Already Forgiven

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					                                        Already Forgiven
                         A sermon offered by the Rev. Dr. Michael D. Castle
                        June 16-17, 2007 Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
                              (Third Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 6)
                       Cross Creek Community Church, United Church of Christ
                                           Dayton, Ohio

                                              Luke 7:36 – 8:3
One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place
at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s
house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe
his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them
with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said 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 spoke up and said to him, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you.’ ‘Teacher,’ he replied,
‘speak.’ ‘A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they
could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?’ Simon
answered, ‘I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You have
judged rightly.’ Then turning towards the woman, he said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your
house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her
hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not
anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 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.’ Then he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ But those who were at the table with him began to
say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has
saved you; go in peace.’

Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the
kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and
infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out,
and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided
for them out of their resources.

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General Synod gatherings of the United Church of Christ are always fun and full of surprises. It is
great to be with friends and colleagues from around the country, to feel a part of our wider United
Church of Christ family, and to experience worship in that diverse and energized setting. A few
years back, I attended the General Synod gathering in Minneapolis. One of the surprises of that
General Synod was the singing of a transgender choir. Yes, you heard me right! It wasn’t a choir
of “G’s”, or “L’s”, or “B’s.” This was choir of “T’s” – a transgender choir! I have never heard of, or
seen, one of those before. Their music was beautiful, and soulful, and full of the Spirit…and joy.
Some of the choir members cried as they sang. Some raised their hands in praise to God. Some
danced with joy. And all of this took place at a major worship service at the General Synod
gathering of the United Church of Christ.

In my glad and stunned amazement, I looked around the convention hall as the choir sang to see
how others were responding to the transgender choir. Some folks looked like deer in the
headlights. They were in shock. Others were caught up in the joy of it all. Some folks had faces
that looked grave and serious, like they were drinking sour milk. Other folks had big smiles and a
glow on their faces as they received and welcomed the worship music from transgender folks.
Some sat in their chairs with their arms folded and their bodies tight and tense. Others clapped
along with the music or opened their arms in praise to God.

I did notice a male-to-female transgender person sitting not too far from me, who was overcome
by emotion. She was crying tears of joy and her arms were opened wide in praise to God. It was
obvious to me that she, along with the choir on the stage, felt deeply embraced and loved by God
by this first-of-a-kind welcome of a Christian denomination.




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After that worship service, the commentary began. There were many comments. Some
celebrated the presence of that choir as a sign and symbol of what was best about the United
Church of Christ…an extravagant welcome and embrace of those who are different, of those who
are on the margins of respectability and affirmation in our society. Others found themselves
conflicted. These are the ones I call “nervous” Christians! These folks want the United Church of
Christ to be a welcoming place for everybody and they believe in freedom and inclusion but they
worry about publicity and public relations, about losing more churches and members. Would this
be one more opportunity for the United Church of Christ to be criticized and called names, like a
“freak show?” And the answer to that question is, yes it was! Some folks were appalled at the
presence of that choir and saw it as one more example of a United Church of Christ that had lost
its way…that would condone sin and debauchery, and didn’t stand for anything.

I thought of that transgender choir and that moment in worship back in Minneapolis in 2003 when
I read our gospel story for today. Simon invites Jesus to dinner. It’s a bit risky for a good
Pharisee to do that, but Simon shows how open he is by inviting the controversial carpenter from
Nazareth into his own home. And how foolish we are when we think we have followed Jesus
here and can control who has access to the table! How proud we are of our openness, our
magnanimity, our spiritual sophistication before God. What is Simon thinking? That he will
debate scripture with Jesus and prove him mistaken? Or is he experimenting, observing Jesus to
get some juicy quotes he can use against him later? Or is he trying to show Jesus how smart,
how proper, how spiritual, how righteous he is? Do you ever think God is impressed with our
show of pride and righteousness?

Whatever Simon was thinking, his dinner party with Jesus was spoiled by an uninvited guest.
The text says that she was “a woman in the city, a known sinner.” Traditional interpretations call
her a prostitute, but as Alan Culpepper points out, “Identifying the woman as a sinner is more
important than identifying her specifically as a harlot because the term for sinner (hamartōlos)
connects with the previous reference to sinners in v. 34, where Jesus is called ‘a friend of tax
collectors and sinners,’” thus connecting the woman as a “friend” of Jesus.

Her designation as sinner could just as easily have meant that she was one of the outcasts of her
day: poor, common, unclean, not a wealthy, upright, Bible thumping Pharisee like Simon, and
therefore, a sinner as far as he was concerned. Maybe she just didn’t submit to her husband, so
that made her a sinner in Simon’s eyes. Maybe her husband was dead and there were no other
“males” around to offer her safety and food and respectability, so she was forced to be a whore,
and that certainly made her unlucky, and unblessed, and unclean in Simon’s eyes. We don’t
really know who she is or why she does what she does or how she has acquired the reputation
she has. She is a sinner, and for the purpose of the story and our connection to it, that’s all we
need to know.

At any rate, she shows her ill manners not only by crashing the party, but also by ignoring all
social etiquette. She embarrasses Simon with her effusive and evocative attention to Jesus.
Touching or caressing a man’s feet, and letting down her hair, all had sexual overtones. If Jesus
is a prophet, he should know this woman’s reputation. If he is righteous, he should not allow her
to touch him. There are laws concerning this after all and this woman’s touch will make him
unclean. Doesn’t he care? Isn’t he concerned?

Jesus reads Simon’s mind. Actually, he probably read Simon’s face, which indicated what was
going on his mind. So Jesus tells Simon a story: two debtors, one owes a little, the other owes a
lot. The lender forgives both loans. Who will love the lender more?
Simon is cautious, “I suppose the one with the greater debt.” Larry Bethune strikingly sets the
scene:
        “I suppose…” Now that’s a grudging admission, isn’t it? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist
        to see where Jesus is going, but Simon doesn’t want to go there. He doesn’t want to
        accept the implication that this woman might be forgiven, and he doesn’t want to admit




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        he needs to be forgiven for anything either. Turns out, she has something to teach
        Simon about hospitality, about grace begetting graciousness, about love. The righteous
        guy who thinks he’s God’s best friend is rude and cold compared to the sinful woman
        who ignores all the rules. Simon isn’t a good host, doesn’t wash Jesus’ feet, greet him
        with a kiss in good Mediterranean style, offer Jesus a soothing balm. But the woman, the
        uninvited, washes Jesus’ feet, kisses him, anoints him. She has received Jesus: Simon
        has not.

I am sure that Simon doesn’t feel comfortable with Jesus’ comparison, but then Jesus turns
toward the women, while he is still talking to Simon, and announced that her sins have been
forgiven. And the contrast and comparison between Simon and the Pharisees and this woman is
further heightened. Again, Bethune says
         that Jesus would forgive sin. That Jesus would forgive her sin. That Jesus would dare to
         imply that they need forgiveness, too, that they are stingy with love, that they have
         something to learn from her! They are offended by Jesus’ inclusive grace, as Pharisees
         always are, so that they – the righteous! – do not participate in the grace of God which
         she – the sinner – accepts, not because Jesus wouldn’t include them in his grace, too,
         but because they lack the capacity to receive it.

There is a lot of scholarly debate about the meaning and import of Jesus’ lesson. The grammar
of forgiveness can go two ways here. It can suggest that God forgives the woman’s sin because
she is loving or, it can suggest that the woman is so loving because God forgives her sin. Or as
Paul Tillich, one of the great theologians from the last century, suggested: “Forgiveness has the
character of “in spite of,” but the righteous ones give it the character of “because.”

Which do you prefer? Is God’s forgiveness unconditional, freely given as gift and grace? Or, is it
earned or achieved by actions or goodness on our part? The woman’s actions point toward what
being loved by God and loving, is all about. It is about accepting and being transformed by a
forgiveness and a grace already given! Tillich said that “to love this love is to love God.
Theologians have questioned whether [humans are] able to have love towards God; they have
replaced love by obedience. But they are refuted by our story. They teach a theology for the
righteous ones but not a theology for the sinners. He who is forgiven knows what it means to
love God.”

We don’t know if Simon learned the lesson that Jesus taught at his table that day, but what about
us? Will we learn it? Will we take it to heart? Will we see in Jesus’ encounter with the outcast
woman something about the love of God for her, and for us? How about it dads? Is there a
word for us this Father’s Day in the exchange between Jesus, Simon and the woman? And to all
of you gathered here today, what does this story say to you about a forgiveness that is already
given and freely offered by God?

Already forgiven! What this story says to me is a word about authenticity. The woman has no
pretense, no mask, no covering pride. She is who she is. And that is the very place God’s
forgiveness and grace meets her. That is the very place where God’s love is experienced. That
is the very place from where love is offered back out of a profound sense of gratitude and in joy.
But if we aren’t careful, our self-righteous, religious rule-keeping becomes a smothering cover of
denial of real life and prevents any authentic relationship with God or with each other.

Already forgiven! What this story says to me is a word about humility. If we aren’t careful, we
may find ourselves like the little Catholic girl who went to her first confession and started
chattering on about her mom and dad, her new puppy, her favorite teacher, a recent
vacation…she hardly took a breath. Finally, the priest intervened: “Would you like say a word
about your sins?” And she replied, “That’s getting kinda personal, isn’t it?” But if we’re not
careful, we can come to church and engage the spiritual journey with our fellow Christians,
chattering away about everything in the world and evaluating everybody else but failing to see




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how far we ourselves have fallen short and how much we have been forgiven…how much we are
loved…by God.

Already forgiven! What this story says to me is a word of hope and freedom to those on the
margins of our society and to those who welcome them with joy and journey with them in courage
and friendship. In Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, William says:
        The outcast lepers would like to drag everything down in their ruin. And they become all
        the more evil, the more you cast them out; and the more you depict them as a court of
        lemurs who want your ruin, the more they will be outcast. Saint Francis realized this, and
        his first decision was to go and live among the lepers. The people of God cannot be
        changed until the outcasts are restored to its body.

We learn from outcasts. We stay close to the presence of God when we stay close to those on
the margins of society. Those who are marginalized by the world, knocked so low by their own
mistakes or by an unfair or irrational prejudice against them, have nothing to gain by pretense.
They will not be allowed to participate in the structures of power no matter what they do, and
oddly, this creates a newfound sense of freedom in them. Marginalized people have a unique
capacity to be who they are, warts and all, and to love freely from the heart without running it
through the filters of the fear of loss and image and power and concern for gain. This woman,
rejected by the world but deeply beloved and forgiven by God, is free to love in ways the rich and
righteous and powerful Pharisees can’t even understand or comprehend. My friends, there is an
abounding collection of power and hope and courage and freedom in communities of faith like
ours that welcome and value the marginalized, for to do so keeps us honest and close to the
power of God. Let us not forget this!

Already forgiven! What this story says to me is a word about grace. In Lorraine Hansberry’s
classic play, A Raisin in the Sun, Lena reproves her daughter for passing judgment against her
brother who is selling out their dream. Lena says:
         There is always something left to love. And if you ain’t learned that you ain’t learned
         nothing. Have you cried for that boy today? I don’t mean for yourself and for the family
         ‘cause we lost that money. I mean for him: what he been through and what it done to
         him. Child, when do you think is the time to love somebody most? When they done good
         and made things easy for everybody? Well, then, you ain’t through learning – because
         that ain’t the time at all. It’s when he’s at his lowest and can’t believe in hisself ‘cause the
         world done whipped him so! When you starts measuring somebody, measure him right,
         child, measure him right. Make sure you done taken into account what hills and valleys
         he come through before he got to wherever he is.

How easy it is to want grace for ourselves and celebrate it as truly amazing, but not offer it! How
easy it is to excuse ourselves by naming all sorts of mitigating circumstances while condemning
others whose struggles we do not know, nor understand! How much we want to accept God’s
grace and forgiveness for ourselves while resenting the grace that God offers to everybody else.
Just maybe we “ain’t through learning” either!

This story reminds us that when it comes to the God of Jesus, the word is Grace, and all of the
forgiveness that words entails. Forgiveness is certainly a spiritual challenge for all of us and a tall
order for those of who call ourselves Christians. Tillich said that “forgiveness means reconciliation
in spite of estrangement; it means reunion in spite of hostility; it means acceptance of those who
are unacceptable, and it means reception of those who are rejected.” And because of Jesus,
we understand that this forgiveness is already given by God. It is already so. And for those of us
who choose to follow in the way of Jesus we are called to be joined to one another and become
the body of this generously forgiving, graciously loving Christ in the world.

Resource(s) for this sermon:
Paul Tillich, “To Whom Much is Forgiven…,” The New Being, pages 3-14.
Larry Bethune, “Who Invited You?,” a sermon offered at the University Baptist Church, Austin, Texas, June 14, 1998.
R. Alan Culpepper, “Luke,” The New Interpreter’s Bible.



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