A sermon preached in Christ Church, Sheridan, by the Rev. Bruce McNab.
4th Sunday after Pentecost. Proper 6, Year C. June 15, 2013. (Text: Luke 7:36-50)
Sometimes when I read the Bible I wonder: If Jesus were living as a man among us today, what kind of person would he be? I mean: How would he act? What kind of job would he have? And who might modern-day counterparts of the Pharisees be?
If Jesus had been born into our modern age and if lived around here in rural Montana, I imagine him being a workman of some kind—like a field hand or a cowboy—who feels a call from God to be a preacher, but does his preaching along with his regular work of building and mending fences, mucking out stalls, digging ditches and helping manage the livestock. He’d probably be living in an old mobile home out behind somebody else’s barn. He’d be a man who goes every Sunday to a different church and stands up at the “welcome to visitors time” and gives an impromptu sermon or tells a story that upsets the pastor but touches the hearts of many people in the pews. After church, the people leave buzzing about the strange man and what he’s said. Many feel drawn to him, but others are repulsed because he’s so unconventional. (The pastor is always among the ones who are “turned off.”)
To continue these musings, especially in light of the gospel we just read about Simon the Pharisee and his dinner party, who do you think the “Simons” in our world might be? They’d almost surely include “professional Christians” like me, people comfortable with the church just as it is because we’re running it.
But, wait. Are we really happy with the church as it is? —Or, I might say, the church as it has been?— If we’ve learned anything at all from the New Testament, we’ve learned that true religion is not mainly about “rules.” Or about mastering some body of information. True religion is about experiencing a life-changing relationship with God--and the life we live after that change occurs. Let’s translate today’s gospel story into a modern setting, and just for fun let’s re-imagine it in the context of an Episcopal Church in Anytown, USA.
Suspicious of an uneducated, self-appointed evangelist in Carhartt coveralls—but still a little curious—Father Simon corners Jesus at coffee hour and invites him to come to dinner at the rectory that evening along with some other church members. This is supposed to seem welcoming, but it’s really a way to let the parish decision-makers check out what kind of person this Jesus is. (Lots of people who were at the service that morning think he’s wonderful, but others think he’s probably mentally ill.) Maybe Father Simon can at least persuade him not to stand up and preach his own mini-sermon at welcome time if he ever comes back to Trinity Episcopal Church in Anytown.
Simon knows how to do the proper thing. He’s a genteel master of the gracious gesture and proud of how he handles these awkward situations. Truth to be told, Father Simon is quite “proud,” period--though he wears a veneer of phony humility.
We need to put the woman who comes in off the street into our modern retelling of the gospel. Let’s picture her as a familiar “local character” who shows up uninvited at the rectory during Simon’s dinner party. She’s probably a hooker. Yes, that’s the clear implication of the gospel. When she shows up at his house, Father Simon (and the other “nice people” at the dinner party) are sure they know exactly what kind of woman she is. They’ve even seen her on a back pew in Trinity a couple of times over the years; but she’s definitely not part of “their crowd.”
Knocking at the door and barging into the rectory during dinner is out of bounds for well-brought-up ladies. If it wasn’t a church-related gathering, no one would let her in. But, after all, this is the rectory, and (strictly speaking) church custom requires that she be allowed in. Maybe she needs financial help—you know, a check from the Rector’s Discretionary Fund to help with rent, or groceries, or some other necessities.
So, in she comes. But instead of talking to Fr. Simon in the vestibule the way she should, the woman brushes past him into the dining room and makes a bee-line for this Jesus person. Then she starts fawning over him and crying. She’s wearing heavy makeup and mascara, and the tears make a mess of her face. And she’s wearing a totally inappropriate dress—big flowery print, very low-cut, and barely reaching to her knees. Vulgar!
Then this woman of the streets takes a bottle of expensive French perfume out of her gaudy little purse and begins to dab it liberally all over their guest. --And Jesus just sits still and lets her do it! He even smiles at her while she’s doing it! When that happens, Father Simon and the other church people look wide-eyed at one another and nod. All of them are thinking the same thing: “He knows this woman! This ‘preacher’ has been spending time with this shameless wanton. They have a personal relationship! ”
And, of course, Jesus and this shameless woman do have a “personal relationship.” Simon and his other guests have nasty suspicions about what kind of personal relationship it is. Their suspicions are wrong, but they ARE right about one thing. Totally right. The woman is shameless. Jesus has taken away her shame!
Somehow, somewhere, sometime the forgiving, healing power of Perfect Love and Perfect Holiness that meet in Jesus have touched this woman and set her free. The shame of her profession, the shame of her past life, the self-loathing that she’s felt for years have been lifted. She is forgiven. And so she comes looking for Jesus for a perfectly logical reason: it is so she can show her thankfulness and the decent love she feels for him in the biggest, fanciest way she can think of. Indeed, she is a woman who has a “personal relationship with Jesus”! And nothing will ever embarrass her about that.
“True religion” is about practicing the kind of personal honesty that leads to a life-changing relationship with God—and about the life we live after our lives are changed. It’s NOT just about “observing the rules.” True religion is about accepting the grace of God, being grateful to God for his love, and being unashamed to show it and share it with others. True religion is about being a new creation.
Jesus’ willingness to reach out to this woman in healing love had—sometime earlier than the dinner party—overcome her shame. But I wonder what happened to uptight Simon’s pride? Did anything ever humble him? You know, it isn’t until we forget our pride and, in a sense, begin to “feel ashamed of ourselves” that we’re able to turn to God and let him forgive us, make us over. Alcoholics Anonymous has it right: we can’t open ourselves to God’s power til we finally admit we’re stuck and can’t save ourselves.
This woman of the streets had had a lot that needed forgiving when she first met Jesus. And he forgave it all. Those whose many sins have been forgiven are not ashamed to show their love for God. But proud, pious Simon doubted there was much in his life that needed forgiving. (“My ‘sins’? Surely there must be some, but I’m not aware of any.”) Simon was happy just as he was. He had no need of “a personal relationship with Jesus.” (Whatever that might mean!)
Jesus said: “Those who have been forgiven little, love little.” We need to ask ourselves: Do we ever love with “shameless love,” over-the-top love, in showing our gratitude to God, the way the woman did who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair and then anointed him with costly perfume? Do we ever let such over-the-top love manifest itself in front of all the world? Or are we like Simon—willing to acknowledge Jesus with a polite nod, but with no reason and no desire to show him any sort of love?
When we’re honest with ourselves and honest with God, the Spirit delivers us from our illusions and shows us reality: the reality that we’re sinners who need a Savior.
And our Savior is right here!