Grace is weird

Psalm 8:1-5, Luke 7:36-8:3, June 12, 2016


There are a lot of stories in the Bible that are simply weird to people in our culture.  And most of us have been hearing these stories all our lives and their weirdness doesn’t startle us anymore.  Elton Trueblood was inspired to write a small, classic theological book “The Humor of Christ” when his son helped him see an odd thing in the Bible that he hadn’t noticed.  Jesus said, “You worry about the speck in your brother’s eye, but you don’t see the log in your own.”  Trueblood’s son, at the age of 6, pictured that literally and it’s a funny image.  It’s so exaggerated and out of proportion that it’s laughable…unless you’ve been hearing this story all your life.

In the gospel lesson this morning, Jesus goes to a Pharisee named Simon for supper.  If that happened in Oshkosh in 2016, one might expect a scene like this:

Jesus arrived at Simon’s house a few minutes before 6.  He brought flowers, which Sylvia, Simon’s wife found a vase for and placed on the table.  Sylvia had made a new recipe that she’d found on the internet.  She was eager to try it on her family, but thoughts she’d get a more honest opinion if she served it to her family with company.  Jesus told her the chicken kabobs were delicious.  And everyone agreed.  [Thus the recipe was added to her repertoire.]  After supper they all enjoyed ice cream cake.  Then Simon and Sylvia’s son, Seth favored the guest with a flute song he’d been working on at school.  Sophia, their daughter did a dance in the living room that she would perform at an upcoming recital.  Jesus was very impressed with both of the children’s talents.  Then he said he had to go, because he had an early meeting the next day with some Sadducees, so he bid them all farewell, after thanking them for the good food and hospitality.  The next day, Jesus sent Simon and Sylvia a thoughtful thank you note, saying he’d like to get together with them another time.

Except the scene described in this morning’s reading indicates that Simon was not a good host.  It’s as though when Jesus arrived at the door, Simon wouldn’t get up from his Barcalounger in the den where he was watching SportsCenter.  When Jesus asked where the bathroom was, no one would tell him.

Simon didn’t offer Jesus a drink of water, an important point of etiquette in first century Palestine.  Simon didn’t even say “hello” to Jesus.  Simon didn’t wash Jesus’ feet, another aspect of welcoming someone into one’s home.  And, in his thoughts, Simon thought Jesus should know better than to let a notorious sinner, a woman some translations call “a harlot” touch his feet. 

Here’s one of the weird things we overlooked at Bible exploration Tuesday: There’s a stranger in the house.  We don’t know her name, we just know she’s known to be a “sinner.”  [Imagine this woman is someone you’ve seen asking for change outside WalMart.]  She has put expensive, fragrant ointment on Jesus’ feet and has wept over them and wiped them with her hair.  While this is all happening, the woman is completely unnoticed—except by Jesus.

Simon is a prominent man.  He has a home that can accommodate a guest for supper.  He is a Pharisee, a member of the leaders in the temple.  He’s a guy who should know better.  Pharisees are often foils for Jesus.  They are devout, even pious, scrupulous in their adherence to dietary laws as laid out in the Torah.  Jesus never faults their observance of the ritual laws.  Jesus faults them because their piety keeps them from doing good.  They are “righteous” that is innocent of breaking the rules, but they miss the big picture of why the rules are there in the first place.  At one point Jesus says of them they strain a gnat and swallow a camel.

While they are reclining at the table, eating supper, and the room is filled with the smell of the perfume poured over Jesus’ feet.  Jesus asks his host a question which boils down to “Who would be more grateful, someone who has a debt of two months’ wages forgiven, or someone who has a debt of two years’ wages?”  It’s not a trick question.  Simon says the one with the greater debt would be more grateful.

Then Jesus points to the woman who has offered Jesus the tradition customs of ritual welcome —and more—and indicates that one, like this woman who has a lot of sin forgiven is likely to be more grateful, and show more love, than one who does not have as much to be forgiven for. 

I think we can compare Simon, the righteous Pharisee, with the author of this morning’s Psalm.  The psalmist reminds God that God hates evil doers and destroys those who speak lies and abhors the blood thirsty and deceitful.  Very strong words.  On the other hand, the psalmist is confident of God’s loving presence and lifts prayers, which God hears, every morning. There is a faith, or perhaps a confidence, in God expressed in the psalm, and mixed in is some sanctimony.  Like the episode in chapter 18 of Luke’s gospel in which a Pharisee and a tax collector are praying in the temple.  The Pharisee says, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people; thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of my income.”  A ways off there is a tax collector will not even look up to heaven to address God, who says, “Be merciful to me a sinner!”

It’s the one who sees his sin, who is confident in God’s mercy, whose sin is forgiven.  

Now we’re all sinners.  Every one of us.  We’re all in need of grace and forgiveness.  Every week you say the words, “In Jesus Christ we are forgiven.”  Every week, every time we gather for worship we say that.  We’re all guilty…but not all sins are the same.  Just as not all debts are the same.  Not all forgiveness feels the same or has the same impact.

Grace is difficult to define.  But it’s better to experience grace than define it anyway.  About a year ago I made a mistake in worship.  That morning the ushers picked up about four blue prayer cards, and I read them right before the prayers of the people as I usually do.  It may seem redundant that I read them right before including them in the prayer, but I do it that way for a simple reason: when we pray we should give our attention fully to God.  It would be distracting, I believe, if we heard about the upcoming surgery of a beloved member of the church during the prayer.  Anyway, one of the cards had a prayer request from a name I didn’t recognize, that was marked “Confidential (prayer by pastor only)”  and I missed that completely.  I read the prayer request that had been marked “confidential.”  And, even worse, I violated the confidentiality of someone who was visiting here for the first time! His first experience of this church told him his secrets are not safe here.  When it comes to personal information I try to be a Pharisee…that is I try to be very scrupulous and to never share information that I have received in confidence.  Sometimes that means I’m honest, but vague, and lead a prayer that asks for God’s attention for a family who’s going through a difficult time, for example.  Rather than saying something like, “Hear our prayers for the Jenkins family, reeling from infidelity.”  One simple truth guides me—One cannot unsay something.  Once something is spoken, especially spoken in church, those words cannot be taken back or denied. 

There I was, at the end of the worship service, trying to figure out which of that morning’s visitors had passed on this prayer card.  When I found out, I showed him the card and said, “I am so sorry.  I really blew it when I shared this request out loud.  You filled out the card correctly, and I missed it completely.”

And the visitor said, “I understand.  I forgive you…and maybe it’s better to have more people praying for this anyway.” 

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.

We just sang that song last week.  And I know some people do not like the idea of being considered a wretch.  No one should have such a poor self-image.  Yep, I get that.  But if you do have that kind of self-image, because you have done something terribly wrong, if your starting point is a belief that what have done has somehow removed you from God’s loving presence…then to hear that grace reaches you…even you is a truly amazing, amazing experience.

If you accidentally step on someone’s toe in an elevator, you say “I’m sorry” and unless the person is in severe pain, or having a bad day, they know it was an accident and they’ll say, “That’s all right” or “no problem.”  The offense is small and the gratitude at being forgiven is also small.

The Pharisee’s sins, sloppy hospitality, perhaps mixed with a little sanctimony, aren’t all that severe.  The love he would feel at being forgiven wouldn’t be as great, or perhaps we could say extravagant as the “sinner” with the perfume at Jesus’ feet.  Her love is costly, and personal and extreme, because her gratitude is extreme…because her sin was extreme.

She understood that Jesus had the power to forgive sin, and she showed great love out of deep gratitude.  And it was possible because she had faith that Jesus could and would forgive her.  She experienced the embrace of forgiveness and was set free from her sin.   When you have an authentic experience of grace, even one, if it reaches deep into your heart it makes you different.  If we can truly trust, embrace, be changed by and rejoice at the good news of grace in Jesus Christ then we will not only be forgiven, we’ll live as forgiven people.  We’ll carry that good news with us.  Have you experienced grace like that?  Have you felt it and let it change you?  That’s God’s will for each of us.  Amen.