Sunday, June 12, 2016

Sin and Forgiveness; Love and Hospitality

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
June 12, 2016

Year C, Proper 6: The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
1 Kings 21:1-21a
Psalm 5:1-8
Galatians 2:15-21
Luke 7:36-8:3

Sin and Forgiveness; Love and Hospitality.
            In one of the first interviews he gave after his election, Pope Francis was asked a simple but profound question, “Who are you?”
            He answered, “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”
            That’s a pretty unexpected answer coming from the Pope and, I suppose, it would not be the answer that we would give if somebody asked us, “who are you?”
            Of course, we all sin – we all fall short, we all, at least some times, reject God’s great command – the command to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.
            We’re probably not as sinful as Jezebel in today’s Old Testament lesson, who engineered the death of Naboth so her husband King Ahab could get his vineyard – we may not be as sinful as Jezebel, but we do our fair share of sinning.
            Because we’re good at compartmentalizing, good at putting the different parts of our life into little psychological boxes, many of us manage to ignore our sinfulness much of the time and would certainly never answer the question “who are you?” by saying, “I am a sinner.”
            But, sometimes our sins do weigh on our souls.
            Maybe we think of our sins and ask forgiveness here during the service, during that little pause before the confession, before we join with everybody else and ask forgiveness for what we’ve done and left undone.
            And then there are times where our sins become “intolerable” and we need to make a more private and personal confession.
            I’ve mentioned to you before that very few people have ever taken advantage of the opportunity to make a sacramental confession with me, though the door is always open.
            But, years ago a woman came to see me out at Grace Madison to make a confession – she wasn’t a parishioner but had found the church in the phone book or online.
            We sat in my office and she told me her story – it was a lot – she shared the heavy burdens of guilt that she needed to get off her back, out of her heart.
            And then we prayed and I said the words of absolution and forgiveness, made the sign of the cross, and I swear to you, as she felt forgiveness, I could see her face change.
            Then, a couple of weeks ago a woman called St. Paul’s asking if she could make a confession over the phone.
            No one’s ever asked me that before and I was reluctant but circumstances seemed to make it impossible for us to meet face to face so I went along with it.
            Often it’s pretty clear what the sin is – or the sins are – usually one of the big ones: lying, cheating, stealing.
            But, in this case, it took her a while to get around to the sin – a sin that was bothering her enough to call me.
            And, to my surprise, it turned out she was feeling very guilty because she hadn’t offered hospitality to someone she didn’t trust or like very much.
            I was reminded of that call when I began to reflect on today’s gospel lesson – where we hear quite a bit about the sin of inhospitality.
            To be fair, we’re told that Simon the Pharisee does indeed invite Jesus to eat with him in his home.
            But, Simon’s hospitality seems to be half-hearted at best. There’s no kiss of welcome, no water for Jesus’ feet, no oil for Jesus’ head. We don’t know why Simon neglects these niceties. Maybe he didn’t really like or trust Jesus but he felt that he was supposed to have him over, so he did. Or maybe he invited Jesus over simply to challenge him or try to trick him into saying or doing the wrong thing.
            We don’t know why, but Simon fails to be hospitable.
            Enter the sinful woman.
            We don’t know her exact sins but she arrives and I’m sure shocks everyone by crossing all kinds of boundaries. She bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears and dries them with her hair. Then she anoints his feet with oil.
            It’s a mysterious and powerful story – mysterious and powerful because we’re not sure exactly what’s going on here but we can see the key elements:
            Sin and forgiveness.
            Love and hospitality.
            Like the Pope, we’re all sinners. That’s not such good news, except that God is always ready to forgive us.
            And, when we acknowledge our sinfulness and truly receive and accept forgiveness, then we are transformed – transformed like that woman sitting across from me in my office whose face changed as her burdens were lifted.
            As forgiven sinners we are meant to be transformed into people of love and hospitality – people willing to cross all kinds of boundaries, pouring out love and tears on the Christ we meet in the stranger, the Christ we meet in the poor drunk on Bergen Avenue, the Christ we meet in the conservative and the liberal, the Christ we meet in the Muslim and the Mexican, the Christ we meet in the sinners we sit with in church every Sunday.
            We are meant to welcome them all, something, let’s be honest, that we personally and churches aren’t always good at.
            When I was in the ordination process, I was told to go around and visit other churches in our diocese to see what’s out there.
            I visited one church on Mother’s Day. There were only about a dozen people at the service. No one knew who I was and no one paid me any mind, even though I obviously knew my way around the prayer book and was about 20 years younger than the youngest person there – so you would’ve thought they might take an interest in a potential parishioner.
            No one said anything about coffee hour so I assumed they just didn’t have it until I saw everybody else filing into the parish hall after the service for, yes, coffee hour.
            The sin of inhospitality.
            And, then there was the large suburban church I visited one Sunday. I got there early so very few people were around. When I found an usher, I asked him where the bathroom was. I’ll never forget the look he gave me – he obviously didn’t know me so he looked me over skeptically, almost weighing in his mind whether he should tell me. Who knows, I might write on the walls or shove paper towels down the toilet!
            The sin of inhospitality.
            But, sometimes we do better – sometimes we are hospitable and we do welcome people into our church, into our home, and into our life.
            By now, some of you have heard about the death yesterday morning of our beautiful sister, Eden Rahming.
            Eden was just about the sweetest person I’ve ever met, loving and kind, and with a gorgeous voice. I was always so happy when she was able to come to church here not just because of the boost she gave the choir, though there was that, but because her gentle spirit somehow changed the feel of this room and our worship.    
            So many of us are devastated by her death so suddenly and at such a young age.                                                                                                       
            Some of you also know that Eden lived with Gail and her daughter Shari, who had welcomed her into their home, welcomed her as a daughter and a sister, helping her to feel loved and valued, caring for her not unlike the woman in today’s gospel story, anointing Eden with tears and love.
            That’s who we are meant to be.
            That’s who we really are.
            So, yes, Pope Francis is a sinner – a forgiven sinner who has reminded the church of the Love at the heart of our faith.
            The woman at the Pharisee’s house was a sinner – a forgiven sinner who poured out her tears, her ointment, her love, on Christ.
            And you and I are sinners, too – forgiven sinners meant to offer our tears, our welcome, and our love to Christ, to Christ who we meet in the people, especially the poorest and the loneliest, all around us.
            Because I’ve seen it, I know we can do it.
            Sin and forveness.
            Love and hospitality.