[My wife and I are away from home this month, so I am not preaching for six consecutive Sundays. The sermon below is from Luke 7:36-49. I originally preached this at the Stillwater NY United Church in 2013. While we are away, I may post some other sermons from the past.]
Some types of people don’t invite other types of people over for dinner. White racists don’t invite blacks. Black racists don’t invite whites. The wealthy are unlikely to invite poor people. We tend, unfortunately, to invite people over for dinner when we would feel comfortable with them and sense, perhaps, that they would be comfortable with us.
I find it highly unusual that a Pharisee would invite Jesus over for dinner. Unless it was to drill him with legalistic questions, perhaps to trap him in some obscure point of law. Or maybe it was just out of curiosity. To see this would-be messiah for himself. To dismiss him as another deluded leader.
Whatever his motivations, Simon could not have scripted better what happened. A woman comes in—uninvited and unwelcomed. And unnamed. She is unnamed, save to Jesus. I am pretty sure Simon the Pharisee never bothers to get her name.
She, whoever she is—we know that she is a big ticket sinner by the description given her; many think the description suggests that she was a prostitute, though we do not know for sure—she is no coward, no wall-flower, no shrinking violet. There is a boldness about her. A forthrightness. She breaks through all custom and convention, washing Jesus’ feet with her tears, drying them with her hair, and anointing them with precious perfume. To the Pharisee she embodied all that he was not: a sinner, a woman, and offense to his understanding of God and a social embarrassment by daring to do this in his house.
So he reasons to himself—and to him reason was of utmost importance—“If this man were God’s prophet, which I never really thought was the case, he would clearly have known what kind of woman this is—a wretched, damnable sinner—and he wouldn’t have let her touch him with a ten foot pole. That settles it; he will never be invited to my home for dinner again.”
Jesus not only knows who this woman is, he also knows who this man is, this self-righteous religious man. So he tells a simple little story about forgiveness, all of which leads him to nail the Pharisee that is trying to nail him. He looks at the woman as he speaks to Simon. Simon has offered meager hospitality; the woman has showered Jesus with honor. Simon’s welcome is sparing; the woman’s offering lavish. “Her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”
Count me as one who has been forgiven much. Place me in the company of that woman; forgiven much and grateful much. Number me not with one Simon the Pharisee, but with one unnamed sinful woman. Another woman, this one known by name, Annie Johnson Flint, has written of our absolute need of God’s grace and God’s overflowing supply:
When we have exhausted our store of endurance,
When our strength has failed ere the day is half done
When we reach the end of our hoarded resources,
Our father’s full giving has only begun.
His love has no limit, his grace has no measure,
his power no boundary known unto men;
for out of his infinite riches in Jesus, He giveth, and giveth, and giveth again.
Two stories, both true, one about forgiveness and one about dinner guests.
Maybe its an occupational hazard of being a pastor: I read obituaries: local, national, and global. A few years ago, I read the obituary for Elwin Wilson in the New York Times. I had never heard of Elwin Wilson before, but his story grabbed my attention.
Elwin Wilson lived and died in South Carolina. In the spring of 1961, the group known as the Freedom Riders arrived at the Greyhound bus station in Rock Hill, S.C., as part of their effort to end segregation in the South. When two Freedom Riders, one black and one white, entered a waiting area at the station that was designated for whites only, they were quickly assaulted by a group of young white men. One of them was Elwin Wilson. The Freedom Riders did not fight back and declined to press charges. One of them, John Lewis, became a prominent civil rights leader, and in 1987 was elected to Congress from Georgia. He still serves in the House of Representatives and had a speaking role in the inauguration of our Barack Obama, the first black person to become our president. Wilson said he had an awakening after President Obama took office.
Wilson said in an interview in 2009 that a friend had asked him, “If you died right now, do you know where you would go?” Wilson said, ‘To hell.” Apparently that got him thinking about what he had done and his need to seek forgiveness. Wilson called The Rock Hill Herald in 2009 to confess that he was one of the men who had led the bus station beating in 1961. Only then did Wilson learn that one of his victims had become a member of Congress. Wilson traveled to Washington and met with Lewis to ask his forgiveness. Lewis quickly granted his forgiveness. “He started crying, his son started crying, and I started crying,” Congressman Lewis said.
Wilson, who spoke slowly and with a thick drawl, once told CNN: “I never would have thought I could apologize to this many people. I feel like I’m apologizing to the world right now.” Lewis noted that the apology from Wilson was the first he had received for the violent acts committed against him in the civil rights era — and he said he had never questioned whether to accept it; of course he would.
Those two men have acted out something of the biblical teaching about the radical nature of God’s forgiveness. When the Bible speaks about forgiveness, it speaks in the most eloquent and profound ways. Jeremiah says that God will forgive our sins and remember them no more. Isaiah says that though our sins be like scarlet they shall be white as snow. Paul says that our sins have been taken from us, erased, eradicated, blotted out, by the work of Jesus. And Jesus said that those who are forgiven much love much.
When Sarah Smiley’s husband Dustin, a Navy man, was deployed overseas for a year, she discovered that the hardest time each day was dinner time, when she and her three children sat at the table and were painfully aware of the empty chair. So they decided to fill that empty chair. Whom should they invite? They started with the children’s schoolteachers and that went well. What about the mayor? The mayor came one evening for dinner. The Smileys live in Maine and one of the boys was studying American government, so he said, “Let’s invite Senator Susan Collins, who has a home in our town.” He wrote the invitation to her Washington DC office: “We are wondering if you would like to come to dinner some time this year.” In December they got a call from the Capitol. The senator would be home for the holidays and would go to their home for dinner the first week of January. Senator Collins arrived a little early. Sarah didn’t have everything ready, so Collins sat with the kids and their dog while Sarah got dinner on the table. After dinner table conversation, the senator put a tin of brownies on the table. For a year they had an amazing array of dinner guests: the police chief, TV personalities, an Olympic gold medal rower, an orchestra conductor, a former governor, and a zookeeper.
When Dustin’s year of deployment came to an end, the family gathered at the airport to welcome their husband and father home. Oh, and about 50 dinner guests joined them in welcoming home Dustin. That evening there was a piece of paper on the guest chair: Reserved for dad.
One day a Pharisee named Simon invited Jesus to dinner and you wouldn’t believe who also came to dinner and what she did for Jesus. And what Jesus taught us about forgiveness. The other guests began talking behind his back: “Who does he think he is, forgiving sins?”