The sermon from Sunday:
Seeing Like Jesus
I play the card game Cribbage – neither well nor often anymore, but it is one of the many things my grandfather taught me. I have not played in a long time, but his board sits on my hutch where I see it everyday. I can still hear his voice as he counted the points, soft and gentle “fifteen-two, fifteen-four, fifteen-six.” I remember sitting at the dining room table in the house where he and my Grandmother raised their children, learning how to count the points and move the pegs around the board, twice for a complete game. Those skills came in handy around the supper table when I was in seminary. My senior year, the year he died, a group of us would gather each night and eat our dinner and play. I was easily the worst – – I don’t do the math in my head fast enough to keep up – -but every night my friends and I would gather. Not everyone played every night, but there was almost always a game. In February of that year, my grandfather died, and I didn’t play for a while, just watched as the players counted “fifteen-two, fifteen-four, fifteen-six” and moved their pegs around the board.
One of my strongest memories of the game came from one of the nights I volunteered at the Central Presbyterian Church Night Shelter. I was there with some of my cribbage friends, and we had taken the deck of cards and the board with us. After supper we set it up and began to play with two of the men who were staying at the shelter that night. There were 8 of us around the table – 4 privileged white seminarians, and 4 homeless African Americans. We dealt the cards and began to play. The playing was not important, it was the stories we heard that night from people who were different from us, but also the same. I remember Joe, who was sitting across from me. It became fairly obvious that Joe was pretty smart, counting cards and somehow cheating. He counted his “fifteen-two, fifteen-four, fifteen-sixes” so fast I could hardly see the cards as they were laid down on the table. Once my skill level became apparent, he either quit or gave me a break, but we teased him about it all night. Joe had not always been homeless. He had a job once upon a time, and then he needed surgery. But he did not have insurance, and then he lost his job, and then he lost his car and then his house. He was not a drug addict or an alcoholic, as is the stereotype. Joe talked about children he did not see anymore because they were in another city – he had divorced his wife somewhere in all of this. He had parents, but did not know if they were still living. He told us his life story while he played cards and counted… “fifteen-two, fifteen-four, fifteen-six.”
What I remember from that night was that for a moment, around the table, we dropped our blinders, our prejudices, and were just a group of people playing cards, seeing each other through eyes that saw like Jesus saw – -without judgment. It only lasted for a second, but what an amazing second. Those three cribbage tables – my grandparent’s, the seminary and the homeless shelter, were very different from each other. One in a home that had been lived in for over 50 years had seen many a family meal around it. This was a table of Sunday Dinner after church, and you knew the meal was special when Grandma put the sewing machine away and the puzzles had to find another home. The tables in the seminary refectory were long, wooden and shiny. Like church, no one had assigned seats, and yet somehow we did anyway. We still jokingly refer to it as Hogwarts – our community gathered three times a day to share meals and our lives for a time while we living together on campus. The table at the homeless shelter was really two folding tables set up in the room that is a gym when it is not a shelter for men with no other place to sleep. Our reading for today shows us another table where folks gather for a meal and have to see each other for who they really are.
The scene is a dinner party at the house of Simon. Jesus arrives, and takes his place at the table. It is notable that Simon fails to offer him any of the hospitality that should be offered any guest who comes to visit – notably washing the feet of Jesus. Jesus sits down at the table to eat and a woman enters the room. She is a woman, who the text calls a sinner. She immediately drops to her knees before Jesus and begins to anoint him and wash his feet, drying them with her hair. This upsets Simon, who begins to mutter to himself that surely, if Jesus knew who this woman was, and what kind of woman she was, he would not have let her touch him. This prompts Jesus to tell the parable about debtors and creditors. He draws the parallel that Simon has committed sins by not welcoming Jesus, or the woman into his home properly, while the woman, who does not even live here, had welcomed Jesus with open arms because he had forgiven her sins. And then he leaves and goes to proclaim the Gospel, bringing with him his disciples and other women as well. Where I want to focus our attention today is on the woman. Who was she, why was she there? How did Simon see her compared to how Jesus saw her, and how do our assumptions affect our ways to see like Jesus.
The woman was indeed a sinner. There is no way around that. But, her specific sins are never named. We can infer from the text, and from centuries of interpretation that her sins may have been the kinds that lead to her be called a “woman of ill repute,” but there is not much real proof. When we put on our blinders and look at her through the eyes of centuries of telling and retelling the story, we see her as young, promiscuous, and bold. She marches in the door and in a seductive manner loosens her hair at the feet of Jesus. Her anointing is seen as sensual, as something that is relegated to the tawdry side of behavior. And that’s how I pictured it as well — until I read a commentary that caused me to rethink the scene. Rev. Debbie Blue blogged about this passage for the Christian Century in 2007 and she wrote: “A woman letting down her hair could have been an erotic thing, but it was also something women did in grief and in mourning, and out of shame…She may have been old; her hair may have been gray, not silky and brown….She may have had missing teeth….wrinkled skin, eyes filmed over with cataracts. Maybe she wasn’t a …loose woman with scented oil before a man, but a woman desperately grieving or grateful. Her sin might have been being cruel and calculating and being mean…” The point is not her age or appearance. She may have been 30 or 130, she may have been beautiful or hideous. Her sin was what got her in front of Jesus. But there is an important textual point to consider here as well – she was forgiven when she walked in the door. She did not come to Jesus seeking forgiveness – that had already happened, before she came and crashed the party. Looking closely at verses 47 and 48 give us the clues to what has happened: They read (and this is Jesus speaking)“47Therefore, 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.” 48Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” In English, it is a little cloudy, but in the Greek, the phrase “her sins, which were many have been forgiven” is written in a verb tense called the perfect tense. Dusting off my rusty Greek, what that means, is that the forgiveness of her sins happened in the past, but it also continues to happen. She was forgiven, before we ever met her. We come to God watch week and confess our sins and hear the good news that we are forgiven – over and over again we are reminded of the work of God’s grace in our lives. That is what happens here. Jesus forgave her sins, and it is at this dinner party that he makes the public pronouncement of that forgiveness.
So what if it happened like this? She was an ordinary woman who committed ordinary sins. We don’t really need to know what they were, or the extremity of them. She could be your age, or the age of your daughter, your sister, mother or grandmother. Maybe her hair is shiny, maybe it is dull. Her eyes might have lost their sparkle. Is she pretty? Does it matter? But on this day she meets Jesus and knows that he is the one to forgive her – -to restore her, and so she makes the request, trusting that the news she has heard of him is true. And he tells her that she is forgiven, and then moves on to his next order of business for the day. She returns home and contemplates what has happened. She realizes that she has not thanked him for what he has done, she has not responded to this gift she has been given. And so she seeks him out, and finds him at Simon’s. Determined to show Jesus her gratitude, she defies every social convention and enters the party. When she sees Jesus, she drops to he knees and begins to cry while anointing and washing his feet in disbelief at his treatment by his host. She weeps in grief for her past, and her hair falls in shame to hide her face. She has been overcome by the love she now knows. She has been seen – not as someone who has sinned, but as someone in need of grace, and that grace has been given to her. There were no questions asked, no requirements made. In the parable about the creditors and the debtors, it becomes apparent – -no payment can be made for what Jesus has done for her. Her response is her actions towards him. She did not come to be forgiven, but to respond to the grace and forgiveness she found in Jesus – -lavish love, poured out to him.
Jesus saw past the externals that Simon and the Pharisees saw. He did not see the woman for the sins she committed, or for her status or her place. He saw past that. He looked deeper at who she was, at who she was inside. He saw someone else. He saw her need, not her label. And so he approached her with compassion, not prejudice. He did not worry about what was proper, what was appropriate, he worried about how to care for her needs, needs that he could only see once he ignored all the external stuff that gets in the way, all the stuff that Simon saw as reasons for Jesus not to touch her in the first place.
That is how Jesus sees us – for who we are. He sees past the walls we build, how we look, what sins we have committed and he sees us. He sees us for the real sins, not the ones people think we have committed. He sees us for the reality of our lives, for the real needs we have, not just those we can admit to in public, not just for the ones we can confess to when pressed. Jesus sees past all the walls we build and masks we hide behind, past fancy houses and run down cars to see the core of who we are – -who we all are, sinners in need of God’s grace. Children of God who have been forgiven and continually are forgiven – past and future. In each of us he sees the woman who anointed his feet, he sees the Pharisees who judged her, and the Simon who denied hospitality. And he forgives them all.
On Tuesday we take our first of three trips to the Outreach Center at Central Presbyterian Church to learn more about the homeless community in Atlanta. We will get to meet people like those who were gathered around the cribbage table that night. We will find food for them to take to their table, help then navigate the government bureaucracy, wash some clothes, and hear their stories. My prayer for those who participate in this mission opportunity this summer is that we can learn to see like Jesus, that we can look past the labels to the needs. That we can respond with compassion and not prejudice. That we can set aside what we think is right or appropriate according to societal conventions and offer care first. That we can open our eyes and see like Jesus. See what he sees in each person we encounter. See beyond the stereotypes and prejudices. Perhaps there will even be a table and a cribbage board where we can play cards and count “fifteen-two, fifteen-four, fifteen-six.” Our work is not done from a need for forgiveness, but is a part of our outpouring of love for what we have been given in Christ. It is an expression of gratitude. We serve because we have been seen, and once we were seen we were forgiven. And in that grace, we were restored. Thanks be to God.
 Debbie Blue, Blogging Toward Sunday, June 11, 2007. Theolog, the Blog of the Christian Century. http://theolog.org/2007/06/blogging-toward-sunday_11.html