Proper 6 (June 12-18)
Texts: Luke 7:36-8:3;
SOMETHING TO SING ABOUT
We have something to really sing about this morning: twenty-five years of faithful service of Carol Cobus at Redemption. And, of course, the leadership Carol has so ably provided over the years is that of our singing, so that is doubly something to sing about. We sing today in honor of her leading us in singing so wonderfully all these years.
But Carol, I suspect, would be among the first to also remind us of what it is we sing about in this place, week in and week out. She has offered her musical talents to us in this place, which means she has offered her musical talents to the Lord we all worship together in this space. Yes, we truly have something to sing about this morning. We sing in honor of Carol and her twenty-five years of dedicated service, but we also sing about the thing that she has led the people of Redemption in singing about all these countless Sundays, namely, the Good News in Jesus Christ, the Good News of our salvation and forgiveness from God through the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord.
So let’s take a few moments to lift up that Good News once again as that something to sing about which Carol has helped us to sing about, week in and week out, for twenty-five years. Today’s Gospel Lesson is no less an example. Today isn’t Easter; it isn’t Christmas; it’s not even the Pentecost celebration we had two weeks ago. No, in fact, today begins the long procession of Sundays which is sometimes referred to as “Ordinary Time.” From now until Advent begins next December we simply take a tour through the middle part of Jesus’ ministry here on earth.
And yet look at the Good News that jumps out at us today from this middle part of Luke’s Gospel. It’s a good indication of why Carol’s job is so important to us, that there is something truly worth singing about as she leads each week. In this morning’s story of Jesus and the woman at Simon the Pharisee’s house, we again witness the forgiveness of God’s Amazing Grace in Jesus Christ. It’s so amazing, in fact, that I’m not sure we even ordinarily realize just how amazing it is.
It was too amazing for Simon and the other religious folks there that day, so amazingly generous that they were offended by it. The first sign of that offense is Simon thinking to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him–that she is a sinner.” Jesus, of course, does know, as is shown by the parable he proceeds to tell Simon, about the canceling of debts. The greater the debt forgiven, the greater the response of love. Jesus concludes to Simon, “Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” And to the woman he says, “Your sins are forgiven.”
Now, this is apparently the second offensive thing that Jesus has done, because all the other religious folks in the room start grumbling, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” What’s going on here? Well, part of it seems to be that they believe that only God can forgive sins, and so Jesus is speaking out of turn here. But I think the matter goes deeper. Why is it that, in their view, only God can forgive sins? I think it’s because, ordinarily, there is something that comes before the forgiveness of sins in their eyes, namely, the confession of sins. One must confess their sins to God before God forgives them, right? But this woman hasn’t done this. And Jesus hasn’t even said anything to her about her sin. The order is all wrong. We can see this in the parable, too. Jesus says nothing about the two debtors going to beg for mercy for their debt — only that their debt is canceled. Jesus focuses not on what came before the cancellation of debt but on what comes after: the one who was forgiven the greater debt has greater love for his forgiver. In short, the forgiveness comes first as the means for a changed life. Jesus reverses the order! It’s not repentance in order to receive forgiveness; it’s forgiveness first so that one may be empowered to repent, to begin living a life of love for the forgiver. Jesus is so liberal, so generous in his forgiveness of sins that it’s offensive, it’s scandalous, to the religious folk.
I think we even need to be honest with ourselves here, as modern day religious folk. Isn’t our thinking more ordinarily like Simon and his friends in this story? To be forgiven, we think, one needs to say they are sorry; one has to confess. But Jesus waits for none of that. He doesn’t even give the woman a lecture before sending her on her way. He doesn’t outline her sins and tell her what she needs to do to get her life straightened out. He apparently trusts that her faithful response to God’s love will help her begin to sort all that out. He probably knows that if she needs some help and support and guidance down the road, she’ll be there to seek it herself, to ask the questions she needs to ask and to seek the kind of guidance that she needs.
So let’s be honest with ourselves. Are we more ordinarily with Jesus in our thinking about forgiveness, or with Simon and his friends? Do you and I ordinarily think that one needs to confess first, before being forgiven? Let’s take a quick look at our track record. Let’s look, for example, at some sins that have been big for us in modern life, sins that we love to point at in other people. How have we done, for example, with alcoholism? Have we preached forgiveness for alcoholism like Jesus, in a way that puts the grace up-front, the love up-front, so that the alcoholic is able to respond to that love and pursue healing in his or her own life? Have we provided for them an environment of loving forgiveness in which they might be feel the help and encouragement to find healing in their lives? Or, have we been more judgmental in our approach, talking so much about their sin, requiring repentance first, in such a way as they have largely had to seek God’s grace outside the church in their own groups, such as Alcoholic’s Anonymous. Isn’t it the latter?
Or what about divorce? What is our track record 30, 40, 50 years ago about helping divorced people feel welcomed in this place of grace so that they are able to live lives of healing? Even stickier, let’s get more current: what about gay and lesbian people in our midst? Do we receive them like Jesus without saying a word about their sin? Or how much do we talk so incessantly about their sin that they couldn’t possibly feel welcome in our midst?
Simon’s problem — and I think ours, when we are honest with ourselves — is that we spend so much time counting other people’s debts that we have no idea how large our debt is. In Jesus’ parable, Simon might actually be the one who owed five hundred denarii instead of fifty. But he spends so much time knowing about other people’s debts that he doesn’t see how large his own is. He doesn’t respond in love because he has know idea how much he is forgiven.
In fact, I think there’s something crucial we must see here in the Gospel story this morning. In the context of the entire Gospel story, whose debt of sin actually ends up being larger? Which kind of sin was more directly responsible for putting Jesus on the cross: this woman’s sin, or what is essentially Simon’s and his friends’ sin of judgmentalism? Isn’t it, in a very real way, the latter? There is a very real sense that Jesus no longer had to die for this woman’s sin. Jesus had forgiven it, and she had responded with a life of faithful repentance, going on her way in peace. But Simon and his religious friends would hold onto their sin of judgmentalism and would, in fact, be part of those forces which judged Jesus and executed him. It was their brand of sin, the sin of being the righteous religious, the sin of thinking ourselves more expert than God on sin, that we might even continue to be offended at God’s amazing grace — it is our brand of sin as “religious” folks that is most directly responsible for putting Jesus on the cross.
But do you know what? Jesus still isn’t done forgiving sins. Right from the cross, as the religious folks are continuing to heap insults upon him, he doesn’t look down and say, ‘O.K., folks, it’s time to confess your sins.’ No! Again, he doesn’t wait for a confession and, instead, looks up to heaven and prays, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” If they have any hope at all of finally knowing and understanding what they are doing, it will be by being forgiven first. It’s only through the forgiveness of the cross, and then Christ’s continuing loving presence of forgiveness in this world through the resurrection, that we are ever able to come to see and accept our sin of judgmentalism, our sin of righteous violence against others that looks precisely like the cross of Jesus. We must be forgiven first in order to begin to live lives of repentance.
What do lives of repentance look like? This woman’s life today in the Gospel. She is a prophet. She is a teacher for us in learning to be disciples of Jesus and to respond to the forgiveness of our debts through lives of loving worship to our forgiver. We are to live lives of love with one another, such that together we form communities of loving forgiveness in which we might continue to find healing. We live lives of worshiping our Lord together, worshiping the one who has forgiven our debt, so that we might forgive our debtors. We live lives of singing and praising and thanking God for the Good News of forgiveness first, a forgiveness which empowers lives of repentance and healing.
And today we add thanks to God for the talents of Carol Cobus and her leadership of our singing these past twenty-five years. Let’s continue our celebration, for we truly have something to sing about! Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Redemption Lutheran,
Wauwatosa, WI, June 17, 2001