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,


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arthurrashap said...

Amen. did they invite you back for another sermon or to have dinner, Wik?
P.S. I am glad you incorporated "So What?"

Anonymous said...

Loved it! Pastor Bates' take was a little different. I live them both. Kate

Anonymous said...

Love it should be, kate