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First Presbyterian Church

Dr. Stuart R. Gordon

September 15, 2019

Not Ashamed to Give

Psalm 103:1-14; Luke 7:36-50

            On Thanksgiving Day, 1967, Daniel Menaker was playing backyard football when he got tired of defending passes and urged his brother, Mike, to switch places. “So I said, ‘Why don’t you play back?’ And he said, ‘You know I can’t, because I have bad knees.’ And I said, ‘Well, I think your precious knee will hold up.’ On the game’s very next play, Mike tore ligaments in his knee, requiring surgery; an infection soon killed him.”

            Daniel Menaker was 26, and only then did he start writing seriously, to make sense of the event and to manage his guilt. “I’ve come to terms with it, but I still do write about it” (Cited in The Week, 12/27/13).

            Can you identify, even in a small way, with Menaker? Is there something from your past, the memory of which makes you wince?

            Though I wouldn’t wish for you the burden of unrelieved guilt, neither would I wish for you such a poor memory that you can’t recall ever doing anything embarrassing. Some might say that a person who can’t remember anything embarrassing is terribly lacking in self-awareness. One famous author is quoted as saying, “If we are not regularly deeply embarrassed by who we are, the journey to self-knowledge hasn’t begun” (Alain de Botton, cited in The Week).

            Today’s scripture from Luke invites us into a vignette involving Jesus, a Pharisee who seems a little short on self-awareness, and a woman who is very self-aware, so much so that she becomes unself-conscious. That’s the gift, it seems, that she receives from Jesus: so real is his mercy toward her that she can forget herself in an act of overflowing love.

            Before we get to her though, why don’t we spend a little time with the man named Simon, and look on him with a sympathetic eye? That’s not too hard, is it? Clearly, he is trying to impress Jesus. He is hosting a dinner party. Judging by his reaction to the woman, he himself is wincing at her behavior. He can’t fathom why Jesus would allow such a woman to touch him. Frankly, I can identify.

            I guess an innocent way to describe it, for me, is the difficulty I have watching a particular kind of comedy. If you ever saw a Chevy Chase movie, or a Steve Martin movie, or certain movies by Jim Carrey or Steve Carell, you know what I’m talking about. Some oafish character behaves in such an embarrassing way that the viewer is left with two options: either you laugh your head off at the embarrassing character, or you cringe in absolute embarrassment for the character. I hate that! I hate being stuck with those two options.

            Apparently, there is another option: it’s the Pharisee’s option. You shield yourself from embarrassment and amusement by adopting an attitude of scorn. “I can’t believe you are allowing that.” Implied by this attitude of scorn is a commitment to shame: “You, Jesus, should be ashamed of yourself.”

            Though I wouldn’t wish for you the burden of unrelieved guilt, neither would I wish for you such a poor memory, such a lack of self-awareness, that you can’t remember anything embarrassing. I wouldn’t wish for you the role of the Pharisee, so lacking in self-awareness that he cannot sympathize with that woman. You see, his inability to sympathize with her reveals that he is unable to receive from Jesus what she receives. And that is the most precious gift of all.

            Marilynne Robinson is a well-known novelist who also happens to be a contemporary defender of John Calvin among his cultured despisers. She also defends the Puritans against people who, she says, hate Puritans even though they have no real clue what the Puritans were actually about.

            “We flinch from Puritanism because it placed sin at the center of life, but then, ‘Americans never think of themselves as sharing fully in the human condition, and therefore beset as all humankind is beset.’ Calvin believed in our ‘total depravity,’ our utter fallenness, but this was not necessarily a cruel condemnation. ‘The belief that we are all sinners gives us excellent grounds for forgiveness and self-forgiveness, and is kindlier than any expectation that we might be [perfect], even while it affirms the standards all of us fail to attain” (From The New Yorker, 08-08-08).

            I grow more and more convinced that a society that will not talk about sin, that will not admit the tragedy of our fallenness, is an oppressive society. A society that adopts a Pharisaic mindset, even while denying such a thing as depravity, enslaves many a person to a life of shame and guilt. If you can’t come clean with your flaws, if you can’t confess your sin to a merciful God in the presence of a merciful people, what are you left with? Well, I think you’re left holding other people in scorn, projecting your demons upon others. You’re left in a culture war of heaping abuse upon others rather than looking at yourself in the mirror. “I can’t believe you’re allowing that,” is another way of saying, “I’m completely oblivious to my own shame, completely incapable of sympathizing with others. And because I’m oblivious to that, I’m deaf to the word of mercy that Jesus speaks; bereft of the greatest gift of all.

            Michael Manekin is a former Israeli soldier who is part of a group that collects testimonies from their brothers in arms. They deal with the tragic experiences of defending their nation in complicated circumstances under extreme pressures. One subject that he has addressed is working at checkpoints, questioning Palestinians crossing over. At a public meeting, one man stood and said, “It is crucial to intimidate people at checkpoints, because we are so few there, and they are so many. These people are not like us! They come up to our faces and they lie to us!”

            At that point, another man in the audience, a retired Bible professor, said, “As for liars, my father was a liar. My grandfather was a liar. How else did we cross lines to get into this country? We stayed alive by lying. We lied to the Russians, we lied to the Germans, we lied to the British! We lied for survival! Of course the Palestinians lie! Everyone lies at a checkpoint!”

            The Bible professor said, “We don’t want to look at ourselves. We don’t like photographs of ourselves – we say, ‘Oh, that’s not a very good likeness.’ We want to be nicer than we are. But there are also prophets who are mirrors. . . We don’t want to hear it, but we have to look at the mirror honestly, without fear” (The New York Times, 03/23/07).

            There was the irony in the Pharisee’s life: he thought Jesus was no prophet because Jesus didn’t reject that sinful woman. Jesus was, in fact, a prophet who could read the man’s thoughts. And he was more than a prophet, who held up a mirror to the Pharisee’s life.

            Do you think that the man assumed that Jesus was giving the woman a pass, that Jesus was overlooking her sin, that Jesus was saying, “Oh, don’t worry about that. It’s no big deal”? It’s as if the man assumed that Jesus’s refusal to reject her and shame her meant that Jesus wasn’t serious about her sin.

            Why would he assume that? Why would he assume that the only way to take sin seriously is to shame the sinner, to reject the sinner, to distance oneself from the sinner, to condemn the sinner?

            “The Lord . . . forgives all your iniquities, heals all your diseases, redeems your life from the pit, crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, satisfies you with good as long as you live, so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.”

            Psalms like this matter, and we recite them in worship over and over, because there are powerful forces at work in you to deny them. You need to hear these words, over and over, in order to shout down those lying voices of shame and guilt inside you. Maybe you hurt someone who never would forgive you. Maybe you can’t forgive yourself. Maybe you’re locked in a generational cycle of shame. How do you know? Well, if you act more like the Pharisee than the woman who wept at Jesus’ feet, that could be an indicator. If you find yourself offended by others, but rarely find yourself moved to tears of gratitude for God’s mercy, that could be an indicator.

            I don’t know if it’s true that ‘Americans never think of themselves as sharing fully in the human condition.’ I will say that, even if it is true, it can’t be uniquely true of us. There in the Bible are the Pharisees, and they are the ones we least should emulate. I’m persuaded that one of the better ways to avoid emulating a Pharisee is to sympathize with a Pharisee. Something enslaved Simon, such that he neglected to offer to Jesus ordinary marks of hospitality, such as a foot washing, an anointing, a kiss. Let’s assume he didn’t intentionally disrespect Jesus; it just didn’t occur to him. And let’s assume that the level of unashamed gratitude that the woman showed Jesus was, to him, incomprehensible. For us to scorn him would be the wrong response; we would be imitating the very behavior we reject in him.

            No, why don’t we identify instead? Why don’t we say, “Lord, be merciful to us all, sinners that we are. We’re all liars. We’re all cheaters. We all hide ourselves behind facades of propriety. But it is our scorn for others that betrays us. It is our judgment of others that shows our own shame.  The gift, it seems, that a person receives from Jesus, is this: So real is his mercy toward us that we can forget ourselves in acts of overflowing love. We aren’t too ashamed to give.

            In his poem The Wreck of the Deutschland, Gerard Manley Hopkins suggests that “The truth is found not by looking away from nature but by looking deeper . . . by seeking God not apart from pain, doubt, despair, and death, but in the midst of it, riding ‘time like a river.’ Sin and holiness meet here. . .” (Cited in Context 09/17/2005).

            That is why the scriptures also keep telling us, over and over, that God knows us better than we know ourselves. We are able to lie to ourselves, to deceive ourselves, to be blind to those very things in us that God can heal. So the Psalms say, “The Lord knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust.” And perhaps, if those words sink deeply enough into our flesh and bones, perhaps we will have the courage to look deeper at ourselves, and to find sin and holiness meet there in the depths of our hearts. Those who recognize their need receive more, and love so much more.

            I’ve been privileged as a pastor to walk with people who hit rock bottom. I’ve been blessed to witness people for whom circumstances conspire to drive them to their knees. Their masks get pulled off. Their lies get exposed. They have no choice left but to tell the truth and begin the walk back home. I’ve never known more grateful people than these. They discover that God wasn’t fooled by them for one minute, but all the same, never stopped loving them. They discover that coming clean, telling the truth, and experiencing abundant mercy is the greatest gift of all. They are like a woman who intrudes on a dinner party, bringing an expensive gift, and weeping her gratitude for everyone to see.

            My prayer is that none of you has to hit rock bottom. My prayer is that it will happen in a less-painful manner. You’ll look in the mirror and see the truth you ignored before. You’ll recognize that you have too much in common with a Pharisee, and not enough in common with that woman. You’ll hear those familiar words again, “he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust,” and realize, “That’s about me.” And you will find sin and holiness meeting in the depths of your heart. And you will be flooded with gratitude, so flooded that you will not care that other people see your tears of joy. And a lifetime of shame, a veil of embarrassment, will be lifted, and you, too, will not be ashamed to give.

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