Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
June 12, 2016
Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
Did you ever play that game when you were a kid where you would compete to see who could hold their breath the longest? It may seem like a stupid thing to do now, but for kids it can be the height of entertainment. If you’re in the right frame of mind, you can see the goofy humor of taking an essential, abundant substance and making a game out of who can refuse to rely on it, for absolutely no reason except the fact that you can. I’ve never seen adults play this game, but I have seen adults do something just as childish: steadfastly refuse to accept God’s love, even though God’s love is as necessary, as abundant, and as close to us as the very air we breathe.
We all need God’s love, the divine wind that first blew over the formless void of primordial creation, the gentle breath of life that enlivened the first of us and animates us still. God’s love is life itself, and the sustenance of life, forgiveness, healing, growth, strength, and transformation. God’s love makes us one with our neighbors and with God, and it is even more abundant than the air.
The two people with whom Jesus interacts in today’s Gospel show us the two basic options we have for dealing with this situation. Simon the Pharisee is prosperous, righteous, callous, and smug. He has played by the rules as he understands them and he has attained a position that allows him to lavish banquets in the sort of house where you can throw a lavish banquet. But while you and I would use resources like this to share the joy of fellowship, Simon seems more interested in showing everybody just how much better he is than them. He invites Jesus to the banquet, yes, but then shows him none of the customary acts of hospitality. It would be as if you invited a visiting public figure to your home, threw their coat on the floor, and asked them to take out the trash. And then, because that wasn’t rude enough, he makes a snide remark that manages to insult both Jesus and the woman tending to him in a single breath. “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.” Luke tells us Simon said the remark “to himself” but I imagine it as a stage whisper, and indeed, the very next thing that happens is Jesus correcting Simon with his parable about the debtors. At that point, Simon disappears from the story except to offer the obvious answer to Jesus’s question. But how much conversation would you expect from a man holding his breath? Although, we can hope that his willingness to invite Jesus and listen to what he has to say is a sign that he is getting ready to change his ways.
The woman with the alabaster jar shows us the correct way to respond to God’s love, accepting that love, making it part of herself, and sharing it back out again. She has no illusions about herself, yes; she is a sinner and yes, everybody seems to know it. Just as important, though, is that she has no illusions about Jesus, either, nor about what he can do for her. The woman’s lavish treatment of Jesus is not something she does to earn forgiveness; she never even asks to be forgiven. Rather, she treats Jesus as she does simply because of who he is— and who she is. He offers not just forgiveness of specific past sins, but a deep, ongoing relationship with God, based on eternal and unconditional love. She brings herself, all that she has within herself and all the possessions she can muster and lays everything, literally, at Jesus’s feet. She doesn’t care how it looks, doesn’t care that this episode will only deepen her humiliation in the eyes of Simon and people like him, all she cares about is being with Jesus and expressing her love and gratitude in the best ways she can.
In addition to the weighty emotional dimension of this passage, there is also a more subtle exploration of stewardship. As I said before, Simon is clearly a rich man and yet he chooses not to offer the expected gestures of welcome. Whether this was intended to belittle his guests or some sort of bizarre scheme to pay fewer servants, he expresses a mindset of scarcity, perhaps a scarcity of money, perhaps of esteem. Either way his fears are unfounded. The most important thing in the world was right in front of him, present in limitless abundance. But Simon had closed himself off to God’s love, refused to participate in the one transaction that could make him truly rich. Meanwhile, a poor woman revealed the possibilities that come with being open. She had sacrificed, perhaps sold everything she had, to be able to buy a precious ointment. She couldn’t even have been certain that she would be able to get into the banquet and use it to anoint Jesus’s feet, and I doubt she even asked about the merchant’s return policy or saved the receipt. That’s a big deal by itself, but then the story goes on to tell us that there is an entire group of women following Jesus and they manage and direct their own finances. Remember that this was a culture in which it was scandalous for a woman to travel without a male relative, but here is a group of unrelated women not only living on their own, but controlling their own money. Unlike Simon, they used their resources to help others and to glorify God. The group was mixed, with this poor woman and a top official’s wife and doubtless many from every class in between. And not only did they associate with an unrelated man, Jesus himself had defied his own family obligations to live a very unusual itinerant lifestyle. To an outsider there wouldn’t be adequate words to describe how far outside the cultural norms they were. And yet Luke portrays the whole thing as normal.
From a certain point of view, it was all perfectly normal. That point of view is from within the Kingdom of God. These women are a prototype of the Church, showing exactly what it means to follow Jesus, to allow nothing to be more important than their relationship with God. Everything they did followed from that relationship. They experienced the true and perfect freedom of life in Christ, freedom from the Simons of their society who would have put them down and brushed them off without a second thought.
We need stories like this to remind us why we should face down our fears and take the risk of accepting God’s love. It’s natural to be afraid of any force bigger and stronger than ourselves, and this is the mother of them all. God’s love inevitably transforms everyone and everything it comes in contact with, sometimes in unexpected ways. Or, to come at it a different way, it’s hard to admit we need to be changed. We don’t have to be as petty and status-conscious as Simon to resent the implication that we need outside help. But it may be easier to open up to God once we remember that the same one who gave us our individuality in the first place is not trying to make us conform to a specification, but rather helping us to be the strong, unique beings we were created to be. God’s love brings us new life along with forgiveness, strength along with gratitude.
The final step comes when we return the love we have received. Only when we give love away is our own joy complete. God is present for this step too, not only guiding us, but also accepting the love we offer to the world. When we express our love directly to God in praise and thanksgiving, God actively accepts our offering. And when we express Christian love to another person, the image and the presence of God in them is what allows them to receive that love, and God’s love for them makes them worthy to receive it. Every time we act with mercy, grace, and generosity, we move deeper into the cloud of witnesses, the fellowship of divine love we were created to be among. By allowing the breath of God to flow through us, we become ever so slightly more like the source; a little bit of our imperfection is blown away.
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