Sermon: Where the Light Gets In
Text: Luke 7:36-8:3
Date: September 22, 2019
©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church
Ever have one of those moments of insight into your own character that are startling and not necessarily welcome? I did at camp this summer, and I have been turning it over in my mind ever since. Some of my camp pals and I were joking around about something, I really can’t remember the details. I must have been correcting one of my friends about some assertion they had made. They acknowledged that they had been wrong about whatever it is, and I was right. I heard myself saying, “Being right is my signature move!” We all laughed. Jessica Star Rockers (who worked as an intern here year before last) was nearby and one of our jolly party asked her if that was true. “Oh, yeah,” she confirmed with the warmth of conviction—not in a mean way, but just holding up a mirror to me, her friend and colleague. It was a funny moment, but also a moment of renewed revelation for me about one of my persistent personal flaws. Namely, I really, really enjoy being right. About everything. All the time.
That’s why I (reluctantly, but honestly) identify with Simon in today’s gospel story. We don’t know a lot about Simon, but he is recognized as a Pharisee. The Pharisees were “devoted to studying and interpreting the Law and obeying it, and to practicing forms of piety such as synagogue attendance, prayer, almsgiving, and punctilious payment of tithes…Fundamentally, the Pharisees understood the Law as revealing the will and purpose of God…by obedience to which they achieved the blessing of God.” They were rule scholars, rule interpreters, rule followers. And, I presume, they really enjoyed being right–like me. They lived for it, and they genuinely believed that the right and righteous keeping of the law was what would please God more than anything else could. It’s likely that they not only enjoyed keeping the law but looking down on others who didn’t or couldn’t toe the line the way they did. Yeats wrote a few lines of poetry that is descriptive of enjoying looking down on the less-righteous: “Why should I seek for love or study it? / It is of God and passes human wit; / I study hatred with great diligence, / For that’s a passion in my own control…”
The woman in the story—a well-known sinner in the neighborhood—appalls Simon by breaking into his decorous dinner party and making a scene by weeping, washing Jesus’ feet with her tears, lewdly letting her hair down to dry the tears, and then anointing his feet with fragrant oil. We don’t know the exact character of her sin, but since she was bold enough to let her hair down in the presence of strange men, she was probably regarded at least at that moment as a loose woman. And perhaps she was known for soliciting men in that neighborhood. At any rate, she is most likely ritually unclean six ways from Sunday, and her uncleanness was contagious in the religious practice of the day. It traveled like the “cooties” of our childhood; as the unclean woman touched Jesus, he became ritually unclean as well.
Simon is grossed out. And he makes a snap judgment about Jesus’ competence as a prophet; if Jesus was a true prophet, he thinks, there’s no way he would have allowed this disgusting woman to touch him and make this emotional scene. He doesn’t say it out loud but you must have been able to read it in his grimace. Jesus’ teaching parable about the forgiveness of debts ensues, as well as his gentle critique of Simon’s performance of accepted practices of hospitality which involved respectfully taking care of your guest’s dusty feet and other welcoming gestures. He says to his rule-bound host, “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.”
Wait—is Jesus saying that having little to forgive is a disadvantage in God’s kin-dom? Seems like it. I suspect he pities Simon, in a sense, because his fastidious host doesn’t feel the intense need for (or hunger for) grace that the sinful woman felt. And if he doesn’t hanker for it, how’s he going to receive it? Feeling righteous and holier-than-thou may end up deflecting the real deal of God’s amazing grace, or effectively immunizing oneself against it.
I was reading an interview in Christian Century with the author of a new book on grace and came across this question from the interviewer: “A classic form of Christian memoir is ‘I once was lost, but now am found.’ Does your story translate into any version of that?” That, my friends, is an excellent question. Put the question to yourself. Does your life story translate into any version of that famous line from the hymn, “I once was lost, but now am found?” Here’s a guess about those among us who would say without hesitation “Yes!”: You’ve probably had an unmistakable taste of the delicious grace of God, more than a taste, a great gulp of grace that left you gasping with gratitude. If Jesus’ feet had been within reach, you would have cried on them.
For those of us who are thinking, “Not really….? I’m not sure I’ve been all that lost (yet); I’ve had a good, pretty happy life, I’ve tried to do the right thing and I think I’ve mostly succeeded”—well, we’re going to have a little harder time understanding the grace of God, or standing under the grace of God and letting it drip down on us in all its disorderly glory. We’re at a distinct disadvantage, if we take this gospel verse seriously: “The one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” The topic for today in our worship series “The Outsiders” is “The Humble.” Those who have obvious reasons to be humble, like well-known sinners of one kind and another, are often left outside the door of polite society, outsiders where the carefully righteous like Simon are concerned. But in the topsy-turvy world of the gospel, the extra-righteous and never-lost are the outsiders in God’s realm of love and grace. Not because they have to be, but because they’re not ravenous for grace and forgiveness like the genuine, pure-D sinners.
One of my books is titled The Ragamuffin Gospel because of something the author heard a post-Valley girl say after reading the entire gospel of Luke for the first time: “Wow! Like Jesus has this totally intense thing for ragamuffins.” True, author Brennan Manning says. Jesus hung out with ragamuffins most of the time: the poor, the blind, the lame, the lepers, the hungry, sinners, prostitutes, tax collectors, the persecuted, the downtrodden, the captives, those possessed by unclean spirits, all who labor and are heavy burdened, the rabble who knew nothing of the law, the crowds, the little ones, the least, the last, the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Manning doesn’t specifically mention the women in that list of ragamuffins, but Luke’s gospel makes special note of how attractive Jesus’ movement was to women, who were in their strictly patriarchal society born ragamuffins. (Maybe Manning’s inclusion of “all who labor” covers them.) I can see why Jesus would want to spend a lot of time with people hungry for what he was dishing up: forgiveness, healing, acceptance, love, love and more love.
It probably frustrated Jesus to spend time with people who were equally fallible but didn’t see themselves that way. The self-contained, self-aggrandizing, self-assured can be practically immune to grace. There’s a little story about a public sinner who was excommunicated and forbidden entry into the church. He took his woes to God, “They won’t let me in, Lord, because I am a sinner. “What are you complaining about?” said God. “They won’t let me in either.” Jesus had good news to give but those who saw themselves as practically perfect in every way didn’t necessarily want it. If I were a physician, I think I would rather treat someone who knows they are ill than someone who is in denial; wouldn’t you? But you see that Jesus has subtly included even the supercilious Simon in his story of grace—the creditor in his teaching story canceled the debts for both the one who owed five hundred and the one who owed fifty. The debtors are on equal footing, even though one debtor will likely feel more thankful and more inclined to love the one who canceled the debt more than the other debtor.
The ragamuffins have the advantage; the humble are exalted by really feeling the balm of forgiveness and the healing power of love. I’m not sure that’s what the gospel promise that the humble will be exalted meant, but the intense feeling of gratitude and love that the sinful woman felt for Jesus must have been a feeling of exaltation after feeling so low for so long. Her remembrance of forgiveness for sin became a crack in her life where the light got in. I’ve been humming the refrain from Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem” all week as I’ve ruminated on this text. “Ring the bells that still can ring /Forget your perfect offering/ There is a crack, a crack in everything/ That’s where the light gets in.” There is a crack in everything, in everyone; none of us are perfect. The difficulty for those who haven’t experienced their brokenness as completely as others is to let the light get in through what they perceive to be only hairline cracks in their perfection. But even we may be bathed in the light of grace, as we own up to our brokenness, our need for the grace of forgiveness. And maybe as we humble ourselves and own our fractured rightness we can not only receive grace more fully but become more fulsome channels of grace for other sinners of our impeccable ilk.
The grace of God can shimmy in through the smallest crack in our righteous façade, isn’t that good news? Listen to these assuring words from the Hindu poet Kabir, part of his poem “The Guest is Inside”:
The Guest is inside you, and also inside me;
you know the sprout is hidden inside the seed.
We are all struggling; none of us has gone far.
Let your arrogance go, and look around inside.
The blue sky opens out further and farther,
the daily sense of failure goes away,
the damage I have done to myself fades,
a million suns come forward with light,
when I sit firmly in that world.
I hear bells ringing that no one has shaken,
inside ‘love’ there is more joy than we know of,
rain pours down, although the sky is clear of clouds,
there are whole rivers of light.
The universe is shot through in all parts by a single sort of love.
Beloved, especially all you who like me, totally enjoy being right all the time, we all stand in the need of prayer, stand in the need of grace. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything, and that’s how the light gets in.
 Perrin, Norman The New Testament: An Introduction New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1974, p. 170
 Yeats, William Butler “Ribh Considers Christian Love Insufficient” (excerpt)
 Manning, Brennan The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat-Up, and Burnt Out Portland: Multnomah, 1990, p. 49
 Ibid Manning p. 27
Rev. Dee Eisenhauer
Eagle Harbor Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
Bainbridge Island, Washington