Pentecost III, Year C June 15, 2013
Episcopal Church of the Ascension The Reverend Dr. Howard J. Hess
Reconciliation: The Next Right Step
I. Introduction. Reconciliation. At the very heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the quest for reconciliation. I believe that this is so because at the very core of our being is an undeniable need to be one with God and with his Son, and through the dynamic energy of the Holy Spirit, one with one another. But the quest for reconciliation is no simple process. It is filled twists and turns, unexpected bumps, losses, and re-unions, triumphs, and scars. And in the midst of it all there is the inexplicable person Jesus Christ. As clearly evidenced in today’s Gospel, when Jesus shows up, we are likely to be surprised, challenged, and changed. This morning I encourage us to focus upon the truth that each of us is on a spiritual journey, needing to discern and take “the next right step” on the path to reconciliation. The concept of “the next right step” is one I have learned from one of my spiritual directors. It is, for me, a very helpful way to focus on the present – the here and now – in our discernment in our spiritual journeys. We will come back to this in a few minutes.
II. We can see this invitation to discern and take the next right step spiritually in this morning’s Gospel. There is a “next right step” for the un-named woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her hair and her tears; there is the next right step for Simon the Pharisee; and there is the next right step for the bystanders at the dinner. I find it so striking that Christ is able to engage at the same time with each one of us in so many different ways. He was able to enter into a powerful encounter of affection and forgiveness with the un-named woman, while at the same time simultaneously using that encounter to teach and challenge Simon. Moreover, all of those present were exposed to a lesson about reconciliation and judgment if they had eyes to see and ears to hear.
At first glance, we may see this story as an affirmation of the woman and a rebuke of Simon. On one level, this interpretation is correct. But on a deeper level, what Jesus was offering both of them was the spiritual experience they needed at that moment. The un-named woman was unreservedly expressing her love for Jesus, and he both accepted her gift of washing his feet and assured her of forgiveness for her sins. Jesus discerned that deep within this woman, her act of kindness was an expression of repentance. Her need for an encounter with Jesus was clearly part of her spiritual redemption.
He did the very same thing with Simon, a man impressed by his own importance and prone to judge her and others as less worthy than he was. With Simon, Jesus intervened by telling him a parable about forgiveness and reversal. Who would be more grateful when a debt was forgiven? One who owed 50 denari or 500 denari? The point Jesus was making to Simon was inescapable – you need to assess your hardness of heart and see the power of this woman’s repentance and resurrection experience. You, Simon, can learn the spiritual lesson you need to grasp from her. Once again, Jesus was turning the spiritual table upside down – a great reversal. That which is high will be brought low and that which is lowly will be lifted up. Both of Jesus’ encounters in this Gospel were equally loving and equally based upon what the person with whom Jesus interacted needed.
III. Isn’t that always the question? What is it that we need to hear from Jesus Christ this morning and what is the next right step in our spiritual journey toward greater reconciliation with God and others? As I pondered that question for myself in writing this sermon, I was reminded of some lessons that my own father worked to teach me. You might find this hard to believe, but as a child I moved very quickly. In fact so quickly, that I often moved before I thought and ran into things, like radiators and brick walls. I didn’t leave myself enough room to stop, or to turn before impact. My father saw that and tried to teach me the wisdom of thinking before I acted and of slowing down before I made a decision. The spiritual aspect of this learning was critical. Sometimes one needs to wait for guidance and clarity before taking a step. Sometimes it is best to let the right time for an action to reveal itself before moving forward. What I remember about my father’s attempts to teach me this lesson, before his early death at the age of 50, is how gentle, yet persistent he was in working with me. This is one of the gifts that many fathers are given – the gift to discern what their child needs and the patience to teach consistently over time. One thing I would share with those of you who are fathers and grandfathers here this morning is how important it is to look for and savor the spiritual teachable moments with your children and grandchildren. And to remember that lessons taught at one time of life don’t always come to full fruition until years later.
Since my father first began to teach me lessons about patience and wise timing I have had many subsequent teachers. Each teacher has walked with me for a time, offering some new insights about myself and the world that have helped me discern next steps in my life. As is true for most, if not all of us, the need to repent and began again and to reconcile with those from whom I was estranged, have been themes. Sometimes I have eagerly embraced the lessons shared with me -- like the un-named woman in today’s Gospel embraced being forgiven. At other times I have resisted the lessons. Like Simon the Pharisee, I have sometimes thought I knew better than my spiritual guide and had already learned the lesson being offered.
But when I look back, I see that God has always sent me the teachers I needed at a particular time and place. They were part of a larger mosaic of spiritual learning and reconciliation that emerged from God’s wisdom, not my own. I have shared with you the long path toward reconciliation with my sister before her death in the late 1980’s. Recently, God provided me an unexpected second chance for reconciliation with my sister’s daughter, who has asked me to officiate at her wedding this August. The step of doing the next right thing in our spiritual lives is almost always taken without full assurance of the outcome. Surely, the un-named woman who washed Jesus’ feet could not have anticipated the way in which Jesus publicly affirmed her.
I firmly believe that each of us here this morning, whether or not we recognize and accept it, is simultaneously being sent teachers or spiritual guides and being sent as a spiritual teacher to others. For example, right now I am working with a spiritual director who is a valued teacher. She gently yet firmly keeps me on spiritual track; reminds me when I forget what I’ve learned, and encourages me to be open to the next step of my learning. Like all good teachers, she both challenges and affirms, but doesn’t try to control. And the irony is that the lesson she and I still often focus upon is one of the lessons my Dad worked to teach me – not to race impatiently through my life, but to be present in each moment and to think before I take a step. For example, to recognize that this moment here this morning, with all of us here together, is a profound, incalculable gift that will never occur exactly this same way again. Look around at who we are with and where we are. Let’s take it in, not rush off in our thinking to what will happen at lunch today, or at work tomorrow, or a worry we have about something next month, or even next year. Let us be fully present and open to the lessons of the here and now.
IV. Conclusion: I have a request of you this morning. During this time of reflection, please consider three questions: 1.) Who are the teachers and spiritual companions God is presently sending into your life? 2.) Are you open to their teaching as was the un-named woman, or are you, like Simon, resisting and arrogant? 3.) To whom is God sending you as a teacher and spiritual companion at this time? Inherent in my questions is the assumption that all of us are both being sent and receiving spiritual guides as a part of the Body of Christ. As you bring to mind those being sent to you as teachers and guides, explore whether you are open to what they have to offer you. Have you given them permission to share your path and revealed yourself to them? Are you open to being surprised about what they may have to offer you? And for those you are being given to teach, consider this: love and walk beside them, not ahead of them; be Christ to them and try not to control what you have to offer. Only love them.
We are on a wonderful spiritual journey. In spite of all the bumps and scars and our own desire to know the end of our story, God is not done with us yet. For that we can say, “Thanks be to God.” Amen.