What Jesus Looks Like Sometimes

A longtime friend and supporter of my ministry sent the following, about sex offenders and those on the registry in church:

“I don’t know what to do. What would you do if a sex offender showed up at your church,” he asked.

“Well, it happens almost every week. I would say, ‘I’m so glad you are here’, and then probably ask him if he wanted to help me serve communion, or lead us in prayer.”

He looked like he had swallowed something distasteful, so I went on.

I told him that the sex offender registry as it is currently doesn’t really tell us anything about the person. Getting caught peeing in the bushes near a school, being 21 and having consensual sex with a 17 year old, and molesting a 4 year old are all things that will get you on the registry, but not all of those people are of equal risk to others.

The author, Hugh Hollowell, is a Mennonite pastor who calls himself “the pastor of last resort,” I title I like so much I’m going to steal it and use it someday. He does the kind of ministry I do, I would like to do — hardscrabble ministry with lost and broken people in a place no one loves or cares much about.

But the last year has brought me here, to a ministry of mercy for abused and abandoned foster kids, most of whom are victims of sexual abuse, and many have been trafficked. I deal frequently with victims, I hear such terrible stories, and I try to minister to them, to help them understand how God is present in their lives. How God is redeeming them.

So it’s hard for me to have much sympathy for the perpetrators, many of whom are very bad men — beating, raping, abducting, buying, selling. Treating these amazing young women as mere things for pleasure and profit.

Much of the time, I want vengeance. Suffering for these men for the evil they have wrought. I don’t see them as redeemable. Not really.

But Hollowell is right. The people we label as “sex offenders” come in all shapes and sizes. For a while, I counseled a young man named Aiden who was doing six months in juvenile detention because, at 16, he had sex with his 14-year-old girlfriend. The age of consent in Washington is 16, and it’s a hard age of consent — there are no allowances for young teens who have sex with each other. Her parents found out, and were not happy. Aiden said he was okay with his sentence — it kept him off the registry, and probably gave him a chance to rethink his life a bit.

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Sadly, doing this ministry, I’ve met too many young women – 13 and 14-year-olds — with much older boyfriends — 17, 18, 19. I’ve counseled and ministered to teenage girls protecting themselves by being with men in their 20s. And some are having sex with parental permission because the parents know at least the boyfriend is kind, treats their daughter well, and keeps her safe. (Because once a girl is a rape victim in a small community, predators of all ages seem to know, and the girl is a target.) Or because there are no parents at all. This is hardly ideal, and I only grudgingly accept it, but sometimes it’s the best protection a young woman can find.

(I’ve seen what foster care can do, and what kind of charnel houses and torture chambers foster home can be. And the police aren’t much use unless a crime is actually being committed and they can stop it in the act.)

But you know, even the rapists, even the traffickers, even the murderers, are not so far in the dark that Jesus isn’t light for them, that Jesus doesn’t love them. Doesn’t redeem them. Doing what I do right now, with the victims, means I’m probably not the person to pronounce that love — I’m too close to those who have suffered. Nor does the pronouncement of that love negate any responsibility we have to punish those who hurt others and keep the vulnerable safe.

The ideal place for such a ministry is prison.

But some of these men get out. Live in our midst. And Jesus loves them too. Died for them and rose for them, pronounced to some “today you will be in paradise with me.” You wouldn’t have such people worship in a church full of victims. Not unless there was some very serious repentance, penance, and reconciliation, not unless the victims themselves want that, lead that, set the terms and have the final say.

We do need to be reminded sometimes, though, that no one is so far from the love of God that they should be excluded from the church, from the people of God, no matter who they are.

No matter what they have done.

On Being Forgiven

I was perusing the first couple of chapters of Leviticus yesterday afternoon, between noodling on my guitar and reading online essays, when I noticed something beginning in chapter four that seems crucial to the whole system of repentance and sacrifice:

And the priest shall make atonement for them, and they shall be forgiven. וְכִפֶּר עֲלֵהֶם הַכֹּהֵ֖ן וְנִסְלַח לָהֶֽם (Leviticus 4:20)

Some version of this is repeated four times in chapter four, which describes sin offerings for sins by the priest (which brings “guilt upon the people”), the whole congregation, a leader, and one of the common people. In each instance, the priest will accept the sacrifice required, make atonement, and forgive the person who is seeking forgiveness.

This is for sins committed without intention to sin — accidents, mistakes, forgetful or thoughtless moments. It’s clear here intent is important. One who intends to sin is measured by a different standard.

Which makes sense to us.

What struck me here is how central forgiveness is here. The priest shall make atonement, and they shall be forgiven. There is no examining of the heart here, no querrying of intentions. To bring the required sacrificial animal to the priest, one without blemish, is enough. That in and of itself signals a desire to repent, to atone, and then have that atonement accepted and forgiveness — סָלַח — is required. At least here.

This is true for individual sin and collective sin:

If the whole congregation of Israel sins unintentionally [make a mistake], and the thing is hidden from the eyes of the assembly, and they do any one of the things that by the Lord’s commandments ought not to be done, and they realize their guilt, when the sin which they have committed becomes known… (Leviticus 4:13)

Yes, this requires an understanding of sin — its being revealed, made known, and guilt realized — but that requires atonement made, and once atonement is made, the sinner(s) forgiven.

But forgiveness … is pronounced. To all who come, knowing they have sinned or having had their sin made known to them, and wish to repent.

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This strikes me because the church (especially the liberal church) has confused inclusion with forgiveness. Yes, inclusion of those formerly excluded by the teaching from the community of God’s people is a prophetic promise and a gospel realization (Acts 8:26–40). Those who had been excluded may indeed feel themselves broken, unclean, cast out, rejected, and certainly understand the welcome of Jesus to eat at his table — even to sit at the head! — as long promised redemption.

They may also feel like sinners, having been told most of their lives they are sinful simply for being who they are, and excluded for their own good. And the good of those gathered at the table.

But sinners are also those who have done wrong, made mistakes, and through their acts, separated themselves from the presence of God in the tabernacle at the heart of God’s people. The church still struggles with that residue of pietism, of being the true body of Christ, of being a people pure and sinless, a people in no need of redemption to begin with. (If you need God’s grace, you clearly haven’t earned it!) The church — liberal and conservative — would still rather be that church, I think, than deal with this real, bloody, messy, gut-spilling work of atonement.

And forgiveness.

On Repentance and Penance

Eve Tushnet, who is becoming one of my favorite public theologians, reviews a book over at The American Conservative that I would like to read — Mary Mansfield’s 1995 tome The Humiliation of Sinners: Public Penance in Thirteenth Century France. Penance and repentance, and the re-integration of penitent sinners back into the the community of the faithful, is a big deal for me, and it’s something I don’t think Christians (at least in America) know how to take seriously anymore.

Tushnet has this to say about Mansfield’s book:

Mansfield makes vivid the jury-rigged, experimental, even madcap religious world of the 1200s, which brought me comfort here in 2016. She draws out some of the aspects of medieval French religion we have lost: the intense focus on the sins of the rich and middle-class, for example. Confessors quizzed their better-off parishioners closely about usury or abuse of power; one man had to do public penance because the money he gave to the poor on his wedding day was counterfeit, which is three separate things that wouldn’t happen today.

Mansfield depicts many tensions we still struggle to resolve: the sinner’s hunger for anonymity, for example, which conflicts with his longing for reconciliation with the community. Nobody wants to be exposed—but we long to be known, forgiven, accepted as the sinners we are rather than the facades we display in public. There’s a great relief in no longer having to hide.

This longing for exposure and even for humiliation isn’t on Mansfield’s radar. One of the few disappointments of her book is how thoroughly she frames public penance in terms of the longing of others—the righteous, the self-righteous—to see sinners humiliated. She notes that the practices she describes coexisted with entirely voluntary public penances, things you’d do only because you wanted to do them, but she has chosen not to focus on those.

This is a big deal for me because of what happened after my first pastoral internship was ended early — I hugged a parishioner who did not want to be hugged, did not discern that, was not told that, and so when the situation became untenable for both the parishioner and the supervisor, the hammer came down hard and with no warning — did not include any talk of sin, of repentance and penance, and none of forgiveness and redemption (except in a very abstact sense). What followed, from both the church and seminary, was grounded solely and entirely in the language of therapy, health, and well-being.

It pretended not to judge me, as all therapeutic processes pretend, but judge me it did (my candidacy process in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America never recovered), and punish me it did. As C.S. Lewis notes in his essay “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment”, those who have adopted this approach to sin…

… are not punishing, not inflicting, only healing. But do not let us be deceived by a name. To be taken without consent from my home and friends; to lose my liberty; to undergo all those assaults on my personality which modern psychotherapy knows how to deliver; to be re-made after some pattern of ‘normality’ hatched in a Vienese laboratory to which I never professed allegiance; to know that this process will never end until either my captors have succeeded or I grown wise enough to cheat them with apparent success—who cares whether this is called Punishment or not? That it includes most of the elements for which any punishment is feared—shame, exile, bondage, and years eaten by the locust—is obvious. Only enormous ill-desert could justify it; but ill-desert is the very conception which the Humanitarian theory has thrown overboard.

What I wanted, and yearned for in the process, was something public, a way that would show I have understood the gravity of my sin and that I broke faith not just with the parishioner I hurt, but also with the Church overseeing my formation and with the God that had called me to ministry. I also wanted to know that there was a way for the church to publicly proclaim that I had been reconciled, welcomed back into the communion of saints, that I had properly acknowledged the gravity of my sin, and had repented fully and faithfully.

Even then, I wanted what Tushnet described as an essential part of Christian community in the 13th century France.

When I wrote earlier this year that the Church has a problem with sin, and thus a problem with forgiveness, I am referring largely to this process that I (and some others I know) went through. I would have preferred public shame and humiliation and a formal church process to what began to happen more than seven years ago — a lengthy process that has left my wife and I unemployed, nearly destitute, and effectively homeless since I graduated from seminary in 2012.

The church couldn’t have punished me better if it had actually set out to.

Protestant confessions have a serious problem with sin and forgiveness. In part, protestantism begins with the confession that God’s forgiveness is unearned — which shattered the medieval system Mansfield describes in her book. This very public reconciliation of repentance and penance was not simply about restoring the sinner to the community of the faithful, it was also about restoring the sinner to communion with God — something specifically rejected by the Protestant reformers. In fact, I’ve met protestants (specifically Lutherans) who get very uneasy with that word penance.

As pietism took hold in the 17th century — a reaction to protestant legalism and an effort to show who really followed Jesus in a Christendom where everyone, or nearly everyone, was Christian simply by birth — this public confession of sin became the entry into the religious community where the striving for perfection (or sinlessness) was the goal. There was no longer an effective or even functional system for repentance, penance, reconciliation, and restoration of penitent sinners because the whole point of pietism was to distinguish real Christians who knew how to behave themselves from the careless, sinful majority of nominal Christians who don’t know their left hands from their right.

In fact, the pietistic response to sinners in the church is to shun them, to exclude them or banish them from the community of the faithful. (Lutherans are very good at shunning.) This may have roots in earlier Christian processes and customs — for example, denying Christian soldiers who killed in war the eucharist for three years so they could do penance and reconcile themselves to God — and it may come with some rules for reconciliation, among protestants those ru les are a lot less formalized and a lot less accountable. Especially to the sinner. And the shunned sinner may never be fully restored, since sinlessness is the precondition for inclusion in the community to begin with.

I never really was.

This practice of shunning sinners, of excluding them from the community of the faithful, also got wound up in notions of of class, and of bourgeois piety and propriety — this is how good citizens live and act too. Shunning had social consequences, and it meant those who were excluded from the community of the faithful were also excluded from the political community and from economic opportunity. Those who were shunned deserved the consequences of shunning — poverty, marginalization, violence at the hands of authority. In this protestant world, deprived of public rituals of repentance and penance (though dissenting and non-conformist churches also arose to allow for those “born again” to claim a place in some kind of society), once a sinner was judged, condemned, and excluded, there could be no restoration.

The Civil Rights Movement, however, confused and muddled how protestants — at least liberal protestants — dealt with shunning and exclusion. Because they began to grasp that people could be shunned, excluded, and marginalized through no fault of their own. They could suffer social death (at least from the standpoint of a good, bourgeois citizen) for no legitimate reason. (Liberalism and Progressivism has always believed in forced or compelled inclusion and participation in the national community.) And so, liberal protestantism embraced inclusion — for political and theological reasons, for both church and the greater society — for those liberal protestants came to judge as unfortunately excluded or marginalized. It was couched in a language of forgiveness, but it wasn’t really forgiving anything. (You cannot “forgive” black people for being black.) Jesus does include those formerly excluded, and we see in Acts in particular an expansion of who is called to be in God’s people (though a careful reading of the Old Testament gives us that as well). This approach at least understands that those excluded have been wounded by their shunning, and frequently come to see themselves as sinners. But it ignores the reality that this kind of liberal inclusion is really about saying to people:

“We were mistaken, and our ancestors were mistaken; you are not sinners, you are beloved children of God. Welcome, please, and join us.”

It means that even as liberal protestant churches speak of welcoming and inclusion, they still do not know what to do with real, live sinners, with people who actually earn their shunning. Because for all its progressivism, liberal protestantism still does not know how to get past that desire and demand for sinlessness that joining (or being born into) the community brings. Liberal protestant churches still expect, on some level, to be the arbiters of bourgeois social norms, what makes someone a good citizen and a worthy participant in community life, and to be a community of visible saints. Sure, there is social work to help the unfortunate (especially victims of their own sin), but such people can never really be restored to the community and never be anything except recipients of its charity and compassion.

Because if they were truly good people who God really loved, they wouldn’t need help.

What I want to see is an acceptance that Christians sin, that sin can and should be confessed (individually, and not just in some generic corporate confession), and then rituals that allow for a public repentance, penance, and acceptance that the sinner has been redeemed and restored. These rituals need not be quick — no tearful “I’m sorry!” followed by a quick “all is forgiven!” Nor do they demand a guaranteed return to one’s previous status or position. They should be rigorous and thorough and above all public. I yearned for such a process, not so much to make amends to the person I hurt (though I have not done that, in part because I was not allowed), but to let everyone know that no one, especially the sinner, has been abandoned.

Whatever humiliations the ELCA and my seminary could have heaped upon me following my misdeeds on my first internship, nothing could have been as awful, as isolating, or as humiliating as the life Jennifer and I have lived for the last four years as mendicant wanderers, utterly dependent on handouts and grace.

Or being told by an ELCA bishop: “We’re done with you.”

My hope is, in the collapse of American Christendom, the church can rediscover these older ways that Tushnet describes in Mansfield’s book, this long process of repentance and penance that can show not just sinner and community, but the world as well, that God is in our midst and has not abandoned us. Not even in our sin. Especially not in our sin. We are loved and wanted and accepted and included and wanted even when we have behaved badly, hurt others, and separated ourselves from love and grace of God and God’s people.

That repentance is work. Restoration is work. Community is work. Living as the people of God is work. That love is work.

Hard work. Grueling work. Neverending work. Essential and necessary work. Holy work.

The work that matters.

JOSHUA No Forgiveness

19 Then Joshua said to Achan, “My son, give glory to the Lord God of Israel and give praise to him. And tell me now what you have done; do not hide it from me.” 20 And Achan answered Joshua, “Truly I have sinned against the Lord God of Israel, and this is what I did: 21 when I saw among the spoil a beautiful cloak from Shinar, and 200 shekels of silver, and a bar of gold weighing 50 shekels, then I coveted them and took them. And see, they are hidden in the earth inside my tent, with the silver underneath.”

22 So Joshua sent messengers, and they ran to the tent; and behold, it was hidden in his tent with the silver underneath. 23 And they took them out of the tent and brought them to Joshua and to all the people of Israel. And they laid them down before the Lord. 24 And Joshua and all Israel with him took Achan the son of Zerah, and the silver and the cloak and the bar of gold, and his sons and daughters and his oxen and donkeys and sheep and his tent and all that he had. And they brought them up to the Valley of Achor. 25 And Joshua said, “Why did you bring trouble on us? The Lord brings trouble on you today.” And all Israel stoned him with stones. They burned them with fire and stoned them with stones. 26 And they raised over him a great heap of stones that remains to this day. Then the Lord turned from his burning anger. Therefore, to this day the name of that place is called the Valley of Achor. (Joshua 7:19–26 ESV)

What we have here, brothers and sisters, is a sinner. A real, honest-to-God sinner. Brother Achan put us all at risk by taking and keeping a coat and some money, things God wanted set aside, God wanted to keep for himself. Brother Achan took these things thinking god wouldn’t notice. That God wouldn’t see.

But God did see. And God knew. And we paid a price — our army was routed at Ai. And until we deal with this sinner, we will be defeated. We will not stand before our enemies. God has abandoned us. As God told us,

“Something proscribed is in your midst, O Israel, and you will not be able to stand up to your enemies until you have purged the proscribed from among you.” (Joshua 7:13 JPS Tanakh)

It is not enough that Brother Achan has confessed, though it is well and good that he has. Because, sisters and brothers, we know that confession is good for the soul.

However, we offer him no forgiveness. We cannot. There is none to offer. Because what he did put us all at risk. This poor decision of his, taking things that by right belong to the Lord our God, brought the judgement of God down upon us. Put our entire enterprise, our nation, at risk. For that defeat, and all the defeats that will come as long as he in our midst, we must do more than expel him.

Fire and death. For him and his family. And everything he owns.

For we must purge the sinner from our midst.

We must.

Not Godly

I am not a godly person.

I do not lead a godly life. Whatever that might be.

I do not trust people who claim to lead godly lives. Something always seems missing in their souls. They are, too often, cold and callous and cruel and condemning.

I do not trust people who call on others to lead godly lives. I do not know what they mean, except that godly always seems to include something I am not or cannot do or be.

I am not a godly person.

I am a sinner.

I live a sinner’s life.

I am redeemed. Jesus has redeemed me.

I live a redeemed sinner’s life.

Jesus met me at the well, told me who I was, healed my wounds, told me my sins were forgiven.

He found me in the marketplace, and said, “follow me.”

And I followed.

I am a sinner. I live a redeemed life. I follow Jesus because he called me.

I tell others about Jesus. That he knows them, and forgives them, too.

I have touched his wounds. And he has touched mine. He has made me whole, even as I still bear my wounds. He raised me. He lives in me.

I am not a godly person. I do not lead a godly life. I do not know what a godly life is. I’m not sure I want to know.

I am a sinner.

But I am forgiven.

I am forgiven.

Falling at His Feet

Yesterday’s gospel reading — the woman who falls as Jesus’ feet, anointing his feet with oil and her tears in Luke 7:36–8:3 (reminding us as well that women funded and paid the freight for Jesus and his disciples) — was paired with Nathan rebuking David for (what, exactly? adultery? raping?) Bathsheba and then, when her soldier husband Uriah refused to lay with his wife (so that her pregnancy would be easily explained), arranging to have Uriah killed in battle in 2 Samuel 12:1–13.

It makes sense. Here’s a matter of sin, being convicted of one’s sin, and repentance — grateful repentance in the case of the woman in Luke 7. We don’t know what the woman’s sin was, and in the lectionary reading we don’t have Nathan’s promise to David that the child he conceived in this sin with Bathsheba — whatever the nature of that sin was — and David’s long lament for his dying child.

His is not a grateful repentance. David is forgiven, but his tears are tears of fear, sorrow, and loss. Not gratitude.

But there was something I wanted to work into yesterday’s sermon that I didn’t. Because there wasn’t space or time.

The gospel reading begins

37 And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, 38 and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. (Luke 7:37–38 ESV)

She doesn’t fall at Jesus’ feet, but it brings to mind something that happens to David while he’s on the run from Saul in 1 Samuel 25. David and his men show up in the wilderness of Paran (in what is now an eastern portion of the Sinai Peninsula) and basically attempt to extort a meal or two (or three) from the very wealthy Nabal:

“Nice sheep you have here, and your shearers too. Pity if something happened to them, you know, if my men — who haven’t touched them, I have to tell you, have not hurt a single one of them — were to, you know, do something. Something we might both regret.”

Nabal doesn’t fall for this. “Who is this David that I should share anything with him?” Nabal may be a rude host, but David was something of a rude guest. I’m not sure I’d respond well to this kind of threat either.

A fight looms as David’s men prepare to take up arms. However, whatever sense David seems to lack in the communications department he more than makes up for in actual behavior. His men were good, and guarded Nabal’s men and property while they were out shearing in the wilderness.

So, Nabal’s cunning and comely wife Abigail takes it upon herself to right her husband’s wrong, and avert the coming disaster. For David 400 armed men ready to kill every last man standing in Nabal’s camp.

At which point, Abigail rides out to meet David:

23 When Abigail saw David, she hurried and got down from the donkey and fell before David on her face and bowed to the ground. 24 She fell at his feet and said, “On me alone, my lord, be the guilt. Please let your servant speak in your ears, and hear the words of your servant. 25 Let not my lord regard this worthless fellow, Nabal, for as his name is, so is he. Nabal is his name, and folly is with him. But I your servant did not see the young men of my lord, whom you sent. 26 Now then, my lord, as the Lord lives, and as your soul lives, because the Lord has restrained you from bloodguilt and from saving with your own hand, now then let your enemies and those who seek to do evil to my lord be as Nabal. 27 And now let this present that your servant has brought to my lord be given to the young men who follow my lord. 28 Please forgive the trespass of your servant. For the Lord will certainly make my lord a sure house, because my lord is fighting the battles of the Lord, and evil shall not be found in you so long as you live. (1 Samuel 25:23–28 ESV)

What follows is Abigail’s long blessing of David, followed by a simple request that David let God have vengeance upon Nabal:

… And when the Lord has dealt well with my lord, then remember your servant. (1 Samuel 25:31 ESV)

Because of Abigail’s intercession, David relents. He calls off his planned vengeance against Nabal, and sends Abigail on her way:

35 Then David received from her hand what she had brought him. And he said to her, “Go up in peace to your house. See, I have obeyed your voice, and I have granted your petition.” (1 Samuel 25:35 ESV)

Within a fortnight, Nabal dies (he was a bad man to begin with, and Abigail’s betrayal left no spirit in him), David’s men arrive to take Abigail away to be his wife (it was just as well Nabal died, as she would have been just one more wife David would have stolen), and Abigail responds:

41 And she rose and bowed with her face to the ground and said, “Behold, your handmaid is a servant to wash the feet of the servants of my lord.” (1 Samuel 25:41 ESV)

It’s in this foot washing, Abigail’s grateful, welcoming, properly hospitable foot washing, that I saw the parallels or allusions between this story and what happens to Jesus at Simon the Pharisee’s house in Luke 7. Abigail repents of sin — in this case, its her husband’s lack of hospitality — and petitions David for forgiveness. To stay the hand of judgement of condemnation. David sends her on her way, forgiven, spared, redeemed. It isn’t just Abigail who is saved here — David promised that “by morning there [would] not have been left to Nabal so much as one male.” (1 Samuel 25:34) She saved everyone who worked (or was owned) by her husband, and any sons she might have had.

She saved everyone but Nabal, a worthless man who died of a broken heart. (Vengeance against Nabal belongs to God!) And let’s be fair — he had it coming, being “harsh and badly behaved.” (Though, he has a solid pedigree as a descendant of Caleb, the only spy besides Joshua who survives the first reconnoitering of the promised land.)

Jesus gives Simon the Pharisee quite a lecture on hospitality — Simon didn’t provide water for Jesus to wash his feet, didn’t kiss him, didn’t anoint his head with oil, whereas the woman, with her grateful tears and her ointment, did all of these things.

Who was more hospitable? The Pharisee with the well appointed house who could host Jesus of Nazareth for dinner, or the wandering “woman of the city” who was a sinner? Who was more hospitable? The wealthy trader and shepherd who could eat for himself “a feast like a king” (1 Sam 25:36), or the wife who had nothing of her own and chose to grovel for mercy and forgiveness before the leader of a group of mercenary bandits?

Who knew enough to ask for forgiveness? And respond in gratitude?

SERMON Today, I Know I am Forgiven

I didn’t preach this Sunday, but if I had, it would have looked something like this.

Lectionary 11 / Fourth Sunday After Pentecost (Year C)

  • 2 Samuel 11:26–12:10, 13–15
  • Psalm 32
  • Galatians 2:15–21
  • Luke 7:36–8:3

36 One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. 37 And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, 38 and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” 40 And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.”

41 “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward 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 wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” 48 And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

1 Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, 2 and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3 and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means. (Luke 7:36–8:3 ESV)

I love this story. I love everything about this story.

Here we have Jesus sitting and eating with a Pharisee. We hear a lot about Jesus eating with sinners, but mostly we hear about that. We actually see Jesus and his disciples eating with Pharisees and scribes. “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus is asked by some Pharisees and scribes he is actually reclining at table — eating with — in the fifth chapter of Luke’s gospel, right after he calls Levi to follow and Levi throws a great feast for Jesus as his disciples. And Pharisees and scribes too, I suppose, because there they are, grumbling at Jesus.

So another Pharisee has invited Jesus to dinner. Who doesn’t want his company? And in comes this woman — an unnamed “woman of the city” — who Luke tells “was a sinner.” Luke doesn’t tell us what that means, and we can spend our days guessing what it is she does that earns her the title of sinner. It doesn’t matter what she has done, how she has fallen short.

What matters is that she knows she’s a sinner. Whatever it is she has done, she has heard the words Jesus has preached — good news to the poor, freedom for those held captive, sight to the blind, the healing of those who are unclean and — more than anything — that word Jesus speaks with such authority:

Your sins are forgiven you.

She knows who she is. And for much of her life, she has lived with the violence and abuse, the utter indifference to her wellbeing, that comes with the condemnation of who she has been and how she has lived. I am certain, for all those reputable people in this community — especially the scribes and the Pharisees — that condemnation, that deliberate and purposeful exclusion from the people of God, is an essential part of the good order of the world.

It is the judgment of a just God who, long before this woman was conceived, gave the teaching to Israel in the Wilderness. Simon, I’m certain, believes he is just doing as Moses commanded. He is just proclaiming the judgment of God upon sin. Her sin.

And whatever that sin might be, I’m certain there is a punishment she’s earned far greater than mere shunning. Simon the Pharisee may think he is being merciful and magnanimous for not grabbing a few stones, for not putting her to death, or for not simply running her out of town.

Make no mistake here, Jesus has not ignored her sin — whatever it is. He has judged her. And he has judged her harshly. Because there can be no forgiveness without judgment. And she knows this, knows that whatever it is she has done, that has gotten her this label of “sinner” is real. It separates her from God, from the people of God, from a life that is valued.

Your sins are forgiven you.

And she knows who she is now. She knows she is forgiven, that whatever this Pharisee might say about her, how he and others like him might treat her, that great chasm that separates her from the Lord God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is gone. As David, himself no stranger to sin, judgment, and the repentance that can bring, sings in our psalm today

1 Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.

2 Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

3 For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.

4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah

5 I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. Selah (Psalms 32:1–5 ESV)

We don’t know her sin. But she does. And those simple words spoken by Jesus, “Your sins are forgiven you,” have changed her life. She was a sinner; now she is a saint. She was lost; now she has been found. She was dead; and now she has been raised to new life.

She responds in deep and abiding gratitude to the one who spoke those words, “Your sins are forgiven you,” with power and authority. She grovels, grateful before the Son of God, washes his feet with thankful tears because his words of forgiveness are true words of forgiveness. No work of law could have justified her, made her right, not before God, not before Simon the Pharisee, who likely would have overseen any attempt to repent on her part.

Now she lives, the forgiveness of Christ alive in her, trusting the Son of God, whose feet she washed and wiped and anointed, whose words brought her back to life.

Your sins are forgiven you.

She has encountered the love that matters, in one who lived and died and rose again.

We encounter that love too. We are a people because of that love.

I’m torn. Our confession teaches that we are equally sinful, all equally distant from God, all equally incapable of reaching across even a tiny portion of that vast gulf between us and God. And I do believe that. When Jesus speaks here of different kinds of debtors, of one who owes 50 and one who owes 500, he’s speaking in metaphors, making a point to Simon the Pharisee. All are sinners. None can pay their debt. All need forgiveness.

But what if … Jesus really means what he says here? What if there is a distinction, a real difference, between a debt of 50 and a debt of 500? He is clear in the example he gives to Simon — both could not pay. From the standpoint of the debtor here, whether you are 50 short or 500 short, it hardly matters. Unable to pay is unable to pay.

But there is still a difference. Someone who owes 50 might, for much of the time — at least until the debt is called in and payment comes due — see their debt as manageable. You can live well enough to service this debt, to be in the good graces of the moneylender. And it’s something that can likely be settled, eventually, given enough time. Someone likely wouldn’t lose much sleep over 50, wouldn’t worry about what people around them felt about their debt. And even if it is called in, well, maybe there’s enough to sell off to deal to take care of it. After all, everyone owes a little something, right?

But 500 … that’s something to worry about. After all, who but the unlucky, or the profligate, or the stupid, owe 500? That’s something beyond managing. That’s a debt to toss and turn over, stay up nights worrying about, a debt that earns the harsh judgment of everyone around me, who see what kind of person I am by how much I owe.

Or, conversely, someone owing 500, more than they will ever see in lifetime of honest or dishonest labor, might much might simply give up. There’s no way to pay it all off, and so it hardly matters how I live or whether I even try. I am beyond helping.

Either way, to owe 500 is to despair. Nothing I can do will ever matter.

Your sins are forgiven you.

With that Jesus changes everything. Simon may only really have owed 50, but as Jesus tells him, he showed little gratitude for the forgiveness he has received. He did not welcome Jesus with much enthusiasm, was not the best of hosts. Not like this unnamed woman, who heard words of forgiveness and believed them with all her heart.

In Christ, she met love, and she loved in return with everything she had.

Love much, sisters and brothers, love extravagantly and passionately, knowing you are loved without end. Love like you owed 500, like you could never repay your debt in a dozen lifetimes, like you faced a miserable and desperate and desolate end because of your debt.

Love like this woman.

Love like you know — you really know — your sins are forgiven you.

SERMON Second Sunday After Pentecost

I didn’t preach today, but if I had, it would have gone something like this.

Second Sunday After Pentecost (Year C)

  • 1 Kings 8:22–23, 41–43
  • Psalm 96:1–9
  • Galatians 1:1–12
  • Luke 7:1–10

22 Then Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in the presence of all the assembly of Israel and spread out his hands toward heaven, 23 and said, “O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you, in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and showing steadfast love to your servants who walk before you with all their heart…

41 “Likewise, when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a far country for your name’s sake 42 (for they shall hear of your great name and your mighty hand, and of your outstretched arm), when he comes and prays toward this house, 43 hear in heaven your dwelling place and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to you, in order that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and that they may know that this house that I have built is called by your name.” (1 Kings 8:22–23, 41–43 ESV)

This prayer is just one petition in a long prayer Solomon, the Son of David, gives as he dedicates the temple. This house of God that David wanted to build, promised God he would build not long after he become king of all Israel. David thought it was wrong that he should live in a house of cedar and stone while God — present to Israel in the ark it had carried around since being given the teaching at Sinai in the wilderness — “dwelt” only in a tent.

God seemed miffed at David for this promise. “I’ve lived in a tent, wandering with my people, since the day I brought you out of slavery in Egypt. Did I ask you, or anyone else, to build me house? I have been with you, Israel, with you, David, wherever you have gone. I have no need for a house.”

And God promises David — “I will make you a house, and a king from your line, of your descent, shall sit on your throne forever.”

Your descendant shall build me a house, God tells David, but don’t imagine that what you hew and fashion with you own hands (or, an army of conscripted laborers) can hold me. I, the Lord, am the one who really builds. “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever,” God tells David.

So maybe this is why Solomon, who has spent so much building this house of God upon the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite (Araunah in the Kings account), seems to only hope that God will maybe dwell in this house.

12 Then Solomon said, “The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness. 13 I have indeed built you an exalted house, a place for you to dwell in forever.” (1 Kings 8:12–13 ESV)

Note, at this dedication to the temple, Solomon, in his prayer of intercession here, asks the Lord, the God of Israel, to “hear in heaven” (תִּשְׁמַע הַשָׁמַיִם) in each of his petitions.

Today, Solomon prays for the mercy of God upon Israel. He prays for right judgment, forgiveness of sins, abundant rains, relief from famine, and victory in battle when Israel is at war. He prays for the restoration of Israel in defeat, for the return of captives from exile, and for God’s mercy on his people when they sin.

“For there is no one who does not sin,” Solomon prays.

Solomon confesses that even as he has built this great and wonderful house of cedar and stone and bronze and gold where the presence of the Lord shall dwell among God’s people, that God is bigger than this house. That God truly dwells in the heavens, listening from heaven, to prayers from this house, to Israel when it prays toward this house.

And so Solomon also prays for the foreigner who comes to pray to this house as well. He prays that the Lord, the God of Israel, will listen to “all for which the foreigner calls to you.”

That everyone on earth shall know the Lord as Israel knows the Lord — as protector and redeemer, as the one who delivers and blesses.

And so begins the long and strange encounter of the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, with those who are not of or from the people God has called out.

Such it is with our gospel reading. Jesus, the God who has condescended from heaven to dwell temporarily with us as one of us, has been invited by a group of Jewish leaders to heal the slave of a Centurion, a senior Roman soldier or even the commander of a Roman garrison. He may be a good guy — the Jewish leaders are rather obsequious in their declarations — but he is still a slave owner and the leader of a military garrison that, if it came to it, would use violence to maintain order.

Roman order. Foreign order.

When we think of foreigners in this context, I suspect we think of curious people who rather meekly and rather quietly pray to God, curious less about God than becoming one of us. After all, they are praying to the same God, are they not? Why wouldn’t they become like us?

But as scripture makes clear, again and again, foreigners often times means enemies. People at war with us, who have no desire to become us or even become like us. Who will not stop fighting us even as they have met and encountered and been healed and redeemed by our God. Who may conquer, and occupy us, and oppress us, and yet … meet redemption and salvation in our God.

When Elisha meets and heals Naaman, the commander of the Syrian Army — Israel has been at war with Syria for many years at that point — he doesn’t demand Naaman convert, or defect, or stop fighting. Naaman does convert, does confess “there is no God in all the earth but in Israel,” and asks God’s forgiveness from Elisha, not for waging war against Israel, but for the future idolatry he will have to commit as a faithful servant of king of Syria. But Naaman never stops being a general in the Syrian Army, never stops serving his king, and likely, never stops waging war on Israel — the very people whose God he confessed.

Whose prophet healed him.

What an ingrate, right?

This is where we are today. Jesus encounters, entirely by proxy (a similarity this story shares with Naaman’s healing), a man who has embraced the God of Israel, has done great things for the faithful people of his community, built a place of meeting and worship and appears to want the best for these people he … occupies and rules over. “Such faith I have not found even in Israel,” Jesus says of this man who is used commanding, who knows and understands authority.

He has faith, this centurion. He trusts Jesus, apparently because he understands — unlike many of Israel — the authority Jesus is under, the authority by which he teaches and heals and casts out demons.

But he never stops being, not even for a minute, a commander in an enemy army, an occupying army. An army Israel seeks to shake off, an army that will later capriciously execute Jesus at the request of the Jerusalem mob. The centurion isn’t just a foreigner — he’s an occupier, an enemy, an oppressor.

We like to think when someone meets Jesus, meets our God, they are changed, converted, they become people like us. They become one of us. This centurion believed in the Lord, the God of Israel, used his power and his position to do what he could for God’s people in the city of Capernaum. But he very likely never stopped being a Roman, a soldier, committed to the order Rome brought and its fearsome price in blood and suffering. He may have become one of God’s people, praying and worshiping and giving thanks, but he never became one of us.

That doesn’t matter. To love enemies, as Jesus commands all who listen just a chapter earlier in Luke’s gospel, is to love flesh and blood human beings who may want and intend for us nothing but harm, to pray for them and do good for them. They may live in our midst and wield great power over us — and use it arbitrarily and often with great cruelty. And yet … they may meet our God, maybe because of our love and our kindness, and come to have great faith and trust in our God, but they may never stop being our enemies even after that. They may never really mean us well, even if they know and fear God, even if they do some good for us.

I know that doesn’t sound right. But this is about the love of God, the love of God shown in, and to, a violent, cruel, deeply unfair and unjust world. If it strikes us as wrong, that God would love our enemies, would heal them and bless them and leave them unchastised to do their horrible work, we should remember — we too are unworthy. We too have sinned.

And we too have been forgiven.

The Church’s Problem With Sin

One of the young people I minister to explained to me a problem she has with her church.

Or rather, her church has with with her.

She’s attended a church-affiliated summer camp for years, first as a camper and then as a volunteer worker. She wants to again this summer, because camp is such a huge part of her life and her faith formation, but was told by her pastor: “You’re not a good ambassador for Christ. Your life… is not an example of the Christian life.”

This young woman would be the first to confess she has sinned — the sins in this instance are almost all sexual, but much of it also has to deal with her failure to obey the authority figures in her life. (Her church is a very conservative, patriarchal, and hierarchical church that places a tremendous emphasis on obedience, virginity and sexual purity, especially for women.) She has not made the best choices, she admits, and she repented of those choices and sought forgiveness. But she will also angrily state that much of that sin has been forced upon her, and from a very young age.

“Didn’t choose that!” she said.

Now, under the rules of the church, she may be too old to volunteer at the camp — apparently she was given some grace last summer — but being too old is not the reason she was given for being ineligible to work.

Being a sinner was.

It’s the kind of thing I think we who are more liberal Christians1 suspect from conservative churches — an intolerance toward sinners, a refusal to forgive them, shunning and isolation and eventual exclusion. Except that, sadly, it’s exactly what the very liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America did to me. That was the reason, so I’m told, that I was tossed out of the candidacy process for ordained ministry the second time. (Because no one ever told me directly, not either time.) I was too much of a sinner, lived a life where I’d made far too many “poor choices” to be an example of Christ in the world.

That I was am too much of a sinner to proclaim God’s redeeming grace.

The church, at least the American church, has a problem with sin. Sin these days is almost something someone else does. Oh, liberals and progressives will sadly and tearfully proclaim their “complicity” in systems and structures of sin (racism, oppression, capitalism, sexism, blah blah blah) but because they mean well and want these things undone (whatever that might mean), they are only sinners in an abstract way2. Aside from this, liberals and conservatives always place they sin they accuse is putting the church and the world at risk somewhere else, with someone else, someone not in the community.

Someone — a homosexual, a racist — who cannot repent.

If the sins we are “confessing” are not our own, then we cannot forgive them. Or be forgiven. Except as self-righteous posturing.

And thus the church’s problem with sin is really a problem with forigveness. Because if we cannot confess our sins, our very own sins that have nothing to do with the structures or systems of the world (a copout notion if ever there was one), then we cannot receive Christ’s forgiveness. We cannot receive mercy.

And we cannot be mercy. We send people away, telling them “you are sinner and there is no forgiveness for you that can matter.” We cannot live as redeemed or forgiven people. Rather, we liberal Christians too get hung up on purity, on righteousness, on living lives “above reproach” (as St. Paul wrote to Timothy and Titus), and believing those kinds of lives — lives lived holy and perfect and upright without any need for forgiveness — are the only kinds of lives that can bear witness to the glory and grace of God.

There is no redemption in this church because there are no sinners except in the most abstract of ways. We might confess our sinfulness (as many liturgical Christians do every Sunday), but we don’t confess our actual sins. We might receive forgiveness, but like Donald Trump, we’re more or less convinced we haven’t done anything so bad we actually need it.

The sinners, the real sinners, are outside. Unrepentant. Irredeemable. If any get in here, well, that was an accident, and we’ll fix it.

I’ve never liked the term “above reproach,” I find myself wondering what it means when the author was a murderer and when God himself happily loved, called, and forgave adulterous wife stealers like David and troublesome, intemperate priests like Martin Luther to do God’s work. A life lived to the glory of God is a redeemed life, one that bears witness to the fact that Christ calls and forgives sinners. Are some more sinful than others? Clearly. Do some stumble more than others? Absolutely. But the gospels show us that Christ is much more interested in the lost and the repentant than he is in the righteous. He called them — us — and not the righteous to build a church.

A life “above reproach” is, I think, one lived fully in the grace and forgiveness of Christ. It is a life in which one repents but does not apologize for sin (save to those wounded by the sin), a life lived in the clear, bright light of our redemption. The Christian life is a redeemed life. Knowing gratefully exactly how that redemption was achieved. And what it cost.

On the cross.


  1. I hate calling myself a liberal Christian, because I don’t think I really am, but I’m not really a conservative either. I suppose it’s my own fault I’m not accepted and don’t belong anywhere … I simply cannot live my life in harmony with the songs everyone else insist upon singing. ↩︎
  2. Liberal Christians also have this very annoying habit of repenting for sins they did not commit, such as The Crusades, the colonization of the Americas, the Shoah, or Jim Crow. Because it’s easy, repenting of things you actually haven’t done, and makes you look good and feel good too! (Like a country road after a summer rain!) This is a tawdry self-righteousness the brings to mind something Jesus said as he proclaimed the seven woes of the scribes and the Pharisees:

    29 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, 30 saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets. ’ 31 Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets.” (Matthew 23:29–31 ESV) ↩︎

LENT Blessed is the Man

1 Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
2 Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
3 For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
Selah
5 I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not cover my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.
Selah (Psalms 32:1-5 ESV)

Blessed is the man whose sins are forgiven.

Not, blessed is the man who does not sin. But who is forgiven.

I like David. At the miserable end of my first pastoral internship, with time on my hands, I resolved to read the Deuteronomistic history (during my internship I had closely read Numbers and Leviticus and was stunned at how interesting both books really were), so see what this history of Israel and its encounter with God was really all about.

And I fell in love with ruddy-faced David. Not quite like God fell in love, clearly, but I fell in love. With this story, of failure, of sin, of conquest and exile, of redemption. Of a God who moves ever closer, a God who redoubles his efforts to redeem his people.

David … here was a man who knew how to sin! Again and again, he could do little right. Stealing wives, challenging King Saul (and possibly stealing one of Saul’s wives), working for the Philistines, killing many thousands, and during his time of exile gathering to him those in distress, in debt, and “bitter of soul,” and becoming their leader, turing them into an army that will eventually take control of Israel.

David knew he was a sinner. David knew God loved him. David knew that, in the end, all he had was God’s love. All he could do was seek shelter in the grace of God, freely given, when he turned to God, and confessed all he had done. That he was not worthy of the love God showed him. That he got it, anyway, and it changed everything.

David tells us today nothing is gained from silence before God. There can be no forgiveness, no covering of sin, if we keep silent. Our silence is our death. Only when we confess our sins to God can we know we have been forgiven. Only when we uncover our wrongdoing will God then cover them up. We cannot hide things — hidden things are there for all to see. And all to know.

We confess our sins. We are forgiven.