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June 13, 2004 (Pentecost 2)—“Living in a State of Grace”

Pastor David Barber

2 Samuel 11:26-12:10,13-15; Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:36-8:3
Wellspring of mercy, you welcome all of us home.
You understand our failings...our sinfulness.
You embrace us in our incompleteness.
You help us move on from our failures and defeats.
How good and gracious is your kindness to us.

(Source Unknown)

Sisters and brothers, forgiven sinners, grace be unto you and peace from God our loving Creator and from our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

The United Way campaign in another city had realized that they had not received a donation from one of their successful businessmen. They actually did a little research on him and discovered that he made $500,000 a year. However, their research also showed that he didn't give any money to charity.

So they sent some young fellow to see him, which was a mistake, but that doesn't pertain to the intent of this story. The young man told the wealthy businessman what their research indicated.

He responded by saying, "Well, did the research reveal that my mother is dying from a long illness and has medical bills several times her income?"

The solicitor from the United Way was surprised and answered, "No. It didn't reveal that."

Then the businessman delivered another blow when he also asked, "Did your study show that my brother is a disabled veteran? He's blind and confined to a wheelchair."

At this point the young fellow begin to squirm and stammer, wishing he was out of there. But then the businessman dropped another bomb, "Did your investigation find out that my sister's husband died in a traffic accident and left her penniless with three children?"

The young fellow from the United Way wished he hadn't come in the first place and actually begin to feel sorry for the businessman and all the misfortunate he had suffered in his extended family.

But this all changed when the businessman delivered his final surprise. "So," he said, "if I don't give any money to them, why should I give any money to you?"

Perhaps the woman in our Gospel for today should have been the one that the United Way sent to our wealthy businessman rather than the inexperienced young recruit.

Just as she served as a teacher and a model for Simon, she might have performed the same role for this potential donor. And who knows, maybe his heart and his life would have been transformed from stinginess into grace and generosity.

All four gospels record some form of an anointing story. In fact, on the Fifth Sunday of Lent just about two months ago we had an anointing story from the Gospel of John. The person doing the anointing had a name. Her name was Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus, her brother, and there was an emphasis on the expensive perfume that Mary used.

I have an idea. Why don't I just tell you to recall Pastor Fritz's sermon from that Sunday, say "Amen," and we can go home early? You'd like that, wouldn't you? Well, lest you get your hopes up, that's not going to happen.

There are some minor differences between the stories as they appear in the other gospels, but perhaps the major difference is that Matthew, Mark, and John place this event later in the ministry of Jesus and relate it to his death, anointing him for the burial to come.

Luke places this story earlier and used it as a story of love and forgiveness for a woman considered to be an outcast. She's the one who lives in a state of grace, is genuinely thankful for the forgiveness and acceptance she's received, and shows her gratitude toward Jesus with an extravagant hospitality that causes a stir among the righteous.

The story begins when Jesus is invited to dine at the house of Simon the Pharisee. According to Luke, Jesus ate not only with tax collectors and other sinners, but also with the Pharisees.

All goes well until a "woman of the city" shows up. We don't even know her name, and there's been much speculation about who she is and why she's been labeled as a sinner.

As she stood behind Jesus weeping, she lets down her hair. Then she bathes his feet with her tears and dries them with her hair. She kisses his feet, and anoints his tired feet with oil.

Simon went ballistic. He said to himself, and perhaps just loud enough for others at the table to hear him, "If this man were a prophet," which he obviously isn't, "he would be perceptive enough to know what kind of a woman is touching him."

But that's just the point! Jesus does know who's touching him. It's Simon who is ignorant, and it's Simon who needs to be taught by this unlikely teacher.

It's clear that Simon is the one who has little understanding of his need of forgiveness, and as a result, he loves little and shows little hospitality. In contrast because this woman has experienced and lives in the grace and mercy of Jesus, she is far more hospitable to Jesus than Simon in Simon's own house.

This contrast is illustrated beautifully in a movie from four years ago entitled Chocolat. As some of you may remember, a mysterious, appealing woman appears in a small French town.

Vianne quietly challenges the religious establishment's hold on the people by the gracious and hospitable way she lives and by her welcome of outcasts. She does nothing out of obligation, but everything out of love.

She doesn't go to church, has a daughter without a father present, and has the gall to open a chocolaterie right in the middle of Lent. This brings her into conflict with the mayor who keeps the people in line by the force of his joyless and controlling personality. He even exerts his influence over the church and writes the priest's sermons.

The Mayor, of course, resents Vianne's power to attract the people and cause them to break the Lenten fast. But not only is the town transformed by her chocolaterie and her grace, so is the mayor.

When the mayor attacks her shop one late night, it backfires on him. He inadvertently tastes the chocolate, and when he does he surrenders to his own need for joy and grace in his life.

What's the difference between Simon and the woman in our Gospel for today...and the difference between the mayor and Vianne? It's not that one is sinful and one is not, but rather, seeing our need of grace and living in the extravagant grace of Jesus each day. This makes all the difference in the world.

It makes a difference in whom we invite and welcome to the table of our Lord. Is this a meal just for the family and those of us gathered in the fold of Jesus?

Or is this a meal for all, whoever they might be, meant to be shared with the whole world? Is this a meal for the righteous or for sinners being forgiven?

Unfortunately, some in the Christian faith believe this is a meal just for the righteous, or just for those who think like us. A couple of days ago, a cartoon in the paper illustrated this very point. In a large church there is only one person sitting in worship.

The bishop occupying the pulpit looks puzzled about the poor attendance. An usher or some other worship assistant says to him: "Well, first you banned pro-choice politicians, then pro-choice voters, then stem cell advocates, then gays, then gay marriage judges, then..."

For Jesus this is a meal for the whole world and a foretaste of the feast to come. Forgiveness is not some doctrine to be believed, but a feast to be consumed and lived. It's a party where all kinds of people are invited, and the gifts of grace and mercy are received with empty hands.

At this grand party, Jesus becomes a sign to us of what God is up to in the world. In Jesus God is busy inviting the whole world to the table...and not just to the Lord's Table, but the table where all of the earth's resources are shared.

David Beckmann, writing in the April "Bread For The World" Newsletter tells us, "There is room at the table for all people, including those who are hungry and poor." He also quotes a statement from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops who ask: "How can we secure a place at the table for the hungry and for those who lack health care in our own land and around the world?"

As we gather at this table we see our need of grace and we live an extravagant and grace-filled life for others. We show our gratitude and our thankfulness to God for the grace of Jesus by the way we treat others and by the way we relate to all of creation.

If we're living in God's extravagant grace, poured out upon us in Jesus, why would we want to consider ourselves better than others? Why would we want to be involved in acts of discrimination, cruelty, violence, and revenge?

Why would we want to abuse God's creation and treat the environment as if it's ours to exploit for our own selfish purposes? And if we live in a state of extravagant grace, why would we want to consume more and more of the earth's resources and deny other brothers and sisters a place at the table? This, of course, would be hospitality at its worst.

If we live in this extraordinary and amazing grace, why wouldn't we want to love and forgive greatly, and why wouldn't we--in the words of the Old Testament prophet--do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God?

There's a wonderful scene in Babette's Feast which captures this magnificent grace in which we live day by day. Babette has won a large amount of money from a lottery, and she uses these resources--her life's fortune--to prepare a gourmet and abundant feast for the townspeople. No one knows that she was once the chef in the greatest restaurant in Paris.

At the dinner a guest is moved to speak:

"Man, my friends, is frail and foolish. In our human foolishness and shortsightedness we imagine divine grace to be finite...But the moment comes when our eyes are opened, and we see and realize that grace is infinite...See! That which we have chosen is given us, and that which we have refused is, also and at the same time, granted us...That which we have rejected is poured upon us abundantly."

We stand and we live in the extravagant and infinite grace of God in Jesus. May we, like our unnamed woman today, express out gratitude to all around us. And may the hospitality of our lives be a sweet-smelling fragrance a sweet-smelling ointment--that permeates and brings healing to the whole creation.


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