Sermons That Work

Shadows Can Be…, Proper 6 (C) – 2007

June 17, 2007

Shadows can be both fun and frightening. Do you remember when you were a child, marveling at your shadow, especially in the late afternoon when shadows are long? Or making shadow pictures by holding your hands certain ways? Then there is the other side of shadows. Like the uncertainty of who is approaching you in the shadow either at night or back-lit by the sun. Children can imagine many things about shadows cast on their bedroom walls in the middle of the night.

Today’s readings are about coming to terms with the frightening side of shadows. We hear of three people who did just that: David, Paul, and the unnamed woman in the Gospel. They were genuine sinners who overcame the shadows of their past to know the bright sunlight of God’s forgiveness. The connecting thread between these three people we’ve heard about is their authenticity.

What makes Paul real is his consistency to a life of faith in the love of God in Christ Jesus. Paul said, “For me to live is Christ.” Life was not in the law, or the system of rituals it required.

The woman at the house of Simon has a ring of authenticity. She has no illusions about her past, but it doesn’t prevent her from making a deep and direct encounter with Jesus.

David from the depths of his heart can proclaim with all the power of his kingship, “I have sinned.” He repents, and God’s response is spoken almost immediately by the prophet Nathan: “God has put away your sin.”

These scriptures today help us to look at the subject of sin. It is a subject we tend to avoid or even ignore altogether as if there were no such thing as sin. Sin has not gone away, but we have other ways of talking about it.

One way we talk about it is in psychological terms with words like “persona” and “shadow.” Our word for person comes from the Greek word “persona.” Persona means “mask” and the word comes from the mask worn by actors in ancient Greek and Roman drama. Modern psychology uses the word “persona” for the mask we wear when we go out to face the world and other people. The persona has a socially and psychologically useful function. You may be feeling perfectly rotten on a particular day, but as you go about your various tasks and encounter other people you may not always want to let your vulnerability be seen.

The problem comes when we identify with the persona too much. When we think we are that person we are putting on, then the persona is being misused. When we identify with a persona it leads to artificiality, falseness, and shallowness of personality. This was one of the reasons Jesus complained about the attitude of the Pharisees like Simon in the Gospel today. The Pharisees seemed to think they had no sin. Jesus called them “hypocrites,” which in Greek means “actors.”

A common psychological problem is that when there is over-identification with the persona, our contact with the shadow side of our personality is certain to be lost. The shadow as a concept in psychology refers to the dark, feared, unwanted side of our personality. Our conscious personality is shaped by ideals that come from society, parents, a peer groups, or religious values. Society tells us we cannot steal, murder, or engage in other socially destructive behavior without being punished.

Most of us conform more or less to this requirement, and we deny and repress the thief and murderer within us. The Christian moral code goes further, and tells us that we must be loving and forgiving. So to conform to that ideal, we reject the part of us that gets angry and is vindictive.

But why would it be necessary to have commandments such as “You shall not steal,” “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not kill,” unless it was likely we might do these things? Our spiritual traditions recognize that we all have within ourselves the whole spectrum of potential human behavior. We simply exclude some of those possibilities for the sake of developing a specifically conscious personality. If we follow the Ten Commandments, we can be sure that those tendencies forbidden are included in the shadow personality.

In the Gospel passage we have the contrast of two characters, Simon and a woman of the street whom the writer calls a sinner. Simon, the public religious figure is disturbed that Jesus would allow this woman to touch him, let alone show such extravagant devotion. Jesus says to him that the great affection and love she shows him is because she has had so many sins forgiven. “But he who is forgiven little loves little.”

The implication is that Simon is a sinner too but he doesn’t know it. Simon’s love is reflected in his scant hospitality to Jesus. In terms of what psychologists would say, Simon has developed his moral ideals to the point of denial of his sin. He has put his trust for salvation in his ability to fulfill his moral ideals.

The woman, on the other hand, realizes that her moral works cannot save her. All she can do is throw herself on God’s mercy. And what has that done for her? It has brought a profound transformation. It has released the deep wells of love and devotion in her. The woman’s extravagance is a picture of the extravagance of God’s grace.

It is similar to the story of David that we hear of in the first reading. David is able to face his sin and admit it. How easy it is for us to try to excuse ourselves in the face of every wrong doing. We always have a good reason, and extenuating circumstances. The first characteristic of the authentic person is the ability to admit being wrong – not just begrudgingly conceding the fact after a barrage of excuses, but simply saying it out, without hesitation. In the face of that universal human tendency to make excuses, David has extraordinary courage. To the charges made by the prophet Nathan, David does not hedge; he doesn’t make excuses. He makes no attempt to downplay the grievousness of what he had done. His reply is simple, “I have sinned against God.”

As we hear these stories from scripture, we might hear God inviting us to acknowledge the sin in ourselves. That is the power of these stories. It is only when we can recognize this in ourselves that we can have that deeply felt knowledge of David and the woman at Simon’s house – the abundance of God’s love shown to us in Jesus.

Our sinfulness is as unique as our personality. Usually, we are simply working with a laundry list of deeds or thoughts that we know are wrong. What God wants to do is deal with a deep personal pattern – we might say, “the tapestry of our sin.” We must pray that God would reveal to us the mystery of our personal pattern, the deep-seated, consistent recurrence of pride, envy, lust, or whatever has a hold over us.

The Good News is that God in Christ has done for us what we cannot do for ourselves. You can see why Paul called this “gospel,” or “good news.” So often, we see religion as the bad news that you have to believe really hard, or think really deeply, or act very righteously or else there is no way for you to be right. This kind of religion leads ultimately to exhaustion or disappointment when we are forced to admit that we can’t get it all together on our own. We can’t do it right every time, and all our efforts to save ourselves fail.

We come to church, sing these hymns, pray these prayers, read this scripture, listen to this sermon, try to live good lives, not in order to get somewhere with God but rather because we have already arrived. God has already acted on our behalf. Christ has done for us that which we could not do for ourselves: made things right between us and God. That means that religion as something we do, is over.

The only thing required of us is the openness to receive. As we saw with David, this is not necessarily pleasant or easy. It involves a change in attitude and ultimately in our actions.

Remember the woman’s extravagant actions. She “stood behind Jesus at his feet weeping and bathed his feet with her tears, wiped them with her hair, kissed them and anointed them with ointment.” These words tell us that grace is highly personal. God calls us each by name. And God’s forgiveness, love, and acceptance opens up deep wells of love within us.

Don’t forget to subscribe to the Sermons That Work podcast to hear this sermon and more on your favorite podcasting app! Recordings are released the Thursday before each liturgical date.

Receive Free Weekly Sermons That Work Resources!


Christopher Sikkema


Click here