Sermon: “Your Sins Are Forgiven” (June 12, 2016)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Your Sins Are Forgiven” (Luke 7:48)
June 12, 2016
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

One of my all-time favorite movies is the 1989 film Dead Poets Society in which the late Robin Williams plays John Keating, an English professor at an exclusive New England boarding school called Welton Academy who encourages his students, “make your lives extraordinary.”

One of the students is Knox Overstreet, who has fallen madly in love with Chris Noel, a beautiful girl who attends the local public high school but unfortunately is dating a football player named Chet.  Nevertheless, on a snowy morning Knox skips school, bikes into town to buy flowers, and then bikes all the way to Chris’ school.  He enters the crowded hallway teeming with students bundled up in sweaters and coats and finds Chris by her locker.

“Chris!” he beams as he walks up to her.  Chris is stunned, “Knox, what are you doing here?”  Knox grins and holds up the flowers, “I brought you these, and a poem I wrote for you.”  Chris grabs Knox and leads him into a doorway, “Knox, don’t you know that if Chet finds you here he will kill you?”  Knox replies, “I don’t care!  I love you, Chris.”  Chris is touched but replies, “Knox, you’re crazy.”  Knox holds up the flowers, “Please accept these, please?”  “No,” Chris replies, “I can’t.  Just forget it”—and as the bell rings for class she hastens across the hall and enters a classroom.

Knox stands in the hallway for a moment, and then, still holding the flowers, walks right into the same classroom and stands before Chris as her friends are milling around chatting, awaiting class to begin.  “Knox, I don’t believe this,” Chris says as she embarrassing glances around her.  Knox’s voice is gentle, “All I’m asking you to do is listen.”  Knox is utterly oblivious to everyone but Chris.  A hush falls over the classroom as he begins reading the poem he wrote for her, “The heavens made a girl named Chris, with hair and skin of gold.  To touch her?  Paradise…”  The awkwardness is palpable, and Chris covers hers head with her arms, but that does not prevent Knox from persisting in expressing his love for her.

In today’s gospel lesson Luke tells us about a similarly awkward expression of love that happened in the middle of a dinner Jesus was having at a Pharisee’s house:

A woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that (Jesus) was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment.  She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair.  Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment (Luke 7:37-38).

This woman was utterly oblivious to the Pharisees, oblivious to their wealth, oblivious to their social standing, oblivious to what they would think of her—and she persisted in expressing her love for Jesus—again, Luke writes, “she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.”

The great 1960’s husband and wife song-writing duel of Carole King and Gerry Goffin penned many hits, including “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”, “Up on the Roof”, “The Locomotion”, and “One Fine Day.”  In another of their hits, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” they put it this way:

When my soul was in the lost and found
You came along to claim it…
Now I’m no longer doubtful of what I’m living for
‘Cause if I make you happy I don’t need to do more
(From Carole King’s 1971 album Tapestry)

The soul of this woman lavishly expressing her love for Jesus “was in the lost and found” until Jesus had come along to claim it—and the result was that she was no longer doubtful of what she was living for, she was living to express love and gratitude to her Savior.

And unlike Chris Noel, Jesus was not the least bit embarrassed by this expression of love.  But others were, especially Simon, the Pharisee hosting this dinner.  “If this man were a prophet,” he said to himself, “he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner” (Luke 7:39).  The Pharisee was right.  This woman was undoubtedly a prostitute.  But unlike the vast majority of men she encountered, Jesus did not objectify or use her, ever.

In fact the way Jesus had treated her is reminiscent of an episode in Victor Hugo’s gospel soaked novel, Les Miserables.  Jean Valjean is an escaped convict who had received overwhelming grace from a bishop and gone on to become a wealthy manufacturer who made it a habit to give others that same overwhelming grace.  He encounters a woman named Fantine who due to a series of personal tragedies had been reduced to prostitution in order to provide for her little daughter, Cossette.  Fantine was on the verge of being arrested by Javert, when Jean Valjean intercedes on her behalf.  After dismissing Javert, Jean Valjean turns to Fantine and says this:

Here’s how it will be: I will pay your debts, I will have your child come to you, or you will go to her.  You will live here, or in Paris, or wherever you like.  I will look after your child and you.  You will never have to work again, if you don’t want to.  I will give you all the money you need.  You will go back to being an honest woman by being happy again.  And listen, I tell you here and now, if all is as you say, and I don’t doubt it for a second, you have never stopped being virtuous and holy in the eyes of God (2007 Modern Library edition, 167).

Just as Jean Valjean understood Fantine’s story and responded with overwhelming grace, Jesus had understood the woman’s story and responded in the same way…and by the way, Jesus understands your story too, every chapter.

And in response to the Pharisee’s judgement of her Jesus talks about forgiveness, emphasizing that those who are forgiven the most love the most, and indicating her lavish act of love as emblematic of that.  “Therefore,” he continues, “I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence, she has shown great love.  But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”  Then Jesus speaks to her directly, “Your sins are forgiven…go in peace” (Luke 7:47-50).

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s dark 1864 novella Notes from Underground is written in the first person and near the end of the novella the unnamed protagonist is visited by a prostitute named Liza.  Unlike Jesus and unlike Jean Valjean, he mistreats her and then rails about his bleak view of futility of the human condition and his own degeneracy.  And yet, in return she gives him a simple embrace.  Upon reflection about this act of love the unnamed protagonist puts it this way:

It never occurred to me that she had come, not at all to listen to pathetic words, but to love me, for…love means all of resurrection, all of salvation from any kind of ruin, all of renewal of life; indeed, it cannot manifest itself in anything but this (Bantam Classic edition, 126).

And that is why Jesus came…to love sinners like the sinful woman, to love sinners like you and me.

Jesus went on to die on the cross to ensure that you are forgiven—as the Apostle Paul put it, “I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).

Even if you are like the woman—and we all are—and your sins are many, Jesus’ blood is still enough.  Article XXXI of the Thirty-nine Articles from the sixteenth century is entitled “Of the one Oblation of Christ finished upon the Cross” and states this:

The offering of Christ once made is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction, for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other satisfaction for sin, but that alone (The Book of Common Prayer 874).

Back to Dead Poets Society for a moment…Near the end of the film Knox and his fellow friends of the Dead Poets Society are walking out of their school on a snowy night on the way to a play when they all suddenly stop.  Standing in the hallway of this all-boys boarding school is none other than Chris Noel.  Knox walks over to her, “Chris, what are you doing here?  Chris, you can’t be in here.  If they catch you we’re both going to be in big trouble.”

As they step outside into falling snow, Chris says, “Oh, but it’s okay for you to come barging into my school and make a complete fool out of me?”  “I didn’t mean to make a fool out of you.”  “But you did.  Chet found out and it’s taken everything I can do to keep him from coming here and killing you.  Knox, you have got to stop this stuff.”  “I can’t, Chris, I love you.”  “Knox, you say that over and over.  You don’t even know me.  Knox, it just so happens that I could care less about you.”  Knox grins, “Then you wouldn’t be here warning me about Chet.”

Chris turns to walk away, “I have to go.  I’m going to be late for the play.”  “Are you going with him?” Knox asks.  She laughs, “With Chet?  To a play?  Are you kidding?”  Knox implores her, “Then come with me.”  “Knox, you are so infuriating!”  “Come on, Chris, just give me one chance.  If you don’t like me after tonight, I’ll stay away forever.  I promise, Dead Poets honor.  You come with me tonight, and then if you don’t want to see me again, I swear, I’ll bow out.”  “And I suppose you promise this would be the end of it,” Chris says.   “Dead Poets honor.”  “What is that?”  “My word.”  Chris begins to walk away, and Knox thinks all his efforts were for naught—but Chris then turns around and smiles, “You are so infuriating!” and arm in arm they walk to the play.

The infuriatingly persistent love of Knox finally won Chris over.

And the infuriatingly persistent love of Knox for Chris, the overwhelmingly generous love of Jean Valjean for Fantine, and the embarrassingly lavish love of the sinful woman mirror the love of Jesus Christ for you.

Jesus understands your story, and makes a fool of himself and barges into the classroom of your life.  He can’t stop this stuff because he loves you.

And out of his overwhelming grace, even as the same feet that had been washed with the woman’s tears and anointed with oil were being nailed to the cross, Jesus spoke words of forgiveness, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).  In his death on the cross Jesus declared for the whole world: “Here’s how it will be: I will pay your debts.”

Jesus came to claim all the souls in the lost and found, including yours—and his overwhelming grace and love ensure you “all of resurrection, all of salvation from any kind of ruin, all of renewal of life.”

In other words, Jesus’ words to the sinful woman are Jesus’ words to you, “Your sins are forgiven…go in peace.”

Amen.