Sermon, June 12, 2016

Showing More Love  
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont

June 12, 2016   Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 32; Galatians 2:19b-20; Luke 7:36-8:3

This church is in a time of transition, between settled pastors, but the fact is that all churches are in transition today as society goes through huge changes.

Transition times are often compared to Biblical journeys through the wilderness. We think of Moses leading the Israelites from slavery to freedom in the Promised Land, or Jesus in the wilderness between his baptism and ministry.   Transitions are challenging because they are always taking us through unfamiliar terrain toward an uncertain destination. Transitions also are exciting because gifts and transformations can come along the way and bring extraordinary blessings, if we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit and let it work within us.

The Apostle Paul described his own transformation this way: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” Transitions are opportunities for us to let our old ways go and take on new ways of being that show more of Christ’s heart and mind within us, showing more love.

One of the blessings of wilderness journeys is that people can feel or see God’s presence more clearly. God is always present. God is not especially present in the wilderness, but when we are in a wilderness, we can become especially present to God.

We have the opportunity to experience God more deeply in the wilderness because we experience our need more deeply.   The children of Israel had no idea where they were going. They needed help, and God came to them as a guiding pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of light by night. Again and again their need turned them toward God and opened their eyes. They saw God’s steadfast mercy and love revealed in the meeting of their needs.

Our need can open us to receive God’s gifts, but it also can tempt us to turn to other ways than God’s. The wilderness creates deep thirst in us, so whatever we turn to we will drink deeply. If we turn to God, we will gain God’s loving presence and transforming action more deeply in our life. If we turn instead to material things or selfishness to get us through, if we turn to fear instead of trust, we will divide ourselves from God more thoroughly.

The wilderness can be a blessing because it makes both our need and our choice for how to fulfill our need so clear. It can be a blessing because if we choose wisely, and turn to God and open in trust, we can come to recognize God’s abundant gifts and celebrate them even as we struggle or suffer.

Today’s gospel passage shows what a difference it can make to be conscious of our need and God’s offer to meet our need. One character in the story is aware and another is not. The sinful woman was aware that she needed to be forgiven. Sin made her impure according to her culture. She was cut off from society. The only way to forgiveness her religion offered was to go through the temple priests who could decide that God forgave her, although they were just as likely to condemn her.

The woman was moved by her faith that Jesus would offer God’s forgiveness unconditionally—so moved that she crossed the religious and social boundaries and intruded on the dinner. Jesus was reclining, as was the custom. She came up behind his feet and was weeping over them, bathing them in her tears. She dried them with her hair. She kissed them and anointed them with fragrant oil. She did not care what people thought or what the rules were. She just kept pouring out her gratitude and love.

The Pharisee named Simon on the other hand was not aware of his need. He invited Jesus to his home, but his motive was to examine Jesus and find out if he really was a prophet, as people said. Simon was literally keeping Jesus at arm’s length until he had taken his measure, and even then, we can imagine that his interest would be cerebral and detached. In his opinion he did not need Jesus for anything.

So Simon did not pay Jesus even the common courtesies of greeting a guest. He gave Jesus no water to wash up before the meal, as opposed to the woman who bathed his feet. Simon certainly did not greet Jesus with the kiss of friendship or with the anointing reserved for an especially honored and revered person. Simon believed that a true prophet would never let an impure sinner touch him, so the woman’s behavior confirmed his suspicion that Jesus had nothing to offer him that he needed.

Jesus saw this and told Simon the parable about two debtors, one who owed ten times as much as the other. The creditor forgave them both when they could not pay. Jesus asked the crucial question: who will love the creditor more? Simon gave the obvious answer, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.”

Jesus said, “You have judged rightly.” Jesus then praised the woman for her great love, and exposed Simon’s shameful, cold and closed-hearted pride. Jesus led Simon into a wilderness of humiliation in front of all his guests where he might see his true need for God’s grace, and show more love.

Today’s passage ends with a report that many women among Jesus’ followers had been healed or forgiven by him. The Pharisees considered themselves righteous, and they condemned Jesus for blessing unrighteous sinners, but Jesus had a different understanding of what made a person righteous. To him righteousness was a matter of the heart. A heart was righteous when it turned in its separation or temptation or suffering and called out to God for forgiveness and help.

What makes a person righteous is faith working through love. (Galatians 5:6) The righteous heart has faith that grace will come to us if we love and follow Christ’s way. The Rev. William Sloane Coffin said, “I love the recklessness of faith. First you leap, and then you grow wings.”

One of the fascinating things about the gospel story is that the woman acts forgiven before Jesus says he forgives her. She loves Jesus merely on the faith that everything good that she needs will follow from that love.

It is similar to what Jesus himself did in the wilderness. He was famished and vulnerable and tempted, he was suffering, but he turned to God in loving faith, trusting that out of that turning would come the fulfillment of his needs.

Lin Xiangao was the pastor of an illegal church in China that suffered persecution from the communist government. He was imprisoned for over twenty years of hard labor, and pressured daily to renounce his faith. He said that every time illegal Christian churches were persecuted, they grew stronger. Xiangao said, “A Christian who has not suffered is a child without training. Such Christians cannot receive or understand the fullness of God’s blessing. They know God only as an acquaintance rather than as an intimate heavenly parent.” (Christ the Eternal Tao p. 499)

Christ’s question is who will love God more. The answer is that those who look to God in faith in the midst of suffering will show more love—those who love God just for the hope expressed in the Psalm that “at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them,” and that God will be “a hiding place for them and preserve them from trouble and surround them with glad cries of deliverance.”

Faith teaches our hearts to recognize the grace in our lives. We recognize the goodness God brings to fruition out of our suffering. Our hearts expand with gratitude and love.

What will happen to a congregation that turns to God in its need, trusting in God’s help in its wilderness times of transition or struggle? The Psalm says we will discover that we are surrounded by steadfast love, and we will find happiness and joy. The gospel teaches that our faith will lead us to the Promised Land of Christ’s forgiveness and new life, and we will be at peace.

Such a congregation will not be like the Pharisee, who is smug in his supposed righteousness. It will be like the woman in the story. It will act out of abundance even when it experiences scarcity. It will become righteous by acting compassionately toward others even when its heart is aching and it is living in turmoil. It will show extravagant hospitality even when it is in a wilderness far from home. It will follow Christ’s way even when he leads more deeply into the wilderness. It will do the healing work of Christ in the world even as it longs to be healed. It will act as the agent of the grace it hopes to receive, in the faith that it is in giving that we receive. The more it relies on God’s forgiveness and love, the more loving it will be.

Once upon a time there was a church that had experienced a series of hurtful conflicts. The leaders of that congregation recognized that they needed to change. The first thing they did was pass a set of Communication Guidelines that said, “We are precious to one another and seek to build a beloved community in which our faith can grow.” They wrote an Identity and Aspiration Statement that said, “We aspire to grow in numbers as we make this an increasingly welcoming, loving, helpful congregation where we take the love we find here out into the world around us.” They educated themselves about how to have healthy communication and be a beloved community, and along the way they became a leader and model of loving community among regional churches. Meetings that once upon a time would have left people feeling divided became opportunities for growing closer as they worked through their differences. Their capacity for love grew and as a result their church grew.

A church will flourish and become a powerful force of goodness in this world when it is made up of people who have been moved and changed by the grace of Christ’s forgiveness and love. That church will be an instrument of more healing and peace in the world because of all it has received. It will show more love and it will feel more joy.

Let us pray in silence turning to God in complete faith that God will meet our need…