Thursday, February 23, 2017

“Do You See This Woman?” - February 19, 2017

Text: Luke 7:36-50

Social occasions can sometimes be, well, awkward.  We can find ourselves in unfamiliar surroundings, with people we do not know well, and we are not sure of the expectations.  It can be uncomfortable.

A few years ago Susan and I went to a clergy retreat at a camp near Eldora.  It was a fairly small group, and maybe eight of us went into town for dinner.  The camp director told us about a tavern that had good food, and if you didn’t want to go to Pizza Ranch, this was about your only option.  We opened the door and walked in.  There were maybe 10 people in the whole place, all of them sitting at the bar.  They turned and stared at us.  Every one of them.  I half-expected one of them to say, “You’re not from around here, are you?” but nobody said a word.  They just stared.  It was an extremely awkward moment.  Finally a waitress turned up, showed us to a table, and everything was fine.  The food was good.  But for a moment, it was pretty uncomfortable.

We have all been in those awkward, uncomfortable situations.  Like our experience at that tavern, the problem can stem from lack of familiarity – we were newcomers on the regulars’ turf.  But sometimes the problem is just the opposite: we find ourselves in situations with people that we know all too well.  Someone whose politics or social or religious views are very different than yours insists on talking about loudly it at a holiday gathering.  Or you attend a dinner and happen to be seated by literally the last person on earth you want to see.  Or former spouses and in-laws are brought together at a wedding or funeral.  Some navigate it well and at least for the time being they are a big happy family.  For others – well, it doesn’t always go so well.

There is a Papa John’s commercial that they showed over and over during the NFL playoffs.  Peyton Manning is having a party at his house.  The doorbell rings and Miles, the Denver Broncos’ mascot arrives for the party.  Peyton welcomes him and invites him in – but suddenly Miles is standing face to face with Blue, the mascot of the Indianapolis Colts, Manning’s former team.  These two horse mascots look at each other and it is instant awkwardness. You’re not sure if the Papa John’s pizza is going enough to break the tension and make everybody happy.

In our scripture this morning, Jesus has been put in an incredibly awkward situation.  It is hard to overstate how uncomfortable this must have been.  Perhaps we need a little background to understand the situation more fully.  As we have seen as we have followed along in Luke over these past weeks, Jesus had created quite a stir as a new and completely genuine and teacher and healer and holy man.

All sorts of people were attracted to him – both rich and poor folks, educated and illiterate, highly respectable people as well as those on the bottom rungs of the social hierarchy.  His teaching was at the same time very traditional, based on the ancient law, but also new and refreshing and accessible to many, as he interpreted ancient truths and traditions in ways that were filled with grace and mercy.  And as we have seen, Jesus’ ministry did not meet with everyone’s approval.

One evening Jesus is being entertained by one of the leading citizens of Jerusalem, and while he was at the dinner table, something absolutely astonishing occurred.  A woman - who is described as a sinner - broke into that scene and began to pour expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet and then to weep uncontrollably and to wipe his feet with her hair.  Then she began kissing his feet.  This woman was most definitely not an invited guest. 

Don’t you hate it when that happens?  This was brazen, completely unthinkable behavior.

In first-century Palestine, such meals were often held in a courtyard or in a semi-outdoor setting, so there may have been neighbors and townspeople on the outskirts of the gathering who could see what was going on.  And Jesus had attracted a following, so word may have gotten out that Jesus, well known by now, was having dinner at Simon’s home.  This makes it a little more understandable that this woman showed up there.

On the other hand, women did not intrude into the company of men who were sitting at table for dinner.  In fact, even the wives were oftentimes not included at such a gathering.  Speaking of this incident, John Claypool wrote, “This woman’s mere presence alone was shocking, and then what she did was as tasteless and vulgar a show of affection as you could possibly imagine.”  It is hard to even list all of the taboos going on here.  Among other things, women never let their hair down in public.  The woman was already known as a sinner.

Most anyone in Jesus’ situation would have been utterly horrified.  They would have thought, “What on earth are people going to think about this?  Are they not going to wonder how I ever even came to know a woman of this sort?  Isn’t this going to be absolutely devastating to my reputation?”  I mean, this was bad bad.

Jesus had every reason to be beyond embarrassed.  But what makes this story so amazing is the way that Jesus responded.  Jesus’ first thought is not for himself and his reputation.  Jesus immediately jumps to the defense of this woman and began to celebrate what must have happened in her life that prompted this kind of behavior.
Now, the history of interpretation of this passage is interesting.  This woman is most often referred to as a prostitute.  It is somehow assumed that if she is a sinner, that has to mean sexual sin.  It’s interesting, isn’t it, that that kind of label gets attached to women described as sinners, but not so much to men.  The fact that she lets her hair down and behaves in such a forward way may lend credence to that view, but the text simply says she is a sinner.  And in fact, if she were a prostitute, Luke could have called her that, as he does another woman in chapter 15.

To me, such speculation misses the point.  At the end of last week’s scripture, Jesus points out that John the Baptist lived an ascetic life, abstained from alcohol and rich foods, and people said he had a demon.  Jesus on the other hand ate and drank and hung out with tax collectors and sinners, and he was called a glutton and a drunk.

Jesus is accused of being a friend of sinners, and then what happens in the very next story?  Of course, he is again shown as a friend of sinners.

Now, there is another reason that speculation about this woman kind of misses the point.  And that is because this story may be about Simon, the host of the meal, as much as it is about this woman.  People are appalled and mortified at this woman’s display, and they are no doubt shocked that Jesus’ doesn’t put a stop to it.  For his part, Simon – the man who had invited Jesus to the dinner – says to himself, “If this man were actually a prophet, he would know what kind of woman this is who is touching him – a sinner.”  Which in a way is kind of weird, because decorum and common decency would have demanded that Jesus be offended by any woman who would do this – her “sinner” status was just icing on the cake, as it were.  And in fact, if she were not already known as a sinner, she certainly would be now.

Now whether Jesus hears Simon muttering under his breath, or whether it is obvious to him what his host is thinking, Jesus puts a question to Simon.  It’s a little parable that is tucked into this passage.  “Simon,” he says, “I have a question for you.”  He tells the story of a creditor with two debtors.  One owes a not insignificant amount, but the other owes a huge amount – ten times as much as the first person.  Neither was able to repay the debt, and the creditor decided to forgive the debt of each.  Jesus asked Simon, “Now, which one of these will love him more?”

Simon is no dummy, he knows exactly what Jesus is saying.  He knows Jesus is about to zap him.  So he says, “Well, I suppose it is the one who was forgiven more.”  You suppose?  Bu then, what else can he say?

Jesus said, “You have judged rightly.”  But then, the spotlight gets turned on Simon.  Jesus says, “Do you see this woman?  I entered your house, and you did not give me water for my feet.” (As was the custom - roads were dusty, travel was hard, and it was customary to offer guests a chance to wash their feet.)  “But she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair.  You gave me no kiss (of welcome), but she has not stopped kissing my feet.  You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment.”

Simon had not offered basic hospitality to Jesus, an invited guest, but this woman, this sinner, had offered all of this.  And according to the story Jesus told, because she had been forgiven much, she had great love.

Jesus topped it off by saying to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven.  Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

What Jesus does is kind of subversive, because in effect he is saying that Simon was as much of a sinner as this woman.  He was lacking in love, he was lacking in forgiveness, and by implication he was lacking in faith.

Now just to hear this story, we are probably all scandalized by what this woman does.  When people behave in such ways and when they are already tagged with the label “sinner,” we just automatically assume a kind of moral superiority.  It’s hard not to feel like we are better than some people.  It’s hard not to feel a little judgmental toward some people.

I admit that this is true for me, and research actually shows that I am not alone.  A recent study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science shows that most individuals strongly believe that they are just, virtuous and moral, and uniformly see others as inferior.  Interestingly, people also tend to rate themselves more highly than others in modesty.

Ben Tappin, a psychologist at the University of London and the study’s lead author, reported that “The individuals in our sample consistently judged themselves to be superior to the average person.”  Participants rated themselves, the average person, and a “socially desirable ideal” on traits such as sincerity, honesty, friendliness, competence, creativity, and so forth.

Basically, most people just think they are better than other people.  This is largely due to what is called the “self-enhancement effect.”  The classic study on this was back in 1981, a study on driving ability.  Most people rate themselves as an above-average driver.  I would guess that a majority of us here might think that we are well above average.  Well, by definition, we can’t all be well above average, but there you go.

Simon sees this woman, and he thinks that he is far better than she is.  Well, let me take that back.  Did you catch what Jesus asked Simon?  Jesus said to Simon, “Do you see this woman?”

Maybe that verse is a key to the whole story.  “Do you see this woman?”  If he saw her at all, Simon simply saw a sinner.  Someone beneath him, someone really not worth thinking about. 
Simon doesn’t actually see her, not as a person, not as a child of God, not as an individual in her own right.  He just sees a sinner, someone beneath him, someone worthy of scorn and contempt, someone to absolutely avoid.

But what does Jesus see?  He sees someone with gifts.  Someone filled with love, with gratitude, with hospitality, with thoughtfulness.  Jesus can even overlook the social inappropriateness of her actions to see a child of God who has been forgiven.

This interplay between love and forgiveness is interesting.  Jesus says that she has great love because she has been forgiven, like the debtor with the unpayable debt.  Her actions were in response to the love and forgiveness of God that she had experienced.  Perhaps she had met Jesus before, or maybe she had been a person in the crowd whose life was changed by Jesus’ message of God’s grace and acceptance. 

Jesus made it clear.  He tells her, “Your sins are forgiven.  Your faith has saved you.  Go in peace.”  Jesus forgives her, but forgiveness looks a lot like healing.  Jesus’ grace and forgiveness had absolutely changed her life.

With God, forgiveness and love and grace and salvation are all tied together.  And by pointing out Simon’s lack of love, lack of hospitality, lack of lack of graciousness, Jesus is basically saying that we are all in the same boat.  We are all sinners.  Whether our sin is there for all to see, or whether our sin is more hidden in our respectability, we are all in the same boat.  And the thing is, Jesus has the same love, the same grace, offers the same forgiveness to Simon that he does to this woman.  And he offers the same to us.

You already are a beloved child of God, not because of what you have made of yourself, not because on some moral scoreboard you rate a little higher than the next person, but because God has made you out of pure and amazing grace.  It was true of this woman, it is true of Simon, and it is true of each of us.

Living in this truth, living in God’s grace and love and forgiveness, we are made free, like this woman.  We are free to live lives of love and gratitude.  And we are free to truly see others.  May it be so.  Amen.

Friday, February 3, 2017

“He Had Compassion” - February 5, 2017

Text: Luke 7:1-17

Last Sunday we left Jesus up on a mountain with his twelve disciples.  After that, he comes down from the mountain and speaks to the crowds from a level place.  Matthew has the Sermon on the Mount; in Luke this is called the Sermon on the Plain.  Jesus pronounces blessings on the poor and weak and woes on the rich and powerful.  He says that his followers must love their enemies, see the log in their own eyes before they worry about the speck in their neighbor’s eyes, and build their houses on a solid foundation, not on sinking sand.  They are to live in a different way.

That brings us to today’s scripture.  After getting his team together and giving a summary of his teaching, Jesus goes on the road and he heals.  We read about the healing of a slave who was near death, and then the raising of a widow’s son who actually had died.

First, a Roman centurion has a slave for whom he is concerned.  This man had heard about Jesus.  A Gentile, he has good relationships with the Jewish elders in Capernaum and sends a delegation of these elders who make a request that Jesus come to heal his slave.  They vouch for the worthiness of this man.  But while Jesus is on the way, the centurion sends friends to intercept Jesus.  The elders have called him worthy but he says, “I am not worthy to have him under my roof.”  Along with his humble attitude he may have known that it might be awkward for this Jewish teacher to enter a Gentile home and he perhaps wanted to spare Jesus that awkwardness. 

But regardless, he has friends go and tell Jesus that he doesn’t have to come all the way to his house; he just needs to say the word and the slave will be healed.  And so Jesus does.  Jesus heals this person he has never met, upon the request of a Gentile whom he has never met. 

And what does Jesus say? “Not even in Israel have I seen such faith.”  So far in Luke, Jesus has repeatedly praised Gentiles for their faith while sticking it to religious leaders.  By healing the slave of this Roman soldier, Jesus again aggravates the Pharisees.

Soon after this, Jesus and his disciples travel to the village of Nain, and on the edge of the town they encounter a funeral procession.  Funerals in first century Palestine were community events.  Each village had its own professional mourners – women who helped to express the sense of loss felt by the community, especially the loss felt by family members.  They would wail and cry.  They would sing loudly and mournfully.  They would play cymbals and flutes and other instruments.  They did not hold back on the emotion.

Walking behind the mourners was the mother of the young man who had died.  There may have been friends with her, there may have been extended family members, folks from the synagogue, but make no mistake: this mother was alone.  She had already lost her husband.  Now she had lost her only child.  As a widow with no male family member to support her, she faced a very bleak future. 

The pallbearers are carrying the body of the young man on a funeral bier, which at that and place was something like a stretcher.  The body was covered with a shroud.  First century Jews generally buried their dead outside of the city, and quickly, usually on the day of death or perhaps the next day.  Embalming was not practiced.

It was a dramatic scene already – the throng of mourners making their way to the graveyard, the death of a young person, a grieving mother.  Jesus approached the funeral procession with his followers, a crowd of his own in tow.  He had just healed the slave of a Roman centurion.  But now he goes a step further, from healing to resuscitation.

Now, Jesus did not know these people.  He was not from this village.  He did not know this grieving mother.  Nobody asked him to intervene.  But Jesus noticed her.  He saw her tears, tears for this son she had lost and tears for her husband she had lost and tears for herself, who would now find herself in a desperate situation.  Women had no legal rights and a widow such as herself was subject to losing property.  To be a widow without a son was to be extremely vulnerable.

Jesus saw this mother, grieving yet another loss.  The text says that when Jesus saw her, he had compassion for her.

“Do not weep,” he said to her.  Now, generally, this is the last thing you want to say to somebody who has suffered a loss.  “Don’t cry, it will be OK, cheer up” – this is what you should not say.  “God had a reason, God needed him more than we did.”  Don’t go there.  Don’t say that.  It’s not helpful.

Never tell someone who is grieving not to weep – unless you can raise their loved one from the dead. 

Jesus reached out and touched the bier, touched the body, and the procession stopped abruptly.  By doing this, Jesus signaled that he was about to say something, about to do something.  And by doing this, he had made himself ritually unclean. 
Jesus said, “I say to you, young man, rise!”  And the next line is a great verse: “The dead man sat up and began to speak.”  In case it wasn’t clear this man’s condition, we read, “The dead man sat up and started to speak.”

If you had asked me to give the times in scripture when Jesus raised a person from the dead, I don’t know that I would have come up with this story.  Of the instances in which he raised a person, this seems the most obscure.  We remember Jesus raising his friend Lazarus.  And then there is the daughter of Jairus, the synagogue official. 

This story is different from the other two.  Lazarus was a good friend of Jesus – in fact, on learning that Lazarus had died, we read that Jesus wept.  And with Jairus’ daughter, Jairus comes and tells Jesus that his daughter has died but that he believes Jesus can yet bring her to life.  Lazarus was one of Jesus’ best friends; Jairus comes with great faith asking Jesus to act.

We don’t find anything like that here.  Jesus just happens to come upon a funeral.  He doesn’t know this woman or her son.  And she has not asked him to do anything.  Jesus does not raise this young man because of the mother’s faith; he doesn’t know anything about this woman.

It is simply a matter of compassion.  Jesus saw her and he had compassion.

Perhaps Jesus saw this woman and thought of his own mother, who by tradition was widowed at a young age.  You may remember that Joseph is a figure in the gospels only until the story where the family goes to the temple in Jerusalem when Jesus is 12 years of age.  After that, he is never mentioned again.  The presumption is that Joseph died while Jesus was a teenager.

The focus for Jesus is the mother, the one who had lost her husband and now her son.  This widow would be doubly hurt by the loss – she would not only lose her son whom she loved, she would lose her source of income, her provider.  Her son was her pension.  He was her Social Security. 

Jesus heals a lot of people in the Gospel of Luke.  People who come to Jesus in faith and ask for healing, for themselves or for a loved one.  People like the centurion in our first story.  “Just give the word,” the man says, “and I know he will be healed.”  Jesus praises the centurion and attributes the healing to his faith.

But this woman does not ask Jesus to raise her son.  She doesn’t fall on her knees and beg for her son’s life.  She doesn’t express faith in Jesus’ ability to raise her son.

And when Jesus does raise her son, she doesn’t bother to say “Thank you.”  Well, maybe she did, but Luke does not report such a response.  And what about the woman’s son?  Luke reports that “the dead man began to speak,” but we don’t know what he said.  Maybe one of the things he said was “Thank you,” but the scripture doesn’t say.  Maybe he was wondering if he had been dead and missed the Super Bowl.  The crowd praises God and calls Jesus a great prophet, but we don’t hear anything from the mother or the son who was raised.

In other stories in Luke, people’s healing is attributed to their faith.  Or if the healing happens without a request for it, like the bent-over woman who Jesus heals in chapter 13, the person at least says thank you or begins praising God.

Here we have none of that.  And so, it seems to me that this story is not about faith.  And it is not about gratitude.  This is a story about grace -- pure, undiluted, unearned, un-asked-for grace.  This raising does not happen because of faith or worthiness, it happens solely because of Jesus’ compassion. 

The mother didn’t have to act faithfully. The son didn’t have to live gratefully.  It could be that both mother and son were faithful, and it is impossible to think that they were not filled with gratitude.  But that is not the point of the story.  This is about Jesus’ compassion.

Stephanie Weiner told a story about Doug, a 15-year old who was diagnosed with leukemia.  The doctors told him in frank terms about his disease.  They said that for the next three years he would have to undergo chemotherapy.  They didn’t sugarcoat the side effects.  They told him he would be bald and that his body would become bloated.  He heard all of us this, and Doug went into a deep depression.

His aunt called a florist and sent him some flowers.  She told the clerk that they were for her teenage nephew who had leukemia.  When the flowers arrived, they were beautiful.  Doug read the card from his aunt, and then he saw a second card.  It said, “Douglas, I took your order.  I work at the florist shop.  I had leukemia when I was seven years old.  I’m 22 now.  Good luck.  My heart goes out to you.  Sincerely, Laura.”

Doug’s face lit up.  Somehow, this note lifted his spirit in a way that nothing else had.

Here he was in one of the best hospitals in the country.  He was surrounded by state of the art medical equipment.  He was being treated by expert doctors and nurses.   But it was a sales clerk in a flower shop who took the time to care, who identified with him, who did what her heart told her to do, who gave Doug the hope and the will to carry on.

This is a story about Jesus’ compassion and a call to us to be compassionate.  You might say, “Well, I can’t raise the dead like Jesus did.”  Well, we’re all in the same boat on that one.  And we could spend a lot of time asking why did Jesus raise some people – a very few people - and not others?  Why did he heal some, and not others?

I don’t know the answer to that.  I do know that this was a resuscitation and not a resurrection.  While this boy lived, he would not live forever.  Jesus’ healings were not permanent.  So far, every person who has ever lived has died, even those who received divine healing.

The point of this story – what we are given to see – is Jesus’ compassion.  Jesus’ compassion brings this boy to life, and our acts of compassion are life-giving to those who are suffering. The word compassion literally means to “suffer together.”  Sharing someone’s suffering means sharing life in such a way that you share in another’s joys as well as sorrows.  We don’t have to be able to raise the dead to act compassionately. 

To know that you are loved and cared for is a major contributing factor in being restored to wholeness.  Those recovering from illness will often say that knowing people were praying for them and caring for them gave them hope and played a large role in their recovery.  Those who do not recover from their illness often find peace knowing that they are loved and cared for by others, and the one expressing compassion likewise receives a sense of peace and fulfillment in the expression of compassion, in the “suffering together.” 

Rather than a story about a miracle that happened long ago, this is a story for us.  There is someone in your life who needs your compassion.  It may be someone you know and see every day.  It may be a stranger, like this grieving mother that Jesus comes across or the young man with leukemia whom the florist sent a note.  This story is a call to compassion, and compassion is life-giving for both the giver and receiver.   If you live without compassion, if you live with a heart closed to the pain of others, you are not fully living.

Like Jesus, we are called to care for people in need, whether they have expressed faith or not, whether their faith is like ours or not.  Our ministry beyond the walls of our church really has a foundation of compassion.  In compassion, we support ministries that help people in need here in our community and we work to make our community a fairer and more just place.  Because of compassion, we make blankets for newborns, we put together hygiene kits for refugees, we support mission work around our country and around the world.  Out of compassion, we are going to Oklahoma over spring break to help minister to children in need.  We can disagree over methods and strategies and how best to get things done, but whatever we are doing, if we do not have compassion, we are being less than Christian.

The early Christian movement grew by leaps and bounds because of the way Christians cared for the poor and marginalized and sick and dying.  It was a witness to the world, and even among its detractors and opponents, the Church was known for its compassion.

What if we were known, above all, as having compassion?   What if compassion were our calling card?