The Gospel story and the psalm this morning dwell on the same theme –
Specifically, God’s forgiveness of our sins – and our need for God’s forgiveness.
The Gospel story contrasts two main characters in their relationship to Jesus.
The first is a Pharisee named Simon, who has invited Jesus for dinner.
Simon knows that he follows the law and is righteous before God.
It seems that has invited Jesus,
not because he acknowledges who Jesus is or his need for Jesus,
but to share his status.
It is a favor to this young, popular rabbi to invite him to dinner -
and perhaps the Pharisee will share in some of the celebrity status of his guest.
While at dinner, a woman enters.
She comes to Jesus in complete humility and acknowledgement of her need,
and his power to meet her need.
Notice I do not say “humiliation.”
Humiliation is what others – including Simon – try to do to her,
saying “she is a sinner,” so that her whole person is defined by that sin.
But this woman won’t be humiliated.
She won’t be pushed aside, kept out of polite company,
held captive by shame.
Like the bleeding woman who believes she will be healed just by touching Jesus’ cloak, this woman believes that Jesus can heal her woundedness.
So she comes into the Pharisee’s home, and begins to show her love for Jesus in humble and intimate ways.
She is extravagant, even embarrassing, in her public expression of love for Jesus,
and the Pharisee wants to push her away –
but Jesus won’t have it.
Instead, he tells a parable about God’s free gift of forgiveness.
And he contrasts the Pharisee and the woman.
The Pharisee who, feeling no need for or gratitude towards Jesus,
has been polite but distant in his welcome.
The woman who, feeling both need of Jesus and gratitude for what she knows of his ministry of love and healing, seeks him out to express her love.
And then Jesus turns to the woman and proclaims,
“Your sins are forgiven.”
Is this what the woman expected?
Longed for in the deepest part of her heart?
It is certainly not what Jesus’ dinner companions expected.
“Who is this,” they ask,
“who thinks he can forgive sins?”
So Luke uses this story to point to Jesus’ identity as the Messiah,
who shares God’s authority to forgive sins.
But the story ends with the focus back on the woman –
the forgiven sinner.
“Your faith has saved you.” Jesus says. “Go in peace.”
And that is all we hear of this woman.
But I can imagine that she goes from that place with the words of Psalm 32 ringing in her ears.
Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
While I kept silence, my body wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not hide my iniquity;
I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’,
and you forgave the guilt of my sin.
You are a hiding-place for me;
you preserve me from trouble;
you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.
In the book Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament,
Ellen Davis looks at psalms such as psalm 32, which express contrition – sorrow for our sins and our need for God’s forgiveness.
“Contrition,” she says, “means finding the courage to let your heart break over sin.
“For it is ever the nature of sin to turn us in on ourselves rather than opening us outward toward God and neighbor. God’s mercy is wide, but our sin-laden hearts are narrow. The psalmist understands that it is only broken hearts that are truly open toward God. . . .
“we might suppose that God waits to have mercy on us until we are good and devastated by our sins, but the [psalms give] us a different picture. God’s mercy flows constantly, like the sea, yet much of the time we are simply too hard-hearted to experience it. Contrition enables us to feel God’s mercy toward us.”
She goes on to describe forgiveness:
“It is not, as we commonly think, something God does, to us or for us, taking away our spots like a sort of metaphysical dry-cleaner. Rather, forgiveness is God’s immediate presence with us in our sin. It is God’s holy Spirit rushing to the place that opens when our spirit breaks.
“The scarcely believable good news of the psalm is this: the moment of contrition is also the moment of forgiveness, when God’s Spirit – which is all generosity, all love outpoured – meets our spirit, which is all thirsting need.”
Davis picks up on the same message Jesus offers in his parable and teaching
at the Pharisee’s home.
God’s forgiveness is freely given.
It is God’s desire to forgive,
to give us love and to receive our love.
We can choose, like the Pharisee, to hold ourselves apart from that forgiveness.
To believe we have done it all on our own,
and don’t really need God’s mercy after all.
Or, like the woman with the alabaster jar,
we can acknowledge our sin and our need for Jesus.
We can lower our defenses and place ourselves, completely vulnerable,
at Jesus’ feet.
And that is when our hearts – broken open before God – can be filled with love.
We know what comes next, of course.
Each time we gather for worship –
and for many of us, each day in our daily prayers –
we pray as Jesus taught us,
“forgive our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”
Jesus told another parable about a man who was released from a great debt,
then went and threw another man who owed him a minor debt into jail.
His message was that as God forgives us,
we are expected to turn around and forgive those who wrong us.
It is not easy to forgive people who have done us wrong.
But God does not ask us to do this is order to test our faithfulness,
or place a hurdle in front of us.
God asks this because it is God’s vision for human community that we would live together in mutual respect and reconciliation,
That we would receive God’s love and forgiveness in our hearts,
and share that love and forgiveness with one another.
A group has of St Michael’s folks has been reading and gathering to discuss the book by Ellen Davis which I quoted earlier.
When we gathered Tuesday evening, we talked about forgiveness
About how hard it is, especially when we feel justified in our anger.
It is not easy to lay aside our anger and resentment,
particularly when someone has genuinely wronged us,
and perhaps continues to do us harm.
But as we shared stories of forgiving, and being forgiven, and trying to forgive,
there was a sense of holiness in the room.
The stories were of reconciliation and healing.
Of letting go of deep hurt and moving into a new future.
A divorce was final, but the couple moved forward without bitterness to raise children together.
A mother died, but a daughter was left with a great gift of knowing some bit of intimacy and healing after a lifetime of hurt and longing.
Perhaps when we forgive another person,
we need once again to let our hearts break open –
this time to release the love God has placed there.
We know there are times we cannot forgive on our own –
when it is only by the power of the Holy Spirit that we can move into forgiveness.
When we do forgive another person, it is often another of God’s gifts to us –
setting us free from bitterness and resentment.
I want to be clear that forgiveness doesn’t mean we allow ourselves to continue to be hurt.
Sometimes the reconciliation and healing can only be done apart from someone
who is hurtful or violent.
But perhaps the willingness to forgive – to pray for compassion and help forgiving, is part of respecting the dignity of every human being –
even the ones who hurt us.
It is being willing to see another person as God sees them,
and allowing God’s love to flow through us to encompass them.
In that way, we participate in the work of reconciliation and healing that is always God’s will for the world, personified in the person of Jesus.
Jesus said to the woman in the story,
“Go in peace – your faith has saved you.”
We know the salvation of God each time we open our hearts to God’s forgiveness
of our sins.
We know the salvation of God each time we are forgiven by someone we love.
We know the salvation of God each time we experience the healing of forgiving another person.
Thanks be to God, our rock and our salvation.
“Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)
So a lot’s happened in a year, hasn’t it? Just a year ago, we were waiting about this time as a nation to learn whether the Supreme Court would affirm in Obergefell v. Hodges a constitutional right to marriage for all persons, regardless of gender, or not. And at the same time, as a church we were waiting to see whether the General Convention would move forward in authorizing same-sex marriage when it met in July in Salt Lake City, or whether it would not.
Remarkably, both decisions were given in the same week, as the Court’s verdict in favor of marriage equality was providentially handed down just as the Convention was taking up the issue—and walls that had only recently seemed almost totally impenetrable suddenly came down, not unlike the fall of the Berlin wall years ago. (And I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the leading role that the former rector of this parish, Fr. Brian Taylor, played in bringing this about.)
Since then, of course, there have been other controversies that have continued to emerge: there was the meeting of the primates (or chief bishops) of the Anglican Communion, who moved to impose sanctions on The Episcopal Church for its action. And on the national seen in this country, a debate around the question of bathroom accessibility for transgendered people has suddenly flared. Those are continuing sources of concern and distress.
But what I want to focus on here this evening for just a moment, is the remarkable sea-change that happened last summer in our church’s approach to marriage, when it opened the matrimonial doors to all.
Now, it has been said by some that when the church took this action, that such a move represented a radical change in the theology of marriage. And I suppose that might be true, if one focuses only on the gendered nature of our previous understanding of marriage.
But it seems to me, at least, that a fuller account of what happened is that rather than changing our understanding of marriage, what actually happened is that our understanding of marriage has come fully into focus for the first time.
You may know, that given how much trouble the issue has caused, some have suggested that the church should get out of the marriage business all together. Their point is that in the end, marriage is primarily a legal matter between two persons, governed by the laws of the state and therefore most appropriately celebrated in that context rather than the church. The problem is exacerbated, for instance, by the fact that in a church wedding, the minister acts as an officer of the state, which seems to blur that separation of church and state which is such an article of faith of the American political system.
But personally, I would want to resist that attitude, because it seems to me that something really important is actually at stake in the church’s concern for marriage—and that is, that in the willingness of two people to commit themselves wholly and sacrificially to one another as married persons, we are given an image, or an icon if you will, of the kind of reconciled relationship that the church envisions for all of humanity. That’s why, in the prologue to the wedding service, marriage is described as signifying to us “the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church”: marriage is a picture of the level of communion and fellowship that Jesus desires for us to have with him, and by extension with one another. So it’s no wonder that the church has historically cared deeply about marriage: it is one of the most tangible and powerful embodiments we have of the fruits of Jesus’ ministry of reconciliation. This deep relationality between married persons is what human life is meant to look like.
And tonight’s two scripture readings serve to confirm this affirmation, not only because they are among the suggested readings for the marriage rite itself in the Prayer Book, but also for what they hold up as a vision for how we are to live as Christian people. The first of the two readings, from Paul’s letter to the Colossians, sketches out a pretty comprehensive view of how human relationships are meant to function. We are, Paul says, meant to be compassionate, forgiving, and forbearing one another. We are to be peaceful in our hearts, and to live thankfully and generously. And above all, we are to put love at the center of everything, for it is the power of love alone that binds us together.
Then in Matthew, we hear Jesus himself speaking in the Sermon on the Mount, encouraging us to be a light to the world—to make our own personal commitment to his ways of peacemaking, and compassion, and mercy, be so compelling, that others may see Jesus through us.
These two passages, when read at a wedding, make a pretty strong statement: they hold up the idea that the married couple is likewise to live in a relationship so grounded in concern for one another, that those around them may see what it is like (as Paul says) to let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts.
So in the past, we came to associate this iconic relationship within the body of the church exclusively with a couple that included one man and one woman. Those were the blinkers that limited our range of vision. But the question that has been raised for us more recently has been, whether the relationship of reconciliation that is so powerfully embodied in a marriage is actually dependent upon that one configuration. And what we have gradually concluded is that in fact, no, it is not.
And how did we come to that discovery? Well, simply by learning to look with eyes more carefully attuned to see what was around us. There, in plain sight, we (and I mean the whole body of the church) began to notice that there were other kinds of couples in our midst who were living similarly compassionate, peaceful, committed lives—gay, lesbian, bi, trans. Many of you are examples of exactly what I mean. And as we began to notice, we also began to learn that we could see in their, your, our commitment to one another the same iconic relationship that we had previously noticed only elsewhere.
We learned in other words to pay attention to what had always been right in front of us, but which because of our preconceptions we had not been able to see.
So rather than a radical change in our theology of marriage, perhaps what has actually happened is that our concept of marriage has deepened and thereby expanded into new terrain. The love and forgiveness and commitment that we thought we could see only in one form, we are now able to see in multiple forms: where we once were blind, now we see.
In the service for the witnessing and blessing of a same-sex marriage, the couple uses these words to offer themselves to one another:
In the name of God, I give myself to you. I will support and care for you by the grace of God; enduring all things, bearing all things. I will hold and cherish you in the love of Christ: in times of plenty, in times of want. I will honor and love you with the Spirit’s help: forsaking all others, as long as we both shall live. This is my solemn vow.
How could we not think, that when any two people are willing to make that kind of commitment to one another, that they are not fully representative to us of the kind of reconciled humanity that God longs for among us all. How could such a moment be anything, but a cause for celebration and pride. Amen.