Friday, April 19, 2019

Sermon for Maundy Thursday, "Do You Know What I Have Done for You?," John 13:1-17, 34-35

Sermon 4/18/19 - Maundy Thursday
John 13:1-17, 34-35

Do You Know What I Have Done for You?

I think the footwashing, Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, is one of the most compelling stories in the gospels. It only appears in the gospel of John, and John seems to include it in the stead of Jesus celebrating the Last Supper with the disciples. Well, they eat a last meal together, but John doesn’t record Jesus imbuing the symbols of bread and cup with the meaning that they hold for us today when we celebrate communion. We don’t know why this is, when certainly, by the time John wrote his gospel, the last of the four gospels to be written, celebrating communion had already become a central focus of worship in the early church. We can’t know the answer. But what we have instead from John is a precious gift, not included elsewhere. When Jesus and the disciples get ready to share their last meal together, Jesus gets up from the table, and readys himself with a towel and basin, and starts washing the feet of the disciples. Footwashing was common In Jesus’ day, but it was almost exclusively something a person of lower status did for a person of higher status, or something you did for yourself. Usually the slaves of a household would perform the task for their master’s guests. A rabbi’s pupils - disciples - might wash a rabbi’s feet.
For a rabbi to wash the feet of the pupils instead - for Jesus to wash the feet of his disciples instead - the reversal is shocking. And indeed, Peter, at least, is shocked. We don’t hear how the other disciples feel about what happens, but Peter insists to Jesus, “You will never wash my feet!” Peter can’t stand to see Jesus lower himself in this way.
Jesus uses Peter’s outburst as an opportunity to teach about why he is doing what he’s doing. Jesus tells Peter that washing his feet in this way is a sign that Peter has a part in the life and work of Jesus. After Jesus finishes the footwashing, he asks the disciples, “Do you know what I have done for you?” He continues, “You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” Jesus tells them he is giving a new commandment, although it is not really new at all - just demonstrated to them in a new way that they won’t forget, “Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
I keep stopping on Jesus’ question to the disciples: “Do you know what I have done for you?” I think, even with his explanations to his disciples, it is sometimes hard for us to get the weight of what Jesus does in the footwashing, and the weight, the import of what he asks us to do in response. In the Lenten devotional book I’ve been using this season, All Shall Be Well, Jesuit priest Greg Boyle writes,
“St. Francis of Assisi admonishes us with this: ‘Don’t imitate Jesus. Follow in his footsteps.’ Jesus doesn’t want a fan club (‘I have all your records. I go to every concert.’) You won’t find a single ‘worship me’ in the Gospel. But you’ll find a ton of ‘Follow me.’ ...‘Do you understand what I’ve just done for you?’ We either simply imitate the action - (12 male feet), or we domesticate the message: ‘Serve others.’ Don’t get me wrong. I like BOTH service AND clean feet. But what Jesus does is more than service and deeper than mimicry. In washing all the dirt-covered [feet] of his friends, Jesus achieves this remarkable and intimate connection with his followers. With a humility that erases the daylight separating them, Jesus draw them into a tenderness - ‘loving them to the end’ - so that they can follow in his footsteps.” (“Following in His Footsteps,” 233-234, emphasis mine)
Don’t imitate Jesus, but follow Jesus. Boyle uses as an example how Pope Francis moved from commemorating Jesus’ footwashing by washing the feet of twelve men each year to washing the feet of men and women, washing the feet of Muslims, washing the feet of prisoners, washing the feet of the poor. The Pope did more than copy Jesus’ behavior. He truly followed the heart of Jesus, serving like Jesus, loving like Jesus, getting right to the heart of the footwashing, even as he changed the pattern of it.
“Do you understand what I have done for you? If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” I wonder, in our culture that no longer practices footwashing in the same way, if we can find ways to move beyond merely copying what Jesus does to embodying the heart of Jesus’ message as we follow him with our lives. What does footwashing look like lived out today?
My nephew Sam, my oldest brother’s oldest child,  is almost 12 years old. I so love being Aunt Beth that sometimes it seems strange to think of the time in my life before I could claim my favorite title. But sometimes I think about how very much parenthood has changed my brother Jim. Jim was one of those people who was quite fastidious. He certainly hated it if someone would try to take a bite of his food. You couldn’t, even among family, take a sip of his drink - he’d have to get a whole new beverage if you tried to pull something like that. And if you even touched his dinner plate, he was pretty uncomfortable. This kind of dislike of potential germs is really hard to maintain when you have several siblings, but Jim somehow managed to make his feelings known and respected most of the time. And Jim’s house was always perfectly neat. When he and my sister-in-law first moved in together, one of their most common sources of conflict was related to keeping the house clean.
But then he became a parent. And everything changed. It’s hard to maintain a fastidious nature when you have to change someone’s diapers, and when you have to wipe their runny noses, and when you have to feed them, and clean up their messy food, and when you find yourself doing that spit-cleaning thing that your parents did to you that you swore you would never do to someone else. But everything changes, and suddenly you’re doing all these things you never thought you’d do, because your whole world has been reordered, and instead of life as usual where we’re always at the center of our own little universes, someone has arrived to help us do very quickly what we’ve meant to do all along - get ourselves out of the center and put someone else there instead. Babies are totally and utterly dependent. And parents learn very tangibly how your life comes to focus on serving others first, putting the needs of someone else before your own, a radical reordering of priorities when another human’s ability to live depends on your willingness to meet their every need, your willingness to serve. Of course, it’s easy for most parents to feel moved to this kind of love, this kind of serving for their own child. But Jesus demonstrates this kind of love and this kind of serving for us. What if Jesus is calling us to this kind of love and service for each other? For other people who aren’t cute babies?
The year before I came to serve here in Gouverneur, I was working as a chaplain at a retirement community in Rochester, and part of my work also involved being chaplain at two small homes called the Greenhouses. The Greenhouses are skilled nursing facilities for ten people in each home who are able to live in a setting and rhythm that is supposed to be as much like it would be at their own homes as possible. I loved this model of skilled nursing. It transformed my vision for what nursing home care could be like. When someone died at the Greenhouses, we would have our own memorial services there, in addition to whatever the family might do in the larger community. We’d invite the family, and of course the other members of the household, and staff members from that home and the neighboring home would come and participate too. Our memorial services always involved a time of sharing, and the staff would usually get a chance to speak directly to the family of the person who had died. I remember one memorial in particular. A woman named Helen had died. Her daughter Sharon had been very faithful, visiting her mother frequently and she came to the memorial. And the head nurse at the house said to Sharon, “I always look at the feet of the folks I’m caring for, and it tells me something about the kind of care they’re receiving. It is easy to overlook taking care of the feet. You can make sure a person is clean and that they are fed and that they are participating in activities and conversation. But to pay attention to someone’s feet, to take care of their feet - that’s an act of real love. Your mother had the nicest feet I’ve seen. They were always cared for, and clean, and polished, and soft. And I know you did that for her - you took such care of her feet.” And of course Sharon’s eyes were filled with tears in thanksgiving for this perceptive nurse. Jesus demonstrates this kind of love and this kind of serving for us. What if Jesus is calling us to this kind of love and service for each other? For other people who aren’t even our dearest mothers?
Do we know what Jesus has done for us? I’ve been using a lot this season a book called Stages on the Way: Worship Resources for Lent, Holy Week, and Easter, put out by the Wild Goose Worship Group of the Iona Community. I was looking for some direction for our Palm/Passion Sunday Service this year, and a friend recommended it, and the writings just speak to me - I’m so glad I got the book. There are some dramas for worship included in the resource, and one of them for Maundy Thursday includes a narrator speaking to Simon Peter, trying to help him understand the significance of the footwashing. The narrator says to him, “Peter, this is what [Jesus] must do. This, whom you call ‘servant,’ is your Lord. To be the Lord means to be the servant; to do the dirty work and to do it in love. And that is very costly, although you count it stupid. For a good world, a man may lay down his life with pride; but for a bad world and for people who reject, betray, deny, it is much harder. His power is in his weakness. And you may not know that today, and you will not think it tomorrow, when from a cross, against the sky, he hangs helpless. But this is the way the world is transformed … by loving the unlovely, by dying for the lifeless, by forgiving those, like you, whose hearts are too stubborn to see what they are or know who he is. Be still, and let your feet be washed and let your mouth be closed. Think not always to act, always to speak. But first let your Lord do for you what you must do for each other.”
Do we know what Jesus has done for us? May we learn the full measure of it day by day. And may we not just copy, but follow, so that all will know we belong to Jesus by our love. Amen.

Sunday, April 07, 2019

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, "At the Table with Jesus: Zacchaeus," Luke 19:1-10

Artwork by Ayseluna Hockenbary
Sermon 4/7/19
Luke 19:1-10

At the Table with Jesus: Zacchaeus

I asked you to share about a time when you might have gone to some amount of expense or effort to see someone special - a celebrity or a special guest, or a performer. I’ll tell you about a couple of my experiences, both of which relate to Jesus Christ Superstar of course, my very favorite musical.
I first saw the show when I was in junior high as part of a youth group outing. I think I’ve told you before that I immediately developed a huge crush on the actor who played Judas, and I immediately fell in love with the musical. I worked really hard to be able to see the show more than once a season, even though going from my home in Rome to the big city of Syracuse at the time was a major outing, and buying tickets to the show was costly. But although I would gaze at the actor who played Judas from afar, I absolutely would not go up and speak to him. All the actors came out after the show to greet the audience. I sent my program with my big brother to have him sign, and of course my big brother pointed at me, embarrassing me to no end, but there was no way I was actually going to speak to him directly. I wanted to see him, but I didn’t necessarily want him to see me.
The second experience that came to my mind also relates to Superstar. Not so many years ago, Ted Neeley, who played Jesus in the movie version of Superstar, was coming to Syracuse for a special showing of the film. You could get regular old tickets, and see him and another actor from the show on stage introducing the film and sharing some tidbits about their experiences shooting the movie. But they also had some VIP tickets available. For an extra fee of some size, you could be a VIP guest or a deluxe VIP guest. If you were a VIP or deluxe VIP guest you’d get to attend a meet and greet before the showing, get a photo with Ted Neeley, get a special t-shirt and gift bag, and then get to sit near him during the film. The deluxe VIPs got to sit on his right and left side for the film. The other VIPs got to sit in the row right behind him. I wanted one of those VIP tickets. But I intentionally just got one of the regular VIP seats. I wanted to be near Ted Neeley, but sitting right next to him for the whole movie, and having that much of his attention for such a sustained time? I didn’t think I could quite handle that! Who have you longed to see, gone to some lengths to get to see? How close did you want to get?
Today, as we turn again to the gospel of Luke we find Jesus traveling through Jericho. As he’s traveling, a crowd gathers along the way, hoping they can see Jesus. And among the crowd is a man named Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus, Luke tells us, is a wealthy chief-tax collector. Remember, we talked about tax collectors a few weeks ago. Tax collectors were considered traitors - they were Jewish folks working for the Roman government. The Romans were the occupying force in Israel, and they were generally hated. And Jewish tax collectors working for the Roman government had a reputation for overcharging - they could keep anything extra they collected in taxes and line their own pockets. And so tax chiefs were considered traitors to their people and their faith.
This Zacchaeus, we read, is trying to see Jesus. We don’t know why exactly. What has he heard about Jesus? Perhaps he’s heard that Jesus has a tax collector, Levi, among his followers. Perhaps he’s heard that Jesus has eaten meals with tax collectors. At any rate, he wants to see Jesus. But Zacchaeus is short in stature, and in the crowd, he can’t hope to even catch a glimpse of Jesus. So he runs ahead and climbs up into the branches of a Sycamore tree so that he will be able to see Jesus as he passes by. His behavior is a little - uncouth - for an adult man. To run, to climb a tree - his behavior is childish. But he just wants to see Jesus, and so he does what he needs to do.
What I can’t figure out is whether Zacchaeus hoped or expected that Jesus would see him in return. But of course, Jesus does. He looks up, sees Zacchaeus, and says to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” Zacchaeus is delighted, and he hurries to get down from the tree so he can welcome Jesus. But not everyone else is quite so pleased. Everyone begins grumbling about Jesus, saying, “He’s going to be the guest of someone who is a sinner!”
Here’s where things get interesting: Zacchaeus speaks up for himself. In our version of the Bible, we read that Zacchaeus says, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Put this way, it looks like Zacchaeus is making a public act of repentance, vowing to change his ways going forward, either in response to Jesus favoring him by choosing to come to his home, or in response to the crowds, as if to placate their grumbling, to show he’s turning over a new leaf. And then Jesus says to Zaccheaus: “Today salvation has come to this house.” He declares that Zacchaeus, too, is a son of Abraham. And Jesus says that his purpose is to seek out and save the lost. It reads like a great story of repentance and redemption.
Except for one thing that I didn’t realize until I was doing my research for today’s message, something I missed every other time I’ve preached on this text. When you look at the original language of the New Testament, the Greek, there’s something surprising (to us at least) about what Zacchaeus actually says. He doesn’t say “I will give half of my possessions to the poor and “I will payback four-fold anything people have been overcharged.” The verbs he uses are present-tense. As in, Zacchaeus is saying that he is doing these things already. He’s saying, “I am giving my half of my money to the poor,” and “I am repaying people who have been overcharged.” Huh. If the verbs are present-tense, it seems like Zacchaeus is trying to show how he is undeserving of the criticism of the crowds, or at least letting them know that he’s already been working to mend his ways, to make changes to his hurtful practices. Whether Zacchaeus has always been trying to be an exemplary tax-collector, or whether he has made some recent changes to his behavior, Zacchaeus can’t be so easily labeled by the crowd or by us as a “sinner” or  traitor or an evildoer. In fact, we can contrast him to the rich ruler, who, in just the previous chapter of Luke, was sad and seemingly unready to follow Jesus quite yet if it meant selling his stuff. Zacchaeus has made a significant beginning already. And his very name might be telling. Zacchaeus means innocent.
So, if the point of this text, then, isn’t that Zacchaeus makes a sudden declaration of a new path in life once Jesus invites him to dinner, what is it about? If Zacchaeus was already on the path to trying to do his best, trying to go against the grain of the stereotypical tax collector, why do we need to know his story?
To answer this, I think we have to look at what’s different about Zacchaeus’s story. What makes this story stand out? What’s unique about it, that would make it important enough for Luke to record? Obviously, as we’ve seen over these past weeks, Jesus often eats with folks known as tax collectors and sinners. Why do we care that he eats with Zacchaeus in particular? Well, of course, the other thing that sets Zacchaeus apart is his size. Zacchaeus is short in stature. He wants to see Jesus, but can’t. And apparently no one is making a place for him. No one is giving him a spot in the front row. He’s getting lost in the crowd, and he’s afraid he’ll miss the opportunity. So he makes his own place. Even if it means all the attention eventually gets drawn to him, and he has to embarrass himself enough to be a grown man running and climbing a tree, if it means he gets to see Jesus, he’ll do it.
Zacchaeus’s story is about seeing Jesus, and being seen by Jesus, about seeing God, and being seen by God. David Lose writes, “Perhaps Zacchaeus simply represents the chief attribute of all disciples: a desire to see Jesus and a corresponding joy in his presence.” Zacchaeus longs to see God in the flesh, and will make a fool of himself to make it happen. What will you do to make sure you can get close to God? Are you willing to make a bit of a fool of yourself? To stand outside of the crowd, to take extra measures, if that’s what it takes?
And unlike the crowd who doesn’t notice Zacchaeus when he could use some help getting to the right spot, but notices him when it comes time to dole out grumbling judgment, Jesus sees Zacchaeus right away, and wants to be in relationship with him. As in the other encounters we’ve had with so-called sinful people this Lent, Jesus says nothing to chastise Zacchaeus, or tell him he should change his behavior. He just sees him, speaks to him, and commits to spending time with him. God-in-the-flesh sees Zacchaeus. Do you feel like God sees you? What does God see in you? Do we see each other in the same way that God sees us?
This Lenten season, we’ve watched people see and be seen by Jesus - Levi and the tax collectors, a woman who has a known sinner, and Simon the Pharisee, people seeking out places of honor and people in low places, not making it onto many guest lists, and Zacchaeus, short in stature, but not too small for God’s notice. What we find is not so much a pattern of sinners being called out and held accountable and so moved to repentance, but people being seen for the first time in a long time, after being shoved to the sides, dismissed, and disregarded. And finally being seen, being seen and loved by Jesus, we’ve witnessed that love do amazing things in their lives. Being seen and loved changes everything.
Friends, whatever you have gone through or are going through, whatever you’ve struggled with, whatever labels have been laid on you by people who assume they know all they need to know about you already - God sees you. And God is delighted when you go out of your way to see God. And God is delighted to spend time with you. Because God loves you. And I think trusting in that unwavering love can change your whole life, and free you to be exactly who God is calling you to be.

And friends, one piece of who God calls us to be is to be someone who sees like God does! To begin to see like God does, at least. It’s life-long work. Who is on the outside? Who’s on the margin? Who has been ruled out of bounds? Whose unseen generosity and faith would surprise us? Who is trying to find a spot where they can see Jesus, that we could let to the front of the line? Who has climbed up a tree, hoping to be noticed? Jesus sees so clearly. And the closer we draw to Jesus, the more clearly we will see too. Amen.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, "At the Table with Jesus: Table Talk," Luke 14:1, 7-24

Art by Ayseluna Hockenbary
Sermon 3/17/19
Luke 14:1, 7-24

At the Table with Jesus: Table Talk

We can sometimes get the impression that the lawyers and scribes and Pharisees, the interpreters of the law, the religious leaders and scholars of the day, were enemies of Jesus. Certainly, Jesus saves his most challenging words, his harshest criticisms for these religious elite. And some of them seem to be more actively plotting against Jesus. But Jesus, as we saw last week, also spends time in the home of Pharisees as their invited guest. He directs a lot of his teaching at them, and we might conclude that it is with hope that they will hear and act on his words that he spends a lot of time speaking to them about their behavior.
Today he’s again at the home of a Pharisee, and Jesus is spending the sabbath there. Before the part of the text that is our focus for today, a man with edema appears at dinner, and Jesus heals the man, and then tries to engage his guests in conversation about healing on the sabbath. Perhaps having heard about how adept Jesus is at challenging their understandings of scripture, the Pharisees and other leaders stay silent. They can’t figure out how to argue with Jesus and win. And then we move on to three back-to-back teachings Jesus shares over the meal table that all have to do with customs and practices in just such a setting. Let’s look at each of these vignettes in turn.
First, Jesus addresses seating dynamics at wedding banquets. We’re not as starkly structured by economic class today as folks were in Jesus’ day - at least not overtly. The rules are much more flexible - social etiquette in most settings is not so rigid. But in some places still today, we are remarkably unchanged over 2000 years. If we think about weddings and awards banquets today, we’ll find some of the same “seating” issues that come up in Jesus’ first of three teachings. At many weddings today, folks are still assigned to a specific table to sit at. And to some extent, some seats are perceived as better than others. The head table is for the most important people - the wedding party. The tables nearest them are usually full of family and close friends. And if you don’t know the newlyweds well, you might be on the outer edges of the reception hall. It is one of these settings where we’re awkwardly aware of how we “rank” compared to others in attendance. Were we an integral part of the big day? Or did we just barely make it on to the invite list? Movies and TV shows often find wedding receptions ripe with material for laughs, depicting funny situations about the wedding couple trying to figure out who should sit where, or someone getting stuck at a table with unpleasant meal companions, or someone accidentally ending up at the kid’s table.
In Jesus’ day, too, the closer you were to the host, the more prestigious your position. Remember when the disciples James and John ask Jesus to sit on his left and right-hand side at the heavenly banquet? They know those are the very best seats there are. As Jesus is reclining at the table during this meal at the Pharisee’s home, he notices that people are seeking out the best places they can secure. They all want places of honor. So Jesus gives them a little advice. “When you’re invited to a banquet,” he says. “Don’t pick the best place. What if someone more important than you is coming to the celebration? Then the host will have to come and ask you to move, to give up your seat, and you’ll be disgraced. Instead, start at the lowest place. And when the host sees where you are, the host will come and call you Friend and tell you to move close, to a better seat, and then you’ll be honored in front of everyone.” Jesus condudes, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Jesus’s conclusion is one oft repeated in the gospels, but I find the build up a little confusing. In his parable, Jesus seems to be saying that the reason we should take a seat of less honor is in hopes of being moved up to a better seat by the host. Is that humility? Or just pretending to be humble? But Jesus moves on quickly to his next lesson:  
When have you invited a bunch of folks to your party knowing they would never be able to afford to throw one in return? When have you treated someone to dinner who could never treat you back? Or when have you been someone’s guest to a meal when you knew you couldn’t return the favor? As I shared with our Wednesday night study group, what springs to mind for me is when I first started attending Annual Conference, our denomination’s regional yearly business meeting, when I was in high school. Now, our meals are included in the event, but back then, folks would go out to eat for every meal. It was rather expensive. Well, my pastor not only let me tag along with him and his colleagues to every meal, but he also paid for every meal without question. I never could have afforded it - my mom couldn’t have sent me if it meant sending me with an extra $100 for meals at restaurants. But my pastor paid for everything, knowing, of course, that I wouldn’t be paying him back later - at least not for many years!
In the second, short section of our text today, Jesus turns to the host and says, “If you’re throwing an event, don’t invite your friends and relatives and rich people who you think might pay you back, invite you to something they are hosting next week. If you do that, you’ll be repaid, and that’s that. Instead, invite the poor, the lame, the blind - people who (in Jesus’s day in particular) have no chance of repaying you. Then, you’ll be blessed, because your repayment will come at the resurrection of the righteous.” Again, I wonder - if we’re inviting dinner guests who can’t repay us just because we’re looking for a heavenly reward, is that really any better than looking to get a return gift in this life? Or does it just demonstrate more patience - we can last longer and wait for the better reward? But again, Jesus presses on.
In the last vignette, Jesus again talks about someone throwing a great dinner party. Have you ever thrown a party and had nobody show up? I still remember my birthday party in sixth grade, which I had at the Delta Lake State Park. I had a really hard time in fifth and sixth grade with kids teasing me. I had some good friends, thankfully, but I couldn’t let go of wishing the popular kids would like me - that I could be one of them. Some days the popular kids were nice to me, and I held on to those moments. I invited everybody in my class to my party, and I really believed they would all come. After all, a party was a party, right? Everyone liked birthday parties.
But they didn’t come. None of the “cool” kids came. I had maybe three friends that did come - people who were always kind to me, always there for me. But I could only focus on my disappointment. I told myself, “No one likes me.” But what I meant was, of course, that the popular kids didn’t like me. I’m afraid I didn’t appreciate my actual friends who had shown up very much in that moment. It was a long time before I learned to value true friendship.
The party host in our parable doesn’t seem to struggle like I did. He had invited a great many people - people of some measure of wealth and property. And they’d accepted the invitation. They’d RSVPed yes. But when the time actually came and he sent his slave out to call everyone to the party, suddenly, everyone had better things to do.
The host was angry - but he didn’t sit around moping. Instead, he figured he could find plenty of people who would be happy to share in the feast he’d prepared. So he sent his slave out - first to the streets and lanes in town, with orders to call the poor, crippled, blind and lame (in other words, folks who weren’t usually on anyone’s invitation list) and then to the roads and lanes, where one would find folks even more separated from the community. This host would invite as many people as it took to fill the table at his party, remarking to himself how everyone who had refused was missing out on the feast he’d prepared.
What do we make of all that Jesus says over this meal? Is he just giving us advice for shrewd behavior, navigating the social mores of our society to position ourselves best in the eyes of God and neighbor? That seems a little unlike Jesus, doesn’t it? So what’s happening here?
I think, piece by piece, Jesus is upending the whole system of honor and shame, reward and disgrace. Each vignette seems to pull back another layer. We’re at a party, and instead of trying to get the best spot, Jesus encourages us to take the lowest place. Who would we see there, do you think? Think about a gathering you’ve been to recently. Who was on the fringes? Who was sitting alone? Where was the spot no one else wanted? What if you sat there?
Even as we agree with Jesus that we can sit there at the lowest place, because now we’re sure that the host will soon be asking us to move up higher, Jesus changes things again. Now there is no one of high status at this party at all. The whole guest list is made up of people who are normally on the fringes. The places of honor go to those who will never offer a return invitation to the host. Can we take the lowest seat at this gathering too? A whole gathering of people who don’t normally even get invited - do we even want a seat at all?
Jesus suggests that many won’t even bother to come to the feast, once they realize the kinds of parties the Host of all his stories throws. The host of the last vignette has so much room, so many seats available, and pushes the boundaries beyond even the “second tier” guests to people probably not considered fit for polite company at all. Do you still want a seat? Many, Jesus suggests, aren’t interested in being part of the feast after all.
Are we? God is inviting us to be part of God’s reign on earth. But week after week Jesus pushes us, reminding us of who else is invited. Tax collectors, enemies of the people, known sinners with bad reputations, snooty self-righteous Pharisees who think they’re better than everyone else, people who are dirt poor, people who need to be carried in, people who are diseased, people who you’d find just standing by the roadside, up to no good: these are the kinds of people Jesus wants at his table. This is who God is inviting to the great banquet. And you. You’re invited too. It turns out, God thinks you fit right into that mix of people somewhere. Will you accept the invitation? When you realize who else is invited, maybe it doesn’t matter anymore where you’re sitting. Maybe places of honor and places of disgrace have gotten all mixed up so that to be humbled is to be exalted and vise versa.
So, will you take a seat? Will you make conversation with everyone else at your table, and stop worrying about how they made it on to the guest list? Or will you suddenly remember that you had something else to do? Jesus says the party must go on, and God will keep inviting until the whole house is filled to the brim, overflowing. What will you do? I think it sounds like a party we don’t want to miss. Amen.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Sermon, "At the Table with Jesus: At Simon's House," Luke 7:36-50

Artwork by Ayseluna Hockenbary
Sermon 3/17/19
Luke 7:36-50

At the Table with Jesus: At Simon’s House

At our Lenten Study this week, we spent some time thinking about whether or not we had ever been in debt, and had our debt forgiven, or whether or not we’d ever had someone in debt to us, and then forgiven their debt. We talked about parents and children - children are often in debt to their parents, aren’t they? Sometimes this happens in specific ways - a parent steps in to help with bills or help with a surprise expense. But often, parents give a little here, a little there in so many uncounted ways. Thankfully, most parents aren’t keeping track - they are constantly forgiving these debts, constantly making what would be debts into gifts instead. They act out of love, not counting what is owed. I shared with the group that that is not always the case - as I was sorting through my late Aunt Joyce’s papers, I came across a legal contract between her and her parents. She borrowed money from them for a down payment on her home, and my Great Uncle Lloyd was known for being - well, I’ll keep it nice and say “careful” with his money. He wasn’t about to lend money without a contract, terms, even to his only child. But I’d say his approach wasn’t typical. Parents are endlessly forgiving debts large and small for their children, not even really counting them as debts in the first place, as they act out of love.
We also talked a bit about the costs, the debt of higher education, both in the broader sense of getting more than we pay for through our education, and in the specific sense - tuition and room and board and student loans. Anyone still paying on student loans in here? I can still remember my first year in undergrad all of us taking out student loans had to come to a meeting where we would sign our promissory notes. And the folks leading this time - they were so serious. The message I left that meeting with was: “You are making a promise, and if you default on your debt, we will find you, we will hunt you down, and we will make you pay, or we will throw you in jail.” At 18, and about to take out several thousands of dollars in loans so I could go to college, the weight of that debt felt enormous.
I had good scholarships that covered most of my undergrad tuition. But I still found myself in the last weeks before I was to graduate with a remaining bill of about $1500. It might as well have been $15,000 for the ability I had to pay it, me or my family. There was no extra money. And if I couldn’t pay, I wouldn’t graduate. And if I didn’t get my diploma, I couldn’t start seminary a few months later. I was overwrought. Thankfully, my academic advisor was also the university chaplain. I shared with him my dilemma, and shortly thereafter he told me simply that my bill was no longer an issue. My balance was paid in full. I could graduate. When I look back on it now, I’m not sure that in my relief I expressed my gratitude as fully as I meant to - but the weight that had been lifted off of me was enormous. Have you ever had a significant debt forgiven? Have you ever been able to offer the gift of forgiving someone’s debt to you? How did that feel?
We’re continuing our journey through the Gospel of Luke today, as we focus in on the meals Jesus shares with people, who he eats with, and what he does when he comes to the table with folks. This week, Jesus is eating at the home of a Pharisee named Simon. While folks are at the table, a woman appears at the house. Houses weren’t private in the way ours are today, so this in itself is not unusual. The woman is known as a sinner. We don’t know more specifically what that means, what sins she’s committed, but as I mentioned last week, someone with this label was someone thought of having a blatant disregard for God’s law. So, this woman, a sinner, appears at the dinner, and situates herself near Jesus. She takes an alabaster jar of ointment and weeping, she bathes Jesus’s feet with her tears, and wipes them with her hair. She kisses his feet, and anoints them with the ointment - a more costly item than oil, which would have been regularly used as part of folks’ hygiene rituals. Her actions are intimate. It would often be slaves or folks of low station who were responsible for such tasks, or something you would do for yourself. She’s making herself extremely vulnerable. She must know what people think of her.
Indeed, when Simon sees the woman anointing Jesus, he says to himself that if Jesus really was a prophet, he would have known about this woman and her reputation. In response, Jesus tells a short parable. “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” Seemingly reluctant, Simon answers, “I suppose the one who had the greater debt canceled.” Jesus tells him he’s judged rightly. Jesus points out that this woman, a known sinner, has demonstrated much more hospitality - a highly cherished value in their society - than Simon, the actual host did. Simon didn’t even provide water for Jesus’s dusty feet, didn’t greet Jesus with a kiss, and didn’t anoint his head with oil. But the woman offered Jesus ointment, tears, and kisses to his feet. Jesus concludes that her many sins have been forgiven, and feeling the assurance of that deep in her heart, she responds with great love. But, Jesus concludes, “The one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” He says to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”
“The one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” That seems like such a weird statement for Jesus to make, when we take it apart. Jesus seems to be saying that if we live a life that is as blameless as possible, we have less capacity to love than those who have racked up a great many sins? Can that be what Jesus means? And if that’s the case, why would we bother to try to be good? If we can love better if we’re sinning so much that we need lots of forgiveness, why are we working so hard to avoid breaking God’s law?
As usual, though, our questions for God reveal things about the thoughts of our hearts that need attention. It seems like we think that if we could, we’d rather disobey God’s law. Like we’re only trying to follow God’s plans and walk in Jesus’s footsteps because of the rewards we thought we might get out of it, not because we actually believe that living in the way of Jesus brings us life abundant, a deeper contentment than we could ever get by living without regard for others. And if that’s the only reason why we’re “following the rules,” whatever that means to us, then our hearts aren’t actually so pure as we’d like to think! And also, our questions assume that we don’t have a lifetime of racking up debts, that we don’t have a lifetime of ways that we’ve sinned against God and neighbor, that we haven’t hurt others, let people down, ignored people in need, been selfish, caused pain. I hope, of course, that we’ve tried hard to minimize the hurt we cause, that we are trying earnestly to follow Jesus in all that we do. But, like we talked about last Sunday, if our trying hard to follow God leads us to feel superior to others, like we’re not in need of a savior, or at least not as in need as the one we call a sinner, we’re missing the mark. The debt that we “owe,” if God were keeping track, is pretty big! We like to think we’re doing so great, compared to others. But it’s like we’re bragging about only owing $1 million dollars to someone else’s $2 million. If we’re counting sins, we aren’t debt-free. I think of the prayer of confession that is a part of our full communion liturgy in our hymnals. Would you read it with me? : “Merciful God, We confess that we have not loved you with our whole hearts. We have failed to be an obedient church. We have not done your will, we have broken your law, we have rebelled against your love, we have not loved our neighbors, and we have not heard the cry of the needy. Forgive us we pray. Free us for joyful obedience, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
I’ve been reading a book called Finding Holy in the Suburbs: Living Faithfully in the Land of Too Much by Ashley Hales. Maybe Gouverneur isn’t exactly the suburbs, but I resonate with a lot of what Hales says anyway. She says that when we buy into the myth of self-sufficiency - this idea that we don’t need anyone, that we can do it all ourselves, we become people who are unable to receive. We can’t truly receive from God and we can’t receive from one another. She writes, “We’ll take our house, our talent, and our well-paying job with a side of Jesus - provided he works within our schedule. But our inner lives are stunted ...  We repay every offer of help and every cup of sugar borrowed. When we grasp tightly onto our own self-sufficiency, we turn our backs on the rich, generous, openhanded life [of God]. We cannot be generous people until we first learn to be joyful receivers.” She continues, “We must receive God’s kingdom … with open hands, with tears in our eyes, and a desire not to earn the Giver’s favor, but as a response to all we’ve been given.” (119-121) “A life of generosity is the natural overflow of a repentant and grateful heart. As our lives are increasingly shaped by generosity … We give things away. We value people. We sacrifice for others. We look to meet needs. We bring others along. This is how we live with open hearts.” (123)
We aren’t debt free, not in the spiritual sense. God has given us immeasurably more than we could ever pay back. But thankfully, mercifully, God is not a parent who has written a legally binding contract with us so that God can make sure we pay God back for every sin we’ve committed, for every debt we’ve incurred, for every infraction we’ve accrued. Thankfully, God is constantly transforming debts we owe into gifts God has given. God forgives us. Forgives everything. Cancels everything we owe. And Jesus embodies that forgiveness in the world, and calls us to live in the same way with each other - seeking reconciliation. When I think about it like this, and I feel the weight and the strength and the constancy of God’s love, this woman who is a “sinner” - her actions no longer seem so strange to me. Of course she wants to lay at Jesus’ feet and anoint them with kisses and tears of love. How can she feel anything but overwhelmed in the presence of this one who embodies God’s grace in a tangible form, who is the forgiveness she experiences personified, who has turned her debt owed into a gift given? Of course she wants to do anything she can to show Jesus how thankful she is for the gift of forgiveness that God has given her.
Don’t we want to do the same? Hasn’t God transformed your debt owed into a gift given? After the prayer of confession in our communion liturgy, we share in this assurance - will you join in these responsive words? “Hear the good news: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners; that proves God's love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven! In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven! Glory to God! Amen.”  

We are not ones to whom little has been forgiven. We are ones to whom everything has been forgiven. So let us respond with great love. Amen.