"Grace: Unexpected Expressions of Love"
“Grace: Unexpected Expressions of Love”
(a sermon based on Luke 7:31-39 & 44-50, page 66, New Testament)
Rev. Dr. Paul A. Lance, Pastor
First Congregational United Church of Christ
201 S. Second Ave., Alpena, Michigan 49707
August 9, 2020
In today's Bible story, we meet a bold, passionate, free woman! We see her in action, up-close & personal! It's a story that may make some of us a bit uncomfortable, as it did the men in her day. So I want us to remember (before we go any further) that she's our sister! And she's one of the saints. I think of her as one of my "un-sung heroes" in the life of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke.
The story begins with folks complaining that Jesus is a “glutton and a drunkard; a friend of tax-collectors and sinners”! People complain that Jesus doesn't live a frugal, fasting, withdrawn life like John the Baptist and his disciples do, but rather, Jesus eats hearty meals with his fishermen friends and he drinks wine (in the Gospel of John, he even makes wine at a wedding!). Certainly he cannot really be a "holy man." Jesus is, they say, "a glutton and a drunk; and a friend of sinners!"
Now, if that's true (and not just a scandalous slander devised by his enemies!), I wonder why on earth would a Pharisee invite this "glutton & drunkard" to a dinner party !? I would suspect it might be a "set-up" -- a test (at least), or maybe a trap!
It seems to me that all Jesus has to do to change his reputation from that of a "party-hearty kind of guy" would be for him to refuse the Pharisee's invitation! They couldn't very well continue to say that Jesus was "a glutton & a drunk" if he chose not to attend this lavish affair.
After all, Jesus, these Pharisees -- these self-appointed maintainers of civic purity & social order -- aren't really your kind of folks... Are they??
Well, Jesus goes ahead (against my advice!) and accepts the dinner invitation. He shows up among the Pharisee's guests, ready to eat and to drink with them!
As the party progresses, I can imagine that the room heats up with (maybe) a dozen men reclining on couches around a low table. The candles on the table (and torches along the walls) provide a minimum of light … and maximum heat. Generous amounts of red wine flows, but, served at room temperature, it would fail to quench the growing thirst. Hot meat, served sizzling on platters, and spicy Middle Eastern herbs add their aromas to the room. I imagine the men begin to sweat under the beards.
"Pull back the curtain!" says Simon, the host. "Open the doors to the street! We need a breath of fresh air. It's getting a little stuffy in here!"
That's when she came in. … The smell of her perfume, like wildflowers after a spring rain, swept into the room on the cool evening breeze a moment before she stepped across the threshold.
I imagine her clothes were a seductive silk, a shimmering shade of pale purple, with gold and silver thread. Her dark hair was long & loose, uncovered & undone... something which was rarely seen outside the home (!)… You see, the social code among religious Jews in Jesus' day (and among many cultures in the Middle East even now) considered a woman's unbound hair to be an intimacy reserved for one's husband alone!
Who is this woman? … The fact is, I don't know... Her name is not recorded in the Bible. But it seems that she was well-known in her town. Her reputation was summed up in the word we overheard at the table: "sinner!" She's a sinner with a capital "S."
Simon, the host, knows who she is! He says to himself: "If this man were a prophet, he would have known who … and what sort of woman this is … who is touching him -- for she is a sinner!" I wonder how he knew...? Had Simon, perhaps, been involved with her? Or was it just hearsay, town gossip? Although, frankly (I have to admit), her behavior toward Jesus is "sensual."
Perhaps she had been invited to the dinner party as part of the test -- to see if the complaints about Jesus were, in fact, true... After all, he is eating & drinking! (So the gossip about him being "a glutton and a drunk" might continue.) Will he also prove to be a "friend" to this sinner? Will this woman's unexpected caresses (& kisses!) strip Jesus of his holiness?
To find out, we've got to get down eye-level with what the Pharisee sees... and listen in... as servants move between the guests, refilling their cups of wine, replacing the trays of food. What are they saying about this bold woman who came in (apparently uninvited) off the street in the heat of the night? "Look at her! She's not ashamed to show us her hair, nor embarrassed to be here with the men! … I hear she is available... that's what everybody says about her... with a wink, a smirk."
The woman is carrying something... A fine-sculpted alabaster container of scented oil, as would be used in her boudoir... That's what we see. And that's what they say. So, that's what we are led to assume!
But tonight this woman hasn't come to the party looking for free drinks, or dinner, or an evening fling. (!) She's been crying. (!) We watch her move between the servants to the place where Jesus is reclining. She bends down beside him.
The woman bathes Jesus' bare feet with her tears! His feet become enmeshed in the swirls of her hair! A river of salty tears, dried by a river of silky hair... Polite society is hushed around the table. (!) Guests frown as the woman bathes Jesus feet and then dries them with her-self. (Babies are bathed by their mothers, but, c'mon, these are two full-grown adults!! You just don’t do this kind of stuff in public!)
She rubs his feet... (Oh, that feels good!) You know, only a lover would do that, or a professional massage therapist. (Is that her profession??) This woman, apparently, has become comfortable with intimacy! ... Somehow, she's not ashamed! You see why I called her a “bold” woman… a “loose” woman… a “free” woman!
Everyone is looking to see how Jesus will respond to her caress... ? Will he do what's expected of a holy man... and push her away? What kind of "prophet" is he, anyway!? The woman kisses Jesus feet! Kisses him, for heaven's sake! This is going too far! The guests are getting offended. You can just imagine them drawing back from touching her... this woman of passion... flesh & blood, hair & hands & tears.
We see her tears, but there's no telling why she is so sorrowful.
Or are these, possibly, tears of joy and of fresh, free release?
By now the up-tight, always-do-right, Pharisee “holiness” of the host is horrified! You can see it in his eyes as they narrow; as his lips tighten. But he keeps quiet... waiting to see what will Jesus do? Will he do what's expected -- that is, will he throw her out!?? Call her names? Reach for a stone?
You see, the Pharisee's idea of "holiness" (among other things) is caught up in the myth that flesh is evil, and that woman-flesh especially is a curse. The female shape is so sensual & so human (say these men) that God's righteousness is "offended." Hence, they must be covered up!
But tonight, the woman takes no offense. Somehow tonight she is free from all that inhibition; she is a free woman in body, mind, & soul! Free to express herself, her emotions, her devotion... at least until those men write her story, and priests and preachers start to call her a “whore” -- a wanton woman, smoldering with the heat of sexuality -- deserving of punishment, social banishment, perhaps even stoned to death (if she’s caught in an act of adultery).
How dare this woman so freely defy the sour stares of the host and the muttering of the guests?
She opens her box to him, her alabaster box... Rich perfume over- powers the scent of food & wine, overcoming even the smell of sweat & tears. Her hands stroke Jesus’ feet, softly & tenderly, rubbing the oil in, openly not shyly. I imagine Jesus' eyes have been closed as she bathed him & dried him, as she kissed & anointed him. Now he smiles & breathes deeply the fragrant perfume.
But what will Jesus say to her? And what will he say to the prim and proper critics, who murmur their obscenities (under their breath around the table)?
"Simon, do you see this woman?"
Of course he does! He hasn't taken his eyes off her since she bent down and began to caress Jesus! But Jesus knows that a mind already made-up is resistant to seeing. The Pharisee's mind had long been "sorted" into inflexible categories, and this woman has been placed in the category of "sinner." Perhaps due to her actual past behavior, observed... but perhaps only because of his prejudice and his assumptions!
For whatever reason from the past, Simon has put this woman into a category called "sinner," such that NOW he cannot bring himself to see her performing an act of love.
It is very possible that the host and the guests (and, perhaps, you & I, like those priests and preachers of the past) have misread everything about her! Because it is a beautiful thing that she does in this story! Having been embraced by God's Grace, by God's mercy & love, the woman has come to Jesus to celebrate her new life and to show her appreciation to the one who brought her salvation!
“Simon, do you see this woman?... Her sins, which are many, are forgiven!” Yes, that's what Jesus said! And that wasn't expected. It certainly wasn't deserved! (But, then, grace never is! By definition, grace is always unearned and undeserved!)
Jesus then told a short parable about two debtors, both of whom were forgiven. And then he goes on to point out the several breaches of hospitality that Simon (the host) committed against Jesus, his guest … and how this woman (in her own way) had more than made up for each one. (!) These were only minor sins, of course – failing to provide water to wash his feet, failing to greet Jesus with a social kiss, failing to offer him refreshing oil for his windblown hair -- sins of “omission” -- and Jesus graciously forgives Simon's faults.
However, the major sin of “disrespecting” this woman -- the gossip & the slander (which was committed by the host and by the muttering of the guests as well) -- is never mentioned. Maybe those folks at the Pharisee’s dinner party just didn't know that what they were saying about her was so very wrong! Sadly, some Bible teachers and preachers may be continuing that same slander against her even now: calling her a "sinful" woman instead of pointing out that she is a "saved" woman. I say she is an “un-sung hero”: a role model!
Marjorie Suchocki, former dean at the Claremont School of Theology and author of numerous books on Process Theology, writes in her book “God Christ Church” – “Consider Simon’s plight. If he excludes the woman from his home, and the presence of Jesus, he will preserve his well-ordered world. The woman has disordered his world! Reversing its comfortable and exclusive structure. She ought not to be there!
“But she is, and Simon’s own guest receives her attentions. … His felt need is to condemn the woman for her way of life, and to condemn Jesus for accepting her. To do so would re-establish his world and re-affirm his own self-constructed worth. (!) At the same time, of course, it would negate God’s call to an ever-new, ever-wider order of inclusive well-being… [in other words], denying God’s reign.
“In a world constructed through love and justice,” writes Marjorie Suchocki, “the welfare of one affects the welfare of all. To despise the welfare of another [as Simon does here] is to lessen the welfare of oneself. [That] in turn, impoverishes the whole [community]. Inexorably, a society of true justice is a society of true love, requiring an extension of well-being [beyond oneself and one’s immediate circle of like-minded people, to the stranger, the different ones].
“By excluding the well-being of this woman from his concern, Simon was impoverishing himself in two ways. On the one hand, he had so drawn the lines of his self-concern that he was in fact a small self – defined by small loving. (!) This diminution of himself was an impoverishment to society: the woman would be ignored or excluded by him, not enriched.
“On the other hand, Simon’s self-limitation was such that he foreclosed the opportunity for his own growth. (!) His excluding of the other reinforced the smallness of himself. Had Jesus conformed to Simon’s expectations, then the man would have been left in his smallness. He would have been gratified, no doubt, by the confirmation of his exclusive [and narrow] world -- and he would have felt a pleasant affirmation of himself [by Jesus] -- but he would never have noticed how restricted and impoverished that self was. (!) Nor would he have seen that those restrictions involved him in guilt that placed him (as well as the woman) in deep need of forgiveness. …
“Through the short parable and through direct confrontation, Jesus critiqued his host. This very act of judgment against Simon is [in fact] witness to Jesus’ love. For by awakening Simon to his true need, Jesus provides the catalyst for change. Suddenly Simon has thebopportunity to see his smallness, and to break out of his exclusive prison to a new inclusiveness of being wherein he can reach out to others, enriching them and being enriched by the realization of justice.
“Jesus calls the woman and the Pharisee to a new mode of life.” (unquote)
After talking with the host, Jesus turned again to the woman, looking fully in her eyes, freshly baptized by her tears and twinkling now with the light of her love: "Your faith has saved you, go in peace." Not "go... and sin no more" but simply, "Go... in peace. Your faith has saved you." Now, that's true Grace!
Friends, I think the Church as an institution (not only the Pharisees of old) still owe that dear sister an apology for besmirching her memory (calling her a "sinful woman" for so long) when what she did was to celebrate her recovery and show her love for Jesus.
And we should thank this bold woman for bringing herself -- her essence, her whole body & soul, her best gifts of alabaster and precious oil, and (most of all) for bringing the reality of her devotion! -- to Jesus... not just bringing pious "words!" She really showed love; and she did it very well! (We who hope to be better lovers could learn much from our Sister Saint!)
But (to be honest) I'm not sure what we would do if such a one as she were to grace this congregation (once we again resume face-to-face in-person worship services)... What if a bold, passionate, loose woman like her were to come in off the street to visit our Church, this Body of Christ with our feet of clay... If this woman came to us, wearing a short skirt and strong perfume, with her hair loose and her spirit free, I suspect that some of us good church-going folk would stiffen a bit… a few might even frown. I suspect there'd be some whispering: "Is she a sinner!? Look at those clothes. Look at those piercings, those tattoos. What’s she doing here? "
Yes, I am concerned that, in our efforts to do everything "right", Churches are tempted to continue that same “up-tight” biblical definition of holiness (that the Pharisees held) which would exclude her, and sisters like her, from our fellowship & our pot-luck parties! Let’s be honest: We’re not really as “open” (not really as “affirming”) toward some people as we are toward others. We say: “Whoever you are, and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here!” But do we actively reach out to invite people like her?
The sudden appearance of this woman at the Pharisee's party, still takes us by surprise. Her sensual demonstration of love still makes some Christians blush. But for all that, if such a one as she were to choose to join us in a pew, I pray that her presence would not be unwelcome at First Congregational UCC of Alpena!
For, in God's grace-driven passion -- in Jesus’ loving Way -- the unexpected and the undeserving are blessed! Whom Christ has made free, is free indeed! All people who have been embraced by God's Grace are our sisters and brothers in Christ, whoever they are! May we learn to say, with Jesus: "Your faith has saved you. Go in peace." Amen.
LET US PRAY...
In memory of the one, who was embraced by God's Grace and then went out of her way to show love for the Christ who had set her free, I say: Come to us, dear Sister, with the fire of your passion and your hot tears of release. Forgive our lingering prejudice against you.
May the fire of the Holy Spirit melt our cold hearts, break through our Pharisee silences, and exorcise that demon of narrow moral judgmentalism!
Make our Church fit for Jesus Christ, who ate & drank... and who befriended sinners.
Help us, God, through the witness of this, our Sister, to break free from our subconscious fear of the flesh... from our fear of passion, of emotion, & devotion. Remind us of her, dear God, when we are tempted to have your Church become something like the Pharisees: quick to judge others' sins and slow to show affection. Remind us through her story, to simply love Jesus more.
Finally, help us learn from her how to love you whole-heartedly and to show it boldly, with extravagance, so that we (in our own way in our own day) get the reputation here at First Congregational of being a bunch of "former sinners" who will take every opportunity -- every open door -- to support the ministry of Jesus Christ, Her Savior & Ours; in whose precious name we pray. Amen.
Suchocki, Marjorie Hewitt “God Christ Church: A Practical Guide to Process Theology”, Crossroad Publishing Co, 1982, page 95