June 16, 2013
Candy and I are delighted to be with you today and to begin our interim journey together. You are just starting down the path that will bring you not only a new pastor but new opportunities. After over 35 years of long-term ministry with congregations in Illinois, New Jersey, Wisconsin and Texas, we are engaging in interim pastorates in this stage of life in which we, too, are making transitions.
A congregation’s interim time between pastors is not for marking time with minimal loss until the new pastor comes but is about accomplishing some very important tasks to prepare not only for the new pastor but for new opportunities for ministry. During our months together we will focus on your heritage, your mission, your leadership, your connections with the larger church, and preparing to welcome a new pastor with enthusiasm.
My approach to preaching during our time together will not be to pick out Scripture passages to clobber you with. Rather, I will work with the selections from the Common Lectionary with a view to helping us all listen for the voice of God together as a community of God’s people.
I certainly am not ready to prescribe anything specific today. However, as I have spent time with Luke 7:36-50 this week, I realized it speaks to the challenges of every congregation who wants to reach out to spiritually hungry people in our pluralistic, secular society, more and more of whom have little if any church experience. I recognize them in the woman who tearfully anointed Jesus.
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. 37And 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. 38She 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. 39Now 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.” 40Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “Speak.” 41“A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” 43Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44Then 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. 45You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47Therefore, 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.” 48Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
All four of the Gospels report a woman anointing Jesus. Matthew 26 and Mark 14 clearly tell the same story, set between Palm Sunday and Easter. Before reporting Jesus’ Triumphal Entry, John 12 tells of Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, anointing Jesus. I suspect this is the same incident as in Matthew and Mark that John tells out of chronological order (as he often does) with other details for effect. The story Luke tells seems to be set in Capernaum early in Jesus’ ministry. Though not all agree, I believe this is a different woman, and the story makes a different point.
This woman’s behavior telegraphed her acute awareness of her many sins and her desperate plea for forgiveness.
Yet, Jesus used the past tense when he said her sins were many and the perfect tense when he said they have been forgiven. The forgiveness was already accomplished before he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” Jesus interpreted her extravagant expressions of love as a response to having been forgiven, not as an appeal to be forgiven. With our linear thinking, we want to find the point at which she wasn’t forgiven and then was forgiven, but Jesus makes penitence and forgiveness simultaneous, not sequential.
If we are serious about introducing spiritually hungry people to Jesus, many of them will be drawn into the community of faith with no understanding of church etiquette or vocabulary. The transition from not trusting to trusting Jesus may be blurry and uneven. To love them as Jesus would means we need to understand them, not that they need to understand us and how we do things.
Simon the Pharisee was already skeptical of popular opinions that Jesus might be a prophet. When he saw that Jesus let this notoriously sinful woman contaminate him by touching him so intimately, he was convinced Jesus was no prophet. Either he lacked discernment or he lacked holiness.
But Jesus not only saw more deeply into the woman than Simon did, he heard Simon’s thoughts. In good prophetic tradition, he exposed Simon, not with confrontation but with a story in which Simon convicted himself.
Simon’s problem was not that he didn’t have enough sins to be forgiven to evoke extravagant love for God. Simon’s problem was that his self-righteousness blinded him to the gravity of his sin from which God desired to liberate him and thus deprived him of the well-spring of love.
Spiritually, self-righteousness is doubly dangerous. By blinding us to our sin, it deprives us of the love that flows from forgiveness. And self-righteousness telegraphs to spiritually hungry people that we think they are unworthy and so unwelcome among us.
Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.” Paul’s explanation that we are justified by faith in Galatians is the theological analysis of Jesus’ gracious word.
Paul wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live but Christ lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” This kind of faith is not agreeing to correct theology. That’s just mental works righteousness and another source of self-righteousness. To live by faith is the confidence that you have been forgiven and Jesus is living through you.
We lived in Mt. Holly, NJ for 17 years which was the home of the great Quaker saint John Woolman who lived from 1720-1772. In his Journal, which I read several years before having any idea we’d be going to Mt. Holly, he described his own experience of being crucified with Christ and its implications for those who don’t know Jesus. He wrote of a dream he had during an illness.
I then heard a soft, melodious voice, more pure and harmonious than any I had heard with my ears before; I believed it was the voice on an angel who spoke to the other angels. The words were, “John Woolman is dead.” I greatly wondered what that heavenly voice could mean.
I was then carried in spirit to the mines, where poor oppressed people were digging rich treasures for those called Christians, and heard them blaspheme the name of Christ, at which I was grieved, for his name to me was precious. Then I was informed that these heathens were told that those who oppressed them were the followers of Christ, and they said among themselves, “If Christ directed them to use us in this way, then Christ is a cruel tyrant.”
All this time the song of the angel remained a mystery, and I was very desirous to get so deep that I might understand this mystery.
At length I felt divine power prepare my mouth that I could speak, and then I said, “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me, and the life I now live in the flesh [is] by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20, KJV). Then the mystery was opened, and I perceived there was joy in heaven over a sinner who had repented, and that the language “John Woolman is dead” meant no more than the death of my own will.
With his interaction with the woman and Simon, Jesus turns upside down our whole understanding of outreach. We want spiritually hungry people to know and trust Jesus. But if we are the givers of the Gospel, not only will we push people away, we miss out on the joy and love that comes from complete awareness of our own forgiveness. But when people who we thought of as outsiders overflow the love of being forgiven on us, we receive grace that releases the love of Jesus through us.