Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Sermon Washington, DC

Let me begin this morning by thanking our Pastor Ellen for inviting me to preach this morning and by thanking all of you for listening to me, not just a couple of months ago, but on the many occasions of my speaking from this pulpit and for all the support I have received from this congregation over - can you believe it? - the past 12 years now.

In the church calendar, we just celebrated Ascension Thursday and we look forward next week to celebrating Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit fifty days or seven weeks after the crucifixion of Jesus.  Next weekend we also will celebrate Memorial Day here in the US.

Today I am not going to say much about history, as I have a history of doing.  Instead I am going to begin with a couple of stories by way of introducing today's lesson.   The second of these stories will be about a rabbi whom I heard speak at the Washington Rotary Club just ten days ago.  His presentation was so good and it consisted of just two little stories, so I thought I'd do likewise.  Monkey see monkey do. 

So:  two stories, one about a rabbi, but first a story about a librarian and me.  I love odd conversations that take place with strangers in the course of a day.  They sometimes are an occasion for grace entering your life.  This is what our lesson for today is about:  an unexpected meeting between Jesus, a Pharisee and an unnamed woman, a truly graceful encounter.

I just returned from my 20-year reunion at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.  I had a great time there 20 years ago and a great time over the weekend.  I had numerous fun encounters there, with old friends, with professors, with the people who make espresso.  Cambridge is always exciting; When the weather is nice, Cambridge is also just a lot of fun.

One day, back then, twenty years ago, I was preparing to say a few words at an informal Easter Service for the Grad Christian Fellowship.  And I needed a Bible.

So I went over to the undergraduate library in Harvard Yard to get a Bible.  The undergraduate library, named after some New England worthy, no doubt, whose name I've forgotten, has open stacks. You can wander in, find your book and proceed to checkout.  So I found a Revised Standard Version and stopped at the desk to fill out the requisite paperwork - this was before computerized everything.  The slip of paper, in triplicate - remember? - called for my name, ID#, title of book and author.  OK.  Easy enough.  Name, ID, Title  . . . . Author. 


Title:  Bible, obviously.
Author:  Just to have fun, I wrote "GOD."
And placed the paper in front a Harvard college kid just to see what she would do with it.
She read it, looked at me to check for any obvious signs of mental disorder, then picked up a pencil and added to the word GOD a comma and two little words: "et al."

When we get an unexpected gift, we call it grace.  The title of today's sermon is The Heart of the Gospel and the heart of the Gospel is Grace, et al, as I will attempt to show.

Story # 2.  is about Rabbi Shmuel Hertzfeld, who calls himself a progressive orthodox rabbi.  He gave me the idea for a sermon titled the Heart of the Gospel.  Herztfeld means 'heartfield' by the way, but it was not his name that gave me the idea, it was the answer he gave to a question I asked after his talk at the Washington Rotary Club.  For that talk, he told just two stories, as I said and told them so well that he had some 100 Washington attorneys, lobbyists and other self-important people eating out of his hand.  But he did not talk about the Bible. 

This disappointed me because I love to hear rabbis talk Bible.  So when there was time for questions I raised my hand and asked him not to name his favorite line from scripture - that sounded a little too obvious, or something - so I asked, Rabbi, if you're having a bad day and you really need some inspiration, what lines from scripture do you read? 

I was hoping he would say well Rabbi Nachman of Tilsit recommends this passage and Rabbi Zusia from somewhere else recommends that, but I recommend something from Deuteronomy, Jeremiah. . . But he did not do that.  Instead, he said

"When I'm having a bad day, I don't read the Bible at all.  I go to visit the sick in the hospital.  I make myself of service and that makes me feel better."

For days afterward, I marveled at this lesson from Rabbi Shmuel of Washington, the progressive orthodox rabbi, who drives a 1994 Chevrolet station wagon with a menorah on top of it.

Yes, that is certainly true, I thought, performing acts of love and service is probably the best medicine there is; it's certainly very good.  Then, sometime over the next couple of days, the proverb popped into my head:

Those who love much are forgiven much. 

Yes, love much, perform acts of service and loving kindness and you and your friends and family will forget or forgive you for the mistakes you've made and they'll remember the good instead.  What a wonderful proverb.  Where does it come from?   Must come from the Bible.  So I looked it up and, well, not exactly.   Today's Gospel according to Luke seems to be the source of the proverb, but it does not have those exact words in that exact order.

Now before we begin our investigation, let me ask:

How many of you recognize the proverb: "Those who love much are forgiven much"?

How many recognize it but think I might have not quoted it quite correctly?  Could it be:

Those who are forgiven much love much
Those who love much forgive much
Those who forgive much love much

Let's read on and see what we've got here.  As we have read this morning, a woman enters Simon's house where Jesus is at table and spontaneously, unexpectedly washes Jesus's feet.  Jesus and Simon, his host, then have a little discussion of this incident, at the end of which Jesus commends the woman for her loving service, forgives the woman's sins and tells her to go in peace.  And Simon?  Well, he leaves Simon hanging there.  Something like this story is included in the other three Gospels, but none of the others conclude by connecting love and forgiveness.

In Mark's Gospel, a woman pours expensive ointment over the head of Jesus at the house of Simon the leper and various people present get upset because this expensive stuff could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.  There is nothing in Mark about the nature of the woman or her name or the names of anyone else there.  Simon the leper is mentioned only because it's his house.  He neither says nor does anything. 

In Matthew's Gospel, the story is almost the same, only it is the disciples who are identified as those complaining about the cost of this gesture.

John takes us away from the house of Simon the Leper and places us in the house of Lazarus and brings in Mary and Martha to attend to Jesus.  Martha characteristically makes dinner and Mary characteristically engages in an act of devotion.  She pours a jar of perfume on Jesus’ feet and wipes his feet with her hair.  And the house is filled with the fragrance.  So we have gone from the anointing of Jesus's head to the anointing and wiping of his feet.  Then it is Judas, not the disciples or anyone else, who complains about the cost.

In none of these accounts does Jesus say anything to Simon or to the woman or anything about love or the forgiveness of sins.  Jesus simply rebukes the disciples or those present for their outrage and says that this gesture, however extravagant, is fully justified.

Now we're ready to take a look at Luke, in detail.

36 Then one of the Pharisees asked Him to eat with him. And He went to the Pharisee’s house, and sat down to eat.

37 And behold, a woman in the city who was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at the table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of fragrant oil, 38 and stood at His feet behind Him weeping; and she began to wash His feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head; and she kissed His feet and anointed them with the fragrant oil.

The woman, still unnamed but identified as a sinner, does not just anoint the feet of Jesus, but washes them with her tears and wipes them with her hair and kisses them and anoints them with oil. 

39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he spoke to himself, saying, “This Man, if He were a prophet, would know who and what manner of woman this is who is touching Him, for she is a sinner.”

Simon figures that Jesus cannot be a prophet because if he were, he would perceive the sort of woman this was and would not allow her anywhere near him, let alone touch him, (or engage with him so sensuously.)

Jesus then shows that he is at least some kind of prophet because he reads Simon's thoughts and tells him a little story.

41 “There was a certain creditor who had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 And when they had nothing with which to repay, he freely forgave them both. Tell Me, therefore, which of them will love him more?”  43 Simon answered and said, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.”  And He said to him, “You have rightly judged.”

We have moved in a twinkling from a story about a sinful woman who has done something improper, in Simon's opinion, to the world of creditors and debtors.  We have the story of a creditor who forgives two debtors - just like the Lord's Payer tells us - one of fifty and another of 500 denarii. 

So which debtor will love the creditor more?  Well, the one who was forgiven the most debt, the one who owed 500 denarii, says Simon.

If we stop the story right here, then the proverb should be:

"Those who are forgiven much, love much."  Those who have been forgiven a lot are grateful that they got off so easy & so they lead more loving lives, and give as they have been given.

Jesus says to Simon, "You have rightly judged."  You pass this little exam.  So far, so good.

Now the plot thickens. 

44 Then He turned to the woman and said to Simon,

I find this really interesting.  Some experts say the 75% of communication is non-verbal.  I don't know about that, but I am certain that body language, posture, gestures and voice tone are important.

How did he do this?  How did he turn to the woman, yet make clear that he was talking to Simon?

Did he turn to her, look at her and face her the whole time while talking to Simon?

I doubt it.

He's got to turn his head and look at Simon and at the woman as he delivers these lines, while his body is turned toward her alone.  She speaks seven sentences, while turned to the woman, yet speaking to Simon.

44 Then He turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman?

The question is rhetorical.  The answer is yes and no.  Yes, Simon sees the woman, but in another sense he does not and that's the problem.  Jesus perceives that Simon has pre-judged the woman.  To Simon, she IS a sinner, therefore what she does is sinful.  Simon does not see the good in her or in what she does.  So in the most important sense, he does not see the woman.

Jesus continues:
I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has washed My feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head.
45 You gave Me no kiss, but this woman has not ceased to kiss My feet since the time I came in.
46 You did not anoint My head with oil, but this woman has anointed My feet with fragrant oil.
47 Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little.”

Thus Jesus talks to Simon and to the woman at the same time, giving a lesson to Simon and profoundly acknowledging her, all at the same time.

Thus the proverb should be:   "Those who love much are forgiven much." 

Then Jesus adds: "But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little."

This seems to be delivered right at Simon the Pharisee:  Simon, you've been forgiven little, you forgive little, you've been loved little and you love little.  If I were Simon at this point I would feel about two feet tall and want to excuse myself.

48 Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”

At this point, the story seems over and could just as well end.

But there's more.

49 And those who sat at the table with Him began to say to themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”  As in the Gospel of John:  Who is this that even the seas and the wind obey him?

The story could end there.  But there's still more.

50 Then He said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”

The Greek is beautiful and onomotopoetic:

Ἡ πίστις σου σέσωκέν σε
πορεύου εἰς εἰρήνην.

Hay pistis soo sesoken say
porewoo ace ayraynayn

This succession of sibilants fall like soft rain; the vowels dissolve you into the air,

Ἡ πίστις σου σέσωκέν σε
πορεύου εἰς εἰρήνην.

Hay pistis soo sesoken say
porewoo ace ayraynayn

Your faith has saved you.   Go in peace.  This is the conclusion.  Luke concluded four stories, including this one, with these exact words.

But what has faith got to do with it?  Has Jesus introduced a new concept in the last verse of this chapter?  I don't think so.  Faith, love, forgiving, being forgiven, add hope to the list - they all work together.  Take one of them away and you lose the others.

Loving and forgiving are certainly related.  They might be the most difficult behaviors we ever perform.  Loving and forgiving involve are acts of will, certainly, but cannot simply be willed.  It's easy to decide to pick up a pencil, for example, and pick it up.  But it is far from easy to decide to love or forgive and then actually love or forgive.  We might say that love looks to the future; forgiveness to the past.  Perhaps we must free ourselves from the past in order to step into the future.

But how do we forgive what has happened without love?  The great Buddhist teacher Thich nat Han writes:

"Forgiveness will not be possible until compassion is born in your heart."

How can we care about someone, or a big group of someones, who has done us wrong?  And how can we have compassion, or love, without confidence in the future, that the future will not just repeat the errors of the past?  Confidence in the future we often call hope, or faith, or both.

Thus the heart of the Gospel I would say is Grace, the mysterious inpouring of God's power that enables us to do love and forgive, have faith and hope, et cetera.

Now I cannot conclude this sermon without saying a few good words about this story's obvious bad guy.  The unnamed woman is literally showered with soft words of forgiveness and peace.  And Simon?  Well, who knows what he took away from this lesson.  We all have days when we leap to conclusions about people that turn out to be unfair; there are only so many hours in a day and we only have so much patience; we harden our hearts periodically just in order to get through a day.  Hence the need of all of us for forgiveness. 

And let us remember this sermon was inspired by Rabbi Hertzfeld  - heartfield.  The rabbis are the successors of the Pharisees and the rabbinic tradition is full of heartfulness.  And there was no more faithful and heartful person on the planet recently than Rabbi Joshua Abraham Heschel.  Listen to what he wrote some sixty years ago:

“Faith is not the clinging to a shrine but an endless pilgrimage of the heart.” 

The heart of the Gospel, the heart of our Faith and I'm tempted to say all faiths is love and forgiveness.   In our story today, it is the unnamed woman who knows this.  It is for Simon and the rest of us to learn.

"Forgiveness is a selective remembering, in which we keep all the love that was ever given us and all the love that we ever gave. Let all the rest go into the nothingness from whence it came, and nothing but love will remain."
 - Marianne Williamson

May God grant us the ability to do this.