Sunday, February 19, 2017

She Persisted--a sermon

Rev. Teri Peterson
She Persisted
Luke 7.36-50
19 February 2017, NL3-24, Epiphany 7 (Listen Up!)

Last week we heard about Jesus’ answer to those who wondered if he was the One they had been waiting for: the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. He ended the conversation by reminding them that when John the Baptizer fasted and separated himself from society, they thought he was demon-possessed, and now Jesus feasts and they call him a glutton who socializes with sinners—their expectations obscured their ability to hear his message of grace. Today’s reading, in Luke chapter 7, beginning at verse 36, picks up at the end of that conversation. It can be found on page ___ of your pew Bible if you wish to follow along.

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. 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. 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. 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.’ Jesus spoke up and said to him, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you.’ ‘Teacher,’ he replied, ‘speak.’ ‘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?’ Simon answered, ‘I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You have judged rightly.’ Then turning towards 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. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 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.’ Then he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’

Picture this scene…a house with big front windows, shutters open, and no glass in them of course. The front door stands open to a large courtyard, and the first doorway goes into a front room, with its wall of open windows and a long, low table surrounded by pillows and low benches. This is the room where it happens—where the powerful master of the house entertains his important guests, so everyone can see how well they live and how scrupulous they are about keeping the religious laws, and often even hear what they discuss.

The room was full that day—mainly men, important men. Pharisees and scribes, perhaps rabbis, or members of the royal household, or of the Sanhedrin, the council of elders. They reclined towards the table on the cushions, leaning on their left arms, with their feet out behind them, away from the table. There may have been women there—wives, perhaps, seated on stools or benches, or slaves coming and going with dishes and food and jugs of wine.

It is not a quiet dinner party as we think of them today, secluded and enclosed in flickering candlelight. There’s bustling in the room, and outside, as people walk by, or stand outside and talk about what they are seeing and hearing, or even talk through the windows at the people inside. There’s movement, and probably more color than we usually imagine in the ancient near east, and side conversations, and food coming and going.

Then a woman entered the house—it was easy to do—and stood behind Jesus as he reclined at the table. At first, probably no one gave her a much thought, as people came and went, except perhaps to avoid her touching them. But she stayed, rooted to her spot, weeping so much that she was able to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears, and dry them with her hair—her unbound, uncovered, loose, long hair. Soon a different scent filled the air, overpowering the smell of roasted fish and fresh bread and new wine with its pungent sweetness, reminiscent both of love and of death.

By now she had everyone’s attention.

How could Jesus not know? What she was? In addition to everyone squirming away to be sure she didn’t accidentally touch them, they were squirming inside too, suspicious that this man was not who he claimed to be, since he seemed to not understand about this creature that was ruining everything, right there at the dinner table.

No one said a word but Jesus. His story was straightforward, and even those startled at having their inner thoughts addressed out loud could understand his point about those being forgiven much showing great love. But then he asked a question that likely made them all wonder again about his sanity, his intelligence, and his call as a prophet:

Do you see this woman?

She has spent many minutes creating a spectacle of herself, making a scene, making everyone uncomfortable…of course they see her.

Or do they?

Simon had said to himself that a real prophet would know what she was—a sinner.

Do you see this woman?
Or do you see a sinner?
a spectacle?
an intrusion?

Do you see this woman?
Or do you see “the homeless” and “the needy”?
an addict?
black, and dangerous?
Hispanic, and illegal?
Asian, and smart?
hijab and long sleeves?
loose hair and a low cut top?

Do you see this woman?
or do you see a teenage girl sold into sex slavery by her father, desperate for cash?
Estimates are that up to half of teen girls in Roman occupied Palestine had been sold by their families, and fathers got the best price if they allowed them to be used as prostitutes.
Do you see a young woman whose body is for the pleasure of the occupying army,
a young woman whose lifespan is likely less than five years?
do you see poverty, desperation, abandonment, betrayal, fear?
or an embodiment of her own bad choices and natural consequences?

Then, as now, she knew perfectly well that they did not see her. And yet, she persisted.

She knew the rules. She’d heard them talking about her. She knew what people said, and what they believed, and what they expected. She knew the life she was living, and its danger, and its harsh reality so easily hidden behind the label “sinner.”

And yet, she persisted.

And Jesus persisted, too. He began a litany with Simon:
*you gave me no water for my feet—you neglected basic hospitality, failing to keep the law to welcome the stranger.
but she has bathed my feet with her tears.
*you gave me no kiss—you held the peace of our house back from me, failing to love your neighbor as yourself.
but she has not stopped kissing my feet.
*you gave me no oil for my head—you judged with human eyes, failing to learn from the lessons of our ancestors the kings and the prophets.
but she has anointed my feet with her most precious possession.

Unrelentingly, Jesus held up a mirror to Simon, essentially asking him: do you see yourself? Is there anyone who is without sin? He knows the answer—Simon sees neither himself nor the woman clearly. He sees only through his lens of assumptions, that he is better, because of his position, his gender, his religion, his education, his family. He thinks “I wonder if Jesus knows what she is”… and the answer is that Jesus is the only one in the room who knows her, who sees her for who she is—and who knows and sees Simon for who he is, too. Jesus sees through the lens of God’s love, which gives him insight and clarity that reveals the image of God, and the grace of God, underneath all those layers we get hung up on.

Then Jesus speaks the reality that is behind all those masks and mirrors and labels…the reality that many do not wish to hear, even as we desire it with all our hearts:

She has been forgiven, and therefore she shows great love.

The grace of God has been at work in her, she has experienced God’s goodness, and it overflows in gratitude, in service, in the gift of her precious ointment, in her persistence in pursuing Jesus in the face of overwhelming odds.

At no point does Jesus tell her to repent, or to go and sin no more. He knows perfectly well that would be impossible, and also that the main sin in her life is not hers, but that of the men who sell and buy and use her. He simply states what is already true: grace is something God does, not something we earn or bestow. Grace is entirely God’s action, and we see its evidence in her response of generosity. She sought him out not because she needed to be forgiven, but because she was forgiven and needed to give thanks, to worship, to offer herself. She sought him out not to beg for mercy, but to pour out her own spirit at the feet of the One who could see her. She persisted, because her experience of grace meant she had no choice but to challenge the systems that kept her in her place.

Jesus’ question to Simon is the same he asks of us: Do we see this woman? And do we see ourselves? Will we persist as she did, pushing boundaries that obstruct justice and grace, or will we add more layers until we are trapped in our own echo chamber?

Jesus’ answer is also the same to us: I see you. God sees you, and has made you well. God’s grace is for you, and will never give up…now go, and in the same measure that you have been loved, love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.

May it be so. Amen.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017


A few weeks ago, I announced to my church that I am moving away this spring. My last day at church will be at the end of April, and then at the end of May I'm taking a one-way flight to Scotland! I'm transferring to the Church of Scotland, which of course could also be called The Original Presbyterians (tm).

from my first time living on Iona...almost half my life ago!
I've loved Scotland from the first minute I set foot there in June of 2000. This is not the first time I've nearly moved, nor the first time I've considered it. I have friends in Scotland who began asking me in 2012 if I was ever going to actually move, or just talk about wanting to. The timing has never been right before, but this time I think the Spirit has finally lined things up. :-)

I've had this porcelain doll probably 30 years
and I only just noticed that it's a little creepy.
I apologize to everyone who has slept under
its gaze in my guest room.
So...this weekend, I held a living estate sale, and sold a large chunk of my belongings. I still have a bunch left to sell, of course, because it turns out that living in the same place for 10 years means I have somehow managed to accumulate All The Things. I've dropped off a car load of clothes at the thrift shop that supports the women's shelter, and I'll drop off a carload of housewares tomorrow. My condo went on the market today. Things are in motion.

how many picture frames can one person accumulate? a lot. with no pictures in them, of course, because why would I do that?
Lots of people have asked how I decided to do this, and where I'll be going, and if I can take the kitties, and what my dad thinks of my moving so far away, etc. I'm planning to put up a page with answers to all this and more, I promise. Then it'll just be there, in a tab at the top of the page, so it's easy to find.

In the meantime:
*The process for transferring my credentials to the CoS is long, and I've been considering it for a while. I declined the first time I was invited to an interview weekend, but went last year. It feels right and I've loved Scotland and the model of the CoS (geographic parishes) for a long time.
*Yes, I'll take the kitties, and no, they don't have to be quarantined, as long as everything is in order before we go. It will be very expensive to take them, though, so I've set up a GoFundMe page because I'd prefer not to be anxious about going into debt to bring them. They pick up anxiety and I don't want them to be unhappy either!
*My dad seems excited for me, and I've lived at least 2000 miles away for my entire adult life (and some of those years were a lot more than 2000 miles) so I don't get the sense it's a big change, other than in the number of time zones.
*No, I'm not taking my car, because it'll be backwards. Yes, I am taking a few things from my house, but not many. I even managed to cull about half my library, which was like cutting off an arm. I definitely put more than half of my panda collection into the "keep" box though.

Now that the news is out, I'll hopefully be able to blog more. It's hard to write when there's something big brewing that isn't public knowledge yet, so my blog has been neglected. Sorry about that! More to come, I promise.

Monday, February 06, 2017

Healing Word--a sermon on Luke 7

Rev. Teri Peterson
healing word
Luke 7.1-17
5 February 2017, NL 3-22, Epiphany 5 (Listen Up!)

Today’s reading begins with a phrase that could be translated “After all Jesus’ words had filled the people’s ears…” Those words that Jesus had been speaking just before today’s reading were the sermon on the plain, or what in Matthew is called the sermon on the mount. Jesus said things like “blessed are the poor, hungry, and mourning”…and then he also said “woe to you who are rich, full, and laughing now.” He taught that we are to love our enemies, to avoid judging others by our own imperfect human standards, and to do the things he says, not only let them go in one ear and out the other. These are the things he had been talking about when we pick up the story in Luke, chapter 7, which can be found on page ___ of your pew Bible if you wish to follow along.

After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, ‘He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.’ And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, ‘Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go”, and he goes, and to another, “Come”, and he comes, and to my slave, “Do this”, and the slave does it.’ When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’ When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.
 Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’ Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, ‘Young man, I say to you, rise!’ The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has risen among us!’ and ‘God has looked favorably on his people!’ This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.

I have to confess that I have had some pretty serious problems with this scripture reading, all week long. A centurion, head of a battalion of the Roman army which is occupying and oppressing the Jewish people and many others all around the Mediterranean basin, owns another person. He probably owns several people, actually—slavery was common in the ancient world, as people either sold themselves or family members to pay a debt, or as people were captured during the Empire’s expansion. The person enslaved by this centurion is so sick he is near death...but his labor is valuable, so the centurion/slave owner asks for help. The local elders tell Jesus that the centurion/slave owner is worthy of having his enslaved worker restored to health, because he built the synagogue for them—in other words, they owe him a favor. The centurion/slave owner tells Jesus that he is used to being obeyed, so he expects Jesus is too, what with his even higher authority. Jesus pronounces this great faith, and the enslaved person is returned to good health (i.e., to productive worker status).

I think this is a troubling story in lots of ways. The implicit acceptance of slavery is the most obvious issue. Then there’s also the part where everyone from the elders to the friends to Jesus himself say that the centurion—the officer of the occupying army, the owner of slaves—is so good and generous and faithful that of course he deserves to have the slave healed so he can get back to unpaid work. And also the fact that the reasoning given by the Jewish elders for why Jesus should help a Roman centurion is because he gave the money to build the synagogue…they were in his debt, and he called that favor in when he was in danger of losing a slave in the most unprofitable of ways.

And Jesus went. And he said nothing about the enslaved person at all. The man was healed, of course, by Jesus’ word that is so powerful he can work miracles from afar. But he was still in slavery—he was healed, but not freed.

Then Jesus and his disciples and a large crowd continue on their journey, only to encounter a funeral procession. Where most of us might pull over out of respect, or lower our eyes until the people have passed, Jesus sees this widow whose son has died and he has compassion for her. Compassion isn’t just sympathy, or even empathy—it’s a stomach-twisting suffering with the other person that is incomplete without action…and Jesus acts when he sees this grieving woman. A widow was vulnerable, and a widow with no male children was even more so. She was dependent on either her father’s family or on the charity of her neighbors, and was often separated from society due to her lack of status and lack of resources. With a word, Jesus heals the man and returns him to his mother—and by extension returns her to stability and community.

One man was nearly dead, and the other was dead…and with a word, Jesus heals both of them. But he doesn’t only do it for them—he also heals them for the sake of others in their lives. For the sake of the mother. For the sake of the centurion. Or perhaps in both cases, for the sake of the whole community.

The centurion is a well-off man, in charge of a segment of the world’s most powerful army. He asks for a miracle, knowing he deserves one, either because of his station or because of what he has done for the town. The people around him believe the same—he has done good things, he has earned a healing or two. By all our worldly standards, he is a prime candidate for receiving good things from God: he has power, money and status, and the whole town owes him a favor.

The widow, meanwhile, is not just underprivileged or at-risk, she is worthless. She asks for nothing in the midst of her mourning. It’s not even clear whether or not she sees Jesus at all, or whether she is just walking beside her son’s body, weeping and wailing, immersed in her own world of pain. By all our worldly standards, she deserves nothing, because she is nothing.

We could hardly ask for a wider difference between two recipients of Jesus’ attention. There is a chasm between their circumstances and stations in life that seems impossible to cross. Yet his voice reaches each of them, exactly where they are. The living word speaks not only to those who ask, not only to those who are worthy, but also to those who are overlooked or even trampled down. And the whole community listens in.

What do they hear?

That God has compassion for the lowly.
That God cares about people in distress, especially those we might otherwise overlook.
That God does not work according to our human rules, customs, social groups, or religious traditions.
That God’s power is not defined or confined by what we consider to be “deserving.”

And when they had heard—when their ears were full of all the things Jesus said and did—the word about him spread throughout the country.

They kept the word—the powerful, compassionate, loving word that brings healing—moving and living throughout the land. They didn’t let the word stop with them. Jesus said the strong foundation for the life of faith requires putting his teaching into action, requires feeling the suffering and the joy of our neighbors and then doing something about it.

Both of these miracle stories offer us the opportunity to join that community that heard the voice that could raise the dead and the dying, and then shared the word. Because, you see, both miracles are unfinished. The enslaved man is healed, but not freed. The widow and her son are reunited, but the woman is not freed. The work of healing our community and culture is still ours to do. The bodies are restored, but the wholeness that comes with justice is still a ways off. As long as some are not free, none of us are free. When Paul wrote that we should weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice, he wasn’t only giving instructions about empathy and prayer, he was reminding us that our wholeness is bound up in one another. When one part of the body suffers, all suffer together with it. Each healing story gives us the first step, and calls us to join the transformation of the world into God’s kingdom where no one is left out, no one is just a prop in someone else’s story, no one has to worry about who will take care of them. Jesus showed us his way: no barriers, no hierarchy of deserving, no judgment of circumstance. He spoke the word…now comes the hard part where we try to live as if the word is true. When all of us who make up this community hear and obey Christ’s healing word, the truth will set us free—all of us, not just some.

May it be so. Amen.