17 June 2007

Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost - "Simon's Big Dinner"

Imagine with me for a minute that you’ve been invited to the big dinner at Simon’s house. You should see who’s here – it’s quite a group of folks. There’s Abraham and Lilian: Abe is a moderately successful shipping agent, and Lilian has raised their three kids to be the nicest, most polite children you could ever meet. David down at the end of the table is Simon’s brother-in-law, a banker. You can always count on David for a big donation when the synagogue needs something badly. Thomas and Miriam are here with Miriam’s mother, of course: Thomas tends an olive farm just outside of town, and Miriam runs the household, tends their sheep and looks after her mother, who can be a bit of a pill. Nathan is here, too, with Ruth his wife: Nathan is a carpenter, with rough hands and a booming laugh, but he’s so tender to his beautiful Ruth you’d think they were still newlyweds instead of celebrating their 20th anniversary this month.

Simon invites the loveliest guests, don’t you think? These are all good people gathered here: they are friends, though they come from different circumstances, and they enjoy each other’s company. You can be sure that everyone will have a good time tonight! When Simon heard that that the traveling rabbi from Nazareth was in the area, he went out looking for him, to learn more about him. When Simon heard him speak, he was intrigued enough to ask him to dinner, and tonight the rabbi has come.

There he is: Jesus of Nazareth. He’s talking pleasantly with his neighbors at the table. Like the rest of the guests, he’s reclined to eat, propped up on his left elbow with his shoulders over a pillow and his feet stretching out behind him. He seems comfortable enough with this group of people, though his gaze has a rather disquieting power; most of the people in the room can’t bear to look at him for too long.

But now there’s a commotion at the door, and what is this? A woman enters, with a jar of ointment and a tear-streaked face! She begins kissing his feet and washing them with her hair, and while she’s anointing his feet, Simon recognizes her. Oh, the scandal! What is she doing here? How can she show her face in public? This is inconceivable, that such a sinner should enter Simon’s house, and what’s worse is that she’s harassing the guest of honor at Simon’s table!

Here we leave our pleasant historical fiction and look at this story from our perspective. The sinful woman intruded on Simon’s big dinner and caused quite a stir. Let’s not pretend, though, that this couldn’t happen in our time and place. You probably would have liked Simon and his guests, and you probably would have been shocked to see the sinful woman intruding on such a lovely party. But God took that intrusion into that dinner party and used it to proclaim a powerful message to all who were present that night, a message that changes lives and creates faith where none had been before.

It’s hard to say what Simon expected when he invited Jesus to dinner. Maybe he was one of those people who just like sharing food and fellowship with interesting people. Maybe he was one of those people in town who everyone knows, and so Jesus just kind of got steered in his direction until Simon could make the offer of dinner. Whatever Simon expected, Jesus didn’t deliver, certainly not in the way Simon had expected.

For starters, Simon thought Jesus was a prophet, and he was wrong in two ways on that one. Prophets aren’t mind readers, and they don’t have sin detectors. Prophets speak for God, and prophets know sin because they have remembered God’s law while we have focused on other things. In addition, Jesus was much, much more than a prophet, and Simon would discover how much more very quickly.

Likewise, the guests at Simon’s dinner party, like many of us here today, may have come with the intention of impressing the guest of honor. They might have come to listen to him speak words of wisdom. They might have even been considering supporting his ministry. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but Jesus was not impressed by the way those party guests were managing their lives – even if they were doing their best to live trouble-free, righteous lives following the commandments. There were probably a lot of very nice people at Simon’s big dinner, and I’m sure Jesus enjoyed their company, but Jesus’ mission did not include meeting the expectations of nice people.

Who was it, then, that understood Jesus’ mission right? The sinful woman. The one who caused all the stir and fuss by interrupting a perfectly nice dinner with perfectly nice people. The one who had no business being there in the first place. The Bible doesn’t tell us what her sin was, but frankly, it doesn’t matter: you know who she was. If you met her at the post office or the grocery store, you’d get out of the conversation as quickly as possible. If you saw her name on your caller ID, you wouldn’t pick up the phone. If you heard that she was having some trouble, a small, petty voice in your head would insist that “well, that’s what happens when you live like that.” Never mind that she might not have had a choice, or that she just wasn’t able to make good choices: she was that woman, and you and I know that when that woman shows up at the nice peoples’ party, she’s going to cause a stir. But that woman was the one who understood. That woman was the one who knew what Jesus was about. That woman came to the party with one thing on her mind: thanking Jesus for what he had done for her, in whatever way she could. That woman was the only one at Simon’s big dinner who got it right.

The nice people may have came to Simon’s big dinner looking to impress Jesus, to earn his favor, but Jesus had only one thing to give to them: forgiveness. Not regard or respect or affirmation or even love at first: forgiveness is what Jesus is about on this earth. In Luke’s gospel, every time the word “sin” is used in Luke, Jesus is forgiving it: that’s the point of the whole story. And that woman’s act of kindness to Jesus is the response of one who has been forgiven and swept up into God’s amazing grace. It’s not the act of one hoping for forgiveness: it’s the act of one who is living in forgiveness. When Simon looked at that woman, Simon saw a sinner. Jesus showed him a person who was forgiven and should be as much a part of the party as Simon. Until Simon experienced forgiveness like that woman did, he wouldn’t understand what she was doing. Once Simon does experience forgiveness like this woman has, he’ll never forget it.

So, we gather today, nice people all. Have we come to impress Jesus? Have we managed our sinfulness, hidden it well behind a successful, trouble-free life? Do we come looking for affirmation or respect from Jesus? Perhaps. The maker of all that was and all that is and all that is to come knows you better than that, and he’s come to this party with one mission on his mind: forgiveness. Forgiveness and restoration are the name of the game, acts of mercy through which God promises we will be remade and reborn, different than we are today. No skin-deep salvation here: great grace comes with great change. The difference between the woman who washed Jesus’ feet and Simon and his guests was not their sinfulness: the difference was the depth to which Jesus’ grace had been allowed to change their lives. Those who thought they only needed enough religion to maintain their illusions got exactly that, but when they saw with their own eyes the woman’s deep gratitude for Jesus’ deep grace, they got very nervous. And so do we.

God isn’t interested in helping us manage our sin: God’s investment is far deeper than that. God’s reckless love dives headlong into forgiveness and promises transformation and renewal, even to those of us who think we don’t need renewing in the first place.

Bonhoeffer called this kind of forgiveness “costly grace.” It’s grace that forgives sinners, not just sins, and gets into us and messes around with us. Costly grace is embarrassing, it can be messy and it makes us vulnerable to all kinds of emotional and spiritual turmoil. Costly grace makes us unpredictable and unsettled because it takes all our presumptions about ourselves and the people around us and turns them inside out. Costly grace takes the burden of our sins away from us, but one of those burdens is the shield of self-righteousness behind which we’ve been hiding for a long, long time, and without which we are incredibly exposed. But here, in God’s church, is a place where it must be safe to be that vulnerable. Here is where God has intended for the forgiven to find a home together. Here is the place where we can be embarrassing, messy and vulnerable, unpredictable and unsettled, because here is the place where that word of costly grace is offered again and again and again. Here Simon and the woman and all of the guests at that party can sit together and applaud as we feast on the promises of God’s costly grace and forgiveness: here there is salvation that goes far past skin-deep. So, welcome to the big dinner. The table is set and the guest of honor says, “Come, all is forgiven.”

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