Sunday, June 17, 2007

Time after Pentecost, Lectionary 11
2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15
Psalm 32
Galatians 2:15-21
Luke 7:36-8:3

I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I that live, but Christ living in me: and that life which I now live in the flesh I live in faith, the faith which is in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself up for me.

A professor I knew in college decided to retire and she realized that she had held on to a great deal of ‘stuff’ that she thought might be helpful for her teaching. With the decision to stop teaching came the realization that she no longer needed all those piles of books, magazines and other materials. She hired me to help clean her house during summer vacation. I was shocked when I first walked into the house because there were piles of papers everywhere – in the living room, on the dining room table and even on the stairs leading to her second story.

She told me that I could keep anything I wanted and I did take a few books that I thought would be helpful for my own career. However, most of the ‘stuff’ was little more than junk – out of date books, notes that were scribbled on scrap papers, faded and worn magazines. After the first few days we made real progress in organizing everything and we were feeling good about all that we had accomplished. Then she took me to the basement. I have to admit that I wanted to quit on the spot because the work needed to clean up that mess was overwhelming. There were stacks of boxes filled with more books, papers and magazines. The trouble was not only the amount of work, but the basement was damp, dark and it smelled very musty. There was so little to be salvaged from the mess, but she insisted on going through every box “just in case.” I can understand her desire to hold on to the things that were important. She worked hard throughout her career collecting the resources to be a good teacher and it would be such a waste to let it all go to the dump.

It is easy to see when we have too much stuff. Several television shows have been created to help people learn to simplify and organize their lives. When we have too much, our closets overflow, our basements fill up, our houses fill with junk. The guests on those ‘clean-up’ shows are obviously in trouble when the cameras enter their homes. We can see quickly that something has to change. They are usually ready to make the change, but all too often they can’t see the root of their problems because they are buried under piles of stuff they think they need just in case.

We are quick to judge those folk because their mess is so obvious, but don’t we all have messes? Some of us are better at hiding it than others. I have drawers and closets filled with junk I don’t need but just can’t seem to let go. I have an ‘in box’ on my desk that is nearly overflowing and I know I could throw away at least half of the papers in it. I find plenty of excuses – no time to go through it all or I might need it tomorrow – but what good is an expired coupon?

Our sin is like our junk. It is really obvious in some people’s lives and it is easy for us to judge their unworthiness by their actions. We forget that we are sinners, too. Our sin is less visible so we appear to be more righteous, but that doesn’t mean we are more worthy than they. That was the problem in both our stories for today. David knew his sin but had managed to make excuses for it until Nathan brought it out in the open. The Pharisee named Simon learned a lesson in forgiveness and love.

I think that perhaps one of the most quoted scripture verses is “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” This is trotted out every time someone has made a negative judgment against someone, particularly if the person judged does not want to recognize the truth of it. It doesn’t matter if the judgment is correct or just. They want approval even if the action being judged is unjustifiable. The passage is not meant to stop all judgments against people, because we have to have some boundaries between right and wrong. How could the judges do their job if God intended for people to never judge against others? There are consequences for our actions and we could not meet out those consequences if we did not judge whether or not the actions are right or wrong.

We have to make judgments about people daily. Sometimes the judgments are necessary for us to do our jobs. Can a co-worker help with a project? Should I do business with this person? How quickly can this job be finished using this group of people? Sometimes the judgments are necessary to ensure good relationships. Is this the man I should date? Should I marry this girl? What does my friend need today? See, we even make judgments about the people whom we help. We judge whether someone is hungry before we offer them food or in need before we give them clothes.

We have to make judgments about people to ensure our safety. Is the driver of that car weaving? Should I agree to play football with that neighbor? Will everything be ok if I go to that party with those friends? This is especially true for our teens. They have to constantly be making judgments about their friends. Will this person be good for my life or is it better to keep away from them? These judgments could mean the difference between life and death in some cases. There are simply some kids that are dangerous and peer pressure is difficult to overcome.

It is necessary to make judgments about people as we make decisions about our lives. What we need to remember is that when we make a judgment about someone, we will be judged in the same measure. “Judge not, lest ye be judged” is a good thing to remember when you are screaming at that car that just cut you off on the highway because undoubtedly you have cut someone off yourself at some time. “Judge not, lest ye be judged” is a good thing to remember when you are gossiping about the friend who has purchased that horrible dress because you surely have bought something that does not flatter your body. When you judge your neighbor, test your own heart and actions to see if that very action is something that you need to change in your own life. By seeing the sin of your neighbors, you might just be looking in a mirror.

That’s what happened to David. He heard the story of the thief stealing the sheep and became irate that anyone would do such a thing. He even made a judgment about the punishment for that evildoing. Nathan threw that judgment back in his face, “You are that man!” “Judge not, lest ye be judged” is a reminder that we are all sinners in need of a Savior. David knew God’s grace and though he suffered the consequences for his actions against Uriah the Hittite, but he never lost touch with God. As a matter of fact, the judgment brought him to his knees before God in repentance. When we judge others, we should do so not as though we are holier or better than others, but as humble sinners with the knowledge that we will also be judged.

Jesus was invited to the home of a Pharisee – Simon was his name. We can not guess the Pharisee’s motivation for inviting Jesus to his home. This story happens early in Luke’s telling of Jesus’ ministry, but the Pharisees were already questioning Jesus’ purpose and holiness. Did the Pharisee want to trap Jesus or was he truly curious about the things Jesus was doing and saying? Whatever the reason, the Pharisee was not a very good host. Jesus entered his house and he was not given the hospitality due a visitor. There was no one to cleanse His feet from the dust of the road. Imagine what it must have been like. Jesus walked everywhere and the road in His day was dusty and dry. His feet were probably worn and tired from His travels, perhaps even cracked and bruised.

The woman, a sinner according to Luke’s telling of this story, heard that Jesus was at the Pharisee’s house having dinner. She came with a jar of perfume and poured it on His feet, weeping and wiping His feet with her hair. I am sure that the ointment felt good on His sore feet, a wonderful relief from the heat and dryness of the road. She met a very real need and offered her whole self to Jesus. What brought her to that place? Had she already experienced God’s grace and was returning His mercy with her love? As she ministered to His needs the Pharisee said, “This man, if he were a prophet, would have perceived who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him, that she is a sinner.”

There are those who might identify the sinful woman who anointed Jesus as Mary Magdalene. This has been done for generations and it is the reason that Mary is often identified as a prostitute. We do know from this text that she had been healed of possession, Jesus had cast out seven demons, but we know little else about this woman. This is the first time that Mary appears in the Gospel of Luke and she is not specifically named in any of the other Gospels until the end of the story. While one of the versions of the anointing story does include a woman named Mary, it is the sister of Lazarus who does the anointing in John and it is unlikely that the two are the same woman.

While Mary Magdalene might have been a prostitute, we can not make that assumption based on the scriptures. Perhaps it is the juxtaposition of the verses from chapter eight along with the story of Jesus’ anointing, placing Mary close to the circumstances under which she became such an important part of Jesus’ ministry. It is understandable that a woman with demons might have led a life that was less than holy – perhaps finding relief from the physical and emotional stress through the satisfaction of her desires, whatever they might be. Whether the woman in this story is or is not Mary Magdalene does not really matter. What does matter is what Jesus is teaching us with the parable and with His treatment of the woman.

This is a lesson in forgiveness. She was a great sinner who was greatly forgiven. Others, like the Pharisee, did not seem to need so much forgiveness. Sadly, his lack of need was exactly why he did not recognize God’s grace. Jesus embraced the woman and accepted the love that she so willingly gave. To the Pharisee, this was proof that Jesus was no prophet. She was a sinner and was unworthy to be in the presence of a messenger of God. If He welcomed her then He could not be a prophet. Jesus’ actions, however, proved something even greater – grace.

The Pharisee barely even welcomed Jesus with normal hospitality. He did not offer water for His feet, but the woman cleaned His feet with her tears and her hair. He did not anoint Jesus, but she did. When Jesus confirmed in words what she knew in her heart, “your sins are forgiven” the others at the dinner wondered about Jesus. “Who is this that even forgiveth sins?” Then He said to her, “They faith hath saved thee; go in peace.” By God’s grace we are forgiven, by faith we experience that forgiveness in a way that brings us peace.

We have a cat named Felix. He got into trouble once when I had purchased a bag of craft feathers for a project. Knowing that the feathers were tempting for a cat, I put them on a high shelf, thinking that there would be no way for Felix to get them. I did not even think he would be able to figure out where they were kept. Unfortunately, when we were out of the house for the day, Felix did find the feathers and he managed to climb to that high shelf to get them. Bruce and Zack arrived home to find feathers all over the house. I did not know what happened until the next morning when I heard a very strange noise. It was Felix, bringing the feathers to lie at my feet. Felix must have thought he caught a bird and he brought it as a present for me. He was so proud for a moment, until he looked at my face. Then he knew he had done something wrong.

I’m much smarter about my craft feathers these days, but Felix still gets into trouble. His favorite game is to see whether or not he can escape from the house. He doesn’t want to run away; he just wants to get outside. We have a wooden screen door at the front entryway. It did not take long before Felix realized that he could push that door and escape. We had to buy a hook so that he could not open it. Now he sits by the door and looks up at that hook. He knows when it is fastened and when it is not. He looks around, looks for me, looks up at the hook. He does this several times until he decides that it is safe to try. When I hear the squeak, I look over at the door and say, “Felix!” He knows that he’s doing something wrong.

We are just like Felix. We do things wrong every day. In the Lutheran liturgy, we confess that “we have sinned against God in thought, word and deed, by what we have done and what we have left undone.” We are sinners. That’s why we need a Savior. The psalmist writes, “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven.”

The Psalm for today talks about forgiveness. Forgiveness is not just words that assuage our guilt about our sin, but it is a way of life in which we live. “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven.” Other translations use the word “happy”. We are happy when we are forgiven. It is not about having a party atmosphere for being released from the consequences of our sin. We are happy because forgiveness restores our relationship with our God and Father. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve hid from God when they disobeyed His word. They did not know forgiveness and were cast out of the garden and out of the presence of God. Christ came to change all that. He came to bring forgiveness and reconciliation between God and His people. Jesus welcomed the woman back into a relationship with God.

The psalmist writes, “When I kept silence, my bones wasted away.” Silence about our sin means torment. But acknowledgement of our sin before God brings joy, because it brings forgiveness and freedom. Though we are sinners, we are given the grace to stand before our God to confess our sin. It is there we find joy and peace because God has promised to forgive our sin. The woman did not care what the people at the dinner thought of her. She only wanted to be near Jesus, to give Him herself in a very real and loving way.

The Pharisee thought his worthiness was dependent on his good works. The woman knew her good works were worthless without the grace of God. That is the difference between the messages of Peter and Paul at the time of the writing of the letter to the Galatians. Though Peter knew and accepted that salvation was dependent on God’s grace, he allowed himself to be convinced that real fellowship between Christian Jews and Christian Gentiles was dependent on traditional practices and regulations. Paul, the newcomer, saw God’s grace as not only the foundation, but the substance of the Christian life. Salvation was not just dependent on God’s grace; God’s grace made living the Christian life possible. He knew that if this was true, then nothing could, or should, stand in the way of Christian fellowship. He also knew that if there were requirements for membership, then none were worthy and Christ’s death was in vain.

We are blessed by God not because we are adherents to a particular Law. We are not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. It is faith that saves and in faith our lives are no longer transformed. God’s grace welcomes all those who come to Him in faith. It is faith that saves and in faith our lives are no longer our own. We are Christ’s and He lives within us. Everything we do, we do in faith. Even when we fail God’s grace holds firm and forgiveness remains. We can’t earn God’s love or keep it ours by our works. God’s grace is ours through faith, not works. He says to us, “I have put away your sin; you shall not die.”

The last three verses of the Gospel lesson for today seem like they don’t belong. After all, what could the support of those women have to do with the dinner at Simon’s house? Ministry support is perhaps one of the biggest questions and aggravations that the church faces today. We don’t want to ask anyone for money – capital campaigns and stewardship drives are the biggest turn offs for many new Christians. “All they want is my money,” they say. Yet, ministry must be supported somehow. Jesus did not have a job, particularly not when He was traveling from city to city to preach the good news of the Kingdom. The other disciples walked away from their work, and they weren’t rich men.

They were often given food to eat and a place to sleep, but there would have been times that they had to fend for themselves. There were other needs to be met – replacement of worn out shoes or torn robes. They had a moneybag – did they get donations from the people who had been healed? Were some of the listeners so taken by the message that they gave a coin to help? We know from today’s passage that the women following Jesus provided for them out of their resources. They are sharing their love of God with the disciples in a different, but much the same way as the woman in our story. God provides for those who serve Him through the hearts and resources of others.

What is it that we do with the resources that are so graciously given to our ministries? What is our purpose? I know that many congregations are in the process of growing – not only in bodies but also in space. How can you worship with large numbers of people in small spaces? Building growth is an inevitable predicament that accompanies growth in members. With more disciples, we also grow in programs and activities to meet the needs of the community. None of these things are bad and they all require financial commitment. What we need to remember is the message that we’ve been given to deliver to the world. That is our purpose. Our mission is to teach people about forgiveness.

Forgiveness is the message that Jesus came to bring. This is the message that He was taking to the cities and villages. The good news is that we are forgiven by the grace of God. We see, in the actions of Jesus, that though God sees our sin He does not abandon us. He welcomes us, embraces us in our tears and grants us forgiveness as we recognize our sinfulness in His presence. As the psalmist writes, “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” We all have our own messes that need to be cleaned up whether the mess is obvious or hidden away in drawers or closets. The good news is that our transgression is forgiven and our sin is covered by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ our Lord.

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