Lenten Noonday Preaching Series
Calvary Episcopal Church
Memphis, Tennessee
February 19, 2002


You Are Welcomed by Jesus.
The Rev. Dr. Kenneth A. Corr
Pastor, First Baptist Church
Memphis, Tennessee

(This sermon is also available in audio.)

Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from You no secrets are hidden. Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of Your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love You, and worthily magnify Your holy name, through Christ our Lord. Amen.

In his book The Jesus I Never Knew, Philip Yancey tells a story of a friend who worked with the urban poor in Chicago.

A prostitute came to him in wretched straits, homeless, her health failing, unable to buy food for her two-year-old daughter. Her eyes awash with tears, she confessed that she had been renting out her daughter-two years old-to men interested in kinky sex, in order to support her own drug habit. My friend could hardly bear hearing the sordid details of her story. He sat in silence, not knowing what to say. At last he asked if she had ever thought of going to a church for help. "I will never forget the look of pure astonishment that crossed her face," he later told me. "Church!" she cried. "Why would I ever go there? They'd just make me feel even worse than I already do!" (Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew, p. 147f).

Evidently the down and out who flocked to Jesus when he lived on earth, no longer feel welcome among his followers. What has happened? (Philip Yancey, What's So Amazing About Grace, p. 11).

What has happened? I can tell you that there are hundreds of people who will never walk in the doors of any church in this city, regardless how desperate they are for help, because they can't imagine the church as a place of welcome and hospitality for them. What has happened? The story of Jesus' visit in the home of Simon might be a place to begin answering that question.

Please listen as I read Luke 7:36-50:

When a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee's house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfume, and as she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.

When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is--that she is a sinner." Jesus answered him, "Simon, I have something to tell you." "Tell me, teacher," he said. "Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty.
Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?" Simon replied, "I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled." "You have judged correctly," Jesus said.

Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven--for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little."
Then Jesus said to her, "Your sins are forgiven."

The other guests began to say among themselves, "Who is this who even forgives sins? Jesus said to the woman, "'Your faith has saved you; go in peace.'"

"Who is this who even forgives sins?" Earlier in this chapter Luke tells us that there were two popular answers to the question. Some said that he was a prophet. Interestingly, it was the tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners who said that. Some said that he was a fraud. Again, interestingly and unexpectedly, it was the Pharisees and religious people who said that. They called him, "A glutton, a drunkard, and a friend of sinners."

Simon the Pharisee apparently wanted to judge for himself. You must give him credit for that. And so, he invited Jesus to his home for dinner. My guess is that it was a dinner with lots of theological questions, every answer carefully scrutinized. Remember, Simon wants to know for himself whether this Jesus is a prophet or a fraud.

In the midst of this theological conversation, a woman came into the house. An uninvited guest seems strange to us. But in the first century, the homes were open and it would not have been unusual. But what she did was very unusual. As Jesus reclined at the table, she came up behind him. In order to understand this scene, you must try to understand the setting. Jesus would have been reclining, resting on his left elbow with his legs lying parallel to the table. If the table was in front of him, the only way that the woman could approach him was from behind.

The Bible says that she was, "a woman in the city, a sinner." You don't have to read the commentaries to recognize what that must mean. Simon the Pharisee recognized her immediately. Either she had a reputation and was known, or there was something about her appearance that identified her. Regardless, everybody knew who she was or, Simon thought, should have known.

The woman came to anoint Jesus' feet with ointment. She took an alabaster jar of ointment and began to rub the ointment on his feet. As she did, she began to weep and the tears began to drop on his feet. The Bible says that she began "to bathe his feet with her tears." She must have been sobbing. And then, perhaps without even thinking, she took down her hair and began to wipe the tears and then she began to kiss the feet. In his commentary on this text, Charles Cousar says, "At some point she has heard a word of divine pardon, and her deep sense of gratitude prompts an extravagant response" (Charles Cousar, Texts for Preaching: Year C, p. 389).

Now, Simon the Pharisee is watching this whole scene unfold and he is speechless. Remember, Simon is wanting to judge who Jesus is for himself-prophet or fraud. He can't believe what he is seeing. It was shocking when she began to rub Jesus' feet with the ointment and he did not stop her. In the ancient world, Jewish women did not touch men in public. But this kissing and rubbing herself over his feet and legs was not just shocking. It was scandalous. Even though no one says anything, you can be sure that no one is eating and everyone is watching. As far as Simon is concerned, this behavior makes up his mind. Who is Jesus? Is he a prophet or a fraud? Simon answers that question for 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."

Listen carefully to this statement because it shows some religious assumptions that are still at work today. Simon assumed that if Jesus was a prophet, he would recoil, he would be repulsed; he would reject this woman, because God hates sinners. That is what Simon the Pharisee believed.

But Jesus shows that he is not just a prophet, but more than a prophet. He says to the woman, "Your sins are forgiven." And the watching crowd asked, "Who is this who even forgives sins?" If you are a Christian, a Trinitarian, you know that answer. "This is God. And God's name is Jesus!" In this text it is God who receives and forgives the sinner.

In his commentary on this text, Alan Culpepper says, "Unless we see something of ourselves in the character of Simon the Pharisee. . . we have failed to hear the story" (Alan Culpepper, The New Interpreters Bible, "Luke," p. 172). There is a little of Simon the Pharisee in all of us. We all tend to recoil, to be repulsed, to reject people that we define as sinners. That is why the prostitute in Chicago never thought to go to the church for help.

Larry had not been in church for years. He would not have even considered darkening the doors of a church. His behavior was the scandal of the small, rural community. But Larry met a young woman and she moved in with him. Even though they were not married, everyone noted that Larry's behavior changed for the better. One day, Larry and his lover came to church. It was the first time he had been in church in years. Later, the deacons had a meeting. They were worried that if they let Larry attend, the reputation of their church would be at stake in that community.

Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, came back to the city one day to find men huddled in doorways to keep warm without overcoats. She imagined that they had sold their coats to satisfy their alcoholic urges. She makes this pointed observation. "Those without love would say, 'It serves them right, drinking up their clothes.'" But then Dorothy concludes, "God help us if we got just what we deserved" (Dorothy Day, On Pilgrimage, p. 125).

It was my great privilege to preach in this pulpit for the "Service of Prayer and Healing for Persons Living with HIV/AIDS" some years ago. After the service, a transvestite came up to me and shook my hand. He had obviously had a very difficult life. It showed on his face. He held my hand tightly and said, "God sees my inside and not my outside." That is the message that Simon the Pharisee never got. Instead of giving us what we deserve, God has given us forgiveness. Whenever we realize that, we will stop being judgmental and start being loving.

Thomas Long tells the story of a child from the mountains of north Georgia that became very sick and had to be flown to the children's hospital in Atlanta:

The mother had never been out of the mountain community and her daughter's sickness in a strange hospital terrified the young mother. When they put the child in the hospital room, the mother climbed into bed with the child and would not get out. The physicians could not get the mother to get out of the bed. And so the physicians called the chaplain. Fortunately the chaplain was a woman. She began to develop some trust with the young mother, but still the mother refused to leave the bed of her sick child.

An idea occurred to the chaplain and she said, "You know, you haven't even been able to wash and do your hair. I know a wonderful place in Atlanta that would wash and fix your hair. Wouldn't you like that?" The woman brightened up and said that she would. The chaplain called the hair salon at Rich's. It used to be that the finest women in Atlanta had their hair done at Rich's and Tom Long says that there is still a kind of cachet in having your hair done at Rich's.

The head hairstylist agreed to see the woman and offered to do her hair at no charge. The chaplain took the mother to Rich's and the woman wore her bathrobe. When they walked in the door at Rich's, every eye in the place turned to see who was coming in the door, and here was this mountain woman in a bathrobe and the chaplain said, "I knew that I had made a terrible, terrible mistake. There was judgment in that room. You could cut it with a knife."

But the head hairstylist saw what was happening and knew what was going on and he said so that everyone could hear, "Oh look at your eyes. You have the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen. It will be an honor for me to try and make your hair match the beauty of your eyes." (This story was told by Tom Long at the Stetson Pastor's School, Feb. 3, 2000, and is recorded on audiotape).

That is the way that God sees us: not our sins, not our shortcomings, not our failures, but our souls, cleansed and forgiven through Jesus Christ. If you are one of those who has never felt welcome in church before, forgive us. You are welcomed by Jesus. That is the message of the gospel.

Copyright 2002 The Rev. Dr. Kenneth A. Corr

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