Proper 6c, June 12, 2016

June 13, 2016

The Etiquette of Christ

Luke 7:36 – 8:3


7:36 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?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” 8:1 Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, 2 as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3 and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.


I’m reminded of a story that Mark Twain once told about how he was able to recover from lumbago. I didn’t bother to google lumbago to understand what kind of medical condition it is – or if it actually is a medical condition. For my purposes it doesn’t matter. Mark Twain claimed that he once had it and it confined him to bed for days.


The doctor came to see him and said that he couldn’t help him unless he would moderate his consumption of coffee, tobacco, and alcohol. Mark Twain said he couldn’t moderate it, but he said he would cut it out for a few days, and he did. He said he didn’t consume anything other than water for two days and he got better. The lumbago left him, and with a powerful sense of thanksgiving he took to all of his delicacies once again.


Not long after that he encountered a woman who wasn’t feeling very well. She felt run down and no amount of medicine was giving her any relief. Having recently experienced his own remarkable recovery he said he knew how to help her. The woman was greatly encouraged by his words, and she said she would do anything he said if it would enable her to feel better, so he told her if she would stop swearing, drinking, and smoking for four days she would feel like new.


She said she couldn’t do that because she had never done any of those things. Upon hearing that, Mark Twain declared that there was no hope for her. He didn’t know how to help someone that had neglected their habits.


Mark Twain probably wasn’t a Methodist. I wish we could claim him, but 19th Century Methodists were sort of known for their moderation. But I think he could have been a United Methodist – gratefully the church has become a bit more tolerant of people who don’t neglect their habits.


The practice of religion is funny business. I think it brings out the best and the worst in people. In fact what we see in this dinner party at Simon the Pharisee’s house a perfect example of the best and the worst of religion. You might say that Jesus was the very embodiment of the best of religion. Jesus was religious, and he practiced his religious faith by being loving and forgiving. And because he practiced his religion so beautifully other people experienced forgiveness and transformation.


I’m guessing many of you have heard someone say that they are spiritual but not religious. I used to hear people claim that as a reason for not going to church, but I don’t hear that as much as I used to because most people don’t go to church anymore. You don’t need an excuse to stay away from church – it’s become normal. Now I’ve never challenged anyone who used their spirituality as a reason for not being involved in a church, but it seems to me that the greatest spiritual leaders always come out of religious traditions. Certainly you don’t need to be involved in an organized religious community to be a God-loving and gracious person, but I don’t believe religious practice and spiritual development are hostile to each other. Jesus was a practicing Jew. His involvement in that flawed community didn’t get in the way of his perfect love for God and the world.


Of course religious communities are never perfect, and some people do a good job of embodying those imperfections. I’m thinking that Simon the Pharisee is a perfect example of the unfortunate way in which some people practice their religion. They aren’t motivated by their faith to reach out in loving ways to their neighbors but they are moved to become harsh critics of the failures of others. The practice of religion moves some people to become intolerant and judgmental. Religion can become an avenue to arrogance and it can lead some people to think they are far better than other people.


We’ve certainly got some terrible examples in the world today of the way in which a decent religion can become twisted in to something grotesquely hateful. (I wrote and preached this sermon prior to my knowledge of the hate inspired shooting in Orlando. I’m not exactly sure how I might have adjusted my words, but I didn’t know of the horrible act prior to preaching this sermon. I’m sure I would have had something additional to say about that.) I’m not well versed in the Muslim religion, but I do not believe that the people who are motivated to engage in horrible acts of terrorism in the name of Muhammad are being true to what he taught. I believe the true followers of Muhammad are as offended by those acts of terrorism as the rest of us. In fact they are probably more outraged by the way their faith has been hijacked and distorted by some of their twisted leaders.


I don’t know enough to say much more than that, but my understanding is that the focus of that religion is upon obedience to the one loving God of us all. I’m sure there are some verses in the Koran that some people seize upon to justify their hateful behavior, but Jews and Christians have done the same thing. As I say, religion can bring out the best or the worst in us, and this text that we are looking at today is telling us to take note of this possibility. It’s so easy to go down that ugly road of self-righteous religiosity.


I’m mindful of what transpired one Sunday after church when I sat down to dinner with my parents. I was home from college one weekend and I was at the peak of my understanding of ultimate truth. We had gone to church that morning, and in my opinion we had heard a ridiculous sermon. I knew my mother was no fan of that preacher’s rhetoric, so I was able to get her going on his obvious shortcomings. I’m sure none of you have ever engaged in that kind of conversation, but I have been known to go down that road. It was particularly easy for me to go there when I was younger and knew everything. So my mother and I were having a pretty good time highlighting the emptiness of the morning’s sermon, and I asked my father what he thought of the sermon. My father said, You know, when I go to church I think of it as a time when I can be quiet and not have to answer the phone or do anything. He said, I can sit there and think about whatever it is I want to think about and that’s what I do. If I don’t care to hear what the preacher’s saying I think about something else.


My mother and I didn’t think he was very much fun at that point, but that was a great thing for me to hear. My father didn’t let the preacher get in the way of the practice of his religion, and that’s probably the secret to being a good United Methodist.


It’s an amazing thing that we haven’t completely destroyed the truth that has come to us from our ancient spiritual and religious ancestors. This is a testimony to the resilience of the truth because it has been passed through a few hundred generations of faulty vessels. I dare say the truth has been challenged in every religious generation, but every generation has seen the truth revealed as well. Certainly the conflict between the truth of God and the lesser agendas of self-deceived leaders was in full display on the night that Jesus went to dinner at the home of Simon the Pharisee.


Our inability to contain the truth was embodied by the man who professed to know the truth, but our ability to carry the truth was revealed by the woman who wasn’t invited to dinner, but who came anyway – bearing an alabaster jar of costly ointment that she was determined to share with Jesus. She wasn’t qualified to be the one who knew the truth, but she understood something that the religious professionals had overlooked. She wasn’t just the bearer of a precious ointment, she was the bearer of the most valuable thing we ever encounter – the redeeming truth of God. She was the bearer of truth and the recipient of grace. She was healed, and through her we are reminded of what God’s love really looks like.


In some ways, our practice of religion is a lot like the rules of etiquette. We don’t really know why many of our rules exist, but you can bet that they are rooted in some kind of practical expression. Rules of etiquette help us get along nicely with each other, but we don’t refuse to let people eat if they don’t know how to hold a fork properly. The practice of religion is at it’s best when it helps us get in touch with the love of the living God. It’s at it’s worst when we use it to justify our rejection of people who don’t meet our expectations of righteousness.


The Pharisees weren’t necessarily evil men, in fact they were usually highly disciplined individuals who were doing their best to abide by all of the religious regulations that had developed over the centuries, but as Mark Twain would say, there was no hope for them. They had neglected their habits – they were blind to their own frailties and failures and it cost them their compassion.


It’s not a bad thing to practice proper etiquette, but we need to take our lessons on etiquette from Christ – the one who understood how to practice his religion in a way that redeemed people and not rejected them.


One of the saddest stories I ever heard was from a man who lived for many years as an alcoholic. He had a terrible pattern of behavior, and he hated the way he lived, but he couldn’t shake it for a long time. He said he often wanted to pray to God for help, but he said he was afraid to pray because he didn’t want God to know where he was. He had grown up in a church that had given him an image of God that was intolerant of any kind of misbehavior, and he thought his only hope was to keep hidden from God.


I’m happy to say it wasn’t a United Methodist Church that had given him such an image, but it isn’t unusual even in a United Methodist Church for people to believe that God loves us more when we look right.  The truth is that God loves us, period.


Jesus Christ didn’t abide by the proper etiquette of his day. If he had, he wouldn’t have let that woman touch him. Jesus wasn’t bound by propriety, he had a clear understanding of the unbounded love of God, and he felt free to share the love of God with people who had been told that they didn’t qualify for a relationship with God.


This passage ends with a description of the band of people who traveled about with Jesus as he shared the Good News. Included in that group were women who had been healed of several diseases, Mary Magdalene who was known for having seven demons driven out, and one was the wife of an officer in Herod’s army. These were not the kind of people that would have been welcome at Simon the Pharisee’s house, but these were the people who Jesus trusted the most to assist him in the divine work of transforming hearts. These were the kind of people with whom there was hope.


The truth is there’s hope for us all – even those who have neglected our habits. Thanks be to God.





2 Responses to “Proper 6c, June 12, 2016”

  1. Earl Jones Says:

    Wonderful sermon Thompson, I was kinda low today and your thoughts raised me up. Thank you

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