Sunday, June 17, 2007

Luke 7:36-50 -
“Cultural Keys to Luke (Part 1):
The Hostess”

Cultural Keys to Luke (Part 1) Handout
You can view the research and background information that goes into this sermon by clicking here.

Commentary on the creation of this sermon can be found by clicking here.

3rd Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 6)
(Year C - Lutheran Service Book Readings)
Thursday, June 14, and Sunday, June 17, 2007

Some of you will be offended by this story. On some level, this story will offend all of us. But it is a story, a parable, that reveals our God’s great love—a love which can be so offensive to our righteous sensibilities.

There’s this traveling preacher. He’s built quite a following around the world, and he’s spoken in town the last couple of days. People have been talking about this man long before he arrived in town, and after the impression he’s made locally, well, it’s clear that people will be talking about him for quite awhile longer.

Now in this same town there’s this group of pastors, church leaders, and interested laypeople who regularly get together to discuss all things theological. They’re not the kind of Bible study group that would be happy meeting at the local greasy spoon diner. Instead, they have rather expensive tastes and enjoy a little pampering, so they meet in a classy hotel downtown.

This group of pastors, church leaders, and interested laypeople—let’s call them the Theology Club—they’re led by a man named Mr. Simon. Mr. Simon has overheard some short bits of the traveling preacher’s teachings in the city, and even more, Mr. Simon has been paying attention to the buzz that the traveling preacher has created in the religious circles. Sensing that he can’t simply dismiss the traveling preacher as a fad, Mr. Simon asks the traveler to have dinner with the Theology Club in their usual room at the hotel.

While the preacher seems hardly the type that belongs in upscale hotels, he doesn’t turn down the invitation. The traveling preacher has found success and built a following because he finds the most unlikely places to preach. He preaches in the streets—as many prophets have done, and of course, he preaches in houses of worship. But he also preaches in the run-down neighborhoods, the back alleys, family gatherings, county parks, and even coffee houses popular with the alternative scene. So the traveler goes to meet the Theology Club for dinner perhaps seeing it as just one more varied location where he can speak God’s Truth.

When the preacher arrives at the hotel, no one from the Theology Club greets him at the front door or in the lobby. Not knowing where the group meets for dinner, the preacher asks at the front desk, but the Theology Club hasn’t left word for him there. Instead, the traveler has to ask a number of staff—stopping bellboys, waiters, and janitors as they pass; he asks quite a few of them before finding one who knows which meeting room holds the group the preacher describes.

When he finally finds the room and enters, no one rises to welcome him. No one offers to take his coat. No one sees that he’s still holding his suitcase. He’s left wondering if they really meant for him to be there, and more pressing, he wonders if the group would be providing him a room at the hotel, a place where he could change clothes, relax a bit, sleep that night.

No one introduces him to the group. He finds that he’s having to introduce himself to each person—although he can only do this when they take breaks from their conversations.

By all appearances, the group has already had the first course of their meal—not waiting until the preacher got there. (He came as soon as he could after his late afternoon speaking engagement. Seeing they’ve already eaten is a clue that no one in the room actually heard him speak that day.) No one offers to get him a salad or a beverage. In fact, there’s not even a place set for him at the table.

Mr. Simon kind of gestures to a chair in the corner as if to say, “Pull up a chair,” but Mr. Simon makes no move to make room for the preacher and his chair. Instead, awkwardly, the preacher pulls the chair up to a corner of the table and then shyly flags down a waiter to ask for some silverware, a water glass, and perhaps a dinner plate when it is served. The waiter—unclear what to do with this uncounted for guest—goes to the head of the table and whispers into Mr. Simon’s ear. Mr. Simon glances down the table at the preacher, frowns a bit, and then shrugs to the waiter, apparently saying, “I suppose if he wants a dinner you can bring him one,” but his body language clearly is saying that he didn’t really want to add another meal to the tab.

It’s a most embarrassing treatment, really—designed, it seems, to make the traveling preacher feel rejected. It’s like he’s been invited to dinner only so that this group of religious leaders could snub him. By neglecting to show him any courtesies, they’ve made their attitude very clear: the traveling preacher might be gathering a following, but these religious leaders are in no way supportive of him, his message, or his presence.

So there is our traveling preacher, a world-renowned speaker: he sits on the corner of the table, not included in conversation, waiting for a dinner begrudgingly approved by the host. The preacher is still wearing his coat, although he’s glanced around the room for an appropriate place to hang it. He’s got his suitcase near him, so he tries to remove his coat without much notice, lays the coat on top of the suitcase, and pushes the suitcase up against the wall out of the way as best he can.

That’s when a soft hand reaches out and takes the suitcase from the traveling preacher. He looks up to see a beautiful woman, dressed in a very classy yet flashy fashion, and perhaps wearing a bit too much makeup to make up for the fact that she’s older than she wants to appear. This woman seems to immediately sense that this traveler has not been shown any common courtesies of a guest, and with confidence and boldness, this woman becomes the hostess.

Truth is, the woman is a lady of the evening, a working girl. She’s from the local “escort service,” serving clients in this fancy hotel downtown. She gets paid well, but she gives away too much of herself. She’s hoping for a Pretty Woman moment where suddenly a rich man will see her for who she really is, whisk her away from her dead end life, and make her respectable again—but that only happens to Julia Roberts in the movie. There’s been no Richard Gere for her reality.

Yet, she was in the crowd that afternoon to hear this traveling preacher speak. He is no Richard Gere; he wouldn’t save her like that. No. This preacher teaches something much greater than her Pretty Woman dream. He speaks about a God who knows who she really is—but still loves her. This God could whisk her away from her dead end life—whisk her away to eternal life. This God would make her respectable again—forgiving all of her sins, making her clean and holy in His sight. This woman had heard the traveling preacher, and as soon as she got word that he was in her hotel meeting with the Theology Club, she went immediately to their dinner. She is filled with a love and joy that can’t be expressed with words. Instead, she had made a decision that afternoon that her life as an escort was over, she would dedicate herself to serving the Lord, and she also meant to serve the Lord’s messenger: the traveling preacher.

She hands the preacher’s suitcase to a bellboy passing by in the hallway, gives him a rather large tip, and instructs him to get the preacher a room. “In fact,” she says, “give him my suite. Make sure my suite is completely cleaned, scrubbed, and free from any sign that I was ever in there.”

The bellboy raises his eyebrows. Partly he’s shocked because this woman’s been in the hotel for years, living and working out of that same suite. Partly he’s a bit confused on whether she’s propositioning the preacher which seems very wrong to the bellboy. And partly the bellboy’s just overwhelmed by the task she’s giving him: “Free from any sign that I was ever in there.” This is not going to be a quick housecleaning job—making her suite no longer look like the room of a hotel prostitute. Sensing the bellboy’s shock and reluctance to fulfill her request, she hands him another large bill and says, “I don’t need that suite anymore, but I will pay for the room so the preacher can stay there.”

The bellboy leaves with the preacher’s suitcase, flagging down fellow staff on his way through the hall, clearly concerned that he’s going to need a lot of extra help to make the suite ready.

With this, the woman turns her attention back to the preacher himself. The preacher has been on his feet all day, all week, and now here no one had offered him a real chance to rest his feet. His feet are blistered, bruised, worn, and cracked. She guides him back to his chair, although she pulls it out a bit, giving him more space to relax his body. She puts his feet up on another chair.

She’s always carried a small bag with her, a little larger than a purse that has some essentials in it—in case she is called to another guest room. From her bag, she pulls a bottle of massage oil. It’s expensive, luxurious massage oil, and she doesn’t keep a drop. She pours it on his feet, lavishly covering his feet with the sweet, relaxing oil. She rubs his feet, working against the pains, bruises, and sores of a traveler.

Now no one is surprised to see the woman in the room. The Theology Club prides itself on the fact that there’s always a little group of followers that crowd around them, standing around the walls, trying to glean some wisdom from their deeply theological conversations. They all know this woman; they know she worked the hotel; they know what she did. They thought of her like any other staff that came through the room—she is below them, fooling herself into thinking that she would ever qualify to truly be part of the club or even know what they were talking about. They don’t even look at her, although you have to wonder whether some of them don’t look at her for fear that the others might catch on that they had secretly utilized her services on occasion.

As the woman massages the preacher’s feet, many of the men in the room get the wrong idea about her intentions. However, the woman isn’t making any sexual advances on the traveling preacher—perhaps that is even a surprise to the woman herself. Instead, she simply saw a man who hadn’t been invited to use the hotel spa. The Theology Club men glow with rosy complexions, the scent of massage oil on their bodies, as they had just hours prior taken advantage of the hotel’s spa for some special treatment of their own. The host, Mr. Simon, gave no thought to offering such a gift to this tired traveling preacher, so this woman became the hostess. She offers him comfort for his sore feet, a gracious courtesy offered to a man who offers a message from God that is gracious on a much, much larger scale. It is the very least she can do.

As she massages the preacher’s feet, ignoring the stares of the Theology Club, she finds that she is crying. Not just a few tears, but a sudden flow of tears so strong and constant that the warm drops are mixing with the massage oil on the preacher’s feet. She is overwhelmed by knowing that the preacher has offered her the only hope she has ever really needed: to be redeemed, to be freed, to be lifted out of the filth of her life.

You know how if and when you get to meet a hero of yours, especially if that person happens to be famous and removed from you, all that you can seem to manage to say is a lame sentiment like “thank you for everything” or “you’ve meant so much to me.” Well, this woman has tears pouring from her eyes, because she’s getting to go beyond some lame platitude. She’s actually returning thanks, doing something for this preacher, doing something to truly show her love, joy, thankfulness, and praise.

She takes off her outer shawl, the shawl that she always wore around the hotel lobby since it covered her skimpy dress. She begins wiping the preacher’s feet with the shawl, drying them and rubbing in the remaining oil and tears.

Again, the men in the room shuffle uncomfortably in their seats, clearing their throats indignantly, turning away in disgust, but they don’t understand that what looks like an immodest action is simply the woman’s devotion to the man who had spoken God’s truth to her. Never before had removing her shawl meant anything but a come-on, a solicitation, a following through on a business transaction, but that is the farthest thing from her mind now. She simply takes the closest thing at hand in order to dry the preacher’s feet. She is only thinking about being the preacher’s servant, a servant to the Lord.

Looking at Mr. Simon’s face, it wouldn’t take too much to guess what he’s thinking, although the traveling preacher’s God-given intuition helps him to know exactly what Mr. Simon is thinking: “If this man was really a preacher sent from the Lord, he would know who is massaging his feet and what kind of woman she is—a filthy prostitute.”

Once the preacher senses this, it is a wonder that he stays there at all. Having received such a rude welcome from the Theology Club, which really wasn’t a welcome at all, some people might leave—find a way to excuse themselves rather than be subject to such rudeness. Other people may just expect that a preacher who has a heart for the Lord would simply humble himself, show love rather than anger, and swallow this bitter pill—even going as far as rejecting the woman’s foot massage so that he wouldn’t offend his host. The traveling preacher in our story, though, does what most of us wouldn’t dare do: directly confronts the rude behavior of his host: “Mr. Simon, I have something to tell you.”

Mr. Simon says, “Yes, teacher, what is it?” Perhaps the preacher doesn’t see it, although you can hear it in Mr. Simon’s voice, that as he says “teacher” he rolls his eyes, producing quite a few smirks around the Theology Club.

The preacher has his eyes and attention back on the woman at his feet—even while still speaking to Mr. Simon: “Do you see this woman? I entered your meeting room, your Theology Club, and you gave me no rest for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her shawl. You gave me no welcome or courtesy, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to make me feel welcome. You did not offer me time in the hotel spa, but she has massaged my feet with her expensive oil. I tell you, this woman knows her many sins are forgiven, so she showed great love. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.”

Still looking at the woman, the traveling preacher says, “Your sins are forgiven.”

The Theology Club begins to mutter loudly, “Who does this guy think he is forgiving the sins of this woman, this filthy piece of trash?”

That’s about all of the story that I know. It seems the Theology Club fails to see the true message of the Gospel.

Maybe in the end Mr. Simon thinks: “I am just as much a sinner as this woman.” Maybe he realizes that he can’t be forgiven if he never admits his sinfulness, but whether or not Mr. Simon is thinking this, the preacher seems much more concerned about the woman and what she’s thinking. You can tell by the way he repeats his words of comfort to the woman, saying again, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” The preacher hopes to see the woman restored to the community of faith.

Maybe the woman long ago was kicked out of a congregation led by one of the Theology Club pastors. The traveling preacher is encouraging the Theology Club and that church to restore this woman, to see her as a forgiven sinner welcomed back into God’s family.

That’s really the heart of the preacher’s message, the heart of the Gospel: restoring sinners. That’s the beauty of this offensive story—there’s restoration for sinners through the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

“Your sins are forgiven; go in peace.”

And even if the Theology Club and their churches never restore the woman, the traveling preacher is giving her permission to ignore them. If they won’t see her as a forgiven child of God, they are wrong. The traveling preacher still sends the woman in peace. She can still see herself as whole, redeemed, clean, holy, and fully a member of the Kingdom of God.

If that’s offensive, then I choose to be offensive.

Cultural Keys to Luke (Part 1) Handout
You can view the research and background information that goes into this sermon by clicking here.

Commentary on the creation of this sermon can be found by clicking here.