Tuesday, November 24, 2015

I Really Can't Understand It ...

If you have gone virtually anywhere in public lately you know that we are already being pushed over the precipiece into the "Christmas Season."   We haven't even finished our first helping of turkey (not to mention all of the leftovers to come), and it's carols in the air, bell ringers outside of grocery stores, and in a completely incomprehensible move people are being encouraged to buy their trees.  And along with the usual holiday hoopla come the cries of a "war on Christmas" and the adament assertion that we need to "put the Christ back in Christmas."

At the same time, many of the same folks who want to assure Christ's place in Christmas are turning their backs on a humanitarian crisis of an overwhelming proportion.  More than half of the governors in the U.S. have declared that they would close their boarders to the resettling of Syrian refugees within their states.  This is not something they actually have the authority to do, of course, and it is most certainly not "what Jesus would do."  Perhaps they've misplaced their WWJD bracelets.

I find it important to remind myself -- and I do need reminding ... a lot -- that people with whom I disagree are, for the most part at least, no doubt good people who see the world differently than I do.  The conservative and liberal worldview are fundamentally different, and the beliefs and actions that flow from these worldviews are of necessity different as well.  Just because I disagree with someone, just because I cannot understand their position, does not mean that they are stupid, or misguided, or evil.  They may be stupid, misguided and evil, of course, but if I look at what they say and do through my lens I am in no position to judge.  I have to try to remind myself to try my best to look through their lens to see if what they're saying and doing makes sense within the context of their own worldview.  Hence, the need to remind myself of the need to at least try to comprehend before I condemn.

When I look at the reactions to recent terrorist attacks in Bomako, Paris, Sharm el Sheikh, and elsewhere around the world, I see inconsistencies.  For instance:

It's been said that these extremist Muslims hate the United States because they hate our freedoms and our way of life.  And yet the responses -- closing our boarders, refusing to give refuge to people in need, increasing surveilance of our citizenry, closing mosques and putting people on watch lists -- all seem to have the effect of limiting our freedoms and contradicting the fundamental principles of "our way of life."  It is, of course, conceivable that such actions will make a miniscule difference in our safety -- and I don't see how it could with any seriousness be argued that any of these, or even all of these, measures would make much of a difference at all -- yet if they cause us to effectively reject the very thing the terrorists are accused of denouncing, haven't we essentiall declared their victory?  "The terrorists want to destroy our way of life," it's said, and yet our response is to do it for them.  An inconsistency.

These Mulsim terrorists hates us because we're Christian, is another assertion.  Let us set aside for a moment that the United States is not now nor has it ever been a Christian nation.  (No less than George Washington explicitly said so!)  Still, let's let that stand.  What are Chrisian values?  Love, even to loving those who hate us.  Serving the needs of "the least of these," those who are most in need of care and comfort.  If Islam is, as is declared, a religion that teaches intolerance and hate, while Christianity teaches acceptance and love, why is it that the response of so-called Christians -- the same ones who want to ensure that Christ stays in Christmas -- is more like the marginal and extremist expressions of Islam than mainstream Christianity?  Again ... if they hate us because of our Christianity, why don't we respond as Christians?

And then there are just facts.  Stephen Colbert coined the term "truthiness" for that brand of thinking that prefers things that sound like truth, that confirm our own beliefs, to actual verifiable facts, but here are some nonetheless.  (And I thank a member of the congregation I serve for this comparison of fact to fiction)

1) "The attackers in Paris were refugees from Syria."
The attackers were French and Belgian nationals, none of them were born in Syria or Iraq or any Daesh (The Arabic abbreviate name for ISIS, which they reportedly hate being called) occupied countries. One of the attackers was found with a Syrian passport which authorities have determined to be a fake, according to a report by the BBC.
2) "The vetting process for refugees is too easy."
The process for vetting refugees is quite thorough, and takes around 18-24 months to complete. For Syrians, the application process can take longer due to security concerns. A terrorist would have a much easier time applying for a tourist or business Visa. Even still, Visa requirements are waived for up to a 90 day stay in the U.S., if originating from a country such as France or Belgium, from where the attackers had passports.
Before a refugee even faces U.S. vetting, he or she must first clear an eligibility hurdle. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees — or occasionally a U.S. embassy or another NGO (non-governmental organization) — determines which refugees (about 1 percent) should be resettled through its own process, which can take four to 10 months.
Once a case is referred from the UNHCR to the United States, a refugee undergoes a security clearance check that could take several rounds, an in-person interview, approval by the Department of Homeland Security, medical screening, a match with a sponsor agency, "cultural orientation" classes, and one final security clearance. This all happens before a refugee ever steps foot onto American soil.
There is a concern for how much background information can be collected on an applicant, since it is very difficult to get background records from war torn Syria. This could potentially create a security concern, however as noted, there are much easier and quicker ways for a terrorist to enter the country and do harm.
3) "The Syrian refugees are mostly military age males."
The Syrian refugees, according to the UNHCR, are 50.5% female. Children 11 years and younger account for 38.5%. Conservative sites have been quoting misleading numbers about the percentage of males, putting them usually around 72%. However this accounts for refugees from 9 other countries as well, and only for Mediterranean Sea crossings, half of which are Syrian. "Single men of combat age" represent only 2% of those admitted to the U.S.
4) "The Tsarnaev brothers who bombed the Boston Marathon were refugees"
The Tsarnaevs were children of asylees whose parents did not go through the refugee processing system. Asylees and Refugees have similar but separate legal distinctions according to the U.S. government. A Washington Post headline did once say that they were refugees, which according to the legal definition is incorrect and misleading. Refugees are selected by the UN, an embassy, or by an NGO, while asylees are people who have already arrived in the U.S. and want to apply for asylum status.
The Tsarnaevs came here as young men and were radicalized in the U.S.A., as opposed to being terrorists who came to the country disguised as refugees.
5) "We are taking in too many of them already"
There are 4 million refugees displaced from the Syrian conflict that are registered by the UNHCR. The president has vowed to take in 10,000 of them this year.
6) "Muslim countries don't even take in any refugees, why should we? They should help their own people."
Turkey (1.9 million), Lebanon (1.1 million), Jordan (629k), Saudi Arabia (100-500k), Iraq (247k), and the United Arab Emirates (242k) are the top countries with hosted Syrian refugee populations. The next closest Western country is Germany, with around 200,000 registered refugees. The U.S. has so far taken in 2,200.
The Gulf States such as Saudi Arabia are not perfect in their treatment however, since they have limited to no means of obtaining citizenship, permanent re-settlement, or work visas for refugees. Many seek refuge in Europe and the US as a result.
7) "Most terrorist attacks on U.S. soil have been committed by Muslims"
Since Sept. 11, 2001, nearly twice as many people have been killed by white supremacists, anti-government fanatics and other non-Muslim extremists than by radical Muslims.


Even when I try to understand the thinking of those who are saying such things, even when I try to look at the world through the lens they do, I still can't fathom who their responses make sense.  Perhaps I'm missing something, but I feel certain that they are.

Pax tecum,


Friday, November 20, 2015

When Faced With Evil: a religious response

I've been listening to the news about the terrorist attacks in Paris, and Bamako, and Sharm el-Sheikh. And I've been listening to the responses -- from the declaration of one of the Presidential candidates that he would "bomb the s--t out of ISIS," to the ever-growing Greek chorus demanding that we refuse to allow refugees into our country, and that we should put more people on more lists.  Does anyone really believe that this reactionary hysteria is the right thing to do?  Or that it will have any effect on our safety

Tonight on NPR I heard an Evangelical Christian Pastor, a Rabbi, and an Imam each asked what it meant to them to "pray for Paris."  And that's something we need more of in times like this -- a religious response.  The airwaves are saturated with knee-jerk, fear-and-retribution based reactions.  But what does faith say?  And, in particular, I ask myself what my Unitarian Universalist faith has to say when faced with actions so heinous that they can really only be called "evil."

On September 16, 2001, I was serving the First Universalist Church of Yarmouth, Maine.  Five days earlier hijacked planes flew into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.  It was the most devastating terrorist attack on American soil in our history.  As I entered the pulpit that following Sunday I knew that I needed to speak to the religious response, the Unitarian Universalist faith's response.  The words I spoke that day still strike me as true.  I offer them again in response to these current tragedies. 

"Love, Peace, Faith, Hope" by David Pacey, copyrighted (2014) under Creative Commons License.

When Faced With Evil
a sermon delivered on September 16, 2001 at the First Universalist Church in Yarmouth, Maine

“For there to be peace in the world . . . there must be peace in the heart.”

Opening Words:   
Our opening words are taken from the Holy Qu’ran, al-Hujurat 49:13:
“O humankind!  We created you from a single pair of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other not that ye may despise each other.”

 My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
So much has been destroyed
I have cast my lot with those who, age after age,
perversely, with no extraordinary
power reconstitute the world.”
—Adrienne Rich
* * *
This past July, during the Question & Answer service, someone asked, “How do you reconcile Universal Salvation with Timothy McVeigh?”  This question came to the fore again this week—how do we reconcile our Unitarian Universalist optimism, our belief in the “inherent worth and dignity of every person,” our theological presumption that “ no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should,” how do we reconcile these things with the events that took place in New York City and Washington DC and rural Pennsylvania last Tuesday?  How do we make sense of the tragedy that’s unfolded and is unfolding still?  Upwards of 5,000 people are missing and presumed dead, countless others are wounded in body and spirit; innocent men, women, and children—whose only crime was being on the wrong plane at the wrong time—were used as weapons.  It has long been a tactic of terrorists to pack their bombs with bits of glass, broken screws, rusty nails in order to increase the devastation; these terrorists packed their bombs with people.  What are we to do when faced with such evil?
To prepare for this morning I looked in the back of our hymnal, where the readings and hymns are organized by theme, but there is no listing for “Tragedy;” there is no listing for “Evil.”  It seems that our hymnal is void of resources to which we can turn for support in a time like this.  Or is it?  The reading we just heard—those beautifully evocative words from Adrienne Rich—is #463.  And that haunting song with which we began our service and the one we’ll sing in a moment are both there too.  I will to come back to these responses, but first I want to dwell a bit longer with the questions.
We Unitarian Universalists don’t talk about evil very much.  Maybe that’s because our Universalist ancestors believed so strongly in the doctrine of Universal Salvation—that all souls would be reunited with an ultimately loving God and that none are destined for an eternity in hell.  If you take away hell, perhaps, the idea of “evil” doesn’t make quite so much sense because there’s nowhere to “put” it.  Or maybe it’s because our Unitarian ancestors were so convinced of humanity’s ability to climb onward and upward, to rise above our basest instincts.  (An old joke has it that Universalists believed God is too loving to damn humanity and that Unitarians believed humanity is too good to be damned.)  Perhaps it’s that our Unitarian Universalist rationalism has been so infused with the psychological mythologies of our day that turn “demons” into “conditions,” that “evil” has become “maladjustment” and “bad choices.”
By whatever route, it seems that our religious tradition has largely lost the language to deal with something like what happened this week: because someone decided that the United States was the Enemy and that there are no innocents here, because someone decided that their own lives—and the lives of all those people on the planes and in and around those buildings—were expendable, the Pentagon lies in rubble, the Twin Towers are no more, and a planeload of heroes lie dead in a Pennsylvania field.
How are we to make sense of that?
One response is to name the act and the persons who committed it “evil” and, so, separate ourselves from them.  Hopefully we won’t take the step of expanding this demonization, you and I are not likely to start saying that all Muslims—or all Afghanis—are at fault and should pay for this.  We’re not likely to generalize in that way—although I’ve already heard some of us speak words which come disturbingly close—but even if we’re specific in our demonization, targeting only the particular people who are, in fact, responsible, we are still, I believe, making a mistake.
For if they are evil and we are not, if that’s how we see things, then we are committing the same kind of error which led to this tragedy.  That’s the problem of evil.  Not so much that it exists—in that it’s really just a fact of life, or a force of nature.  The problem of evil, as I see it, is that we are so readily tempted to imagine that it’s out there, separated from us over here; that it belongs to them and not us.  And that, I believe, is ultimately the root and the design of evil—to make us categorize the world into us and them rather than recognizing our common kinship.
Stay with me here for a moment.  The core of our Unitarian Universalist faith—and the core of all the religious faiths that I know of—points to the truth that we are part of a family that includes all of creation.  You, and I, and caterpillars, and stars, and even anti-American terrorists are, in truth, part of one family, children of one divine reality.  We call it “the interdependent web of existence.”  Martin Luther King, Jr. called it “an inescapable network of mutuality.”  Theists call it “the family of God.”  Whatever we call it, and we do have lots of names, the truth remains that our faith teaches that what is real is our connectedness.
So I believe that a working definition of “evil” could be “whatever distracts us from our essential relatedness.”  In other words, whatever convinces you that I am not your brother; whatever gets me to think of you as anything less than my kin—that thing is evil.  So even this distinction of “good” and “evil” can be seen as one of evil’s most pernicious tools, for it tempts us to think of the evil and the good as separate from one another.
The eminent Swiss psychologist Carl Jung once wrote,
 “Those who wish to have an answer to the problem of evil have need, first and foremost, of self-knowledge, that is, in the utmost possible knowledge of their own wholeness.  They must know relentlessly how much good they can do, and what crimes they are capable of, and must beware of regarding the one as real and the other as illusion.  Both are elements within their nature, and both are bound to come to light in them, should they wish—as they ought—to live without self-deception or self-delusion."  [adapted to remove gender-specific language]
In his book Peace Is Every Step, the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist monk and poet, writes about receiving a letter about a twelve-year-old girl, a refugee, whose boat was attacked by sea pirates.  The pirates raped the girl, and she threw herself into the ocean and drowned.  He writes, “When you first learn of something like that, you get angry at the pirate.  You naturally take the side of the girl.  . . . [And if] you take the side of the little girl, then it is easy.  You only have to take a gun and shoot the pirate.  But we cannot do that.”  From out of his deep meditation, Nhat Hanh wrote a poem, “Call Me By My True Names”
“. . . I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river, and I am the bird which, when spring comes, arrives in time to eat the mayfly.
I am the frog swimming happily in the clear pond, and I am also the grass-snake who, approaching in silence, feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones, my legs as thin as bamboo sticks, and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda.
I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat, who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate, and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.
. . .
My joy is like spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom in all walks of life.  My pain is like a river of tears, so full it fills the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names, so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once, so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names, so I can wake up, and so the door of my heart can be left open, the door of compassion.”
This is the religious response to evil, not setting it apart and intensifying the illusion of separation but recognizing, as Jung said, both how much good we, ourselves, can do and what crimes we, ourselves, are capable of; recognizing that both are part of each of us, that both are found in me.  As Jesus said, “Let the one without sin cast the first stone.”
Oh, it is easy to get angry at them, whether them is those who are responsible for the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, or those who are responsible for the bloodshed and the anguish in Israel and Palestine, in Northern Ireland, in Serbia.  They do such horrible, such horrendous things and we want retribution, we want revenge, we want someone to pay.  Which is just what they said before the stones were hurled, and the bombs set off, and the planes hijacked.  This cannot be our response to evil, because this is just what evil wants.
Today I say to you, with all the conviction in my soul, that we must take the harder route—opening our hearts rather than closing them, looking with compassion not only on those who are suffering because of the carnage of Tuesday but also on those who caused the suffering.  This is how “Universal Salvation” and “Timothy McVeigh” are reconciled because, in truth, such reconciliation is our only hope.  It is not easy, but unless we respond to violence with peace, to hatred with love, to fear with faith, the cycle will only continue.  Gandhi is remembered as having said, “‘an eye for an eye’ will leave the whole world blind.”  “An eye for an eye” will leave the whole world blind.
Far from having nothing to say about evil, our Unitarian Universalist faith tells us that the face of evil is the face of alienation, of separation, of us and them.  And our Unitarian Universalist faith tells us that the only response to a tragedy such as this is to look through the eyes of what is best within ourselves, opening the door of compassion and remembering our place in our common family. 
In the days, weeks, months and years ahead, our resolve will be tested.    As much as I wish I were wrong, Tuesday’s tragedies will not be the last blows struck against us.  We will be tempted to enter into a battle we cannot win, for the battle itself is the enemy.  But there is another choice.  We can say “no” to death, and “yes” to life over and over and over again, no matter how hard it becomes.  We can refuse to let go of our faith in the essential goodness of humanity, even in the light of how horrendously evil our acts can be; we can refuse to settle for the simplistic solution of “an eye for an eye,” even when it’s our own eye that has been shattered; we can refuse to replace the love in our hearts with hate, even when we ourselves suffer indescribable anguish.  As I wrote in my column in yesterday’s paper, when faced with evil the only response we can make is that we will continue to Live and will continue to Love.  Let this be what our children hear.  Let this be what our neighbors hear.  Let this be what our world hears.
Closing Words:  “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them.  But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.  And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”           —Aleksander Solzhenitsyn
Pax tecum,

Monday, November 16, 2015

A Lot Can Happen at a Dinner

"Sinner at Simon's House" (artist unknown) licensed for non-commercial reuse

This is the sermon I delivered to the Ebenezer Baptist Church on Sunday, November 15th, 2015.  Their minister, Rev. Lehman Bates was preaching at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist.  You can listen to his sermon if you prefer.

Both Pastor Bates and I preached on the same Gospel text:  Luke 7:36-50.

It is quite an honor to be standing here with you today.  On several occasions you have loaned your Pastor to the congregation that I serve, and today we get to reciprocate.  
Both of our congregations are hearing sermons on Luke 7:36-47 this morning.  It might seem pretty simple and straightforward at first, but there’s a whole lot going on in there.  

Scripture says, When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table.  Now, did you catch all that?  A couple of dozen words and Luke shows us a fencing match, a game of chess, and tells us a lot about who Jesus was and what he was up against.

The Pharisees, you know, are that group of Jewish folk who take their religion really seriously – who follow all of the commandments and the law, who do everything perfectly, and who are always on the watch to catch you if you happen to stray a little bit outside of the lines.  They’re the group that Jesus denounces time and time again as being too focused on the rules and too little on their relationship with God.  They put the rules before the relationship.  You probably know the type because we still have them today – religious folk who want to look religious; who want to be seen as religious; who want to be honored and respected for how religious they are.  Saying the right things, reading the right things, wearing the right things, yet over and over again, Jesus calls them out as hypocrites.  They’re the ones Jesus calls, “whitewashed mausoleums, beautiful on the outside, but inside full of decaying old bones.”  

You know, we’re always hearing that Jesus was criticized for eating with “tax collectors and sinners,” that he hung around too much with the unclean and the unwelcome, that he fraternized with the folks that no respectable person would spend their time on, so I’m always a little surprised when there’s a story about him eating with Pharisees, or Scribes, or other powerful people of his day.  But that’s Jesus – he’d eat with anybody!  He’d eat with sinners and he’d eat with the self-styled saints.  Poor or rich, educated or uneducated, deck stacked against you or deck stacked for you – none of that mattered to Jesus. When he looked at you, when he looked at anybody, when he looks at us today, he sees only beloved children of God.

So this Pharisee (we’ll soon learn that his name is Simon) invites Jesus to dinner and the scripture says that Jesus, “went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table.”  It doesn’t seem like all that much is going on here … and that’s the point!  There’s absolutely no mention of Simon doing anything to greet Jesus, which is incredibly strange because everyone knew that hospitality was incredibly important.  It still says a lot about a person.  Say somebody comes to your house.  What do you do?  You shake their hand and invite them in; you offer to take their coat and ask if they want something to drink; you show them to the nicest chair you have and ask them to sit down, right?  It’s what you do if you’ve got any manners at all.  And what Simon should have done was to offer Jesus a kiss of greeting, and then some water to wash his feet and a little oil to wash his hands.  It was just what you did.  But it’s not what this Pharisee did, so Simon must have, for some reason, to chosen publicly snub his guest, Jesus.  Simon went out of his way to put him down, insult him, disrespect him … in front of all of the other guests.  In that first sentence Luke is telling us that Simon had an agenda and was trying to make a point.

He also is telling us that Jesus can give as good as he gets.  Luke writes that after being snubbed by Simon’s lack of a proper greeting Jesus “reclined at table.”  In other words, he sat down.  No big deal … except that in that culture everybody knew that the oldest, most influential, most respected person was supposed to sit down first.  Again, everybody knew this, so I imagine there was something of a mischievous twinkle in Jesus’ eye as he responded to Simon’s attempt to humiliate him by casually taking the seat of honor for himself, sitting down before anyone else.  With this simple act Jesus wordlessly declared to everyone there that he didn’t need anyone else to tell him his place.  That no one else could tell him his place.

So what happens next? The Scripture says that  A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume.  As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.

A little later Jesus makes it clear that this woman had come to Simon’s house, and was waiting there, even before Jesus arrived.  The whole town had probably heard about Simon’s invitation to this itinerant teacher, and there’s no doubt that a crowd gathered to see what would happen.  And in this crowd we’re told that there was a woman who was known around town as having lived a sinful life. 

She’s often described as a prostitute, and maybe she was, but there’s nothing in the Scripture itself to support that hypothesis.  She was someone “who had lived a sinful life.”  And it seems to me highly likely that she was there that night because she’d heard Jesus preaching about how God’s love was so great that it extended even to sinners like her.  It is highly likely that she was there because she’d seen Jesus treating sinners as what he knew them to be – God's beloved children.  It is highly likely that she was there because in hearing and seeing Jesus she had felt this forgiveness herself, felt it pouring over her like the oil of anointing.  Jesus had anointed this woman with the perfumed oil of God’s forgiving love.  So she went to that dinner, and she’d brought a little alabaster jar of perfume in the hope that she might get the chance to anoint the one who had anointed her.  Can you imagine how excited she was?

So does she weep such tears that they ran down her face and onto Jesus’ feet?  Some people say it was because she felt ashamed for her sins.  But if I’m right that she had already heard, and received, and accepted God’s forgiveness – what does she have to be ashamed about?  No.  I think she’s weeping because she’d been standing there watching Simon’s inexcusable rudeness and in-hospitality.  This teacher, this prophet, who had pronounced God’s blessing even on people like her, she’d just witnessed him being treated like … well … like people like her were always been treated, and I think it broke her heart.  And just as Jesus did when his heart broke on hearing that his friend Lazarus had died, this woman wept.

And I think that when she saw her tears fall on Jesus’ unwashed feet she realized that she could give Jesus the hospitable welcome he deserved.  So she got down on her knees and used her tears to wash his feet.  She let down her hair and used it to dry those feet.  And she covered Jesus’ feet with her kisses.

Make no mistake.  This was shocking, even dangerous behavior.  Women just didn’t touch men like that in public; women didn’t even talk to holy men.  And did you know that if you were a woman and left your home with your hair down, loose around your shoulders, it was such a shameful thing that it, alone, could be a cause for divorce?    This woman was breaking taboo after taboo, and maybe most shocking of all, Jesus didn’t do anything to try to stop her!  And Luke tells us that Simon sees all of this, and says to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”

That’s really what this whole dinner invitation had been about.  This is the last in a series of stories Luke tells about the Pharisees trying to decide if Jesus was the real deal.  Crowds of people seemed to think so, but they were crowds made up mostly of the wrong people.  And this possible prophet prioritized people over propriety and respected relationships more than the rules, so they wanted to check him out.  They set up a series of tests, this dinner being one of them, and from his disgraceful non-welcome it seems that Simon had already made up his mind.  And if he’d had any doubt, this scene with this woman would have been the clincher.  “If this man were a prophet,” he said to himself, “he would know who it is who’s touching him and what kind of woman she is.”

Jesus did know who she was, of course, just as he knows who each and every one of us is.  He knew the mistakes she’d made; he knew her faults and her failings.  He knew about the times she’d tried to do the right thing but found that the wrong thing was just so much easier; he knew how she’d strayed from the straight and narrow, and all that she’d done that got her the reputation of a sinner.  And Jesus also knew about the challenges she faced in her life – he knew the losses she’d suffered, he knew the fears that kept her up at night, he knew about the bills she needed to pay with the money she didn’t have, he knew about the addictions that kept pulling on her like a scratch you can’t itch, he knew about the the family who always seemed to bring their troubles to her door, he knew the betrayals she’d endured, and he knew the oppression she endured day in and day out as a woman in an occupied land.  He knew about all of the times she thought she’d lose her mind not knowing if she could make it through another day.  Oh, Jesus knew this woman just like he knows exactly who is standing here preaching right now and who is out there in those pews listening.

And he knows us as he knew her, so he knows the times we’ve done the right thing despite the cost involved, and he knows the little kindnesses we’ve offered, and the love we’ve shared.  He knows our hopes and our dreams, and the times we’ve managed to get back on the right track after going a bit astray. Jesus knew this woman, and knows us, as God knows us – his beloved children whom he adores.  Never doubt it – Jesus knows who he is dealing with.

Which means he knew Simon, too.  He knew why Simon had invited him to the dinner; he knew what they were up to.  And he knew the judgements Simon was making about him, and about this woman, and probably about many of the other people at that table, and no doubt about himself as well.  Jesus knew all of this.  And knowing all of this he took it easy on Simon.  Jesus didn’t call him out.  Instead, he told him a story:

“Two people owed money to a certain moneylender,” he said.  “One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”

Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”

And Jesus told him that he was right.

We don’t deal in denarii too much these days, but both of these guys were in debt pretty deep.  A denarii was roughly a day’s wages, so one owed about what he could make in a month and a half, and the other owed what he would earn from a year and a half’s work.  That’s pretty serious; we’re talking real money here.  Yet the one who held the debt – and we know that Jesus is talking about God here – forgave both of them what they owed.  So both  had reason to be thankful, but the guy who had a year and a half’s worth of debt was certainly going to be the more grateful of the two.

Now we know where Jesus is going with this – this story’s been told for over 2,000 years, after all – but it doesn’t look like Simon got it.  So Jesus has to spell it out, as he so often does, and he makes sure that nobody misses the irony that this woman, whom everyone knew to be a sinner, had been more respectful and hospitable than this so-called religious man.  He makes sure that nobody misses the point that if you get stuck on what is right you can lose sight of what is real and what really matters.  

And then there’s this lovely touch.  When Jesus speaks to Simon to explain all of this he doesn’t even look at him.  Instead, Jesus pays honor to the woman who had truly embodied her gratitude and her love.  Luke writes,Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman?”  He was talking to Simon, but he was looking at the woman and he saw her.  And I imagine there must have been such warmth, such tenderness, such love in his eyes as he looked at her.

Now … in the congregation with whom I regularly worship we’ve come to expect a “so what?’ in every sermon:  “That’s really interesting, Rev. Wik, but so what?”  Today’s “so what” kind of depends on who you’ve been identifying with.

Some of us have been imagining ourselves as Jesus in this story.  Well, maybe we wouldn’t quite say that – out loud at least – but we know that it’s Jesus we’d like to be like.  He’s the one who can be put down, insulted, humiliated even, without losing his self-respect.  He’s the one who judges a person by the content of their heart rather than the category they’ve been put into.  He’s the one who reminds us that following the rules to the letter is less important than living our lives in love.  These are the things to take from the story if we identify with Jesus.

But maybe we see ourselves as the woman.  Who here has never sinned?  Who of us here this morning can claim to have always led a pure, clean, righteous life?  So we might want to identify with someone who knows they’ve fallen, just like we have, and yet is also fully assured of her state of being forgiven and her place as a child of God, no matter what people are saying about her.  If we identify with her then, like her, we have to be willing to risk disapproval, looking foolish, being shocking in our full-hearted, entirely embodied response to the Love that calls us to Life.  She reminds us to be religious rather than working so hard to look religious.

Then there’s Simon.  Probably nobody wants to see themselves in him, but most of us can, can’t we?  So sure of what’s right and what’s wrong; always knowing what propriety demands and who’s not measuring up; following all the rules and making sure people know it – we’ve all been there at some time, haven’t we?  (And if you don’t think you have, ask around.  Somebody’s sure to tell you when, where, and how.  For me it’s my wife and kids I can count on to keep me real.)  But that way of living can so easily get in the way of our loving.  Focusing on faithfully following the letter of the law can lead to us forgetting to be faithful to its spirit.  Observing all the rules of right behavior can get in the way of our being in right relationship – with each other and with our God.  Identifying with Simon can help us to remember this, to be on the lookout for this trap, and even though Scripture doesn’t tell us whether or not Simon ever got it, we can make sure that we do.

But I’ll tell you what frightens me.  I’ll confess to you what makes my knees shake as I stand here – it’s that I’m one of the ones who was there that night but who doesn’t even merit a mention:  the nameless guests.  We were there and witnessed Simon’s outrageous and offensive disregard for even the basic demands of hospitality, and we did nothing.  We watched Jesus’ wordless response, and we did nothing.  We saw the peace and joy radiating from that woman’s transfigured face, and watched her effusive outpouring of gratitude and love, and we did nothing.  We heard the story Jesus told, and even knew at some level that he was talking about us, and we did nothing.  I’m afraid that I’m one of those who walked out that night no different than when I walked in – that all I’d seen, and heard, and felt had left me unmoved, untouched, unchanged.  That's what scares me.

But there is good news.  Of course there’s good news.  No matter where we see ourselves in this story there’s good news.  We’re told that two people owed money to a moneylender and that neither of them had the money to pay him back.  But the moneylender forgave the debts of both.  And that’s good news for us because we’re all are carrying debt, debt that we can never repay, and the good news is that we don’t have to worry about that anymore because the note’s been torn up.  The good news is that our debt has been forgiven – that we have been forgiven.  You, me, everyone.  So when we leave this place let’s go out filled with gratitude, and determined to turn that gratitude into love. 

Let the people say, "Amen."

Pax tecum,