Sermon 6/13/2010

June 13, 2010
Michael Coffey

Texts: Luke 7:36 – 8:3

Who are you going to be today?
Are you going to be the labels other people give you?
Are you going to be something from your past
you can’t quite let go of?

The woman in the Gospel story today
has been labeled “sinful woman”,
and the label has stuck.
It seems she can’t go anywhere
and everyone knows her by her label.
It isn’t explicit in the text,
but tradition has said that “sinful woman” means prostitute.
That seems likely.
It could also mean an adulteress,
or a woman whose sexual conduct falls outside the limits
of what was acceptable.
Whatever it was that gave her this identity,
she was known in the city as “sinner.”

What’s in a label? Plenty!
There is power in how we label people.
There is power in how we label ourselves.
If we start with the nature of the Gospel story,
we are reminded that there is power
in how we label others and ourselves
based on sexual history.
Some of our most powerful and controversial labels
come from sexuality and sexual history.
Gay, straight, prostitute, easy, virgin, damaged goods,
adulterer, abuser, victim.
Many people live with an enduring sense of shame, regret, or guilt
because of their experience and consequential label
based on their own sexual history.
It’s like an indelible mark has been left on them, on their bodies,
on their psyches, on their souls,
and nothing can get that label off.

We live with a whole host of other kinds of labels.
Class labels.
Race labels.
National labels.
Educational labels.
Professional labels.
Religious labels.
Whether we put them on others or on ourselves,
we often let them become our primary identity.
Whether we see them as positive or negative,
prideful or shameful,
we live and often die by our labels.

We had a columbarium at my previous church.
It is a beautiful, small chapel with a wall of slate
where church members could have their cremated remains
placed in an urn set behind the slate panels.
On the wall in front of each person’s place,
their name is engraved
with the dates of birth and death,
and with a cross.
Our policy and our space on the slate
did not allow for titles or honorifics.
No colonels or doctors or reverends.
One reason was for space,
but the other reason was for reminding us all
that we may have lived by certain labels,
but they do not determine who we are in this life,
and certainly not in the next.

I had one parishioner come in to talk about
purchasing a place in the columbarium for his future needs.
As we talked about how it all worked
and what the policies were,
he became very upset when he found out
we could not engrave his name as Dr. So and So.
It was the label he lived by most of his life,
and surely with great pride and significance for him.
And apparently it was the label he wanted to die with.
He left unable to make the decision,
and it took him over a year to work through the notion
that in death,
he was not going to be an esteemed doctor anymore.

Jesus had apparently encountered this woman before.
She obviously knew who he was, she came looking for him.
She obviously had already heard from him some word of forgiveness,
some act of acceptance,
some divine embrace of mercy and love that doesn’t fade.
She was moved to tears of gratitude
and so she came looking for him to show that gratitude,
maybe excessively,
maybe uncomfortably,
but she could not hold back.
To everyone else at the dinner table,
and especially the esteemed and well-labeled host Simon,
she was a sinful woman.
She should not be at this dinner,
maybe some other dinner table where her kind gathers, OK.
But not at this table fellowship: wrong label.
Simon the Pharisee even things to himself:
Don’t you know what kind of woman this is?
Don’t you know what her label is?

Jesus apparently doesn’t know, or doesn’t care.
He even puts himself in the uncomfortable position
of being touched, weeped upon,
and pleasured with this woman’s hair.
Every tear was contaminating Jesus with her sinfulness.
Every stroke of her hair was putting Jesus
in the company of this woman’s ilk,
and that couldn’t be good for Jesus’ reputation.
His own label was in question.

Jesus, don’t you know what kind of woman this is?
And the only answer can be: No.
No, Jesus doesn’t know what kind of woman this is,
he knows who she is.
And she isn’t a kind, or a label, or a type.
She is a woman.
She is a woman of grief and pain.
She is a woman of need and vulnerability.
And being full of the mercy and compassion of God,
Jesus does what God’s grace always does for people:
Jesus de-labels her,
and makes her a woman again,
just a woman, a whole person,
loved, accepted, claimed by God’s mercy.
Not a type, or a kind, or a label, or a category
to be rejected or praised,
just a woman.

Through forgiveness, grace, mercy,
divine encounter, unexpected acceptance,
we are all transformed from our labels
to our true selves:
Not the labels others have put on us
for our history, or mistakes,
or neighborhoods we come from,
or sexual identity that doesn’t fit in,
or our accomplishments, or salaries, or intellect.
Who are you going to be today
if not all the labels others put on you,
and you put on yourself?
Not the bad ones that limit and pain you,
not the good ones that lead you to pride and false trust.
Gathered as we are in the word of God’s great mercy in Christ,
can each of us dare to be just the woman you are,
only the man you are,
unencumbered by labels of the past,
unburdened by living up to titles and honorifics?
Who are you if you aren’t any of your labels
stuck on you out of other’s cruelty
or self-imposed by your own ego needs?

Jesus accepted a woman’s excessive display
of gratitude and love and joyful emotion
because this woman had perhaps come to know herself
for the first time,
as her true self,
small, naked, unadorned, without pretense or fear,
and loved completely by God.
And Jesus knew that this transforming encounter with God
and with our true selves as beloved of God
leads to such weeping, and gratitude, and letting go.

It is not easy work to get those labels off of you, you know.
How many products do you buy
that come with labels on them,
and when you go to take them off,
they are stuck on their like concrete?
So you scrape and scrape them off
but they leave behind this sticky residue,
And then that tacky spot attracts bits of dust and dirt,
and you still see where the label was.

After cursing all manufacturers and makers of labels,
you can then turn to the miracle product called Goo Gone.
I love this stuff.
I’m sure it’s made of some terrible petroleum distillates
that shouldn’t be touched or inhaled.
But when it comes to getting the label off,
and all the residue it leaves behind,
Goo Gone is wonderful.
Buy it now at your local supermarket for only $5.99

OK, I’m not really doing a commercial for Goo Gone.
But I am reminded that even when we think we have removed
past labels that hurt or limit us
we still live with the residue they leave behind.
It is hard work to grow in trust and acceptance
of the good news of God,
to let go of the past that labels and limits us,
to trust we are more than even
our nicely labeled accomplishments,
and certainly more than our failures and regrets.
To see and become and live fully out loud your true self in God
is the journey we are all on.
As Jesus points out,
it is often easier for those who have more need of forgiveness
and who live with negative labels tattooed on them for years,
than for those who live more
by their strong, positive identities
that still get in the way of knowing God and self
and living out of uncontrollable gratitude.
The residue of all these sticks,
and what will get the goo off of us?

Maybe it’s a moment of great need of forgiveness.
Maybe it’s at time when our strengths fail us.
Maybe it’s when God’s word hits you just a certain way
and you come to church not expecting to have to confront
your labels you have lived with for too long.
Maybe it’s when you gather around the table of fellowship in Jesus
and realize that you have labeled everyone there,
and yourself,
and you see each person now
as one extending hands in need.
And each hand gets bread and wine of mercy and compassion,
love and acceptance,
fellowship and friendship.

God’s work among us is a constant de-labelling,
through mercy, through forgiveness, through humility,
through learning to accept others we have struggled with.
It is a work of grace and surprising transformation.
It is God’s work to lead us to tears of gratitude,
songs of praise and thanksgiving,
and the slow, helpful, compassionate
peeling away of labels and limits
on others who are still waiting to hear and trust
who they are in God.


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