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.


Philip G said...

his is the god who sent himself to earth as his son through a virgin birth to atone for the sins of mankind who he created? Did he not see that one coming?

His son who was also himself dies for a while (bible accounts vary as to how long) and then goes to heaven, promising eternal life to all who follow him and eternal damnation to those who don't and you call this person your 'all loving' god?

Chris said...

Very nice. God's grace is amazing!

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Fr. Michael said...

While I should not have to justify my beliefs on my own blog, I feel compelled to make a couple of statements. I think you (Philip G) are taking a way too simplified view of Christianity. As the Rev. Dr. AKM Adam my seminary NT professor would say at a time like this, "it's more complicated than that."

Now, my two comments. The whole issue of the atonement is one that is very puzzling to me. I have yet to hear an explanation that I find satisfying. The closest I can get to any type of satisfactory explanation is that God did not require a sacrifice for humanity's sins. The God I worship is far too merciful and gracious for that. No, WE needed a sacrifice to be made to satisfy our own limited view of justice. Knowing that we would not get the concept of salvation as a free gift through our thick heads, God gave us what we needed - a sacrifice to make us feel better by allowing us to feel unworthy.

And second, the God I believe in does not "promise eternal life to all who follow him and eternal damnation to those who don't." The God I believe in is truly loving and extends the offer to all humanity, whether they believe in Him or not. I think that in the end, all will be revealed (i.e., irrefutable evidence provided that God does indeed exist) and then we will be given a chance to make the final choice for ourselves - eternity with God, or eternity separated from God. Damnation as in hell with lakes of fire, no. Damnation as in eternal separation from the source of unbounded love, yes. But it will be our choice, not His.

And while I have the soapbox, I find it interesting that self-professed athiests spend so much time trying to disprove the existence of God. If God does not exist as you claim, then what is it to to you if those of us who believe in him do so? We're just wasting our time, which is our own business. And futhermore, if God indeed does not exist, athiests are wasting their own time trying to convice others that something they think does not exist does not exist. Somehow, it seems that devoting so much energy to the issue begs the question that God may indeed exist after all.