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Going to the Sheffield Cathedral is a pleasure. After a good sermon, have fun as you play your favorite casino games at inetroulette.com.

Sermon, 10.30 Cathedral Eucharist, Canon Simon Cowling

Tuesday, 18 June, 2013

sheffield-cathedral-blog-header-imageReadings: Galatians 2.15-end; Luke 7.36-8.3

The Victorian philosopher and essayist Thomas Carlyle was a lapsed Calvinist agnostic. Perhaps that’s why I’ve never knowingly quoted him in a sermon before, but there has to be a first time for everything, so here goes…

“Silence is the element in which great things fashion themselves together; that at length they may emerge, full-formed and majestic, into the daylight of life, which they are thenceforth to rule. Speech too is great, but not the greatest. As the Swiss inscription says: Sprecfien ist silbern, Schweigen ist golden (speech is silver, silence is golden); or as I might rather express it: speech is of time, silence is of eternity.”

Perhaps a preacher ought to take the hint at this point, and sit down! But I do have one or two more things to share with you. …

A few years ago I experienced an entirely silent celebration of the Eucharist. Everything was accomplished by gesture or by touch. The only texts we had were the readings, which we were invited to read in silence and then to reflect on. I guess that such a celebration is only really possible with a group of people who are familiar with the deep structure and shape of the Eucharist; and I certainly wouldn’t want to do it every week. But it helped me to understand Carlyle’s interpretation of the phrase ‘silence is golden’. There was something in that silent celebration that drew us all from earthbound time into the depths of God’s eternity.

Sometimes it’s helpful, when reflecting on a passage of scripture, to ask ourselves what it is that strikes us most forcefully. (This is especially helpful when working in a group, actually, because it allows us to understand the wide range of ways in which people respond to scripture.) I asked the question of myself as I prepared this sermon on today’s Gospel passage: what is it in this tremendously rich and complex account of the meal at Simon the Pharisee’s house that strikes me most forcefully? Well, it is the silence, or perhaps more accurately because Luke tells us she was weeping, the wordlessness of the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet. She approaches Jesus without uttering a word, and she departs without responding to his assurance of forgiveness. In between everything is accomplished by gesture and by touch. And there is something very physical about this encounter: the bathing with tears, the drying with hair, the kissing and anointing of feet. These physical gestures are accomplished without words. Even the thoughts of Simon the Pharisee are not spoken: “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.’”

The silent actions of the woman are a witness to her profound understanding of who Jesus is. She comes knowing her need for forgiveness (why else would she be weeping?); but it is striking that her gestures of gratitude – the bathing, the drying, the anointing – take place before Jesus assures her that her sins are forgiven. She has recognised what Simon has not – and her gratitude is too great to be contained within the boundaries that the conventions of her society recognised.

Simon comes over, amongst other things, as being rather obtuse. He is not able to understand the nature of the profound exchange between Jesus and the woman that has taken place. In fact, as his unspoken criticism indicates, he is deeply suspicious of it. And in contrast with the silence of that encounter, Simon has to have the true nature of forgiveness spelled out to him in the short parable of the creditor with two debtors. His response to Jesus’ question at the end of the parable shows that he does finally get the point – but the woman got there before him.

I have called her ‘the woman’ throughout this sermon – and for the very good reason that she is not named. Traditionally the woman has been understood to be Mary Magdalene, mentioned in the list of women at the end of today’s Gospel reading who, Luke tells us, are with Jesus. The woman has also often been assumed to be a prostitute, even though she is described only as a ‘sinner’. Hence the unwarranted – and unwarrantable – tradition that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. I think the fact that Luke never names the woman has a theological point, and is another manifestation of the silence I have been reflecting on. It is as though Luke is telling us that this nameless, wordless woman stands for all those whom polite society, as represented by Simon and his guests, chose to ignore, to silence, and thus to marginalise. The tax collector, the foreigner, those with skin diseases or unexplained illnesses, those troubled in mind, women. Yet time after time in the Gospels it is these people who know how to respond to Jesus: Levi at his tax collector’s booth, the Samaritan with leprosy who returns to give thanks to Jesus, the woman with the flow of blood, the man from Gerasa troubled with multiple demons. All these people recognise in Jesus an authority that derives not from a strict adherence to the rules of conventional piety, but an authority that comes from deep within him; an authority that allows him to pronounce forgiveness, healing, and wholeness; an authority that engenders such surprise amongst Simon’s dinner guests: ‘who is this who even forgives sins?’

If you stay for any length of time by the candle stands in the Cathedral, you will see a range of people of all ages and of all types come to light a candle. It’s almost always done in silence, and almost always accompanied by a donation. We seldom see these people in the Cathedral for regular worship, but like the woman who wordlessly anointed Jesus’ feet they have much to teach us. They have no, or at most very few, words with which to articulate their gesture of thankfulness, their expression of hope, or their petition for the needs of a loved one. What they do have is trust that, when they leave the Cathedral, what they have offered in the lighting of that candle and the giving of that donation will taken up into the heart of God and transformed for their good within the depths of God’s eternity; just as the woman’s trustful offering of tears and of oil was transformed, through the recognition of it given by Jesus, for her good as she left in the peace and forgiveness of Christ to continue her life. May that peace, and God’s wholeness, be with us all. Amen.