forgiving God,

Too often we take your forgiveness for granted. Too often we cling to our sin, believing that it is our right to harbor resentments and hatred. Be merciful to us, and show us the depth of healing that is offered when you forgive, for the sake of the one who recognized total surrender to forgiveness and offered it willingly, Jesus Christ our healer. Amen.