THE FOURTHEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
ST. PETER’S — NEFFSVILLE
30 AUGUST 2015 — Sages Sunday
Preaching Text — 36 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 cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?’ 43Simon answered, ‘I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You have judged rightly.’ 44Then turning towards 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.’ (Luke 7:36-50)
Who do you see? On Sages Sunday 2015, a day when we celebrate those who represent the longest and richest part of our church heritage, I find myself seeing people from even farther back in our past than those we honor today. I see in my mind some of those who were contemporaries of today’s Sages. I see Mae Breneman, standing next to the split rail fence that separated her property from the building which housed the vicar apartment back in the day, having just called the vicar with an invitation that would be offered repeatedly during the year — “meet me by the fence,” where she would pass off cookies, or peaches, or Christmas candy, along with a bit of sage wisdom. I see Jerry Beyer, Sr. sitting in the old church Parlor (now part of our renovated preschool Duck Room), presiding over the Council meeting which resulted in my call to this congregation back in 1986, and the deep love and commitment this man offered to his church and his God. I see Ruth White, sitting about six rows back from the front of the old sanctuary on the lectern side of the center aisle – a faithful woman who I never saw serve on a committee or type Council minutes or administer communion, but who I also almost never saw absent from Sunday morning worship in her beloved congregation. I see Charlie Brubaker, not the one we knew prior to his death earlier this year, but our former church sexton, who along with his family members would walk the halls of our old building, and wipe down surfaces with love, and make small repairs to all sorts of things as an act of devotion to his Lord. Who do I see? … I see those who helped to shape my ministry and life in this place. I see Charlotte Devonbaugh approaching the communion rail – a woman who following her diagnosis of cancer, and the subsequent loss of her hair to chemotherapy, chose not to wear wigs to church, but instead opted for bright turbans, typically graced with a large and beautiful broach right above her forehead. I see Erla Harsh in her former home on Race Ave., telling me about her latest vision of Jesus, as he came and stood at the foot of her bed, and reminded her of the place he had prepared for her in his heavenly mansion. I see Irvin Huber, presiding over the annual Corn Roast which he and Caroline used to host for the church every August at Huber’s Hollow, their getaway down in Strasburg out in the country. And I see Elmer and Esther Klaus, sitting in their living room where we would sometimes bring them communion in their later years, surround by their dog and an occasion chicken that snuck in the door – two persons who taught me the meaning of commitment, as I marveled at their dedication in driving up to St. Peter’s week after week for all those years that they lived south of Willow Street out in the country on a farm. Who do you see? … on a day like today, I see those who represent the rich and faithful heritage of his congregation … those saints who have passed from our earthly gatherings … and those saints who remain with us, in many cases on a weekly basis here at worship with us.
Who do you see? These are some of the easy answers to Jesus’ question about sight and perception in today’s Gospel Lesson about the woman who anointed him which Jesus was eating in the home of Simon the Pharisee. Because it is always easy to see those who have paved the way for us in life … those who model the faith for us … those who make sacrifices for us so that our lives will be better. Those are the kinds of persons that we easily see in our world – because they bless us in ways that we cannot ignore.
But Jesus doesn’t ask his question in an attempt to draw attention to a woman who was a leader of her community, or a champion of the Jewish faith community. He asks it of this “woman of the city” … this “sinner” … who has wormed her way into a rich man’s home. We don’t know much about this woman … this is the only place in scripture where we encounter her. Some scholars try to link her to Mary, the sister of Lazarus, since the Gospel of John describes Mary as having done this exact same act of anointing Jesus. A few even try to connect her to Mary Magdalene, as the sinner woman whom Jesus redeemed and brought into his fold of disciples. As bright as those scholars are, they miss what seems to be the very point of this lesson … namely that this woman was a nobody … just one more faceless woman in a faceless crowd … she was unremarkable in every way …. Except one … she recognizes in Jesus one who must be honored … for he is the one who had forgiven her sins. The Greek grammar suggests that she has already been forgiven by Jesus prior to this encounter of anointing … the forgiveness is referenced as having already occurred. What is described as new to this encounter is her response to that forgiveness – Jesus’ words, “Hence she has shown great love.” She is not seeking redemption … she is giving thanks for the redemption Jesus has already bestowed. This nameless, faceless woman whose identity we do not even know, has modeled for us the very heart of the Christian faith – praise and love of God. Who do you see? Simon saw no one …. had we been living this story live and in the moment, you and I would have probably seen no one, also. But Jesus sees a child of God.
That is the heart of our lesson, isn’t it? God’s ability to see through whatever mask we place upon our own face … and see through whatever mask society puts upon our faces, for good or for ill. Jesus sees us as we are … and in the encounter with Simon the Pharisee, invites us also to strive to see our fellow sisters and brothers as God sees them.
We’re not as good at this as Jesus is, are we? I cross paths with people who are invisible to me every single day. The guy who takes my gas money at Sheetz, who I don’t even see, because I am so busy putting my change in my wallet, and hunting for my keys in my pocket, and picking up the pack of licorice I grabbed for a snack. The woman who stands next to me in the elevator at LGH who appears to be closed in upon herself, and who I don’t want to offend by looking into her eyes with a greeting. The pack of middle school kids who walk past my house probably every day of the week on their way home from school, but who I only see on Friday’s when I am out working in the yard, typically too busy to stop and wave or say hello to. And then there is the guy who stands on the median strip at the intersection of Plaza Blvd. and Manheim Pike with the sign that says he’s a veteran who can’t find work … and Joyce who calls the church every week or two looking for help, who is known to be working the social charity organizations in Lancaster … and the lady, pretty clearly a crack addict, who hit me up a couple of Friday’s ago while I was in Wilmington for a wedding and was walking back to my apartment from the rehearsal dinner. Yeah, these folks are really invisible to me.
Today’s story of Jesus’ encounter with this sinful woman, suggests that my blindness to people that I don’t really know how to help, is probably not an effective answer. I don’t think Jesus calls us to be poor stewards of the time, talents and treasures that God places in our trust. One of the Beatitudes is not “Blessed are the doormats of life, who let every grifter walk all over them and take them for every cent they are worth.” But our blindness to the least of these in our world is also not the answer a person of faith can live with. I’m not really sure what the answer is? I don’t know with absolute surety which people who approach me are really in need, and which ones are just looking to take advantage of a good soul with a few bucks in his pocket. I don’t know whether working hard to get an addict into rehab is the right use of resources, when that addict has no interest in getting better. I don’t know whether the few bucks I give the poor soul hawking change outside of the Queen Street Parking Garage is gonna be used for a meal at Denny’s of a bottle of Colt 45. I don’t know … I feel like I should … but I don’t.
What I do know is that my go-to answer to the question, “Who Do You See?” is not adequate … nor is it faithful. If I am not able to see those who struggle around me as children of God, I will never have the opportunity to even begin to understand whether there are ways that I can reach out to them with the hand and love of God. If I am, for all intents and purposes, blind to them as real people, I will never see the opportunity that God might present for a meaning intervention into their life. There are few people in the modern era who have so fully SEEN the poor and struggling around her as fully as St. Mother Teresa. While she lived, she modeled for all of us, philosophies and practices that most of us only think about, if that. You can pull up any number of Mother Teresa quotes that strike at the heart of today’s lesson about a sinner who Christ first saw and acknowledged, and then redeemed. Here is just one, from Mother Teresa’s book No Greater Love.
Poverty doesn’t only consist of being hungry for bread, but rather it is a tremendous hunger for human dignity. We need to love and to be somebody for someone else. This is where we make our mistake and shove people aside. Not only have we denied the poor a piece of bread, but by thinking that they have no worth and leaving them abandoned in the streets, we have denied them the human dignity that is rightfully theirs as children of God.”
It starts with recognizing those we tend not to see as people of worth and value … if not in our sinful eyes, then in God’s eyes. It continues with acts of love that are not emotion-laden statements about the “least of these” but actions grounded in love God has first bestowed upon us. And it is fueled by a respect for the dignity of every person who has been made in the image of God. It may not be the full answer … but it will get most of us a little farther down the road from where we are at the moment. Amen.