12.12.2011

Sermon Transcript

Here is the transcript from the sermon I preached yesterday at Woodland Presbyterian Church.

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I Have Nothing to Offer You But My Shameful Sin: Jesus Meets a Woman of Ill Repute and a Well-Respected Religious Leader, and You’ll Never Guess Which One He Justifies
Luke 7:36-50


The holiday season, which is supposed to fill us with good cheer, has for many of us become a season of stress. And there may not be any greater stress than the stress of having company over. When that company is unexpected, that stress can be further amplified.

Consider the following scenario. (Amy, I assure you that this is a hypothetical situation and not a real one.) Husband comes home and announces to wife, “I’ve invited my friend over for Christmas dinner tomorrow night.” Wife hits the roof, or maybe hits the husband. Calmly says, through gritted teeth, “That’s great, dear, but next time would you give me more advance notice?”

Where is the stress coming from? Well, for many of us, the stress could be from one of two places. One is, we’re having company over, and now I have to get the house in order on short notice. Two is, we’re having company over, and I have to give our guest an orientation on my Uncle Larry, and what topics you are absolutely not to broach with him, and/or I have to give Uncle Larry an orientation about would you please be on your best behavior and not go on your tirade about whatever it is that Uncle Larry gets worked up about.

I see some people nodding their heads with a whole range of facial expressions. So we understand this dynamic. When we have company over, we want desperately to clean up our act, whether it is our house or our crazy family members, so that we don’t embarrass ourselves in front of company.

This holiday season, as we consider the birth of Jesus, I want you to consider to what extent you act this way with God. When God comes over to our house, so to speak, how are we with him? Do we hurriedly throw our junk in the closet and shut the door, puff up our pillows, and muzzle our crazy Uncle Larry?

Covering up our ugliness is, of course, as old as we are. Adam and Eve, after committing the original sin, covered themselves up before God returned. Flash forward to the present, and even in a room that contains many people who claim to be Christians, and who therefore have confessed at least once, if not over and over again, that we are sinners deserving of judgment before a righteous God, even here, there is a lot of cover-up. I know that I am a sinner, I know you are a sinner, you know I am a sinner. And yet, if we are honest with ourselves, we’d have to admit that we do a lot of covering up before God and before one another. It is as if we know God is coming over, and in response we hide the ugliness, contain the craziness, and present a more polished, more put-together version of ourselves upon His arrival.

Folks, it’s time, individually, as a church body, and as a generation, to put our covering up ways aside. There is a better way. God insists on, invites us to, urges us towards a better way.

Guilt and condemnation are funny things. I think we fear condemnation more than guilt. We are so afraid of condemnation that we will do anything to escape its blazing glare of scrutiny. If the sins of our flesh, our eyes, our minds, and our heart were to be laid bare, we feel we could not bear the searing heat of judgment. And so, we cover up. We are not real with ourselves, we are not real with each other, and we are not real with our Maker. Like Adam and Eve, we have done wrong, fatally wrong. And, like Adam and Eve, we hear God coming, and we cover up.

Here’s the thing about covering up for fear of condemnation. Covering up does not address our guilt. We are no less guilty for covering up, and we feel no less guilty for covering up. Condemnation may burn us up. But guilt weighs us down. And, by trying to avoid condemnation by covering up, we remove neither our condemnation nor our guilt.

Sadly, those of us who are good at covering up are further, and not closer, to how our Maker would want us to be. Sometimes, we have put ourselves so far away as a result of our covering up that we need to be shocked back to a better way of dealing with our condemnation and guilt. Thankfully and mercifully God provides that shock, in the form of a delicious real-life parable, which we find in the seventh chapter of the gospel according to Luke.

If you don't know the story, a respected religious leader invites Jesus over to dinner. The undercurrent is likely that this man, Simon, is skeptical if not downright dismissive of the man from Nazareth. He doesn't even offer him the customary foot-washing for guests. And yet he knows the Nazarene is highly regarded among the people. Perhaps Simon will win some points within the religious community for playing host. At the very least, Simon knows how to play the role of the upstanding religious man, and surely that counts for something with Jesus, and for sure with his righteous peers.

Somehow, a woman whose reputation precedes her makes her way to Jesus, perfume jar in hand. Crying, she brazenly lets her tears fall on Jesus' feet, then washes those same feet with her tears, her perfume, and her long, flowing hair. Forget inappropriate: this is bordering on erotic.

Simon is probably instinctively offended, but perhaps a little smug: here is inconclusive proof that the man from Nazareth who is the flavor of the moment is nothing but an irreverent, uneducated, and unsophisticated hack. In that day, as in our day, we are known by the company we keep, and on that score, Simon is way ahead of this alleged miracle man.

Jesus knows what is Simon’s heart. He knows the self-righteousness, the smugness over being able to pull off such a well-respected and dignified life. Jesus knows, most of all, that these cover-ups have created a deadly barrier around his heart from receiving the mercy and love of God that he needs. And so Jesus does something shocking. He sets up this real-life parable, in which the contrast between the well-regarded religious leader and the scandalous and inappropriate woman could not be more stark, and He makes it clear who is justified in his eyes.

Jesus proceeds to tell Simon a story about two people whose debts are cancelled. The one with the larger debt is more grateful, and in the same way, the woman loves much because she has been forgiven much. But, ominously, Jesus continues, he who has been forgiven little, loves little. Then he tells the woman, in front of Simon and all of his guests, that she is forgiven, that her faith has saved her, and that she can go in peace.

The woman had nothing to offer Jesus but her shameful sin. Simon, on the other hand, did everything right in the eyes of the world, from the standpoint of religion and respectability. And yet, in his own home, he hears Jesus honor the scandalous woman instead. That day, the upstanding religious leader is taught a lesson. His indignation is condemned. The outcasted sinner woman is honored. She made an inappropriate and brazen display of remorse, and yet she is the one who is approved.

What about us? Do we understand that we have been forgiven much? Do we invite Jesus into our figurative homes by washing His feet with our shameful sin? Or do we stand off to the side with our arms crossed, confident in our upstanding reputation and disdainful of others whose sins are more public and scandalous?

Let’s talk about another public and scandalous sin. When the Penn State sex abuse scandal broke last month, sportswriters, columnists, and talking heads tripped over themselves to speak angry words of condemnation against the leadership of Penn State. To be sure, anger and condemnation are appropriate responses to the sexual abuse of children, and to the systematic ways in which top leadership chose not to resolve the situation openly and decisively. We should be enraged at the thought of children being hurt in this way, and at the thought of leaders falling short in this way.

But let us also be sober about our own guilt. I think there are generally two reactions to these kinds of public and scandalous sins. One reaction is to allay our own guilt by pouring condemnation on others we think are worse than us. We may realize that we have sinned and fallen short, whatever that means to us; but we can feel better about ourselves when we single out others out there who are worse than us. Piling on the condemnation removes us further from having to deal with the possibility of our own condemnation.

Another reaction is for public and scandalous sins to remind us of our own sinfulness, and to sober us to the consequences of our sinfulness. Our sins may not be as public or scandalous, but we are reminded that the withering heat applied to those at the center of the Penn State scandal is nothing compared to the ultimate judgment exercised by the Ultimate Judge.

We are reminded of the cry of the psalmist in Psalm 130: “If you, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” We are brought to our knees by the terrifying realization that the answer to that question is “no one, not even us.” Try as we might, we are ruinously, hopelessly marred by the existence of sin and the consequences of sin in our own hearts and in the world around us.

But then we can experience what the scandalous woman experienced in her encounter with Jesus. Deserving condemnation, instead we get mercy. Burdened with guilt, instead we are redeemed. “If You, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” But then the psalmist continues: “But there is forgiveness with You, that You may be feared. I wait for the LORD, my soul does wait, and in His word do I hope. My soul waits for the Lord more than the watchmen for the morning; indeed, more than the watchmen for the morning. O Israel, hope in the LORD; for with the LORD there is lovingkindness, and with Him is abundant redemption. And He will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.”

Simon, the respected religious leader, folded his arms in indignation and condemnation, trusting in his own good deeds. He was rebuked. The scandalous woman hoped against hope that Jesus represented a different way of addressing the great weight of her guilt. She had nothing to offer Jesus but her shameful sin. And Jesus blessed her for it.

Some of you know that I campaigned for David Oh, who ran for City Councilman at Large here in Philadelphia. Last month, in his third try, he won. It was a moment of jubilation for us campaigners, especially those of us who labored with and for him not only this year but in 2003 and 2007 as well.

Having secured victory, finally, I could not help but think back to the very beginning. David officially announced his candidacy, the first time he ran, on February 3, 2003. He held his press conference, not in an ornate board room, not inside or in front of an important municipal building, and not in any iconic Philadelphia location. He made his announcement in a cemetery. Yes, it is a historic cemetery, outside of a church known as the “Church of Patriots,” which serves as the final resting place for a number of Revolutionary War heroes. But it is also the burial place for David’s cousin, In-Ho Oh.

In-Ho, a student at Penn, left his apartment on the evening of April 25, 1958, to mail a letter. He was met by a gang of teenagers, who tried to mug him. When the muggers found he had no money, they began to beat him. (This was not long after the Korean War.) In-Ho tried to call for help, but before anyone could arrive to help him, he died. He was 26 years old.

The assailants were captured, and In-Ho’s family in Korea and his uncle in Philadelphia, David’s father, were informed of the murder. This is the letter that In-Ho’s family wrote to officials in the US. It was signed by In-Ho’s two parents, two brothers, five sisters, two uncles and aunts, and nine cousins:

“We, the parents of In Ho Oh, on behalf of our whole family, deeply appreciate the expressions of sympathy you have extended to us at this time. In Ho had almost finished the preparation needed for the achievement of his ambition, which was to serve his people and nation as a Christian statesman....

When we heard of his death, we could not believe the news was true but now we find that it is an undeniable fact that In Ho has been killed by a gang of. . . boys whose souls were not saved and in whom human nature is paralyzed. We are sad now, not only because of In Ho's unachieved future, but also because of the unsaved souls and paralyzed human nature of the murderers.

... It is our hope that we may somehow be instrumental in the salvation of the souls, and in giving life to the human nature of the murderers. Our family has met together and we have decided to petition that the most generous treatment possible within the laws of your government be given to those who committed this criminal action.....

In order to give evidence of our sincere hope contained in this petition our whole family has decided to save money to start a fund to be used for the religious, educational, vocational and social guidance of the boys when they are released. . .

About the burial of the physical body of him who has been sacrificed; we hope that you could spare a piece of land in your country and bury it there, for your land, too, is homeland for Christians. .. We hope in this way to make his tomb a monument which will call attention of people to this cause. We think this is a way to give life to the dead, and to the murderers, and to keep you and us closer in Christian love and fellowship.

We are not familiar with your customs and you may find something hard to understand in what we are trying to say and do. Please interpret our hope and idea with Christian spirit and in the light of democratic principles. We have dared to express our hope with a spirit received from the Gospel of our Saviour Jesus Christ, who died for our sins.

May God bless you, your people, and particularly the boys who killed our son and kinsman.”

David pointed out in his remarks, when he announced his candidacy for City Council at Large the first time he ran in 2003, that his cousin In-Ho’s tombstone simply reads, “To turn sorrow into Christian purpose.” If we feel we have nothing to offer God but our shameful sin, we are not far from being redeemed by God, and being used by God for a great purpose. The murder of a 26-year-old Korean student, the uncontrollable and guilt-ridden tears of a scandalous woman, even the scandal at Penn State, and even our own shameful sin, God can and will turn all of these sorrows into Christian purpose.

Conversely, if we do not feel the sorrow of our shameful sin, if we are trying to distance ourselves from our own condemnation by heaping condemnation on others, we are on shaky ground and we ought to carefully examine ourselves. This holiday season, God is coming over, and however neat or messy our physical houses are, they cannot hide if our hearts are not right. However public or scandalous our sins are, or however well we play the role of respected religious leader, all of us have sinned and fallen short.

The good news this season is that God did in fact come over, in the form of a helpless baby. That baby that was born in a horse trough to two teenagers on the run. That baby would one day confront a religious man and a scandalous woman and side with the woman. That baby would one day be crucified on a cross to provide a decisive solution to our problem of condemnation and guilt.

What then shall we do? For the sake of our own souls, for the sake of our church, and for the sake of our witness to the world around us, I urge us to not respond to our fear of condemnation and guilt by covering up, but by offering God our shameful sin, so He can turn our sorrow into Christian purpose.

We will be freer people if we give up trying to throw our ugliness into the closet before God comes over, and if we instead accept that our Savior justifies those who have nothing to offer Him but shameful sin. He was made sorrowful for a great Christian purpose; He bore the condemnation and guilt due us from our shameful sin.

We will be stronger as a congregation if we are more forthright with our flaws, both individual and corporate. It is no coincidence that revival in churches is preceded by repentance. Always. For God cannot fill a vessel that is full of itself. That vessel must first be emptied, of self-righteousness and a self-focused approach to covering up. Then he can really use us, in spite of and even through our shameful sin. Then he can turn the sorrow we have inflicted upon ourselves into Christian purpose. Only when we are emptied in this way can He fill our hearts and our pews.

And, finally, we will have a more profound impact on the culture around us if we counteract the popular conception of Christians as self-righteous and judgmental, and present to them a Savior who justifies those who have nothing to offer but their shameful sin. In doing so, we do not dilute the existence and pollution of sin. Far from it. It is the realization that sin has irretrievably corrupted us, such that our best efforts to cover up fail to address the very real heat of condemnation and the very real weight of guilt, in our own lives and in the society we are a part of; it is that realization that drives us to our knees and to a Savior who is greater even than our sin and the weight of that sin on our lives.

Many of us were here when we dealt in this church with the fall-out of a prominent incident of sexual misconduct several years ago. Families were scarred, leaders were removed, congregants were hurt, membership dwindled, and morale sank. In many ways, we are still wounded, many years later, from this episode of shameful sin.

Some of my closest childhood friends are pastors, and, perhaps as a form of therapy for me, I shared with them all the gory details of our shameful sin and of the fall-out from it, all throughout that season of our church. Believe it or not, they responded with what you might describe as envy. They envied the situation our church was in.

You see, the communities they serve are similarly racked with sexual sin, deception, and woundedness. And yet the prevailing tone of their congregational life was one of a well-respected country club. People were good at covering up, and my pastor friends lamented this for the very real barrier it represented for God to be fully present among His people.

My pastor friends would contrast that with our church, for which there could not be any pretense that we had it all together. They would tell me that, for reaching a lost world, a congregation of put-together Christians who were good at covering up their sin was no match for a congregation of wounded Christians who could offer Jesus nothing but their shameful sin.

I acknowledge that we may not want to lead with this fact about our church’s recent past – “hey, come to Woodland Church, we just had to deal with a really prominent episode of sexual misconduct!” But I assure you that, far from scaring people away, our honesty about our sin and our woundedness, and our faithfulness and humility in the midst of it, is a far more compelling message than you might imagine, for a world that is cynical and hardened towards Christianity but that is hungering all the more for a remedy for their condemnation and guilt.

The prophet Isaiah lamented, many centuries before the birth of Jesus, that all our righteousness is as filthy garments before God, that our cities had become a wilderness, and that there was no one who called on His name. And yet, the prophet held out hope that God was still a God who is for His people, a God who is the potter to our clay, who would yet mold us into something beautiful even after we had torn ourselves and each other apart.

The Christmas story is the answer to the prophet’s plea, the confirmation that God is indeed a God who justifies those who have nothing to offer but shameful sin, who we need not cover up in front of, but who, in coming tearfully and humbly before in the shame of our sin, can and will deal effectively with our condemnation and guilt, can and will fill us with the blessing of revival after we have emptied ourselves before Him, can and will use us to draw those around us who are also weighed down with condemnation and guilt and who have still not found a satisfying way out.

The lesson of Jesus’ encounter with the well-respected religious leader and the woman of ill repute is that He comes to forgive and justify those who have nothing to offer Him but their shameful sin. It is my prayer that we too will encounter this Jesus this season, and share Him with those around us, that our shameful sin and their shameful sin, and the sorrow they have brought upon us all, will be turned by our God into a great Christian purpose. Amen.


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