By Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
So did you notice what Jesus was doing? Again? Eating. Always eating. And always eating with the wrong people. And this time not only is he eating with the wrong people, he brings the wrong people to the house of the other wrong people.
In our gospel text today Jesus accepts the invitation to the house of a Pharisee, a member of an ancient Jewish sect, distinguished by strict observance of the traditional and written law, and commonly held to have pretensions to superior sanctity. Going to dinner there would certainly be considered dining with “the wrong people” according to some of his rag-tag followers. But Jesus is classically indiscriminate. And of course he doesn’t stop there. Not only is he going to the home of this Pharisee, he’s also breaking all the rules at the home he’s going to. With Jesus comes the people who are with him and following him. If you invite Jesus over for dinner, he’ll probably bring his friends. And in this case, a woman in the city, who was a sinner. We don’t know who this woman is—she’s not given a name—though the writer of the text identifies her and points out that she is a known sinner.
What it meant in that context to be “a sinner” has a variety of possibilities, but what’s clear is that it was a culturally bound part of her identity at this point, it’s how people refer to her, how she is known in the community. This woman, a sinner, finds out that Jesus is there and comes into the house, bringing an alabaster jar of ointment. She stands behind him, at his feet, weeping, and begins to bathe his feet with her tears and dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.
Now Jesus’ host comes in, the Pharisee. Remember, this is a man who distinguishes himself by strict observance of the traditional and written law, and commonly has pretensions to superior sanctity. This man, the Pharisee, says, “If this man were really a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” If this guy is really a rabbi, a faithful teacher, a prophet, he would never go against the moral and religious codes, He wouldn’t be allowing a woman, especially one who is a known “sinner” be in the same room with him, let alone touch his feet and anoint him. If this man is actually a faithful person of God, he would never allow himself to interact with someone who was so clearly out of the order of everything that defines the religious and acceptable.
At this point I picture Jesus looking at him, looking him deeply in the eyes, maybe shaking his head just a bit, and addressing him by name, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And Jesus goes on to tell a short little moralistic tale—A creditor had two people who owed—one owed five hundred denarii, the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. And then he asks this question:
“Now which of them will love him more?”
Simon answers, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.”
“You have judged rightly,” Jesus said.
Now we might stop there, just taking this as a simple moralistic tale, a bit of a smack down to this Pharisee, Jesus even somewhat accepting the premise that the Pharisee puts this woman, this “sinner” into, but calling for forgiveness. The creditor forgives both, the large debt and the small, indiscriminately. All are forgiven. But then comes the kicker, the forgiveness is sure and complete and available for all, it’s how we receive it, what we do with it, what our response is—that is where the great love comes in.
On Thursday evening a number of us gathered over at the pub for Theological Thursdays and discussed the inexhaustible topic of—God. We started with this premise—that God is Love. Not just in a cheery Sunday School way, but God is love as the source of all things in the Universe, God is love as the ground of all being, God is love as the creative force that breathed over the waters, the one who’s image we’re made in, the spirit and breath that sustains us each moment. If the essence of God is this kind of love, then the way of the Pharisee, the way of delineation, separation, and judgment, is not the way of God.
We wrestled deeply together, tracing theological threads and seeing how our view of God matters. How we see God matters. How we see God affects how we see ourselves, and how we see each other.
Emanuel Swedenborg wrote that, “Our image of God is like the first link in a chain, on which all our theology depends on.” –Emanuel Swedenborg, True Christianity
If we believe that God is all about judgment and who’s in and who’s out; if we believe that God is routinely angry with us, or that our worth in God’s eyes is based on an adherence to a specific religious or moral code or system; if we believe that God’s primary concern is dividing out who is “good” and who is “bad”, who is a “sinner” and who is “righteous,” then we see how we also look at the world and ourselves and other human beings around us in this context as well.
If I believe that God will only love and accept me based on my adherence to specific behaviors, then I will do whatever it takes to assure myself of this love. As humans, we like to make sure that we’re okay. A very human way to do this is to make sure that others aren’t. The Pharisee is a classic example; we do this and see this all the time. Articulating a moral code, a delineation of the value of a group of people, and then claiming it as the way of God. Putting rules and hierarchy and separation between people and God.
And then we see how violence is justified in the name of God, if a person is of a different religion, or skin color, or sexual orientation. If one’s concept of who God is reinforced with ideology and a culture that allows and extols violent acts on other humans, on other creations of God, and uses the name of God or a specific moral context in this justification, friends, this is deeply problematic—this is dangerous.
It is harmful and dangerous when we have an image of God that creates and reinforces the shame that we feel about the parts of ourselves that are vulnerable. It is harmful and dangerous when our own shame and insecurity then leads us to need to shore ourselves up by distinguishing ourselves from others and assuring ourselves of our right-ness by defining ourselves against others. It is harmful and dangerous when one can then begin to justify anger and violence against other people, specifically people that have become deemed “sinners” or outcasts, or the “other side.”
I had such a twisted pit in my stomach when I woke up this morning to the newsfeeds of another mass shooting, 50 people dead, in a nightclub in Orlando, and not any nightclub, but a gay nightclub, a place where those of various sexual orientation can go and find sanctuary, and safety, and community, and joy in a world that is struggling to see and embrace all people as sacred and valued.
I feel outrage and grief about the hatred, and, as my colleague Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis tweeted this morning, “Hatred with a gun in hand is a murderer.” We don’t all the intentions, and more details are coming forward. But what I do know is that hate was acted upon and people’s lives were lost. There are people grieving deeply today, because of hate. I want to be very very clear, that hate needs to be seen as what it is, and be alert and aware of how it can manifest in ourselves as well. So let’s just stop right now, and commit to standing with the way of love, no matter who or what ideology this is ascribed to.
What we do know today, is that hate and division and violence was acted upon last night and that far too many lives were ended and that far too many people are grieving today, and that fear is present for so many. And what we do know is that building on that fear, attaching our fear to any group of people, this is not the way of God, this is not the way that Jesus shows us, this is not how we need to be treating our human family. Let’s stand with our Muslims brothers and sisters and siblings—this will be incredibly important as this dialog continues to unfold. Let us stand with our LGBTQ friends and family and community members as yet another attack at personhood is being felt. Let us stand, in ourselves, in our communities in love, stand and face the fear.
Throughout the gospels we are encouraged towards a different way, to a way of peace, a way that rejects division and violence, a way of the Divine Love, and love between all creation, a love that is so much greater than any hate or division or hurt.
If God is the expansive force of love in the Universe, the very love and wisdom that comes into action and infills everything of creation, then Jesus, the Divine slipped into human skin, shows us this way of love. That the way of Divine Love is indiscriminate with who She eats with, the way of Divine Love breaks down all that human fear and shame and insecurity divides, the way of Divine Love forgives all without hesitation, and assures us of our belonging and worth by the very nature of being created out of this love.
When the woman, the known “sinner” in the community encountered Jesus, she encountered a return to herself, to her creator, to the wholeness that she was created in. Having become defined to the community, and likely even to herself, as this worthless “sinner” her return to wholeness, to being beloved, was monumental. This was not just an ideological or theoretical change for her, this forgiveness that she received and embraced from Jesus changed everything for her. No longer the outcast, the other, the shamed and shameful, she with grateful confidence walked straight into the house of that uptight, rule-based Pharisee and shamelessly expresses her gratitude for healing, for forgiveness, for love. She pours out her appreciation, and even in her expressions she’s returned to community, returned to wholeness.
She entered the house with the community, touched this teacher, this prophet, anointed him with oil, washed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. She knows the depth of the pain and anguish that comes when we are separated from God, separated from each other, separated from the deep knowing of our whole selves. She knows shame—shame from her choices and actions, shame from what others have placed upon her, shame from living on the edges of society.
“Therefore, 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.”
She knows what a big deal it is to receive and believe this deep and foundational love of the Divine, and her response is indicative of it. She pours out love. In response to deep love, she loves; in response to complete forgiveness, she loves; in response to a new start, she loves. “Go in peace” Jesus tells her.
Dear ones, this message of deep love, this challenge to forgive and be forgiven to our wholeness in our creator, this challenge is as crucial and imperative today as it was in our gospel text. Our personal work of spiritual growth and being healed and restored to our belonging to God and our belonging to each other is the work of healing the world. As we receive and deeply integrate the love and wholeness we are created in and for, we find our response is love—love to God and love to our neighbor. All our neighbors. Especially those that society has shamed and pushed to the edges. And when we receive that affirmation, that assurance of God’s expansive and unconditional love, when we clear out what separates and divides and accept that which is of God, we are changed. And we love. It’s not about the shame anymore or the suffering or as the poet Mary Oliver so powerfully said, “walk(ing) on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.” When we embrace and receive this expansive love of God, we are changed, we are forgiven, and we respond to others in love.
And each time we respond in love, there is healing. There is healing each time we see other human beings and respond with love, truly believing that they too belong to God and that we belong to each other, each time that we choose compassion over violence, forgiveness over hate, each time we stand with those who are being separated and pushed to the edges in our community, each time we speak with the power of love in the face of hate, each time we let “the soft animal nature of our bodies love what it loves.” As we grieve together, as “I tell you my despair and you tell me yours.” There is healing as we lament and cry out for a world where hatred and fear and violence cease to dominate, all of this. All of this in the name of love.
And dear ones, I believe, not just in my head, but to the very core of my being, deep in that place where my very hope and purpose to keep getting up, to showing up, depends on it, that God is love. That the Divine force of Love that is the very essence of the universe is holding us, holding all of it, and is always reaching out, loving, forgiving, healing and calling us forward in the way of love. Divine Love is reminding us that we are not alone, that we belong to God, we belong to each other. No matter the harshness of the moment, the Spirit, like those wild geese, is calling out, over and over, announcing our place in the family of things.
Go in peace friends; go in love.