What a refreshing gift of extravagant grace we were all the beneficiaries of about eleven days ago. You’ve heard the story recounted a number of times, Armando Galarraga of the Detroit Tigers was denied one of baseball’s greatest accomplishments, pitching a perfect game which it turns out he did, by the mistaken call by umpire Jim Joyce. And then the next day, standing together in front of thousands of fans Joyce publically admitted his error and his profound sorrow about how his decision affects the pitcher’s career. And Galarraga publically forgave him. Even if, like me, you’re not much of a sports fan, it seems we all needed this very public act of honesty and forgiveness. At the start of a summer filled with so much other news marked by violence and an unwillingness to be held accountable. John Mecham of Newsweek writes, “The drama that played out in Detroit last week is the rarest of public moments, one in which everyone acted with grace, giving the country an example, not only of sportsmanship, but how to conduct oneself in politics, in business, in journalism, and in daily life.”
This morning’s gospel is another beautiful story of extravagant grace and forgiveness. Anglican Bishop and Scripture scholar N.T. Wright describes the scene before us as a great painting that is as full of meaning as any story in the New Testament. As is often the case with our friend Jesus, we find him once again at a dinner party. This time he’s at Simon the Pharisee’s house. Now it’s true that many or most of the Pharisee’s would not consider inviting Jesus over for dinner; they wouldn’t want anything to do with him except see him brought down. Simon, however, is more than likely a moderate Pharisee, curious about Jesus, willing to have a little bipartisan conversation. He wants to find out more about this teacher he’s heard so much about. Some first-century Jews were members of religious societies that met regularly for meals and theological discussions. This might be what is going on in this particular scene.
In any event, seeing Jesus at the table in Simon’s house, an unnamed woman walks right in and starts making quite a fuss over him. Now before you start checking out and think this is becoming a highly unrealistic story, keep in mind that in Jesus day the doors and porches of homes were often open and townsfolk and neighbors would wander in…and don’t forget that it still happens today. Uninvited guests wander into State Dinners!
A number of years ago, I was involved as priests sometimes find themselves doing, in a ticketed, high security funeral in New York City where I had the most fascinating conversation with a slightly eccentric woman with a little Kodak Instamatic camera, who clearly had no business being there. She was less than discretely snapping pictures of all the people she thought were really important. She managed to get through the entire event without getting herself kicked out, and I’m sure the deceased—who was actually a rather unpretentious person—was having a good laugh in her coffin.
Well, back at Simon’s house, the unnamed woman is simply overcome when she sees Jesus. She’s no doubt been searching him out because she comes prepared, not with an Instamatic camera, but with a jar of ointment. She starts kissing his feet and anointing him with oil. When she’s made quite a mess, she lets her hair down to wipe Jesus’ feet and, of course, that just makes things worse. No respectable woman would do that in public. Well, Simon can’t stand it any longer. He knows this woman and he doesn’t like her. Her behavior is simply beyond the pale, so he mutters to himself, but just loud enough for everybody at the table to hear, “If this man were a real prophet, he would be able to see what sort of a woman she is. She is a sinner.” Well, Jesus is trying to keep his cool here between the over-the-top adoration of this woman and the rudeness of his host. So he tells a parable about extravagant forgiveness: A creditor forgives the debts of a man who owes a small amount and another man who owes a large amount; both debts are forgiven. Then he turns to Simon and he says, “Look at this woman. You showed me no sign of hospitality, but look how she welcomes me.” It’s customary in Jesus’ culture to offer a kiss of welcome and wash the guest’s feet as they enter your house. The host evidently did neither.
“Simon, look at this woman and what do you see? Do you see a sinner in need of exclusion or a person in need of forgiveness and welcome and restoration? Should she be punished this evening because she’s crossed the line of social propriety or is her extravagance a sign of her deep hunger for life-giving and life-saving and life-transforming grace?” I guess it all depends on how we look at one another.
N. T. Wright says we need to look at this painting through the eyes of the artist who is describing his world. In other words, for the gospel writer Luke, he’s showing what happens when God’s love impacts on the human situation. Repeatedly in Luke’s gospel, he’s shown us how Jesus stands on its head the normal expectation of what would happen when God breaks his kingdom into being. It would be a time of exuberant generosity, surprising grace and, at the same time, fierce opposition that would meet God’s judgment. And now in this single event around Simon’s table, we see what this looks like in practice. Social convention is thrown out the window, forgiveness and love set new standards and raise new expectations. Human beings appear, not as society has constructed them but as God sees them.
This weekend, our 20s and 30s group gathered for a retreat; it was a terrific event. We prayed together, we had party that went on way too late for someone my age, and we engaged in some serious conversation about the Eucharist and the sacramental life of the church. Yesterday afternoon we wrestled with just what vision we have when we gather at this table. Is it a meal intended just for those of us here in the family? Those of us already in the fold? Or is it a meal of invitation and inclusion meant to be shared with the whole world?
In this morning’s text, or painting as N.T. Wright calls it, we’re invited into the fullness of God’s extravagant grace. Jesus refuses to get bogged down in the fine points of theology or ritual much as his host Simon the Pharisee would like him to do. Rather, Jesus offers an invitation to fellowship granted in unconditional love and forgiveness and healing. Bishop William Willimon points out that for Jesus forgiveness is not some doctrine to be believed, rather it is a feast to be received, a party to which all, even the outcasts, are invited, a gift to be received with empty hands. Jesus not only tells a parable of the table he becomes a parable, a sign to us of what God is up to in the world. In Jesus, God is busy inviting the whole world to his table. Jesus says to the woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.” The woman sees something in Jesus that Simon, for all his religious training and background, can’t see. In Jesus she sees the heart of God, inviting her into an immeasurable love. In Jesus she sees the one who has come to invite us all to the gospel feast. And unlike the annoying couple in Virginia at President Obama’s State Dinner, or the woman with a camera at the funeral in New York, or perhaps even some of us who attach too much of our identity even our self worth to connections real or perceived with wealth and fame and celebrity, the unnamed woman in today’s gospel realizes that her identity, her purpose, her worth are intimately tied up in the extravagant grace and invitation from Jesus for her life.
Something we also talked about at our retreat this weekend, the fourth-century Christian apologist Athanasius reminds us that even in death, Jesus’ arms were outstretched on the cross as a sign of invitation and extravagant forgiveness and grace.
And now a word just to our Cathedral family. As I prepare to leave this wonderful place, I have been the recipient of the extravagant grace of you in the Cathedral congregation. There have been a number of farewell gatherings over the last weeks and our congregation Eucharist a week or so ago was an evening for a more intimate farewell that I will always treasure in my heart. The blessings that you have shown me and that you daily show to each other&mdashI know it, I see it, I hear about it—have become a hallmark of this place. Don’t ever loose that spirit because it is at the core of the Christian life. Being a Christian is someone who turns to sisters and brothers everywhere and says, “Come join us at the table.” And Cathedral congregation, you have turned this Cathedral into just that kind of inviting place. So to all present, wherever you are on your spiritual journey this morning, if you’re a member of our Cathedral family or a visitor passing through, perhaps you’re active in another congregation far away from here or maybe this is the first time in a while you’ve been in church, do not leave here today without hearing loudly and clearly and compassionately that you are loved unconditionally by God whose spirit surrounds you. Elsewhere in the gospel Jesus says “Come to me, all you who are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” This is the rest the woman in today’s gospel has found in Jesus. Whatever is burdening you, you are loved. Whatever needs to be forgiven, you are forgiven. Jesus wants to invite you into the wholeness and reconciliation with family and neighbor for which all of us are created. You are welcome in this place, you are welcome at this table. Come join in the feast and may God’s blessing surround each one of you now and forever. Amen.