Sunday, June 13, 2010

Sin Boldly . . . and Be More Boldly Forgiven

Third Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 6) – Year C (RCL)
2 Samuel 11:26-12:10,13-15; Psalm 32; Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:368:3
Sunday, June 13, 2010 – Trinity, Redlands

“Be a sinner and sin boldly . . .”

This quote from Martin Luther is generally misunderstood and taken out of context. Luther is not condoning sin per say. It is actually part of a statement made in a much broader conversation about sin. Part of that conversation was about what constitutes sin in the eyes of the church, and railing against “sins” that were merely against the teachings of the church and not real sins, such as priests marrying and receiving communion outside the Catholic Church. But it was also part of a longer quote intended to convey something about God’s grace when it comes to dealing with sinful humanity. The fuller quote is “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly.” And then Luther goes on to say “Pray boldly – for you too are a mighty sinner.” Luther is not giving license to go out and commit big juicy sins. What he is actually doing is using irony and perhaps a bit of hyperbole to convey that we rely on God’s grace to forgive our true sins. And that grace is so powerful it defeats sin completely. We do not have to get hung up on the fact that we are still vulnerable to sin – for we will still sin as long as we live. But instead, we can embrace God’s grace, rejoice in God’s power to overcome sin, and boldly accept that God gives us this gift.

Now this was a far cry from a much younger Martin Luther, who in his early days as an Augustinian monk was obsessed with his own sinfulness. He was said to have engaged regularly in fasts, flagellations, long periods of prayer, and constant confession. I don’t know how true it is, but I have even heard that there were times when Luther would go to confession, go through a detailed list of sins no matter how small, receive absolution from the priest, and then would immediately go to confession again, just in case he happened to sin in those few moments since his last confession.

Here within one man, granted, over a period of 15 to 20 years, we have polar opposite views of dealing with personal sinfulness – from being obsessed with it and being wracked with guilt, to humbly recognizing it, recognizing that only God can take care of it, and joyfully and boldly accepting God’s grace. Or, another way of looking at would be a spectrum ranging from focusing on sin to focusing on forgiveness.

This range of understandings of our sinfulness is what is being addressed in today’s Gospel lesson. As we read our Gospel lesson from Luke we are confronted with a question that runs just beneath the surface: How do we approach sin, or rather, what is our understanding of our own sinfulness?

The key players in today’s reading represent two extremes in dealing with sin. We have our host, Simon, a Pharisee who is at the “obsessed with sin” end of the spectrum. This is revealed in a couple of ways – one obvious and the other not so obvious. The obvious is contained in the words of Simon when he says 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.” Her status as a sinner is the first thing that comes to his mind when he sees her. Not outrage that an uninvited guest had crashed his party. Not wondering what she is doing there. Not questioning whether she might be a threat. No, he went straight for her status as a sinner.

And the less obvious reason is the fact that he was a Pharisee. While not specifically stated, he would have been concerned with keeping the Law so as to avoid becoming ritually unclean, to avoid doing anything that might be seen as a sin in the eyes of God – or more likely, in the eyes of his fellow Pharisees. In following the Law, he “knew” himself to be righteous before God. And his guests would have thought likewise. So to Simon, it was quite obvious that the woman was a sinner and he was not. When it comes to his own sinfulness, Simon is in self-righteous denial.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have the woman who knows she is a sinner and in need of forgiveness. We are not told how, but not only does she recognize her sinfulness and the need for forgiveness, she actually recognizes that she is forgiven and moreover, she recognizes the source of her forgiveness. In her recognition, and out of sheer gratitude and joy for having been given such a great, she comes to Jesus to express her thanks. She brings ointment to anoint him, as a proper king should be anointed. But before she can even do that, she becomes overcome with emotion at being in the presence of the one who forgives her unconditionally that she begins to cry. In humility, she makes her own tears a gift to Jesus, to wash his tired, dirty feet. This woman, while certainly aware of her sinfulness, is focusing on forgiveness, not her sinfulness.

Comparing the two principals in this, Simon lacks appreciation of his own sinfulness. He isn’t even aware of his own sinfulness. The woman certainly appreciates her own sinfulness, as well as the enormity of the gift of forgiveness that she has received. What this says to us is that we need awareness of own sinfulness in order to receive forgiveness. After all, we will not accept, or even seek out, that which we do not feel we need. And there is so much that flows from recognition of the need for forgiveness. When we recognize the need, we can accept the gift of forgiveness and know what that feels like – the great joy that the woman felt. And in knowing what that feels like, we are able to experience the love and compassion that God has for us – the love and compassion that leads us to respond in several ways. One is to respond out of gratitude to the one who has granted forgiveness. For us, that takes the form of worship of and service to our God. And the other response is the ability and the desire to forgive others who have wronged us.

Now in a very subtle way, this pericope is cast in such a way as to manipulate us. On one level, we know that we should be like the woman – accepting our sinfulness, but rather than focus on that, to accept and be thankful for our forgiveness. Yet, through the flagrant transgressions of the woman, inappropriate behavior and actions that we ourselves, being proper folk, would never engage in, we are meant to identify more with Simon and his guests. We are meant to recognize that maybe we don’t quite get it when it comes to dealing with our own sinfulness. Maybe we need to look at our image of ourselves and compare it with that of the woman. Maybe we are supposed to look at ourselves and see how we might be able to become less like the Pharisee and more like the woman. For if we are brutally honest with ourselves, how many of us, even if we are willing to admit that we are sinners, tend to think that we are a little less sinful than our neighbors? How many of us are quick to recognize the sinfulness of others, while remaining in self-righteous denial about our own sinfulness. And if that’s where you are, there’s no shame in that. There are a lot of us right there with you. There are a lot of us who need to learn that lesson, too. So what this pericope asks us is: Do we cling to our self-righteousness, or do we blatantly, flagrantly, throw aside the peripherals and joyfully embrace the forgiveness that is made possible through Jesus Christ?

Once we recognize that we need to let our own inner Simon go, we can then turn to what else the story from Luke has to teach us. The portrayal of the woman tells us something about how to let go of our sinfulness and to more fully embrace the gift of forgiveness.

The key is in the nature of the woman’s sinfulness. The woman’s sins, whatever they are – we are not told – obviously carry public shame. Everyone seems to know that she is a sinner. While most of us do not have sins that are public or are necessarily publically known, that does not mean there is no less sense of shame. I would venture that most of us have done something, or not done something, in our lives that cause us some sense of shame – something that we would just as soon forget about and pray that no one else ever finds out about. The actual magnitude of the sin makes no difference. Because for us, at a deeply personal level, such transgressions are huge – they are weighty and burdensome to us. The very fact that we carry shame makes such transgressions a tremendous burden. Now some of us are good at burying such things so deep that they rarely see the light of day. But they are there, nonetheless, exerting their toxic influence on our spiritual well-being. But the good news is that, as the woman shows us, while we see the shame, God does not. He only sees the broken, hurting person that we are, and sees the burden that causes us that pain. And in his love and compassion for us, he forgives us, taking away our sins – taking away the cause of the pain. And in forgiving them, there is nothing shameful for God to see. All God sees is one of his beloved children. In this realization, we are freed from the bondage of our sin. It is this liberation that leads the woman to do what she does.

That is the benefit of focusing on the gift of forgiveness we receive as opposed to our sinfulness. We begin to see ourselves as God sees us. For the extravagant actions of the woman – using her tears to wash Jesus’ feet, using her hair to dry them, anointing his feet with expensive ointment, her tenderness and intimacy – are signs of God’s extravagant love for us. It is this extravagant love that leads God to forgive our sins, no matter how great or small, to take them away, to take away our shame, to free us from the bondage of our sins. And it is the receipt of this extravagant gift that allows the woman, and us, to offer extravagant, heartfelt gratitude to God.

There are times in our lives when we do sin boldly. But God forgives us even more boldly. And for that, we rejoice boldly.

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

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Sunday, June 06, 2010

Lessons in Compassion

Second Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 5) – Year C (RCL)
Youth Sunday at 10:15 Liturgy

1 Kings 17:8-16; Psalm 146; Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7:11-17
Sunday, June 6, 2010 –
Trinity, Redlands
[Original manuscript, but sermon preached from outline]

Now that we’ve gotten through Pentecost and Trinity Sunday, we have a shift in liturgical seasons. We enter the longest liturgical season of the year, the season after Pentecost. We have come through Eastertide, where we focus on the promise of new and eternal life made possible through Jesus’ death and resurrection, and we look forward to the coming of the Kingdom of God. We end Eastertide with Pentecost and the celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit, that gift that provides us with what we need to continue in the here and now until the eventual coming of the Kingdom. And now, in the season after Pentecost, we settle into the fact that we do live in the here and now, and begin looking at how we may live the Gospel in our everyday lives.

Because of the sharp shift we have just gone through, from focus on the promise of the Kingdom of God during Eastertide to living of everyday life in anticipation of the Kingdom, we may be tempted to see the Kingdom as being at some future time and place beyond our own realm. But we do not wait idly by for this kingdom to manifest itself. For with Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Kingdom of God has begun. It is not fully manifest, but it is beginning to break through. It is not for some future time and place, but belongs as much in the present. This Kingdom, while not fully manifest, plays out in the day-to-day lives of each of us, as we struggle to meet our basic needs, as we confront the forces of evil still present in our world – greed, self-centeredness, cruelty, complacency. This season after Pentecost is not about waiting for the Kingdom but rather is about doing our part to help make the Kingdom a reality here and now. It is about living a kingdom lifestyle, living the kingdom values proclaimed in the Gospel. And as our liturgical season shifts, so does the tenor of our Sunday scripture lessons. For the next six months, our lessons give us insight into the way we are to live our day-to-day lives in the newly forming Kingdom of God.

Today’s lessons, particularly the Old Testament lesson and the Gospel, focus on the theme of compassion and the various ways it is manifest in our lives. The Gospel lesson from Luke focuses on divine compassion, on the compassion that Jesus has for the widow as she grieves the loss of her only son. Jesus is responding to the widow’s suffering, both seen and unseen. There is seen suffering in the loss of her son, but also unseen suffering in the sense of hopelessness that she faces now that she has no male provider to care for her. She has instantly been thrust into poverty and to the margins of society. Jesus, moved by her plight, has compassion and solves her two-fold suffering in a miraculous way, through the raising of her son from the dead. For us, this story illustrates the first step in engaging in acts of compassion. Jesus was moved to help the woman. We cannot act in compassion until we are first moved, casting aside our complacency or our hardness of heart.

Now what Jesus actually does is a little beyond us. I doubt many of us have raised someone from the dead lately. So, we will move on to the Old Testament lesson, which puts a slightly different, more human, face on compassion.

In this story from 1 Kings, the prophet Elijah comes to Zarephath. While his entry into the village and immediate demand for food may seem a bit rude, we have to realize that 1) God has told him this woman will provide for him, and 2) he has been living out in the wilderness during a time of drought. So, he has probably not had much to eat or drink for some time. Now the widow is in a bad place herself. She is without hope, having barely enough meal and oil for one final loaf of bread for her and her son. And in this drought situation, there is no hope of getting any more. This is the end for her. But despite her own plight, she has compassion on Elijah and does as he requests. Of course, it probably helps that he tells her that God will provide for her needs. But even so, she had to have a certain amount of faith, as well as compassion, to trust the word of this crazy stranger who has just wandered in off the desert and to give of her remaining meager supplies. Out of her compassion, she does give of what little she has to Elijah. In fulfilling Elijah’s request, God’s promise to her is fulfilled. The meal and the oil do not run out, and she, her son, and Elijah have enough to eat for some time to come.

Now while this story does rely on miracle and divine intervention, I think it also holds some insights into compassion and the miracle of engaging in compassionate acts. In this story, we have the intersection of, or interaction between, human and divine compassion. God had compassion on Elijah and provided for his needs through the widow. In so doing, God also had compassion for the widow. In fact, God’s compassion was really operating on multiple levels. Through Elijah’s words of assurance to the widow, she gained a renewed sense of hope – that this might not be the end, but that she and her son might yet survive. And then through the miracle of the jars of meal and oil, God’s compassion physically sustained the widow and her entire household. The fact that the jars of meal and oil never gave out reveal an even greater truth about God’s love and compassion – God’s desire for all to have life and to have it abundantly.

Not to sound trite, but the underlying message is that when we have compassion for others, our own needs or concerns seem to be taken care of in the process – and sometimes in ways we don’t even anticipate. It’s one of those mysteries. There are all sorts of stories of people who had barely enough resources to survive, but helped another in need anyway. I have been blessed to meet some such people. And their story is always the same. Even after giving, they still had enough for their own needs – just like the widow. And not only were their basic needs met, but they were also blessed. They find they were fed physically, and in the process were also fed spiritually. The amazing thing is that when it comes to compassionate giving, those who are among the poorer in our society tend to give a greater proportion of their meager resources to help others in need. And they generally find that they still have enough to meet basic needs. Studies on this phenomenon indicate that the reason this is so is because such help is an expression of how communities come together to meet common goals. By helping others, they also express faith that their own needs will be cared for.

As a religion based on community, we need to listen to this. Our scriptures are full of stories of compassion, particularly toward the most marginalized in society. And it is through community that we are best able to meet those needs, to express compassion. It is through the individual, but particularly the communal expressions of compassion that we begin to create a sense of the Kingdom of God here and now.

I think the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath also gives us some insight into how we engage compassion, enter into acts of compassion. It is by inviting God into the process, allowing the intersection of human and divine compassion – the divine compassion that presents itself when we invite the prophetic into our midst. This is symbolized in story of Elijah by the widow offering compassionate care to Elijah, the prophet, who in turn revealed that all would be well, and this was backed up by God’s actions. For us, inviting the prophetic into the process means looking to those who have an openness to the calling to be compassionate. Who are these prophetic ones we seek? They are here in our midst. When it comes to openness to being compassionate, there are none more predisposed than our children. Our children and our youth are the prophetic ones we need to turn to.

In this liturgy, we are celebrating our Christian education program by incorporating elements of what our children and youth have been learning all year. In our Christian education programming, we seek to prepare our children and particularly our youth to be sent out into the world. The primary goal is to instill in them the simple fact that God loves them, each and every one of them. And in the process, it is our hope that through their time in our midst, that they have learned what it means to be a Christian, that they have picked-up some sense of Christian responsibility, that they have realized that being a Christian means being willing to serve. But we can only tell them the stories. They have to internalize them. They have to make the lessons their own.

I am pleased to report that when it comes to this part of their education, becoming compassionate followers of Christ, our kids have all passed with flying colors. Our children and youth have not only engaged in acts of compassion, they have been leaders in compassion. Just in the last academic year, our kids and youth have of their own volition (though sometimes with prompting by their teachers) started three campaigns of compassion. They did the Pennies for Peace campaign to help build schools in Afghanistan. They made luminarias to help raise money for the Redlands Community Hospital hospice program, but also to emotionally help those for whom Christmas is a difficult time of year. And our children did a drive to collect baby clothes for Joseph’s Storehouse. And I dare say that this is far more than us grown-ups did during that same timeframe.

Our children and our youth have learned that we who are readily fed are called to feed others. As Christians, this means that we not only feed physically, through the giving of bread, but also spiritually, through the sharing of the Good News, through the giving of Christ, who is the Bread of Life. And they have learned that in feeding others we too are fed spiritually. And thus the cycle continues.

Our job is to raise up our young ones, to teach them, to be good shepherds to them. But our job does not end there. We also need to listen to them, because they also have something to teach us, about Christian values, about Christian responsibility, about working to bring about the Kingdom of God in the here and now. As Isaiah foretells in his prophecy of the coming kingdom, “a little child shall lead them.” And we would do well to follow.

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

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