“Do You See This Woman?” Luke 7:36-8:3

“Do you see this woman?”   How can you miss her!   The question from Jesus to Simon the Pharisee strikes me as kind of funny.   Is this sarcasm on his part? 

            This whole story has had as its focal point the actions of this woman that no one could miss!   The vision is iconic.   This woman at Jesus feet is breaking all kinds of boundaries and social taboos.   She is not a guest!    Her disruptive presence at this formal dinner draws attention.  To what should I compare it?

Well, this woman at Jesus’ feet stands out in a similar way to the diner scene from “When Harry Met Sally.”   You know the one to which I’m referring.  It is charged with sexual energy.  Sally fakes an orgasm and the whole diner is suddenly, uncomfortably aware of her presence.   It is the “I’ll have what she’s having comic relief moment.Image

            This is the kind of event we have in this Gospel, a scandalous iconic image with really no comic relief.  This woman is breaking all kinds of boundaries, conventions, and rules.   She is doing something that is uncomfortably intimate with Jesus.   She has barged in on the dinner and has made herself the center of attention to the embarrassment of Simon, the host.  All eyes appear to be on her, in one way or another.  Some are undoubtedly outright gawking, some sneaking sideways glances trying to figure out what to make of it, make of her, trying to make sense of her actions, whispers in the corner, gasps around the room.   Certainly Simon is doing that as he mutters to himself.  

Everyone it appears is looking at the woman except Jesus, who is simply eating while she ministers to his feet, until this moment of Simon’s muttering to himself, when Jesus turns and looks at the woman we are told, and then asks Simon, “Do you see this woman?”

            What kind of a question is that?    

            It think it is the calm and nonchalant demeanor of Jesus that catches me off guard here.  “Do you see this woman?    

            We have this woman who is gushing over Jesus in all kinds of lavish responses.   We know she is a sinner.  We know that she has heard that Jesus is here, and that is why she comes all prepared to do this thing for him, and she kneels and weeps and wipes and anoints with expensive perfume.   For a long time, I read this as her coming to Jesus wanting forgiveness, and doing all these extraordinary things in order to gain forgiveness from Jesus.

            But that’s not what is going on, and we can tell that from the Jesus’ parable.   “A certain creditor had two debtors, one owed 500 denarii, another 50. When they could not pay he cancelled the debts of both of them.  Now, which of them will love him more?

Note as Jesus tells the parable it is not future oriented.   The debts are cancelled already.

            Now catch the way Simon answers, how nonchalantly Simon observes, “I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.”

            That is what prompts Jesus’ casual response .  Do you see this woman?  He is not at all surprised at the outpouring of actions by this woman.  What Jesus is surprised at, is how Simon does not see her in the same way that he sees himself! 

             “Do you see this woman?”    Jesus knows she has been forgiven much, and it is out of her effusive and unrestrained gratitude that she now lavishes her thanks on Jesus.  In fact, her actions are suddenly cast by the parable in stark contrast to Simon’s actions, and his own expression of gratitude.  Sure, he invited Jesus over to dinner, but he’s only done the bare minimums of hospitality.   Simon’s own observation becomes commentary on his own actions.  Which one will love him more?

             “I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.”  Simon says.

             And it is at precise at that moment that Jesus says casually, “Do you see this woman?”   Jesus is not referring just to her presence, but he’s pointing out to Simon the deeper reality present in her actions.   Do you see her actions in a new way?  

            Here’s the thing, I am way too guilty of being like Simon.   I’m a reasonably nice guy.  I try to keep my nose clean.   I have some faults.   I know Jesus has forgiven me.   I live in that assurance and so I also have a tendency to get kind of casual about that.   I go to church, throw a few dollars in the plate, say “nice sermon pastor” and walk back out not really all that moved by the whole experience because I figure Jesus hasn’t had to do a whole lot in the way of forgiving me.   

            I’m a Simon.

            I do not really see this woman; see what is happening in her, it is all foreign to me. Because I am a Simon, I sometime lose touch with what the encounter with Jesus can and will do, should do when we recognize what God in Christ Jesus has done for us.

            I’m pretty sure in Colorado Springs and Royal Gorge today there will be people gathering for worship whose houses are gone, and some whose houses have been spared, and for some there will be effusive praise of God for having been shown mercy from the flames, and for others there will be deep sense of gratitude that although everything they own is gone, they are still alive.   If you have had a brush with death, your perspective will change.  In those communities if people are weeping this morning, or taking love offerings that overflow the basket to help one another, that kind of extravagant outpouring or action will not be seen as unusual, or draw much attention.

            I’m pretty sure that in any gathering, even in the church, there are people who would be ready to weep at the feet of Jesus for the mercy that has been shown to them.  There are also a lot of Simons, who with their jaundiced eye can only see the latest impropriety by this person, or that policy, or those actions. 

            Simon is so easy to fall into. 

           “If Jesus knew what you were up to, he wouldn’t want anything to do with you….”  Simon thinks…..we sometimes think…

            I confess to you my brothers and sisters that I sometimes get far too caught up in policy, procedure, propriety and property.  I sometimes, like Simon, lose sight of the kind of life transforming experience it can be to realize that I have been forgiven much.  I treat forgiveness like a casual thing.  I treat Jesus’ living presence in this assembly, in this church, in this community, in this world as if he is my guest enjoying my hospitality instead of it being the other way around.  I have nothing that has not been given to me as free gift from God.

            I confess that when I have this all too casual understanding of the presence of God, I often find myself engaging in judging the actions, motivations, or abilities of others.  I, like Simon, find myself looking down my nose at the exuberance of others in their faith.   

            Or, I question their sincerity.

            Or, I wonder what’s really behind their actions.  I dismiss the fact that maybe, just maybe they are down on their knees, weeping and giving extravagantly thankful for what Jesus has already given them.

            And when that thought does occur to me, then I wonder why I’m not like her. 

            Do you see this woman?  

           That is where you ought to be Simon.

           That’s where I ought to be, willing to serve without recognition, willing to give my best, not caring what others think, and grateful, so incredibly grateful for what God has done for me, for us, and for this world that I cannot help but kneel at the feet of Jesus in thanksgiving.

          I confess to you my brothers and sisters that I am sick to death of the bickering, back-sniping, snide comments made about others that seems to pervade our world, our politics, our larger church expression and yes, even our local congregations.  There are days that I wonder why it is that God doesn’t just wipe us off the map, not leave one brick standing on another, and bring us to our knees so that our mouths will be silenced and our hearts will cleansed of the worm that seems to perpetually eat at us.

          And, it is then that I am grateful for that casual, calm voice of Jesus that says, “Do you see this woman?”    

          And in the pregnant pause that follows, I imagine Jesus smiling down at her, and her smiling back up at him, and Simon watching it all, and maybe as he listens to Jesus explain his own shortcomings, beginning to realize that he can join her.

            “Who is this, who even forgives sins?”  Even my sins of my own arrogance, judgment of others, pride, envy, fear, greed, cynicism, and privilege, …all those things that I too often consider to be no big deal, a little thing to forgive, but the very things that really are keeping me from joining this gratitude filled woman at the feet of Jesus.

            “Do you see this woman?”

            Do you see yourself in Simon?

            Do you see yourself in this story?

            Do you see where you would rather be?

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“Processional Interruption” Luke 7:11-19

You have experienced it, that “awkward meeting” where your mood clashes with the mood of another.   Maybe you and a group of your friends have left a restaurant after having a really great dinner.   Your mood is light and you just want to keep on laughing and chatting and wish the whole world could join you.

 You step out of the restaurant still joking and carrying on and are met with the dour look by a person walking in.   You can tell it by the look the face, the “no mood for your laughter” kind of look that your joy is not what they are interested in.  

It’s a little awkward. 

Picture that in this Gospel story from Luke 7  We have two crowds going two separate directions.  Jesus has just come from the healing of the Centurion’s slave, and he is pumped.  “Never in all of Israel have I seen faith like this!”  He just exclaimed.  He has to be excited, or at very least busily trying to explain why he is so excited at the faith of this outsider to his own disciples.  Picture that group of friends making their way back into the city laughing and talking excitedly.  That has to be in sharp contrast to the other crowd moving toward him.  

This widow of the town of Nain has lost her only son, and being without a husband, has also lost her only hope for a future.  For you see; in that culture and at that time, women could not hold property.  She would have been dependent upon having a male in the household for her provision, her livelihood.

No husband.

No son.

No future.

It is a sad procession bumping into an energetic one, and when that happens there is so much potential for misunderstanding.  You know what this can be like – a little awkward.

I suppose Jesus could have just sidestepped with his disciples and reverently let them pass, or tried to hush his followers until the procession has gone by, but that is not what Jesus does.   No, instead Jesus makes an awkward situation even more awkward still.  Seeing the woman and realizing her predicament, we are told that he has compassion on her, stops the funeral procession, tells the grieving one not to cry. 

Awkward.

But the story goes on from there.   Jesus raises the son, gives him back to his mother, and then just moves on.

More Awkward, two processions left aghast.

What do we learn from this awkward story? 

Well first of all, we learn that Jesus does not seem much interested in standing on ceremony and doing what is expected.   Interrupting a funeral procession is no small faux pas in any culture.   His compassion compels him to do what is frowned upon in polite society.  He interrupts grief.  Jesus reaches out and touches that bier, and the whole crowd freezes where they are.   All eyes focus on him, and on what he says, and on what he does.

Hear what he says… “do not weep.”

How, stupid!  How silly that must have sounded to both crowds that day!   Do not weep?    Can’t we all see the dead body?   Can’t we all see the grief stricken faces?  Can’t we all understand how hard this is, to carry on as if nothing has happened?    Are you crazy, Jesus?   Do not weep?

No, Jesus is not crazy.  But Jesus knows what comes next.  See, that’s not something that any of us are privy to here, or in this life.   I cannot see what the future will hold. 

But Jesus knows, and it is the confidence that God holds the future, whatever it is, that causes Jesus to say “Do not weep.”   

Something is about to happen that neither crowd here could have ever expected, ever dreamt of happening.  It will wipe away their tears. It will cause all in the processions to be seized with fear and glory.  It will make the whole crowd, no matter which way they were headed, proclaim “God has looked favorably upon his people!”

So I invite you to listen to Jesus today, as he reaches out to stop your procession. 

“My procession?”  You may ask.   Oh yes, you are on one, a procession of some kind. 

Maybe it is the procession of loss of a job, or the illness of a spouse. 

Maybe your procession is one of the drone of an unfulfilling job, or underemployment. Monday is coming, then “Hump Day!”  and finally Livin’ for Friday!  Then starting all over again, and again, and again in joyless, life draining repetition.

Maybe your procession is that of a failing body, a receding hairline, a bulging middle, or any other of a thousand ways that you perceive that you don’t “measure up” to the expectations of this world.  You are no longer sexy, young, desirable, employable or any number of other “able’s” out there.

Maybe your procession is the tired recycling of the news cycle, the inability of government to work or act, the incessant drum beat of only reporting bad news, or the loss of confidence and trust in any kind of institution.

Maybe your procession is intensely personal, the procession of pain from the lack of acceptance of who you are by this society that is constantly trying to fit you into a box of sexuality, status, race, ethnicity, gender, or any other of a hundred ways that we label and separate and judge one another.

Oh, when you look at it, really look at it, we are all on a procession of some kind.  If not on your own particular one, then for sure on the general procession that we all make toward the grave.   

Gee, I’m such a cheery guy today!

“Do not weep!”  Jesus says to us. 

And we think Jesus a little bit crazy for saying it, but God has something in store for us all, and as hard as it is to believe that, it is something that we would never have been able to have experienced without a death.   Not only does Jesus stop the procession, telling them not to weep, but he also does something else, and to see that we have to not just look at what Jesus says, but also look at what Jesus does.  

Now, I know you think that I’m going to talk about the resurrection now.  I know you think I’m going to talk about the restoration of the son to his mother, the “getting back” of what was lost to her.   I know that for many of you that would be your greatest hope, the most longed for outcome.  

“Give us back, Jesus!   Give us back what we have lost!”   

That’s where we want to run because that is what we’d really like Jesus to do for us, restore things the way they were, usually.

But that is not what I want to point out.  

No, what I want you to see is the first thing that Jesus does in this story, and that is this:   In verse 13 we read about the first thing that Jesus does:  

We read; he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.”  14Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!”  15The dead man sat up and began to speak,

“When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her….”

It’s not resurrection that Jesus does first.

It’s not restoration that moves the events of this story along.

It is compassion that Jesus feels, and compassion is what he does. 

Compassion is the first thing that Jesus does.  It is compassion that empowers him to move, to resurrect, to reach out, to act, and to speak. Nothing else happens in this story without that first move of compassion. 

And the other detail of this story that is missing but that jumps out at me And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!”  15The dead man sat up and began to speak,

And it is at that point that my gears start to spin again.

“I wonder just what it is that the son said?” 

 What do you say after you have been brought back from the dead?

Did this young man finish the last sentence he was speaking just as he died?    Was death for him like a suspension of time?   Something he did not even know had passed and so he picks up right where he left off and just goes on as if nothing had happened?

Or, did he express thanks and gratitude to Jesus, and love for his mother.  Did he begin to comment on how great it was to be alive again, what kind of changes he would make to his life now that he realized its fragility and preciousness?

Or, did he speak as one dismayed.  Having passed over into the new life, was he upset to be dragged back to this old one of struggle and responsibility?  Was he irked and being brought back again to live with his mother?  “What did you do that for Jesus?”

Or, did this man simply stammer, trying to figure out where he was and what exactly had happened to him, and what he ought to do next?   Disoriented and confused, does Jesus hand him back to his mother to have her fill in the gaps?

There are, you see, so many possibilities.   So many different ways this story could go from this point on, and certainly it went somewhere, but we are not privy to it.  We are left to wonder what he said, and where it all went from here.  But we do have this assurance, the man clearly has something to say, and whatever he said had to be the result of having experienced both death and resurrection.

That is the good news for all of us.   This is an important thing that we sometimes lose sight of while we are in our various processions in life.  I don’t really know what you all are going to say in the day and weeks and months to come, as you make your way through your procession of life, but this is my prayer for you.

I pray that you will experience the compassion of Jesus, who stops processions, tells you not to weep, and then goes on to raise the dead, even the dead in you.   And when that happens, when you have experienced this compassion of Jesus, you will have something to say.  

Interrupted processions, that’s what we have in this story.   May Jesus interrupt yours, and may you then have the grace and compassion to say something to a world that is too often far too caught up in its own little processions toward death.

“Authority?” Luke 7:1-10

         There are a lot of times that Jesus does things differently than I really wish he would have done them, like today’s Gospel for example, when he lauds the faith of this Centurion. 

This  is just not helpful, Jesus.  Why is this not helpful?  Well, here is my dilemma.

I am living in the days of shrinking worship attendance, a world where people are completely comfortable with being, “Spiritual, but not religious.”  It is a world where time honored institutions are being held in disregard or at least with a healthy sense of suspicion.  

What I really need Jesus to do today when this Centurion contacts him is to do what he’s done half a dozen times before in the Gospels, lift up the call to discipleship!

I want him to look at this Centurion the way he did at the fisherman by the Sea of Galilee and say, “Come, and follow me.”   I want Jesus to look at him and say the same thing he did to the rich young ruler; “There is just one thing you have to do.  Sell your possessions, give alms to the poor, and come follow me.”

            You want your slave healed?   Then here is the deal.  My sheep hear my voice and they come to me.   Come, follow, be a part of the movement.

            Or, in a way that relates to my world.  You want something from the church, great, come and join with us here and become a part of the ministry.

            That would make this a really easy Gospel story to preach on, because it would fit the classic story line that we all have in our heads.   God rewards the faithful, and you can determine faithfulness by how committed someone is to the ministry, or the institution, or the cause, etc.

            This is the way we think it is.  

            Hey, it’s even the way the Elders who were sent as errand boys by the Centurion here believe it is supposed to be.  “He is worthy of having you do this for him Jesus, for he loves our people and it is he who built our synagogue.”

            I so want Jesus to do something else here other than what he does.

            I want Jesus to put out there some conditional element for this outsider to the community for gaining access to the healing power of God’s chosen and anointed.  I want Jesus to at least issue an invitation for repentance, for the Centurion to change his life, his allegiance, maybe release his slave, who though he highly values him still retains him in servitude.   Maybe at least have the Centurion kneel and beg a little, but none of that ever happens.

            In fact, Jesus and the Centurion never meet!  

This whole exchange happens through messengers.  

First the Centurion sends the Pharisees, and then he sends other messengers when Jesus starts to get close to the house.   “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.”

There are so many things Jesus could have done that would have made me a lot happier.

            What he does instead is to commend the Centurion for his faith!

            Faith?  What faith?   The Centurion sent a message, “Valued slave ill, please expedite healing .”   The Centurion fully expected it to happen and then went back to his other business.   The event has all the charm of a CEO jotting a memo from corporate down to the branch.

            This is the kind of thing I’m swimming against the stream on, treating God like something you can tap when you have a need and forget about the rest of the time! 

            This is what Jesus commends as faith!

And that is precisely the point.  The kind of faith the Centurion exhibits is one that amazes even Jesus, and Jesus is pretty hard to amaze!  It is a faith that has to do with a clear sense of unquestioning authority.

            For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go,’ and he goes, and to another, “Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, “Do this,’ and the slave does it.”

            This is what Jesus finds utterly amazing.  He has been going about his own people proclaiming that the Kingdom of God has come near, and do you know what the typical response has been?

            It has been one of questioning!

            Where do you get this authority, Jesus, to forgive sin, to heal, to feed, to teach?  He gets questions from Pharisees, from his own disciples, from the Samaritan he meets at the well.  He gets questions from the people he heals, from the blind man, from the woman with the blood flow, from the tax collectors and even from the sinners.

            What he gets from this Centurion is something utterly different.   It is faith as a matter of unquestioned authority.  The Centurion understands that Jesus is who he claims to be, and if so, then capable.  No questions need be asked.   No verification made.  No doubt lingering in the back of the mind.

            Maybe that is what bothers me most about this story because this is a kind of faith that I don’t have.  I find myself questioning Jesus all the time.

            Where are you, Jesus, in these days of shrinking attendance, and lackluster attitudes toward the church, and faltering institutions?

            Where are you, Jesus, in these days of budget woes, and crumbling infrastructure, and surly followers?

            Where is your authority to make life better, and why aren’t you using it to benefit me?

            Ah, maybe that too, is a problem.   For, the other thing the story makes clear is that this Centurion does not ask for something that benefits him, but rather for something that benefits others.  Well, yeah, technically the continued service of the slave will be nice, but this isn’t really about function for him, but rather the needs of others. 

In fact, most of what we hear about this Centurion from the Pharisees on down is that he is uncharacteristically concerned about those under him, whether that is the people he is charged with governing, or his own soldiers, or even his servant.

            This Centurion, it seems, is a good man, who even though he is technically an enemy, (Jesus is, after all, living under Roman occupation forces!)  does act justly and honorably!   Rats, I hate it when my enemy looks more faithful than I do!

             Even if the Centurion does not understand the Jewish traditions, customs, and practices of belief, he does have a firm understanding of what is true, noble and good.   He has a firm grasp on the fact that if Jesus is one who has authority to call upon the power of God, he also has the authority and the obligation to make the good happen. 

Maybe, even a better grasp of that than I have, who still wants Jesus to play favorites, to do for me, and for mine, or to put some condition on God’s grace that favors the insiders.

          That is what is lifted up as faith; the unquestioning belief that if it is the right thing to do, Jesus will just do it.  God will just do it!

          This is just not helpful, Jesus.  Every time I try to set myself or my community up as having some exclusive corner on the Gospel, you insist on breaking through the boundaries and the barriers.   Every time I think I have figured out how is in, who is out, who I should write off and who is beyond redemption or the reach of your love, you go lifting up the actions, and really the faith of my enemy and you make them appear more nobly motivated than I am, and therefore make me question myself and how well I am really following again.

        What am I to learn from this?

        Maybe, I am to learn how to pray for my enemy.  Maybe, I am to learn that you are after this whole world, while I seem often too preoccupied with my own little corner of it.       Maybe, I am to see the power of your inexhaustible love, and the delight and joy of your amazement when faith comes at even you, unexpectedly.  Maybe, someday, I will see that, and rejoice with you as the world finds its way to you in unexpected and amazing ways, maybe even this week, if I open my eyes and look for it.