A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

The Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest
Abilene, Texas
Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost + Year C
First Lesson: I Kings 21:1-10, 15-21a
Psalm 5:1-8
Second Lesson: Galatians 2:15-21
Gospel: Luke 7:36-8:3

✠ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Rubens-Feast_of_Simon_the_Pharisee

Feast in the House of Simon the Pharisee by Rubens, c. 1618

I’m a huge fan of the author, Brené Brown. Now, if you have never heard of Brené, you should know from the very beginning that she is a native Texan, and she is an Episcopalian. So, of course, she has to know what she is talking about! Brené and her family live in the Houston area where she works as a professor at the University of Houston. Perhaps the most important thing that you should know about Brené is that she has spent a significant amount of her life and career as a researcher and storyteller. Her research has led her to collect data and conduct interviews in the areas of vulnerability, courage, shame, and authenticity. You might recognize her name from one of the books that she has written or from her appearances on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday. Or, perhaps you have seen one of the videos floating around on YouTube featuring one of her TED Talks. She is a remarkable public speaker and writer, and she has inspired countless people with her healing and uplifting words of encouragement.

In her book, Daring Greatly, Brené offers readers a helpful way to think about shame and how it has the power to prevent us from cultivating deep, meaningful relationships with other people and to make us doubt our sense of worth. She writes, “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” In other words, shame is what we feel when we attach our self-worth to the things that we do or the things that happen to us in our lives.

At one point in the book, Brené uses the character, Harry Potter, to illustrate her understanding of shame, describing a memorable conversation that she once had with a man from the audience at one of her public speaking events. In the conversation, she asked the man, “‘Do you remember when Harry was worried that he might be bad because he was angry all of the time and had dark feelings?’” The man responded, “‘Yes! Of course! The conversation with Sirius Black! That’s the moral of the entire story.’” “‘Exactly,’” Brené told the man, “‘Sirius told Harry to listen to him very carefully, then he said, “You’re not a bad person. You’re a very good person who bad things have happened to.”’” For those of you who are familiar with the story of Harry Potter, you know that this is a pivotal point in Harry’s journey. It is only after his friend, Sirius Black, offers him words of comfort and reassurance that Harry is able to move from underneath the weight of his shame and reclaim a sense of wholeness and worthiness.

Today’s lesson from the Gospel of Luke, challenges us to consider the question, “Who is worthy of God’s love and forgiveness?”

For Simon the Pharisee, it would seem as though God’s love and forgiveness are only available to those who are deemed worthy by the law. And, by the way, that does not include sinners. “For Simon,” according to one author, “the righteousness of God means that God cannot endure sinners, and a follower of God gains salvation by upholding the purity code, with its separation of the elect from the sinners of the world.”

The woman in the city who comes to Simon’s house to anoint Jesus’s feet with ointment is deemed unworthy and unclean, and Simon must distance himself from her and from anyone who does not follow the law, namely Jesus because of his willingness to let the woman touch him. Thus, Simon says to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him – that she is a sinner.”

Jesus responds to Simon’s disapproving words with a parable, a story about two debtors, each owing a certain amount of money to a creditor. One owes the creditor five hundred denarii and the other fifty, but neither can re-pay him. So, the creditor forgives both of their debts. “Now which of them will love him more?” Jesus asks. Simon answers correctly. “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.”

Once again, we are provided with an example of how Jesus devoted so much of his ministry to tearing down dividing walls. For Jesus, the love and forgiveness of God are available to all who turn to him for help, not only those who are deemed worthy by the law. In stark contrast to Simon the Pharisee, the righteousness of God compels Jesus to tell the woman in the story, “You are forgiven. You are worthy of God’s love.” By forgiving the woman of her sins, Jesus restores her sense of wholeness and self-worth. Or, as one author writes, “He is offering more than a forgiveness that merely wipes the slate clean. Jesus’ forgiveness lifts the burden of shame, to give her value and worth in spite of how unworthy she feels.”

We don’t know the woman in the story. We don’t know what she has done to earn such a detestable reputation. We don’t know her history or what might have happened to her to cause her to commit the sins that she has been accused of committing. What we do know is that when Jesus forgives her of her sins and restores her sense of self-worth, she is no longer restrained by the overwhelming weight of shame with which she entered Simon’s house. She is offered freedom, and with that freedom, she bears witness to the fact that there is an undeniable connection between the capacity to love and the ability to receive it. Brené Brown puts it this way: “We can only love others as much as we love ourselves.”

Shame is something that we all deal with, and it is so easy for us to be weighed down by it because of the sins that we have committed against God and other people or the things that have happened to us through no fault of our own. It’s important for us to remember that shame does not discriminate. But, it’s also important for us to remember that neither does the love of God. God’s love and God’s forgiveness are open to all people. In fact, it is forgiveness and reconciliation that God desires to share with us the most.

This is why forgiveness and reconciliation are such important themes in the Gospel and in the life of the Church. Just like the woman in today’s Gospel lesson, we must allow ourselves to be loved and to be forgiven in order to share that same great love and forgiveness with others. Shame is a stumbling block, and there is no room for it in the Kingdom of God.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, you are worthy of God’s love. You have always been worthy, and you will always be worthy. So, step into your worthiness, and be free to share that same great love with the world. Amen.

Click here to hear an audio recording of the sermon.

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