steve teague

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?


Sermon
The Rev. Dr. C. Steven Teague, Rector
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

How serious are you about prayer? The collect for today – we ask God’s grace to “proclaim truth with boldness; to minister justice with compassion, for Jesus’ sake.” It sounds pretty serious. What if God really expects us to do all we’ve just asked?

I imagine most of you learned John 3:16 as a child. A pastor friend says many Christians really mean: “God so loves the church and people who look me and think like me…” Not exactly – it’s, “God so loves the world,”[1] people who don’t look like us, agree with us, or behave nearly as properly as Episcopalians do. God is a non-discriminatory lover. And when Jesus starts telling that truth with boldness, certain religious groups go ballistic.

Happened one evening at a dinner party, a Pharisee’s house. Jesus, the special guest is happened on by a notoriously sinful woman, scandalously washing, drying, and anointing his feet. Simon and company watch closely. Their mantra is: “God so loves the Temple, and people like us, he put us in charge.” Being in charge, Simon thinks to himself Jesus is no prophet. Prophets and priests avoid known sinners; never let one touch them. That’s the Law. Their job is to stay pure and uncontaminated by sinners.

Jesus overhears Simon’s thoughts, and surprises him with a parable. You owe someone five bucks. Easy to repay. When you try she says, “Oh forget it. I forgive your debt.” Someone else owes her 5000 dollars. As a minimum wage Walmart greeter, no way you can repay that debt. You beg for more time, and she says, “Oh forget it. I forgive your debt.” Who loves the lender more – duh? Simon says, “I suppose (you suppose?) the one with the greater debt.” Bingo, but will Simon connect the dots?

Jesus has just stepped over Simon to restore people the church won’t let in. It’s a resurrection before Easter. A nameless woman, excluded and shut out from God, the Temple and by clergy, is now closer to God than the Pharisees. Simon, you can’t control God – or where God will show up, or what God can do. When God shows up and people are open to God, they’re likely to fall into the hands of a loving God, find forgiveness and hear themselves called, “Beloved.” This woman who was dead, has been raised to new life, and she boldly displays what God’s power can do. And Simon stands on the sidelines, fuming, grumbling, offended by Jesus and apart from God’s grace given to him, too.

Please, note: God is not dependent on the clergy and church to accomplish the divine mission. God will step right over us if we don’t get the job done. We are sent to proclaim truth boldly: God loves us all the same. And hand down God’s justice: Forgiven; restored to your God-given status; beloved of God. God’s justice is kindness, love, compassion, forgiveness and redemption for all. We do our part, loving as God loves. God will take it from there.

Please note: the sequence. This woman did not earn her forgiveness. She receives and takes what God freely gives her. It’s called grace. When we realize our need for God’s love and forgiveness and accept it, we’re changed – into people of gratitude and generosity, loving God’s world and all people, as God loves.

Please note: Simon excludes himself from God’s love and grace. Jesus tries to get him to see that God so loves us all – orange vest-wearing Episcopalians marching against gun violence, as much as God loves NRA activists. God loves people who hate, and people who hate people who hate; and even annoying self-righteous snobs who strut sitting down, like Simon. As with Simon, when God hands us such a gift, we too have to figure out what to do with it – accept it, ignore it or reject it.

Frederick Buechner experienced God at a communion rail in an Episcopal Church, of all places. His priest friend hands him the bread, “The body of Christ, Freddy, the bread of heaven.” By hearing his name, Freddy suddenly realizes Jesus in saying, “This is my body, given for you,” means each individual who has ever lived and is yet to live. “Most unthinkable of all: maybe,” Buechner says, “he was doing it for me.” At this holy feast the divine welcomes us – not as the perfect, jolly people we want others to think we are, “but in our tackiness and tatteredness that nobody knows better than we know it ourselves; along with our sometimes bitterness, phoniness, confusion, irritability, half-heartedness. Jesus gives the very life and living bread of heaven, for you Freddy, and Steve, Sheila, Bob and Mary – for each of us, notorious sinners, the dull and the boring, as well as the saints. For Buechner, that was a revelation from on high.[2] Nothing makes God love us any more or less than God loves you and everyone in this moment.

How do we know we are forgiven and restored to God? When loving as Jesus loves becomes as natural as breathing. Then we can proclaim God’s truth boldly, and minister his justice with compassion: God so loves the world – all of us – simply extraordinary; simply amazing; simply divine. As Jesus says, lose your life. Die to your pretensions, lies, bitterness, fear, wrong desires, defensive posturing, your self – then God can love, heal and save you for the life you’re meant to live. And in that moment you do, you amazingly discovered, you have just been resurrected.

[1] From Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love, by William Willimon.

[2] From Secrets in the Dark, by Frederick Buechner.