Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Sermon at Parish Mass, Trinity III 2016

2 Samuel 11.26 - 12.10,13     
Galatians 2.15-21                   
Luke 7.36 - 8.3
We’ve probably all experienced those awkward social moments. The person you’re talking about in disparaging tones whom you suddenly realise is standing just behind you. The unpredictable uncle at the wedding reception who’s had a bit to drink but insists on making a speech and mentions all the things you hoped had been forgotten. The moment you remember that Sally is a vegetarian just as you start carving the roast beef in front of her.
Well today’s gospel reading certainly ranks with those occasions. The scene is a dinner party at the house of Simon the Pharisee. Meals like this, at that time, would not have been private affairs. The doors of the house would have stood open and all sorts of people would have been coming and going.
But this was still a society with strict rules of behaviour, of inclusion and exclusion. Some people were unclean under the religious rules. They would have known not to go in, because they would have contaminated everyone else and ruined the meal. Others were just simply permanent social outcasts, people with a bad reputation whom no-one wanted to mix with. They too would have known their place, that they couldn’t mingle in normal society. The doors of Simon’s house may have been open, but there were still invisible barriers to keep the wrong sort of people out.
Simon was a Pharisee. Pharisees were good people, law abiding and religious, concerned that everything should be done properly, in accordance with the rules. And this new Rabbi, Jesus, had come along, and was causing quite a stir. Simon wants to know, is Jesus really from God, or not? Might he even be a prophet? So he invites Jesus to a meal, hoping to find out more.
And then disaster strikes. In the middle of this dinner party, doubtless with many important guests, there appears this dreadful woman. Luke doesn’t tell us the details of her bad reputation, but everyone present knew who she was, knew the rumours about her. Social awkwardness seizes the gathering.
And it just gets worse. The “fallen woman” comes up behind Jesus – the guests would have been reclining on couches with their feet pointing away from the table – and pours out a precious ointment, and the tears that are streaming from her eyes, onto his feet. She touches Jesus, transmitting her ritual uncleanness to him. She lets down her hair – no respectable woman would have done that in public – to dry his feet in place of a towel.
And Simon thinks to himself, if this man was a prophet, he would know what sort of a woman this is, that she is a sinner.  And – this is the crux of the whole story – Simon is right. Jesus knows exactly what sort of woman this is.
But Jesus embarrasses his host even further by pointing out his lapses in hospitality, and comparing him unfavourably with the woman. You gave me no kiss, you didn’t wash my feet, you didn’t perfume me. She has done all these things. Why? Because she loves.
And Jesus then tells a parable to bring home the point. She loves so much because she has been forgiven so much. She is indeed a sinner – that is, a child of God who has gone astray. And she has seen in Jesus the God who knows her to be a sinner and loves her anyway. She believes in the God who has found her in Jesus, and her faith has saved her.
In this story, the woman and Simon the Pharisee are opposites. He is secure, in his social position and wealth, and in his sense of his own righteousness. He knows and keeps all the religious rules.
But the woman has broken all the rules, or at least enough of them for Jesus to talk of her many sins. But she finds herself justified in the presence of Jesus. She, and not Simon, is told that her sins are forgiven. She has sinned much; she has been forgiven much; she has loved much. 
Simon and the woman illustrate St Paul’s point this morning in his letter to the Galatians. He is addressing a gentile church which has been disturbed by a controversy – if they believe in Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, should they keep the Jewish religious law? Paul’s answer is no – you are saved by your faith in Jesus, not by religious works. And doing the works of the law, being religious and respectable and upright, won’t save you. For Paul, when it comes to salvation, it is either Jesus, or your own efforts – and only Jesus will do.
God’s light, God’s searching judgement, reveals to us that we are sinners. Simon the Pharisee hasn’t got that far, yet. He does not see that his attachment to the religious rules is itself a sin, trying to justify himself by his own efforts instead of depending on God.
But if God’s light shows us that we are sinners, it also shows us the more wonderful truth, that we are loved. Faith opens our hearts to God’s forgiveness, his free gift in Jesus, and lets his love flood in to our lives.
There is something wonderful here. God’s love is so transformative that our sins become the very means by which we know ourselves to be loved. The woman in today’s Gospel loves much, because she has been forgiven much, because she has sinned much. The Franciscan Richard Rohr writes this:
“In the divine economy of grace, sin and failure become the base metal and raw material for the redemption experience itself… Sin and salvation [go together]. Salvation is not sin perfectly avoided, as the ego would prefer; but, in fact, salvation is sin turned on its head and used in our favour. That is how transformative divine love is. If that is not the pattern, what hope is there for 99.9 % of the world?... God seems to be about turning our loves around and using them toward the great love that is their true object.”
The woman’s sins may have been sexual in nature, given the scandal that she causes the religious people (sins of the financial order, which exercised the prophets rather more, don’t seem to bother religious people so much). What are sexual sins, though, but attempts at love that fall short of their object? Well, now she has found the great love for which we are made, the love of God. Her sins have been turned on their head and used in her favour.
Or think of St Paul. He was a Pharisee, like Simon, striving for perfection by works of religion, and violently opposing the dangerous new movement founded by Jesus which let any old sinner in to a place at the table. Until he met the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. “Why are you persecuting me?”, asked Jesus, and turned him around. Saul, the Pharisee, became Paul, the Apostle of grace, making known to all the forgiveness and love that come through faith in Jesus Christ. His sins, too, were turned on their head and used in his favour.

In this church our door stands open, like the door of Simon the Pharisee’s house. The church is the people of God, not the club of good people but the community of forgiven people. We are a people who stand in the light of God and know that we are loved and forgiven, and so are able to love in return. This is the mark of a true church: that anyone coming in and looking at our community should be able to say, “you see these people? I tell you, their sins, their many sins, must have been forgiven them, because they show such love.”

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