Preacher The Revd Neil Summers
If you think there is a lot of sin around this morning, you are right! I think many of us these days – me included – feel a bit uncomfortable with the idea of talking about ‘sin’. Perhaps the discomfort emanates from the connotations of the word. The language of being convicted, or broken, or burdened, by sin raises the spectre of old-style hell-fire and damnation preaching guaranteed to make the listener feel guilty and wretched. It also sits uneasily alongside the more positive and life-enhancing aspects of religion it is so much easier to focus on. In addition, ‘sin’ has often come to be associated with personal peccadillos, almost to the exclusion of any other notions. That may be a way of screening other ‘sins’ which, in the great scheme of things, could be considered much more detrimental to the life and health of the planet, of humanity and of the rest of creation. The inequality which leads to poverty and starvation is a sin; unfair trading practices which disadvantage those who are already poor are sinful; environmental destruction and pollution is a sin; the trade in arms can certainly be considered sinful.
But apart from all of that, ‘sin’ is such a loaded word, which is, perhaps, why we substitute all sorts of euphemisms – failing; falling by the wayside; straying from the path; missing the mark; the time of trial, and so on. It doesn’t sound quite so bad then! The BCP, though, doesn’t allow us ‘miserable offenders’ to pull any punches. However we might choose to describe it, the whole point about ‘sin’ – in its broadest sense – is an awareness that there are consequences to our thoughts, words and actions. They may impact on us personally, on other people, on the body of the church, or on society as a whole. (‘Meet the Author’ Louise Doughty on the radio: we all have secrets we are anxious to keep; we have to come to terms with our own past; we all have something in our lives of which we are ashamed.) This morning’s lessons present us with two stories in which the main characters have to confront their own sinfulness and face the consequences. When you read them, it makes you think there really is nothing new under the sun.
Nathan the prophet is a good story-teller; he is also a brave man in confronting no less than the King himself, David, with his misdeeds. King David desires Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, one of his officers. After committing adultery with her, David plots to have Uriah killed in action against the Ammonites. God is displeased and sends the prophet Nathan to confront David with a story that stirs David’s conscience and prompts him to confess: ‘I have sinned against the Lord.’ Because of God’s mercy, David is forgiven and his life is spared, but there are still consequences. The child born of the relationship of David and Bathsheba dies, and there is also trouble within David’s household with his other sons as a result of his actions. It’s a very human story.
In the Gospel, Simon invites Jesus to his home for a meal. Simon was a Pharisee, one of the ‘separated ones,’ dedicated to keeping the Law to the letter and looking with contempt on those who failed to do likewise. There was, however, a woman – described only as a ‘sinner’- who ran and knelt at Jesus’ feet and washed them with her tears. Actually, that designation of ‘sinner’ could mean many things, perhaps even simply that she had married a Gentile. But for a woman to unbind her hair in public was considered, in those days, the trademark of a prostitute. I dare say Simon, the host, was highly embarrassed at this behaviour from a gatecrasher. But the woman herself lost all self-consciousness. She must have heard of Jesus’s teaching about the nature of the God who positively welcomes and embraces those who have failed. This would be a scandal for those who relied on keeping the letter of the law for their salvation – like the host, Simon – but it was good news for her as an outsider in polite society. She no longer cared what people thought of her, and she wiped her tears from Jesus’ feet with her long hair. Around her neck she wore a little vial of perfume, as most Jewish women did. This was valuable, and the most precious thing she owned. But she broke it open and poured it over Jesus’ feet and kept kissing his feet in gratitude for the message of forgiveness that she had heard. Simon was shocked at her behaviour. More than that, he was astounded that Jesus had allowed this to happen, when he knew she was such a sinful woman. Jesus then told Simon a story about forgiveness and gratitude, and reminded him that the woman had done for him all the things that Simon the host had failed to do for Jesus as his guest. Instead of condemning the woman, which most people would have expected, Jesus laid in to the host, placing the responsibility for the breach of etiquette squarely on his shoulders. My guess is the air was electric, if not blue.
This is the heart of the Christian Gospel: God comes to us on his own initiative with free forgiveness, and when we realize this and accept it, gratitude might well overflow in extravagant deeds of devotion. But it is interesting to note that when people hear such a story, it can provoke opposing responses. It thrilled the woman and moved her to self-forgetful love, but it offended Simon and stirred him to self-righteous contempt. Furthermore, it is not so much the Gospel in words that offends as the Gospel in action. I guess that when Jesus spoke of God’s unlimited forgiveness, Simon listened politely, as we might listen to sermons in church, without fully realizing its implications. But when Jesus demonstrated God’s mercy in accepting this woman completely, then all of Simon’s legalistic learning and Pharisaic prejudices rose up in protest. It is one thing to hear about the act of forgiveness; it is another thing entirely to see it put into practice.
The woman knew what forgiveness meant in her life, and the deliverance it would offer. Simon, armoured in self-assuredness, and fastidious in keeping the rules, was not conscious that he needed saving from anything. I wonder who would feel most at home in today’s church – the sinner woman or Simon? I rather think there are quite a few Simons around, even in the church. Have you ever met someone like him; come across him at church or at work; sat beside him at a meeting, or – and I say this to myself as much as I say it to you – might you have occasionally even seen him in the mirror? Many people want an interventionist God when it comes to the bad which stalks the earth, but they sure as hell do not want him to intervene in their lives or to shape or change or challenge their lives or lifestyles.
Now, I don’t actually believe in a God who checks the rulebook and zaps us with some punishment or other when we break one of them. Jesus teaches us that forgiveness is at the heart of the Gospel, and that God’s love and mercy are without limit. That doesn’t mean that anything goes, and it doesn’t mean there are no consequences when we get it wrong, especially when we do so willfully. But such consequences are of our own making, and only we have the potential to change and to put things right again. The good news is that the Christian gospel proclaims that human sin has essentially been dealt with once and for all; therefore we do not need to be haunted by it for ever. Our response – in gratitude – means that we must learn to forgive others, hard though that may often be. But there is one important question we are left with, and that might be even more difficult to address: can we also forgive ourselves?