Read the Gospel Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.
In 2007, I served a congregation in the urban center of Rockford, Il. The congregation I served was a historically Swedish congregation, but in the recent years had embraced the diversity of its neighborhood, reaching out, being transformed by new members of many races, and beginning new ministries in partnership with Latino and Laotian communities. They had made a commitment to get to know their neighbors. It wasn’t always easy or very pretty. Some of the people I got to know that year were in the midst of struggles: drug addiction, abuse, incarceration. I was pushed into conversations with people whose lives I couldn’t comprehend, and together we were blessed to find God.
Through our work of engaging our neighbors, I had joined a group visiting a local mosque. Next door, there little ethnic market, selling Middle Eastern foods.
One day I stopped in to the store. I don’t remember all of what I bought, but when it came time to pay, I realized I was short a few dollars. I was so embarrassed. Where were my math skills? Couldn’t I figure out how much was in my basket and how much I could afford? I could feel my face flushing as I dug deeper into my purse, hoping to find a loose $5 bill.
I was about to ask the cashier to take off some of the items to bring down my total when he looked at me and said, “it’s ok. You can have these.”
I was shocked- what kind of business model were they using?! I was embarrassed, I was receiving a stipend each month; it wasn’t a lot, but I could certainly afford to buy rice! I was humbled, here was a stranger, maybe someone who worshipped at the local mosque, maybe an immigrant, someone who fit all the categories my white Christian culture labeled other, dangerous, potential terrorist, and he was showing me grace. I didn’t want to need it, but he gave it anyway.
Grace. A gift unearned and given freely. Without prerequisite and without obligation. In my case, being shown grace by that stranger made me see him differently, see myself more clearly, and led me to reconsider my own prejudices, thoughts, and actions.
Our reading from Luke’s Gospel is all about grace. In Simon the Pharisee, we meet someone who thinks he doesn’t need grace, whose self-righteousness has prevented him from being transformed by God, whose quick judgment keeps him from recognizing another servant of God.
In the woman kneeling at Jesus’ feet, we meet someone transformed by grace, led into loving worship and service by the audacious forgiveness she’s received from Jesus. In Jesus, we meet grace personified, the God who sets aside all glory and honor in order to place his own holiness over all the undeserving.
In the inner thoughts of the Pharisee, we hear him thinking Jesus isn’t very perceptive. Jesus ought to have figured out this woman wasn’t any good: she wasn’t invited, she doesn’t have a place at the table, she is a sinner.
Jesus hears his unspoken repulsion and tells a parable. In this parable, a creditor is owed money by two people. Ones owes a little, the other a lot. Neither of them can pay. Instead of throwing them in jail or enslaving them until they’ve worked off their debt, the creditor cancels their debts. In the Greek, this word cancel could also be translated as “gave freely”- the one who held in his hand power over these two, payment stubs unfulfilled and overdue, let it go, gave it back, restored the debtors to freedom from owing him.
Pastor Karen of Stone Bank told this story: she and her husband, when they were first married were quite poor. They had just finished school and not yet started their real jobs, but they needed a place to live. Her parents offered to loan them the money for a down payment on a house. Once they got the house, they diligently repaid their loan. Karen’s husband made out little payment stubs, and every month, on time, they would write out another check. The gas bill might be late, the refrigerator might be empty, but they always made a payment to her parents. Years passed, and then one day, her dad telephoned. “You don’t need to pay us anymore,” he said. Karen was flabbergasted, “What do you mean? Of course we have to pay you. We’ve only paid 40% of what we owe. We have all the rest of the payment coupons written out.” Her father said, “you’ve done enough. We want to give you this. We love you.”
Grace is such a terrifying thing for us Christians, and yet it’s at the center of our faith. It’s so threatening because it means that our salvation is out of our control. We are totally dependent on God. We want to know for sure that we’ve been saved, we want to know for sure that God loves us, we want to know for sure that we’ve been forgiven. So often we think that the only way we can be sure is if we contribute something to our faith. If God knows we tried to be good people, if we ask for forgiveness, if we hold true to the teachings, then maybe God will keep from punishing us.
We may say that everyone is a sinner, we may confess every Sunday that we have sinned, but we may also think to ourselves, “but at least I tried… I came to church… I didn’t do this… I did do that… I’m not as bad as that person…”
As long as there’s a part of us saying, “but at least I…” then we haven’t grasped the joy of God’s grace. We haven’t reached the transforming, healing power of the grace of God as long as we’re still believing we don’t need it.
When the Pharisee looked at the woman at Jesus’ feet, he said to himself, “At least I am not like her.” Jesus speaks the convicting law to Simon, “the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little” (7:47b). Simon believes he doesn’t need forgiveness, he’s been able to follow the law, and so he has closed himself off to the joy of the grace Jesus gives, and isn’t transformed into a life of love.
Today, Jesus’ words come to you, have you been forgiven a little- or a lot? Are you moved to love a little- or love a lot?
If you’re living with the delusion that God has forgiven or loved or saved you because you’ve done something worthy of God’s notice, then it’s time to give it up. God doesn’t need whatever good works you think you’ve achieved.
But that doesn’t mean God hasn’t done all those things. God has chosen to act in grace towards you. Jesus has come to be a gift of grace. So that you know without a doubt, even when you’ve failed at trying, when you’ve missed church, when you did what you meant not to and when you’ve not done what you should have— Jesus has come with grace for you- to declare you forgiven, loved, and saved.
It’s so hard to trust that there would be a free gift for us. Distrust and misplaced trust is the root of sin. It is the sickness that infects us all.
I am so sad when I see this sickness infecting congregations. My home church was so infected with sin that its fevered delirium intensified into symptoms that broke apart the community. A group of people started secret petitions for their cause, bypassing their elected leadership. My family was caught in the middle of it all, trying to remain neutral to maintain friendships even as they tried to avoid the pressure to sign up for one side or the other. When everything finally became public, and outside consultants came in to help unravel the conflict, the whole system was so anxious they couldn’t follow through with the good advice they received. One group thought they had won, but in the year that followed, as leadership changed, so did the congregation. Five years later, the congregation is a third of its size, and has few of the same people I used to know. I pray that now God is working healing, and that they have learned strategies for well-being, so that they never again allow the festering that turned their cold to turn into pneumonia.
Their story is a lesson for us as we start to show symptoms of our own spiritual sickness.
There is one thing that will break this fever. There is only one cure that will restore the body and not simply leave us hobbling along, alive, but amputated.
Our salvation- our healing- is the grace of God: Jesus Christ.
Only when we are finally open to the gift of grace that Jesus so abundantly lavishes on each one of us, grace that is not limited or tarnished by its being shared with those who appear holy and those who do not, then we can be transformed to see each other through the undeserved love of Jesus. When you know that you have absolutely nothing to persuade God to love you, and yet that Jesus has done absolutely everything to love you and make you loveable, then Jesus can coax love out of your heart. Jesus can transform our little love into big love, love that heals even the deepest divisions, the most heart-rending betrayals.
Grace frees us to see the other, even to see the enemy, as one who is loved and saved. Because Jesus alone has achieved our salvation, it’s not our job to categorize people as righteous or sinner. Jesus makes it possible for you to remain in community with someone who has hurt you, because you recognize in that person the same brokenness you have, and the same status as a forgiven, beloved child of God Jesus has given you.
This identity, this love, this life, this faith- it’s all gift. You don’t have to be afraid that God will reject you. It was God’s free choice to commit to loving you to life. Encountering this grace changes our assumed label of God as punishing judge. The statement of your debt has been shredded. Jesus alone has made your salvation secure, so you can follow in foolish, free abandon, loving God and loving all God’s people, without counting the cost.
Read the Gospel Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.
A. and I spent the last few days down in Kenosha, at the Greater Milwaukee Synod Assembly. For the second year in a row, the Assembly was held at our ELCA church college- Carthage. It’s a beautiful campus, on the shores of Lake Michigan.
Lake Michigan is an anchoring space for me. The soft rustle of the waves receding speaks, “home,” to my spirit.
Up the coastline from Kenosha is the Wind Point Lighthouse. During my school years, it was this light that I would see shining through the fog. Under its light, on the night of my high school graduation, I looked out over the unending blue of the lake, watching a distant lightening storm, knowing that who I was as student, child, and friend, would be changing as I moved away, started college, and ventured onward into the unknown.
Place has always been an important part of my identity, and revisiting those anchor spaces reminds me of who I am- helping me to take stock of where I am in relation to the person I dreamed of becoming, grounding me for new trials ahead.
Our Gospel today is a story of place and identity- of leaving and returning, of losing and being restored.
It starts outside the city walls, where things are more dangerous and unknown as the certainty of the city is left behind. One group is coming out from the city. They are moving slowly, reluctantly, propelled forward by necessity and yet unwilling to reach their destination. They carry a heavy burden, the dead body of a son, and all the grief and fear that has taken up residence since he left.
His father is gone, he has no brothers, and his mother is left alone. If you’ve been through the funeral of a loved one, perhaps you know something about what she might be feeling. Staying upright takes all her energy, it seems impossible that she’s even able to put one foot in front of the other. Does she even see the ground under her feet, the faces around her, as she is softly pulled along by the tide of neighbors and friends moving towards the burial place?
They are not the only group outside the walls that day. Jesus and a crowd of people are on their way into the town. Certainly, they must have made plenty of noise, too, but I cannot imagine that mother heard anything but her own cries and the dizzying thump of her heartbeat that somehow, unfairly, has continued on while her son’s has stopped.
She’s not only consumed by grief, but she has lost her identity and her security. Do people still see her as a wife without a husband? Will they still call her a mother without a son? She is without a man to define her, to provide for her, to protect her, and in her time, that means she is very alone and vulnerable.
The woman may not have noticed or cared for anything beyond her grief, but Jesus sees her. Jesus sees her and has compassion on her.
Jesus walks right into the procession and touches the bier on which the dead man is being carried. Then Jesus commands him to rise and restores him to his mother. In this miracle, she is restored.
The mother hasn’t asked for this. Unlike so many in the gospels, she hasn’t gone out searching for a miracle, or begged at Jesus’ feet. Maybe she was so lost, she didn’t have room for hope or miracles, she couldn’t have possibly found the power necessary to seek Jesus.
Jesus isn’t only the one who responds to prayer, but the one who seeks us out to know us. He has compassion – suffers with us. Jesus sees her suffering. Jesus goes right to the place of suffering to lift her out. Jesus is the life-giver, the restorer of identity, the one who holds within Godself all the joy and suffering of our real lives, so that we are known.
In restoring this man’s life, Jesus restores the widow’s identity as a mother to a living son. Her direction is changed. She had exited the city, leaving behind the title of mother, traveling to the resting place of the dead, planning to return to the city, but to what? She has lost all sense of identity and all connection to space. Her home was her son’s- without him, where is her place?
Jesus changes the mourner’s direction and destination. With his gift of life, Jesus reorients the community of grief. Jesus points them towards God, the one who gives life, and they return changed.
Jesus comes to see you, to know your pain, and to restore you. No matter how long a child has lived, his mother will always be a mother. No matter how often others tell you your suffering isn’t really a big deal, Jesus knows your pain. That’s how Jesus begins to heal us- not by denying our lives, but by seeing them. And then he brings life to us, life that sustains us through the deaths today because Jesus’ life isn’t held captive by death.
The mother returns home, restored. But her home isn’t the same, she’s been changed by the journey. She’s met Jesus, and now everything- even the big things like death- have been changed.
Coming home is a beautiful thing, as we are wrapped in memories and familiarity. Hiding in home’s comfort, however, can keep us stagnant. We need to encounter what is outside of ourselves- whether that’s through physical travel or simply conversation. Sometimes we need to leave the safety of home in order to be willing to trust in God. Twelve of us are preparing to travel to a new space – the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation- in a couple weeks. Certainly, there are many affected by poverty in our own community, who share our daily spaces, but sometimes it takes stepping out of the familiar to discover more about who we are- and who Jesus has prepared us to be. Against a new backdrop, our own ideas and convictions come into clearer focus. Out in the space beyond our own city, we might find ourselves more open listeners to what Jesus has to say. Then we return home, changed by our new relationships with the people we’ll have met, changed by a new encounter with Jesus, so that we can live as a transformed people for the sake of our own communities.
As I drove to Synod Assembly, I passed a street and suddenly remembered, this was the turn to my friend’s house. I drove a bit more and my body knew it was time to take my foot off the gas as I neared the turn lane to exit the highway to my own street. If you’ve also been away from a place for a long time, and returned, maybe you know the flood of nostalgia. Maybe you also know the feeling of returning to the familiar and finding it not so familiar any more. New buildings have replaced the old, friends no longer occupy their homes.
The joy of being at synod assembly was to be reminded that we are a church bigger than ourselves, with voices of praise and hands of service that extend all throughout this region and around the world. We know that we are entering a time of reformation, realizing that the way we’ve been church isn’t working any longer and we can’t simply go forward coasting on cruise control. The church you remember is not the church of today, it’s not the church of the future. We can’t go home to the way it used to be.
For some gathered here, Cross is an anchor space. These walls and this carpet have watched over your baptism and confirmation, your marriage, and the funerals of your loved ones. You may feel the same disconcerting pain I feel returning home, noticing places I loved changed. If so, then I invite you to remember what it is that makes this an anchoring space. The voice that whispers “home” doesn’t come from the furnishings or words of the liturgy- it comes from the living and active Word: Jesus.
When you come here, it’s to remember who you are so that you can face the days ahead restored in your identity. It’s to take stock of how you measure up to who you’re called to be and repent so that God can direct you towards that self.
In this place, Jesus clothes you with his image. Without any act of faith, the bereaved widow receives her restored identity from Jesus. Likewise, you have received your primary identity from Jesus.
You are a beloved child of God. No matter how long you’re gone from this anchoring space, no matter how different you’ve grown from the image of a mature Christian you described yourself becoming during your confirmation speech, Jesus continues to hold your identity and your relationship in God.
People of Cross, remember Jesus has made us who we are and Jesus holds our identity firmly. We are one community in Christ Jesus. Baptized. Beloved. Fed. Sent.