May 31, 2020
by Jeffrey M. Lindsay
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 at 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 anointed 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 500 denari and the other 50. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now, which of them will love him more?’ Simon answered, ‘I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.’ And Jesus said to him, you have judged rightly.
And 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. 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.'” The word of the Lord.
Well, I’d like to add my welcome this morning as well. It’s Pentecost Sunday. Pentecost is a reminder of that moment where Jesus is about to ascend, and he looks over his shoulders at his disciples, and says, “It’s better that I go because as I go, then the spirit can come. The spirit will come in power, and empower you.” But that’s the question, empower us to do what? So let’s pause and pray that our hearts and minds might be open as God speaks to us today.
God, grateful that we can be in worship together, grateful that we have your text, your words that lead us and guide us. We pray that you would give us open hearts and open minds that we might be the church. That we might be your followers. That we would actually do the work you call us to do. For we pray this in your name. Amen.
Pentecost. The birthday of the church. Jesus had been with his disciples, had been leading and guiding them, showing them the way, giving them examples of what it meant to be followers of God. But now it’s time. He was born. He went to the cross. He died. He was resurrected. And now he’s ascending and Pentecost is coming. And now we live in the power of God’s spirit.
You know, it’s the spirit of God resting upon God’s disciples that filled them with the gifts that they needed, and fills us with the gifts that we need to truly be the church, to live out God’s call upon us. The Holy Spirit came to empower the disciples, to spread the good news of Jesus.
Think about this, the spirit of the master, the spirit of Jesus, the Holy Spirit came and injured the lives of those people on Pentecost, and it collided with their spirits. We should think about that for a minute because we all have spirits within us. It’s the spirit in us which drives us and empowers us and gives us our sense of self. If you’re like me, it also embarrasses you and frightens you and causes trouble for you. It’s the spirit that makes us who we are, but also hinders us from experience in all that God desires for us.
We have a spirit that oftentimes is defiant. It takes pride in itself. It wants to be in control. It wants to be independent. It wants to control itself. It is the spirit within us that the Holy Spirit came to empower, but there seems to be something in the way of us living out that true calling.
Maybe we can learn from one of those old Aesop fables. It’s a story about a tall, straight fir tree, which stood as powering up in the forest with very proud of its height and dignity, and despised the little shrubs which grew beneath it. One day, a bramble asked that tree why it was so proud. “Because,” Replied the fir tree. “I look upon myself as the finest tree for the beauty of any in the forest. My top shoots toward the clouds and my branches spread all around in constant loveliness. While you, a bramble bush, crawl around on the ground, likely to be crushed by any animal that might come near.” “Well, all this might be true.” Said the bramble, “But when the woodsmen has marked you for cutting down, and the ax comes to be applied to your roots, I fancy you will wish that you could change places with me.”
The moral of the story, right? Pride always goes before the fall. It’s that pride in oneself. It’s that spirit of, I can do it on my own. That keeps us from experiencing the leading that God’s spirit wants to give us not only as individuals, but as the church itself. Yes, you and I are filled with pride, the pride, which says we do not need God. We can do it on our own. We can figure it out on our own. But God comes to us with the spirit to replace our spirit of pride with the spirit of love and kindness and grace. A grace that then can actually empower us. You know we’ve been going through a series that now this week is coming to a close, about thinking about God’s grace and what it does in our lives. God’s grace is to empower us to live out our calling.
Yes, you and I are filled with pride, but God can change that by the power of his spirit, the power to live different than our spirit often desires. A pastor once wrote once in a while, the spirit comes. Sometimes it stings the soul. Sometimes it’s sakes us. Sometimes it troubles our conscience. Sometimes it soothes it. Sometimes it heals our pain. Sometimes it just helps us to endure it. It lifts the clouds just long enough for us to glimpse the city that was not made with hands in order that we can get back to taking up that cross, and following Jesus. Yes, it’s the spirit within us. That Holy Spirit that comes to us and wants to empower us again, to live out our true calling.
Wishing to encourage her young child’s progress on the piano. A young mother took her child to a Paderewski concert. After they were seated, the mother spotted a friend in the audience and decided she was going to walk over and greet this woman. Well, seizing the opportunity to explore the wonders of the concert hall, her child rose, and eventually explored its way through a door marked wait, no admittance. Well, we all know what that means.
Well, when the house lights dimmed and the concert was about to begin, the mother returned to her seat and discovered her child was missing. Suddenly the curtains parted and the spotlights focused on that impressive Steinway on the stage. And in horror, the mother saw her child sitting at those keys, innocently picking out twinkle, twinkle little star. Oh my. And at that very moment, the great piano master made his entrance, quickly moving to the piano and whispered in the child’s ear. “Don’t quit, keep playing.” And leaned over this child, and his left hand began to fill in the bass part. And soon his right arm then reached around to the other side of the child and added a running obbligato. Together, the old master and the young novice transformed a frightening situation into a wonderfully creative experience, and the audience was mesmerized.
I love that story. Probably, because that story reminds me of something I might’ve done. I’m sure there are many times that my mom looked on with horror with the choice that I was making. Here I was in the wrong place doing the wrong thing, right? Just like this child. But I wonder, I wonder the outcome of that story. I wonder if God’s spirit working with our spirit might mesmerize the world.
A young man was an apprentice to a master artist who produced the most beautiful stained glass windows anywhere. The apprentice could not quite get the master’s genius. So he borrowed the master’s tools, thinking that was the answer. And after several weeks, the young man said to his teacher, I’m not doing any better with your tools than I did with mine. The teacher paused and looked into this young person’s eyes and said, “So it’s not the tools of the master you needed. It’s the spirit of the master you needed.”
You can’t get there by just going through the motions. You have to truly be led by the spirit. I love that idea because sometimes we can find ourselves just going through the motions, especially people of the church doing the right thing maybe even for the wrong reasons. To check a box, to just accomplish a good thing, to get it done with and move on. Maybe we have to pause and think that those opportunities to do good, to do well, to do the loving thing is for a greater purpose, a greater possibility, and led by the spirit we can experience it.
I love our gospel story for today. It’s a familiar story. It’s a Sunday school lesson kind of story. It’s a story that can come up from time to time. It’s one of those stories where the religious people of the day are trying to catch Jesus and see what he might do. And so this Pharisee has invited Jesus over for dinner. Thinking there might be something in the time of dinner together that the Pharisees can use against him. And just like happened in many experiences of Jesus, the unexpected happens and Jesus redeems it.
During dinner, this woman sneaks into this Pharisees house, a place there’s no way she’s ever welcomed to be, in a circumstance where she’s never supposed to go. And here she is. And all of a sudden she is behind Jesus. And all of a sudden she’s on her hands and knees. And all of a sudden she’s washing Jesus’ feet with her tears. And all of a sudden she breaks open this box of very expensive perfume and begins to put it on Jesus’ feet. It’s probably her family’s inheritance. It’s probably all she’s got, really. Well what happens?
The Pharisees instead of you seeing what Jesus is doing and see if seeing this beautiful act of grace and mercy and acceptance, they see this chance to condemn Jesus. Doesn’t he know who she is? If he was a prophet wouldn’t he know who she is? And if he knew, would he allow her to do such things?
Well, Jesus, knowing what was in their hearts, challenges them. Questions them. Asks them to rethink what they’re thinking. And the reason why they are thinking that, and says, “Grace, mercy. I came into your house.” He says to the Pharisee, “and you didn’t greet me with a kiss. You didn’t wash my feet, but here she is, she hasn’t stopped kissing my feet, washing them with her tears. You, going through the letter of the law, have missed the point of the law. You in doing the right acts for the wrong reasons have missed the point altogether.”
We don’t want to be like that, do we? We want to be people that are being led by God’s spirit that has been sent to empower us to do that which we wouldn’t be able to do on our own. To do much beyond what we are believing we can do for a world that desperately needs it. Yes, this woman of difficult life, challenging life, needed God’s love and grace and mercy, and Jesus offered it to her. Hard for us to imagine what that circumstance and situation would have been like for us.
But Jesus shows us. Jesus shows us not only what he expects, but he shows us how it can be done. Are we just going through the motions? Are we just people that do the Christian thing? Or are we people that are discerning circumstances and situations, and we’re looking for God’s leading by the power of his spirit to know what to do?
Prostitute came into the house of a Pharisee and was washing Jesus’ feet. These religious leaders saw this woman who they would have completely disrespected. They would have completely believed that she was beyond redemption. They would have literally turned their backs on her. But Jesus saw this woman. He literally saw this woman and offered the grace and acceptance and love that she needed.
One of my favorite theologians is a man named Tony Campolo. I’ve had a chance to hear him speak a number of times. And I’ve had a chance to meet him when he came to this church. It was quite a thrill. I’ve been mesmerized by his stories many, many times. This is a story I’ve heard him tell twice. It’s a story that happened to him many years ago.
Tony, who grew up in the inner city of Philadelphia is a Professor of Sociology at Eastern College. And a few years ago, he flew into Hawaii to speak at a conference. The way he tells it, he checked into his hotel and tried to get some sleep. And unfortunately his internal clock woke him up at three o’clock in the morning. The night was dark. The streets were silent. The world was asleep.
Tony was wide awake and his stomach was growling, and he got up and began to prowl the streets for looking for something where he could maybe grab some eggs and bacon for an early breakfast. If you know anything about Tony, you can believe this is true. The man is fearless. Everything was closed. As you could imagine, except for this old kind of run down restaurant in the back of an alley that caught his attention as he was walking by.
He went in and he sat down at the counter. This old guy from behind the counter came over and says, “Well, what do you want?” Well, Tony wasn’t so hungry anymore based on what he saw in the restaurant. So he did eye a doughnut or two under a plastic cover and he said that he would have a doughnut and some black coffee. And as he sat there munching on his doughnut and sipping his coffee at 3:30 in the morning, in walked nine prostitutes, loud, laughing, engaging with one another. They just had finished their night’s work. They plopped down at the counter, and Tony found himself uncomfortably surrounded by a group of smoking, swearing prostitutes.
He gulped his coffee planning to make a quick getaway. Well, just then he heard the woman next to him, say to her friend, because they were sitting on either side of him, and they were talking past him. “You know what?” She says, “Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’m going to be 39.” To which her friend nastily replied, “So what do you want me to do, throw you a party? What do you want me to do, bake you a cake? What do you want me to do, sing you happy birthday?” The first woman said, “Well, man, why do you have to be so mean? I just, I was just telling you, it was going to be my birthday tomorrow. I’m not asking you to do anything. I just, just wanted to tell somebody it’s my birthday.”
Well, when Tony Campolo heard that, he said right then and there, he had to make a decision. He sat and waited till all the women left, and then he asked the guy behind the counter. “Do those women come in here every night?” “Yeah.” He said. “Well, what about the woman that was next to me? Does she come in every night?” “Oh yeah. Every night. That’s Agnes. She’s in here every night, and has been coming in here for years. Why do you want to know?”
Tony looked at this man who owned this diner, and he said, “Because she said, tomorrow’s her birthday. What do you think? You think maybe we could throw her a little birthday party, for her right here in this diner?” Well, this cute little smile crept over this man’s face. And he said, “That would be great.” And Tony said, “Yeah, I think it would be great. Let’s do that.”
Just then the man who owned the restaurant turns and yells back to his wife. Who’s cooking the food, “Hey, come out here. This guy had a great idea. Tomorrow is Agnes’ birthday. And he wants to throw a party for her right here.” His wife comes out and says, “Oh, what a terrific idea. You know, Agnes is really nice. She’s always trying to help other people. And nobody does anything nice for her.”
So they made their plans. Tony says, he’ll be back at 2:30 the next morning with some decorations and a cake. And that’s when the man, Harry, it turns out that’s his name who owned the restaurant said, “I’ll bake the cake.” So 2:30 the next morning, Tony’s back. He has crepe paper and other decorations and a big sign that he made that said Happy Birthday, Agnes. They decorated the place from one of the end to the other. It looked great. Matter of fact, Harry said he hadn’t seen it look so great. And Harry had gotten the word out to the streets about the party. And by 3:15, it seemed like everyone who was working at that hour was in his place. There were prostitutes wall to wall at 3:30 in the morning.
At 3:30 on the dot the door swung open and in walked Agnes. Tony had everybody ready, and they all shouted and screamed, “Happy birthday, Agnes.” Well, Agnes was absolutely flabbergasted. She was so stunned, she didn’t know what to say. Her mouth just fell open. Her knees began to shake. She almost fell over, and her eyes filled up with tears. And when the birthday cake with all the candles was carried out, she totally lost it. She was sobbing. She was crying. Harry, who was not used to seeing a woman like this crying didn’t know what to say. So he just said, “Agnes, blow out the candles. Agnes, let’s just cut the cake.” So she pulled herself together and blew out the candles. Everyone cheered and yelled, “Cut the cake, Agnes. Cut the cake.”
But Agnes just kept looking down at that cake. And she just would not take her eyes off that cake. And slowly and softly, she looked up at Harry and said, “If it’s all right with you. I mean, if you don’t mind. I mean, would it be all right if I were to ask. I mean, is it okay if I just keep the cake a little while? Is it all right if we just don’t eat it right away?” Harry didn’t know what to say. So he shrugged and said, “Sure, if that’s what you want to do, keep the cake. Take it home if you want.” “Oh, could I?” Agnes asked. Looking at Tony, she said, “I live just down the street, a couple of doors. I want to take the cake home, is that okay? I’ll be right back. I promise. I just want to show my mom, this cake.”
She got off the stool, picked up the cake and carried it right out the door. She carried it like he was carrying the Holy grail. Everybody watched in stunned silence. And when the door closed behind her, nobody seemed to know what to do. They looked at each other and they looked at Tony. So Tony got up on a chair and said, “It’s Agnes’ birthday. Why don’t we say a prayer for Agnes?” To literally everyone’s surprised it was completely silent.
There was Tony in this kind of hole in the wall, greasy spoon, as they used to say, filled with Honolulu’s prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning. And here’s Tony Campolo praying for Agnes on her very first ever birthday party. And Tony prayed for her life and her health. And that she would, maybe find the love of God. Tony recalls, I prayed that her life would be changed, and that she would sense God’s presence that she would know that God is good, and that God loves her.
When Tony finished his prayer, Harry leaned over with a trace of hostility in his voice and he said, “Hey, Hey, you never told me you were a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to anyway?” And in one of those moments, we all know what these moments are like, when just the right words come out. Tony answered him quietly, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.” Harry thought for a moment and in a mocking way said, “No, you don’t. You see, there isn’t a church like that. If there was, I’d join a church that. Yeah, I’d join a church like that.”
Are there churches like that? Can we be that kind of church? A gathering of followers of Jesus empowered by the spirit that can freely offer the grace that we have received with others? I hope so. I hope we can recognize that that was the whole point of the spirit coming, so that we would be empowered to offer this good news. This grace-filled, love-filled message from God that I love you. I will never leave you or forsake you. I am with you to the very ends of time. We’re going to have to overcome our pride and our prejudice and our judgment and our self centeredness to do it. But that’s what the power came for, is to transform us, to help us become that what God desires for us to be. Led by God, a willing, empowered spirit can do that very thing that the church is called to do. To be that witness of God’s love.
Well, my friends, it doesn’t take much of our imaginations. It doesn’t take but a couple looks in the newspaper or watching the news to recognize we’ve got our work cut out for us. But that’s why we gather together each week to empower and encourage one another. To keep reminding each other, that there’s a calling upon us as individuals and as the church, and to cheer each other on, to live as God not only calls us to, but empowers us to live. You see people will join a church. They’ll come and join the fellowship of a church that is living out its values, and living out its calling.
So my friends, as we close in prayer, let this be your prayer too. Let it be a prayer that says, God, I want you to come and transform my spirit from one of self-centeredness and pride, to one that can be used, led by your spirit to care for a needy world. Now, I don’t know what that means for you. I don’t know if that’s the neighbor next door, or that friend from work, or that kid at school. I don’t know what that means for you. But if we’re willing, God will hear our prayer and work through our prayer to do God’s good work in us and through us. So let’s pray.
God, grateful we are that you have not abandoned us. As a matter of fact, when you left, you sent us your Holy Spirit that fell upon us in such a way that it transformed us forever. Those early disciples were given languages they’d never learned so that they might speak to those that were gathered and share that good news. So God, we ask that you would give us the languages we need to share the good news with the world that’s around us. A language of grace and mercy. An invitation to come and be in relationship with. To experience God’s love through God’s people, through me and my brothers and sisters of this gathered group called Colonial. We’re grateful you hear our prayers. For we pray these things in Jesus’ name, Amen. Amen.