Light in Broken Places
Pentecost IV – Proper 6 – June 12, 2016
A sermon preached by The Rev. Dianne Andrews at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA.
We affectionately call ourselves here: “The Saints of Saint Paul’s.” … and indeed we are all blessed and beloved of God, each and every one. But today we are going to ponder issues of sin and grace. Every Sunday, except during Easter season, we confess our sins against God and our neighbor. I know that there are some who have a hard time saying the confession but I would suggest that the confession of sin is a bridge towards healing. Nadia Bolz-Weber is the tattooed, ex-alcoholic and drug abuser, an Lutheran pastor who serves a congregation who boldly call themselves “House of All Sinners and Saints.” Nadia doesn’t shy away entering the realm of human brokenness where God’s grace seeks to bring the beloved back to life. I love the title of Nadia’s book Pastrix that is subtitled “The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint.” When we confess, we confess… that we have not loved God with our whole hearts, or our neighbors as ourselves. We confess that we have opposed God’s will in our lives. What we are not to be doing is entering into the realm of “shame”… for shame is feeling guilty about “who” we are. The author Sara Miles says that confession is “honesty for the sake of restoration.” 1 We confess that we are “not OK”… but that does not mean that we are inherently bad. Confessing our sins is to name actions that have hurt ourselves, or someone else. Such actions grieve the heart of God. To confess our sins means that we must prayerfully consider and discern how God is calling us to live, in this moment of our earthly sojourn. To speak of sin, we must acknowledge the possibility that there are new ways of being that are more life- giving, not only for ourselves, but for our families, communities and the earth. We are offered the gift of “metanoia” of a change of heart that is healing and life-giving. God yearns for us turn our hearts back to God’s intentions for well-being and wholeness. Ignoring sin will not make it go away. We beautiful and fallible human beings… are so prone to desire that our image in the world be presented as we want it to presented… perfect, unblemished, ideal. The price we pay for that effort is that our shields go up, and as they do, we may well be locking out the healing light of redemptive grace. We are being offered so much. It is for us to reach inside and offer up the truth of our brokenness to God. The church offers the healing balm of absolution for our sins. We never confess without being offered some form of acknowledgement that we are precious to God. The gift of forgiveness is always close at hand. In absolution we are told to be “strengthened in all goodness” and that eternal life, which is not only the promise of life after death, but abundant life right now, in this moment. What is our response to this great gift?
The woman in our gospel lesson today is named “a sinner.” Please be clear that this woman, who most likely needed to survive by working as a prostitute… and who is clearly an outcast in society… is not Mary Magdalene. It was in a sermon by Pope Gregory, in the year 591, that Mary Magdalene, a beloved disciple of Jesus and first witness of the resurrection, was conflated with the woman in today’s story. Since the Middle Ages Mary Magdalene has too often been identified as a harlot. Just yesterday, there was an article published by “The Catholic News Service”2 saying that Pope Francis is naming July 22 as the feast day of St. Mary Magdalen, recognizing her role as “the first to witness Christ’s resurrection and as a ‘true and authentic evangelizer.” Mary Magdalene’s reputation has been redeemed.
But what of the woman in today’s story? I can imagine the shivers that went through that room when the marked woman seemingly crashed the Pharisees’ posh party and brazenly went up to Jesus to anoint his feet with fragrant ointment. The woman was an embarrassment to the sanctity of the host and his table. This was a party given for Jesus. Simon the Pharisees’ motives for inviting Jesus are not quite clear. Jesus, himself, says that Simon’s hospitality to him was lacking. Simon offered no water for Jesus to wash his feet as would be the customary offering for honored guests. Be clear, too, that this is a story in which Jesus has chosen to eat with Pharisees. His dinner companions were not always tax collectors and sinners… though we might see that Jesus has indeed chosen to eat with the broken who call themselves “Pharisees.”
I can imagine that the tension in the room rose as the host and his other guests witnessed the weeping woman begin to bathe Jesus’ feet… and then to dry them with her hair… and then to continue kissing and anointing his feet. Hers was an intimate display of gratitude. What a spectacle! The woman had been so touched by the love and the forgiveness that she had experienced… that she was drawn to give back with great affection. The sensuous gesture evoked discomfort… and as the discomfort rose, so did the meaning of the woman’s gesture. Simon said 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.” Clearly, in Simon’s mind, Jesus’ religious credentials should be invalidated. Jesus is being defiled by the touch of a sinful person, a sinful woman no less. In this encounter Jesus is not forgiving the woman for her sins… she knows that she is already forgiven… thoroughly and completely… and that is why she has come… to give thanks.
Jesus responds to the Pharasaic criticism, of allowing a sinner to touch him, by telling the story of the creditor who cancelled the debt of two, one whose debt was greater, and the other whose debt was but a fraction. He asks the crowd, “And who will love the creditor more?” Simon answers correctly, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” Jesus then points out that he, himself, was not welcomed in the Pharisee’s home with the washing of feet as was the custom for receiving honored guests. But the woman… the woman showed great, great love… The woman was not there to ask for forgiveness. She was there to show her gratitude for the gift that had already been given to her… The woman give thanks to Jesus amidst spectators who were disturbed… and irritated… and given a lesson… in the intimate and challenging witness of Jesus and the woman and in Jesus’ message to them. The discomfort about this scene was evidence of the power of the Gospel’s message. Grace is available to all… and it is calling us to move to the edges of our own zones of comfort… to stand in the glaring truth of our own brokenness and sin… and to allow… and to receive God’s healing grace… across class, across education levels, across the demarcations… of societally imposed labels about status and importance… to receive the great gift of healing in the depths of our being… the light of healing grace.
An ancient way of talking about sin was to describe the sinner as curvatus in se, “curved in on oneself.”3 Dying to sin, dying to the old self, being healed, and reborn to new life, can be done over and over again… and it means that we never return to the same place of brokenness however many times we may fall again. Dying to sin and receiving forgiveness is to release our stubborn rigid selves to receive the grace that God so desperately wants to pour out upon our sin-sick souls. There is relief and renewal. A well-known saying is that the work of the gospel is not to “make bad people good, but to make dead people alive.” … And when we feel new life coursing in and through us… we can do none other than to say “Thank you” and to break bread together in the act of “Eucharist” in the sacrament of “Thanksgiving.”
The 13th century Sufi mystic and poet Rumi has written, “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” Nadia Bolz-Weber, the 21st century pastor of the House of All Sinners and Saints has said, “Grace is when God is a source of wholeness, which makes up for my failings. My failings hurt me and others and even the planet, and God’s grace to me is that my brokenness is not the final word … it is that God makes beautiful things out of even my own [expletive].” And there we will leave it.
Now let us sit in silence for a few moments, affirm our faith, pray our prayers, and confess our sins… that saved by the gift of grace we may continue our journey to the table… to share the Christ’s feast of thanksgiving together.
Brokenness is not the final word.
1 Sara Miles, Searching for Sunday, Nelson Books, Santa Rosa, CA, 2015, pg. 71.
2 http://www.catholicnews.com/services/englishnews/2016/pope-elevates-memorial-of-st-mary- magdalene-to-feast-day.cfm
3 Alan Jones, Living the Truth, Cowley Pub., Boston, 2000, pg. 100.
1 Kings 21:1-10, (11-14), 15-21a