Your sin is forgiven

sermon on Luke 7:36-50


This poor story.

It suffers bad imagination. Throughout history this woman gets made into a repentant prostitute.

Notice the only description (if it can be called that) is that she’s a sinner. It is plain old disgusting voyeuristic sexism to say that if this woman is a known sinner, she must be a prostitute. Most images of her make her into a temptress for men to gawk at.

We don’t know her sin. It could be that she was embezzling from her business. It could be that she had decided to go out with friends instead of making dinner and picking up her kids from piano lessons and taking them to basketball practice and chairing their cookie sales. It could be that she was an 80-year-old looking back at her life and just not feeling very faithful or close to God. We don’t know her sin.

But we do know it’s easy to get labeled as a sinner, portrayed as somebody who is lacking, who doesn’t have it all together, as somebody who is doing something wrong or even being something wrong.

It may even be that this woman gets identified by the men at that ancient dinner and still too often by our chauvinistic culture now as a sinner even without being guilty, being labeled as a perpetrator even while being a victim. Maybe there is a sexual element in this, but it could be that this this woman was pressured into it, was not a willing participant, had suffered doubly, in abuse and then from the perceptions of her, maybe even in herself.

We know that women and girls (and also vulnerable males) wind up in situations where afterward they’re told it’s their fault, that they asked for it, that they should put up with it, that it’s because of how they dressed or looked or reacted. Or just for being weaker. We may not call such person a sinner, but instead name her a slut or a floozie. Or we categorize her as a welfare queen, with a different set of imagined presumptions and prejudices. However it is, she becomes a woman of ill-repute, with a burden of shame, suffering a reputation—with or without cause, still suffering either way.

But Jesus won’t perpetuate those labels. Whoever this woman was, whatever she had done, however she had been treated, whatever had happened to her, Jesus won’t see her through the confining, restricted vision.

Even referring to the woman as a sinner at the end of the story means we are the ones in bondage to sin, who won’t let those bonds be released, who refuse the word of freedom and restoration of relationship. What’s more, if we simply presume this woman was alluring and sexually provocative, we’re like those Pharisees, still captive to our chauvinistic culture. Those religious insiders were failing to see a place for hurt and to welcome somebody who needed love and a fresh start. In not receiving people with needed care, we also make church an unsafe place, obstructing the way instead of clearing a path, precisely perpetuating the wrong, with a detriment for ourselves that means we won’t receive the love or find the wholeness we also need to be part of. “Do you see this woman?” is also a question for us.

To reiterate, the story said the woman was known in town as a sinner, but it doesn’t say what her sin was.

Again I say it’s likely as not that it matched your sin. In the workplace or family or doubting faithfulness sorts. In the lurid details you imagine of her or live through yourself. In things you count as big regrets that make you lose sleep or the ongoing pile of mistakes. We’ve recognized it could be the things that aren’t your fault at all but are shames dealt that someone else placed on you.

Or another variety is what you’re not willing to name as faults, seeing yourself pristinely while looking down your nose at others and casting wild aspersions. In these ways, you can find yourself in this story. You are the blameful shortsighted Pharisee, sure. You are also the woman, encumbered by sin, longing to be set free. What that is for you matters.

See, we notice church isn’t about our blanket presumptions, but is always the localized, direct particularities, for you. It can be true and important to proclaim that God loves everyone. Maybe for the Pharisee, that’s necessary, in order not to be restricted to a version exclusive for pious insiders. But there are also times you very directly need the word for yourself, not that God loves all, but: God loves you.

It’s well and good generally and generically to say we have a God of forgiveness. But that’s like a lesson to be learned. You may need the gift, the grace, the word that comes to release. Not that sins are forgiven, but that Jesus forgives you. Not that captives are released, but that he sets you free. Not that debts are remitted, but that he has cancelled your negative balance. Not just that all are welcome, but that Jesus has restored your place. Yes, you. Not that salvation is for all the earth, but that Jesus has come to save you.

This faith has a balance of the broad categories and very direct specificity. The Gospel says Jesus comes as a light for all nations, that all flesh may know the salvation of God. But that takes on flesh in each of us, as each encounters the light through our own eyes.

When we gather here, we live this story all over again. So it isn’t just an ancient example. It certainly isn’t a history lesson about what Jesus did one day. This story is for now, for us, for you, taking on flesh here. We gather mostly as religious insiders, Pharisees, those comfortable enough even to call this home. And Jesus has the hard work of trying to get through to us, to help us see our obstructive shortsightedness and still forgive sin to enable us to love, to call forth an appropriate response.

Still, you may arrive as the woman, weeping in repentance or weeping in joy, full of emotional devotion at the proclamation that your sin—whatever it is or was or continues to be, or even if it was no sin at all but only the reputation rottenly assigned to you—is forgiven. You are restored from shame. Your identity is not in the wrong, but as a child of God and valued member of the community. Always and no matter what. Jesus is here again to proclaim release to you. To send you on your way, filled with love that can spread out to the community around you.

That’s how this ends. Made well, the woman is told “go in peace.” That is to go with shalom, or wholeness, her proper full place in the community.* In Palestine’s Arabic greetings, this salaam is  a declaration from hello onward that things are right in the relationship. Here, finally at the end of the story, things are right, and the woman will be known rightly. That is how you are welcomed here, as beloved and right and part of this body. That is what God’s salvation, Jesus’ forgiveness, the Spirit filling you with love means, too, in yourself, with God, with others. You are set right. That is how you are sent from here. Go in peace. Salaam in all your relationships. Whole. Shalom.

* Jennifer English, “Which Woman? Reimagining the Woman Who Anoints Jesus,” Currents in Theology and Mission. 39:6, p437.


I say to you, rise

sermon on Luke 7:1-17

A Narrative Lectionary bonus! Two stories for the price of one! Not really much connected, but piled together. Maybe they both have healing and Jesus saving somebody, sort of like last week we had two different reflections about sabbath.

The second part seems like a bigger deal, but let’s not ignore the first part and so pause for a couple introductory observances.

One: I’m not sure of the centurion’s sense of how it works. I like his line for not troubling Jesus, which is repeated in Catholic churches before communion (“Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and your servant shall be healed”). But I’m not exactly sure what the centurion is comparing the business of his bossiness to.

Mostly when Luke uses the word “authority,” it is about having power over demons and unclean spirits. Jesus can share authority as he sends out the apostles with the same task. Very clearly it’s telling us that in Jesus, we are seeing God’s work. Jesus is powerful because God’s Spirit rests on him.

But it’s odd to me that the centurion would say that Jesus’ authority is in giving commands from afar, as if that’s the main point. Maybe he’s commanding the illness to go away, giving orders for some uncleanness to release the servant. If it’s not that, I’m not sure whom the centurion figures Jesus is in charge of. At any rate, it’s impressive that he recognizes Jesus’ authority from God, especially since he wouldn’t be obvious to compliment Jesus.

That leads to observance two about this first story: These should be opponents. Jesus shouldn’t want to help these guys. A slave would be written off as lower class, or not even quite human in some eyes, property instead of a person. But Jesus isn’t going to be held back by that negative or shameful view of humanity.

More surprising is the centurion. That title means he’s a commander of 100 soldiers. He’s living in Capernaum, next to the lake, where Jesus lived, a town of maybe 1500 residents, which would mean that for every 15 peasants, there was one soldier, all under this officer, there enforcing the empire’s intimidating order, collecting taxes, confining what was possible in worship and everything else. Maybe this centurion was a decent guy who tried to get along with his neighbors, but his role was still the office of an enemy and big enough that he was well-compensated for doing it.

We don’t have much way to envision this. We don’t have experience of being watched and restricted as we simply try to proceed with life. It’s some of what Palestinians have to deal with now, in the occupation under the Israeli surveillance state. We might make rough estimates of these weeks in Venezuela or the #BlackLivesMatter sense of police oppression, though those are both domestic forces and not a foreign occupier.

The point is, Jesus here is helping the empire, the opponent, the bad guy. He’s giving a gift to the commander of the powers that were violently against his own people and their way of life. If it’s about sides, Jesus is on the wrong side.

But this is bigger. This remarkable statement about the spread of salvation is God’s mission leaves nobody out, so all flesh and people of every nation may know it. Slaves won’t be disregarded. As much as we’d want to say the villainous deserve vengeance against them, to be burned by God’s wrath, this won’t exclude even them from blessing. This isn’t for Jesus’ siblings or compatriots alone, not even for his race and clan first. This is for all. And for his part, the centurion recognized that in Jesus.

This passage is one of the small turning points in Luke’s Gospel. In chapter four, Jesus had launched his public ministry with a declaration that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him, anointing him to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (4:18-19). For three chapters, Jesus had been doing more and more of that, healing and releasing from illness and for those trapped in cultural obstructions, offering life. And it keeps spreading.

His fellow citizens probably wanted him to proclaim release from captivity of the empire, a revolution to kick out the occupying powers, but instead Jesus is working something even bigger than that, so is liberating the captor, releasing the oppressor, helping the centurion.

That may not get our vote, and just how wide this spreads still continues to surprise us. We want to restrict it, to say it must be earned, to make it reciprocal, to qualify it with qualifiers or qualifications, to rule out some and maybe to question whether it could even be too good to be true in our own lives.

The book by kind of the premier Old Testament professor these days Walter Brueggemann that GEMS were reading has a good line: “It is as though Jesus starts every meeting by asking, ‘Are there any here with withered hands, any widows, any orphans, any aliens, any lepers, any blind, any poor, any homeless? Come forward and be the focus of healing attention.’”* Those we would be most likely to leave out, Jesus is most insistent on. Those we would reject, he includes. Those who seem beyond help are his first choice.

And then comes the grand capper, the top story, the ultimate surprise of this section of the Gospel. It includes not only a widow, but a widow whose son has died, a woman who would’ve been at risk anyway and now is entirely without assistance, as good as dead herself. Yet Jesus is intent on this spread of life and release from what would confine or destroy it. So he finds himself in the middle of the funeral procession.

Now, it’s one thing to bring good news to the poor. It may even be impressive to heal lepers or to offer restoration to untouchables. It may stretch our imaginations and risk our self-preservation to break protocols of decency in reaching out to those deemed socially unacceptable and outside the limits of typical concern. These are things Jesus has been up to, and it’s already been a lot.

But this will blow all that out of the water. The most we might think is to offer condolences to the mother, to set up some aid program to meet her needs, to create some new social bonds and structure now that her son is gone. But those still operate within the limits of death, and Jesus won’t be so confined.

Young man, I say to you, rise.

And he gave him back to his mother.

There is none who is beyond the help of Jesus. Ever. There is no physical way to be outside the bounds of his saving work. There is nothing that can shut up his word of life.

This is so phenomenal that words can’t quite express or capture it. I’m amused by the term here that seems to effect the miracle. Jesus says, “Rise.” On the one hand, it’s the word that applies for Easter morning, for the resurrection, for that lifesaving event that turns all expectations of existence on their head: Alleluia! Christ is risen!

But it’s also extremely ordinary. Rise is the word for standing up when you’ve been sitting. It’s a word for parents telling you to get out of bed. Even death is only like sleep to Jesus, as he gently rouses you saying, “hey, it’s time to get up.” Awake, O sleeper, rise from death, and Christ will give you life! (ELW 452)

While proclaiming the unstoppable goodness of God’s blessing and work of life, I would mostly like to let fly with the promise and let it echo as broadly and resoundingly as it should.

But I also want to make sure the qualities or qualifications of your life don’t let you feel removed from this release, beyond the reach, somehow left out. There are illnesses that don’t go away, diseases that never feel eased. There is suffering that just keeps going and going. There are struggles and sorrows we can’t get past. There are reverberating Why questions never answered. There are times when being told “Do not weep” would seem cruelly uncaring rather than reassuring. There is captivity much too long confining. There generally feels like more bad news piling up than good, not only for the poor but for many of our lives.

And especially when this isn’t ultimately our own story of a son brought back to life. We face death. We don’t want it to be the end. We want the funeral procession interrupted. We want Jesus to reach out with his miraculous and powerful word, with his full authority, to drive away the demonic enemy of death.

For you who have had to encounter the intimacy of death, who know its sting, who have asked why, who have wished it would be kept at bay, who haven’t gotten relief and have had to continue with the diminished dimmed life of your own but without a loved one, this story may bear the feeling of loss, of being ignored. Why did Jesus see that widow and call to this young man, but not to you?

But this story doesn’t stand as an isolated incident, a peculiar exception. This story is the assurance that salvation in Jesus spreads for all, that his gift of life will not be stopped. Just as much as infirmities and germs can’t stop this blessing, just as political boundaries can never wall it off, just as societal standards crumble by comparison, so not even death will be its undoing. The word of eternal life is already today for you to rise up. Get up. Go on your way. Your faith has made you well. Jesus saves. Awake and stay woke. As I say to all, I say to you, Rise.

* A Gospel of Hope, p63


Sabbath Essentials

sermon on Luke 6:1-16


A question about requirements of how to observe the sabbath may not be the most natural category for us.

But this week was pervaded with the category “non-essential services.” What’s required for us to keep functioning, and what can be readily set aside as superfluous or non-essential?

As the University of Wisconsin made a rare decision to shut down in the cold, professors and classes and learning were put on standby, but food and dorms and transportation and direct infrastructure connections were kept running. I don’t know how the engineering building or psychology department would feel about being told they’re non-essential, not really core to keeping UW on this bit of life support.

Of course it was city services, too. A glance at the city website told me that free mending, knitting, children’s hairstyling 101, scrabble, and basic computer help were all programs that were cancelled, and evidently deemed non-essential. But buses tried to remain in service. Police and Fire were on, and Public Works employees were providing residents with safe drinking water, picking up trash, and keeping streets, sidewalks and bike paths cleared (though in the midst of it, not even I was trying to use those cleared paths). It’s shocking to me that what we count as those vitals essentials, Palestinians are regularly forced to try to do without access to.

In my house, since Acacia works there, we were weighing whether the library should or shouldn’t count as essential. Clearly people could suffer through not picking up their latest murder mystery novel to read while hunkered under a blanket. But library buildings are often warming shelters, places for some of our poorer neighbors to get out of the cold and spend some free (literally free) time.

Shocking our culture’s typical sense, heck, even the mall was closed! How to shop for those unnecessary essentials we keep on purchasing?!

And so what about church? Essential or non-essential?

I want you to know we made sure your staff had options, that nobody was having to come to work if they thought it would be dangerous or detrimental to their family, though Anthony and Kaisa did show up to keep at their tasks of caring for our community. As we began considering language for new policy about this, we thought about how to cover “essential tasks that can only be performed at the building.” That means it’s tough to print bulletins or shovel sidewalks from home. But it could raise a subsequent question of how many cleared walkways or prepared bulletins we need if nobody else shows up.

That makes me figure that church is pretty optional. We cancelled a couple meetings this week, or actually postponed them. That isn’t exactly saying they were non-essential, since we’ll still get around to that work of planning worship and discussing building improvements and even the socializing of gathering for lunch. Bible study did carry on, with me figuring that those who wanted to brave the weather or wanted to huddle inside could opt for their own decisions.

All of this has me pondering overall the place of church. That I can’t ever compel anybody to come here—even in the nicest weather or with the most well-planned events or most consistent communication—makes this seem non-essential.

But there’s also always the question for me of what we offer that nobody else does. The most inflated historical truth claim has been that “there’s no salvation outside the church” and ends up making requisite presence here like the ticketing agency to get you into eternal life.

There could be a sense our practice here is tuning us in to source and destination in a way nothing else can. Or maybe with a statement that “God is love,” we would say that all love flows from God, and that makes what we do here essential. There’s even some reason to say that all humanitarian impulse and work for justice and peace has arisen out of the gospel we proclaim. (Though, of course, we much more regularly hear the contrary claim attributing to religion the injustices of war and racism and environmental degradation and hierarchies and oppressions.)

Maybe to ask it differently, instead of wondering whether church holds an essential place in our culture, we could ask what the essence of church is for you. What counts as the value and core of your experience of faith? And what is unnecessary or what is unessential and just gets in the way?

If you consider quiet prayer as the essential experience of church, then that might be at odds with a perspective centered on welcoming everyone as themselves, including chatty and active children. Again, if you consider being exposed to new cultures and expressions as essential embodiment, that mostly does not coincide with a central essence of singing some standard old hymns. Is church essentially about upright morality? Or essentially about community, which involves reconciliation that ignores wrongs? They may not be diametrically opposed or mutually exclusive, but are different in essence.

I think this gets closer to the core of what Jesus is addressing in our Bible reading today. Asking what is essential about church for us may edge toward the question of what was essential about the sabbath for him and his people and his time. It’s sort of a question of recognizing importance, what other things could get in the way, what had to be set aside as nonessential.

We shouldn’t, then, shrink this as a question of Jesus against Jewish faith clearly, or write off the Pharisees as too interested in legalistic details where Jesus has chosen the better part. Both sides ask what it means to observe the sabbath fully, what the essential services are, and in that how best to be relate to God. Just what does it take to focus on the essential relationship with God?

In one regard, this tradition goes back to these people’s escape from slavery in Egypt. They asked for a pause from their labors for the opportunity to worship. Doing work would be to recommit to slavery and to spurn God’s liberation. That fits exactly with our opportunity to be gathered here this morning, though it might feel a little more direct if we think about our weekend as being hard-earned through struggles of organized labor. If you pick up hours or have an employee to work on the weekend, is that just a little extra cash and function of the economy, or essentially scabs and strike-breaking that fly in the face of liberty?

In another regard, the tradition of the sabbath goes back to the beginning of the Bible and the creation story, that the seventh day marked creation’s goodness, of God celebrating work and life, to enjoy the accomplishment. That fullness is what the image on our bulletin cover is exalting.

Yet it makes a difficult tension, in the story and for us. We know that the work of creation is not complete, that all is not pure goodness, that for all to be able to enjoy as they ought to be able to, still requires some work. Jesus interrupts the rest so that creation can be more fully what it is intended to be, for hungry bellies and for a disabled and excluded man with the withered hand.

I think Jesus even raises the point that doing nothing is still doing something. He asks about destroying, doing harm, taking life. The comment seems to mean that failing to act on behalf of the man is equal to hurting him. Inaction is essentially injury.

On a pulpit swap, I get to bring my Lutheran identity into this UCC gathering, and will share that this reminds me of Luther’s Small Catechism where he similarly notices that the 5th Commandment, you shall not murder, isn’t kept only because you haven’t killed anybody today, not just avoiding harm, but participation in assisting the good, the full spectrum of helping in all needs. So refusing to give away your extra coat may be murder for the person in the cold. Refusing to give up your privilege may constrain life of those who are deprived. Doing nothing about these things inhibits the goodness of creation.

So if Jesus is active for good, we may say we should follow his effort for healing and justice, that what is essential for our relationship with God isn’t actually to be sitting around dawdling here on a Sunday morning, when instead we could be out doing the good God intends, sharing the harvest, reaching out for the sick, integrating those who have been excluded, striving for the healing and wholeness of creation.

But even Jesus doesn’t resolve that tension. He doesn’t give up on sabbath worship. He still gathers with the praying community. So there is still place for us to gather today, to rest and celebrate, to remember what got us here, to enjoy liberty. We still need this focus on God, this intentional regrounding in the relationship and essential orientation toward the good so we know what to do.

With that, I also want to hold onto one more tension. Our main tension isn’t between sabbath tradition or the ability to do work. Ours isn’t whether we can do good. Ours isn’t whether your presence here is necessary to earn salvation.

Our tension is among varied essentials, of the place of this sabbath worship and connection and renewal in our relationship to God and neighbor and creation amid all the other essentials of our lives. None of us gets the perfect attendance award, and all of us know the competing claims on our lives and time and all the ways a weekend can be filled and the directions we’re pulled, or even how the fullness of life makes us want to claim that the liberty of Sunday morning is in the one chance to sleep in, to read the paper, to have leisure, to claim it as sabbath rest, even without the part that is renewed relationship with God. Sometimes being here is risky. And we almost all recognize that Sunday doesn’t have the sacred place in our society it once had, as worship attendance dwindles and other opportunities abound.

So what about our practice has to change? Where is the place of church in a changing culture? How do we continue to claim and to share sabbath? How do we observe and practice, maybe in new ways, church as an essential service?