FIRST UNITED METHODIST CHURCH OF PALO ALTO
June 10, 2007
I’m intrigued by the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, repeatedly kissed his feet and then anointed them. Outlandish? Overly demonstrative?
Now, Simon, the host, I can understand. He was a, cautious, conservative, reserved, proud, respected Pharisee who probably felt he was doing Jesus a favor by entertaining him in his home. But, he certainly failed as a host. It was the custom to wash the feet of guests, or have a servant wash them. The streets weren’t paved. Guests walked, sometimes long distances. Can you imagine how relaxing it would feel to have your sore, hot, dusty feet washed and soothed with ointment. But, there was no foot washing in Simon’s house. And, he was shocked when Jesus allowed this sinful woman to touch him. “Surely” Simon thought, “he knows who and what kind of woman this is!”
Jesus put Simon in his place in short order, pointing out his shortcomings as a host, and praising the woman for her outlandish kindness. Simon is reprimanded, the woman is praised. Jesus praised her for her lavish demonstration of love, and forgave her sins, which were many. Notice she didn’t ask to be forgiven. Her forgiveness was a gift. Jesus said to Simon, “Her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Ouch! Take that, Simon. You who think you are so important do not realize how pitiful you are. You who think you are self-sufficient do not realize how spiritually impoverished you are.
I’m intrigued by the woman. We first see her standing behind Jesus at his feet, weeping. Remember, now, they weren’t sitting on chairs. When he painted The Last Supper, DaVinci evidently didn’t know how they dined in Jesus’ day. Evidently DaVinci thought Jesus said, “Hey, guys, if you want to get in the picture, get on this side of the table!” No, they didn’t sit on chairs. Nor did they sit on the floor. They reclined at the table, leaning on one arm, with their feet outstretched.
The woman stood behind Jesus at his feet, weeping. (I also wonder how she got into Simon’s house. If she were a woman of the streets, how did she get in? Was she a regular visitor of Simon? But, let’s not go there.)
She wept. I wonder why. Why was she weeping? Did she feel badly because no one had washed and anointed Jesus’ feet? Was she embarrassed by the lack of hospitality? Did she see a need, and decide to fill it? Evidently, she was prepared. She had brought with her an alabaster jar of ointment.
I suspect there was more to it than that. I suspect her tears were the result of being in the actual presence of the Lord? She probably could not believe it! Here she is--a woman of the street, a woman shunned by other women, a woman who respectable people ostracized, a sinner. Here she is, standing behind Jesus. Overwhelmed, filled with awe, struck with the incredulity of the moment, she wept. Did she also weep out of remorse, sorry for her life, ashamed of how she had to live in order to survive? How unworthy she must have felt to be in the presence of Jesus.
This unnamed woman, her response and her actions serve as a model for Christian worship and service.
When we enter the presence of God, when we sense the mystery, grandeur, and holiness of God, our response is to weep. The woman teaches us to weep in the presence of God. I recall giving a Minnesota couple a tour of our church several years ago. I didn’t bring visitors into the sanctuary through the convenient side doors. I made them walk outside, through the patio, through the narthex and then into the sanctuary. The woman from Minneapolis wept. She was awestruck and whispered, “How magnificent!” Other visitors would say, “How nice. Where’s the coffee?” But, she wept. I’m afraid most of us have been in this room so often we take it for granted. And, on Sundays, we’re late, rushed, busy, our minds filled with myriads of thoughts, none of them on God, and we miss the sense of awe. The Minneapolis visitor entered the presence of God, and she wept. What if she had heard the organ and choirs!
I suggest to you that our response when we enter the sanctuary, or a time of prayer is to weep. Oh, I don’t mean literal tears necessarily; but my profound religious experiences have included tears, sometimes wet eyes, but sometimes intense weeping. Several weeks ago, I talked to a woman who is going through a very difficult time. She goes to church and weeps. She was embarrassed until her pastor told her, “If we aren’t free to cry in church, where can we weep?” Weeping is cleansing. Weeping is healing. Weeping is a blessing from God. Weeping, not necessarily literal tears, is an attitude of humility, vulnerability, and dependence on God.
Next Sunday when you come to church, and whenever you begin a time of prayer at home or wherever, begin with weeping. By that I mean, recall how blessed you are, how God has lavished heaps of blessings on you. Call to mind how you have not done what you should have done, how you have done what you shouldn’t have done, and how you have failed to do what you set out to do. Confess. Weep.
Yesterday, one of our church’s young women was married. Her family moved here when she was five years old. Marjorie Sweet grew up in this church. She loves this church and considers you part of her family. She recalls that when she was little, she would not go home until she had her hug from Doug. Yesterday, we wept, we wept tears of joy, basking in the beauty of God’s love. This morning we baptized Adam Noke and Jeremiah Fung, and we weep tears of joy and gratitude to God for the precious gift of life. Today we celebrate the golden wedding anniversary of Allen and Mary Lu Wood. Fifty years! And we weep tears of joy and thanksgiving to God for their example, their witness. In three weeks, we will celebrate the life of one of the grand ladies of our church, Gracia Smith, and we weep. Yes, church is where we weep tears of sorrow and grief; church is where we weep tears of joy; church is where we weep tears of remorse and contrition.
When Isaiah had a vision of the Lord’s grandeur, mystery and splendor, how the whole earth is full of God’s glory, his reaction was to contrast the holiness of God and the human condition. And he wept, (Isaiah 6.5), “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.”
When the news first came of the Virginia Tech massacre, I wept. Our nation wept. Americans caught a glimpse of what the Iraqis live with every day—senseless, brutal, demented killings of innocent people. Woe is us! We are lost. We are a people of unclean lips.
But, the woman did not stop with her tears. Nor did Isaiah. He was mystified, he couldn’t believe what he was experiencing, and again he must have wept when he whispered in disbelief, “Yet, yet my eyes have seen the King.” Yet, in spite of what the woman was, in spite of what she had done, she saw Jesus. Yet, in spite of the horrors of terrorism and wanton killing, in spite of war and its uninhibited violence, yet we can see God. We can experience the presence of God even in the midst of sin and evil.
She wept, but she didn’t stop there. Her tears moved her to action. She fulfilled a need. Jesus’ feet were dusty. She tenderly washed his feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, kissed them and rubbed them with ointment.
Our country has schools to educate; cities to provide protection, streets, water; engineers to improve technology; agriculture to provide food, etc. What is the role of the church? What does the church provide? The church’s role is to weep, to intercede with God on behalf of a suffering, troubled world, and to call the nation to weep. “Oh, God of creation, who gave us a planet of plenty, who made us to love and live in peace and harmony, what have we done! Woe is us.”
However, weeping does not mean hand wringing. Weeping means remorse, contrition, repentance, cleansing, and true weeping leads to action. Serve. Wash and anoint the Lord’s feet. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, love and protect the children, fight for justice, make peace.
Our church wept when the Ramirez family was threatened. The parents were deported because they were illegal immigrants, but their children were being forced to stay here. Our church turned tears into action, raised awareness and money so the children could accompany their parents. The family remains intact.
The senior high youth group at Paradise Valley United Methodist Church, the church we attend in Arizona, wept over the plight of the homeless. They turned their tears into action. One Saturday a month they prepare sack lunches and then distribute them at a homeless shelter. They went further and developed a mission they call Open Table. So far they have helped a single man and a single woman with a young son get training, jobs and homes of their own. One of the youth, Victor Ferreira, said, “It’s great to work with the homeless. Seeing the joy and hope on their faces when we tell them that we are going to help them is amazing…Our work shows me that most homeless people want to and do work hard; they simply do not have the resources or knowledge. Open Table clears these obstacles and brings hope to the homeless.” Open Table is now spreading throughout United Methodist churches in the Phoenix area.
She wept. She met Jesus and she wept. She experienced the forgiving, loving presence of God, and she wept, turning her tears into action. Sisters and brothers, do you weep?