The Apostle Paul shares his good news with us from our reading this morning in Galatians. “I am crucified with Christ, never the less I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me. And, the life that I live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave his life for me”. (Galatians 2:20)
And this verse leads us into our gospel story in Luke. Jesus is invited to dinner in the home a Pharisee named Simon. He took a place at Simons table, and a woman heard that Jesus was eating there, and she came into the house carrying an alabaster jar of ointment. She came up behind where Jesus was sitting. She was weeping, and she 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 ointment. When Simon saw this, he began thinking to himself: “How can this be a prophet? If he were a prophet, he would know that this woman touching him is a sinner”; or as Popeye would say, ‘a woman of ill-repuke’.
Jesus calls Simon on this with a story and a question: “Simon, a certain creditor had two people that owed him money; one owed ten times as much as the other one owed. When they could not pay, he canceled both of their debts. Simon, which one of them will love him more”? Simon replies: I suppose the one who owed the most”. And, Jesus says, “good answer”. Simon didn’t bother to have someone wash off Jesus feet, or at least to bring him water so he could wash his feet off, which was a custom of hospitality in those days. But, this “sinner” as Simon called her bathed Jesus feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. Simon did not kiss him on the cheek, which was a custom, but the woman smothered his feet with kisses. It was customary to provide a perfumed oil for guests to freshen up after they come in from traveling outside. Simon did not offer this, but the woman anointed Jesus feet with perfume.
Then he closes the story with these words: “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.” (Luke 7:36-8:3)
In my senior year at General Theological Seminary in NYC, I chose my required ministry placement to be part of a team that started and managed city park churches in Manhattan known as Ecclesia Ministries of NY. After graduation I worked as a resident chaplain for the VA Hospitals of NYC, but I also was honored a fellowship to continue as the Program Manager for Ecclesia Ministries of NY. My leadership team consisted of clergy, seminarians and laity from various churches. I would like to share with you about one of these dear leaders on our team, a retired part-time seminarian named Heidi.
In Heidi’s younger years she worked as a recruiter and an agent for child actors. Later in life she worked in Cuba in a home for people with intellectual and physical disabilities. Due to poor health she returned to her hometown of NYC. I met Heidi at General where she was enrolled in a couple classes. Heidi felt drawn to work with us, and soon became one of our team leaders. Heidi was maybe all of five feet tall and very slight, but she was fearless. On Saturday afternoons a group of us would walk around Madison Square Park on the corner of 23rd and Madison Avenue, an area of town known as the Flatiron District. We would offer folks a light bag of snacks as an opportunity to talk and listen to peoples stories. Everyone likes to have a snack or a coffee break, even if there is no coffee offered.
You could often see Heidi walking through the park or areas nearby with two or three “unhoused” people in tow. One of these folks was someone we referred to as ‘Biggest Joe’. In our Madison Avenue Park Church, we had three Joes, Big Joe, Bigger Joe and Biggest Joe. It was quite a sight to see Biggest Joe walking through the park with little Heidi. It was on one of these Saturday park visits that something extraordinary happened, and it happened to be with a ‘homeless’ person named Mary.
Mary had a reputation as a wild and mean person, especially when she was drinking. Park officials and local police knew Mary all too well. Heidi and Mary met for the first time on this particular Saturday. Heidi walked up to Mary and said: “Hello, my name is Heidi. She held out a paper bag and asked if she could share a snack with her. I was watching this scene from a distance. I knew how mean Mary could be at times, and it made me nervous. But, I knew Heidi, and she was fearless. Mary says to her: “The only reason your talking to me is because you think I’m a whore”. Heidi didn’t flinch. She walked up to Mary and put her arms around her while saying: “You’re not a whore. You’re a child of God. You’re not a whore. God loves you and I love you. Something remarkable happened. Mary melted in Heidi’s arms and began to cry.
I picture that scene in my mind like it was yesterday. Mary continued to weep, and Heidi continued to comfort her in her arms, praying and encouraging. I’m convinced that this experience started a change for the better for Mary. With Heidi’s help we hooked Mary up with one of the non-profit agencies we linked with. She entered a detox program, and eventually was awarded a living accommodation of her own. Unfortunately, it was in a different part of the city, but Mary came back to visit and worship with us at one of the outdoor church services in Madison Park, and she shared the good news of how her life had been changed. It was not long after this that Heidi became very sick and died. We celebrated her life and death at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, and a number of homeless people, including Biggest Joe, came to the memorial service.
Heidi loved Mary. Jesus loves Heidi, Mary and Biggest Joe. And, in our gospel story, Jesus loves the woman that covered his feet with kindness, care, tears, kisses and perfume. The premise of this story is love. There are a lot of lessons we can learn from this gospel story, but if we do not recognize that it is a message of the vastness of Christs love and mercy for all people. It’s not that Jesus loves Mary more for her actions that he loves Simon the Pharisee. The woman who worshipped at the feet of Jesus with a humble and contrite heart, is so grateful for his mercy and forgiveness. “Don’t you get it Simon? Don’t you understand? He or she that recognizes they have been forgiven much will love me more than the one who does not recognize his or her need for mercy and forgiveness”. I have forgiven you too Simon. Do you love me?
Jesus challenged Simon, and I’m sure he challenged everyone that heard his conversation. He challenged them, and he challenges every one of us to just love Him. Remember Jesus prayer to His Father for those that follow Him: “ I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours. All I have is yours, and all you have is mine. And glory has come to me through them. I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of[b] your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one”? (John 17:9-11)
This thing called salvation is an ongoing process. We have been saved. We are being saved, and we shall be saved. It’s supposed to be a mystery. It’s presumptuous to say we know all about the mysteries of our faith. If that is true, then there is no mystery. Does that mean we do not teach the tenets of our faith? Not at all. In our confirmation classes we talk about what it means to be a Christian, the meaning and role of the church. We talk about the importance of the Written Word, and how the Written Word leads us to the Living Word, the axis of our faith. We talk about forms of prayer or communication with God. We talk about the Holy Trinity, Holy Eucharist and Baptism, and the responsibilities and privileges of each member of the church, and other foundational stones of our faith.
This gospel story in the setting of Simon the Pharisee’s home is a message of God’s love, God’s forgiveness, God’s kindness, gentleness, the hope of salvation, and the joy of things to come.
This is the exciting part of being a Christian, and it’s something I look forward to every day. I’m in love with God. I want to know God, and to be known by God. I’m a student of this faith tradition called the “Way”.
The Apostle Paul described this mystery of knowing, yet not knowing, in this way: “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known”. (1 Corinthians 13:12). It reminds me of a proverb that I love that goes like this: “The path of the righteous is like the morning sun, shining ever brighter till the full light of day”. (Proverbs 4:18)
And that shining brighter and brighter culminates with our final destination. “There will be no night there. Neither, the need of a light. For Jesus will be our light, he’ll reign and he’ll shine ever bright”. (Revelation 22:5)
So shine on us and in us dear Jesus. Let that light shine in us, ever bright.
by the Reverend Dr. David Madsen