Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Greater Debt

Luke 7:36-8:3
June 12, 2016

            I've hosted a few parties before. I've thrown birthday parties for kids and adults alike. I've had open houses and planned surprise parties. I've put together spur-of-the-moment potlucks and planned formal dinner parties. Being a child of the 70's, when I first started throwing parties on my own, I always worried that they would turn out as badly as Mary's parties did on the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Mary was the epitome of a woman who had it altogether, but her parties were complete and utter disasters. She'd invite people over for drinks and the guests would arrive expecting dinner. She'd invite people over for dinner and the dinner would burn -- that kind of thing. But I also worried that my parties would go the opposite direction and become like the out-of-control teenager parties you see in movies such as "Sixteen Candles." Party crashers, people you'd never met before and certainly didn't invite, would drive their cars across your yard, put an exercise bike through the ceiling of the room below and try to cook a pizza by spinning it on your turntable. Note that when I say "your," I actually mean "your parents."
            Thankfully, I haven't experienced either of these extremes. At some of my bigger, just show up and hang out parties, I've had people drop by that I didn't expect. But I've never had party crashers. I've certainly never had them at a dinner party. Yet that is essentially what happens in this story from Luke's gospel.
            Simon, a Pharisee, invited Jesus to a dinner party.  While at this party, a woman crashed it. If I were to invite all of you to a dinner party, it would not be normal to have the neighborhood gathered around outside of my house trying to get a peek at the goings on inside. Some commentators that I've read suggest that the opposite would have been true for Simon's dinner party. Dinner parties in this culture and context were not necessarily private affairs.  The guests would have been seated inside a courtyard or a garden area. They would have been visible to people outside of the home. Jesus was becoming widely known, so it is possible that other people from the village would have stood outside the gates and watched as the host and guests went about their business. It's not hard to believe, then, that it would have been easy for this woman to walk right in.
            When she bent down to Jesus' feet, she would not have been crawling around underneath the dinner table. The guests would have been reclining around a low table or mat.  They would have lain on their sides, supporting themselves with their left hand while they ate with their right.  While reclined in this position, this encounter between the woman and Jesus unfolded.  
            We know very little about this woman, except that she was a sinner and from the city. Hearing that description might make us assume that she was a prostitute. But surely there were other ways for a woman to be a sinner back then. We don't know exactly what her sin was, but we do know that Simon knew her – or at least he knew her sin. Versions of this story are found in all four gospels. There are similarities between them, but there are also distinct differences. One that I find significant is the timing of Luke's telling. In the other gospels, Jesus was preparing for his final confrontation with the powers and principalities. He was living in the shadow of the cross. When the woman anointed him, she was anointing him for burial. It was an act of both love and grief. However Luke's telling is unique. The woman does not come to anoint him before his death. Instead, this was a moment of love and forgiveness. The unnamed woman stood behind Jesus’ feet, weeping.  She knelt and unbound her hair. She washed his feet with her tears and used her hair to dry them. She kissed his feet and anointed them with ointment from an alabaster jar she brought with her. 
            Her actions would have been scandalous to others watching. A woman did not unbind her hair in public. A woman did not touch a man’s feet. Both gestures would have been considered inappropriately intimate; actions reserved solely for a husband and wife. Whatever her sin, she was known for it, and that sinfulness would have made her unclean. Touching Jesus in this way would have made him unclean as well.
            We do not know the reactions of the other guests, but Luke tells us what Simon was thinking.  “If this Jesus guy were any kind of a real prophet, he would know the kind of woman who was touching him and he’d put a stop to it.” But Jesus, who was even more than a prophet, knew exactly what Simon was thinking and he confronted him. But as was often the case, he did not confront him with accusations. Instead Jesus posed a question and he told a story. A creditor had two debtors. One debtor owed the creditor 50 denarii, the other 500. The creditor took pity on both and cancelled both debts. Jesus asked Simon, "Who would love the creditor more?" "The one who owed him a little or the one who owed him a lot?" What could Simon say but, "The one with the greater debt.'
            Jesus told Simon his answer was correct. But what did that really mean? Sometimes Jesus ended his stories with the command to go and do likewise. However, with the telling of this parable, we get more details about what did not happen at Simon's party. The woman washed Jesus’ feet with her tears. Although the rules of hospitality would have prescribed having water ready to wash away the grime and grit on his guest’s feet, Simon did not offer Jesus any water for washing. The woman anointed Jesus with oil and could not stop kissing his feet. But Simon neither greeted his guest with a kiss or with oil. Simon did none of those things. Yet, the woman, the sinner, did.  Why?  Because I think she sensed that in Jesus, she was forgiven. She knew the depth to which she needed forgiveness, and she knew that Jesus' forgiveness and love plumbed that depth. She responded to this great forgiveness by showing great love. She responded with overwhelming gratitude, because she was the greater debtor. 
            Jesus finished by saying, “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.”
            The root of the Greek word for "forgiven" is also defined as "release." When Jesus declared that she was forgiven, he released her. He released her, he freed her, from the burden of her sin and her guilt.
            That's what forgiveness does. It releases us. We are released when we are forgiven. But it seems to me that we are also released when we forgive. That burden of guilt and sin impedes love -- it bars the way for us to experience love and to give it to others. But doesn't refusing to forgive do the same? Isn't carrying a grudge and hurt and anger equally as burdensome? I don't think that Jesus called Simon on the carpet simply because he didn't fulfill the duties of host. I think Jesus saw Simon's lack of forgiveness. I think Jesus realized that Simon saw people merely as a combination of their sins, of what they lacked, of what they did or did not do. That would seem to be true in the way he looked at and judged this woman. But Jesus saw the woman. He saw not her sin, but her. I think he looked at Simon the way.  Maybe in speaking those words to Simon, he released him as well. He was released from the sin of his judgment. He was released from his inability to see more than the sin of a person. Jesus declared the woman forgiven and she was released. I think Simon was released as well.
            When I was a candidate for ordination, I heard a story about a longtime minister and his particular way of examining candidates on the floor of presbytery. The older minister would ask each candidate who came before the presbytery to look out the window of the church where they were meeting. He asked the candidate to describe the first person he or she saw in theological terms. The answers fell into two categories. The first was that the candidate described the person as a sinner, who needed God for salvation. The second was that the candidate saw a child of God; a child loved and forgiven. Both of these answers were correct. But the older minister claimed that the candidate who answered in the second way made a better minister; not because of skill or competence, but because of compassion and forgiveness.
            This story may be a ministerial urban myth, but I think it speaks a great truth -- not just for ministers but for all of us. Our sins, big or small, burden us. When we are forgiven we are released. But when we refuse or withhold forgiveness, we are burdened as well. Forgiveness and forgiving releases us. On that day, at that dinner party, two people were released from their burden. The woman responded to that release with overwhelming and extravagant love for the One who released her. Simon was offered release as well. We don't know what happened next for him. We don't know how he responded. We can only wonder and hope. What about us? Do we need to be forgiven or do we need to forgive? Either way, Jesus offers us release from our burden of sin. Will we take it? How will we respond?

            Let all of God's children say, "Alleluia!" Amen.

Monday, June 20, 2016


Luke 8:26-39
June 19, 2016

Why did Jesus cross the sea?

That's not the beginning of a joke, that's a question. It is a question that I would ask you to ponder, consider and hold onto. We'll come back to it.

The church where I had my first call was in Rockville, Maryland -- just outside of D.C. Part of the church building was a three-season homeless shelter for women. Women came there seeking shelter and help for a variety of reasons, but often it was because they were battling some form of mental illness; and with no support system to help them, they had no access to the medications and counseling that might have given them the chance to live more stable lives. I'm not a trained counselor beyond basic pastoral counseling, but it was obvious to me that one woman we served was dealing with a severe mental illness. When I worked in the shelter, I learned not to catch her eye. She would start yelling at me, at anyone, for no apparent reason. If she wasn't hollering and arguing with someone you could see, she was yelling at someone you couldn't. She made wild accusations about the post office stealing checks she was supposed to receive; and would write accusing letters and notes to the postmaster general on any scrap of paper she could find. She would come into the church office with these letters and demand that we send them. We obliged, not because we wanted to, but she was so volatile it seemed easier to do that then refuse. She sent so many letters that postal investigators came to the church office to find out more about her. This woman looked as wild as she sounded. Her hair was thick and dirty and matted. Her skin seemed permanently darkened by dirt and grime. Her clothes were filthy. She smelled.

When I read about this man possessed by a legion of demons, I think about this poor woman. I wonder if this man looked and behaved somewhat like that woman from the shelter. He would have looked wild and frightening. He would have been filthy, covered in dirt and dust. Maybe he carried not only the smell of an unwashed body, but also the lingering smell of the death that he dwelt in.

No sooner had Jesus and his disciples stepped foot into the land of the Gerasenes, then they were met by this man. I doubt this was the welcome some of them were expecting. Luke describes him as a man from the city. The demons within him made him wild. He was naked. No matter how many times others had tried to restrain him with shackles and chains, he broke free. He made his home not among the living, but the dead. He lived in the tombs. And when the demons drove him especially hard, he would run off into the wilderness. We are never told his name, but I imagine that the other city dwellers knew his real identity. Someone had to have known his family of origin. Surely former neighbors remembered him as a little boy. But whoever he had once been was consumed by these demons. He seemed to have forgotten his true name. His only response to Jesus' question about it was to say, "Legion." He had become a mere description of the spirits and sickness that raged inside him.

People who met Jesus, even the ones closest to him, did not always recognize Jesus for who he truly was. But demons did. They always knew who they were up against. This was certainly true in this story. The man met Jesus and shouted in a loud voice for Jesus not to torment him. The demons within him were legion, and they begged Jesus not to be sent back to the abyss. They begged Jesus to cast them into a herd of pigs instead. Jesus gave them permission, and when the demons entered the pigs they rushed into lake and drowned.

Swineherds witnessed all of this, and ran to tell the people in the town and in the countryside what had happened. At their telling, folks rushed from the city and the country to see for themselves. In that time -- between the swineherds spreading the tale, and the folks showing up to see what had really taken place -- the man washed. He was given clothes. Perhaps he was given food and something to drink. Whatever those demons were that possessed him, whatever it was that made him sick and scary and wild and driven was gone. When the people arrived, they saw not the wild man they were used to, but the man they once knew. He was clean and clothed and in his right mind, and sitting at the feet of Jesus.

This should have been cause for celebration. This man, this former friend and neighbor, was healed and clean and whole. But that healing came with a cost. That cost came partly because their economic livelihood now rested at the bottom of the lake. Yet I also think that the cost of that healing was not just seeing and accepting the change in the man, but in recognizing that one change would lead to other changes. His change might force a change in them. It would change how they saw him, how they interacted with him. He could no longer live in the tombs. He would want to come home, to live among them again. They would have to accept him. They would have to treat him like they treated each other. But they were used to the old him. As long as he stayed in the tombs, they could deal with it. But the living can't live among the dead. He was alive again. He had changed, and so must they. And they were afraid.

The source of that change, the source of their fear, was standing right there in front of them. Not the man made clean and whole, but Jesus. The man begged Jesus not to torment him. The demons begged Jesus not to send them back to the abyss. The people, every single one of them living there, begged Jesus to leave. Please Jesus, just leave. Leave us alone. Leave us as we are. Don't bring anymore change. Don't heal anyone else. Don't free us from the tombs we live in. Just go. Please go.

Jesus did what they asked. He prepared to leave. But the man, once known as Legion, begged him once more. Take me with you. Certainly the man wanted to stay with the One who had cleansed him body and soul. But I wonder if he wasn't also a little fearful. If Jesus left and he  didn't go with him, would the demons return? Would he be able to sustain the changes Jesus made. Would he remain clean and whole? But Jesus knew that the man had another calling. Jesus told him that he must go and tell others what God had done for him. Matthew, Mark and Luke all record this story. Luke says that the man did as Jesus requested. He told everyone what God had done for him, what Jesus had done for him. I hope he continued to do that.  Jesus freed him from the tombs, the literal ones he lived in and the ones that kept him dead in spirit and in mind. Jesus freed him, and I want to believe that the man never looked back. The other folks might have been afraid at what had happened to him, but he fearlessly shared his story, his piece of the good news, the gospel.

Why did Jesus cross the sea?

That's where Jesus and the disciples came from -- the Sea of Galilee. They met this man after a terrible night at sea. They met this man after Jesus stilled the storm that threatened their lives. Jesus and the disciples got into a boat and crossed a stormy sea and landed on the side of the Gerasenes. Maybe Jesus made the decision to cross the sea because he had planned an evangelistic journey on that side of the lake anyway, and he just happened on this demon possessed man. When the people asked him to leave, he changed plans and cut his original trip short. Yet it seems to me that Jesus crossed the sea deliberately to meet this man. He crossed the sea to go to those tombs and free that man, whose name had been forgotten -- even by him. Jesus crossed the sea to go into an unclean place. There were pigs there. No good Jew would intentionally go to a place where there pigs. They were unclean, therefore the people around them would be unclean. Jesus crossed the sea and went to the tombs. Another unclean place. Jesus being there would have made him unclean. Jesus crossed the sea and crossed the boundaries of the Law and tradition. Jesus crossed the sea to free a man from the shackles of sickness and darkness that possessed him. Jesus crossed the sea and brought the living back from the dead.

Jesus crossed the sea. There was no place that he would not go to free a child of God. Since the terrible killings in Orlando, I find great comfort in the fact that there is no place that Jesus will not go to free us from the tombs that hold us captive. There is no place that Jesus will not go, no darkness that he won't enter to find us, to bring us back from death to life, to free us from the chains and shackles we wrap around ourselves. There is no place that Jesus won't go, there is no person Jesus will not meet. Jesus finds us, even if it means crossing a stormy sea. Why did Jesus cross the sea? To find us and heal us and make us new.

     Let all of God's children say, "Alleluia!" Amen.