Text: Luke 7:36-8:3
It’s an image I can’t get out of my mind: a rescuer washing goo off a pelican. The bird was found alive but coated in the oil slick making its way ashore along the Louisiana coastline. The rescuer, volunteering hours of her time, was gently and compassionately bathing the bird in hopes of giving it another chance in the wild. It is a sad but hopeful image from the Gulf of Mexico. And of all the images I have seen from this, the worst oil spill disaster our country has ever experienced, it is this one that causes me to reach for the remote as fast as I can to change the channel. To try and take in the suffering this human-made disaster has placed on some of the most vulnerable of God’s creatures has been almost more than I could bear to watch at times.
With that image in my mind, I was dismayed this past week when I read the various accounts of what critics are saying about wildlife rescuers efforts to rehabilitate the oil-covered birds. It seems that some critics call such work, “a heart-warming waste of time and money that simply buys doomed creatures a bit more time.” They say the money and human-hours would be better spent restoring wildlife habitats or saving endangered species because the hard reality is that many, if not most, oiled creatures probably won’t live long after being cleansed and freed. One particular critic said, “Once [the birds] have gone through that much stress, particularly with all the human handling and confinement, it’s very difficult. Some species might tolerate it better than others, but when you compare the benefits to the costs…I am skeptical.” It was when I read that last line that I began wondering about what our faith says about starting from the place of simply comparing benefits to cost.
Maybe it has always been true, but it seems like we are living in a time where one of the questions we often lead with, whether at fast food joints or department stores and grocery stores and even in our churches is, “How much can I get for my money?” We order our food now from dollar menus. We access certain purchases in terms of six or eight gigabytes. We look for the red tags in the grocery that read, “buy one get one free.” And even in our churches we do studies comparing personnel hours to services offered. When trying to be good stewards of one’s resources, a cost benefit analysis is not necessarily a bad approach. I, too, look at the value meal menus and for the red tags at the grocery. I fully support the staffing study that we are doing as a church. And I wonder, when trying to respond to the cries of our world—to the pain and suffering of both humanity and creation—and to the devastation of oil spills and state budget crises, if a cost benefit approach is the most faithful path to take. Can we really afford, as people of faith, to love and show compassion by simply comparing benefits to costs? Or, as our gospel lesson suggests today, does our faith call us, even require us, to practice a shameless, even scandalous love—a love that washes feet with our tears or, to put it into our modern day context, a love that asks us to give our time to such things as washing oil-covered birds regardless of what “bit of time” it may add to their existence? Can we, as Rev. Forbes illustrated in the scripture reading last Sunday, allow our faith and the Biblical story to hold in tension the realities of pain and joy, of responsibility and freedom, of a love that calls for accountability and a shameless love?
Each of the four gospels tells about the woman who anoints Jesus while he sits around the table, and in each gospel someone sharply rebukes her for her action. But Luke’s version of the story is unique: unlike the other three gospels, the act of anointing as told in Luke does not foreshadow Jesus’ death. Instead, forgiveness and love are the themes of Luke’s narrative, and the true meaning of this text. The woman in Luke enacts radical and even offensive love even as she crashes the party. Uninvited and acting outrageously, she breaks all the rules about how women and men are to relate to each other given her time and place. Possibly, more than any other Biblical character, she incarnates the love that she has received as one having been forgiven as she washes Jesus’ feet with her tears, dries them with her hair, kisses them with her lips, and finally anoints them with oil.
Luke identifies her as “a woman of the city” and “a sinner.” In some translations, she is known as a woman of “low reputation.” These comments, along with the sensuousness of her actions, have led to speculation that she was a prostitute. Such conjecture is not impossible, but it is only conjecture. And, even if we buy into the notion that she was a prostitute, it is still this woman and not Simon the host (the identified religious leader) whom Jesus chooses to hold before us as an example of what it means to live our lives as people transformed by forgiveness and love.
Forgiveness and love do not lend themselves to cost benefit analysis. Were we to attempt to value God’s love or assess God’s forgiveness in terms of how we are changed, the formula would surely be unattractive in investment terms. Rather, God frees us from the expectation of return on investment by granting us unlimited forgiveness and boundless love. Likewise, our response to the cries of the world cannot be economical. Rather, our response must reflect that of this sinful woman: shameless, radical, sometimes offensive, and at other times nudging us to go to uninvited places and break all the rules. Yes, to love as this sinful woman—whose life was obviously transformed by God’s love and forgiveness—is to be willing to set aside our fears and insecurities about what others may say or think of us and to metaphorically, maybe even literally, wash the goo off oil-covered pelicans. If we are going to be God’s people, if we are going to be God’s faithful church in the world, we cannot be concerned with what our critics will say about us or how something we do or don’t do will be viewed by someone else.
Maybe the most significant thing that this “woman of the city” teaches us is that forgiveness sets us free to love shamelessly and in turn shameless love sets us free to forgive. In the end, Jesus says to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” Fred Craddock writes, “Where does one go when told by Christ ‘Go in peace’? The price of the woman’s way of life in the city has been removal from the very institutions that carried the resources to restore her. The one place where she is welcome is the street, among people like herself. What she needs is a community of forgiven and forgiving sinners. Her story screams the need for a church, not just any church but one that says, ‘All are welcome here.’” YOU are welcome here.
Forgiven and forgiving sinners. Consider the freedom of a forgiven sinner – no more, “Will I mess this up?”; no more “Am I doing this wrong?”; no more “I have failed.” What if the message of God’s love and forgiveness is that we cannot do it wrong? In knowing that we are forgiven in love, we are free to practice a shameless, even scandalous love. As the church, whose feet are awaiting our tears, our kisses, our anointing? Where are we, Pullen Church, being called to show up uninvited and offer a shameless love? The cost of following Jesus’ way is often high. But this I believe is the good news: the benefits of love and forgiveness far outweigh the high cost of following Jesus’ way.
This week I invite you to hold those two images in your mind and heart: one woman spending hours washing goo off a single bird to give it a second chance in the wild; another woman, a sinner forgiven, crashing a party and bending on knee to wash with her own tears the feet of the One who set her free. And then consider this question: How are you, how are we, being called to practice a shameless, even scandalous love?