Sunday, July 28, 2013

Well, this is awkward: a sermon on the footwashing sinner at Simon the Pharisee's house

Children’s message

Who likes to go barefoot in the summer?  When is it OK?  When is it not?  Sports games, school, meeting the president.  If your shoes are muddy.  If the house is clean.  What about in church?  Would it be OK to go without shoes here?  Yes, it would, but we don’t very often. [I was barefoot for the whole service.]  What happens if we don’t clean off our feet?  Or take off our shoes in a friend’s house?  Or wipe the dog’s feet when they’re muddy?

Let’s hear the Scripture and listen for dirty feet.

Scripture:  Luke 7:36-50

One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.

Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.”

Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.”

“Teacher,” he replied, “Speak.”

Jesus said, “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?”

Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.”

And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”

But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”

And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”


Well, this is awkward.  There’s some … renegade backwater prophet wandering around Judea.  He claims he’s been sent to bring good news to the poor and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.  He’s been casting out unclean spirits and curing people with various kinds of diseases.  He told some paralytic that his sins were forgiven and to stand up and walk -- even though no one can forgive sins but God alone.  He’s even healed a guy on the Sabbath, a day when no work can be done.

He’s picked up some followers -- kind of a scummy crowd, smelly fisherman and some hated guy from the IRS.  And he drinks, like some kind of glutton, and he eats with sinners, and is going around teaching people about loving their enemies and avoiding hypocrisy and judgment.

This is just … awkward.

So the Big Deal Guys, the religious leaders, the Pharisees, invite him to a dinner.  After all, what this weirdo is claiming to do is new and dangerous.  There’s a lot of fear going around about who this guy is and what he can do.  They need to find out his motives.  And what better way than over a nice meal?

Except it isn’t a nice meal.  Simon the Pharisee makes it pretty clear that this is no polite parlay over a four-star leg of lamb.  He skipped some pretty basic social graces:  no water for Jesus’ feet, no oil to freshen up his head, no welcoming kiss on the cheek.  It’s as if Simon is leaning against the doorway, his brow wrinkled, his lip curling, and saying (sarcastically) “It’s so nice to see you.”  It’s a big faux pas by the Big Deal Guys, to let Jesus’ dirty feet go unwashed, to let their dislike and fear show so clearly.

Then it gets more awkward, because some woman shows up with a jar of ointment.

The text just calls her a “sinner”.  We don’t know what she did.  We just know that she was a sinner -- and that everyone knew about it.  And isn’t that kind of the fear?  That it doesn’t actually matter what you’ve done -- but everyone might know about it.  The kind of fear you feel when you walk into a busy room and everyone looks at you and stops talking.  The kind of fear you feel when you’re standing in the doorway, looking in at Jesus surrounded by the religious elite, and everyone is looking at you and whispering.  “If he were a prophet, he would know what kind of sinner that is.”

Somehow this sinner took a deep breath and did it anyway.  She showed up with her alabaster jar.  She got through the crowd at the Pharisee’s door.  She got to the spot at Jesus’ feet.

There is a lot of courage in that step.  There is so much courage in this woman, this sinner, who walks into a room full of Pharisees who fear Jesus and people who fear her own sinfulness.  She walks right through that fear up to the feet of the source of love.

Because that is what she has come for:  not fear, but love.  Not repentance, not pleading, not sacrifice, but for the great love that arises in her when she hears the words “Your sins are forgiven.”  She chooses to live not out of fear but out of love.  Not out of fear of the Pharisees or the crowds or her own sin but out of the love that God is casting down and out and everywhere in the man called Jesus of Nazareth.

Which is beautiful.

And awkward.  Because Jesus says, in verse 47:

“She has done all these things for me; therefore her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.”  

So showing love leads to receiving forgiveness which leads to showing love which leads to … receiving forgiveness … which leads to showing love?

Well, which comes first, the forgiveness or the egg?  The chicken or the love?  If there is a catch-22, then let’s call this a catch-47.

So which comes first?  We need to know.  We need to know how to get into this cycle of love and forgiveness and love and forgiveness and love.  We need to know which one comes first so we can get in on this miracle train that spins us into what Jesus promises this sinner:  salvation and peace.

There are days when I like to think I am Simon the Pharisee.  That I have answers, that I can demand answers to my questions, that I know what I’m doing.  And then God pats me sweetly on the head and says “That’s so cute”, and I remember that I like everyone else have this little tendency to fall into sin and brokenness and self-reliance which only ends up with resentment and hurt feelings and struggle.  I remember that being so very sure of myself and my own excellence at this whole “life” thing has ended up, more often than not, far away from love and forgiveness and salvation and peace.

So please tell me where the cycle starts, because I needed to get on that train about twenty-eight years ago.  Do I start with showing love or receiving forgiveness?  Just tell me because I know for sure I need a lot more of both in my life.

And Jesus looks across the room of whispering people and disapproving Pharisees and says “Your faith has saved you.”

Faith.  Faith is what gets us hooked into this constant and awkward and beautiful cycle of receiving forgiveness and showing love.  Not faith as in how much I pray, or how hard, or how well.  Not faith as in how lily-white-clean I scrub my outward appearance.  Not faith as in how good I am or appear to be but faith as in God reaching down and catching my hand, tugging at my heart, whispering in my ear.
This sinner shows up because she has this sneaking suspicion that there is something going on with this Jesus guy.  She doesn’t know what or why.  She couldn’t have told us, staying in the doorway of the Pharisee’s house, that she was going to receive forgiveness of sins.  She just followed her gut, that funny tug right at the edge of her heart, like a fishing line cast by love that hooks right into the broken and fearing bits of us and says “Come on.  Come in.  There is something for you here.”

This is what faith does to us.  Faith grabs us, pulls us in, invites us to shed our fear and live in love, douses our dirty feet in ointment and tears and grace.  Faith catches us up in this whirlwind of love and forgiveness and love and forgiveness and love.

This is awkward.  This is awful.  This is awesome.  This is grace.


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