Stephanie Haskins Maquoketa UCC
Luke 7:36-50 June 12, 2016
Every one of us, I’m convinced, has at least one person in their life that they haven’t forgiven yet. Maybe you’re thinking to yourself: “Just one?” On Friday, I saw a picture on Facebook of the person I haven’t yet forgiven, and just looking at it made me spontaneously imitate my dog. “Grrrr…” I literally thought: “Grrr…” Just seeing his picture was enough to flood me with images, memories, and conversations that I would just as soon forget. I felt this rumbling in my tummy, and, friends, I don’t think it was compassion. Every one of us has at least one person in our lives whom we have not forgiven. At least one. Some of us forgive because Jesus said we should. But most people moved to forgive do so, at some level, because they want to be free. They want to be free of the crippling negativity, the resentments, the pain. They want to be free of all the energy it takes to be mad at someone, to be free of the pain that remains even years after hurtful actions. If that speaks to you where you live today, if you have a similar desire, to be free, this sermon is for you.
The story that Luke tells about forgiveness is fascinating. At least, I think so. See if you agree. You might know this story, or one similar to it. It begins with Jesus going to a Pharisee’s house for supper. When this happens in the Bible, you know some stuff is about to go down. You know there’s going to be some drama. I don’t know why, but it’s always the case. The Pharisees are an interesting set of people. It’s fair to say that they’re received a bad rap over the years, mostly because of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. You see, we would have liked the Pharisees. The Pharisees were the mainline folk; they cared about justice, they were loved by the common people (unlike the Sadduccees, who had a reputation for being by and for the 1%), and they were a bit liberal in their Bible-reading. Jesus was probably a Pharisee himself. As a movement, the Pharisees helped to birth rabbinical Judaism. When I was in seminary, I remember reading the Gospels with my Jewish friends who were preparing to be rabbis. When we got to passages like the Greatest Commandment, my friend Sarai said, “Oh yeah, that looks familiar. That sounds like the great rabbi Hillel.” How about that? So Jesus had more in common with other Pharisees than we might think, or would like to believe. But you know what they say about arguments? The ugliest ones are with the people we have the most in common.
So Luke has a mustache-twirling Pharisee invite Jesus to supper. Just being nice. And hospitable. And all is going well until a woman shows up. I think you can probably guess from what you already know about the Bible that this is a shocking event. Random women don’t just show up to places. This is where the drama begins. This woman is probably a person of means, but for some reason, she has been labeled a “sinner.” Male interpreters of this story have insinuated that her crimes are sexual in nature, but consider the source. We don’t know who this woman is, whether she’s had a previous encounter with Jesus, whether she is soliciting him, what exactly she means by pouring her alabaster jar of ointment all over his feet. If you want to, you can read into her actions almost anything you want. You can give her any number of credible backstories. But her actions speak all of her words. In an elaborate display of hospitality, of vulnerability, of sensuality, the woman wants to communicate to Jesus something that goes very deep.
She reminds me of a woman that I saw about a month ago. When I was in San Francisco, I attended a worship service of a United Church of Christ congregation that was specifically founded for LGBTQ people of color. At the height of the AIDS crisis in the Bay Area, this church began to care for people who were being ignored. And, as I saw, decades later, they are still doing this work. The worship experience was Pentecostal-y—lots of singing, dancing, and swaying. And at one really sweaty moment, this one woman in the front, who might have been transgender, really got going in her dancing. She had five or six-inch platform heels on, and she moved like she was filled with the Holy Spirit. Which she probably was. But I was worshipping with other clergy, and clergy get anxious about things like this. We don’t want anyone to get hurt. But she ignored us, as she should have. She just danced on, and swayed, until she finally fell down. She was fine; good church people helped her to her feet. They made sure she wasn’t hurt. But every eye in that place was fixed on her. I don’t know if that woman danced because she was full of sorrow or if she danced because she was full of joy. I just know that whatever it was, there was a lot in that dance. And it reminds me of the woman with the alabaster jar.
It gets uncomfortable when we let people know what we really feel. And you can imagine the Pharisee’s discomfort at witnessing so much of whatever that woman wanted to communicate to Jesus. And because he’s Jesus, Jesus can tell that the Pharisee is uncomfortable. So he tells a little story. A creditor forgives the debt of two debtors. The first debtor owes about fifty days’ wages. The second debtor owes five hundred days of wages. Which of them, Jesus asks, will be more grateful to the creditor? Well, duh. It’s the debtor who owes fifty days’ worth of wages. The Pharisee knows the correct answer. To the story. But Jesus points out, yeah, you can see that debt clearly. So why can’t you see that the woman who invited herself into your house has great needs? Why do you need to separate yourself from her? To call her a sinner; to assume that you’re a saint. I came for those who know exactly where they stand. She knows who she is, she knows where she’s been, she knows what she’s done. Forgiveness isn’t that hard for her. You might even say that she got the ball rolling. If you don’t think you need forgiveness, you can neither receive it nor grant it. But if you know how much grace has been extended to you, how much of your life is gift (and that’s pretty much all of it), then you won’t need to harbor resentments anymore. You can be free.
Well, the people who are sitting around the dinner table begin to ask themselves: “Who is this guy?” Only God can forgive. But Jesus ignores them. And he speaks, for the first time, directly to the woman with the alabaster jar. “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Notice that Jesus never says that God is the only one who can forgive. Notice that Jesus praises the faith of the woman. “Your faith,” he says. “Your faith has saved you.” Who has the power to forgive? Is it just God? I don’t think so. Jesus never said that. If I’m reading this right, every single person has the power to forgive. The authority to forgive. The innate capacity to forgive. With God’s help, sure. Nothing good happens without God’s help. But God blesses our forgiveness. God trusts our faith, yes, our faith, though we may complain that it’s so small, so measly, so inadequate. Fine, Jesus says, I’ll talk about the power of faith the size of a teeny tiny little mustard seed. Try to wiggle out of that one. Try to demure. Try to play small, then. But we still do it. For some of us, the only thing keeping us from forgiving is our desire to forgive. Because, if we’re honest, we don’t want to forgive that one person. It’s strange, it’s weird, it’s messed up, but some sick part of us likes having that chocolate sticky mess all over our hands. It feels a little good to feel bad.
Or maybe that’s not your issue at all. Maybe you are genuinely tired of feeling all that resentment. Then, for you, I have another tack to take. In my experience, a lot of us don’t forgive because we want to avoid all that pain. It’s a reasonable response; unfortunately, it doesn’t work. You can’t avoid the pain. You’re going to have to feel it. I wish there was another way, and I wouldn’t want to claim that God can’t take anything away in an instant, but, nine times of ten, for most people, healing involves getting your fingers sticky. You have to feel the sadness, feel the shame, feel the anger, the betrayal, the vulnerability. It’s natural to want to avoid the dance, to step over the spilled jar of ointment, to scroll quickly away from that Facebook picture. It’s natural to want to shy away, to back off, to make snide comments to your table-mates, which is fine. Just know that’s a delaying tactic. When you’re ready, you will stop running away from the hurt. When you’re ready, you will run towards it. I’m not promising that it will be pretty. Or appetizing. In fact, it might be embarrassing. It might make other people uncomfortable. But do you want to be free, or not? I can’t answer that for you. But I think I know what God wants for you.
At a crucial moment in his ministry, in the final days of his life, Jesus had a decision to make. And it happened in the garden, when his disciples were sound asleep (in more ways than one), that he came to a kind of peace. He would not run away from the place where his path was leading. He decided that he would allow himself to be captured, to be tried, and to be killed. He decided to enter the darkness, to absorb it even, so that more light might enter the world. He showed us the way. Not the way of more suffering, but the way through suffering. You and I have the power to forgive, like Jesus forgave. Like God forgives. So we don’t need to fear the darkness. And you know why? Because God will be there, guiding us through. You will know by the smell. Not of chocolate sauce. It will smell like sweet, sweet perfume. Amen.