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Gratitude and Gift Baskets
A sermon preached by the Rev. Kit Lonergan on June 16, 2013



Christ Church Andover

Year C Proper 6

June 16, 2013

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts together always be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. AMEN.

It’s the kind of dinner party that has gone very wrong.

Simon the Pharisee probably hadn’t wanted to invite Jesus over to his house for dinner in the first place. But it was the kind of thing you did when you were curious about the new preacher in town—the kind of thing you did when you wanted to suss out who this new guy was, what he thought, why he did what he did. It was the kind of thing that *someone* had to do, and that someone turned out to be Simon. So he plans your basic dinner party for Jesus, invites friends over to see and meet him, even though he’d probably rather be sitting and chatting with someone else, someone easier, someone less, well, radical.

And the dinner is going relatively fine, until it takes a turn.

A woman, a sinner (though we don’t know what her sin was), makes her way into the midst of the meal. It had all been rather civilized until then, but now a woman, crawling and weeping starts to bathe Jesus’ feet with her tears and the ointment from her jar. It’s terribly awkward. It’s terribly inappropriate and overly intimate. Simon is not just shocked at the display of affection, but immediately wonders just how savvy Jesus really is, as he is being manhandled by a sinner of some repute. If Jesus was really a prophet, he would know the history of this woman, and be properly offended. Simon, who is a Pharisee and well versed in the dos and don’ts of proper and pious behavior is offended beyond belief. One can almost see Simon giving the signal to servants to have the woman escorted out, saving everyone further embarrassment.

But Jesus stops him before he can say anything. And Jesus is not embarrassed by what just happened.

Instead, he offers a story of two men who had been forgiven debts—one a small debt, and one a large debt. Let’s imagine a debt of one hundred dollars and one thousand dollars. Both were unable to pay, so the creditor laid both debts to rest. Simon, Jesus asks—who would be more grateful? Simon, an unwilling host to begin with, is now annoyed and grudgingly answers, “I suppose the one for whom the greater debt was forgiven.” Jesus affirms his answer. It’s obvious that he is making a parallel between the woman and the man with the greater debt. That might be of cold comfort to Simon—that Simon can at least aver that he himself was guilty of less than the woman. Jesus reminds the woman that her sins are forgiven; that her acts of gratitude have not bought her her forgiveness, but are a reflection of just how meaningful that forgiveness is for her; how great, how freeing, how liberating it is to not be confined to being a debtor for life. She has been restored. Her gratitude prompts love and devotion. 

And then the dinner party really goes downhill.

Then Jesus tells Simon just how well he has offered hospitality and love; and Simon has missed the mark. It wasn’t just that he didn’t wash Jesus’ feet with his hair, or done extravagant things towards him- it was that Simon, in comparison to the woman, is obvious in his apparent lack of concern, in his neglect. He hadn’t offered him the customary water to wash with; he hadn’t offered the kiss of peace; he hadn’t offered him even a sign of respect with anointing with oil. Simon might have thought that he had been throwing a dinner party and doing his part, but even Jesus could see through that his welcome and hospitality was halfhearted, unwilling and half-baked.

When it came down to it, Simon didn’t think he needed Jesus, but the woman knew she did.

The parable this morning is about forgiveness, yes. It is about the gratitude that comes in the wake of forgiveness, in the wake of abundantly offered love. But it’s also about entitlement as the opposite of gratitude. It’s just as much about understanding that last line that Jesus offers Simon, “But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”

Simon and the rest of his band of Pharisees are good men- they invite Jesus over, inquire about him, call him teacher—extend themselves more than they have to. But they don’t think they DO have to extend themselves. To their minds, they are already righteous. They are fine. They might be able to use some forgiveness now and then, just a tad, but overall, they are perfectly good people. They require nothing from God or the Son of God, thank you very much. But therein lies the rub. They believe they can do it on their own. They believe themselves to be self-sufficient. They imagine themselves lucky to be the ones portrayed with the smaller debt—they have sinned less, they are okay on their own, no need of anyone’s help, and God forbid, no need of forgiveness. Their judgment renders them isolated from the grace that freely comes with love. But they don’t see that free grace, all they see is shame from being debtor, and relief when it is quickly passed over.

But if we ourselves don’t know the power of forgiveness freely offered, the love that comes with the following freedom and peace, how are we to extend that love to others? How are we to manifest that same love and forgiveness if we ourselves have never acknowledged that we too have received it?

For many of us here, I would assume, we don’t go around imagining ourselves sinners all the day long. Perhaps some of us do, and sit in that place of darkness when we never believe that we are good enough, smart enough, quick enough, and never will be, etc, etc, which is a hell of its own kind. But even that isn’t what I am talking about, exactly. There is a cultural emphasis that we are meant to be good people, and that essentially we are good at heart—and scripture and theology in the Anglican tradition underscores that. We do not believe that we are depraved or sinful from our very creation and wholly reliant on God to make us whole, as some denominations believe, but that we are created for good in God’s image. Which is all fine, until you start to believe that since we are created in God’s image, everything we do must be just fine with God. The danger is believing ourselves incapable of sin and our relationship with God tangential, because we deem ourselves ‘good’. We do mess up; we fall away regularly from our relationship with God, and walk away from all the ways we could be ambassadors of God’s grace. That’s what we call sin— missing the God-mark. We name all the ways we know we sin, and the ways we don’t know how we sin in our Confession—listen to it in a few minutes, and notice just how widespread and broadly sin can be imagined.

But—we ask for forgiveness and try to amend our way of living and being and responding to that grace, that love given by God, not given to shame us into being good, but to free us from shame itself, which acts as a prison at best. When we are freed from that fear of shame, and assured of God’s love, then we too are free to love with abandon. If we, however, imagine sin to be a transactional event—“I’m sorry for this, this and that, and that’s all for this week because I’m pretty much okay without your help, God”—then we limit ourselves, limit God’s forgiveness and eventually limit our own forgiveness and love towards others. To imagine ourselves wholly good and righteous, with the exception of one or two nagging peculiarities, renders us immune to what God truly desires, which is our honesty and our giving to God of our full and total selves. David Lose, a professor of preaching, writes about this parable: “… The choice is before us: rejoice or resent. Embrace our identity as sinners and as those beloved by God and forgiven all things, or reject our failings and with it God’s tender embrace. Which will it be[?]”

As I was praying with this passage this week, a curious image came to mind. It comes from the television show, The Big Bang Theory. I won’t get into character details, but an extended conversation happens between two of the main characters: Sheldon, a brilliant but extremely socially inept and rigidly logical physicist; and Penny, his next door neighbor, who is flighty, not well-educated, but has a solid common sense about her. At Christmastime, Penny informs Sheldon that she has a present for him, and that she’ll give it to him later on that evening. Sheldon finds gift giving to be inane, not just because he believes that if he wants something, he can get it himself, but that it creates the necessity for an exactly equal response in return: a small gift for a small gift, thoughtful gift for a thoughtful gift, etc.

In anticipation of Penny’s gift, Sheldon heads out and buys Bath and Bodyworks gift baskets of every possible size, determined that he be prepared to give the exact monetarily equal gift in return. When Penny finally gives him his gift that evening, he surprisingly finds out that the gift itself has no monetary value- it is instead something that touches who he is and what he values to the core. Penny knew that while it cost nothing to her, that Sheldon would be the only one who would love it. Overwrought and overwhelmed, his calculating and transactional process having been subsumed by this gesture, Sheldon brings out every single gift basket of lotion, body wash, and heaps them on top of her, telling her with every additional gift that they simply don’t add up to what he feels he can give her in thanks. Covering her in tulle wrapped baskets, the contact-averse Sheldon tells her that he knows it’s not enough, and gingerly offers her a hug. In that moment, he gives away the most precious thing he has to offer.

Footwashing with tears, this is not. But perhaps we lose our way with our relationship with God because we rely on a transactional understanding only, and not one filled with the wonder of grace, forgiveness and love. We use God when necessary, counting on an equal and appropriate exchange relationship, forgetting from the start that it has never been equal, and will never be. So my question to you this week as you go about your lives—have you been hoarding gift baskets, attempting to give just the exact amount back to God or others? Do you believe you are truly in need of God, or is God a side-dish which you can survive without? And if God is optional, then how are you communicating the love and grace and forgiveness of God without actually relying on God’s own forgiveness and grace?


Last Published: July 23, 2013 2:14 PM