- sermons & stories
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- The Hidden Joy in Everyday Life
- Take A Step
- The Marvelously Strange Ways of God in the World
- Stories Jesus Told
- 40 Days of Faith: Engaging in a God-Soaked World
- Adventures in Saying Yes
- Lessons from the Third Way
- Nourishment: Tapping into Jesus this Summer
- Faith in a Time of Empire
- What We Talk About When We Talk About God
- Let Bad Religion Die! New Ways of Being with God in the World
- Light in the Darkness
- Ways We Destroy the World and How God Brings Good Out of That
- Children of God in a Fractured World
- The Ways of Passion and Courage
- The Jesus Model for Everyday Interactions
- Summer 2018
- Read the Bible Together
- An Embodied Faith
- Your Faith Journey At Reservoir
- Light in the Darkness: Dreams and Nightmares
- Training in the Studio of Love
- The Wild Places
- Prophetic Living
- Flourishing: Things We're Learning About the Good Life
- The Art of Neighboring: Imagine the Abundance of a More Connected Life
- Joy: Easter Season at Reservoir Church
- Inspired: The Whole Of Life With God In The Picture
- Spiritual Practices: Ancient Paths To Freedom And Joy
- 40 Days of Faith 2016: Three Days That Change Everything
- Light in The Darkness: Jesus and Our Deepest Longings
There is Enough
Jun 16 2019
The Steadiness of Improvising
Jun 09 2019
Paying Attention to a Communicative God
Jun 02 2019
Prophetic Living: Prophet Hosea
May 26 2019
The World-Saving Power of Inner Work
May 19 2019
Breaking Code and Asking for Help
May 12 2019
Speaking Life into Being, Where You Can’t Yet See It
Apr 28 2019
Apr 21 2019
Palm Sunday: Jesus’ Journey into the Wilderness
The Wild Places
Apr 14 2019
Accepting Doubt as a Companion, if not a Friend
The Wild Places
Mar 31 2019
Who Will Remain in the Camp
The Wild Places
Mar 24 2019
Finding God in the Wilderness
The Wild Places
Mar 17 2019
The Opportunity in Every Problem
The Wild Places
Mar 10 2019
Mar 03 2019
It is great to see you again! The last two Sundays I was with my son John and seven other Reservoir friends in India. I’ve spent the last two weeks jet-lagged, and my memory of our trip is something like third part on the plane, third part eating, and third part sitting in traffic! It was exhausting, but a really beautiful time too. Our team from Reservoir was with our partners in Asha, who work for community empowerment and transformation in the slums of the great city of Delhi.
I am so grateful for this you all’s support in making the trip happen. Even though we go to Asha as learners for all they can give us, I was also really proud of all that the Reservoir community has to offer in this partnership. We brought an audiologist from our community, Daniel Hendrix, who hearing tested dozens of people and fitted a number of them with hearing aids. We had a psychiatrist, Dr. John Peteet, and a social worker, Amanda Proctor, meet with many slum residents so they could advise Asha on building out their community mental health resources. We had one of our physical therapists Dr. Jean Peteet developing a train the trainer model for pushing much-needed women’s health exercise into Delhi’s slums. So many doctors – Drs. Lucas and Justina Oliveira brought soccer balls and music and wise mentoring to Asha’s children’s groups and college students. And Cate Nelson – with her joy and presence – led many children’s group sessions that my son John and the rest of the team helped facilitate as well.
You are a really talented congregation, and it’s a joy to see those talents shared with the developing world’s urban poor. When I wasn’t sleepy, I was beaming with pride the whole week!
I mentioned, though, that we partner with Asha not so much for what we have to give them, but for what they have to teach us. One memory that captures this is a home visit some of us had in a slum called Mayapuri. Mayapuri is sandwiched between India’s largest scrap metal junkyard and a busy set of freight train tracks. It’s dirty and crowded and a hard place to live, but Asha is present not with pity but with empowerment. We had just met a woman who ran two small business from her home where she sat on a mat, because she’d lost her legs in an accident on the rail line. With loans she’d earned through Asha’s financial inclusion program, she’d set up a tea shop and a clothes-mending business, both of which were making her money.
And then we visited the home of a thirty-year old mother named Largee. She lived with her family in one room tucked against the railway tracks and told us that with the noise and the lack of sanitation or cooking, and the water that got in all the time, it was a really hard place to raise a family. But as we spent time with her, her courage and will to survive inspired us. One of our team members, a fellow mom, asked if it would be alright to pray for her, and she welcomed that. Another bent down and touched her foot, an Indian symbol of honor and respect, and said how moved we were by her courage. She was shocked by that but she smiled.
And I thought, in moments like this again and again, this is why we’re here. We’re seeing the face of God and the presence of Jesus in Largee, the empowered mom with the will to survive; in Suman, the joyful young woman who’s working to become a social worker and participate in the uplift of her community; in Sonab, the student who despite all the ways she’s been diminished has hope and determination for what her life will become, in Shiv, the leader who takes pride in organizing the slum neighborhood he himself grew up in.
I bring teams from Reservoir to be with Asha in Delhi’s slums because it is hard and disruptive – it profoundly breaks my rhythms of life, and helps me stop and notice where I’ve been going. And I go because I see God afresh there and am reminded of the spiritually rich, relationally rich – more purposeful, less lonely life I am made for.
The old word for this kind of journey to recenter our lives and meet with God is pilgrimage. Pilgrimage is a journey we undertake to a place we consider sacred, where we hope to find God. Pilgrimage is a break from the rhythms of our ordinary life, to discover what’s missing or disordered in our lives as we’re living them now. Pilgrimage is is usually something we do with others, not alone. It’s a walk we take that we hope will help us learn something we need to know, to find something spiritual, something internal, we need to have, to center ourselves in more hope and more truth.
And pilgrimage is a pretty good metaphor to the six-week season I’m about to invite you into, so it’s our topic today.
Pilgrimage is an important part of most ancient faith traditions. And in our Jesus-centered tradition, really in the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish faith traditions too, it goes back as far as the great father of faith, Abraham.
I’ll read a first century midrash – or creative reflection – on Abraham’s long pilgrimage. It’s from a New Testament letter called Hebrews, and it goes like this:
Hebrews 11:8-16 (CEB)
8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was going to receive as an inheritance. He went out without knowing where he was going.
9 By faith he lived in the land he had been promised as a stranger. He lived in tents along with Isaac and Jacob, who were coheirs of the same promise. 10 He was looking forward to a city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.
11 By faith even Sarah received the ability to have a child, though she herself was barren and past the age for having children, because she believed that the one who promised was faithful. 12 So descendants were born from one man (and he was as good as dead). They were as many as the number of the stars in the sky and as countless as the grains of sand on the seashore. 13 All these people died in faith without receiving the promises, but they saw the promises from a distance and welcomed them. They confessed that they were strangers and immigrants on earth. 14 People who say this kind of thing make it clear that they are looking for a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking about the country that they had left, they would have had the opportunity to return to it.16 But at this point in time, they are longing for a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore, God isn’t ashamed to be called their God—he has prepared a city for them.
Abraham had a hometown. He had a family and friends. He had a religion and community in which he was raised. Presumably, he apprenticed into some way to make a living. He had his family home he could live in and inherit when his parents died.
But he sensed there was something more, that the life he’d settled into as he’d grown up wasn’t complete. Best as he could tell, God had something different for him. So he took a walk, he emigrated from his homeland and lived as a stranger, as an immigrant in someone else’s land, looking for God, looking – Hebrews tells us – for the life God was building for him.
Sarah traveled with Abraham. They were married, so they were going to be in this together. But Hebrews says Sarah was also on an inner pilgrimage. She was sure that God meant for her to have children. That was part of the great hope Abraham and Sarah each had for what God was building. But as year after year went by, and no children came, Sarah had to dig deep and hope for more.
Their child Isaac and their grandchild Jacob took up this life of pilgrimage too. They lived in tents rather than houses because a mediocre life of less than their destiny wasn’t good enough for them. They knew God had more.
These famous patriarchs and matriarch of faith are the father and mother of all of us who dare hope for what we’re sure God would want for us, even when it isn’t clear how that will happen. They’re the father and mother of all of us who know we need to keep moving, even though we don’t know where we are going.
Hebrews says in the long run what we get when we hope for a full life in God is we get a home. We get security and fulfillment, in this life or the next. And in the present we can know God is proud of us, and we have whole hearts that know we haven’t settled or compromised.
But in the present, we get disruption. People who are looking for more from God than we have within us right now have to break the rhythm of our lives sometimes and live like strangers. This second word in Hebrews that’s translated “immigrants” here is often translated “pilgrims.”
Now some of you have literally become strangers and immigrants in your lives. You or your parents wanted something different than your town and life of origin provided, and you left your home, left your country to be where you are today. You immigrants in our congregation, you have all our admiration and respect, because that kind of lifelong pilgrimage might lead to something better for you or for the generations to follow you, but I know it also often means a life of not being fully at home either where you come from or where you’ve gone. And it’s hard to feel like a stranger. So immigrants in our midst today, God bless your bold journey. May you and your children find a deep sense of home among us. May your journey be blessed.
And others of you who are here are not immigrants but resonate right away with this text. Some of us who are here have for a long time been looking for something in life we don’t yet have, but we think it’s our lot to keep hoping and to keep trying. So if that’s you, God bless your hopes today as well.
But even if this isn’t you, for all of us, though, times and seasons of pilgrimage of some kind are a core part of a life of faith.
What is pilgrimage? Pilgrimage is a journey, exterior or interior, to a destination, known or unknown. It can be a literal trip, where we travel somewhere and hope that in the travelling or in the arriving we will learn something new, or in some way meet God.
And pilgrimage is a break with our settled, regular life. It’s delaying gratification. It’s choosing to give up some short-term good we have for a longer-term but not fully known or experience “great” that we hope to find.
A scholar whose work I follow recently described an experience of pilgrimage she had that I want to tell you about. Her name is Christena Cleveland, and she’s visited this church a couple of times before in years past. She wrote recently about a time after publishing her first book, when she’d been on tour. And her life as an author and speaker and resource for churches had exposed her to so much racism and misogyny in churches that had just worn her out. She was exhausted and coping as best she could.
When she was asked to fill-in as the lead professor on a study tour to Brazil. And while there for a month, living in beauty of Northeast, seaside Brazil and immersed in Afro-Brazilian culture, she realized she was on pilgrimage. She had the freedom to notice just how much her life wasn’t what God meant for her, and had the chance to start to step into more hope and healing that had been eluding her.
Here’s one of her quotes about experiences like this. She writes:
Pilgrimage is about longing, consciousness and intentionality. Pilgrimage is about noticing where we have been and where we have been broken, beaten and bruised. Pilgrimage is about acknowledging that part of us is perishing and that we’re seeking new life. Pilgrimage is about looking for hope, healing, beauty and truth.
Three words: longing, consciousness, and intentionality. Which she breaks down further as these three things:
- noticing where we are perishing,
- seeking new life, and
- specifically, looking for hope, healing, beauty, and truth.
In my trips to be with the good people of Asha, I find – as I did this month – that far from home, I notice aspects of my life in Boston that are broken – ways I’m too busy to live wholeheartedly, ways that my overscheduled, overdriven life has cut me off from others, sometimes even cut me off from my own thoughts and heart. Ways that when I do notice the state of my heart, I don’t like all that I find there.
But immersed in Asha’s neighborhoods where people are living out hope, joy, generosity, simplicity, and empowerment and transforming their communities in the process, I find myself with more hope and vision for what my life back home can look like.
Travel can often be at the center of a pilgrimage. When I was first preparing to travel to India a little over two years ago, a friend gave me advice that surprised me. I was preparing for all that I might learn about the slum communities of Delhi and the work of Asha there, but my friend told me to pay attention to what I’d learn about myself, and what I’d notice in my family, who were travelling with me. I hadn’t expected that. But he knew that travel often provided an opportunity for longing, consciousness, and intentionality – for noticing where we are perishing, and for seeking and starting to find new life.
Physical journeys are special times and they cost us something, and the cost and novelty help us focus. They also break our rhythm and help us pay attention. A physical journey, a literal pilgrimage, can help us attend to our inner lives.
So these travel pilgrimages have their place. Abraham, after all, travelled across the Ancient Near East. There is literature of pilgrimage in the psalms from the ancient Jewish tradition of going up to Jerusalem for the high holidays. Like the Hajj to Mecca for Muslims, or Christians that go on the Camino in Spain or to other so-called holy sites.
But travel pilgrimage can cost a lot, a lot of time and budget. And we can’t all drop what we’re doing and fly to Jerusalem, or Spain, or Brazil, or India, or wherever it is we hope to find new perspective and life, whenever it is that we need it.
So thankfully, church tradition has supplied an annual opportunity for a type of pilgrimage that doesn’t involve going anywhere involved, and it’s the season we’re about to begin, which is called Lent.
Lent is related to an Old English word for spring, since this season takes place during the start of spring in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s the 40 days before Easter, when churches have traditionally invited people into pilgrimage.
It’s a time to break our ordinary rhythms, a time for longing, consciousness, and intentionality. Lent is a time to notice where we are perishing, to seek new life, and to specifically look for hope, healing, beauty, and truth.
The great Jewish mystic Abraham Heschel called all of faith “not the clinging to a shrine but an endless pilgrimage of the heart.” I love that line, that faith is an endless pilgrimage of the heart. Faith involves noticing where our hearts are lonely or empty or broken. Where our lives are stunted or have fallen off course. And faith is a conscious longing and directing of our hearts and lives toward hope, healing, beauty, truth, and love.
I don’t know how your heart is lonely or empty or broken. I’ve heard from some of you around this past week’s news that one of the world’s larger Christian denominations rejected the full inclusion of LGBTQ Christians – that was heart-breaking for many of us. At the same time, the world’s largest Christian denomination and our country’s second largest Christian denomination are both embroiled in scandals of sexual abuse and assault – and don’t show any real signs of righting the ship. So perhaps churches have broken your heart. If so, as one of the pastors at Reservoir Church, let me say that it is an honor and joy to me that you are here today, and I pray this community holds your trust well and always honors you with dignity – that it certainly our intention.
But I know you have all manner of other stories today of how your hearts are lonely or empty or broken, or how your lives are stunted or have fallen off course. These may be mild things, they may also be quite serious. There’s a range, I know.
But God is with us. The divine, Heschel says, rings our hearts like a bell and is waiting to enter our empty perishing lives. The God at the focus of Sarah and Abraham’s faith is building a better city and wants to stir hope and vision in us as we walk there together.
This lent, we’ll pay attention to these things, we’ll take this walk together.
We’ve called this season of Lent other names at other times because we’ve made it into a season to ask God for big things for our church or to ask God for big things that we personally want. And there are times and places for doing that, and we’ll do that again in other seasons. But this year, our pastoral team really felt led to celebrate lent the way our tradition has given us. Because while churches have screwed up all manner of things, this season of Lent is a gem and we think a keeper.
Typically, three things have been part of this tradition:
One, it’s been a season of fasting. This is maybe the one thing people know about Lent if they don’t anything else. That there are people who give something up for lent – don’t eat meat or skip a meal on Fridays, or don’t drink alcohol or eat sweets, or stop watching netflix, or whatever.
The point of this is to break our rhythm in some specific outer way to break our rhythm internally as well. This is the noticing how we are perishing part of our Lent. Again, you can stop eating food, in different forms, here and there. Or you can fast some form of social media or entertainment, or try something creative like fasting from criticism or complaint or something. But I encourage something tangible, and something that might open up some time in your life. Because in giving up a short-term, known “good”, the goal – as in pilgrimage – is to make space for a longer-term, unknown “great.” To notice the state of your heart and life, and any way in which you’re perishing or longing for more.
But I invite you to consider a form of fasting this year for Lent. We’ll have a soft start with our evening Ash Wednesday service this Wednesday – the information is in your Events and Happenings sheet. And that’s the day that Lent most traditionally begins. But we’ll start in earnest again next Sunday, when I’ll invite you once more to consider fasting.
The second thing that’s typically part of Lent is that it’s a season to stretch our generosity. This much less famous than the fasting, but it’s another form of giving something up. Of becoming less attached to our stuff, and more attached to God, and really just less anxious, more free.
Lent in our tradition has always been a time of simplifying and letting go, so we remember we aren’t defined by the things or the money or the experiences we accumulate, and we aren’t defined by our debts or anxieties about money.
Early in Abraham’s journey of pilgrimage, at the very time when he has the opportunity to get really wealthy and stop looking for more, he confronts this mysterious priest named Melchizedek and pledges to him a tenth of all his possessions. This is the first reference in the Bible to what’s called tithing, or giving a tenth of our income or possessions to God’s work in the world.
Melchizedek is this almost mythic mysterious figure, so this has been a cool scene for imaginative, mythic literature. The priest Melchizedek shows up in an important way in a modern novel The Alchemist that I used to love to teach when I was an English teacher. The Jesus tradition sees in Mechizedek a forerunner of Jesus as well. A human being who can connect heaven to earth, who can link our lives with the life of God in us.
All to say, pilgrimage always takes a cost, and always involves letting go, and Lent has invited this through choosing more generosity and giving to Jesus in some way.
By all means do this however you like. But while Reservoir Church is not Jesus by any means – we’re very clear about that, we’ll also help us along by launching a giving campaign at Reservoir to encourage new regular givers to this ministry if that isn’t your practice yet. Again, choose another form of generosity if you like, but next Sunday as we start Lent, we’ll share a small way this community’s work can be tied to that practice for you if you like.
So fasting and generosity are about letting go, and then the third hallmark of Lent is about seeking to find more of the divine, more hope, healing, beauty, truth, and love.
Lent is also a season for spiritual formation through intentional, structured, Jesus-centered spiritual practice. Our primary vehicle for this is a themed community exploration that involves a six week Bible guide you can use on your own or in community groups here, and our Sunday services that connect to it. I’ll share a lot more about this next Sunday, but I’m really excited about this year’s pilgrimage. We’ve called it The Wild Places, and we’ll be looking at themes of wilderness and exile in the Bible – times when people notice life is out of control or are confronted with some way in which they are perishing. But also times where this becomes fruitful grounds for learning, for discovery, for encounter, and for the launching of an impossibly hopeful next chapter as well.
We’ll have a guide for you each week, starting next Sunday, that you can use. And we’ll have some neat stuff on Sundays – a Sunday on doubt, a powerful guest preacher from the BU School of Divinity another week, another participatory liturgy developed by our own Ivy Anthony and team, some great stories told by members of our community, and much more.
All to say, our season of Lent gets warmed up some more mid-week at our Ash Wednesday service if you or your community group would like to be there, and then starts in earnest next Sunday. If you call this church your home, we also have one of our quarterly members’ meetings tonight – a potluck from 5-7 (so bring food to share!). And there, apart from a usual update from our Board, our families pastor Kim Messenger will lead us in an interactive meditation of the life of Jesus, inspired by the storytelling materials we use with our young children. Another way to prepare us for this season.
Our real hope with Lent of course isn’t about our specific program at Reservoir. That’s just our attempt to make this tangible and accessible together as a community.
The real hope is a fruitful season of inner pilgrimage for us all, of fasting and generosity that breaks rhythm, that makes space, that helps us see any ways we are perishing. And the hope is a season of pilgrimage in which we can consciously and intentionally seek life in the midst of that, and discover more and more hope, beauty, life, truth, and love.
And so that’s the invitation we wrap up on. I’m going to breeze over the slides and program notes, because I’m not sure I put the words so right this week, but our invitation each day this week is just these two parts:
- to notice any ways our lives are not working, to notice how we are perishing. Not to try to fix it, but just to notice with curiosity.
- To say to God that this Lent, we’d like to seek life. We’d like to be on pilgrimage: with the help of this community, and the help of God, to find more hope, healing, beauty, truth, and love.
An Invitation to Whole Life Flourishing
Notice any ways your life is fundamentally not working. Don’t try to fix it just yet, just notice with curiosity.
Spiritual Practice of the Week
Ask God each day this week how it is you need greater connection and life. Tell God that this Lent, you plan to be on pilgrimage to find what you need.
Love of a Sinful Woman (Money, Sex, and Power)
Training in the Studio of Love
Feb 24 2019
Good morning, My name is Lydia. We’ve been in a series called “Training in the studio of LOVE” in the past 7 weeks, talking about love of neighbor, unselfish love of self, love of our world, and we’re wrapping up with love of God today. Training because we think even a simple thing like love, takes practice, we can get better at it, so we’ve been training, working it out, in this studio, so let’s go, on how to love God. Let me read this story from the Bible, I’ll pray and get us started.
Luke 7:36-50 (NIV)
36 When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. 37 A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. 38 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.
39 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.”
40 Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”
“Tell me, teacher,” he said.
41 “Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii,[a] and the other fifty. 42 Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”
43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”
“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.
44 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. 45 You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”
48 Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
49 The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”
50 Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Let’s pray. Loving God, we come to you this morning, longing to experience something bigger than ourselves, curious of what you might have to offer us today. We come into this place, for some of us with great shame and distress, unsure of how we could possibly find love. Or for some of us, things have been so mundane and steady that we’ve become numb and uninspired to the holiness around us. Or for some of us, we’ve been so busy and distracted, it’s nice to just have a moment of quiet. Wherever we are this morning, would you remind us, that you created us in your image, and called it good. That no matter how far you might seem in this moment, that you mean to pursue us with abundant enduring love, and you run toward us to restore us wholly and completely. Would you convict us of that today, perhaps through this story, we pray, Amen.
So, we read this story in a Women’s Bible Study Group I lead last year. It was through a practice called Lectio Divina. Where you read, sit in silence, and reflect. At this particular meeting, after we read, we sat in silence together, waiting for someone to share—holy zoning out I call it. I think I might have said something like, “touching feet, that’s pretty weird.” Cause you know I like being awkward—just saying, it is weird! But then a woman started sharing, that her grandfather had just passed away. She shared how they sat around him in the room in the last few moment before his death. She remembered how irregular his breathing was, and whenever he would stop, they’d all sort of hold their breath together, wondering if he was still “with us”. And as they did so, they would constantly check his feet, because apparently when someone is getting close to passing, the temperature of their hands and feet drop. She remembered lifting the blanket, and touching his feet, checking up on him again and again. She’d never touched someone’s feet like that. It was how they were able to care for her grandfather in that time. What a picture of love and intimacy. Of care, tenderness, and connection. Feet. Touching. Love expressed. Hearts poured, body mended.
What was it that compelled this sinful woman such devotion and release of love? Something utterly and totally took over her being, leading her to this intrusive and courageous act. What caused her to treat Jesus as someone she loved and cared for so dearly and intimately?
She loved because Jesus loved her first. How? What happened? The Pharisee was confused too. Why was she acting like this? To explain, Jesus tells this story.
A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii,[b]and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?
Last week Ivy used a text about taxes to talk about God’s love. This week, I’m using one about moneylender and debt! Well, I’m not. Jesus is. And there is something here. Why is Jesus telling this story to explain her love? We take this lightly in Christian jargon—Sin, debt, forgive our sins as we forgive our debtors—almost interchangeably. But what is the relationship between sin and debt?
Let’s look at debt first. To be in debt means essentially be tied to, responsible to, one could say even enslaved to the one whom you owe money to. During the housing crisis, people who couldn’t make their mortgage ended up losing their house to the bank. They owned your home. If a house was foreclosed, it’s as if someone died there or something, like a disease that took over the house, a darkness. I had a close friend who ran a fashion boutique for a while, but then during the financial crisis in 2008 had to close down and apply for bankruptcy. Not only was she out of money, but her livelihood, her purpose, her moral, took a hit as well.
The Pharisee in this story calls her a sinful woman. And to most of us we simply think that she must’ve done something wrong or bad. The word sin, not only describes someone who was morally deficient but a sinner was actually “anyone who was outside of the law”. And outside of law meant those who were considered “unclean” and couldn’t participate in the temple rituals. Which include the disabled, slaves, those in debt, even those who just gave birth. According to Leviticus 12, after a son you were unclean for 33 days after giving a son, for a daughter 2 weeks, and you would bring a lamb or a dove for purification. Then you’re clean. Then you are reinstated back into the temple life (which was basically all of life, it’s where the farmer’s market happened, where the festivals were, where you paid taxes—everything). There were many rules that would consider one a “sinner” which would thereby cut you off from the community. Frankly, for the Jews, any Gentile was pretty much a sinner.
And it’s also curious that most people assume this sinful woman was a prostitute, when the text does not say so. Even in the popular bible translation the Message, Eugene Peterson writes, “Just then a woman of the village, the town harlot…” when the original text says nothing about that. Just like the Pharisee here, and pretty much the rest of the religious leaders thereafter, tried to make it about “sin” to exclude people, when the reality was, that was just their way of categorizing someone who is unworthy of a flourishing life. Unworthy of being touched. Unworthy of entering the temple. Unworthy of power.
Maybe this story of two debtors that Jesus tells isn’t just a hyperbole. Whatever “sinful” state this woman was in, it probably simply meant that she was an outsider with an impossible “debt” to society that locked her in that indebted role. Jesus was saying, whatever debt you think this woman owes, I forgave it. And so of course the Pharisee’s like, who is this guy who think he can “forgive sins” aka “erase debt”. It’s like if I walked up to Sallie Mae and I was like, hey you know all these student loans, they’re fine, it’s taken care of, don’t worry about it. They’d be like, “don’t worry about it?— who are you?”
What if the point of the story isn’t that Jesus forgave her sins, but liberated her from the system of debt that oppressed and kept people locked in their label bracket—”sinner”.
Economy historian Michael Hudson, in his book ...and forgive them their debts: Lending, Foreclosure and Redemption From Bronze Age Finance to the Jubilee Year (what a name of a book!), makes the case that the Bible and Jesus was actually more occupied with debt than sin. And in fact, that’s what got Jesus killed.
At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, in Luke 4, Jesus stood in a synagogue reading from Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
With this he announced the “year of the Lord’s favor”. He was talking about the long tradition of the year of Jubilee. Jubilee was the fiftieth year in which you return the foreign slaves to their home lands and return the property to the original clan. It was the year of debt forgiveness and liberation of slaves. This was Jesus’ mission: “to proclaim the good news to the poor, free the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and to set the oppressed free.” Jesus came to announce and fulfill the year of the Lord’s favor, mercy and freedom to all. This proclamation of Jesus confused and angered the elites. It was too political. Too dangerous of a uprising, a revolution! And it ended with the execution of Jesus.
And that’s why this was good news to the poor. And again, the word “poor” wasn’t just about people who didn’t have money, but outcasts, foreigners, thieves, ethnic minorities, the sick, the unemployed—the other. Jesus turned the order upside down by telling the story of the debtors, and lifting up the woman to be greater than the Pharisee. Through this story Jesus was reinstating this woman from sinner to a free person, liberating her from the economic system and bringing her back into the fold of the society and community. Jesus was turning classism upside down.
But not only class but gender and sex too. This whole story is actually altogether quite sensual. She’s sitting behind his feet. Crying. She lets her hair down, which in that culture was a no no, and she’s wiping his feet with her hair. Like I said, feet, weird! I guess I’m like the Pharisee, seeing this story, going, “gasp, how could she!?” But Jesus defends her. He sees this very physical sensual moment and doesn’t twist it. He normalizes her act. He honors it and lets it be, in fact he lifts it up to be the right act.
We twist things like money and sex. Both of them aren’t inherently evil. The love of money is evil. And sex, well the church does a horrible job of talking about sex for the most part, well except, my 2nd or 3rd Sunday at Reservoir was about Patriarchy and Speak Out Sunday about the #metoo movement, but seriously THAT’S so rare. Usually churches are like—sex, just don’t! Unless you’re married, then do. And like that’s about it on sex.
For Jesus to let a woman touch her was crossing gender boundaries. For her to be able to let her hair down and touch him was to respect her sensuality. It wasn’t creepy or weird or awkward. He accepted and received her love and physical expression of that love. What would it be like to see sensual, sexual love as a revelatory metaphor for loving God? It’s like the biblical understanding of God’s love according to the book Song of Songs. Which is actually long erotic love poetry about a man and a woman. Why is this in the Bible? Again and again, it always found its way into the Bible even when some didn’t think it belongs, because God isn’t even really mentioned. The whole book is about sexual desire, and it’s been kept because romantic love is a strong metaphor for how God loves us. (And side note: it doesn’t mean that you can’t know or experience God’s love if you’re asexual or not in a relationship, it’s just one of many metaphors that only help. Like we’ve never had a king but we use that metaphor all the time.)
When we were taught in Youth Group to not date—cause it’s sin—and that Jesus is our boyfriend, I always asked, how do you make out with Jesus? The Bible Study leader didn’t like that question. But jokes aside, what would it be like to see God as our lover—our intimate partner? I think it could be helpful because we think about love or finding the one or romance, a lot in our culture (it’s a bit overemphasized and put on a pedestal—I think that makes the metaphor even more accessible for us, more than a king I’d say!). Could some of the ways we think and feel about romantic love shed light to how we are to be in loving relationship with God? I think so! God seeks intimacy with us. God wants to know us deeply and honors our sexual bodies.
I got this from one of your Instagram, a quote by Rob Bell, a popular pastor—he says, “The word sex comes from this ancient Latin word where something was “sext” – meaning “cut off”. So your sexual energies are your desires to be reconnected with everything you’re here to be connected with. So we in some ways are born in these disconnections and we know they’re not right. And for many people, they’ve been taught that sex is just two people fumbling around rather than sex being the transfer of energies that happens all the time because we’re all longing for connection.”
God wants to connect deeply with us and seeks to restore our sexuality with the self and with one another, and express God’s love through such connection.
In a new book called Shameless: A Sexual Reformation by pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, she was talking about how churches often use people’s financial giving, tithing, as a sign of spiritual health. And she adds, “Maybe a good sex life—whatever that looks like for who we are as individuals—can also be a sign of spiritual health. As your pastor, I want that part of your life and your relationship to be good. I want your sexual life to be free from fear and shame and to be joyful and true to who you are as individuals, because it is a holy gift from God.”
What would it be like for you to see your sexuality as something God wants to restore, accept, and love? What would it mean for God to affirm your sexuality, healthy and good and I don’t mean just pure—sigh… is feet touching pure? It’s real, it’s bodies, it’s humanity. I’m pressing this point because I think that some of our evangelical history has been not just toxic, but detrimental to our sexuality with things like purity culture. It was like a thing for folks to do a ceremony with young girls and their dads (like that’s weird—why not moms?) and get these promise rings to not have sex. I do believe there were good intentions and wisdom they were trying to get at but it’s also been a cause of so much shame and isolation of our sexualities. Look, sex is complex so I’m not here to lay out a new sexual ethics for us right now but, don’t you see? God is not afraid of your body. So much so that God decided to become a body as Jesus. And be kissed by a woman, with long hair, with oil. And if you’re feeling uncomfortable, I mean, I feel kind of vulnerable talking about this as a woman here to be honest, but we’re all feeling that because we’re human and we have bodies—we’re sexual beings, and we have senses, and that’s okay!
Friends, our finances and our sexuality, money and sex are important to us. And God sees the corruption of our economical system and our sex culture. Jesus was never about be a nicer person, but he was raising the bar on everything and turning whole eco-system upside down. He wants to liberate us from it all, to restore us to freedom, in and with our money and with our bodies. And when we realize that, that’s exactly what happens, freedom and power with our money and our bodies. I should’ve named this sermon, money, sex, and power, because here’s what happens.
This woman, having been so moved by the message of Jesus’ liberation, and being accepted wholly with her full being as a woman, her response was this powerful bold move. She walked into this Pharisee’s house, mixed in with her tears and shame, I just imagine her shaking nervously but also strangely determined to do this. That jar she poured out—they say it might been worth a year’s worth of salary. This was an expensive sacrifice. I mean, I have a nice skin care product from Sephora, a serum, that I got as a Christmas gift. It’s got this fancy dropper, and it’s glass, and every time I use it, I’m like so afraid I’m gonna drop it. Skincare products are so expensive—why, they’ve got little viles costing 100-200 dollars! But her, she was able to generously pour out her precious perfume at the feet of Jesus.
It doesn’t say this in Luke, but this similar story is in each of the 4 gospels and other accounts of the stories actually has her anointing Jesus for his burial. And Jesus points to her and says, wherever the gospel is preached, it will be done so in memory of her.
This story, actually is one that brought me into ministry. I’ll wrap up with my personal story.
At the end of my time at UCLA, I was feeling pretty worthless and defeated. I was actually graduating “late,” I walked the ceremony but had to take like extra 6 classes over the summer to graduate in time, which was a huge source of shame, especially in the Asian culture—you are like considered like, “oh she graduated late, yikes”. I didn’t have a job lined up after college. And part of it was—honestly—I partied a lot. Los Angeles has a way of seeping into your skin, and as a young woman it’s not the best influence. Like, I’m not even a football fan, but a few weeks ago I was like yeah L.A. sucks, go Pats! Beat L.A.! Oh L.A. L.A. L.A. I remember one time, I was hanging out with some girlfriends who were all models, cause that’s what you do in L.A., all tall skinny and beautiful, and it was the funny that got to tag along, they said we were going to some fashion show or something so we got dressed up and ended up somehow all getting into this Hummer Limo. And then I saw at the other end of the limo that they were doing cocaine! I was like—where am I, and had this realization that made me go, I’m very lost. And by the way, we finally got to that “fashion show” and it wasn’t a fashion show at all, but a VIDEO of a fashion show was playing on the screen! I think promoters just called it that to get models to come—so fake. So L.A. As I occupied myself with the L.A. Thing, going to certain parties that “industry” people showed up—so cool—I became more and more distant to God and stopped going to church. I had once grown up in the church and that’s where I usually had community, but I started to become very isolated.
So when one day I decided to go to church, which I did from time to time if I wasn’t out the night before, and heard a sermon on this story, I just began to sob uncontrollably. It all came crashing down on me—the shame. How that Pharisee talked about her, that’s how I felt. Growing up as a pastor’s kid, I was always judged for not being the kind of good quiet Korean Christian girl. I wasn’t shy, I didn’t laugh like this, I’d walk around laughing like this and it confused them. So when Jesus, stood up for her, and said, “do you see her?” I felt so seen by Jesus. I felt embarrassed to even be at church—how dare I, knowing the things I’ve done. I talked to myself like the Pharisee.
Even when I started feeling a call into ministry, I thought, how could I preach from the Bible? People will say, do you know what kind of a person she is? That she is a sinner! And I still feel that. I’m not the most holy person, or the most patient. I’m not that Christ-like and I don’t pretend to be. I really tried to curse less when I first became a pastor, and now I don’t even try. Honestly, it is a scandalous thing that I should be up here preaching the gospel.
But you know what? I’m here for Jesus, and damn it, Jesus says it’s okay for me to be here, to worship him with all my guilt and shame. To sit at his feet and let my hair down. And if I can, since he lets me, I don’t mind bringing all my gifts—my most precious things, my time, my energy, my money to his feet to bring him glory, to honor him, to anoint him. And then as I grew in faith I realized, Jesus wasn’t just forgiving me my sins but turning everything new. It was bigger than my own personal moral failings. God was changing the economy, racism, sexism, and that gave me greater hope with greater audacity to serve. Like her, I wanted to anoint the feet of Jesus. And I thought, well the Church is the body of Christ. Maybe I can serve there, and that would be okay.
Will you let God see you? Will you come sit at the feet of Jesus, no matter what anyone else might say? My invitation to you this week is that you try doing that. Come to the feet of Jesus. To the places where others might say, what are you doing! Why are you doing that?
Stories of Jesus interacting with people are powerful because we get to see and experience God’s love for them. Just as this story personally impacted me, there might be a story that God speaks to you through the Scriptures. Try picking a story, maybe a story you’ve heard about, Zachhaeus, or the rich young ruler, or the one where Jesus healed the paralytic. Whichever, here’s what I suggest to people often. If you’re not sure what’s in the Bible, google it! And then go look up the text in the BIble, and read it slowly. Let it wash over you and enter into that story. You can try that Lectio Divina, with the guide in your program. Let God enter into your whole being: your mind, your heart, your body, your everyday life, and know that God loves every bit of it and wants to restore and transform it completely. Will you let God do that?
Holy and Gracious God, You have created us good. And then things got kind of complicated, with our own mistakes, systems and culture. Would you take over every part of us that is broken or tainted and bring it back to your original intent. We long for that loving healing power in our lives. Spirit would you move in us to see and experience that love, that we may be humbled and kneel before you, with all that we are, ready to serve as you call us to do. We pray in Jesus name. Amen.
An Invitation to Whole Life Flourishing
Spiritual Practice of the week:
- Read the text aloud once. Simply receive and notice the story. What word or phrase stood out to you?
- Read the text a second time. Analyze what’s going on. What do you have questions about? What did you notice further?
- Read the text one last time. What came up for you personally as you read the text?
What Do You Think?
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