Try — June 12, 2016

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A Sermon preached by the Reverend Peter ThompsonPeter
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
June 12, 2016

2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15; Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:36-8:3

Let us pray.

Take our lives and let them be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take our moments and our days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise. Amen.

Well, it’s finally June, and the Rector has been on vacation for a week and a half now, so I thought it might be a good time to catch up on one of my favorite pastimes: watching movies. In that spirit, on Monday night, I met a friend from New Haven at Garden Cinemas to see a new documentary about a guy named Anthony Weiner. Anthony Weiner was the ironically named former Congressman from New York who resigned from Congress because of a scandal and then tried to run for mayor of New York City, before being defeated because of yet another scandal. There were good reasons to look forward to the movie: it had excellent reviews and, in telling the story of an ambitious politician’s dramatic and embarrassing fall from grace, offered a fabulous opportunity to experience a schadenfreude of the finest variety. And it certainly didn’t disappoint. I emerged from the theater utterly astounded that someone could be so reckless as to engage in the behaviors he engaged in while a prominent public official, and so stupid to permit his downfall to be chronicled by cameras that would allow everyone to watch it.

But then I drove home and, still fascinated by the entirety of the saga, turned to my old friend Google to read some articles about Anthony Weiner and experience his delicious shame again and again. One of the articles I read was written by a former campaign staffer named Jessica Provenz. Provenz seemed to be a fairly innocent player in the whole circus, someone who agreed to help Weiner as he sought to come back from the first scandal, unaware that there was another scandal yet to come. However, a rumor eventually circulated that Provenz and Weiner were having an affair, a rumor Provenz said was false. It was only once she had to face this potential scandal, Provenz wrote, that she really understood what her boss “had been through. He made a huge lapse of judgment,” she explained, but did something that she estimated that “like half of Americans” do. “I’ve done it,” Provenz continued, “and I’d be hard-pressed to find a person who’s single today who hasn’t. And so many Americans actually cheat on their spouses, something, to the best of my knowledge, Anthony never did. I realized how hypocritical we all were to make a mockery of his biggest mistake. Didn’t many of us behave just as badly or worse?”

Provenz’s question was still ringing through my ears when I began to explore the Gospel passage for this morning. Here in the seventh chapter of Luke we encounter another person who was thought to be sinful by others, perhaps even because of her own sexual activity. And Jesus seems little troubled by her. If anything, Jesus seems far more perturbed by her critics, feeling compelled to confront the Pharisee named Simon who silently scorned the woman from afar. Simon, Jesus points out, did not offer Jesus the hospitality rituals that he would have been expected to, like washing Jesus’ feet, giving Jesus a kiss, or anointing Jesus with oil. But the supposedly sinful woman, in her own way, accomplishes those things: kissing Jesus’ feet, washing them with her tears and hair, and anointing them with the oil she brought. Her sins, whatever they are, appear not to matter very much to Jesus at all. It is the way she interacts with Jesus—by humbly showing respect, gratitude and contrition—that Jesus believes is most important.

In the Hebrew Bible reading we heard today from the second book of Samuel, we meet a very different kind of sinner. This sinner, like Anthony Weiner, is a famous and even notorious political leader, but, unlike Anthony Weiner, this sinner is accused of far more than just sexual impropriety. This sinner, named David, is thought to have killed a man simply so that he could have that man’s wife for his own—breaking commandment upon commandment in the laws he had all his life purported to follow. And, perhaps even worse, this man seems to have no comprehension of the evil he has done. So God sends the prophet Nathan to David to knock some sense into him. Nathan tells a thinly veiled version of what David did in parable form to attempt to send David a message, and David in response declares that “the man who has done this deserves to die.” Until Nathan tells him, David appears to have no awareness at all that “the man who has done this” is none other than David himself.

The major difference between the two sinners we have heard about this morning, I would argue, is that one knew she was a sinner and the other did not. The woman who kneels at Jesus’ feet boldly and almost theatrically claims her sin and tries everything she can to earn Jesus’ admiration and forgiveness. David, meanwhile, wanders aimlessly in a moral desert, failing to recognize his wrongdoing even when someone else had to die because of it. The great scandal of these stories is not as much sin as it is lack of self-awareness. Jesus rebukes not the woman who washes his feet with tears, but Simon, who arrogantly supposes he has the right to judge another, while David fails to recognize his sin until confronted and challenged. The message these stories seem to tell is not that we must avoid sin whatever the cost, but that we are all inevitably sinners, and that salvation resides in being aware of our sin, admitting it, and making amends.

On Tuesday, the day after I saw the documentary about Anthony Weiner, I decided to continue my week of movie-watching with Zootopia, a new Disney movie which was just made available online this week. Zootopia imagines animals from many different species living together in one bustling and diverse city and struggling with the conflicts and prejudice that can arise from such a climate. (And we only need to glance at the news this morning to see just how disastrous the consequences of prejudice and conflict in a diverse city can be.) At the beginning of the movie, the trajectory of the plot seems rather obvious and viewers could reasonably assume that they know who will be the good guys and who will be the bad guys. But as the movie progresses, it becomes clear that everyone is implicated in the prejudice that affects society, and that no one is perfect and faultless.

The movie ends with the main character, a rabbit named Judy Hopps, providing this reflection: “I thought this city would be a perfect place where everyone got along and anyone could be anything,” she says. “Turns out, life’s a little bit more complicated than a slogan on a bumper sticker. Real life is messy. We all have limitations. We all make mistakes. Which means, hey, glass half full, we all have a lot in common. And the more we try to understand one another, the more exceptional each of us will be. But we have to try. So no matter what kind of animal you are, I implore you: Try. Try to make the world a better place. Look inside yourself and recognize that change starts with you.”

And just as Judy, by imparting her own experiences with mistakes and limitations and problems, implores those who view her story to try, so do I believe God tells us the stories of God’s people through all generations to implore all of us who follow God to try. God does not ask perfection from us; God does not expect us never to make mistakes. But God does call us to reach beyond our mistakes in order to address our wrongdoings and build bridges with others. This morning, whatever your foibles and failures, I encourage you to have hope. The worst you have done does not define you; there is no sin that God in God’s infinite mercy cannot forgive, no wound that God in God’s unshakeable power cannot heal. So–trudge on, through the tears and despair. Stop and pay reverence to holiness, wherever you can find it. Look towards the future, and claim the place that is waiting for you there. Be generous with others. Know that change begins with you. And try. Perhaps in time God will proclaim to you too, as he once proclaimed to the woman at his feet, “your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

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