Archive for June, 2010

Be Saved and Repent

Sunday, June 13th, 2010

Be Saved and Repent
Luke 7:36-8:3
June 13, 2010
Steve Hammond

“This is crazy,” the woman thought, as she made her way toward Simon’s house. But she had to do something to let Jesus know how he had changed her life and how grateful she was. So she grabbed the perfume. It was a gift from one of her regulars. He had spent a lot of money on it, but he had a lot of money to spend. She was only supposed to use it for him. But she didn’t care. He was going to have to take his business elsewhere, anyway. She was done with him and the others. She was done.

She knew the only way she could get to Jesus was to just walk right in to Simon’s house as if she belonged there. Of course, she was well aware that no woman belonged there, especially a woman like her. But even though she wasn’t that woman any more, she was still a woman.

The thought of it actually made her let out a little laugh. “I can’t wait to see the look on their faces. How am I going to get past Simon, though? That holy roller, that guardian of the law, has never paid me a personal visit. So he won’t come off like a hypocrite, anyway, if he tries to shoo me away. I’ll have to figure out something when I get there.”

It turned out, though, that Simon wasn’t about to stop her. This was perfect. He couldn’t have planned it any better himself. They were all looking for a way to put an end to this nonsense. Jesus said this. Jesus did that. That Nazarene, of questionable parentage no less, claimed to know more about God than the Pharisees, the priests, the teachers of the law combined. But look at that woman crawling all over him like she’s been there before. They will be talking about Jesus all right. But the things they are going to say now.

There she was, letting down her hair, no less. But as Jesus watched her it wasn’t with the lust and judgment that was in the eyes of her customers. But Simon didn’t notice any of that because all he was doing was waiting for Jesus to go slinking out of there. This was shaping up to be Simon’s best dinner party ever. Not only was Jesus getting knocked off his pedestal, but here was poor, righteous Simon forced to suffer such an indignity in his own home. He could make this go a long way.

Jesus wasn’t leaving, though. Simon couldn’t believe what was happening. “Why is everybody staring at me instead of Jesus and his pathetic little hooker. And now he’s speaking to me, looking me right in the eyes, as if we were some sort of equals. What? He’s telling me one of his stupid little stories. What nerve!”

Simon had Jesus on the ropes, but now Jesus had come out swinging. Simon knew he had to be careful. More than one of his colleagues had walked into these traps Jesus set.

At first hearing, though, Simon thought he did okay. Maybe he wasn’t the punch line of the story after all. It was a story about debts being forgiven. Everybody knew he hadn’t piled up the moral and religious debts like that woman had. She was the one who needed forgiveness, not him. But Jesus wasn’t done.

What was that accusation they often made about Jesus? “He eats with sinners. Wine bibbers, tax collectors, and prostitutes.” Well you can add another one to the list, Pharisees. Even though Jesus knew that Simon and his friends were hostile to him, he accepted Simon’s invitation anyway. Jesus was at that dinner as much for Simon as the woman. But she was the one who realized that.

“Simon,” Jesus said. “Do you see this woman? I came to your home; you provided no water for my feet, but she rained tears on my feet and dried them with her hair. You gave me no greeting, but from the time I arrived she hasn’t quit kissing my feet. You provided nothing for freshening up, but she has soothed my feet with perfume. Impressive, isn’t it? Pay attention to this Simon. She is the one who, like God, offers radical hospitality. Not you. It’s not enough to open your little dinner parties to a traveling preacher. She is the one tearing down the walls. She has figured out something about God that you haven’t.”

Simon was stunned. And the woman had forgotten about the other people. She was past caring about what they had to say about her. “But why is he telling me my sins have been forgiven,” she wondered. “I already knew that. That’s why I came in the first place. It must be for the Pharisee and his friends. If they would just pay attention to Jesus they would be down here washing his feet with me.” That image brought another smile to her face.

I don’t know if she was paying attention to that little story Jesus told about the two debtors and the banker. But unlike Simon, who was paying close attention to everything Jesus said and did, she knew what Jesus meant. This was a woman who knew what it was like to have the debt canceled, to know the freedom that comes with forgiveness.

I wonder, though, if Jesus isn’t getting it wrong here. I’ve always been told that God demands the debt be paid, big or small. It’s not canceled. God finds somebody else to pay it. Jesus. But not in the story Jesus told Simon. The banker doesn’t say to the two debtors I will go find some benevolent benefactor to pay your debts for you, so that I will get what I require. The banker just cancels the debt.

It kind of blows the whole theory we have been working with. You know, we confess our sins, our indebtedness, to God, and God has Jesus pay off the debt for us. Repent and be saved.

But that’s not the way it was in this story. The woman got saved first, and then the repentance came. She knew that what Jesus was talking about, what reduced her to tears and made her bold enough to let down her hair in front of all those men, was a lot more than a self improvement program. It was way beyond being a better person and cleaning up her act. It was about finding the life Jesus talked about, it was about believing in the God Jesus believed in, not the god Simon believed in. “How crazy is this?,” she thought, “Simon and I need the same thing. But he doesn’t know that yet.”

The story says that Jesus left that place accompanied by the 12 and many women. Maybe she was one of them. Who knows? It could well be. Where else was she going to go?

The same person who wrote this story in the Book of Luke also wrote the book of Acts and talks about how a great many of the Pharisees became followers of Jesus. Maybe Simon was one of them. Imagine Simon and this woman, church members together in Jerusalem.

Obviously, I don’t know that Simon and the woman were ever in church together. But I know that we are. And that’s an amazing thing. It’s enough to make you let down your hair and weep. We get to follow Jesus together, to be on the look out for God with each other, to find that thing that enabled that woman to take such risk to be with Jesus.

I don’t know if they ever finished or even started that meal at Simon’s house. The woman kind of disrupted things, and ended up causing all kinds of trouble.

Maybe that’s what we get to do too. Disrupt things. Cause trouble because we are so taken by the life we are finding in Jesus we don’t know what else to do but break the rules. It’s enough to make you cry.

Mama Wisdom is Knocking at the Door

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010

Mama wisdom is knocking at the door
Proverbs 8
May 30, 2010
Steve Hammond

Who is that standing at the corner of College and Main streets shouting “come on you blockheads, pay attention to me!” Who is that lady?

Well Jesus might have been talking about her, or at least a lot of scholars think so, when he said this. “If you love me, show it by doing what I’ve told you. I will talk to God who will provide you another Friend so that you will always have someone with you. This Friend is the Spirit of Truth. The godless world can’t take her in because it doesn’t have eyes to see her, doesn’t know what to look for. But you know her already because she has been staying with you, and will even be in you! I’m telling you these things while I’m still living with you. The Friend, the Holy Spirit whom God will send at my request, will make everything plain to you. She will remind you of all the things I have told you. I’m leaving you well and whole. That’s my parting gift to you. Peace.”

They unwrapped that gift on the day of Pentecost. We weren’t here last week, but I think you must have talked about that. They call that book the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, but for those in the story it’s more like the Acts of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus was right. They were not left alone. And they were being led into truth, though the Book of Acts, and the rest of the New Testament makes it clear they weren’t always easily led into truth. But Mama Wisdom was with them. They never knew when she would knock on the door and come blowing in. They learned that Jesus was right when he said the Spirit is just like the wind. You don’t know where it’s coming from or where it’s going, but if you lift your sail you will get quite a ride.

By most measures, the church should have never survived. The persecution was intense. They were a amazingly small minority of people scattered throughout a big empire in tiny churches, most smaller than this one. But, as their accusers say in the Book of Acts, they turned the world upside down.

And when they started they weren’t known for their great faith. Remember how they scattered when Jesus was arrested and wouldn’t come near his place of execution. When some of the women said that Jesus was alive, most of them thought it was nonsense. On the day of Pentecost, they were hiding out afraid they would be captured by the Romans.

But then Mama Wisdom came knocking on their door. The Spirit, like a mighty wind, rushed through that place and their lives. They went rushing into the streets of Jerusalem and didn’t stop proclaiming the life that is in Jesus Christ until they reached the ends of the earth.

They were filled with the Spirit, empowered. The word in Greek is dunamis, the word we use for dynamite. They were dynamited out of that room and out of their fear. And here we are today.

This, of course, is a big weekend in town. We are celebrating with people like Anna and Sarah the hard work of education. And, hopefully, we are celebrating some wisdom, too, though education and wisdom are different things.

Those first followers of Jesus were not, for the most part, highly educated people. The Apostle Paul was an exception. But when Mama Wisdom came knocking, they wised up real fast, and began learning the lessons of faith. Mama wisdom was leading them into that truth Jesus talked about. They learned that real wisdom comes from chasing after the things of the Spirit rather than chasing after money. That fearing God means hating evil. They learned that it’s not the arrogant and the proud who are wise.

Remember those stories about Jesus being baptized and Mama Wisdom, the Holy Spirit who leads us into truth, landing on his head? And what did he end up doing? Telling us the truth. The truth about God, the world, ourselves. It was radical truth. The kind of truth that brings life, though it can get you killed. Mama Wisdom was at work in him, and he promised she would be at work in them. He wasn’t about to leave them, or us, alone.

You read all the great stories in the Book of Acts and you have to wonder. Where’s the dynamite? What mess of porridge have we sold our birthright for? Why is nobody really afraid we are going to take Jesus seriously enough to turn the world upside down? How stupid have we become?

In his new book, The Future of Faith, Harvey Cox takes on these questions. If you don’t know who he is, Harvey Cox has taught at Harvard for the last 40 years or thereabouts, and was one of the prominent theologians of the 20th century. In this book, he’s showing us that Mama Wisdom is not done with him yet, and he is making his mark in the 21st century. He was ordained by this congregation.

When Harvey looks at the first couple of centuries of the Church he sees people who were caught up by faith, people who were propelled by the Holy Spirit in all kinds of ways. The dynamite was there and Mama Wisdom was leading them into truth that blew apart their assumptions about how you live in this world.

After awhile though, Harvey says, the church went from this age of faith to what he called the age of belief. We may use those words interchangeably, but Harvey Cox doesn’t. The age of faith was when people were looking for the moving of the Spirit, expecting things to be shaken up and blown apart. The Spirit was taking them to unexpected places and doing unexpected things, and in it all they saw the wisdom of God.

Some people weren’t quite so sure, though, what to do about this free-for-all of the Spirit. It’s hard to control the wind. And to be truthful, some of what was going on wasn’t really all that wise. So Harvey says people started thinking that even though Rome had been tough on them, you couldn’t deny that Rome knew how to keep things under control.

So the age of faith began to give way to the age of belief where conformity and control became key. Being a Christian was not a matter of faith but a matter of belief. Christianity became a set of beliefs rather than a way of life. So they started developing creeds. Harvey points out that creeds weren’t designed to show the differences between Christianity and other faiths, but the differences between Christians and other Christians. People wanted creeds so they knew who the heretics were.

Church hierarchy was developed. Hierarchy simply means the rule of the holy ones. The church was turned over to the bishops and elders and eventually the pope. It was the imperial structure. Harvey Cox points out that someone has suggested that the Catholic Church is the last vestige of the Roman empire.

It’s not just the Catholic Church, though, that has seen the appeal to doctrines, creeds, structures, ways of defining who is in and who is out. We all do it to some degree. Belief is much easier, much less risky than faith.

Today is Trinity Sunday on the church calendar. All over the internet preachers are lamenting the chore of trying to make sense of the trinity in one sermon. But when you look at the stories in the Book of Acts do you imagine the people really cared about the doctrine of the trinity? They just wanted to be caught up by the Spirit and discover some of Mama Wisdom’s wisdom. It was the wisdom Jesus knew about, the wisdom they knew could turn the world upside down.

Harvey Cox suggests the church is now in one of those back to the future moments. Are we indeed entering a new age of the Spirit that reminds us more of those early days of the church where we sense this thing is more about faith than our beliefs and formulations. We may have more education about Christianity, but are we any wiser than those first brothers and sisters who caught hold of the Spirit, or rather let the Spirit catch hold of them and build a church?

Mama Wisdom is right. Sometimes we are just a bunch of blockheads. But thankfully there is this thing we call grace. Then there are times we are wiser than we ever imagined possible. I guess that’s grace, too. It kind of makes you think about that old spiritual We’ve Come this Far by Faith. And it’s that faith in Mama Wisdom, the Holy Spirit who blesses our chaos by making something out of it, that will keep us on the road.