Saturday, June 18, 2016

Sermon: "That Sinful Woman"

Luke 7:36-8:3
Scripture Intro:

This is Luke’s telling of the story of the woman who anoints Jesus with oil.
This is a story that appears in all four gospels but in very different ways.

In Luke’s version, early on in Jesus’ ministry, a nameless, sinful woman invites herself into Simon the Pharisees house, where Jesus is sitting at a table enjoying a meal.
She then proceeds to bathe Jesus’ feet in ointment and dry them with her hair.
Simon’ reaction is to pass judgment upon Jesus, saying if he were a true prophet he would know this woman’s reputation and not let her come anywhere near him.

In comparison, in Mark and in Matthew’s gospel the encounter with the woman takes place in Bethany two days before the Last Supper at the home of a different Simon, Simon the Leper.
Here the unnamed woman pours nard, a burial ointment, over the head of Jesus, anticipating his death. In this version, it is the disciples who are angry because this woman has wasted the expensive perfume. We are told nothing of her character but Jesus praises her and reminds us that what she has done will be remembered.

Finally, in John’s gospel the encounter takes place six days before Jesus death, also in Bethany, but this time in the home of Lazarus, the man whom Jesus brought back to life. Here we’re told it is Lazarus’ sister, Mary, who anoints the feet of Jesus with the expensive nard and wipes his feet with her hair, while Judas – showing his true character - is the one who takes offense at her waste.

For all four Gospel writers, this is a story about faith, about hospitality, about extravagant love given freely –
But for Luke it also a story about forgiveness.
He alone describes the woman as being sinful.
He alone has Jesus tell the woman that her faith has saved her.
And in the middle of his story he has Jesus tell a parable about forgiveness and gratitude.

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, NH, UCC
June 12, 2016 – Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 32; Luke 7:36-8:3

“That Sinful Woman”

There’s an old story that many of you may have heard before about a minister who stood up in the pulpit and said to his congregation:
"Next week I plan to preach about the sin of lying, and to help you prepare for and understand the sermon, I want you all to read Mark 17."
The following Sunday, the minister stood up to deliver his sermon, but first he asked for a show of hands.
He wanted to know how many had read Mark 17.
Every hand went up.
The minister smiled and said,
"That’s odd, because Mark has only 16 chapters. I will now proceed with my sermon on the sin of lying."

This is as much a statement about Biblical literacy as it is about our failure to recognize that we all are predisposed to sin.
Now, if you just cringed when I said that last part, don’t worry.
Many of us have a visceral reaction when we hear the word “sin.”   
It’s not a word that sits well with us, in any context.

Depending on the religious tradition in which we were raised the word “sin” can carry a slew of baggage.
Whether we grew up being forever reminded that we are by nature “sinful” creatures and are unworthy of God’s love and mercy –
or if we equate the word “sin” and all the judgment attached to it with those other Christians – the ones who focus only on sin – overcoming it,
being saved from it, and making it their job to point out when others have fallen into it.

In our more progressive churches we tend to avoid the word like the plague.
Because we recognize that it can stir up a lot of negative emotions and poke at the spiritual wounds that we may carry.

To get around this, we ministers have become masters at coming up with euphemisms for the word sin.
We call them transgressions, wrong-doings, short-comings, or brokenness.

Even in the Lord’s Prayer, where many say, “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us” we instead use the word “debts” or “trespasses.”  
Translation semantics aside, we much prefer to be reminded of our debts or our trespasses than our sins.

It’s always interesting to hear the Lord’s Prayer recited at weddings or in a room full of worshipers who come from varying traditions, where we’re treated to a disjointed chorus of “sins” “debts” and “trespasses” ringing out at the same time…                                                 
It’s amazing how many will then switch midstream to whatever word they heard the person next to them say (“forgive us our debt-passes”) out of fear that they’re saying it wrong.

What’s odd is that we’re so resistant to taking on the label of “sinner,”
when according to the most basic definition of the word, sin is a turning away from God’s will, and none of us is “all knowing” enough to get it right every time.
Not one of us is perfect.
Even if we can claim that we’ve never committed a “major” sin -  
we’ve all strayed from the path of perfection in some way.
We’re all guilty of being envious, wrathful, greedy, gluttonous, lustful, prideful, and slothful at any given time in our lives.  
(Those of us who binge watch TV shows on Netflix are guilty of the latter)

One of my favorite quotes about sin is from Presbyterian minister, Eugene Peterson, who said:
“Every congregation is a congregation of sinners. As if that weren’t bad enough, they all have sinners for pastors.”

We all have shortcomings, weaknesses, and “growing edges.”
We all find it much easier to follow our own will, than to try to discern God’s will every waking moment of the day.
Especially when multiple paths and interests come into play –
and it’s not always clear where God’s will is leading us.

Perhaps our fear of the word sin –
and our fear of labeling ourselves as sinners –
is what’s behind the drive and the delight we feel in labeling others as sinful. 
If it weren’t such a nasty thing to be, then we’d find no joy or satisfaction in pointing out when others have earned the badge of “sinner” in our eyes.

Which brings us to the sinful woman.
The woman who appears in all four gospels but only in Luke’s are we told that she is worthy of the label of “sinner.”
We aren’t told what sin she has committed.
Or how or why her status as a “sinner” is any different from every other imperfect person in the room, excluding Jesus of course.

But we can guess.
Biblical scholars tell us that in Jesus’ time it would have been scandalous for a woman to touch the feet of a man she was not married to  
or appear in public with her hair uncovered –
or enter a house uninvited and unaccompanied by her husband, father, brother, or another male relative.
Given Simon’s reaction, along with this, we might assume that this is a woman of loose morals – one who doesn’t do what is expected of her - likely a prostitute, an adulterer, or a temptress who uses her body to gain the attention of men.

The “sinful woman” as a character designation appears in our gospel stories about as often as the character of the unnamed “rich man” or “rich fool.”
There’s the woman in this story who anoints Jesus’ feet –
sometimes unnamed, sometimes identified as Mary of Bethany;
there’s the Samaritan woman with five husbands who meets Jesus at the well;
the hemorrhaging woman who touches Jesus’ cloak in the market;
the unnamed woman about to be stoned for adultery – and then there’s Mary Magdalene, whom we’re told had seven demons –or troubles- cast out of her.

Unfortunately, because most of us have only a fragmented knowledge of the Bible, all of these different women often get conflated in our minds and in our popular culture.
To the point where Mary Magdalene is often misidentified as a prostitute,
or as the adulterous woman Jesus saved from stoning,
or as the sinful woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her hair.

We can place some of the blame on Pope Gregory who back in the year 591 gave a sermon that erroneously conflated Mary of Bethany with Mary Magdalene and named her as the repentant prostitute who washed Jesus’ feet.
Poor Mary has since had to endure almost 1500 years of being saddled with a bad reputation.  In art, literature, even the popular movies of today, Mary Magdalene is often depicted as a woman of ill repute.

This despite the Catholic Church having since admitted the error that was made.
In fact just this past Friday, Pope Francis announced that Mary Magdalene will now have her own Feast Day on the liturgical calendar – July 22 – and be honored as the apostle that she is.

The truth is, the Bible never identifies Mary Magdalene as a prostitute, neither does it say the “sinful” woman who washes Jesus’ feet is guilty of the same.

So we have to wonder - why is it that whenever a sinful woman is mentioned in the bible we assume it’s a sexual transgression she’s guilty of?
Prostitution. Adultery. Being flirtatious or seductive around men.  
Why is it that we never assume she cheated on her taxes, or stole her neighbor’s sheep, or coveted her sister’s home, land, or wealth? 
Is it because we assume only men have the means and the freedom to commit the wider variety of sins mentioned in all ten of the commandments?  

But then again, we rarely see men in the Bible being stoned for adultery or being shamed for having a child out of wedlock or being labeled as a man of ill repute because he uncovered his hair or touched a woman in public, or traveled unaccompanied by a female relative.

Sadly, the assumptions we make about women in the Bible reflect the assumptions we make about women in general – across all times and all cultures and all religions.
The role women play in a story is often solely a reflection of how they are viewed by men – as loving companions or property to be protected,
as seductive tempters or objects to be used,
as sullied sinners who don’t know their place or worse, have the power to bring good men down with them.  

The story that has filled our newsfeeds this past week about the Stanford woman who was dragged unconscious behind a dumpster and raped by a male student is frightening evidence that our branding of the “sinful woman” is as much a part of our culture as it was in Biblical times.

This is a man who despite his conviction by a jury was sentenced to only 6 months in jail because the judge saw no reason to ruin his life over one youthful transgression.  
Because she was drunk. And she was at a party with men she didn’t know.
And she should have known not to put herself in that situation.
She’s responsible for her sin -  and his.

How many women have heard this before?

“You shouldn’t have let him touch you – why didn’t you fight back?”

“You shouldn’t have made him mad – you know he gets violent when he drinks.”

“You should just leave him – I don’t know why you keep forgiving him and taking him back.”  

This passage from Luke is about forgiveness, and it is framed in such a way that we’re meant to see that the greater the sin, the greater the gratitude we should show after being forgiven.

When Simon claims that Jesus has sullied his own status as a prophet because he allowed a woman with such a poor reputation to touch him,
Jesus pauses and tells the parable of the two debtors.

Both debtors are unable to pay and both debts are forgiven.
However one owes twice as much at the other.
It is the one who has the greatest debt who shows the most love in return for being forgiven.

Simon of course is blind to his own sins - his own debt that needs to be forgiven.
His failure to offer hospitality to his guest – by greeting him with a kiss, offering him water for his feet, and anointing him with oil.
His failure to see Jesus for who he is and recognize that he has the power to forgive.
His failure to see that this woman – for all her many sins – had shown greater faith in God’s all encompassing love by doing all the things she did for Jesus in public that a woman should not be doing – and risking it all – to weep in the presence of the one who had the power to forgive her and love her and heal her.

Jesus was in a sense saying, “I don’t care what she’s done, or what you say she’s done, the fact that she’s here, showing such great love and faith – that’s all that matters.”

It is amazing how Jesus is always popping up in the lives of these sinful women.

It’s amazing how he just lets them wash his feet, and touch his cloak, and fill their buckets with living water, and walk away without a stone being tossed.

It’s amazing how often he has sent them off saying,
“Go in peace, your faith has made you well.”

We’re all sinners.
Because we’re all human.
And we’re all in need of healing.

As much as we try to quantify and measure sin,
and point out the sins of others while ignoring our own,
to do so is to deny our humanity – to deny that God gave us free will –
the freedom to make mistakes, the freedom to learn, the freedom to grow.

I’m convinced that it’s not the sinning, or the shaming, or the punishing that God cares about – We may be obsessed with that, but God is not.

It’s the learning and the growing that God cares about.

It’s like watching a child learn that greater things come from love than hate.
God keeps nudging us in that direction,
knowing that it will take us a lifetime of missteps to get there.

The forgiveness part is God’s way of acknowledging that we’re headed in the right direction.

Thanks be to God. Amen


Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Sermon: "Gospel Lite"

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
May 29, 2016 – Second Sunday after Pentecost
Galatians 1:1-12

“Gospel Lite”

In September 2012, a small piece of ancient papyrus made headlines around the world when it was suggested that it might be from a lost gospel containing the words of Jesus.
The badly damaged fragment is about the size of a credit card and it contains eight incomplete verses written in Coptic – an ancient Egyptian language that we find in our earliest surviving copies of the books of the New Testament.

The snippets of writing on the fragment include the following phrases:
“My mother gave me life…”
“Mary is worthy of it…”
“She is able to be my disciple…”

But the fragment of text that attracted the world’s attention was this one:
“Jesus said to them, ‘My wife...”

Before the world’s leading biblical scholars had a chance to fully examine and authenticate the scrap of papyrus, a battle erupted in the media and in the midst of the faithful.
Was this proof that Jesus was married?
Was this a gospel that had been intentionally destroyed to cover up the fact that Jesus had a wife?
Is it possible that this is a fragment of a parable, or that Jesus was quoting someone else, or that the rest of the text actually read, “My wife, if I had one…”?

Beneath all the speculation was the fear that we had somehow got it wrong.
Or worse - that we’d been intentionally misled for thousands of years.
Could it be possible that Jesus had a whole other side to his life that we knew nothing about?
And for those fervently arguing that the fragment was NOT authentic and therefore NOT true, what is it they feared would be lost if Jesus did have a wife?

Would it make him too human, and less God-like in our eyes?
Would it elevate the role that women played in Jesus’ life and ministry?
(Would it mean that for thousands of years celibate priests had been modeling their lives on a standard that not even Jesus held to himself?)

When the experts weighed in, it was determined that the papyrus used in the fragment dated to the middle ages – not proof in itself that it wasn’t a copy of an ancient gospel – but the ink, handwriting, grammar, and style were all deemed nearly identical to a known modern forgery of the Gospel of John.
Therefore, most scholars believe it is likely that the Jesus Wife fragment is a forgery as well.  But not all of them are convinced.

There is something alluring to the idea that there are gospels out there that are just waiting to be found.   
Gospels that may expand or contradict what we know from the four gospels we have in our New Testament – the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

In the late 1990’s, headlines were buzzing about the discovery of a Gospel of Judas.
The 31-page codex was originally found in a cavern in Egypt in 1970.
For several years it was traded among antiquities dealers and then it disappeared.
In 1999 it was rediscovered, believe it or not, in a safe deposit box at a bank in Hicksville, Long Island.
(Literally a mile up the road from where I was living at the time).

The manuscript had disintegrated into a 1000 pieces and 13 pages were missing.

Once scholars reassembled and translated the text they discovered a gospel that told a much different story than Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
This gospel portrayed Judas as the only disciple to truly understand who Jesus was, and it proposed that Judas’ alleged act of betrayal was in reality an act of obedience, as Jesus himself had asked Judas to play that pivotal role and set the events of his death and resurrection in motion.

Many of the “lost” gospels that we’ve discovered over the years – the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Peter, and the Gospel of Judas – were written a hundred years or more after Jesus’ death, and while they were left out of the New Testament because they contained unorthodox theologies, they are authentic in that they reflect the prevailing beliefs of particular segments of the Christian community during their time.

The four gospels we have in the New Testament were themselves written 40 to 70 years after Jesus’ death, to four different communities, by four different authors who each had their own interpretation of Jesus’ words, actions and presence in this world.

But all of these gospels share a common thread – they tell the story of how the good news of God’s unconditional love played out in our world through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

The word gospel means “good news” and the Good News of Jesus Christ is found in the belief that God did and is doing something extraordinary in our world.

God became one of us – or moved through one of us – to show us the potential we have to be good to one another.  
To show us that each and every one of us has value – and is worthy of grace and redemption, no matter how broken we appear to be.
To show us that power and strength and resilience are just as easily found in the battered and belittled as in the exalted and elevated.
To show us that we’re all connected to each other and to all of Creation – and when we focus only on our own wants and needs we all suffer in the end.

The good news is that the world we live in can be changed for the better –
in small ways and in tremendous ways – 
when we work together, with God, and help build the Kingdom that Jesus longed to see.

The Gospel of Jesus encompasses all of this.
But while this all sounds wonderful and hopeful the truth is that the gospel encompasses a lot of annoyingly hard stuff as well.
The “love thy neighbor and thy enemy” stuff.
The “give to God and to the greater good before you give to yourselves” stuff.
The “welcome the stranger, the immigrant, and the refugee, even if you are suspicious of them” stuff.
The “beat your weapons into ploughshares and turn the other cheek even when you feel justified to retaliate” stuff.

The gospel is about hard, hard choices that do not come to us naturally.
So it’s no wonder that we have selective hearing when we encounter it.
We prefer a gospel that talks about peace and love without demanding that we change anything about ourselves to achieve it.
We prefer a gospel that talks about joy and hope without dwelling on the things that cause us to feel joyless or hopeless.
We prefer a gospel that soothes and comforts because we have enough things in our lives that cause us to feel anxious and discomforted.

And just so you know, when I say “we” I include myself as well.

With all the tragedies that I see unfolding in our world and the tragedies that I see unfolding in all of our lives – the illnesses, the injuries, the deaths, the addictions - the last thing I want to do is open the gospel reading for Sunday and find Jesus with a stick in his hand poking and prodding all the sore spots and urging us to do more to change ourselves and change our world.

I do think we’re all in need of a “Gospel Lite” every now and then.
A gospel that goes down easy and makes us feel good about ourselves.
One that tastes great and is less filling.

But a steady diet of Gospel Lite is not what Jesus intended for us to live on.
He didn’t risk his life, and give his life, so we could show up on Sunday morning and hear a 10-minute sermon that sends us away with one or two nuggets that help us to feel better about ourselves and lead a happier life.
The Gospel is not a Cosmo or GQ article.
As much as we may need it to be at times.

Paul wrote to the churches in Galatia, because he was concerned that they were being taken in by a false gospel – one that limited entrance into the church of Christ rather than expanded it.

We can find examples of false gospels in our own time as well:

“The Prosperity Gospel” – the belief that God will reward us with riches and material goods if we live a faithful life – and send a check for $39.95 to the televangelist of our choice to be added to his prayer list.

“The Gospel of Sin Management” – the belief that getting saved and getting into heaven is all about controlling our personal behavior and getting ourselves right with God, and has little to do with serving others in the world.

And the aforementioned “Gospel Lite” – the belief that we have enough angst and anxiety in our busy lives and the church should be a place where we come to be soothed and refreshed rather than challenged and changed.

The reality is, Jesus was a master at challenging and soothing.
His gospel was designed to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
He told stories about Good Samaritans who stopped to help when most walked on by,
and rich fools who built bigger and bigger barns to store all their wealth,
and laborers who earned the same pay regardless of how many hours they worked.
He told his disciples to travel without money or food, to walk two miles when ordered to walk one, to pray for those who persecuted them, to forgive seventy times seventy.

Jesus did not preach a Gospel Lite.
The gospel he preached more often than not fell on his listeners with the weight of a ton of bricks.  
But while those he offended plotted how they might go about getting rid of him, the people who longed to hear his message flocked to hear him speak.

As do we.

Because even though he’s always poking and prodding us to be better,
he does so while painting us a picture of what the world would look like if we were better –
if we were more compassionate, more loving, more merciful towards one another.

When we discover gospels that tell us that Jesus had a wife or that Judas was not such a bad guy after all it’s natural for us to react with curiosity and wonder. 

These discoveries are often deemed controversial and provocative because in a culture that thrives on novelty and mystery we revel in finding what may have been previously unknown or intentionally hidden, especially when it comes to upending long held religious beliefs.

In comparison, the gospels we have in our Bible may seem too familiar, staid, static, dare I say, boring.
But in reality, the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are teeming with controversial teachings and provocative stories.
Stories that decry inequities in wealth, power, and resources.
Stories denouncing xenophobia, racism, and religious intolerance.
Stories that plead with us to lean towards mercy, compassion, and love, rather than be pulled towards judgment, retaliation, and fear.

This is the gospel that Jesus gave us.
We may choose not to see it or hear it - because it makes the prospect of being a follower of Christ pretty daunting.  
And if we’re wrapped up in our own pain, our own struggle, our own grief, then we may feel too overwhelmed to take on anybody elses.
But we don’t need to turn to Gospel Lite to find comfort.
We’ll find plenty of comfort in the full blown gospel, as it is.

Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

But as always Jesus preaches this gospel with a warning:

But woe to those who are rich, those who are full, those who are laughing, for you will be poor, you will be hungry, you will mourn and weep.

The sad news is that this world is unfair, unbalanced, and unjust.

The Good News the Gospel, Jesus has given us the tools to change it.

The Good News is...God is with us through it all.    

Thanks be to God.