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Luke 7: 36-8: 3
36 And one of the Pharisees desired him that he would eat with him. And he went into the Pharisee's house, and sat down to meat.
37 And, behold, a woman in the city, which was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at meat in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster box of ointment,
38 And stood at his feet behind him weeping, and began to wash his feet with tears, and did wipe them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.
39 Now when the Pharisee which had bidden him saw it, he spake within himself, saying, This man, if he were a prophet, would have known who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him: for she is a sinner.
40 And Jesus answering said unto him, Simon, I have somewhat to say unto thee. And he saith, Master, say on.
41 There was a certain creditor which had two debtors: the one owed five hundred pence, and the other fifty.
42 And when they had nothing to pay, he frankly forgave them both. Tell me therefore, which of them will love him most?
43 Simon answered and said, I suppose that he, to whom he forgave most. And he said unto him, Thou hast rightly judged.
44 And he turned to the woman, and said unto Simon, Seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house, thou gavest me no water for my feet: but she hath washed my feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head.
45 Thou gavest me no kiss: but this woman since the time I came in hath not ceased to kiss my feet.
46 My head with oil thou didst not anoint: but this woman hath anointed my feet with ointment.
47 Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.
48 And he said unto her, Thy sins are forgiven.
49 And they that sat at meat with him began to say within themselves, Who is this that forgiveth sins also?
50 And he said to the woman, Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace.
8 And it came to pass afterward, that he went throughout every city and village, preaching and shewing the glad tidings of the kingdom of God: and the twelve were with him,
2 And certain women, which had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary called Magdalene, out of whom went seven devils,
3 And Joanna the wife of Chuza Herod's steward, and Susanna, and many others, which ministered unto him of their substance.
On 7th April 1941, a young man called Thomas Merton arrived at the gates of a Trappist monastery at a place called Gethsemani in Kentucky USA to spend a Holy Week on retreat. His description of that arrival in his autobiography The Seven Story Mountain inspired many other young Americans after the war to test their vocations to the monastic way there too.
The embrace of it! The silence! I had entered into a solitude that was an impregnable fortress. How could I ever get back into the world after tasting the sweetness and the kindness of the love with which you, o Lord, welcome those who come to stay in your house!
I quote those heady and enthusiastic words because in his later writings Thomas Merton's early enthusiasm for community life in the monastery had waned considerably. Twenty years later he was heavily engaged in issues such as the threat of nuclear war, the evil of racism, and dialogue with other faiths - almost anything, in fact, except the people with whom he lived in community.
He wasn't the first to find the people next to him so frustrating that he turned inwards to his own spiritual development or away from those around him to wider, global issues. The poet and writer GK Chesterton, early in the 20th century, complained in one of his poems how easy it is to talk about love, and how difficult actually to practice it:-
The churches and the chapels where
I learned with little labour
The way to love my fellow man
And hate my next door neighbour.
Thomas Merton never quite reconciled within himself this ambivalence between his commitment to the monastic life and his inability to get on with those amongst whom he lived. As Chesterton points out, we all find it easy to talk in the abstract about loving our neighbour and often find it very difficult to practice it. And what Merton found to be true for his monastic community we can find just as challenging in our church and community life, and like Merton we may be tempted to turn away, pursue our own private spiritual journey, or get involved in global issues. But if we can't love our neighbours next to us in the pew, how can we begin to love God?
As our Gospel reading reminds us all are equal in the sight of God, regardless of social status, or moral worth, in spite of our past lives, or our sense of unworthiness. Jesus Christ is concerned not with our past but with our potential - he saw in the woman who anointed his feet not a bad reputation, but the deep desire to be different and to change, expressed in her loving action. In doing so and responding as he did, Jesus encourages all of us to look at what people can become and not simply what they have been.
All of us, and each of us as members of the church are learning by painful experience, not just to vaguely love everybody but to really stick with people, even when we don't see eye to eye. The really distinctive thing about the Christian Church should be a capacity to contain difference, to love and accept those who are unlike ourselves, those who have made a mess of things, and to try hard to see Christ in those we don't particularly feel drawn to.
We are to remember what Thomas Merton seemed to find it so hard to accept, that the people around us are the people God has given us to love, with all their differences, funny ways, murky pasts or whatever it may be. And it's when we are finding that particularly difficult it's worth remembering too that when we come before God at the end of our lives, God won't ask us how much we have believed, how well we have behaved, or how much we have achieved; but how much we have loved. Amen.