Sunday, June 12, 2016

The downside of being upright

Luke 7:36-8:3; Galatians 2:15-21; Psalm 32

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Seems like this sermon, is one I need to preach to myself.
    So as I talk to myself,
        you’re all welcome to listen in.
        There’s at least a slim chance it might apply to you, too.

Being found to be upright is pretty deeply engrained in my psyche.
    That’s due in part to family history and dynamics, no doubt.
        Both my grandfathers were Mennonite pastors,
            who later became Mennonite bishops,
            and who instilled in their children
                a strong sense of duty to live exemplary lives.

    They were deeply committed to Christ, first of all.
        But they were also deeply committed
            to upholding the rules and disciplines of the church.
            Their public roles required it.
        And it was important to have their own children,
            my parents, and aunts and uncles,
                set good examples.

    Add to this (at least on my mother’s side),
        a pretty strong family tendency toward perfectionism
            with a highly sensitive conscience…

    And add to this a natural theological bent among Mennonites
        to emphasize the “doing” side of the faith and works continuum.

Put all that together and it’s not hard to see
        why I’m deeply formed to see myself as an upright person;
        a faithful and holy disciple of Jesus.
    Not without fault, of course—
        I would never claim that—
            nor would my families of origin,
            but always a strong striving for doing right.

I don’t disparage my upbringing in any way.
    My parents, and both sets of grandparents,
        were loving, gracious examples
        of what it means to follow Jesus in life.
            They were humble and generous people.
    Furthermore, striving to be found upright
        is a praise-worthy thing.
    Who can argue against being good?
        To live life rightly and with integrity is a desirable goal.

But today’s Gospel story reveals a fly in the ointment.
    Jesus speaks words that can sting good people like me.
    Spiritually speaking, perfection has a flaw.
        Which is a paradox.
        If anyone ever reaches perfection,
            they have, by Jesus’ definition,
            developed a flaw.

Jesus delivers this stinging rebuke in verse 47 of Luke 7:
    “The one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”

Those of us whose lives seek to be paragons of goodness,
    are stunted in our capacity to give and receive radical love.
        Why is this, and is there any way to avoid it?

Well, let’s check a little deeper into this story of Simon the Pharisee
    and his little dinner party at which Jesus was the honored guest.

Simon was not a bad person.
    He was not conniving or manipulative or dishonest.
    Let’s get that straight at the start.

We immediately associate Pharisees and Sadduccees and the like
    with something inherently bad.
    We assume they were self-important, snobbish, hypocritical,
        and just all-around spiritually corrupt people.
        That’s just not the case.
        They were highly-regarded and admired by other Jews.
        They took the faith seriously,
            they were loving toward others,
            they valued community.

    Listen to the testimony of Josephus, an ancient historian:
    (Quote) “The Pharisees live thriftily, giving in to no luxury.
        For they follow what the Word in its authority
            determines and transmits as good.
        Now the Pharisees love one another
            and practice consensus in their community.” (unquote)

Josephus almost makes them sound like a good Amish community—
    thrifty, humble, disciplined, communal.

There is nothing whatsoever in scripture to indicate
    that Simon was corrupt, or conceited, or rude, or self-centered,
        or had any notable moral flaw.
    We can safely assume he was a good, decent, respectful, loyal,
        and devout human being.
        I like him.
        I could be related to him.

    As a career clergyperson who cares deeply about the church,
        I could be frighteningly identical to him.
        Like Simon and the Pharisees,
            I care about the renewal of God’s people.
        Like Simon and the Pharisees,
            I keep calling us to a communal and missional life.
        Like Simon and the Pharisees,
            I invite us all to live the kind of life we were created for.

Everything I know about the Pharisees would indicate that,
    like you and I, they were good folks with legitimate concerns
        about the welfare of their people.
        They were all about the spiritual renewal of Israel.

They believed that the only way they would be
    set free from brutal oppression and occupation by Rome,
    and restore David’s throne to the Jewish people,
        would be for them to be spiritually renewed.

    The Pharisees, like every other Jew alive, were waiting
        for the Messiah to come and deliver them from Rome.
    And they believed the Messiah would come
        when they achieved holiness as a nation.
        They weren’t politically active, like Sadducees.
        They weren’t plotting a revolution, like Zealots.
        They believed when they were spiritually ready,
            the Messiah would come.
    A careful reading of scripture led them to that honest belief.

The reason they were nitpicky about details of the faith—
    keeping Sabbath, washing hands, tithing mint and cumin—
        was not out of a pompous motivation to be “holier than thou.”
    They were trying to bring on the Messiah,
        and rid themselves of Roman oppression.

Different religious parties in Judaism
    had different means, but the same ends.
What the Zealots were trying to do with sword and armed rebellion,
    the Pharisees were trying to do with the practice of ritual purity.

No question, Jesus had major issues with Pharisees.
    But it wasn’t that they cared too much about being good and holy.
    Jesus chastised them because they overlooked other essentials,
        like justice and mercy for those on the margins.
    Jesus never accused them of not being
        holy and upright and well-intentioned.

I say this to help us understand the back-story of this Gospel story.
    This is in the 7th chapter of Luke.
        Jesus is just beginning to gather substantial crowds of admirers,
            and the word “Messiah” is being whispered among them.
        The notion that Jesus could be the Messiah, is gaining ground.

And Simon, being a good Pharisee,
    has reasonable doubts that Jesus could be the Messiah.
If the Messiah is to come after people purify themselves,
    Jesus is hardly moving people in that direction.
        He doesn’t make his disciples fast.
        He mingles with the unclean—tax collectors and sinners.
        He openly breaks Sabbath laws.

My assumption is that Simon wants to find out more.
    Rather than write Jesus off too quickly,
        Simon wants to give him a respectable hearing first.
    I see no ill intent or motives in Simon.
    He is a good man,
        with legitimate concerns about Jesus,
        a strong commitment to his people,
        honestly trying to find out more
            before he draws final conclusions.
    So he extends to Jesus a gesture of hospitality.
        Partly to learn more, and no doubt,
            partly to gently nudge Jesus in a more respectable direction.

Unfortunately, this respectable evening fell apart pretty quickly.
    A sinful (that is, ritually unclean) woman enters the room,
        and approaches the table,
        probably making the whole dinner suddenly unclean.
    And she behaved in an utterly scandalous way toward Jesus,
        invading his personal space, weeping, letting down her hair,
        kissing his feet, and then anointing them.
    And Jesus sits there, doing nothing to stop her.

If there was any doubt before,
    now it’s perfectly clear to Simon that Jesus is no prophet,
        much less a messianic prophet.
    Otherwise, he would know what kind of woman this is,
        and make some objection.

    But instead of distancing himself from the woman,
        as he should have, Jesus turns and says,
         “Simon, I have something to say to you.”
        Simon says, “Speak.”
        And Jesus tells a two-sentence story.
            “A certain creditor had two debtors;
                one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty.
                When they could not pay,
                    he canceled the debts for both of them.”
        Then Jesus asks Simon,
            “Which of them will love him more?”
        Well, Simon replies, “I suppose . . .
            the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.”
        Jesus says, “Right you are.”

If Simon took any comfort in giving Jesus the right answer,
    it didn’t last long.
    Jesus turned on his host,
        comparing Simon to the sinful woman,
        and suggested Simon came up short in the comparison.
    Simon’s gestures of hospitality toward Jesus
        were reasonable, but did not excessively show honor.
        After all, he was checking Jesus out.
    But the woman was excessive,
        she was extravagant, radical, and over-the-top
        in her expressions of love and affection toward Jesus.
    And Jesus praised her for it.

Now, we could try to explore what these actions really communicated,
    how they would have been seen by onlookers,
        but we are outsiders to that culture,
        and a lot would be speculation.

But I think at least three elements of the story are quite clear:
    (1) Simon was a respectable and sincere man of faith
        and was reserved in his approach toward Jesus.
    (2) The woman’s expression of love and affection for Jesus
        was over-the-top and scandalous.
    And (3) Jesus received the radical love the woman showed,
        and challenged Simon for holding back.

The one line in this story, from Jesus’ own lips,
    that leaves me personally shaken a bit,
    is his word of challenge to Simon:
    “The one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”

Upright people, who don’t seem to need so much of God’s grace,
    are more likely to be reserved in their love for God and others.
    That’s the downside of being upright.
Like Simon, and like me,
    good people are not in the best position
        to give and receive radical love and forgiveness.

    It’s harder to recognize and accept the gift of forgiveness
        when it is offered to us,
        because we don’t realize how much we need it.
    And it’s harder to give love and forgiveness to others,
        because it’s obvious how much they don’t deserve it.

I think, for my own benefit, I need to repeat that,
    so I understand what I just said.
    After all, I’m preaching this sermon to myself.

    It’s harder to recognize and accept the gift of forgiveness
        when it is offered to us,
        because we don’t realize how much we need it.
    And it’s harder to give love and forgiveness to others,
        because it’s obvious how much they don’t deserve it.

In Simon’s house,
    it was obvious which character was the good person,
    and which one was the sinner.
    Even Jesus didn’t dispute that point.
    But Jesus seemed more concerned
        about a person’s capacity to give and receive love,
        than about how long was a person’s list of sins.

Being satisfied with the state of our righteousness is a dangerous thing.
    It’s not only today’s Gospel reading that tells us that.

In Galatians 2,
    Paul was writing to Christians
        who once gratefully realized their salvation
            was a grace-filled gift of God,
        and of late, were beginning to back away from that grace,
            and trying to justify themselves by their own goodness.
    And he warns them not to go there.
        Don’t nullify the grace of God!

And in Psalm 32, part of which we read in our call to worship,
    the psalmist tells his own story in a prayer . . . (and I paraphrase)
    He writes,
        There was a time I was satisfied with myself,
            and kept silent, instead of confessing my need,
            and my body started wasting away.
        And then I let myself get in touch with my sin,
            I became vulnerable before God and others,
                and confessed,
            and I found joy, and forgiveness, and healing.

I believe this dynamic described by the psalmist
    shows up in all kinds of ways . . .
        in my own life,
        in the lives of those I know and love,
        and in the life of the church.

    When we live in continual awareness of our need
        of God’s love and grace and mercy,
        nurtured by the practice of confession,
        cultivated by openness and vulnerability and willingness to risk,
            we are healthier people,
            we are people more capable
                of being in life-giving community with others.

    And when the opposite is true,
        when we live within a false, self-constructed world
            of perfection and holiness,
            thinking we’ve earned our place in the world,
                our social, spiritual, and physical health
                    starts getting compromised.
            We start passing judgement on others.
            We start creating distance, instead of moving toward.
            And our capacity for receiving and expressing radical love,
                is greatly diminished.

So here is my considered commitment to myself and to God.
    Going against my genetic, familial, and theological formation
        to always present myself as upright,
        I want to listen to Jesus’ warning.
        I want to remember Jesus’ cautionary words,
            “The one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”

    My desire is to be known first and foremost
        for my passionate love of God,
        and passionate love for God’s people,
        and my willingness to express that radical love
            with my life and deeds and attitudes toward others.

    So I will also embrace the spiritual practice of confession.
        Individually, daily.
        As well as communally, when we gather in worship.

So, to give me a chance to put that commitment into action,
    (since I’m preaching to myself)
    and to give you a chance to at least listen in,
        and maybe participate, if this resonates with you, as well,
    I invite us into the practice of confession.

It is in two parts . . .
First, let us contemplate our own need of God’s forgiveness and grace,
    by reading the first part of the prayer of confession in the bulletin,
        followed by a brief time of silence.
Then, I’ll invite us to pray the second part,
    which is the same,
    except we are speaking collectively, on behalf of the church,
        the things we need to confess as a body.
    Then another moment of silence.

Let us pray together.
        Forgive me my sins, O Lord,
        Forgive me the sins of my youth and the sins of my age,
        The sins of my soul and the sins of my body,       
        My secret and my whispering sins,
        The sins I have done to please myself
        And the sins I have done to please others.
        Forgive the sins which I know and the sins which I do not know.
        Forgive them, Lord; forgive them all in your great goodness,
        Through Jesus Christ, our Lord. AMEN
             (silent prayer)

Again, let us pray together for the church.
        Forgive us our sins, O Lord,
        Forgive us the sins of our youth and the sins of our age,
        The sins of our souls and the sins of our bodies,
        Our secret and our whispering sins,
        The sins we have done to please ourselves
        And the sins we have done to please others.
        Forgive the sins which we know
            and the sins which we do not know.
        Forgive them, Lord; forgive them all in your great goodness,
        Through Jesus Christ, our Lord. AMEN
             (silent prayer)

Now, together, let us proclaim God’s grace and forgiveness.
        Lord, our God, great, eternal, wonderful,
        Utterly to be trusted:
        You give life to us all, you help those who come to you,
        You give hope to those who cry to you.
        Set our hearts at peace, so we may live our lives before you
        Confidently and without fear, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. AMEN

—Phil Kniss, June 12, 2016

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