Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
June 12, 2016
The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 6C
2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15
One of the first questions that Roman Catholic friends often ask me about the Anglican Communion is whether or not we have “Confession” in the Episcopal Church. They—along with many Episcopalians—are quite surprised when I tell them that we do indeed have sacramental “Confession,” otherwise known as the “Reconciliation of a Penitent.” It is one of the many rites included in our Book of Common Prayer in both Rite 1 & 2. And while there are no traditional “confessionals” in our churches these days —those fabled, purple-curtained boxes for the confession of sins—we do have the opportunity, at any time, to avail ourselves of this individual, sacramental act. The rule in the Episcopal Church concerning “Confession” is that “all may; some should; but none must.” In other words, the “Reconciliation of a Penitent” is an option for those times in the spiritual journey when we feel called to unburden a heart broken open by sorrow and guilt over sin, and when we long to experience the overwhelming gift of God’s real forgiveness and offer of a new beginning. And while we may no longer recognize a distinction between so-called venial and mortal sins, there are times in the spiritual journey when we urgently need godly counsel spoken in the name of Christ and his Church. The “Reconciliation of a Penitent” is an exchange between God and us sinners in which we renew our covenantal relationship with God, broken through our blindness and failure “to love God with our whole heart,” and “to love our neighbors as ourselves.” (BCP) And so, it’s not at all uncommon for a penitent to feel an enormous sense of relief and joy and gratitude over the repair of this primary and cherished covenantal relationship with God. These emotions signal the true gift of a new beginning made possible by the grace of our God of steadfast love and mercy. The ancient rabbis taught that God gave the Torah to humans, not to angels, and that the greatest name of God is “mercy”!
The joy of forgiveness and thanksgiving for reconciliation are poignantly illustrated by the extravagant gestures of the forgiven woman in this morning’s episode from Saint Luke’s Gospel, together with Jesus’ parable of the forgiven debtors.
An unnamed woman—a notorious sinner—barges into a dinner party given by Simon the Pharisee for Jesus, the rabbi from Nazareth, rumored to be a great prophet. Some are even beginning to wonder if Jesus might not be that greatest of all prophets, promised in the Torah, to come after Moses “in the fullness of time.” Although the anonymous woman’s “many” sins are unspecified by Saint Luke, she is certainly burdened by those sins and is seeking the assurance of God’s forgiveness from Jesus, the incarnation of God’s mercy, salvation, and healing. And they must have been very great sins, freighted with an enormous weight of guilt, because the repentant woman goes to great expense and takes a huge risk in that first-century CE world to express her profound relief and gratitude for God’s forgiveness: she, a notorious sinner, has had the temerity to crash Simon the Pharisee’s all-male dinner party only to endure the obloquy and condescension of his guests. Undaunted, she goes straight to Jesus and does for God’s “anointed one” what his host has neglected to do for his chief guest. It was customary and expected back then for the host to greet an honored guest with a kiss; to wash his dusty feet; and to anoint his head with oil—necessities, not niceties, in the etiquette of that hot, dry, and dusty climate. This was just normal hospitality in the Jewish world of Jesus. Simon’s failure to offer this to Jesus might even have been intended as a gesture of disrespect for his controversial guest. We know for a certainty that there is tension—if not outright antagonism—between Jesus and the Pharisee because Simon questions Jesus’ authenticity as a prophet. According to Simon, if Jesus were a true prophet, he would have known this woman’s reputation and would never have allowed himself to be made “ritually unclean,” that is, “unfit for worship,” by permitting her to touch him. In Jesus’ Jewish culture, ritual “uncleanness” was literally contagious and was transferred through touch.
And yet, Jesus is entirely unconcerned with such matters. He has come into the world to inaugurate the “kingdom of God” and to proclaim the biblical “jubilee” of mercy through repentance and the forgiveness of sins. The forgiven woman’s tears of gratitude and release not only compensate for the snub from Jesus’ host; they allow her to let go of all of the anguish and guilt over her previous life. We know this because the public loosening of a woman’s hair—considered to be her “glory”—was not an erotic gesture in Jesus’ time and place, but a sign of grief, special pleading, and gratitude. The forgiven woman in this morning’s Gospel is a complete embodiment of the reality and the beatitude of the forgiveness and reconciliation available in the “kingdom of God,” and expressed so dramatically in this morning’s Psalm 32:
1Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sin is put away!
2Happy are they to whom the Lord imputes no guilt, and in whose spirit there is no guile!
3While I held my tongue, my bones withered away, because of my groaning all day long.
4For your hand was heavy upon me day and night; my moisture was dried up as in the heat of summer.
5Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and did not conceal my guilt.
6I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.” Then you forgave me the guilt of my sin.
Now, I know that it is no longer fashionable in our times—especially in these parts—to talk about sin, let alone the “forgiveness of sins.” And yet, we Christians profess the reality of both in our sacred liturgy: during the penitential rite and general confession; in the Nicene Creed; and in the Eucharistic prayers. We acclaim Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (BCP) and we acknowledge him as “a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.” (BCP) In short, we make a great fuss about sin, and we go to a whole lot of trouble in seeking forgiveness for our communal failures every Sunday in the General Confession (BCP). The forgiven woman of this morning’s Gospel, however, is a poignant reminder that, sometimes, we may need to unburden ourselves in a private act of the confession of sin; to renew our Baptismal Covenant with God in Christ; and to experience the unique grace of personal forgiveness. And all of these gifts of God in Christ are given in the sacramental life of the Church through the “Reconciliation of a Penitent”; through “Anointing with the Oil of Healing”; and, above all, through the reception of Holy Communion. All of these sacramental acts are a renewal, a strengthening, and an extension of the eternal graces of the Holy Eucharist and Holy Baptism through which, in the words of that foundational and unique sacrament of Christian initiation, we are “sealed with the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” (BCP)
We, the baptized, do belong to Jesus Christ forever, and absolutely “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus,” according to Saint Paul. The problem is that we forget. And we are especially inclined to forget when we are burdened by sin, guilt, and remorse. But God in Christ is always there with hope and healing: the hope that we can begin anew, and the healing that comes through the grace of divine forgiveness. These realities are always waiting for us when we humbly confess our sins before God; ask for the grace to amend our life; and express our thanksgiving for God’s forgiveness—all through the “Reconciliation of a Penitent.” A monk was once asked by a layman: “What do you monks do in that monastery all day?” To which the monk replied, “We fall down and we get up; we fall down and we get up; we fall down again, and we get up again.” The forgiven and reconciled woman in this morning’s Gospel is a vivid reminder that, like those monks, we don’t need to be perfect because God only asks us to be human. And God knows that we need the reassuring, strengthening, and personal words of God’s forgiveness and reconciliation from time to time. So God in Christ has given us the sacramental life of his Church, and the “Reconciliation of a Penitent” in particular.
I keep a special bookmark at this morning’s Psalm 32 in my Prayer Book. It’s a reproduction of Rembrandt’s famous painting of The Prodigal Son portraying the lost son kneeling before and embraced by his forgiving father. It reminds me that God is always searching for me—starved and wallowing in some distant pigsty—and that God runs to meet me whenever I humbly turn back to God seeking God’s unconditional love and forgiveness. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants,” cried the prodigal. To which the psalmist responds: “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered over”; and to whom Christ declares: “Your faith has saved you; go in peace and sin no more.”