Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, June 12 2016, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
1 Kgs 21:1-10,15-21a; Ps 5:1-8; Gal 2:15-21; Lk 7:36-8:3

I’m going to start, today, by looking at the Old Testament reading, and in particular at the figure of Jezebel. It’s a curious fact that the name Jezebel has come to indicate a woman who is a sexual temptress, leading men on with her wicked seductive wiles or something, because—as we have just heard — there is really absolutely nothing in the story to justify this. Queen Jezebel certainly does commit a number of outstanding offenses, beginning with fraud and leading on through land theft and political murder, but none of them have the slightest thing to do with sex, or with her being a woman at all—they are sins of power, the kind of sins that matter in Scripture. Oppression, theft, greed, violence against the vulnerable, these are the scriptural sins; it is the early modern church which acquired the strange idea that all serious sin is basically about sex, and more specifically, most of the time about bad sexy ladies.

I’m not making this point just to be a difficult feminist, although I do not deny that I am a difficult feminist. I’m pursuing this because I think a more accurate understanding of Jezebel and her crimes might lead us towards a slightly different, and perhaps more interesting, reading of the story of the woman who was a sinner.

For what Jezebel does here is, in fact, exactly what we as a settler society have done—and National Aboriginal Month is a time to call attention to this, but it is true every day in this country. Every one of us here who is not an Indigenous person is living on stolen land, land obtained by fraud and murder. And, importantly, fraud and murder which were encouraged and abetted by the church, by our church. I don’t say this to say that individuals are directly responsible. I realize that for most of you, the theft of the land took place generations before you yourselves came here. I realize, too, that the theft of the land was carried out by white Europeans, mostly British and French, and it is those of us from white European backgrounds who have reaped, and continue to reap, most of the benefits of our ancestor’s sins, while others have been marginalized in a variety of ways, directly or indirectly violent. So it is not simple, and it is not about individual guilt. But we must acknowledge that Canadian society as a whole is built precisely upon the sins of Jezebel, and that our church has been very deeply complicit in those sins. Like Ahab, we have let these things happen on our behalf and for our benefit, and we are only now, belatedly and in tiny steps, beginning to understand and repent.

And if we think about that, perhaps we can look at the Gospel story in a slightly different way. For many generations, readers of the story have assumed that this woman is a prostitute—again, there is no particular indication of this in the text, it is just this default assumption that there is really no other interesting way in which a woman can sin. We don’t know that she was; the text never says anything like that. We don’t even know if Jesus would have considered it a particularly serious sin, or one which required any extreme repentance; it’s not something he ever actually mentions. But it’s a comforting reading, really, for nearly every church congregation, because it distances her from us a bit, and lets us feel that bit superior, that bit condescending, lets us inwardly congratulate ourselves for being tolerant like Jesus of those who are “bad”, willing to be generous to the prostitutes even.

But try now to think of Jezebel, and of ourselves as the thieves of land and lives. Try to imagine that this woman is not a vulnerable outcast, but someone who has had power and has abused it, who has profitted from the sufferings of the poor. Perhaps only in small ways, in the ways of a little town in a poor country rather than in the ways of royal courts, perhaps indirectly through a father or a husband, but nevertheless complicit. Perhaps Simon shrinks from her not because he is a self-righteous prude, but because he knows the people she has hurt, or people like them. Imagine her as someone who has been comfortable on the proceeds of fraud, of theft, of the sufferings of others. Imagine her as the people some of us protest against, the oil executives, the apathetic wealthy, the exploiters. And think again about Simon, and whether we could find it in ourselves to welcome them into our homes.

But, of course, part of the problem is that Simon thinks he’s different, thinks he’s clean. And we are none of us clean, we are none of us so good. We have all done harm, or have inherited harm and failed to undo it. We have all looked away from the pain, sometimes. We have all done less than we might, we have all compromised for our own benefit. We have all been indifferent, preoccupied, we have all seen the victims of our society and failed to respond. Imagine that woman as us, with our small comforts won through injustice, our small indifferences to the victims, our small refusals to turn, to take responsibility for the damage and the loss. Imagine we are there, in the house of Simon, with our dirty hearts and hands, wanting to start again.

Because that is what this story tells us—that we can start again, that we must start again. The characters in the books of the Kings are without complexity or development, for the most part. The evil are simply evil, and are wholly so, and remain so. Elijah could only predict bloody doom for Ahab and Jezebel, and indeed took perhaps a bit too much pleasure in the lurid descriptions of this doom. And if that were all we had to look to, it would be a sad situation for us. The fire next time, the vengeance of God’s justice, cleansing and absolute. But down among the little people of Galilee, these people whose lives are not so greatly different from our own, there is complication and ambiguity, there are people like Simon and the unnamed woman who are both good and bad and most of all confused, there is forgiveness, there is turning, there is sorrow and change.

And so there is hope for us too, in all our ambiguities and failures. Forgiven already even before we bend, still we must bend, we must weep over the feet which will be wounded, remember those wounds out of time, be vulnerable, be honest, know who we are, but also know what we may become—and how.

The lectionary adds what might seem like an irrelevant tag at the end of the reading, about the women who followed Jesus. But as well as reminding us that women were very prominent and important indeed among Jesus’ continuing followers, it is precisely an example of the undramatic ongoing discipline which is the lived life of forgiveness, all those women doing probably quite dull things like selling cloth and bread in the markets to support the feckless apostles, walking from town to town, keeping track of the food supplies, making sure there was somewhere to stay the next night. The tradition of the Western church has identified the woman who was a sinner with Mary Magdalene, who is mentioned among those women. I don’t think there’s any reason to accept that identification—Luke quite clearly isn’t thinking of them as the same person, and there’s nothing in particular to link them at all. But the tradition still has a kind of wisdom, because by conflating those two, it calls attention precisely to follow up the dramatic moment of repentance with the long slog involved in doing the work of the kingdom.

Some of you may have seen the recording of Michael Peers’ 1993 apology, on behalf of the Anglican Church of Canada, for the residential schools. That was, for us, a bit like that woman throwing herself down at Jesus’ feet. It is a hugely powerful moment, a raw admission of sin and failure. And it was not even close to a conclusion of anything. It was the very first aching step which may have made a new beginning possible, and it must be followed years, probably with generations, of work to acknowledge the damage and to rebuild right relationship.

And so each of us, grieving and walking forward, acknowledging our own small and not so small offenses; we are all, Simon and the sinful woman and each one of us, called away from our selves to the work of remaking, rebuilding, renewing in our own gardens, to the long response of love.