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Posts tagged ‘women’

Called to Be Unique, All Invited

John 17:20-23; 26

uniquesuess

I’ve been thinking a lot about how we see each other and treat each other.Sure, it is an election year and so that tends to contribute to all the crazies coming out. But it is disturbing just how many people right now [including the Republican candidate for president of the U.S.] say things against certain groups of people simply because of the way they look, what language they speak, and what religion they do or don’t practice. This is unacceptable and dehumanizing. Most people agree that this is true. If so, then there is no way that one can support any politician, leader, or person who participates in such harmful activity, using hate speech and subtle + not-so-subtle prejudice to separate people. This isn’t about “agreeing to disagree”–this is about humanity. We can disagree about politics and social issues, but we must be unified when it comes to our humanity and the humanity of those around us. If we don’t stand up against the hateful rhetoric and prejudice, then we are no better than those who are doing it.

What I’d like to focus on is uniqueness and unity. How do they go together?

The thing is friends, we focus a lot on our differences in this world—what we disagree on, how we look or act differently, the unique ways we dress or eat or talk or vote or live. Differences are good; they really are. We are ALL unique. We think differently and act differently. This is how we are made. Christians in particular have historically focused on difference. If you are not Christian, you are over there. If you are Presbyterian, or Methodist, or Catholic, or Evangelical, or Baptist—you are over there. Denominations, sects, and classifications. And even more so when it comes to those who do not identify as Christians. Are you Muslim? Hindu? Jewish? Jain? Sikh? Buddhist? Baha’i? You are…over there. And if you are agnostic or atheist, well, you are far over there.

But I don’t see this as the vision of Jesus of Nazareth. The person that people based an entire religion on [the most prominent one in the world to this point] did not see difference as a problem or a separation. Oneness was possible for Jesus.

But oneness did not equal sameness.

Jesus felt the presence of the Divine in his life and that presence informed his world view. God, the Abba, was in Jesus. Jesus was in God. And Jesus had a vision that all people, regardless of background and status, could also be one with this God. The “glory” that Jesus speaks of in this John prayer is quite amusing. Glory? I mean, what type of glory did Jesus of Nazareth really experience? Right. Not much. Humiliation? Check. Isolation? Check. Torture and death? Check. So what is this glory that John’s Gospel speaks of? The way I see it [and it’s just my view] is that Jesus’ glory was in realizing that all people were children of God, and that especially included those who were always left on the outside of religious institutions. In Jesus’ time, it was the poor, the widows, the lepers, the tax collectors, the blind, lame, and the Samaritans. In every era the names change, but the issue doesn’t. Did Jesus give the glory he had to others so that they could start more churches, conquer land, and gain power? No. He gave glory to people so they could be one.

Completely one. This oneness is not ignoring difference or uniqueness. This oneness doesn’t mean we have to agree all the time, look the same, pray the same way, eat the same foods, speak the same languages, practice the same religions. This oneness means one thing. That the Divine loves us and loves Jesus. That this is the name of God—Love. And that the love between Jesus and this God is in people. In us.For me, this is our humanity. This is what binds us together.

I was raised a Christian, and so, Communion is a very familiar ritual for me, and for the most part, it has been a positive experience. I was raised in a tradition in which everyone could receive Communion. As a kid, I saw it as a fun event. As a youth, I saw it as a chance to eat and drink with others like a great big family. Then, as a young adult, I saw it as a community-building event in which people of all kinds could do something together and embrace each other as they were. Now, I see it as an agape feast. An invitation to everyone, no matter what, to be at the table, as they are. Bring your uniqueness. Bring your brokenness. Bring your doubt. Bring your enthusiasm. Bring your sadness, your skepticism, your pain. Bring yourself. And you have a place. As. You. Are.

At the end of the day, Communion, as any religious tradition, needs to mean something in our lives. For me, I still embrace Communion because it challenges me to open my table. It moves me to set a place for those who disagree with me, don’t look like me, don’t act like me. And it also reminds me that no matter how I feel or what kind of difficulty I am going through, I also am welcome at this table. I am accepted. I have a place here.

If we come to the table as we are, there is healing; there is wholeness; there is love.

If we accept and affirm all people as they are, there is healing; there is wholeness; there is love. So friends, be your unique selves and embrace the uniqueness of others. Anyone or anything who tries to make us all the same or disparages certain groups of people because of what they look like, their sexual orientation or gender identification, their religious tradition, nationality, language, etc–anyone or anything that does that, WE HAVE TO TAKE A STAND AND SAY NO. With our honest and bridge-building words, with our kind and grateful actions. May it be so.

diversity2

Room in the Tomb, Room in Us All

Luke 24: 1-12
Empty-tomb

I’ll admit it. During this particular Holy Week and then, on Resurrection or “Easter” Sunday, I didn’t feel so up to painting eggs, eating candy, or singing hallelujah, Christ is risen! My role here is not to be a Debbie Downer–it’s just to be honest. I’m not up to it. Because, doesn’t it just seem like yesterday that people were changing their Facebook profiles and creating Twitter hashtags like #jesuiparis [i.e. I am Paris], after terrorist attacks?

jesuisparis
And then the attacks in Brussels. And then another attack outside of Baghdad, Iraq at a soccer game; a bomb in Turkey; and then, on Good Friday, bombs in a Nigeria mosque that take the lives of worshipers. And on Easter Sunday, a bombing in a park in Pakistan where Muslims and Christians [many of them children] mingled and played and enjoyed the outdoor festivities.

pakistanLike the Paris attacks, Brussels was trending on Twitter and on the news–along with some guy named Ted Cruz, another guy with a squirrel on his head, a Spice Girls reunion, and peeps. Lots of peeps.

peepsBut Baghdad? Turkey? Nigeria? Pakistan? Not so much. Really, I’m not bringing this up to bring you down. I’m just being honest.

So before I seemingly ruin your holiday, let me explain. This is not about despair, or pointing fingers, or whatever else.

This is about being honest and being connected.

We live in a world with many people in it, who speak different languages and practice different religions [or no religion] and who eat different things and wear different clothes. It’s always been like that. This is humanity. When we get into this kind of violence and fear is when we forget our humanity.

When we think that “our” way is the best way, or even worse, the only way, we impose that way on anyone who gets in the way.

And let’s not go down this road of accusing Muslims or Arabs for being the group of people that is doing this the most. It’s not true. Anglos in America have done it [and do it], Europeans do it, too. You can blame whole religions if you wish [though it’s misguided], because people kill others because they choose to, or are moved to by charismatic, evil-crafty leaders with authority, power, and money do it. Individual people decide to commit violence, and yes, some are desperate and destitute and coerced into it. But we can make no blanket statements anymore. When we accuse a whole religion [or cultural group] of something as terrible as these violent acts, we show our ignorance and unwillingness to embrace a difficult truth: we are all connected. So if we propagate hateful and prejudice rhetoric about ANY group of people, we are contributing to this awful mess.

So don’t do it.

This is why I refuse to stand by and watch while many people [whether religious or not] give into fear. This is the last thing we should do. Fear only creates more fear, and then more misunderstanding, less connection and cooperation, and more violence. In wake of such violence and tragedy, fear should not be an option. Understanding, relationship-building, and cooperation are the options. For as much as we move from hashtag to hashtag and headline to headline, we are not governed by these things. We choose whether or not we will know our neighbors and even those outside our neighborhood and community. We choose whether or not we shrink back in fear or whether we respond with love and empathy.

In this very moment, there is a Muslim refugee family from Syria that just arrived in the Warminster, PA area. The United Church of Christ in Warminster and other congregations and non-religious folk too will be involved in helping them get settled here via co-sponsorship, housing provision, transportation, language courses, job assistance, etc. So they feel welcome.

This is a choice.

And on resurrection Sunday, there is a story that presents a choice as well. Most of you have heard or read this story in the four Gospels, so it may seem familiar. This time, we’re in Luke’s Gospel, pretty similar to the oldest Gospel, Mark, but with its own nuances. The story begins as all the resurrection accounts do–without fanfare and quite gloomy. Women go to the tomb where Jesus’ body was placed for burial [which is a cave] and they come with spices. They see, however, that the protective stone placed in front of the tomb has been rolled away. So they go in. To their surprise, the body of Jesus of Nazareth is missing. Luke offers no details here and leaves room for us to ask questions like: was the body stolen by fanatic followers of Jesus? Was the body removed by the Romans? Or the temple authorities? Was the body ever put in that cave in the first place?

As we are asking these questions, two men in shining clothes appear to the women and ask a different question: Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here; he has been raised. REMEMBER what he spoke to you, in Galilee? It is necessary for the son of man to be delivered into the hands of sinful human beings, and to be crucified, and on the third day to rise.

And now, Luke’s author is making us do our homework. First, the two men in shining clothes are JUST like Moses and Elijah in the story of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain that Luke told in chapter 9. So it’s an identity moment for Jesus. He’s on the same level now as those great prophets.

And then, the questions. The women are asked to remember. In Luke, remembering is a constant theme. Jesus asks his friends the disciples to remember, time and time again. Now, the women are asked to remember. The son of man [i.e., the son of adam, or son of humanity] is delivered into the hands of sinful people, and crucified, and then will rise on the third day.

Consider that for the entire Gospel of Luke, the sinners were always the ones who hung out with Jesus–the marginalized, the oppressed, the left out. Now, the sinners are the authorities who led to Jesus’ death.

The women choose to remember.

So they don’t stay in the tomb, crying out of sadness. They don’t shrink away from the situation out of fear. Instead, they leave the empty tomb and tell the disciples about it. They are named: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary of James, etc. These courageous women are met with not only skepticism, but are considered crazy by some of Jesus’ closest followers. In fact, the only guy who considers their story is Peter. He goes to the tomb [running] and finds linen burial clothes [but no body]. And he leaves the empty tomb wondering what actually happened.

Here’s what I take from this story, and I don’t know if what I say matters, but I do think the story can matter, that is, if it moves you to do things in your life that matter. Ultimately, how we decide to act–how we treat people, matters the most. So here goes:

Why did Jesus die? A question we have to ask if we plan on talking about resurrection. Why did he die? I’m not one who thinks that he had to die. I know that many, many people will disagree, and that’s fine. But I don’t think his dying was the whole point. I think he died because he was a threat–not as a violent revolutionary, but because Jesus of Nazareth challenged the whole societal system of violence and death. Jesus preached a different way of life that he called the reign of God. It wasn’t based on fear, death, or violence. Rather, it was based on faith, hope, and nonviolent love.[1]

Ask yourself: what do violent religious fanatics, power-wielding authorities and fear mongers have in common? They attempt to channel our fears against certain groups of people, separating us and creating more chaos and less cooperation. Rather than raising our children to be peacemakers and to have friends from a variety of cultural and religious backgrounds, we are told to be fearful and to shrink back, protect our own, and to shelter children and youth from the world. What killed Jesus was indeed fear.

But this story tells us that we are not supposed to give into that fear.

The resurrection story isn’t flashy at all. Maybe that’s why the bunnies and baskets and painted eggs and peeps need to be there. Because really–the tomb is empty and we’re left to ponder: what happened? The real symbol of Easter is the empty tomb. No pageants, no lights, no trumpets or angels. Nobody is exchanging gifts under a tree or singing old songs.

The tomb.

Is.

Empty.

We are left with emptiness.

The emptiness makes space for us in our distress and sadness about what’s happening all over the world. The emptiness leaves space for us to ponder like Peter: what happened? The emptiness leaves space for us to make decisions. How will we react? Will we respond out of fear? Or possibility, promise, new life? Will we react like Mary Magdalene, the one who kept on searching for the face of mercy and love, in spite of the uncertainty and despair all around?

Friends, there is room in the tomb for your doubts, your questions, and even your despair. But there is also room for your dreams, your joys, your whole selves. What will we choose? There is room. There is room. There is ALWAYS room for you. Love is that big, that wide, that accessible. So make room in yourselves for new life, for love, for mercy, for empathy, for light. Find yourself and embrace your uniqueness.

And always make room for others–all others. Make the choice to work for peace and cooperation, and empathy. Speak life to the death of prejudice and violence.

May every day be resurrection day.

[1] Ericksen, Adam, Jesus Was Killed For National Security Reasons: Good Friday, Fear, and Muslim Surveillance, March 25, 2016.

Extravagant, Scandalous Love

John 12:1-11

Throughout these 40 days of Lent, I’ve been asking this question:

What does it mean for me be truly myself?

And I encourage you to do the same.

While we ask that question of ourselves, we are journeying with the story in the Gospels, following Jesus’ own journey of self-discovery. Most of this Lent, we’ve been reading Luke’s story, but this time we are following the 4th Gospel’s story—John.

Let’s set the stage. Use your imagination. John’s Gospel writers certainly did.

It was six days before Passover. Jesus had just raised Lazarus from the dead; some were people were amazed and some were mad. The religious leaders of the day were firmly in that mad group. So they were making their plans to kill Jesus as soon as they had the right moment. He was too popular now. Kind of a depressing start, but it gets better.

mummyJesus and company were in Bethany, just a small town outside of Jerusalem, but surely at its most crowded, because tons of people flocked to Jerusalem for Passover. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus make a cameo appearance. These three characters only appear in John’s Gospel, except for a short story about them in Luke’s Gospel. Who the heck were they, then? It’s a mystery. For real.

This story appears in all four Gospels, but each one has different characters. Mark has Jesus in Simon the leper’s house and he is anointed by an unnamed woman. Matthew’s version is pretty much a copy of Mark’s. Luke, on the other hand, changes it up. In Luke’s version of this story, Jesus eats dinner at the home of a Pharisee called Simon, and an unnamed woman called a “sinner” cries at Jesus’ feet and then wipes them with her hair before anointing his feet with ointment. It’s yet another example of how the four canonical Gospels can tell the same story in different ways. I think recognizing this is so very helpful for us the readers as we try to glean some meaning from ancient texts. The stories aren’t the same—even the characters change! So this means that we should be reading this as a metaphor for something, but also we should see the different perspectives of each author.

It’s always good to see another person’s perspective.

If we don’t do that, we can come up with some really insane beliefs. For example, there are still way to many people who believe that the woman in the story is in fact Mary Magdalene, and a prostitute. This idea started to gain traction in the 6th century. Popes and other religious leaders assumed that a woman called “sinner” must be a prostitute and that even though the other Gospels do not name the woman, it must be Mary Magdalene.

It’s unfortunate, I think. Female characters of the Bible have enough trouble getting respect as it is. But to assume that the hero character in this story, clearly the woman who anoints Jesus, was a prostitute just seems lazy and irresponsible to me. What if she really was a hero? What if she really was the Christ figure in the story?

So let’s look at what she did. She took a pound of ointment, called pure nard. Another name for it is spikenard.

Spikenard-Oil-5 It is oil derived from a flowering plant of the Valerian family and grows in the Himalayas of Nepal, India and China. So not only is it good for anointing, but it might even help you sleep! The important point being that it’s imported oil, probably from India. It’s expensive. This type of oil was considered a healing and palliative ointment. And it smelled reeeeeeeel good. Which would have been important, considering that there is some previously-dead due named Lazarus in the room, reading something and not opening his mouth, apparently. Spooky, isn’t it? Just earlier in the story, Lazarus was completely stinking of death. Then he emerged from the tomb, alive. And now, Jesus is in Lazarus’ house and everything smells fantastic. Gotta love the details.

Anyway, lovely-smelling, expensive oil aside, Mary does something scandalous next. She uses her hair to wipe Jesus’ feet with the oil. Uh…..

 

Yeah, THAT wasn’t good. Consider this—women covered their heads in this time and culture. Jewish women wore [and some still wear] a tzniut that looks remarkably similar to the Muslim hijab. Hair was intimate. So if a woman like Mary uncovered her head and then touched a man’s feet [also intimate], well, you might as well make this an R-rated feature. Cue Judas Iscariot’s entrance.

We all know Judas, the oft-misunderstood, so-called “bad guy” of the Bible. Here he gets to be the Debbie Downer in the room. Everything smelled so nice, Lazarus wasn’t dead anymore, Martha was doing her OCD stuff around the house, and Mary was anointing Jesus’ feet with oil. What could be bad about that? Well, Judas found something.

Why didn’t Mary sell the oil for money and then give it to the poor? What wastefulness!

You wonder if Martha was in the background shaking her head yes in agreement. After all, Mary was a rambunctious character who tended to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen when there was work to be done.

But John’s authors tell us that Judas didn’t really care about the poor. He kept the bag which was actually a box which eventually was called a coffer or money box [Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary]. It seems to me that here John’s Gospel wants to make sure we don’t side with Judas. After all, he does seem to make a good point here. But the Gospel quickly tells us that Judas is still the bad guy. I can sort of understand, because Judas Iscariot was really close to Jesus. He was in the inner circle of disciples and was trusted with the money, too. Regardless, Jesus stands with Mary and not with Judas, telling Judas to release her, which in the original Greek really means let her go or forgive her. It’s the same thing that the gardener said to the landowner about the fruitless fig tree. Forgive it.

Why forgive it? Because Mary did something not only scandalous, but extravagant. She could have anointed Jesus on his head like normal people did for kings and prophets. But no, she chose his feet and her hair. This was no king. This was no religious elite. Not according to Mary.

This was someone she truly loved.

Her act sets in motion something that will happen in the future. Eventually, when Jesus’ life is in real danger, and he’s in Jerusalem with his friends, they wash each other’s feet. So Mary, not considered by many to be a “disciple” of Jesus, not in the inner circle, preempts the foot washing before it was a command.

But the story isn’t over. Jesus ends it by saying: “You always have the poor with you.”
Uh……..

say-what

Jesus, was just happened?

Okay, before we jump to the conclusions of prosperity gospel people, Jesus was not giving people an excuse to ignore poor people. It’s quite the contrary. The so-called poor people who were often destitute beggars, were an assumed part of the Jesus community. They weren’t outsiders, they weren’t those poor people. They were part of Jesus’ circle. And I think that this wonderfully frames the message of Mary’s loving and extravagant act. Mary acted out of love and not charity. So should Jesus’ disciples act. They should care for all people [including those who were poor], but not out of charity—out love.

I wonder sometimes how much we do things to or for others, simply out of some obligation or perceived duty to be charitable.

And don’t just mean when you give a couple dollars to someone on the street or sponsor a child in Africa, though that happens, of course. I mean how often do we act out of love in our relationships, and not out of charity? Think about that for a moment.

How much of our relationships are built on obligation, duty, and charity?

And how much of our relationships are built on love?

It’s scandalous and extravagant to think about.

Because if we act out of love and not out of charity, we won’t be afraid to let our hair down, crack open the expensive jar of oil, and touch someone’ s bare feet. We won’t worry about what other people will think or how we’ll look or if we broke somebody’s rules. We will just act. Out of love.

Whenever I think back to those few moments in my life when someone truly acted out of love and showed me that love, I am overwhelmed with a peacefulness and gratitude. Those acts of love changed my life, healed me, and shaped me.

So what would it mean for you be a person who acts out of love?
What would that look like?

How would it change your relationships? Your workplace environment? Your school?

Powerful & Prophetic Women be Heard!

Mark 12:38-44

Ruth

WomenPower

It’s important to recognize that all sacred books are grounded in a certain time and place. In the case of the Bible, it is also important to accept that the writers of the NT books and the Hebrew Scriptures were most likely all men. Women’s voices [and even their names] are not as prevalent as those of men. This is not an opinion; it is fact.

So, yes—often we have to look deeper at scripture stories to hear the voices of women and to hear the wisdom within their stories.

One rare story in the Hebrew Scriptures [OT] is that of Ruth.

RuthFieldThis story is all about a female protagonist. Sure, there are some men involved, but for the most part, as a reader, we want to know what happens to Ruth, what she’s thinking, etc.

I encourage you to read the whole story yourself. That way, you can notice certain details and let your imagination go to work. Read Ruth like you would any short story.

But for the sake of this conversation with you, we need to at least summarize the story:

Ruth, the Cliffnotes Version:
Once upon a time, there was this nice Jewish family. But they had a problem. A famine had hit their hometown. So the heads of the household, Elimelech and wife Naomi, moved east to Moab with their two sons to find something to eat. In Moab, they established roots. They ended up staying there for about ten years. A lot can happen in ten years. Their two sons met two girls from the area and they got married. Their names were Ruth and Orpah [not to be confused with Oprah]. Everybody was pretty happy in Moab. But then….

Those two now-married sons, one by one, passed away; so did Elimelech. None of them left behind good life insurance policies, so the three women were in trouble financially.

So Naomi decided that she should go back to her hometown of Bethlehem; maybe the famine would be over? Her daughters-in-law Orpah and Ruth packed up and started to go with her. But Naomi didn’t feel right about this and she asked the two women to stay in Moab. Orpah took her advice and went right on back. But Ruth stayed with Naomi. She even pledged her devotion to Naomi, deciding to leave her religion and her culture to stay connected to Naomi. What could Naomi say? She let Ruth join her.

Once in Bethlehem, things didn’t get any better. Naomi was depressed. Ruth was working a manual labor job in the barley fields for very little pay.

But as it so happens, while working out there Ruth met a famous rich guy called Boaz. Boaz thought Ruth was pretty hot [apparently] but also respected her enough to give her special privileges at the workplace. Ironically, Boaz happened to be related to Naomi’s late husband Elimelech.

Naomi figured it out. Boaz, by family law and custom, would be obligated to marry Ruth. So Naomi had a plan. She told Ruth to visit Boaz at night in secret and to lie at his feet. Yes, this is a PG-13 reference. It’s an erotic move.

Ruth did what Naomi asked and actually, Boaz was a bit surprised that Ruth had any interest in him at all. He was happy, though. He told Ruth that he would really like to marry her, but the problem was that there was another relative with even closer ties to Ruth’s in-laws. But Boaz had a plan. He would meet with this close relative to see what was up.

It’s high drama. Everyone’s holding their breath.

What Boaz found out was good news. The close relative was more interested in buying Naomi’s land than marrying her daughter-in-law. So a win-win deal was made. The closer relative renounced his obligation to marry Ruth, freeing Boaz to marry her.

So they get married.

This made Naomi really happy. Later on, Ruth and Boaz had a son and named him Obed. Obed, just for history’s sake, would eventually be the grandfather of King David. The end.

I said in the beginning that we have to keep culture, place, and history in mind when we read stories in sacred books. In 2015 you may see the story of Ruth as quite patriarchal and male-dominated. After all, Ruth [and other women] were just like property. We cannot deny that.

And yet, there are particular moments in this story that are rare examples of lifting up women as more than just wives for men who have babies and keep a house.

I’m struck by the comments said by the women in Bethlehem about Ruth. They tell Naomi that Ruth who loves her is of more worth than seven sons.

Now that’s a strong statement, for women’s worth was not a common subject. In this case, though, Ruth as a character is given her due. She’s more than just loyal, she’s full of love as a friend and committed to staying connected to that friend. She pushes aside even her religion and her homeland in order to stay connected to Naomi. She has no obligation to do this. Naomi tells her to go back. But Ruth insists on staying with her out of love. This is significant.

Ruth is a role model. Love is only mentioned once in the story, and it’s the love of Ruth for Naomi.

It’s that deep, devoted friendship that exists not out of obligation, but empathy for the other.

Thanks, Ruth!

widows-miteStory #2 I’d like to look at is in the New Testament in Mark’s gospel. It begins with Jesus of Nazareth warning anyone who will listen about pompous scribes who parade around in long robes screaming “Look at me!” and feel entitled to the best seats in synagogues and parties. They ignore the plight of widows [and even gain from their misfortune] and in the end, they say long prayers in public, for people to see and hear.

This warning is followed by another woman’s story. This time, she is not given a name. We only know that she was a widow, which also meant that she was poor.

She could have been Ruth.
Or Orpah.
Or Naomi.

Jesus sat outside the temple, staring at people putting money into the temple’s treasury. It was a charity box, supposedly. Rich people came and put large amounts in the box, for all to see. But then a widow approached the treasury and put in merely two copper coins. Barely worth anything.

After seeing this unfold, Jesus called his disciples together and made his point.

The widow, to the world, was only worth a few pennies. That’s it. But Jesus disagreed. She had actually put in more to the treasury than all of the rich people combined. She was worth so much more. She didn’t contribute out of obligation or abundance, but simply out of love. She gave all that she had—all that she was.

It’s not a stretch to see these two ladies, Ruth and the poor widow, as sister stories. Both were widows; both were poor; Ruth was also a foreigner and of another religion. Both were ignored, manipulated, forgotten. And yet, both were lifted up as prime examples of how we are supposed to live.

Both women were and are models of love and giving.

What stands out for me in both cases, what is prophetic about their stories, is that both of them overcame so much: a patriarchal system that was set up to oppress them; a lack of financial means; no significant place in society; tragedy and isolation.

In spite of all of that, they showed love. But it was real love, because they weren’t obligated to do so. They chose to love.

They chose to have empathy for the people around them.

They chose to call the other “my people” instead of other.
They truly loved.

And so I’ll stop now, and be quiet. May these women’s voices be heard! May their legacy live on in us.

Forgiveness is Everything

Luke 7:36 – 8:3

payitforwardThe movie Pay it Forward is about a young boy named Trevor McKinney [played by Haley Joel Osment]. Trevor is troubled by his mother’s alcoholism and is afraid of his abusive and absent father. But something happens in school that changes his life and the lives of many others. One of his teachers, Mr. Simonet [played by Kevin Spacey], gives his social studies class an intriguing assignment. The homework: think of something to change the world and put it into action. Trevor takes it seriously. He comes up with the idea of paying it forward—in other words, he will do a good deed for 3 people in need. Each person who is the recipient of his good deed must pay it forward three times to three new people. Trevor’s idea and his own attempts to pay it forward cause a revolution in his mother’s life [played by Helen Hunt] and the lives of many others.

In the clip you are about to see, Trevor’s mom Arlene seeks out her homeless, alcoholic mother, Grace [played by Angie Dickinson]. Arlene actually struggles with alcoholism herself and of course has experienced the abuse of Trevor’s estranged father. She blames her mom, though, for all that has happened to her. The two of them have been separated for years. Trevor does not even know his grandmother. But Arlene is inspired by her son’s idea to pay it forward and she decides to follow his example. She must help someone who cannot help herself. Here is Helen Hunt and Angie Dickinson, mother and daughter.

We are walking through Luke’s Gospel again, and yet another healing story, but this time, a healing that we often overlook. A forgiveness story, but a healing nonetheless. We are in the house of Simon. This story is found in the Gospel of Mark and Matthew, too, but those two Gospels place this story at the end of Jesus’ ministry, right before he was killed. But here in Luke, it is at the beginning of his ministry. In Mark and Matthew we know the place—it is Bethany. Luke is not so concerned with that fact, but Luke’s version of the story is double the length of the other two Gospels. Let’s take a look at Mark’s version of the story [which is almost identical to Matthew’s]:

And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head. But there were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment thus wasted? For this ointment might have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and given to the poor.” And they reproached her. But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you will, you can do good to them; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burying. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.[1]

I have mentioned before that each Gospel, when they present the same story, presents a different view of that story. This does not mean that the story become less valid or ambiguous. We do this all the time. Ask long-time friends or life partners about experiences they have had together. Each friend or partner will tell the same story, but from their perspective. Is their perspective of the story less valid? No. The Gospels are like this. They each tell the same story, but with different perspectives.

Luke tends to focus on reaching a larger audience—namely those who do not identify as Jewish. He also focuses a lot on those who are often overlooked and not heard from. In this case, he focuses on women. The story begins with a meal in the house of Simon, a Pharisee. Luke uses the word “Pharisee” three times, just in case we miss it. Why? Because Luke’s Gospel tends to downplay the role of Pharisees in Jesus’ death.

Who were the Pharisees? Great question.
In the scope of Jewish history, the Pharisees were a political party, a social movement, and a school of thought within Judaism. There are even some scholars who believe that Jesus was a Pharisee. Paul, an author many letters in the New Testament, was indeed a Pharisee. Look, it is all about perspective, so I will say this. Today in 2013 as we look at Gospel passages with added historical and cultural insights, we are starting to see that the Pharisees were not the “bad guys” they are often portrayed as in our interpretations of Gospel stories.

From my point of view, I see that Jesus tried to include the Pharisees in much of his teaching and ministry. And I think this is part of the healing forgiveness offered to many sides in this story.

The setting is a dinner at the house of Simon. Now people of this time and of the Greco-Roman culture were used to dinners that included discussion of issues and sometimes even a lively debate.[2] Contrary to how we prefer for politics or religion to stay out of our Thanksgiving or other holiday meals—people in Jesus’ time embraced it. But the dinner is interrupted by an unexpected character—a woman from the city, called a sinner. She crashes the dinner party, an alabaster box full of perfume in hand. To Simon and the Pharisees, she is unclean. Her mere presence has ruined everything in a lovely evening.

But this woman, called sinner, stands behind Jesus, crying her eyes out. Thanks for the details, Luke.

The woman stand behind Jesus–as if she were following him.

She cries so much in fact that her tears drip on Jesus’ feet. So as she wipes her tears, she anoints Jesus with perfume. In the Greek language, the verb used here for crying, kissing, and anointing is ongoing—meaning that this woman repeatedly cried, wiped Jesus’ feet, and anointed him.

So beautiful, isn’t it? We cannot imagine anyone actually disapproving of such a thing, right?

But the Pharisee speaks up and even criticizes Jesus. How could this so-called prophet not know that this woman was a sinner? In classic Jesus fashion, he tells Simon a story—a parable.

A man lends money to two other guys. One guy owes 500 and the other only 50. Eventually, they are both down on their luck. But the lender forgives the loan, surprisingly. So, Jesus asks Simon: which guy is more grateful to be out of debt? Simon answers with the obvious response: the guy who owed the most. Jesus then addresses Simon by his name, showing respect. And Simon seems open to a new teaching.

Teacher, speak.

No longer fitting nicely into the category of Pharisee, Simon is listening.

But just then, when everything seems to be just right, Jesus shocks everyone with a question.

Do you see this woman?

Do you see this woman?

Remember, Jesus was in Simon’s house. Simon was the host. Did Simon put water on Jesus’ feet? Did he give him a kiss? Did he anoint him with oil? No. But the woman, the one Simon called a sinner, most certainly did.

For this reason, I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, because she loved much.

Jesus turned to the woman. Not only was she not a sinner now, she had already been forgiven. Her loving actions, performed in front of Pharisees and Jesus, were an expression of forgiveness received.

Gratefulness.

In life, we tend to believe that forgiveness is granted only to those who do something amazing to deserve it. We tend to think that we are forgiven if we are somehow better people or if we have more faith. But Jesus contradicts this. People are forgiven before they blink—before they have a chance to pray or before they show their faith. They only have to recognize forgiveness–accept it, and live it. And then their gratitude shines through.

In this story, and in our story, forgiveness is healing. It is restoration. Someone who feels that he/she owes something in life is released from that debt. Debts of any kind in relationships can be forgiven. Forgiveness is about releasing another person from the guilt of some past injury or harm that he/she has caused.

Forgiveness also restores your own self. When you feel guilty, like you owe people things—maybe you start to feel that you owe society, or your family, or the church, or even God things. This becomes your life. You are in debt. Guilt fills you. It traps you. You cannot move forward.

Simon teaches us this. He cannot admit that he himself needs forgiveness. That is why he does not accept the woman’s gratitude. That is why he cannot see her. She is an instrument of God’s grace and Simon calls her sinner.

Friends, forgiveness is not earned.

Any debt that we feel we owe God is already forgiven.

Mercy is mercy for a reason—so we don’t elevate ourselves above others.

And we are called to apply this to our relationships. Forgiveness is everything.

Admittedly, there are people in our lives who are hard to forgive. There are some we do not see, because we do not want for them to be forgiven. The hurt is real and the debt hovers over us. But I wonder, what if we chose to forgive? What if we forgave debts? How would that transform our relationships? Our communities? Our churches? For when we forgive, we not only forgive the person, we claim forgiveness for ourselves.

We should not take this lightly. We should not underestimate the worth of forgiveness.

It is powerful.

It is healing.

And friends–it is possible. Amen.


[1] MARK 14:3-8, RSV.

[2] Reader’s Guide to Meals, Food and Table Fellowship in the New Testament, Jerome H. Neyrey, University of Notre Dame. http://www3.nd.edu/~jneyrey1/meals.html

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