Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Nothing Secret

Living in the Secret City, we know just how important keeping secrets can be, especially as the fate of the Western World once rested on the ability of the women and men of Los Alamos to keep the secrets of the Manhattan Project sealed behind tightly shut lips.  As they used to say, “loose lips sink ships.” Even today, secrets remain behind the fence of the Lab, and for good reason.  Having lived here now a year, I’ve learned to stop asking questions once someone tells me they work at the Lab.  The awkward silence of a Lab employee avoiding the question, “What exactly do you do” has become almost unbearable.  In my life as a priest, I’m entrusted with secrets…secrets that parishioners don’t want public, issues they are struggling with, or circumstances that might be embarrassing or shameful.  In fact, if I were to hear a parishioner’s confession and then break the seal by revealing some secret confidence, I could be stripped of my priesthood and prosecuted in civil court.  So I know a thing or two about the importance of keeping secrets.

But there are other kinds of secrets…secrets that ought to be revealed in the light…secrets that, when kept hidden, feed on us like the worst kind of parasite. “Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sin is put away! Happy are they to whom the Lord imputes no guilt, and in whose spirit there is no guile! While I held my tongue, my bones withered away, because of my groaning all day long. For your hand was heavy upon me day and night; my moisture was dried up as in the heat of summer.” In these words of poetic beauty, the Psalmist gives voice to a universally human experience…that there is a certain kind of liberation, happiness even, for those who experience forgiveness, something that necessarily requires our vulnerability in the face of our own wrongdoing.  But if we keep those very same wrongs hidden, if we fear the kind of vulnerability that comes with confession, what we experience is something like the wasting away of our bones, the rivers of our happiness being dried away as in a drought during the heat of summer.  Secrets, or to use a more religious word, sins…the sins that we harbor due to fear, or pride, or shame…those things eat us from within, snatch away our spiritual vitality, and rob us of our joy.  Rather than reveling in the freedom of forgiveness, we wither away on account of our own groaning…wither away from the weight of carrying a burden we refuse to confess.  Like the Greek myth of Sisyphus, a king condemned for all eternity to push a boulder up a mountain only to have it roll back to the bottom in a repeating cycle of ineffectiveness, those things that we carry in our hearts as we attempt to hide our own brokenness are like boulders that will never be rolled away…they will always block us from receiving the gracious liberation of the Lord who is slow to anger yet quick to forgive.

And the contrast between, on the one hand, harboring secrets and, on the other, vulnerably seeking forgiveness is seen so clearly in the lives of King David and the Woman who anointed Jesus. Though King David was indeed a ‘man after God’s own heart,’ his own lustful appetite led him to a path of covetousness, adultery, and murder.  When he found out that Bathsheba was pregnant with his child, he chose not to own up to his mistakes by seeking forgiveness from her husband, Uriah.  Instead, he positioned Uriah on the battlefield with the full knowledge he would be killed.  And even though David took Bathsheba for his wife once Uriah was killed, he still kept those secrets locked tightly in his own heart.  He had all the opportunity in the world to own his mistakes, to admit to his own wrongdoing.  Instead, the secret only came to light through the prophetic intervention of Nathan, whose figurative story about a thief crescendoed into that wonderful line, “You are the man!” David had all the reason in the world to seek the forgiveness of the Lord, yet he reveled in his own power as king, and harbored his wrongdoing in his heart.  Only when confronted did David confess his wrongdoing, and it resulted not in celebrating his forgiveness, but by enduring the consequences of his actions.  For as Nathan said, “Therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife."

But the situation plays out so very differently for the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet.  She has no name, no prominent place in the annals of biblical history, and clearly her reputation as a sinner was known throughout town.  Yet she, unlike David, offers us such a beautiful image of vulnerable humility: “And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him-- that she is a sinner.” Whatever sins she committed, whatever secrets she harbored in her heart, whatever it was she was repenting of…those things ultimately mattered so very little because she freely chose to humble herself, opening herself up to ridicule by the pious men in that room, even breaking social norms by touching a man.  There was nothing that was going to stop this woman from risking all that she had to seek the forgiveness of the Lord.

And in stark contrast to the words of the prophet Nathan, Jesus’ offers this woman something truly extraordinary: Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 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." Then he said to her, "Your sins are forgiven."

Your sins are forgiven. Such sweet words from our Lord, words which lift our burdens and plant us in a field of grace and mercy. But we only hear those words when we trust the grace of the Lord enough to open ourselves up in acts of vulnerable confession. Whether it's from a place of fear, or shame, or pride…whatever it is that keeps us from admitting our own brokenness…we are given an opportunity to stare deeply into ourselves and discover those corners of our souls that need a little light to shine onto them…the places we hesitate to reveal…the aspects of ourselves we don't want to admit really and truly dwell within. We are given the opportunity to unreservedly open ourselves up to God and one another and say, “I need your grace.” We are given the opportunity to choose either David as our model, whose secrets ultimately wreaked havoc in his life, or the woman who feared nothing in her quest for redemption and mercy. She reached out in faith and touched what she desired: mercy, forgiveness, love, and new life.

“He has placed before you fire and water,” says the writer of Ecclesiasticus. “Stretch out your hand for whichever you choose. Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given.” May we be a people who choose wisely, always returning to the Lord in humility, knowing that nothing can separate us from the love of God, for mercy is waiting for us…always waiting for us to stretch out our hands in faith and receive the grace and forgiveness of the Lord.

*A sermon preached on the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 6 Year C, at Trinity on the Hill Episcopal Church in Los Alamos, NM.  The texts were 2 Samuel 11:26-12:10,13-15, Galatians 2:15-21, and Luke 7:36-8:3.

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