The reading from Luke today is quite a meaty one. In the passage we are reminded about sin, forgiveness, hospitality and love. Three challenging themes on varying levels and for the past two weeks I’ve wondered how to approach them. Now forgiveness, hospitality and love are fairly easy to talk about but sin. Sin is one of those words we respond to like getting a paper cut, sucking air through our teeth in pain and shaking the sting out of our fingers. So today, I’m not going to major on sin but draw all the themes together.
To my surprise I found these themes of about sin, forgiveness, hospitality and love would soon become vividly real and alive before my eyes during my visit to east Germany as part of the diocese’s curate exchange program.
Now, don’t get me wrong, unlike the unnamed woman in the passage, I did not partake in any activities unbecoming a priest but the more I learned about East Germany from our Lutheran pastor colleagues, the more I learned about how sin, forgiveness, hospitality and love had sculpted their society. Some of you may remember the Lutheran Pastor Thomas and Michael visiting us last year and it was from Thomas that I learned more of what it’s like to pastor a community that is still recovering from the effects of the Second world war and the following aftermath of Germany being divided by the Berlin wall. For those of you trying to remember the wall was erected in 1961 and despite allowing people to cross the border in 1989, demolition began in 1990 until it was completely gone by 1992. The memories of this time still linger on both in mind and in physical reminders as their towns and villages are still scarred with GDR buildings and derelict houses bought cheaply by West Germans. The West Germans were given grants to restore the buildings but they never did and so the houses stand, decaying, with no one able to do anything about them.
As the week pressed on I discovered that the Germans and us share many similarities as well differences. The main differences are that they drive on the wrong side of the road and can’t make a good English cup of tea. I had to survive on coffee all week! However, they eat cheese a lot, as do I, so that made up a little bit for missing out on my daily consumption of tea. Oh, and the beer with what seemed like every meal, except breakfast, helped too.
The other differences were that their pastors have to care for many, many churches over a much wider area of their country. Some young pastors have about eight while others look after almost 10. The Pastor I stayed with, Thomas, had little or no help in his ministry despite caring for ten churches plus two nursing homes. In August this number will increase to 13. To give you some idea of the size of Thomas’s benefice, it takes him about 40 minutes to drive to one of his churches’. He did everything in the service; like playing the keyboard, reading the scripture, preaching and the prayers. This is simply because the congregations are so small that there just isn’t the people to help and support the church. In fact, there has been times when he has set up worship at a church only to realise that no-one else was turning up. Dwindling church numbers are something we share with the Lutheran church. However, the reasons for their decline are slightly different than ours. Going to church during the time of separation of east and west was dangerous. The authorities at the time required all citizens to spy upon each other in case their behaviour or attitude was not in line with the GDR, German Democratic Republic. Even having a faith was viewed as being mentally deficient and backward. Also worship services declined as the number of pastors declined. So, as Thomas told me, they have forgotten that they have forgotten to go to church.
This last bit, that they have forgotten that they have forgotten to go to church, sounds familiar doesn’t it?! There are so many in our communities that do not even think of going to church. The thought doesn’t even cross their minds. What can we do to reawaken their understanding of church?
The more I listened to the German people the more I realised they spoke using emotional language. Often I would hear them say things like My heart is affected or my heart was deeply moved. As I reflected on this I found Matthew 6 v21 come to mind which says “for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”. I realised that despite their history, despite all their suffering, despite their scars both psychological and physical, they still loved Christ and felt his love for them. Their friendliness and happiness at being able to easily welcome a British citizen into their villages was immeasurable especially when they considered such actions would have been impossible almost 30 years ago.
The German’s hospitality, their sense of love and compassion, showed a sense of the sin that had been committed by their ancestors and the forgiveness they now tried to realise. Like the unnamed woman in Luke who had sinned much had been much forgiven and much loved. For which she showed much gratitude.
Through her gratitude, she showed a level of hospitality above and beyond what was normally expected. Ironically, her actions, the actions of a sinner redeemed, put the Pharisee, a so-called righteous religious leader, to shame. As Jesus pointed out, the Pharisee invited him to dinner but showed him no care, no measure of hospitality as was the customary curtesy of the time. Despite the Pharisee’s commitment to live a sinless life, his heart remained unaffected by the very presence of the love of God sitting beside him. He was bound by purity laws which demanded that spiritual people do not associate with sinful people. Yet here was Jesus doing just that. In fact, as we read the scriptures Jesus always sought out those who were living sinful lives. Lives that cut them off from God. Not because God wanted to punish them but because Jesus wanted to stop them punishing themselves with their sins. Jesus brings the unconditional love of God by forgiving all who accept him as Lord of their lives and so bringing them into a new fullness of life. The woman’s great gratitude came from responding to the realisation of her acceptance by God. She loves much for she has been forgiven much. Compare that to the Pharisee who cares little, loves little, for he does not know this acceptance from God. He is forgiven little and so loves little.
Does this ring any bells? Do we try to make God forgive our sins by trying to be especially holy, doing many, many good works? Do we find that the bad things we do hurt us and prevent us from fully realising God’s acceptance of us? Or does the way we treat people, the hospitality we show others, betray how much we are forgiven and loved by God? Does our gratitude for God’s unconditional love overflow from us, pouring out into the world that has yet to know this love? Can we, like the East German people, freely give of ourselves despite our scars? Or are we still licking our own wounds.
Tough questions I know.
But the reality is, that hiding our state of human brokenness, our sins, from God can prevent us from feeling the amazing release of knowing His acceptance of all that we are. Of knowing deep in our hearts His forgiveness of everything in our past, present and future. But you know what, that’s the God we are dealing with! The one whom we have the privilege to wash His feet with our tears and lovingly anoint his head with our oil of gladness.
In obedience to the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, I proclaim to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins. Amen