Our Gospel today describes an awkward situation. Let me tell you about another awkward situation: Fifteen years ago my friend Margaret and I were in London, attending a very elaborate church service at Westminster Abbey. This was an annual ‘rededication’ service where every single member of the clergy vowed to do the work of the church. It was a very big deal. The service was to be broadcast live on BBC radio so we were given many, many firm instructions to keep quiet, not to fidget and if you had to cough, go outside. All the British people around us seemed fine with these stern instructions but I was quite nervous because I’m so bad at sitting quietly. I could just see lovely old British grannies, listening to the service in their parlors while knitting. I didn’t want to disturb them at all with my noise!
Margaret and I were ushered to our seats next to a very scruffy looking man who was right on the main aisle. He was strange. He had these small pieces of paper and was furiously filling them with really tiny, cramped writing. He moved around a lot and kept mumbling and grumbling. He was very agitated and wasn’t obeying the rules! Margaret and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes a bit. Everyone in the huge congregation sat, reverential and quiet. We were embarrassed by this man! This was awkward!
The service began - oh my, the huge organ boomed out, the choir sang and it was as if someone had put a microphone in heaven! I’ve never heard such powerful music. We stood as the clergy began to process in, from least important to most important. Beautiful little altar boys came first, looking serious and angelic in red robes and lace collars. People carried crosses and banners, deacons, priests, bishops passed us by, each wearing more elaborate vestments and hats. I’d never seen or heard such pomp. I wondered if some royalty might be at the end of the procession! It was a very powerful and exciting ceremony.
Maybe too exciting for the crazy guy next to us. He had taken his little scribbled pieces of paper and was aggressively trying to hand them to the passing clergy. I guess he had an important message for them. Margaret and I continued to look at each other, shrugging our shoulders, making faces, rolling our eyes and feeling increasingly uncomfortable to even be near this guy. Neither of us wanted to be associated with him. The procession took forever, the music swelled, the pageantry was almost overwhelming. The crazy guy was getting really frantic and frustrated as everyone tried to politely ignore him. His mutterings grew louder. The ushers nearby were watching him, probably wondering if they should intervene and remove this guy.
By this time, the passing clergy looked like gorgeous incarnations of God! These vestments were most elaborate, these miters were SO tall. Now we were in the big leagues of the clergy. We were nearing the end of the line. The crazy guy was practically jumping up and down now, trying to pass his notes, trying to be noticed. Margaret and I were leaning away from him. One of the fanciest looking guys - (maybe the archbishop?) approached us, saw the crazy guy and stopped. He stopped the procession. He stopped everything and walked up to our neighbor. He held out his hand and took the scraps of paper. He looked into the eyes of the frantic man. He acknowledged him. He SAW him. He blessed him and slowly moved on. The crazy guy sat down with a huge sigh and slumped into his seat, exhausted.
Who was crazy here? Seems like the guy sitting next to us was crazy doesn’t it? But let’s think of everyone else in that church. All the clergy who walked by that needy man. The worried ushers who didn’t want him to mess up their ceremony. My friend and I who just wanted him to act normally. Remember that the whole purpose of the ceremony this day was to remember the work of the church. We were all to remember that we are called to do God’s work. And what is that? We are to serve the poor. We are to help the needy. Hey - we are to see the face of Christ in everyone. There was only one person in that huge church who did that. The Bishop who stopped, remembered that nothing was more important than that one crazy guy. Everyone else in that huge cathedral failed this test of our faith.
If people ask my why I became an Episcopalian, this is the story I tell. I tell of a church with incredible ceremony and beauty where the most important is willing to STOP and love the least among us. I was a convert from that moment on.
Let’s look at the main characters in today’s gospel: Simon, the self righteous Pharisee, Jesus and the repentant woman who acted kind of crazy. Who is the sinner in this story?
Jesus has been invited to dinner by an important man, Simon, the Pharisee. It was a formal affair, attended only by important men with many servants and fancy food. These were structured affairs with a lot of unspoken rules about where people sat, how to eat, how to talk. There were certainly no women allowed at these dinners. Into this uptight environment came a woman of the town. She was known to be a sinner and just walked right into this party of the most religious, rule following people in town! How awkward! She was most unwelcome here and must have felt shunned. Imagine how brave she was to go to this party, knowing how she would be treated. She must have known that Jesus would accept her with love and forgiveness. She must already love Jesus a great deal to be willing to go into that room.
She knelt down at the feet of Jesus and began to weep, her sobs coming from deep within her soul. The room became so quiet all you could hear was her sobbing. She cried so much that she washed his feet with her tears. Then she did something even more embarrassing! She let down her hair! This was something women only did in the privacy of their own bedrooms! Shocking, crazy behavior. She used her long, long hair to dry the tears from his feet. She covered his feet with kisses and anointed them with the ointment she had brought in an alabaster jar.
Now this is one awkward social situation! This strange woman was making such a scene. The other men in the room were all looking every which way, rolling their eyes, making faces, wishing she would just go away! They recognized this woman, just as we would know such a woman in Montesano. They did not want to be caught in the same room with her because they were the holiest people in town and she represented everything they abhorred!
Simon the Pharisee said to himself, “If this Jesus were really a prophet, he would have run from this woman, this sinner!” Jesus must have known what he was thinking so he decided to call him on his judgmental behavior by asking a little riddle:
“Imagine that two of you owe money to a lender. One of you owes just $50 but the other person owes $500. The lender decides for some reason to forgive each debt. Which person do you suppose is going to be happier?”
“That’s an easy riddle” answered Simon, “the man who owed $500 would be much happier to have his debt forgiven!”
Jesus answered, “You are right.” Then he turned to the woman. “Simon, do you see this woman? I came into your house as a guest but you gave me no water for my feet. She has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. Did you welcome me with a kiss? No. But she has not stopped kissing my feet this whole time. You did not anoint my head with oil but she has anointed my feet with oil.”
“Do you see Simon? She is sorry for her many, many sins and she is deeply grateful for my forgiveness. You are forgiven the few sins you have but you don’t really care. You hardly think you need forgiveness!” With this, he turned toward the woman and said, “I forgive your sins. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”
Oh - I don’t think all those holy men seated around the table were happy to hear this. Jesus seems to be siding with this crazy woman and worse, he thinks HE has the ability to forgive sins! Who does he think he is? He seems to be implying that this sinful woman receives more forgiveness, more of God’s grace than they do and they are practically perfect! Their whole lives are all about following the rules, living according to the law handed to them by God in the holy book. Heck, they hardly do anything wrong - they don’t even need God’s forgiveness! And they sure don’t think this young whippersnapper should come in here and tell them that God loves this sinful woman best!
Consider these attitudes. Like I was in Westminster Abbey, the Pharisees are full of their own righteousness. They don’t want their uptight little dinner party to be disturbed by this crazy woman. They pass judgment on her and Jesus. They want to distance themselves from this crazy person, from this awkward situation. On the other hand, this emotional woman has risked all their ridicule and disdain to kneel at the feet of her savior in great faith and sob her sorrow. She is truly and deeply sorry for her sins. Who is sinning here? Who, in this room needs the most forgiveness?
When I sat next to that crazy guy in Westminster Abbey, all I could do was judge this man and wish that he would follow the rules and be quiet and still. I am pretty sure that if I could be at this dinner at Simon’s house I would feel exactly the same and would wish that sinning, sobbing woman who was ruining our dinner would just leave! I judged in the first case, I would judge in the second case. I am a judgmental person and I hate that about myself. I am deeply sorry for all my sins of judgement.
It’s so easy to get caught up worrying about all the bad things the sinners around us are doing. But when we are so busy being right, we forget what Jesus told the woman, that her FAITH saved her, not her actions.
Let me paraphrase a quote by Thomas Ybarra: ‘A Christian is a person who feels repentance on Sunday for what she did on Saturday and what she is going to do on Monday.’ On a more positive note, our bible tell us: Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
Each week, when we say the confession of sins, you will now know that I pray to be forgiven for being judgmental and I pray that I will be more accepting of others. I have been working on this all my life and will undoubtedly continue to do so forever. Today’s gospel makes me happy though because Jesus tells us that people like me who need a lot of forgiveness will get a lot of forgiveness.
I don’t want to be like the Pharisees. I don’t want to be so sure of my rightness and goodness that I forget to be sorry for my sins. Each week after we make our confession, we are absolved of our sins and then, clean and lighthearted we can pass the peace and are ready to receive communion. One of the main reasons I love to come to church every week is because I need to say these words:
Most Merciful God, I confess that I have sinned against you in thought, word and deed, by what I have done and by what I have left undone. I have not loved you with my whole heart: I have not loved my neighbor as myself. I am truly sorry and I humbly repent.
We all have sins for which we need forgiveness. Like Jesus and the sobbing woman, in all our sinfulness, God has so much love for us. We are freed by our confession and absolution to turn our souls to God. Filled with God’s grace and love, we can delight in his will, and walk in his ways, to the glory of his name. Amen