As a youth I used to “collect” cassette tapes. I had this rack, about 3 feet x 4 feet, that hung on my bedroom wall filled with recordings from my favorite bands. I was one of those nuts who even had it somewhat organized by grouping genres and putting the artists in alphabetical order. I remember scouring the cutout racks to complete collections of some of my favorite artists. One I most liked to collect was Chicago, maybe because all of their album titles were simply numbers, making it easy to know what you needed. For a long time, for example, there was an empty slot between Chicago III and V, because I could not find IV, the LIve at Carnegie Hall 4-album set on cassette. Then one day at a yard sale I found it in vinyl. While I don’t have the rest of the cassettes, I have still have the vinyl one.
Our iPods have changed all of that. You may digitally scroll through your collection, to see the album/CD covers, but you don’t have those trophies to hang on your wall. Sometimes I miss that.
Earlier this year I pre-ordered a hardcover copy of a new book by one of my favorite authors. Including the shipping, I paid about $7 more for the book than I would have if I had simply downloaded it to my Kindle, but then I wouldn’t have had the book, sitting on my shelf with all of the other books by this author, completing the set. There are times when I want a physical, paper-and-ink book. I’m guessing though that one day I will look at my bookshelf as obsolete as that cassette rack. I’m not quite ready for that yet though.
Max Lucado writes about a couple of brothers from the early 20th century who were particularly good at saving things.
You and I save things. Favorite photos, interesting articles — we all save things. Homer and Langley Collyer hoarded things. Everything. Newspapers, letters, clothing — you name it, they kept it.
Born in the late 1800s to an affluent Manhattan couple, the brothers lived in a luxurious three-story mansion at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 128th Street. Homer earned a degree in engineering; Langley became a lawyer. All seemed good in the Collyer family.
But then mom and dad divorced in 1909. The boys, now in their 20s, remained in the home with their mother. Crime escalated. The neighborhood deteriorated. Homer and Langley retaliated by escaping the world. For reasons that therapists discuss at dinner parties, the duo retreated into their inherited mansion, closed and locked the doors.
They were all but unheard of for nearly 40 years. Then in 1947 someone reported the suspicion of a dead body at their address. It took seven police [officers] to break down the door because the entrance was blocked by a wall of newspapers, folding beds, half a sewing machine, old chairs, part of a winepress and other pieces of junk. After several hours of digging, police [officers] found the body of Homer, seated on the floor, head between his knees, his long and matted gray hair reaching his shoulders.
But where was Langley [his brother]? [There were rumors that he had been seen in Atlantic City, among other places, which] triggered one of the strangest searches in Manhattan history. Fifteen days of quarrying produced 103 tons of junk — gas chandeliers, a sawhorse, the chassis of an old car, a Steinway piano, a horse’s jawbone and, finally, one missing brother [just 10 feet, but 2 weeks of digging, away]. The stuff he’d kept had collapsed on and killed him.
Bizarre! Who wants to live with yesterday’s rubble? Who wants to hoard the trash of the past? You don’t, do you? Or do you?
(Max Lucado’s sermon “Forgiveness for Bitter Days”)
Few of us are the pack rats that the Collyer brothers were, but we too tend to hold on to things.
I have been trying to clear the clutter from my desk in the office here at the church. For the most part that means learning to read things digitally rather than printing them out and stacking them on my desk until I get to them, if I ever do. Not long ago, I read about this app called Evernote that allows you to store things digitally, and I can access it from any computer connected to the internet and even my smart phone. This has made it so much easier. So when I am waiting, at a doctor’s office, for a meeting to start, or just about anywhere, I will often go to Evernote on my phone to read the blogs, articles, sermons, and the like, that I have stored there.
When I am done, and I have extracted my notes, highlights, or sometimes nothing. I can just press the delete button and the file is gone. There is no paper to fill up the recycling box in my office. The clutter just disappears out into the world of cyberspace.
I wish that were true of some other, intangible things that you and I find ourselves holding on to. Are you one who from time to time remembers the mistakes you have made, the harsh words you have spoken, the hurts you have caused, the sin in your life?
Over the past several months, as I reflected on the issue of forgiveness, I knew rather quickly that for many the hardest person to forgive is yourself. We can forgive the other, even excuse the behavior. But some of us can be our own worst critics.
Maybe you blame yourself for the difficult financial situation your family is in. Maybe you have health issues now because of an unhealthy lifestyle earlier. Maybe you wonder if the struggles of your children are due to parenting mistakes you made along the way. Maybe you have that former friend out there somewhere who no longer wants a relationship with you because of something you said, or did, or did not do. Maybe you have a “wild period” in your history where you said and did things of which you are not proud.
Like the Collyer house full of junk they chose not to let go of that eventually collapsed and caused the deaths of both, we too can have a pile of junk in our lives that feels like it could come down on us at any minute. The only way to get out from under it is to let the junk go.
An Unnamed Woman
The Gospel lesson that was read for us this morning, tells the story of a woman whose pile of junk in her life was quite high and closing in on her. A Pharisee named Simon has invited Jesus to his house so they can eat together. As you may remember from other sermons, inviting someone to eat with you in the first century was a way of inviting him/her into friendship. By inviting Jesus over, Simon is saying that he wants to be friendly with Jesus, that he wants to know more about him, and that he supports him in some way.
During this proper and probably fairly formal meal, a woman crashes the party. Luke identifies her as “a sinner.” In Jesus’ day, that wasn’t just a way of saying she was imperfect like the rest of us. Rather, “sinner” was a social designation. The poor, the sick, those of certain professions like tax collector and shepherd, prostitutes, and others belonged to the socio-religious class of sinner. In short, this woman, a sinner, was outside of the Temple fellowship. She may have committed any one of a number of offenses that would have made her ritually “unclean” in the eyes of the religious community, and therefore unwelcome to participate in worship or any other Temple rituals.
Without saying a word, this uninvited guest comes up behind Jesus who was reclining at the table – remember there were no chairs to sit in – and begins to wash his feet with her tears, dry them with her hair, and anoint them with the perfume in her alabaster jar. She is humbling herself, recognizing Jesus for who he is, putting herself in the place of his servant, and in essence professing her faith in him.
Notice the contrast. Simon invited Jesus over for dinner so that they could be friends. The unnamed “sinner” comes uninvited and performs the duties of a slave or servant.
The Pharisee is unhappy with this distraction. He mutters to himself, “If [Jesus] were a prophet,” I guess he is still unsure of who Jesus really is, “he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him – that she is a sinner” (Luke 7:39).
Simon expects a man of faith to tuck his feet up under his robe to keep a sinner from touching him. It was believed that the when someone “unclean” touched someone “clean” the uncleanness was contagious, and thus would have caused Jesus, this prophet as Simon calls him, to now have to go through some ritual cleansing to be clean again. Those connected to the Temple worked very hard at keeping themselves clean.
You may remember in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus tells of the religious leaders crossing the street to avoid contact with the one who has been mugged and is presumably dead. You have probably heard sermons talk about how they did this because coming into contact with blood or a dead body would have made these two ritually unclean and would have interfered with their duties of leading worship. They would have had to go through a ritual cleansing period.
Little does Simon know that Jesus understands exactly who this woman is, only it doesn’t bother him. For Jesus showed us that the clean/unclean transaction actually goes the other way. Throughout the gospels, we find a clean Jesus touching the unclean – lepers, tax collectors, the demon possessed, crippled, prostitutes, and more – and making them clean. Jesus not only knows who is touching him, but he also knows that this interaction is going to change her life.
To explain to Simon what is going on, Jesus uses the metaphor of a person in debt. The one who sees him- or herself as owing little, someone “clean” like Simon, when their debt is canceled they are somewhat grateful. But when someone who owes a great deal has their debt forgiven, like this “sinner” who is washing Jesus’ feet, their gratitude is even greater. Then Jesus reveals to Simon that he knows who this woman is when he says, “her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.”
Then Jesus turns to the woman and says, “Your sins are forgiven” – a derivative of that phrase we learned last week is the one we most want to hear sincerely uttered to us after “I love you” – “I forgive you.”
I wonder what impact those words had upon her – “your sins are forgiven.” Everything? Really? Gone? What about that…? FORGIVEN! And the time that I…? FORGIVEN! What about that habit that I can’t seem to kick? FORGIVEN! All that junk piled up in the house of my soul, closing in our me and about to crush me? FORGIVEN! Really? Yes, really!
That is one of the fundamental messages of the Gospel, and the part of Jesus message that eventually got him crucified. Jesus made a habit of forgiving the sins of those he met. Not only does Jesus tell this woman washing his feet her sins are forgiven, but he also offers forgiveness to a paralyzed man who is lowered through the roof of a house for healing, and to a woman caught in the sin of adultery, to a tax collector named Zacchaeus (a sinful profession), and so many more. Time and again Jesus reaches out to those on the outside because of their status as “sinners” and says, “Welcome. Your sins are forgiven.”
Jesus’ willingness to offer forgiveness is one of the things that drew the ire of the Pharisees and other religious leaders. When offering forgiveness, Jesus was replacing the primary function of the Temple. In their eyes he was making it too easy. Jesus was letting anyone and everyone into the fold. He was offering forgiveness without the ritual sacrifices, offerings, or anything else that the Temple said needed to do in order to deserve it. He was telling all that when they sought out his help they were clean in the eyes of God. That, they thought, was threatening to their structure. That was dangerous.
We know the Pharisees were not right in keeping certain people out, in being stingy with the grace and forgiveness of God. We know that Jesus came to forgive the sins of the whole world. But when we turn that on ourselves, sometimes we wonder if we have done enough, if we are deserving enough. Or worse, sometimes we wonder if God has not just decided we are hopeless and decided that he has forgiven us all he can.
I have called this the “Three-Word Sermon” because if you remember nothing else today, I want you to hear these three words that Jesus spoke to this woman: You are forgiven. YOU are forgiven. You ARE forgiven. You are FORGIVEN.
You and I are forgiven. When you, like this “sinner,” go to the feet of Jesus and become his servant, you are forgiven. All those sins, that life you have led, those mistakes you have made – they are all forgiven. That pile of junk that at times you feel closing in around you and you fear may collapse on you – is gone. You do not need to hang on to it. The ‘delete’ button has been pushed and you are new, clean, forgiven.
We don’t hear any more about this woman in the Bible, but I like to assume that this moment changed her life. I wonder if Luke, as he is writing this, does not give us her name because he assumes everyone in his community who would be reading his book on the life of Jesus, already knows her and her story. Maybe she was one of the leaders of the Christian community for whom Luke is writing. I think it is fairly safe to assume at least, that her life was never the same. If she had gone back to her old ways, Luke and the disciples before him would have probably not continued to tell her story.
I admire her courage to barge into a dinner party to profess her faith in Jesus, to give him thanks for his acceptance, and to receive the forgiveness that she needed to hear.
Sincerely uttered to you…
Last Sunday, I started this series by sharing with you the results of a Gallup poll that asked this question: “What word or phrase would you most like to hear sincerely uttered to you?” The results, according to Leonard Sweet from whom I first heard of this poll, were… do you remember from last week?
- I love you – No surprise there. We long to know that we are loved, accepted, matter deeply to another.
- I forgive you – That was the bulk of the sermon last week, and one of the reasons for doing this series. We long to be forgiven.
What I did not tell you last week was what the number 3 response was, and it is one that I doubt you would be able to guess. The third phrase that we would most like to hear sincerely uttered to us is…
Supper is ready!
Time and again Jesus used the image of a banquet to explain to us, his followers, what the Kingdom of God is like. He frequently used the image of a banquet, typically a wedding banquet, to talk about the Kingdom of God. You may remember back when we did the series on Prodigal God, the story of the lost son in Luke 15, when the son returns the father throws a banquet party. Jesus also fed 5,000 people in a field, ate with sinners, and is even accused of not being a real prophet because he likes dinner parties too much. Several stories are recorded of dinners with the religious authorities, not to mention a tax-collector named Zacchaeus. Even after his resurrection, Jesus is recognized once when he breaks bread and shares it, and another time when he is cooking fish on the beach and invites the disciples to join him.
I don’t know about you, but from what I understand of the gospels, heaven might just be similar to every Sunday at my very Italian grandmother’s house where we spent the entire time around the table. From the antipasto through the braciole meal and canollis for desert, to the demitasse and cards long into the night. Hours of food and fellowship around the table.
Because when we eat a meal together, we are inviting the other into friendship. As we eat together at a banquet, we are saying those first two phrases – “I love you” and “I forgive you.”
Jesus is inviting you to come to the table. Supper is ready. The Kingdom of God is open to you. If only you have the courage of the “sinful” woman of Luke 7, and will come, the clutter will be cleaned, the table set, and the meal begun.
Lucado, Max. “Forgiveness for Bitter Days” a sermon posted online at http://www.preaching.com/printerfriendly/11555315/)
Unless otherwise noted, all quotations of Scripture are from the New Revised Standard Version available online at http://bible.oremus.org.