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Sermon: Dinner Interrupted

June 13, 2010

Luke 7:36-50

Alexander Pope is the man who wrote the now well-known saying, “To err is human; to forgive is divine.”  There is, of course, great truth to that statement.  Human beings are notoriously prone to error.  We can mess up any good thing.  God is the author of forgiveness.  God shows us by example how to forgive, even though we human beings would often rather chop off our own hands than forgive someone who cut us off in traffic.

A corollary to Pope’s statement is that it can also be extremely difficult for human beings to receive forgiveness.  If I am willing to receive forgiveness, I have necessarily admitted that I am guilty or that I have failed.  It is not easy to do that.  I am sure you have experienced that inner dialogue in which you say to yourself, “I don’t need to be forgiven by you.  I haven’t done anything wrong.”  To accept the forgiveness of someone else also seems to put myself in a subordinate position to the one who has forgiven.  The forgiver is one up on the one who was forgiven.  And of course, the bigger the offense, then the bigger the gap between forgiver and forgivee.  Forgiveness between human beings can stir up a complex mix of emotions.

And that’s what I thought about when I read the story that Jesus’ told to the Pharisee named Simon.  Jesus was at Simon’s house for dinner, and Jesus said, “Suppose there were two men who owed money.  One man owed $500 and the other man owed just $50.  Let us also supposed that the man to whom the money was owed forgave both debts.  Which of the debtors do you suppose will love the creditor more?”

“Why, of course, the man who had owed the greater amount.”

Jesus said, “That’s right.”

And I thought, well, that might be right.  The man who had owed $500—though I am sure he would have been happy to keep the money—might feel even more indebted to the creditor.  He took the man’s money and his charity.  He might feel guilty because he couldn’t pay what he owed.  He might feel resentful of the man who acted to him as a patron.  There is no guarantee that a man who had been forgiven a debt would feel love.

We know that true forgiveness doesn’t come with strings.  You can “forgive” a person in a way that isn’t really forgiveness.  If I forgive you for smashing my car into a light pole when you borrowed it, but try to make you feel as if you are a jerk, then that is not forgiveness.  If I forgive you, but make it clear that you still owe me something, it is pretend forgiveness.  If my forgiveness is meant to show you how superior I am to you, then it is not forgiveness.

“Well, I forgive you, but you really hurt me.  I don’t think I can ever forget what you did to me.  It’s gonna take a long time.  I can’t believe you did that to me.  You were supposed to be my friend.  I forgive you, but I’ll never forget it.”  That’s not forgiveness.  It’s punishment.

Today’s scripture, though, isn’t about the ways we do or do not forgive each other.  Today’s story is about a woman who felt deeply that she had been forgiven.  She felt as if there were no strings attached, but that she had been simply relieved of a burden that had dogged her life.  And she was grateful, so thankful that she came weeping and poured out ointment on the feet of the one who was to her the sign of God’s forgiveness.

Maybe some of you know what that feels like to have a heavy weight that feels like a cement mixer pressing down on your chest, and then suddenly, it’s gone.  You feel like you can breathe, that you can dance.

Susanna had had an affair.  It was a short and passionate thing with a man at work.  Only a few weeks in, her own behavior really started to bother her.  She couldn’t live with what she was doing, couldn’t even believe she had been so stupid.  She broke it off quickly, but felt her failure and dishonesty very keenly.  She read somewhere that you shouldn’t confess to your spouse about a past affair because while it might make you feel a little better now that things are out in the open, it makes the spouse feel terrible.  So Susanna didn’t say anything to her husband.  She would look across the table at him every night at dinner, and her stomach turned over so much she could hardly eat.  She watched him playing with the children, and she had to go into the bedroom to hide her tears.  Susanna did her best to treat her husband well, but even that bothered her.  She felt deceitful, as if her generosity toward her husband wasn’t from love, but from guilt.  Susanna was a mess.

She didn’t want to talk to her friends about it, because most of them were her husband’s friends, too, and she didn’t want them to treat him differently or pity him.  Her husband wouldn’t want that.  Plus, she felt it was unfair to her friends to ask them to keep such a secret.  So she just carried this heavy, stinking burden around with her.  It was terrible.

One day on her lunch break, she was walking back to work when she passed this Catholic church.  Susanna passed it almost every day, but that day she thought, “Maybe I should go in.”  She thought it was a crazy idea.  After all, she was a good Presbyterian girl, and she didn’t think Presbyterians did stuff like that.  But she went in anyway.  She saw the booths for confession were open, and when one came available, she went inside.

Her heart was pounding.  She had no idea what to do.  She kept clasping and unclasping her hands.  Before the priest could even say a word, Susanna just blurted out, “I’ve had an affair.  I feel terrible.  I don’t know what to do.”

“You haven’t done this before, have you?”

“No, no, I’m Presbyterian.”

“That’s okay.  You can talk to me.”

So she did.  Susanna wasn’t in the booth for very long, but it seemed like hours.  She came out in sort of a daze.  When she walked outside the church, the light was so bright and she almost tumbled down the steps.  Susanna walked the last few blocks to her office trying to remember what happened in that booth.  She couldn’t remember much, but something that the priest said kept playing over and over again in her mind.

He said, “God forgives.  Even you.  Your sins are forgiven.”

Susanna had never really paid much attention to that word “forgiven” before, but she heard it now.  And she started to feel it.  That night she looked across at her husband and maybe felt a twinge of guilt, but she could eat, and that was the first meal she could remember enjoying in a long time.

If Jesus had been a guest at her home for dinner that night, and if Susanna had an alabaster jar with ointment in it, it is quite likely that she would have gotten down on her knees with tears spilling down her face.  She might have put ointment on Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair.

And she would have heard what he said to her.  “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

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