Sunday, June 17, 2007

Expressions of Gratitude

Proper 6 – Year C (Third Sunday After Pentecost)
2 Samuel 11:26-12:10,13-15; Psalm 32:1-8; Galatians 2:11-21; Luke 7:36-50
Sunday, June 17, 2007 – St. Alban’s, Westwood

In today’s Gospel lesson, I’m particularly fascinated by the woman – as Luke characterizes her, “a woman in the city, who was a sinner.” In other words, she was probably a prostitute. But despite her profession, this woman is a symbol, an example, of absolute, unapologetic gratitude. She comes into the house of Simon the Pharisee uninvited and interrupts the dinner party in progress, because she wants to see and be in the presence of Jesus. Luke does not give us any clear-cut clue as to her specific motive. It could be that she had heard of Jesus’ healing power, of his unconditional love, of his willingness and ability to forgive the sins of others. Or it could be that she has had a previous interaction with Jesus –one in which Jesus forgave her sins. Based on Jesus’ comment that “her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love,” leads me to conclude that he had previously forgiven the woman’s sins and that she sought him out to express her love, to express her profound gratitude for what he had done for her – he had not only forgiven her sins, but given her the opportunity for new life.

That being the case, the woman goes to Jesus, completely overwhelmed with her sense of gratitude for what he has done for her. It is as if she is oblivious to the presence of anyone else in the room other than Jesus. In her torrent of emotion, she completely debases herself, humiliates herself by clinging to Jesus, crying tears of joy for what he has done for her, crying tears of shame for her unworthiness for such a blessing. She lies at his feet and washes them with her tears, drying them with her hair, anointing them with precious ointment, in an act of complete humility, an act that would be perceived by others as humiliating herself. But she does not care what others think about her. In some ways, the Pharisee and his other guests could not think any worse of her than she has thought about herself. They speculate about what kind of woman she is. She knows what kind of woman she is, or rather, what kind of woman she was prior to her encounter with Jesus. And most importantly, Jesus knows what kind of woman she is and loves her anyway, forgives her anyway. In spite of her unworthiness, he is willing to forgive her anyway. This sense of unworthiness would have undoubtedly increased her sense of gratitude exponentially. In her gratitude, she is able to focus totally on Christ, knowing that regardless of what others may think of her, that his are the only thoughts that matter. And his thoughts are of pure love, pure forgiveness, pure grace.

In the midst of all this, Simon and his guests begin to question what kind of person Jesus is. “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.” The unspoken implication is that Jesus must not be a prophet, a holy man. No self-respecting holy man would allow a sinful woman to touch him, to kiss him, to defile him. But this does not matter to Jesus. Nor does it matter to the woman. She knows what kind of man Jesus is. Despite what Simon and his guests are thinking, she knows in the inner depths of her being that this is a special man. He had proclaimed forgiveness of her sins. But this proclamation was not mere words. In his proclamation, her sins had truly been forgiven; her sins had been taken away. She could feel Jesus love, his unconditional love, as he bestowed not merely the words of absolution, but as he actually took her sins from her, took them upon and into himself. He was willing to take on the debt that she herself was unable to pay. In return, she was made clean, she was made whole, she was made holy and blessed – the beloved daughter of God that she was created to be.

The irony of this scene is indicated by Jesus’ riddle to Simon regarding the creditor who forgave the debts of one who owed 500 denarii and one who owed 50 denarii, and by the subsequent chastising he gives 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.” Simon, a Pharisee, a man well-versed in Jewish custom and law, could not be bothered to even show Jesus the basic forms of hospitality generally shown an honored guest. He had not acted out of common courtesy. And then he has the gall to criticize when this woman acts not out of courtesy or social responsibility, but purely out of her desire to show her gratitude.

Simon just doesn’t get it. He does not recognize his own sinfulness – not merely the “sin” of neglecting his responsibilities as a host – but the very sinfulness that we all carry as human beings – the sins we intentionally commit and those we unintentionally commit. Simon does not recognize his own sinfulness, and because of this, does not, or cannot, recognize his own need for forgiveness. And he certainly could not see that Jesus was the one who had the power and the authority to grant forgiveness – “Who is this who even forgives sins?” I like to think that this exchange with Jesus, this scene with the sinful woman, stuck with him for the rest of his life, and that following Jesus’ death and resurrection, he was able to look back and truly learn from what had happened at his dinner party – that he was indeed a sinful person, as much in need of forgiveness as his uninvited guest – and that through his death and resurrection, Jesus was just the one to bestow such a blessing, just as he did to the woman.

Even though these events took place nearly 2,000 years ago, these events are still being played out in our own day. Yesterday, I met a phenomenal woman, Ruth, who is the founder of Come As You Are, or CAYA, a program that helps the homeless in my hometown of Riverside. Ruth told the group I was with a story that touched my heart, not only because it demonstrated God’s grace and mercy, but also because it further illustrates, in a contemporary situation, today’s Gospel lesson. Ruth told us about one of the people she has been working with, Herb. Ruth first met Herb about a year ago. Herb has been homeless for over 30 years, ever since his return from Viet Nam. He makes his home in a little hooch he constructed along the Santa Ana River bottom. When Ruth first met Herb, he looked like a wild man, almost inhuman. His hair was long, tangled, matted, and filthy. His beard was long, dirty, and infested with all sorts of bugs. All he wore was a pair of crusty, tattered shorts. Tortured by his experiences in Viet Nam, what he had witnessed and what he himself had done, he turned to heroine for solace. Herb had hit rock bottom. In most people’s eyes, he was one of the dregs of society. But not in Ruth’s eyes.

One day last summer, Herb was at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, the headquarters for CAYA. He was talking to Ruth. A little boy came up to Herb and asked, “Are you from God?” Ruth was shocked at Herb’s response. He said, “Yes.” And after a moment, he stood up straight and proud and boldly proclaimed, “Yes, I am from God.” With a new found confidence in his status as a beloved child of God, Herb proceeded to point to the crucifix he was wearing and told the boy about Jesus. A few weeks letter, Herb showed up at St. Michael’s and went to the parish Bible study. They were talking about baptism and Herb said he had been baptized a long time ago, but he was still tortured by what had happened to him in Viet Nam and that he thought he needed to be baptized again. Ruth told him that you can only be baptized once, but what he did need to do was ask Christ for forgiveness.

Some time later, a man showed up at St. Michael’s. Ruth did not recognize him by sight, but recognized his voice. It was Herb. He had shaved his head and his beard, and was dressed in respectable clothing. He told Ruth that he had asked Jesus for forgiveness and when he did, he knew he was indeed forgiven. He cleaned himself up, got off heroine, and even managed to find a job. Since then, nearly a year ago, he has been clean. While still homeless, he helps out at CAYA, around the neighborhood, and has even used street justice to get rid of the drug dealers that used to hang out near one of the local high schools, so teenagers will not fall prey to the demons that plagued his life for so many years. Herb experienced Christ’s forgiveness and the gift of new life. He has been made clean and whole. And he has been working ever since, in any way he can, to express his gratitude. He may not be washing Jesus feet with his tears and drying them with his hair, but he is working to improve the lives of his fellow brothers and sisters, which is the contemporary equivalent.

We are fortunate that we live on this side of the resurrection. We do not have to live in the ignorance that beset Simon the Pharisee. We know that we are sinful creatures, doing things that are displeasing to God, that may be hurtful to ourselves and to others, either intentionally or unintentionally. While it is certainly not pleasant to be confronted with our imperfection, with our sinfulness – after all, don’t we all have a little bit of Simon in us, as well? – the good news is that our knowledge of our sinfulness is actually a blessing to us. It is a blessing because through this self-awareness, we also understand that we are sorely in need of forgiveness, just like Ruth told Herb. And the good news is that forgiveness is freely given to us by our Lord Jesus Christ if we only ask. Just ask Herb.

Because of this gift, freely given to us, I think it is only right that in being forgiven, we remember and honor the sinful woman who cried at Jesus’ feet, wiped them with her hair, and anointed them with ointment. She is an example par excellence of the type of gratitude we owe the one who bestows on us the blessing of forgiveness and the gift of new life. She is a model of what it means to truly love Jesus – passionately, sensually, extravagantly. That is gratitude. That is faith. That is faith expressed.

As Jesus told the woman, and I’m sure, as he told Herb, he also says to us, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

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

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