Delivered at Ames UCC
on February 19, 2017
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
Sermons are written to be
heard rather than read.
Please join us for worship
at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays.
One of my spiritual practices is to write in a journal at bedtime. Not that I’m always writing about God, but I’m trying to make sure that I am a reflective person rather than a reactive one. God does know that we have enough reactive people in the world.
So several nights ago I found myself writing, “I’m doing my work and living my life as if the world hasn’t completely changed.” As I sorted through my frustrations and fatigues and worries, I found that one of the problems contributing to all of them is that I have not found a new way in this new world.
Not the new world that we call Easter morning, but the new world of this hot planet. We should not be eager to get outside on February 19. We should be bundled up and crabby about it.
And our personal temperatures are being tested daily, with threats to the Endangered Species Act, ban-breaking weapons testing by a nation with whom we do not have the best relationship, and the corruption of our teachers’ ability to teach us what they need to do their very hard jobs.
That last one feels among the most personal to me. In this room alone, that touches Emily, Sunny, LeAnne, Genya, Laurie, and Susan. Do you know how many hours they work? And with any student that might come through their door? Why sabotage their success?
Any one of these issues would be sufficient to create anxiety and redirection in our community efforts, but we are getting new ones each and every day.
I know some of us survive this by checking out: Just keep the regular schedule and turn off all media. Or we self-soothe by telling ourselves it can’t be that bad, it can’t get much worse.
But based on our conversations, I would say the majority of us are more engaged that ever, more attentive to the headlines than ever, and making more phone calls and protest signs than ever before in our lives.
We do not live in the same world any more. How will we endure?
Both of the people Jesus interacts with today give us examples of how to live our faith. But only one shows us how to do so when the world is falling apart.
SIMON PHARISEE AND SISTER CHRISTA
The passage starts with Simon the Pharisee’s invitation to Jesus for dinner. The term “Pharisee” is a pejorative in our time; in Jesus’ time it was simply the name of a sect within Judaism. When the Sadducees or Pharisees or Samaritans are mentioned, it would be similar to us saying “the Methodists” or “the Evangelicals.”
Jesus isn’t a Pharisee, so we don’t know why Simon has extended the invite. We don’t know if he was seeking to learn from Jesus or was trying to scope out the competition. Maybe he is using this dinner as a first step to silencing Jesus and shoring up the boundaries of Pharisee-ism.
The weeping woman’s motives, however, are quite clear. All she wants to do is adore Jesus.
This woman with ointment and tears is not given a name, but as she puts her whole body on the side of Jesus, with no indication of sectarian concerns, I will call her Sister Christa: a sister of Christ, the anointed one.
Simon Pharisee is pretty offended by Sister Christa. She is a sinner, though whether that is merely for being a woman or for a specific offense, we don’t know. Jesus himself either doesn’t know or doesn’t care, which is what really gets to Simon Pharisee. How can Jesus be a prophet if he lets such a woman touch him? Jesus explains that Sister Christa’s behavior is a response to forgiveness. It is because she has received an absolution of such magnitude that she cannot stop the kisses.
But forgiveness is a bit of a loaded word. For those of us who have received injury from followers of Jesus, who need the church to ask us for forgiveness, the story of a sinner-labeled woman humiliating herself for forgiveness can feel like one more insult. So let’s set that aside for now.
Let’s stay, instead, with the difference in posture between Simon Pharisee and Sister Christa: One retains a posture of propriety, while the other is indecent in her love.
There can be tension between propriety and love in church life. I think most of us can say we have encountered churches and people of faith who preach love, but put more energy into what is proper: The proper way to pray in church, the proper way to dress for worship, the proper way to feast at the table.
Christian propriety is like “Iowa nice”: It keeps daily life pleasant for those who have pleasant lives, but for the rest of us and in a crisis it becomes a stifling mask by which we blind ourselves and silence others.
Whatever Simon Pharisee’s motivations for getting to know Jesus better over a meal, his reaction to Sister Christa shows he is only willing to go so far. Simon Pharisee allowed the crimes—against polite society?—this woman purportedly committed to keep him from recognizing what is right in front of him.
Yes, Simon Pharisee broke with expectation by having Jesus in his home. But Simon Pharisee does not allow himself to be transformed by the experience. Simon Pharisee can still afford propriety because his world hasn’t crumbled. Or, I should say, Simon Pharisee’s propriety is blinding him to the ways his world is a-crumble.
Sister Christa is not. Sister Christa sees clearly that she lives in an unkind world, a world that pits people against one another, a world that tries to limit her with the label of sinner.
But something happened that set her free from the burden of a bad reputation. Something happened to Sister Christa that made her strong enough to walk through the broken and unendurable world and into that dinner, uninvited.
It is Sister Christa, in her total devotion, her complete prostration before Jesus, that we see what it takes to survive in this new world of whiplash and worry: allow ourselves to be made new through an indecent love of God.
Last week I asked you to take part in the public debate about what it means to be a Christian. Thank you to everyone who wore comma pins, reposted from our social media, and came out of the closet many progressive Christians hide within. Please do not stop. The world needs the good news we embody here, including the good news that we aren’t a church that is more invested in propriety than love.
But it is time for us to invest even more deeply in that love.
Like Sister Christa, we do not have to politely accept how current events would dictate who we are or how we will live. But first we have to fill up as wholly as her with the strength of God’s love.
We do not have to know exactly what, where, or how God is. Pray silently, pray out loud. Sit on a chair, kneel on the floor. Don’t worry whether you will look, or even if you will feel, foolish. The only posture we need consider is that of our hearts: Is it having a polite dinner with Jesus or is it indecently pressing kiss after kiss onto the feet of God?
Because the time for propriety is long gone. Iowa nice has not protected us, our community, or our planet. Now is the time to become so besotted with love of God that we do not concern ourselves with the judgments of humanity, only the survival of creation.
God is what allowed a mere sinful woman in the first century to shrug off all cares and claim her place next to power. In this 21st century let us welcome God as radically into our lives as she did, so that the hatreds and fears of this world are squeezed right out, are turned away at the doors of our souls—and are refused entry into our schools, our forests, and our public policies.