They are surprised she came to dinner.
They are surprised she anointed his feet.
They are surprised he forgave her sins.
They are surprised by just about everything.
Surprised because they live in a society
where it was possible, lawful even,
to exclude someone
based on their past;
their identity;
their pedigree.
Surprised because they know a world
where you pay for what you get.
Surprised because they practice a way
that while it may be technically right,
is not humanly right.

Surprised because
God in Christ Jesus,
shows them a different way.
That's what is meant by their question:
"who is this one who even forgives sins."
A different way that is about God acting for people.
God's mercy.
God's generosity.
God's grace.
God's profound love.
God who will even lay down life.
For friends.
For enemies.
To make clear that all people are all God's children.

We gather this evening
in the shadow of many who have laid down their lives.
Whose lives were senselessly, heinously taken from them.
The details will emerge over the course of the next few days.
Sure to be gruesome.
Sure to be unpalatable.
Sure to urge us to mourn with family and friends of these fifty.
Fifty who, like this woman,
found themselves with others at a feast.
Gathered with friends for a delightful evening.
Retreated to what is to be a safe haven in the midst of a society
unkind to LGBTQ people.
Unkind to Latinos and so many others.
Unkind to anyone
who does not adhere to
the narrowest of views
of what it means to be human
and created in the image of God.

I cringe to think how the so-called Christian right
will respond to these deaths.
I am loath to think about the rhetoric that will be employed
about sexuality and guns and race and ethnicity.
I'm distraught that a distorted interpretation of religion will be smeared on many who practice it rightly.
All of which will fan hot fires.
Lead to greater mis-trust.
Divide the human family further.
And instill even more fear and suspicion
among people who make up this land.

God in Christ Jesus urges us to respond differently.
Because, you see,
God in Christ Jesus knows full well the end,
the result,
the horror of those ways of thinking,
and acting,
and speaking,
and living.
God in Christ Jesus endured those very ways.
On the cross.
Despised for showing mercy to those
whom society had labeled sinners.
Killed for advocating for the poor and disenfranchised.
Executed for raising up against the establishment.
God in Christ Jesus knows full well,
the danger and the futility of our
ways of dealing with one another,
ways of dividing one another,
and on the cross establishes and urges us to a different way.

The question, dear friends,
is will we finally open ourselves to that different way.
The way of generosity.
And mercy.
And compassion.
Will we come not simply
to keep the commandment to not kill or demean one another,
but live by honoring our neighbor,
speaking well even of those who are different from us
— even our enemies.

I believe that in the face of horrible tragedies such as these.
Tragedies in Orlando.
Horror stories from Stanford.
Unspeakable brutality from Staten Island,
to Baltimore to Cleveland.
I believe God is showing us,
but the power of the Holy Spirit,
a different way.
The question is,
will we,
will we as a society receive it and live it.

I don't know about society.
But I do know about you.
You and the countless people who come to this place.
To praise and worship God.
Come to this place to participate
in the building up of God's reign of peace and love and justice.
In this place,
and in countless churches and synagogues and mosques,
and other houses of worship across this land.
We seek to follow God's more generous way,
more loving way,
more giving and forgiving way.
And we are in turn profound witnesses
to a society that is running amok.
On Ash Wednesday we,
with a billion or so of God's people world wide,
kneel and say these words:
"We have shut our ears to your call to serve as Christ served us.
We have not been true to the mind of Christ.
We have grieved your Holy Spirit."
While the world and our society —
and yes, even people who are called our sisters and brothers —
may not see that truth of that confession,
we do.
And our openness to following the Holy Spirit—
beginning with the acknowledgement that something is wrong—
will change us
and change our ways with one another
and change our world.
Because it is the will of God.

What we confess on Ash Wednesday,
what we do each time we gather together in this place is this:
We repent of our narrow ways.
And commit ourselves to Christ's more excellent way.
For we believe that we need not be afraid to admit
the error of our ways,
and how we've all contributed to a society
beleaguered by hype and captive to death.
We're not afraid to admit it,
because we know that death leads to life.
By God's great love,
even the cross leads to an empty tomb.
Sin leads to repentance.
Ways of hurting one another gives way to honoring one another.
And a society that values all such lives.

Those who gathered with Jesus on that night
and at that table
were surprised by that new way.
But we need not be.
Tonight, we remember those who gave their lives,
whose lives were taken.
We remember them in prayer.
And we also seek to honor them
by following the leading of the Holy Spirit.
Who is building a new way among us.
If Jesus says to the woman,
"Your faith has saved you; go in peace."
how much more,
those of us who are, as the psalmist says, true of heart—
how much more will not simply be saved,
but will see
our places of worship, and our communities, our nation,
the human family
living and thriving
in peace, justice, pride and joy.

Jared R. Stahler
Saint Peter's Church
In the City of New York

June 12, 2016 - Jazz Vespers

Psalm 32
Galatians 2:15-21
Saint Luke 7:36—8:3