Sermon by Barbara Mraz - Jun 13, 2010

“Quote the Bible to Me

and I Will Quote Jesus to You”

A Sermon by

The Rev. Barbara Mraz

St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church

St. Paul, Minnesota

June 13, 2010

“One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him,and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said 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 spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “Speak.” “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 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 bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.”

Luke 7:36-8:3

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“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” Charles Dickens wrote in 1859. “It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.  We had everything before us, we had nothing before us….”

Many generations have thought that they are living at once in the best of times and the worst of times, and we are no exception.  It is the best of times: stem cell research is leading the way to unprecedented cures for life-threatening diseases.  It is also the worst of times; there is an oil spill the size of Minnesota in the Gulf, the news coming to us with unendurable pictures of suffering wildlife.

Nowhere are the best and worst polarities more present than in the debates about core values, especially in religious institutions. The arguments are about two main things: authority and inclusiveness. Who has ultimate authority to make decisions?  And how do we relate to the plurality of cultures and the differences in which we find ourselves in this increasingly “flat” world?   These same arguments are taking place among Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Roman Catholics and Protestants of all sorts. Authority and inclusiveness: these are two issues of our day.

This morning I’d like to first, look at these issues as they are playing out in our own denomination; secondly, reexamine these same issues in the light of today’s Gospel; and thirdly, discuss why how we settle an argument is of critical importance to each one of us.

This is one of those times when we have to do a brief history lesson: The Episcopal Church is part of the world wide Anglican Communion, a network of churches in many parts of the world, headed by The Archbishop of Canterbury, currently Rowan Williams.  Worldwide; some of these churches are liberal; some very conservative. A current point of dissention within the Communion is still the full inclusion of gay and lesbian Christians – including their ordination to all orders of ministry.

Not that long ago, the focus had been on the ordination of women.  In 1974, after 150 years of struggle, the first women were ordained as priests following the Triennial Convention in Minneapolis.  Subsequently, the Anglican Communion said okay, but declared that it was up to individual provinces to decide whether to ordain women or not; almost all of the churches in Africa still do not.

In 1985, the American Church voted to ordain qualified gays and lesbians as priests. And, in 2003, the Triennial Convention of the Episcopal Church (meeting again in Minneapolis) voted to ordain Gene Robinson, a partnered gay man, as Bishop of New Hampshire.  Most were ecstatic, but not all.

Where did almost all of the negative reactions come from?  A lot came from the same areas where women are still barred from full ordained leadership. In a few quarters, oppositions was livid. Each day, as I walked into that 2003 Minneapolis Convention through the groups assembled on the lawn, they screamed and pointed their fingers in my face:  “God hates Episcopalians. God hates gays. God hates you.” Then they would launch into, “God hates America.” It was beyond frightening and each day I dreaded it.

This is not some little churchy, academic argument….  At his consecration as bishop in New Hampshire, under his vestments, Gene Robinson wore a bullet-proof vest.

Following Robinson’s ordination in 2003, and at the request of various members of the Anglican Communion and the Archbishop of Canterbury, from 2003-2009 the American church faithfully observed a seven-year moratorium on ordaining any more gay or lesbian bishops so the issue could be discussed further.

It really wasn’t.

So last month, the American Church revoked the seven-year ban and The Rev. Mary Glasspool, a partnered lesbian, was elected a bishop in the Diocese of Los Angeles.  The usual protests were present, while most in the Church rejoiced.

The position of the American Church all along has not been that we are demanding everyone, everywhere, ordain homosexuals, only that we have clearly felt the Spirit calling us to do this, and that our reading of Scripture supports this decision.

We have not called for anyone’s dismissal or censure, only have pleaded that the discussion continue in good faith—here in the American church, and in the wider Communion. Writer Diana Butler Bass points out that since Robinson’s election in 2003, “most bishops report that things are much less tense than in recent years.  Folks are moving ahead in their local parishes during the sorts of things Episcopalians are pretty good at doing—creating beautiful worship, praying together, and feeding hungry people.”

However, some Anglicans – some here, some in other places  – are still pretty mad about the whole thing.  A lot of them are in the countries that have recently debated a death-penalty law for gay people.

All of this sets the stage for this month, and the incident that has been called “The Anglican Smack-down.”  Pretty lively term for Episcopalians!

Last month, Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury (head of the church) wrote a Pentecost letter denouncing those who are ordaining gay bishops and telling them that he is going to remove people from important Anglican committees whose national churches have not followed the rules.  These are primarily from the United States and Canada (where gays can get married).  Bass says he endorses “top-down” Anglicanism, a version that is hierarchal, bishop-centered, and authoritarian.  This version relates to similar forms of Christianity found in Roman Catholicism and in some forms of Eastern Orthodoxy.

Soon afterwards, our Presiding Bishop Katherine issued her own Pentecost letter in which, as Bass says, “she accuses Williams in a nice sort of Anglican way, of being a theological dictator—or as she put it, “Unitary control does not characterize Anglicanism,” that is,, an Anglicanism where we live in tension among competing ideas, accommodating them under our “big tent.”

Jefferts-Schori speaks for ”bottom-up Anglicism,” a version of the faith that is democratic, parish–based and mission–centered.  This version of Anglicanism is rooted in the ancient Celtic Christianity and in the work of St. Augustine of Canterbury.

So which is it?  What should our church be about?  What should our lives be about?  What has authority for us?  How do we relate to people who are different from ourselves?

Today’s Gospel gives a pretty clear answer.  Jesus is invited to dinner at the home of Simon, a Pharisee.  Jesus had a lot in common with the Pharisees and often liked to sit around and debate Jewish law with them.

During the dinner, held in an open-air structure where guests reclined while eating, a woman approaches Jesus.  She is crying, bathes his feet with her tears, and dries them with her long hair.  Then she anoints his feet with ointment.

This is not as odd as it sounds, in fact, basic hospitality towards a person coming in from the desert would usually include these gestures, a fact which Jesus points out to Simon.   Simon’s point is that Jesus accepts these ministrations from a known sinner.  Jesus responds that the woman’s sins have been forgiven, and her actions are an expression of gratitude for this forgiveness.

This part is not hard to understand.  When we have made a huge mistake, so painful that we can’t even talk about, or said something we instantly regret, wouldn’t being forgiven prompt an outpour? “Oh thank you so much.  I was so afraid you’d never speak to me again…  I am SO sorry I did what I did, said those things…I am so relieved,  Thank you so much..”  That’s part of what was going on with this woman.

Jesus understands that tears are sacred. Tears come to us at our most vulnerable moments of pain and joy.  Tears are cleansing; tears are a wall of protection between us and the world; tears reflect our soul doing important work.

In ancient times—awkward as it sounds—women used to collect their tears in small clay jars, and one reading of this story is that the woman pours out the contents of her tear jar, pours out a lifetime of joy and sorrow at the feet of Jesus.  Her tears are her offering.  She is not pathetic; she is real.  For sometimes, tears are all that we have to offer, too, to God and to each other.

Jesus says that expressions of love naturally follow being forgiven, that everyone has a place at the table: distraught women, Pharisees, sinners and saints, and that hospitality is a core value.  We don’t send people away; we don’t leave the table ourselves. We talk it through, as Jesus did with the Pharisee, and if we can’t, we part with respect. The Church is less to do with rules and hierarchy than it does with what really happens at the many tables where we sit.

All of us have been excluded in some way in our lives, from the still-painful high school experiences to social and professional exclusion, to not being asked to be part of something really important to us. Not everybody gets to do everything – we know that, but the reason for the exclusion is what makes the difference.

It is soul-searing to be excluded due one or more of the three things we cannot change: our race, our gender, our sexual-orientation.

I was ordained in 1982, a time still unsettled for women clergy.  At the parish I served, there were two occasions when people would not take Communion from my hand as I stood in front of them at the altar rail. There were two other occasions when someone walked out when I stepped into the pulpit.

When my favorite aunt died – who had no children – she left her estate to the two males in the family – my brother and my unmarried male cousin.  I got a brooch.  The reason was that I was a woman and, even though divorced and a single mother, could get another husband to support me.

We cannot let God’s church, in any way, be complicit in excluding on the basis of gender, race or sexual orientation.

We can build a theology on Leviticus (which condones 3,000 year-old social customs of slavery and polygamy) or on Jesus.  Lutheran Bishop Lowell Erdahl used to ay this: “Quote the Bible to me, and I will quote Jesus to you.”

This is the bedrock of our Anglican, Episcopal faith.  This must be true in the best of times, and in the worst of times.  In our collective actions, and in the private actions known only to ourselves.

Amen.

Source “Rowan Williams and Katharine Jefferts Schori: Anglican Smack-Down,” by Diana Butler Bass, Internet source.

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