The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
Transcribed from the audio recording.
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
On this fourth Sunday after Pentecost we’re cognizant of the fact that many in our country are also celebrating Father’s Day—giving thanks for and celebrating the fathers in our lives and those who have served as fathers to us, been there for us. And that’s a good and appropriate thing to do. Earlier this week in discussing Father’s Day with the dean, he shared that in a church where he served previously it was the custom in that church that on Mother’s Day women would be given flowers and on Father’s Day men would get cans of WD-40. Well, I thought, what a great and appropriate thing to do. It’s equal parity. And as I started thinking about it, though, I thought, if I were given a choice, as much as I love roses—and I do—I probably would’ve gone with the WD-40. I mean, I like to tinker, I like to repair, and who doesn’t feel really empowered when you’re able to get rid of one of those annoying squeaks with one squirt of WD-40?
More seriously, it raises for me the question of identity. Who does the world try and tell you you are? How do you claim your own identity? How do you see yourself and, more to the point, how does God see you? Who has God claimed you and created you to be? And I think it is the issue of identity that is at the heart of the tension in today’s Gospel story. We hear in the story that Simon questions and doubts part of Jesus’ identity as a prophet. Simon sees the woman who crashes his dinner party and he identifies her simply as a woman in the city, a sinner. She doesn’t even merit a name in the story. Jesus, seizing a teachable moment, decides to try and broaden Simon’s view of identity, to try and reshape it and open it up a bit. And he does so using language that Simon would understand. Simon’s a Pharisee; he’s an expert on the law, on ritual purity, on tithing, on economics. In his context, he judges what’s right and what’s wrong. And so Jesus resorts to commerce and economy to try and make the point to Simon. He talks about debtors and creditors and we hear in the Gospel story that Simon judges rightly.
But I wonder if Simon got the bigger and deeper message, which is that the world’s economy is not necessarily God’s economy. In God’s economy, there is no general ledger of debts due and credits earned. We see in the story that God’s extravagant grace is met by extravagant gratitude. The woman in the story has been forgiven. She goes in gratitude to claim her identity as forgiven, redeemed, restored, renewed. And she gets up off of her knees and stands up and claims the identity as a beloved daughter of God. She rejects the world’s attempt to try and characterize her and identify her. It’s about grace. Justo González defines grace as “the unmerited love of God which both forgives and transforms the sinner.” In that story I think that sometimes we are Simon; sometimes we’re the woman on her knees; and sometimes, I hope, on our best days, we resemble Jesus. And we live into the love and forgiveness of God that abides in us. But identity for all of us at different points in time, I think, is a struggle. And as I was thinking about identity, I was reminded of two of the foremost theologians of the twentieth century and the wisdom, the eternal truths, that they had to impart in their teaching and their writing. And I’m speaking of Howard Thurman and Henri Nouwen.
Thurman, in 1949, published a book called Jesus and the Disinherited. Howard Thurman was an African-American teacher and professor and he said that one of the objectives of his book was to provide the succor and the strength to help African-Americans in his day live in the present with dignity and creativity. He was addressing the sin of racism in his day; but the truths of that book transcend that time, that circumstance, that “ism.” I believe they address any “ism” of any day—whether it’s racism; or sexism or anyone who feels put on the margins of society by the world—homeless people, immigrants, LGBT people. In the book, Howard Thurman draws a parallel between Jesus and his social context in Palestine as a poor Jew, a minority group living under the crushing oppression of the Roman empire, and how Jesus in his life, in his teaching, shows us the way to deal with what Thurman characterizes as the three hounds of hell: fear, deception, hate. Jesus illustrates a way forward, a way to live into love of self and love of others that can overcome those social and societal sins and ills. Thurman makes the point in the book that Jesus recognized the reality that anyone who permits another to determine the quality of their inner life hands over the keys to their destiny. Thurman’s book talks about God’s extraordinary love and grace in the example that each one of us can follow from the life of Christ.
Fast-forward fifty years: some of the writings and teachings of Henri Nouwen are captured in the book called Turn My Morning into Dancing. You may know that Henri Nouwen, in his life, preached and taught all over the globe with messages that resonated in his time. And he found himself toward the latter part of his life burned out. His heart was broken and he sought out a different community. The last ten years of his life he lived in a community called Daybreak. It was a community of disabled people—disabled mentally and physically—and he found his way back to healing and wholeness in that place and in that time. And in the book Nouwen writes that the deepest joy in life doesn’t come from the money we earn, the people and friends with whom we surround ourselves, or even the achievements that we have in our lives. That we are rather the one whom God created to be in God’s infinite love. We are the gifts we are given.
If you’ve come today struggling with the world’s identification of you, feeling that you don’t measure up, that you can’t possibly earn someone else’s affirmation and affection, take heart, take wisdom in the writings of these two great theologians and thinkers who wrestled with the question of identity themselves. Nouwen says that when we nervously and anxiously run around looking for affirmation—trying to seek it from others—that we lose sight of the One who loved us first, who dwells in our heart, and formed our truest selves. After this sermon we will all have the opportunity to enter into a time of confession. The dean, on behalf of God, will offer forgiveness and absolution. It is my prayer that you will receive it. It is my prayer and my hope that like the woman in the Gospel lesson you will get up off of your knees reclaiming for yourself your truest self, the identity that God gave you. And as Thurman says in his book: that you will look into the face of Jesus and see etched there the glory of your own possibilities and hear your heart whisper, thank you and thank God. Amen.