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Be Ye Doers of the Word and Not Hearers Only

Pentecost 3 – Year C

One morning during our Oregon years a truck from a local furniture store pulled up in front of the rectory. Since we hadn’t ordered anything, I assumed it had simply stopped at the wrong house and was actually headed for one of the other clergy on the block. (In that town three of the churches had parsonages on that same street. It was known by the locals as “Hallelujah Row”!) But the driver got out and began unloading several quite handsome pieces of living room furniture. I insisted there must be some mistake, but the driver handed me the paper work; and suddenly it all became clear. The furniture was delivered as a gift from a woman named Jane. Jane wasn’t even a parishioner—in fact she was from another town—but for some reason she had come to me over a period of time to talk about a very painful marital situation with her doctor husband. Her attempt to give us the furniture was a touching, if bizarre, expression of her love in return.
Even as we salivated longingly over those beautiful pieces, we sent it all back, and I tried to explain to Jane that we couldn’t accept it even though we appreciated her thoughtfulness. Accepting it would have sent the wrong message; she was a deeply troubled individual, as was her husband. My point in mentioning it this morning is that Jane’s bizarre expression of love came to mind as I pondered today’s gospel reading about the woman’s bizarre expression of love toward Jesus at the home of Simon the Pharisee. Different as the two incidents were, we see in each of them a profound truth about love: It is in the very nature of love to be extravagant—even to the point of being bizarre.
The woman who kissed and bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears, and wiped them with her hair, and anointed them with that very expensive ointment, had been healed and forgiven. She had come to Jesus pro-foundly grateful for the extravagance of his love and overflowing with her own love in return. She was either unaware of, or utterly indifferent to, the fact that for a Jewish woman to appear in public with her hair let down like that was considered shamefully immodest. All that mattered to her now was being herself, her new self, the self that love had created. She wept with joy; she caressed Jesus’ feet with her hair; she poured her precious ointment upon him with abandon.
Simon the Pharisee just didn’t get it. The woman was a sinner, and that was that. Her appearance and her behavior were beyond the pale, and that was that. Simon lived by the law. He was boxed in by it; he was trapped by it. Spontaneous expressions of love were simply out of bounds, especially coming from a sinner like this woman. In fact, the whole realm of sin and forgiveness was utterly foreign to him. He was totally unaware of any need of his own for forgiveness or healing, and the very idea that this wretched woman could become a righteous per-son like himself was, frankly, bizarre. Even Jesus’ little parable about the two debtors being forgiven their debts seemed lost on him.
Unless you and I, unlike Simon the Pharisee, can somehow compre-hend the extravagance of love, and are willing to be moved by it, and to receive it and express it like the woman in today’s gospel, then we’re missing out on the greatest gift God holds in store for us. But our pride gets so in the way. It takes humility. We need to be willing to break out of our rigid boxes of pride, or correctness, or complacency, or most especially the fear of being vulnerable. I’ve spent a lifetime, frankly, breaking out of my own box. I grew up afraid of being vulnerable! I got good marks in school not because I loved learning then but because I was afraid not to. I was a good little boy and looked down on others who weren’t. In my uptight world, appearances were everything!
To this day, I remember an embarrassing little encounter with a girl about my age, named Ann, who lived at the other end of the sixth floor in the building where I grew up. I thought Ann was strange, and I did everything I could to avoid her. One day, on my way out, just as I reached the elevator doors, she emerged from her apartment and walked up the hall toward me. I kept my head down and prayed that the elevator would get there first so I could jump on and escape. It didn’t, and I was trapped. Ann marched right up to me and said sweetly, “Well, Douglas, Hello!” I felt so ashamed; but it was so good for me! I needed that! I’ve had so many intrusions into my boxed-in soul down the years that I’ve become more and more able to let God get at me with that extravagant love he so yearns to shower upon everyone of us.
And the wonderful thing is that it all multiplies! Love calls forth love, just as Jesus’ forgiveness of that woman evoked the bizarre response of love so vividly described in today’s gospel. The power of love is abso-lutely awesome. The other evening Joannie and I watched the movie “Invictus” which tells the story of President Nelson Mandela, who had endured twenty-seven years in a South African prison for daring to challenge the brutality of apartheid in that racist land. It’s a land much in the news today because of the Soccer World Cup being held in Preto-ria. The movie centers on an earlier World Cup, the Rugby tournament of 1995 and the South African team’s preparation for it. Rugby had al-ways embodied the evils and atrocities of white supremacy in South Africa, but Mandela seized upon that very sport to break through the barriers of hate and suspicion and bring about an incredible spirit of re-conciliation. Matt Damon plays the part of the team’s captain, and you see him transformed by the extravagant love which Mandela, played by Morgan Freeman, pours upon him, and his team, and his country.
Morale and confidence were so low that any chance of winning the World Cup seemed remote at best. Even more remote was any incentive among black people to support the team. But Mandela’s persistent kindness toward black and white, and his all-out campaign to rally the country behind the players and the slogan “One team, One Country,” carried the day. The climax of the film is the team’s spectacular victory over New Zealand for the World Cup on June 24, 1995, before a unified nation and a captivated world. The bestselling book by John Carlin, on which the movie is based, closes with a quote from Archbishop Desmond Tutu who, when asked what the lasting value of that day would be, replied, “It’s simple. A friend in New York gave the answer when he said to me, ‘You know what? The great thing about everything good that has happened is that it can happen again.’ Simple as that.”
“It can happen again”—that’s what I want you to take home with you this morning! It happens all the time! It can happen to you in your life right now! The life-changing, transforming, reconciling love of God, poured out through Jesus to a sinner, as in today’s gospel, or to a whole nation through a courageous, forgiving victim of atrocity like Nelson Mandela, or even through little glimpses of grace in an anguished indi-vidual like my friend Jane, or in my childhood comeuppance from dear, loving Ann—that extravagant, sometimes bizarre, love of God happens again and again. Watch for it! Let yourself be moved by it! That extravagant love is what God yearns for you to receive–with humility and thanksgiving—and to pour out to others in our troubled world.

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