St Paul's Episcopal Church, Waco, TX
Here we are again, around another table at another meal, with Jesus. The air is thick, but not with the sweet scent of nard we might expect. You can cut the tension in this room with a knife. And the shame.
Jesus has accepted the dinner invitation of a Pharisee, so we an be pretty sure this fellow wasn’t his best friend, not one of his closest disciples, maybe even an adversary. This is the sort of meal where the silences are awkward and long, where everyone is second guessing everything said, reading into body language, picking apart motives. There’s no trust in this room, and certainly no love.
And below it all, is the shame. Maybe we don’t have to imagine what it is like to lose your name, your identity, to be known only by a label. Maybe we know. “A sinner,” today could be many things: it could just as easily be “a miser,” “a bigot,” “an adulterer,” “a gossip,” “a drunk,” “a whore,” “a purger,” “a cow,” “abused,” “raped,” “a convict,” “a crazy person.” There is a label for each of us, we all hide at least one label deep down in our hearts and hope we’re the only ones who know about it. Most of us have had that moment when we ceased to be a person, when we found ourselves overcome by shame and guilt and self loathing and all that remained was that horrible label.
She becomes invisible, no one seems to have noticed the “thing,” the sinner who has snuck into this tense gathering, until she touches Jesus, until she crosses that barrier between the respectable and the shameful. And all her worst fears come true. Kneeling at Jesus’ feet, utterly vulnerable in her love and her outpouring suddenly the hostile eyes of the respectable men around that table are all fixed on her.
Why is she even there? Why open herself up to the hatred, the disgust, the loathing of people who must have made her life miserable on a daily basis, who didn’t even see her as human, who had made her a label? What could be so powerful, what could compel her into that place of shame and hostility. A place where she is invisible or reviled? One thing, and one thing only:
Forgiveness. Forgiveness that gave her an identity no shame could strip away, no human censure could erase. Forgiveness that came as an unexpected gift, a precious thing, a sparkling gem of freedom when she expected only kicks and harsh words. A gift, not a reward, not a wage. Unearned, unlooked for, unexpected and overwhelming. What freedom, what relief. No wonder she knelt and kissed Jesus’ feet, no wonder she washed them with her tears and her hair and anointed him with sweet costly oil.
We live in a culture of exchange. I give you money and you give me a service or a product. I give you my time and you compensate me with money. Humans have been that way for a long time. But God’s economy is pure gift. Costly gift, but gift that costs us nothing. We have no currency that can buy what God would give, no work we can do that would even equal the value of what we are offered. And God has circumvented that all anyway, for the moment we try to pay we realize we’ve had God’s love and forgiveness since before we were born. It was slipped into our hearts while we were still screaming from the shock of this cold bright world. Snuck into our lives by a God who won’t let us see the gift coming, who sneaks it into the house and slips it around our wrists and shouts: “Do you like it?”
We don’t find the stories surprising where someone asks Jesus for forgiveness or healing, where they fall on their faces at his feet and beg. Those stories are neat and easy to understand. They repented, and hence they were forgiven, the exchange neat and clear. And then Jesus sits down to eat at the table of his adversary and tears of joy and thankfulness from a woman he has never met cut straight through the tension.
Luke has made it so there is no way to misinterpret. The woman who kneels at Jesus’ feet did nothing to ask for, or earn her forgiveness. We don’t even know how she received it, how she realized that she was a person again and forever, no longer a label. All we know is that she was forgiven and that gift was so precious, that relief so sweet it flowed from her in exuberant love, love that overcame shame and fear. Love that no longer cared who saw, or what they thought or said.
“Do you see this woman?” Jesus asks Simon. “Do you see her?” Not a sinner, not shame, not an embarrassment, a woman. A woman who has shown great love, in front of you and everyone here. A woman who has been freed from her shame and her fear by forgiveness, whose heart has been made free to love. There is more shame in our world than there is water in the oceans. Shame that we hide deep in our own hearts, shame that we cast on others, shame that follows us like a shadow we can’t shake. Shame that keeps us from really seeing one another for what we are: beloved, forgiven, children of God.
Every one of us. The bumbling waiter who got our order wrong on Friday, the surly checkout girl, the homeless man who scared the tar out of us last week, the neighbor who refuses to play by the neighborhood rules. The coworker who is so wrong about politics. The woman we were told to avoid, because she’s “no better than she should be.” The man with the pinched face and worried eyes who everyone knows is a “looser.” The person inside you that you desperately try to hide… Forgiven, and loved. Right now. From the moment we were born.
What do you need to be free? To realize that all the chains of shame and fear are ghosts and fantoms, that there is nothing hidden in your heart. That forgiveness has already happened, long before you even knew you needed it. Can we let our hearts unclench? Can we finally look and see the woman, see her face, see her beauty and her fear, her scars and her hurt and her healing; see her and not who we think she is? Can we look at our husband, our wife, our children, our friends, our parents, our neighbors, our friends, our acquaintances, our adversaries, our enemies: and see them?
What happens if we do? What happens if we let go the labels and the assumptions and renounce the shame? We have been forgiven, set free to love God, and one another. Not to agree with one another, not to be the same as each other, maybe not even to like one another all the time. But to see each other, and to be moved by love.
Our lives are filled with private shame, and public fear. Darkness that is pierced by forgiveness, totally overcome by it. Friends I invite you to live in that forgiveness, in the assurance that God has covered you with the mantle of forgiveness, blotted out the dark of each of our sins with the light of God’s love. It has already happened! But our eyes are shut tight, for fear, too tight to really believe we’re already free. We’ve done nothing, nothing to deserve release, yet God has turned the key. Nothing to deserve love: but God loved us before our Grandparents were dreams.
And that makes us free to love one another, and to actually love ourselves. Free to be the diverse place we are, full of people who might never have chosen one another in that outside world: that world where labels are everything and those who are labeled differently cannot even talk anymore. We have been made free through the mercy and love of God, through God’s economy of gift. The only question that remains is what will we do with our gift?