Proper 6 (The Fourth Sunday After Pentecost)
The Rev. Elizabeth A. B. Tesi
Have you ever noticed how easy it is to burn yourself in a kitchen? When Martin and I were engaged, I decided I needed to bake my famous pumpkin pecan pie for his friends at Thanksgiving, to earn their devotion despite having taken their Martin away from them.
I had four pie plates spread across my baking table, with hand-made crust and pumpkin-pecan-pie filling and delicate pie-crust leaves decorating the top. When I opened the pre-heated oven to put in the pies, I discovered my cast iron pan in there. It had to come out. So I grabbed the pan. Sadly, despite the heat pouring out of the oven, I'd forgotten to put on a potholder. Yep, 400 degrees of cast iron, this hand. I flung the pan to the ground, screaming. The floor in that kitchen was linoleum, so I immediately grabbed the pan again to put it on the counter. Yep, still no potholder. Somewhere in my brain, something said "no pans on counter!" so I grabbed it to put it on the stove. Still... no potholder. Ever dedicated to the craft, I used my unburnt hand to put all the pies in the oven and start the timer, before I retreated to the sink crying and screaming swear words while I ran my hand under cool water. It was months before the burn scars faded.
Shame is kind of like that. I guess a little shame wouldn't be that bad, but usually we pay no attention to it until we have grasped it whole-handed, and really hurt ourselves. And then what? Today, we hear this great story of "so what". For Jesus, it's not so much about the shame, but about how we live the rest of our lives.
Jesus went to dinner at the house of Simon the Pharisee. We don't know why this invitation was issued, but we can guess that it wasn't Simon's first idea of a good time. When I invite someone over, I offer a comfy seat, a chance to take off your shoes, a cold drink. When Jesus arrives, it would seem that Simon skipped those niceties. No wash basin, not even an embrace or a handshake of welcome. One can almost picture Simon saying, "Oh, Jesus. I guess you're here. So sorry you can't stay long."
We meet the sinful woman. Interestingly, Luke is circumspect as to what sort of a sin she has committed. It was pretty bad, as she has been so deeply burned by the public shame that she still bears the emotional scars. Interestingly, in the Greek, we discover that she's not the first to commit whatever sin it was. Luke uses the same word (hamartolos) to describe her sins as he uses for certain other sinful people, like Peter. As in, the Rock of the Church. This woman's sins are unknown, but they are somewhere in the same category as Peter's, Jesus' friend and inner-circle disciple. Sounds like whatever she's done, we could all have done.
It is also interesting to follow the verb tenses as Jesus speaks about the woman- after telling Simon the story of the forgiven debtors, he says of her, "Her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; therefore she has shown great love." The grammar can be ambiguous. But doesn't it sound to you as if she already knows about her forgiveness, and that perhaps simply wanted to dramatically demonstrate her gratitude?
Jesus celebrates the actions she takes as a forgiven woman. He is not concerned with her sin, but he celebrates the actions of her love. The shame she feels is real- but the forgiveness is greater than her shame, and the love she demonstrates bridges the shame. What matters is how she serves Jesus as a forgiven woman.
Shame is a tricky emotion, isn't it? We want to believe that God's righteousness is expressed in generosity and mercy. I freely admit that often it is so hard to feel that. When I grabbed that hot cast iron frying pan and dropped it, I was not thinking "Oh, my, I should get some ice and perhaps be more careful next time." No, all I had the energy to think involved an awful lot of swear words that you guys don't think I know. Shame is like that- once we are scalded, we so often can't muster the energy to think how we can get out of the hole. We can't convince ourselves to forgive ourselves.
Remember that pie story I told you? Sure, it took months for the scars to fade, but today, our friends don't say to me, "Wow, you were stupid for grabbing a hot pan", and I don't feel stupid every time I cook with cast iron (even though I'm much more careful!). What matters to our friends is "Wow, that was a great pie!" That is pretty much what forgiveness in the love of Christ is like. When Jesus welcomed that sinful woman, he saw her love, not her sin. We regular humans hold onto our shame and pain so much longer than Jesus ever did. Stories like this prove that when Jesus looks upon us, he doesn't see the worst of who we are, but the best of us. Perhaps this is why we still tell this story today: because we need to know, when we can't seem to forgive ourselves.
Remember what Jesus tells the woman- "Your faith has saved you; go in peace". He celebrates her actions of her love. The grace of God doesn't just forgive the sin, but welcomes us home. How do we serve Jesus, after we say our confession each week? What are the actions we take, in love, with gratitude? How do we bring grace into the relationship after we say we are sorry? Think about what you do after we complete our worship here. How do you show grace to the people in your lives? How do you live out grace to yourself? Every action we live out each week can be part of living as forgiven people. That sinful, forgiven woman lived out her faith and her hope by falling at Jesus' feet and washing his feet with tears of sorrow and gratitude. I promise you, no matter what or who you have wronged, what matters to God is not the sin we have committed, but the love we give away in the rest of our lives.