a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
based on the theme: “Crazy Grace”
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
November 17, 2019
Luke 7:36-49 NRSV
36 One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37 And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38 She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” 40 Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “speak.” 41 “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” 48 Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”
I have been harping on the concept that God is an extravagant giver, one who casts blessing seeds everywhere and anywhere on anyone. I have suggested that this amount of grace – the gift of God’s love – is crazy if one measures sanity by whether we deserve it, or have earned it, or even show appropriate gratitude for it. This morning I want to talk about a case of extreme gratitude, extravagant gratitude, if you will.
Last week I asked if you have experienced a time when you felt you GAVE an extravagant gift. This week my topic begs the question, do remember a time when you received such a gift and felt or expressed extravagant gratitude in response? I mean expressed it to the point of embarrassing yourself, maybe a little?
That’s what this woman in our story is guilty of doing. She expresses her gratitude so extravagantly that the host, and maybe the other guests are, well frankly, embarrassed for her. The story tells us that Jesus is invited to the home of a leading Deacon of First Temple Jerusalem for a dinner party. These parties were always attended by the other Deacons, the Senior Pastor, usually some city luminaries, like the Mayor or the City Council President, sometimes bigwigs like the President of the local mega-hospital system that was related to the Temple, that sort of folk. It was not the sort of party anyone would just bust in on. It just wasn’t the kind of party where anyone had ever crashed it, for God’s sake.
But here comes this woman. We don’t get her name. All we get is she was a “sinner.” Well in Jesus’ time that covered a lot of ground. Maybe it still does. So why does every one automatically think that meant she was a prostitute? What, you didn’t think that? Ok, I believe you. Whatever. But the fact is, how often do we assume the worst about others, especially someone who isn’t maybe dressed quite right, or looks a little like their hygiene is a bit skippy? Or maybe they act a little strange, or you know, have an Obama sticker on their car, Lord have mercy. Or maybe they talk a little too loud. See, we don’t know what this woman’s “SIN” is but we know sin when we see it in others, don’t we? Imagine having someone like that make a scene like this at your dinner party, or one you are a guest at!
As I have said before it is important to understand the cultural norms of the situation this passage describes to understand the full impact of this woman’s behavior. First, it is bad enough she shows up uninvited, we all get that is a social no-no. But the fact that she uncovers her hair in public, that she touches a man in public, that she not only uncovers her hair and touches a man in public but touches the man with her hair and kisses the man’s feet in public is outrageous. I imagine the poor host, Mr. Deacon of First Temple himself was probably about to choke on the olives in his martini! To top it all off she wasted a jar of expensive ointment on the feet of this questionable itinerant rabbi, who is only there as a kind of side show freak for the Deacon to humiliate in front of all the good religious folk.
What? That’s not in there? Oh, if that woman had not shown up and pulled that stunt, you can bet that Mr. Deacon had a little ambush waiting for Jesus. Like several other encounters in the Gospels where the good religious folk question Jesus trying to get him to say something they can condemn him for. You can bet that because, after all he hadn’t even treated Jesus with the decency and dignity he must have showed every other guest. It would have been standard cultural custom for the host to have offered every guest a basin of water to wash their feet upon arrival, a greeting of a kiss on the cheek, and in most cases, an anointing with oil as a way to “freshen up” from the journey to the dinner party. He does none of that for Jesus, but he most likely did it for all his other guests. But this sinner woman, knowing full well she would be scorned beyond belief for her actions by the good folk at that dinner party, does all this for Jesus and more. All to express her incredible gratitude for the love of God Almighty that she has somehow experienced in Jesus. And, oh, by the way if you hadn’t noticed we do not ever know how or why she knew Jesus or what experience she had with him that told her he was the embodiment of God’s extravagant, forgiving, healing, blessing grace.
So all this detail I tell you to try to heighten just how extravagant this woman’s act of gratitude was. She somehow knew that whatever her sin, in Jesus her sin was forgiven. She somehow knew that however broken her life was, in Jesus her life would be made whole. She somehow knew all this and her gratitude was so overwhelming that she willingly, knowing full well she would be further humiliated by her actions, went and expressed her extravagant gratitude to Jesus in front of all these proper, religious, wealthy, judgy people. Who would do such a thing, not matter how grateful you might be? You? You? Not me! I cannot tell you how much the thought of public humiliation would dissuade me – I don’t care if Jesus had just given me a billion – that’s with a “B” – dollars, I would not have embarrassed myself, humiliated myself in such an extravagant way expressing my gratitude. Maybe you would. Not me. Sorry, not sorry.
So all that said, I certainly am not going to say to you, “go and do likewise.” So often we preachers do that stuff. You know, the widow gives her last coin and Jesus lauds her saying she has given more than all the millionaires on the Trustee Board of First Temple Jerusalem…. “Go and do likewise.” Jesus commends the Good Samaritan for taking care of the Jewish man who got beat almost to death by thieves and we preachers say, “go and do likewise.” We read that passage about people giving everything they had, all their possessions and following Jesus, and we say… “go and do likewise.” Nope. Not gonna do it.
But here is what I am going to say. I am going to express some extravagant gratitude for what this church and you people who ARE this church have done and suggest some things we can yet do. You have learned how to welcome the stranger in ways many churches say they do, but won’t. You have given sacrificially of time to serve this church so that we haven’t paid a custodian in almost 20 years but we took the money we would pay a custodian and you put it toward missions serving people in need. For years we were able to tithe what you gave just to Our Churches Wider Mission, and then we gave a ton more to local missions. You renovated the Promise House to serve people who had been “houseless” and were about to be able to return to living full-time in a house again. You scrimped and figured a way to replace air conditioner after air conditioner in our 60 year old building, to pay for plumbing repairs, to renovate Fellowship Hall so that it looks beautiful instead of like a middle school cafeteria.
I want to express my gratitude as extravagantly as I can –without embarrassing you or myself – for the lives you have saved because month after month you brought in food so that Arlington Community Services could feed people who otherwise would not have enough to eat. But there are still more lives we can save. The need and demand at ACS has more than doubled in the past two years. So while some claim we are in the best economy ever and that unemployment is below zero, the reality is for many who are working they are not making enough to pay rent, utilities, car payments to get to the two or three jobs they are working and still feed their children. For those of you who feel you cannot afford it I am going to ask you to sacrifice one can of food and bring that in. You will experience incredible gratitude at being able to give so someone else who cannot afford it can eat.
In spite of the fact that the stock market is at record levels more people are houseless than ever before according to statistics in Jacksonville and elsewhere. But I want to express my extravagant gratitude to those of you who have given money and volunteered and cooked meals and stayed overnight here for the past years as we have tried to follow the Biblical mandate to do unto others as we would do for Jesus. You have made this a place where families without houses could find refuge for a week at a time. In my gratitude I want to urge those of you who have not done any of this to do something. Stay over one night as a volunteer. Help someone else cook a simple meal. Do something that will fill your heart with gratitude for being able to help someone else.
As I have said more than once you are responsible for saving hundreds of children from an arrest record by being there at our Nehemiah Assembly and demanding that our Sherriff and State Attorney do the just thing, the right thing, the most economically conservative thing and give civil citations to youth who commit non-violent offenses so that they aren’t shackled for life with an arrest record that keeps them from getting into schools or the military or jobs. Because you showed up and demanded what was just – as God demands we do in the Bible – babies were saved from infant mortality that ran as high as some third – world countries right here in Jacksonville. It’s one thing to oppose abortion. It’s another thing to do something about making sure a baby born has the right to a life of adequate nourishment, safe housing, medical care, and the possibility of a job when they grow up. You may think that “doing justice” is some liberal, bleeding heart thing. I think I have made it pretty clear over these past years that whatever else it is it is something God demands we do. It isn’t something God asks or suggests. The prophet Micah expresses it clearly: “I have shown you, O Mortal, [ says YHWH ], what you must do: you must do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” Can’t be any more plain than that.
I believe there is a lot more we can do, we will do, and we must do as a church. I believe we have a Godly purpose and that we have been a faith-filled Christian community in our missions and ministries. I believe there is much more we can do. I cannot express my gratitude extravagantly enough to you who have made it possible and cannot be more sincere or more proud to ask those of you who have been giving to keep giving and for those of you who have not given to make whatever sacrifice you think it might involve to start giving. We need your giving to keep doing the things God calls us to do and all of us need to experience the blessing of extravagant gratitude that comes when we know that comes to us when we feel like we have done something for others, because Jesus promises us, whatever you do for one of these my sisters and brothers you do for me.
That is the bottom line of our giving. What we do in the name of Christ for others, we do for Christ. Just like we were there in that room, at that dinner party, crying our eyes out and washing Jesus’ feet with our tears and our hair and our gratitude. That’s what our giving is – it is our expression of gratitude for all Jesus has done for us. AMEN.