Sermon preached June 13, 2010
Texts: Luke 7:36-8:3
Play a bit of “Pomp and Circumstance.” How many of you have heard this recently? It is a familiar part of the ritual, the ceremony, the customary practice of graduation, at least here in the United States. I asked Maximme if this was a part of commencement in Belgium and she told me that it was not. They must have other customary ways of getting all the graduates into the auditorium for graduation.
Another part of the ritual, ceremony, customary practice of graduation/commencement is the commencement speech. The quality of such speeches varies a great deal. If you were at the East High School commencement on Wednesday night you would have heard an excellent student speech given by Gretel Lee.
Most good commencement speeches have a bit of humor. “Remember the compliments you receive. Forget the insults. If you succeed in doing this, tell me how.” (“Kurt Vonnegut” commencement address, but not really Vonnegut). Bob Newhart at Catholic University of America in 1997 shared a bit about his own Catholic upbringing. The hardest part I found in being Catholic was when you had to learn the commandments for your first confession…. One that threw me was “thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.” Now I was 7 and I always thought the priest was saying thou shalt not “cover” thy neighbor’s wife, and I didn’t want to do that anyway. But apparently it’s only a sin if you cover thy neighbor’s wife. You can cover all the other wives in the neighborhood and you’re home free, but the minute you cover thy neighbor’s wife, you’d better get to confession. Jon Stewart, William and Mary, 2004: I am honored to be here and to receive this honorary doctorate. When I think back to the people who have been in this position before me from Benjamin Franklin to Queen Noor of Jordan, I can’t help but wonder what has happened to this place.
Many commencement speeches make use of stories, but I am guessing that no one ever used this particular story for a commencement address. It is a story about ritual, ceremony, common practice interrupted. A Pharisee asks Jesus to eat with him at his home. Meals in the ancient near east were surrounded by rituals and common practices of hospitality. It may also be helpful to know that many meals might have been served in an open courtyard with the guests reclining around low tables – we can picture the scene a little better that way. In any event, into this setting barges a woman – an uninvited and unwanted guest, “a sinner” that is someone who did not follow Jewish customs and laws - - - whatever else she may have done. The woman not only arrives on the scene, she creates a scene. The woman weeps, letting her tears fall on Jesus’ feet, and as the tears dampen his feet, she dries them with her hair. She kisses his feet and anoints them with ointment. In a culture where the interactions between men and women were often governed by customary practices, this kind of contact, this kind of intimacy, would have been scandalous, and that the woman was a known sinner made the scene all the more troubling to Jesus’ host.
Commencement ceremonies, steeped in tradition, ritual, customary practice might not be the best place to tell this story where customs are flaunted, where practices are interrupted so egregiously. Yet the story has lessons, something we might expect from a commencement address – something we might expect from a sermon.
Perhaps the first lesson is found in the very scandal of the story. While ritual, ceremony and customary practice can facilitate an authentic life and deepen relationship with God, it can also get in the way. To read this story wherein a woman who interrupts the customs is the hero, along with Jesus, as a story that is against ritual and custom would be to misread it. Notice that one of the criticisms Jesus levels at his host is that the host was not very gracious. The host failed to offer the customary hospitality to Jesus – ho offered no water for his feet, he offered no kiss of greeting, he failed to anoint Jesus head with oil. Rituals and customs have their place in life and in the life of faith. At the same time, they can be used not to deepen our self-understanding or deepen our relationship with God, but can be used to evade richer self-exploration. It can be used as a way to distract ourselves making it more difficult to listen to God’s Spirit. When customary faith practices simply become things to check off the list, rather than moments to allow for deeper prayer, more searching self-reflection, then they are not serving their purpose, and it happens.
If this story were to be used in a commencement address, a second lesson offered might be about the importance of openness and inclusivity. In the religious culture of Jesus time, to label someone a “sinner” meant, among other things, that you did not have to pay attention to them. Their experience did not matter. Women, too, were marginalized. To have a woman who was a sinner be one of the heroes of the story speaks volumes about inclusivity and openness, about our need to listen to voices we might otherwise ignore, about our need to open doors to persons who might otherwise be excluded. The story is followed by a brief travelogue of Jesus’ ministry – noting that he was accompanied by the twelve and by a number of women!
We need to include others and listen to their voices. As a church we need to pay attention to each other, and to voices of those outside our doors who have questions to ask, concerns to raise. We also need to be open to new experiences in our own lives. In newness and otherness the voice of God is often heard, not just in the tried and familiar. When we shy away from what may be new and different, we risk missing the very movement of God’s Spirit.
If this unlikely story were to be used in a commencement address, another lesson offered might about the power of forgiveness. To be able to forgive and be forgiven frees us to love. Part of the lesson here is about the power of self-forgiveness. Jesus pronounces forgiveness for the woman who has come to anoint him with fragrant oil, with her own hair and tears. Then he tells her, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” Part of the meaning of that is for her to accept her forgiveness and forgive herself. When we cannot forgive ourselves we begin to hide our need for forgiveness. We are reluctant to acknowledge our own cruelties, mistakes, misjudgments. We need to be self-righteous because we cannot find forgiveness, and self-righteousness is the thing Jesus seemed to speak about most. He seemed to say that it was a major stumbling block to an authentic relationship with God. Self-righteousness is so problematic because it is a fundamental dishonesty about our lives. God wants to break through that. The voice of Jesus is the voice of God, “Your sins are forgiven.” When we hear that and welcome that for ourselves, we also hear the voice of God in the voice of Jesus say, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Forgiveness of self is not enough. We are also to be working at forgiving others. It is a process. It is difficult work, incredibly difficult work. People have hurt us, wounded us, and sometimes the most difficult thing we can do is to work toward forgiveness. It is the direction God’s Spirit moves us. It frees us to love, not trapped by our past.
Finally, a commencement address using this story might draw a lesson about passion. Now passion is not necessarily good in itself. Unfortunately phrases like “passionate skinhead” or “passionate terrorist” are not oxymorons. Our own culture is, in some ways, too passionate, that is, we are too moved by fear and anger – these passions are manipulated rather than thoughtfully explored.
Those cautions aside, however, we need passion, and we need to pay attention to our passions. I have for years appreciated Frederick Buechner’s definition of “vocation” (Wishful Thinking): The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet. Paying attention to our passion is one place to hear the voice of God in our lives. Again, what we seek is a thoughtful passion. Joan Chittister writes, Enthusiasm ought not to be confused with hysteria…. The world belongs to the enthusiast who keeps cool. (Living Well, 52-53) We need to be thoughtfully passionate and enthusiastic about our faith in God and in Jesus and about the way we live that faith together here at First United Methodist Church. If we are not passionate about our church, no one else will be.
This story has lessons for life, lessons that could find a place in a commencement address. I like the way that The Cotton Patch Version ends the story. Jesus tells the woman, “What you’ve just done has been the making of you; keep it up – with my blessing.” Openness, inclusivity, forgiveness, passion – these could be the making of us. These could be the making of an adventurous life with God. Not many commencement addresses begin with this story, but they could. Come to think of it, this story might be the start of a good sermon.