"Your sins are forgiven"-Sermon for Proper 6, Luke 7:36-8:3
There are some things in this life that I am sure of…some by fact and some by faith. I know, for instance, as a fact that my physical life will end one day…I don’t believe the fountain of youth will ever be discovered…no matter how advanced science, medicine and technology get over time. And I know that if I don’t file and fully pay my taxes by April 15th each year, that the IRS will indeed hunt me down and find me. I suppose this is at the root of the expression, “There are only two things in life for sure, death and taxes.” Though certainly this old adage is not an exhaustive list, there are other things “for sure” in this life…including many things that I am absolutely sure of that I take on faith…like my wife’s unending love for me…that physical death is more gate than grave…and that God is love…that God loves me, and all us, entirely and forever. And there are other things I am sure of that are affirmed by at least the teachings of our faith, one of which…not so great…is that I am a sinner. I have said many times before, we are living, breathing, paradoxes…beautiful beyond imagining…capable of tremendous love and acts of courage…and…and we are all broken…like a glass bowl dropped on a cement floor shattered into a thousand pieces spread out a great distance from the point of impact…or again in a few words…we are sinners.
Now when one thinks of sin or sinning…we perhaps rightly think of our various trespasses…from stealing a cookie from the cookie jar against the express wishes of our parents…to far, far worse…betrayal, mistruths, violence and the like. And indeed many, if not most, of these sorts of things are sins…that is actions, thoughts and behaviors that run contrary to who God made us to be…contrary to God’s love…as we actually live it in our day to day lives. And in that contrarian moment, if you will, that moment of living a life that is contrary to the love of God, we are separated from God…and we call that sin.
I remember leading a bible study for young professionals in a church I served in Washington, DC during my seminary years. We were talking about God’s forgiveness for our sin…when one woman bravely said something to the effect of, “I am all about God loving me…I am glad to know that God forgives me…but I am not so certain of what…of what I have done to require Jesus’ death on my behalf. I have made mistakes…but I try to make amends…I am not a bank robber, I have not cheated on a significant other, I desire good for the world, I love many people…how can I be described as a sinner?” And I must say…I appreciate her point. Most of us…most of us in this world…are on the whole good and honest…we care and do our best. I indeed said we are sinners…but that we are also beautiful beyond imagining…capable of tremendous love and acts of courage. Yet I still contend we are sinful…I shared with her an image used in a little book called “Questions of Life” by a priest in the Church of England…who said something like…imagine if everywhere you went you were followed by a giant movie screen that projected all your actions, thoughts, motivations, reflections on past choices and behaviors…for all to see…perhaps there would indeed be something that might be worth saying sorry for…some thoughts or feelings or actions that looked like something very different from the love of God…from who God made us to be. Now I don’t think that image or metaphor is perfect…and honestly it makes me pretty uncomfortable to think about personally…there is much in our lives and thoughts that should remain private and is completely normal and appropriate. But I get the point the priest was trying to make…and so did the woman sharing in our group that night. Indeed there is much in our lives…in what we think and in what we do…that is not reflective of who God made us to be…does not look like God’s love as a lived reality in our day to day lives…and this includes just as much what we don’t do as what we do…do…like our unwillingness to acknowledge and enter in to the pain and suffering of others…turning a blind eye to those in need all around us…and to the institutional forms of injustice and inequity that exist in the communities that we inhabit and live. I suppose I believe sin is alive and well in the lives of the faithful and faithless alike…and thus there is much for which to be forgiven…by others…and most especially by God.
And I think it is important when we are willing to acknowledge the sin in our lives…that we think about what stands behind all our sinning…what is at the root of our sin filled thoughts and behaviors. For in my mind our trespasses, our mistakes…big and small…are really just a symptom of sin…even if we use the same word for both the cause and for the effect. You see sin at its root, in the Original Sin sense, is really a hard-wired, DNA level, proclivity to choose self-interest or self-protection over God’s love…which is indeed for me…but also for all of us equally. There are over 50 pejorative words in the English Language, that is words with negative connotations, that begin with the word self…self-indulgent, self-centered, self-congratulating...and on and on. Sin is the choice to live according to the dictates of the self...my own perceived needs and desires…over all else. Someone once said, God created us in his image…and we have been returning the favor ever since. And we do the same to each other…trying to recreate one another in our own image…which results, every single time, in the diminishing of the other…this choice, this behavior does not value the uniqueness and the gifts of the other…and often results in violence…either emotional or physical…and this is indeed sin…no two ways about it.
So here is where I am going with all this…and I am sorry for being totally depressing…I know it’s not even Lent…but it is such a gift…such a blessing…I mean I can’t overstate it…it is altogether wonderful…to just acknowledge that I am a sinner. Sounds yucky and anachronistic…I know…but here’s the thing…the only way we will ever know the grace, the gift, the freedom, the power, the peace, the healing that comes from experiencing and really owning the forgiveness that God has poured into our lives and our world through Jesus’ death and resurrection…the only way we will ever really know it…is by acknowledging how badly we need it…and then and only then can we come before God in true confession, with contrite hearts, saying, “Sweet Jesus…I am a sinner…please forgive me.” And if we do so…I believe nothing can ever be the same. And lest you think this is just a get out jail free card…an excuse to continue bad behavior…to make us feel better…but not really change…I tell you it is not…it is not. My experience in 20 years of ministry, lay and ordained, is that those who with integrity and a desire to change come before God to name their sin and embrace there the forgiveness that is indeed offered, that Jesus’ empty tomb promises, are changed, sometimes, even many times, radically changed…entirely transformed…for forgiveness…asked for and received creates freedom…freedom to live a whole new life…beyond shame…beyond the sin which holds us in bondage. Real change, real freedom.
And this sort of confession and the forgiveness that follows is the very thing we see enacted in our Gospel lesson today from Luke. This beautiful woman who washes Jesus’ feet with her own tears, her own hair…with countless kisses…is indeed a sinner. This is the one thing everyone in the room can agree upon. Jesus’ host calls her a sinner…Jesus himself acknowledges her sin…and her own act of beautiful love rendered to Jesus, the most beautiful scene of confession found anywhere in the New Testament, certainly suggest that she is all too aware of her own sin. So what are her sins? We can conjecture…but who cares. This is the other blessing in acknowledging our sin…the first is of course receiving forgiveness and the power to change…but the second is recognizing that we ourselves are sinners is the ultimate equalizer for all people…who cares what her sins are…for we are not any better…not any less in need of God’s grace and forgiveness. Diving into the nitty gritty of the sins of others is simply an act of justifying our own poor behavior…and this is a sin itself…trying to diminish our own sin and brokenness through comparison…making ourselves feel better through the belittling of the other. This is indeed a sad state of affairs…for we both tear down another person…who is indeed nothing less than God’s beloved…his own child…and we avoid the gift of getting honest about our own brokenness…our own sinfulness…thus separating us further from God…thus keeping us from naming our own sin…getting some sort of power over it…and authentically experiencing the freedom to be transformed…to live more like the people God made us to be…and that can only come through God’s un-ending and grace filled forgiveness…that always awaits a true confession and a contrite heart. And so rather than focusing on this beautiful woman’s past sin…our Gospel passage is inviting us into imitating her confession and true repentance.
So dear God I hope, at least most of the time, that I am not like the man who is hosting this dinner party…standing in judgement over this beautiful and unnamed woman…reviling her lovely act of confession and repentance…feeling that somehow she is beneath him…that he wouldn’t even touch her or even let her wash his feet. For to do so demonstrates only that he is entirely controlled by the sin that fills his life…blindly causing his own heart harm…and cutting him off from a life-giving connection to other people…and most of all cutting him off from experiencing the healing balm that is indeed discovered only in truly asking for and knowing God’s forgiveness…a forgiveness that has the power to literally, literally save our lives. Instead, dear God, make me like this woman…utterly unafraid of what others think…willing to get on my knees to wash Jesus’ feet with my own tears flowing from a truly contrite heart, that knows all too well its sin, using my own hair to wipe the tears away, to cover Jesus feet with oil…whatever that costs me…to kiss Jesus’ feet a thousand times over…and to hear…to really hear Jesus say to me, “Your sins are forgiven…your faith has saved you…go in peace.”
I imagine nothing in this woman’s life was ever the same after her encounter with Jesus…that she felt deeply connected with the source of love…that she was indeed transformed through God’s forgiveness more and more into the person God made her to be. May it be the same for me…may it be the same for us. Four little words that I am quite certain of…I am a sinner…indeed has the potential to change everything for me…and for each of us. Amen.