Luke 7:36-8:3

Shame. It’s a feeling that I would guess most of us have felt at one time another. It’s that feeling we get when we know we have failed to measure up somehow. Maybe we blush remembering something foolish that we said or did when we should have known better. Or maybe it’s that time when we went along with the crowd because it’s hard to stand up and stand out, and so we did something that we are not proud of now. It’s that voice inside our heads that says, “I drink too much” or “I eat too much.” “I don’t make enough money. I’m ugly, I’m gay, I’m poor, I’m fat, I’m divorced, I’m in foster care, I’m stupid, I’m not part of the in crowd or the “right” race or….” The list goes on and on. Sometime in our lives, somebody, somewhere told us that we did not measure up, that we were unworthy, maybe because of something we could help, or maybe even because of something we can’t change, and it stung, and it lasts. It’s amazing how many of us are walking around with some hurt and shame from long ago that maybe even seems a little silly now, but it’s still there.

When shame lasts, it affects the way we interact with the world. If you feel ashamed enough, you want to disappear. You walk with your head down, your shoulders slumped, your eyes on the ground. It’s isolating. And it feels awful. Today we meet the woman with the alabaster jar. She knows about shame.

Jesus has been invited to the home of a Pharisee. Simon is a man who appreciates the religious law, and prides himself on keeping it. He wants others to keep it too. It’s a little surprising that he has invited Jesus to his home, because Jesus has been causing quite a stir. He’s been eating with sinners, teaching and preaching in the synagogues, healing people, and casting out demons. He has also been breaking some of the religious laws. But Simon has heard that Jesus is a prophet, and has invited him to dinner.

It’s important to know that Jewish dinners in those days would not be eaten sitting at a table, but rather reclining on couches. If you have been to a Jewish Seder you know that today that is still a part of the story. Slaves were not allowed to recline, but the Egyptian owners did, and so once the people were freed from slavery, they too ate reclining. Jesus and Simon are just that when a woman, whom we are told is a sinner, walks in. She has with her an alabaster jar full of ointment. This is an expensive jar.

We don’t know what sin she has committed, but apparently lots of other people do. Simon does. He might not have seen her at first. I suspect she sort of crept in. Can you imagine what courage it would take when you are being publically shamed, to walk right in to the house of a Pharisee, whose job it is to keep the religious purity laws and make sure that others do the same? But something about Jesus impels her, and she stands there at his feet. Normally if you are going to anoint someone you would do it on his or her head. But she is standing at his feet, weeping. I imagine some of us know what that is like too. We are suddenly overcome with a powerful emotion and even if we don’t mean to, we can’t help ourselves and the tears just start to flow. And her tears fall on his feet.

This is an odd enough scene, but it continues. The woman begins to bathe Jesus’ feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Normally a slave in the household would have washed the dusty feet of a visitor as an act of hospitality, but that apparently had not been done, and so the woman is doing it now, with her tears and her hair. She begins kissing his feet then too, and anointing them with the ointment from the jar, and the Pharisee cannot help himself. He says to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him – that she is a sinner.” At which point Jesus says that he has something to say to Simon.

Jesus tells a story about someone who has offered credit to two different people, and neither of them can afford to pay him back. One of them owes five hundred denarii, and the other 50. A denarius was a coin equivalent to a day’s wages for a laborer, so five hundred of them is about 16 months of wages. 50 would cover a little less than two months. The creditor forgives the debts when he finds out that neither can pay. He doesn’t work out a payment plan, or charge them interest, or beat them, or throw them in jail. He just cancels the debts. Jesus asks, “Which of them will love him more? Simon answers, “the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus says he is right.

Now Jesus points out that Simon failed to offer the hospitality of water with which to wash Jesus’ feet, but the woman did it with her tears and her hair. He says Simon gave him no kiss, but the woman is kissing his feet. And Simon did not anoint his head with oil, but the woman has anointed his feet with ointment. And so, Jesus says, even though she had many sins, they are forgiven, and that is why she is showing great love. And then he tells the woman that her sins are forgiven, and that her faith has saved her. Can you imagine what this must feel like – to have your worth restored to you after a long time of feeling worthless and alone? It’s powerful.

Many of you know that this past week, we hosted the Bishop of the East Congo conference in Africa, Bishop Unda. He stayed with me and Mark from Thursday to Saturday, along with his translator, the Rev. Bill Lovell. Some of you had the chance to meet them both on Friday. During the meeting with the mission and justice committees, Bishop Unda told us a story that brought everyone in the room, including the translator, to stunned and thoughtful silence, if not to outright tears. He said he was so grateful for our contributions to Imagine No Malaria. That is a subject near and dear to his heart, as his wife and oldest daughter both died of the disease. When the people of his conference were distraught on his behalf, he told them that the real tragedy for their country was the large group of women in need. He told us that the Congo is recovering from a 20-year war, during which rebels from other places came in to the Congo to steal the natural resources, which include diamonds, and a valuable ore that is in all of our cell phones. The war was bloody. Millions of people died. Millions. Many of the women and children ran off into the forest, where they were forced to hide out for years. Some of them were pregnant. Some of them were raped by the invaders and maimed and mutilated. Some contracted AIDS. Children were born in the forest. People became sick and died there. Worse yet, when it was safer, they tried to return to their villages, but their husbands and fathers and brothers would not accept them back, because they were “damaged.” It was so hard for the translator to tell us this. He had to choke back tears.

These women were ashamed, for something over which they had no control. They were shunned. They went back into the forest. Bishop Unda is only now able to help the churches to bring them out, to make them safe, to heal their wounds, and to teach them and the rest of their villages that they are people of worth. His dream is to build a facility where they can come and receive medical care, and be taught a trade, and basic skills like cooking and sewing. Most importantly, he wants them to relearn self worth so that they do not have to be ashamed and isolated any more.

Simon, the Pharisee in our story today, understood righteousness to mean that God cannot endure sinners, and so Godly people should not do that either. Sinners were to be shunned. Christ says that true righteousness is about grace and mercy. He removed shame. Bishop Unda is attempting to live that out for the women in his community.

The United Methodist Church is still struggling with this concept of who is righteous, and even who is in. Bishop Unda and I talked about the General Conference which recently concluded. This is the body that meets every 4 years to set policy and direction for the UMC. For decades there have been arguments about our rules which say that openly gay people cannot be ordained, that their marriages should not be recognized by the church, and that our pastors can be punished for presiding over such marriages. Before the conference convened, the African Bishops had released a statement about terrorism and human sexuality. I have a copy if anyone wants to see it. It spells out how much violence and terror they have been struggling with as a result of groups trying to take over the resources in their land. And then it talks about the struggle our denomination has over issues relating to human sexuality, specifically LGBT issues. The issues of war take up a lot of their time and attention, and it is hard for them to understand the persistent focus on issues of sexuality in the United States. The statement implies that removing the discriminatory language from our rule books would be straying from Biblical teaching. Many of us understand how priorities can differ, and certainly that war and genocide is very compelling. But when it comes to the language in our Book of Discipline, we disagree. The General Conference came closer than ever to splitting our denomination over this issue. Conversation was getting heated. Some people were about to say and do things that might cause all of us shame, when you realize that the world is watching, and if church leaders are ugly and hateful to one another, what hope is there that churches can lead us all to health and wholeness in the sight of God?

Wisely, delegates asked all of the bishops to lead us out of this mess. They proposed that there be no more discussion about sexuality at all during this General Conference. They proposed that a commission be formed to study some more as to how we might best work together despite our differences. Some people were discouraged, because we have formed committees and commissions before, and it was said that they were just “kicking the can down the road again.” But others saw hope in the delay.

Knowing that Bishop Unda had signed the statement, and having become comfortable with each other over the course of 3 days, I asked him if there was any hope for our denomination amidst our differences. He said that in the Congo, a coalition of denominations has been working to help. They do not agree with each other on theology, but they do agree on their mission to help the people of the war torn Congo. Bishop Unda calls it Unity with diversity. That is his hope for our General Conference.

Mark, Lisa, and I expressed our concern that there are people in this country killing themselves because they believe God does not find them worthy and they can’t change. He cringed at that. He listened to my stories of good and faithful relationships among same sex couples. He said that they have not understood these issues in Africa at all, and that there are people spreading misinformation with regard to these issues there, but that things are changing. He said he saw great hope in the proposal to study this issue some more. We agreed that we should not damage our denomination by splitting up over this disagreement. He thanked us for sharing our hearts with him.

Bishop Unda has helped to restore my faith in our General Conference, and in our ability to live in Unity with a diversity of opinions and lifestyles. I think we do a good job of that in this church, and I was proud to show him who we are and what we do here. He was very grateful for the E-readers we sent to the seminary in his conference, and, of course, for our support of Imagine No Malaria. We parted friends, with hopes of seeing one another again. And we prayed for each other and for the United Methodist church that we both love.

Jesus invites all of us – all of us – to give up our shame and our isolation and come to him. To come out of the forest, and off of the streets, and into the churches and into the faith. To recognize that we are all children of God and people of worth. To love God and one another, and to build each other up rather than tear each other down. May God help us to say YES! And to find unity in our diversity. Amen

Cancelling Debt

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