Entertaining Angels

Hebrews 13:1-3, 20-21
David A. Davis
August 28, 2022
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“Let mutual love continue”.  If one likes to drop in a Greek word, then it reads “Let philadelphia continue”. Mutual love. Hospitality to strangers. Remembering those in prison and those who are being tortured. And then a benediction. “May the God of peace who brought back from the dead the Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, make you complete in everything good so that you may do God’s will, working among us, that which is pleasing in God’s sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever.” From mutual love, welcoming strangers, and remembering those in prison to a soaring, theologically jam-packed benediction that concludes the entire letter.  And in between, in between here in the 13th chapter, after mutual love, hospitality, and remembering those in prison and those being tortured, the writer tags faithfulness in marriage, warns of the love of money, quotes a psalm, proclaims Jesus as the same yesterday, today, and forever, points out that the heart is strengthened by grace not dietary regulations, brings up again (as in the rest of the letter) Jesus and his sacrifice, calls for the congregation’s sacrifice of praise, reminds them to good and share what they have, encourages them to pay attention to their leaders and asks for prayer. Mutual love and a memorable benediction and in between a little bit of everything. In between, a whole lot about life.

Several scholars describe the Book of Hebrews as less like a letter and more like a sermon. Throughout the sermon, the preacher defines, identifies Jesus as the Great High Priest. “Since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession.” The sermon explores the suffering of Jesus and his sacrifice. The Great High Priest sacrificing himself by the shedding of his blood. The sermon concludes with some chapters familiar to many. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” And “therefore since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witness, let us also aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” And the congregation rises to their feet with shouts of amen and amen. Then the last part of the sermon, the end of the sermon, the last chapter of the Book of Hebrews, chapter 13. From mutual love to the benediction with lots of life in between.

One biblical commentator makes the argument that the sermon ends with chapter 12. The last verse of chapter 12 is a great line to end the sermon. “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire.” Whew. The sermon ends there and the scholar suggests that chapter 13 is more like the announcements in worship. Announcements about church life; the hospitality committee, the refugee resettlement committee, the mass incarceration task force, the stewardship committee, the bible study, adult education, the prayer chain.

The scholar writing that commentary published in the late 1990’s was a seminary professor and mentor of mine. So with all due respect, any preacher who is a pastor in 2022 knows that chapter 13 in the Book of Hebrews was very much a part of the sermon and that’s exactly when that first century preacher started to get into trouble with some in the congregation. After the rousing riff on Jesus the pioneer and perfector of the faith with the congregation no doubt with heads nodding, hearts moved, some shouts of amen, after that oratorical/theological flourish, comes the stuff about faith and life, about discipleship, about how this thesis with such profound Christology, Jesus the Great High Priest and his atoning sacrifice, how all that ought to make a difference in how one lives life. Yeah, that’s when the preacher got in trouble, sometime, somewhere, from someone. It’s a veritable buffet of low hanging fruit for the sermon listener who only wants to be made comfortable: hospitality to strangers, caring for those in prison, talking about torture, and marriage, the marriage bed to be exact. Oh, and money too. Chapter 13, that’s when some would say the preacher in Hebrews starts meddling.

Love one another instead of chewing each other up about health and safety protocols. Advocate for refugees, for asylum seekers, and work against family separation of immigrants at the border. Speak against for-profit prisons, and cash bail, and the state of Oklahoma striving to lead the country in execution by lethal injection and affirm that torture is a moral issue. Say something about being faithful and respectful in relationships and affirm marriage equality for all people. Remind people that a check book or a bank statement or the asset allocation of an endowment is a faith statement of sorts. Warn against strange teachings that twist the gospel and shape it toward prosperity, or to holding onto power and privilege, or seizing a judicial authority to control a woman’s reproductive health care or claiming some kind of frightening, ungospel-like Christian nationalism. Say all of that or just some of that and then end the sermon with a compelling call to lead a life, an everyday life, a work life, a home life, a school life, that reflects the will of God and is pleasing in God’s sight through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Yeah, there had to have been something in Hebrews, chapter 13 that got the preacher in trouble somewhere, sometime, with someone.

Frederick Buechner, the short story writer, theologian, novelist, essayist, observer of faith and life died last week. People who crave reflection and ponder the ways of God and who enjoy a fresh image and yearn to see the holiness of the ordinary have lost an important, generational voice. I used a well-known Buechner quote in a wedding homily last weekend. It is a quote about vocation. Vocation, according to Buechner, is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet. I went the shelf this week to look up the quote in context. It is from his book “Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC” published in 1973.

Vocation: it comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a person is called to by God.

There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of Society, say, or the Super-ego, or Self-Interest.

By and large a good rule for finding out is this. The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. If you really get a kick out of your work, you’ve presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing TV deodorant commercials, the chances are you’ve missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you’re bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren’t helping your patients much either.

Neither the hair shirt nor the soft berth will do. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.

Of course, one assumes Buechner is referring to vocation with a capital V as in one’s life work, life calling. His thought, however, maybe better applied to the Christian life, the life of discipleship, our life in Christ.. In that way, it’s not just a definition of an often used term, it is an exhortation and an invitation. Yes, it is a call. To live a life in and with and following Jesus Christ, and finding a deep gladness, indeed a joy, in meeting the world’s need with the faithfulness and ordinariness of your everyday life.

Hebrews, the 13th chapter. Mutual love and a memorable benediction and in between a little bit of everything. In between, a whole lot about life and faith. Yes, I still think the preacher got in trouble at some point. But the exhortation to the congregation was, is,  to live everyday life in response to the call of God. Remembering, that on any given day, somewhere, sometime and with someone, you may just be entertaining angels.

Practicing Faith

Isaiah 58:9b-14
Len Scales
August 21, 2022
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Yesterday was the 30th annual Loaves & Fishes for Nassau! This beloved summer event, serving meals at Saint Mary’s Cathedral in Trenton, is one way Nassau offers “food to the hungry.” It is led by expert congregation members! They know the best way to assemble a peanut butter sandwich and can exactly calculate how many meatloaves, brownies, butter pats, and water bottles are needed to serve our neighbors.

When people are dropping off supplies, I love hearing about how Madelyn was the brownie maker and that Agnes’ grandsons and their friends packed lunches including the final touch of a paper butterfly on the bag. I love seeing families and friends show up to serve meals, JB and sons joking with the guests, seasoned and new kitchen crew churning out the potatoes and gravy. Loaves and Fishes is an event that takes everyone’s generosity to pull it off.

AND as important as this late August tradition is, Nassau is aware there is more to following Isaiah’s direction to “offer food for the hungry.” It is why Nassau helped found and continues to support Arm in Arm, with its food pantries and mobile delivery that are reaching new numbers of neighbors each year. It is why we come together every month to donate to the hunger offering. Several of our partner organizations provide food and work toward food security for all.

Because we know “offering food to the hungry” encompasses more than today’s lunch, there is also systemic work to be done. To ask why is food access different for different people? How can we help repair and rebuild infrastructures to satisfy the needs of the afflicted?

It is why Nassau is partnering with Westminster on a micro loan program in Trenton, particularly inviting people previously incarcerated to seek support for their business endeavors. It is why Nassau’s leadership is working with our Antiracism Team engaging a series of webinars and conversations to build our capacity and expand our imagination for racial justice. It is why some people work toward legislation that will help provide what people need.

Each of these on ramps, as well as others, to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly” is important. We each can engage from where we are to help our community.

Whichever onramp we personally take to offer food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, it is ongoing work. It is a practice of faith, to serve our neighbors and steward what God has given us.

Loving our neighbors is a way of being, and is something Crossroads Antiracism Training & Organizing stresses. The webinar series the leadership of Nassau is engaging in is called “The Challenge of Antiracism” and part of the challenge is that justice is something we have to undertake and practice without any end date.

Consider what practice does for someone learning an instrument or another language. It takes dedicated repetition, willingness to learn from mistakes, and often coaching or some form of accountability to really improve, gain new skills, and grow.

It only makes sense from this passage in Isaiah — to “offer food to the hungry,” “satisfy the needs of the afflicted,” “repair the breaches,” and to “restore the streets to live in”—these are large endeavors, not simple tasks. It’s something we work at over and over, from many different avenues and angles.

The task of caring for ALL our neighbors and creation itself, can seem like a daunting one that is out of reach. It can be hard to stay motivated to continue practicing faith. Challenges come and priorities shift and it can seem impossible to maintain the way of being that helps bend the moral arc toward justice.

At those times, God reminds us in this passage of Isaiah that our work can really make an impact.

The prophet Isaiah has seen God’s people struggling throughout the previous 57 chapters. They have been in parched places, experienced oppression and exile. So it is extra beautiful to reach these images in chapter 58 of the people becoming like a well-watered garden when they care for one another. It is a relief to hear that flourishing is possible. Earlier in this chapter there is conflict of what kind of practice God calls people to take up, and our passage responds it is practices that actually result in restoration. We find it is not “religious busyness” and personal piety, but rather a caring for the entire community.[1] This neighbor love is what will help heal “a society in disarray” and that is what is honoring to God.[2]

God also provides us perspective that the task is greater than any one person can accomplish, but it is something we can collectively work toward.

The story of Jesus feeding thousands shows up in all four gospels, but the version in John (that we heard earlier in the Time with Children) is my favorite, because generosity is first exhibited by a child. The young boy hasn’t been jaded enough by the world to withhold what he has for only himself. I wonder if the adults were motivated to give what they had after seeing a child offer five loaves and two fish for all five thousand of those gathered? Perhaps there was a small loaf of bread stowed at the bottom of their bag or another fish meant for the walk home. I wonder was the boy’s generosity multiplied as others added what they had to share as part of the distribution?

Like the feeding of the fiver thousand, it seems like it would be a miracle for us to be able to feed the hungry and repair all that is broken in our world, but we know the resources exist. God reminds us that it does matter that we share. We really can help one another and be inspired by one another.

It is that way with Loaves and Fishes, we see the regular volunteers who give two Saturdays a month to serve our neighbors and they help enable Nassau to come for our turn in August. We get to work alongside a young adult who is there because she enjoyed it so much when her church served at the end of the spring.

We can also look for motivating examples from others engaging systemically to help end poverty and care for all creation. One awe-inspiring example of people coming together across difference to care for their neighbors is the work Rev. Dr. William Barber mobilizes with the Poor People’s Campaign. For years, he and others have picked up Martin Luther King Jr’s vision and invite people in poverty to share their stories and unite for a better world. Barber calls this bringing together of people a moral fusion coalitions, because it is not people’s heritage, socio-economic standing, gender, or religion that gives them common ground, it is rather a moral commitment to the well-being of neighbor and creation. Millions of people have engaged with the call of the Poor People’s Campaign, in person and virtually, gathering together to work for the wellbeing of the 140 million people who are poor in our country.[3]

Barber helps everyone see they are not alone. All can practice generosity and care and exhibit agency. He upholds those voices who are in poverty as central, they are not pushed to the side because their resources are different.

When the road seems in need of restoration and the world in need of repair, let us remember that to offer food to the hungry to satisfy the needs of the afflicted is a practice we undertake together. It is a practice God joins us in, and reminds us that we can be called repairers of the breach and restorers of streets to live in. There is satisfaction, strength and flourishing to be had.

So whether it is the amazing mobilizing of William Barber, the five loaves and two fish of the young boy, or the generosity you see extended by the person next to you in the pew, may God renew us for the work ahead. Helping us practice faith in such a way that makes God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

We practice faith, and we strengthen our muscles, expand our capacity, make space for others to join us with their generosity that we may work with God in loving all of creation. We know that “offering food to the hungry” and “satisfying the needs of the afflicted” encompass all the different ways each of us can serve and love our neighbor with God and community alongside us. May we multiple the generosity among us and feel renewed in the well-watered gardens God promises.

[1] Texts for Preaching, Year A (Westminster John Knox, 1995) p.128

[2] Ibid, p.129

[3] https://www.poorpeoplescampaign.org/about/jubilee-platform/



When the Lord Reckons

Genesis 15:1-6
David A. Davis
August 7, 2022
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“And Abram believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” God reckoned it to him as righteousness. The Apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians quotes the verse from Genesis. “Just as Abraham ‘believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,’ so those who believe are the descendants of Abraham.” Paul also quotes the same verse in Romans. “We say, ‘faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness.’ How then was it reckoned to him?”  The Apostle Paul drops in both citations in his argument regarding the fundamental affirmation of salvation by grace through faith. “Now the words, ‘it was reckoned to him’, were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification’. Romans 4:24-25.  Reckoned to Abraham. Reckoned to us.

The language from Genesis is also quoted in the Book of James and in his argument that faith without works is dead. “Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the alter? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says ‘Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’ and he was called a friend of God.”  The Apostle Paul, the Book of James and the reckoning of God. “And Abram believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”  When it comes to the canon of scripture one has to conclude that this is all pretty important: Abraham, the Lord, and the reckoning of righteousness. The challenge for “those of us who believe”, the perplexity that arises when it comes to divine reckoning is that it’s not all that clear what it even means. The meaning of “reckoned it to him righteousness”, I reckon it’s just not all that obvious.

The etymology of the word “reckon” in Hebrew and in Greek and in English for that matter, has connotations of money, accounting, credit. “Abram believed the Lord; and the Lord credited it to him or counted it to him as righteousness.”  That’s how some other versions translate it. Such a transactional implication of the term does provide any sudden insight or shine a clear light on what it all means in terms of the Lord and Abraham, the future God has in store for Abraham and Sarah. God’s future for the people of God.

The call of Abraham and the promise of God begins a few chapters earlier in Genesis. “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”  In this morning’s text the Lord comes back to Abram to reiterate the promise in response to Abram’s reasonable concern that he and Sarai have no children and are very old. Because they had no children, Abram had steps to have Eliezer, a servant in the house, become his heir.  The Lord took exception to plan B. That’s when the Lord took Abram outside to look at the stars. “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them…so shall your descendants be.”

Who among us has not found themselves taken by the beauty of a clear night sky especially far from the ambient light of populated places: a visit to the beach at night, a rocky chair on a porch in the mountains, the youth group above the tree line on the trip a few weeks ago. You have to figure, however, that this was not Abram’s first time to look up at a desert night sky. Or even his first time to try to count the stars in the sky. Here is where many preachers and biblical commentators point to Abram having a Psalm 8 kind of experience. “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the starts that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”  A moment of awe and wonder and praise and adoration out under the vast canopy of the desert night sky certainly seems relatable, something with which you and I can identify in the life of faith. But a turn on a dime, no faith to all faith, no belief to full belief not just in the twinkling of an eye but in the twinkle of star, that all seems less convincing. That with a brief Moses and the burning bush-like exchange with God and a great photo-op of the night sky Abram went from 0 to 100 when it came to the promise of God just like that!

Which brings us back to when the Lord reckons.  When writing about this seminal passage in the Abraham and Sarah narrative, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann concludes that at the end of the day “the new reality of faith for Abraham must be accounted as miracle from God. The faith of Abraham should not be understood in romantic fashion as an achievement or as a moral decision.” In other words, Abraham’s belief is nothing other than a gift of God. Therefore, any righteousness attributed to, credited to, accounted to Abraham is likewise a gift of God. God doesn’t simply acknowledge the righteousness of Abraham in believing. God doesn’t simply give Abram a credit slip of righteousness because of his sudden faith. God bestows righteousness upon Abram just as God filled Abram with faith. And in the unfolding story of Abraham and Sarah, righteousness is not simply piety or even simply belief, according to Brueggemann. Righteousness, in the professor’s words, “means to trust God’s future and to live assured of that future even in the deathly present… Faith responds to an already given grace. This faith is not simply an embrace of the goodness which meets us in the world, but a reception of the goodness of God promised in spite of the way the world is. The faith of Abraham is not in anything he sees in the world, but in a word which will overcome the barrenness of the world.” Abraham’s faith did not come in a shining star it came from and with the promise of God.

Both belief and righteousness, belief and trust in God’s future for us and for the world, both are gifts of God. Miraculous gifts. When the Lord bestows that two-fold, two-part, double-stacked gift? Well, that is the Lord’s reckoning. Far beyond the dictionary meaning of the word or any connotation that the Lord rewarded some kind of decision of faith in Abraham with righteousness, “reckoning” means the unilateral movement of God to instill both belief and the trust in God’s future in the heart, soul, and mind of God’s children. The day of reckoning, then, is less about coming before God in final judgment and more about an experience of the renewed conviction that in Jesus Christ our best days are always yet to come. The Lord’s reckoning is far less than wrath and vengeance and much more the assurance that God’s future will indeed overcome the world’s death, barrenness, fear, and destruction that seems so relentless. Reckoning when it comes to God is way less than keeping score, living a life of credits and debits, balancing sin with piety and a lot more about the empowering, inspiring, encouraging grace of God that bestows and pairs belief and righteousness, faith and trust in the children of God who refuse to ever stop yearning for, praying for and working toward the world God intends.

Yes, at the end of the day looking at the beauty of a vast night sky in wonder and awe. But also looking at the world in all of its “fullness” with belief and trust that you and I and all the children of God and the real world we live in, we all still belong body and soul, in life and in death to the God we know in and through Jesus Christ. You, me and the future God has in store for us.  As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you shall proclaim the Lord’s death, until he comes again. Until. Until. God’s future and the forward-leaning sending out of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Until. Until.

The Rev. David McAlpin, a friend and colleague of Nassau Church and so many hear for many, many years, died on Friday surrounded by his four children in his apartment at Stonebridge. The time will come to celebrate David’s lifetime of service to the church, his generosity, and his legacy especially right here in our community. As I sat with David’s children in the hours before God brought him home, one of his daughters asked me to share a few of my own thoughts and memories of David. I shared some and the last one I mentioned is how David’s lifelong and unwavering commitment to social justice and racial reconciliation inspired me. No one spent more years or had a deeper commitment to or believed in the importance of the relationship of Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church and Nassau Presbyterian Church than David McAlpin. I told the family that I found encouragement and inspiration in his steadfast commitment to racial reconciliation especially when I tried to ponder the often subtle behind-the-scenes work he did in light of the 50s, the 60s, the 70’s, the 80s. the 90’s and the decades of this century.

They then told me something I didn’t know. That David attended the 1963 March on Washington with the pastor of Witherspoon at the time and he listened to Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream Speech” in person. One of his daughters once asked him to describe what it was like. He told her that Dr. King began in a very understated, subdued way. The crowd matched that spirit and tone in the beginning, and it felt almost somber and weighty. But as Dr. King got into the sermon and pick up the pace and the energy with all the oratorical flourish that most of us have only heard on recordings, David said it was like the entire crowd was lifted to another level in life and spirit, another place, another world. “It was right then and there,” he told his daughter, “that I knew my life would forever be committed to racial justice.”  It was like on that day in August of 1963, the Lord reckoned David McAlpin with a faith and a trust that enabled and inspired him to witness and to work for the next almost 60 years toward the future God intends for the world and for all God’ children.

Now I know what it means… “when the Lord reckons”.

Truly. Madly. Curious.

Luke 7:36 – 50 [i]
Lauren J. McFeaters
July 31, 2022
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In her book, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor tells a story about visiting a beautiful old church in Alabama. Having arrived for the service too early, she stands in front of the chancel, taking in a mural of Jesus emerging from his tomb. Though the painting was impressive, Taylor felt that something was off; Jesus looked strange; too waiflike. So after gazing at the mural a bit longer, she realized what was missing: Jesus the man, had no body hair. He was portrayed with the head of a man, but with the body of a boy.

It was curious.

Jesus was coming out of the Tomb having the arms and chest of a 6-year-old. A man’s head with no mature or developed body – as if the painter were embarrassed that Jesus was, well, a fully-grown man.

Taylor says, as Christians, we find ourselves in the curious position of being followers of the Word Made Flesh and yet we treat bodies with embarrassment and shame. Being followers of the Word Made Flesh, we bristle when sensuality and sexuality make themselves known. [ii]

Debie Thomas puts it this way:  No matter how hard we try to theologize or intellectualize it away, this story from Luke is naked making. It exposes. It confronts. It directs our gaze. It’s a story about the body. What the body is. What the body knows.

Feet. Tears. Salt. Perfume. Hair. Neck. Skin. Face. [iii]

And it’s curious.

Here we find a renegade backwater prophet wandering around Judea. Jesus has been sent to bring good news to the poor and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. He’s been casting out unclean spirits; curing people of diseases; healing on the Sabbath; walking beside paralytics.

Curious. And he’s picked up some followers – some ragtag vagabonds, some smelly fisherman, and some hated guys from the IRS. Women too. And he drinks and he eats with offenders; roves around like an itinerant schoolmaster and insists on people’s devotion to a Loving God.

And now it gets more curious: A VIP Religious Leader, invites the dusty Jesus to dinner. What better way to scope out this nomadic Jew, the One setting people’s teeth on edge.

What better way to scope out the new guy in town than to watch him over the rim of your wine glass. What better way to pin him down, as you dig into your Falafel, than to surround him with dozens of eyes and ears. Such a nice, pleasant meal.

Except it isn’t. Simon the Pharisee makes it pretty clear that this is not polite fellowship over a four-star leg of lamb. Simon has skipped some pretty basic social graces: no water for feet; no welcoming handshake, no hospitable kiss; no oil to tidy up the hair.

It’s as if Pharisee Simon is leaning against the doorway, his lip curling, and saying sarcastically “Jesus of Nazareth, it’s so nice to see you.” [iv]Welcome!” It’s reminiscent of a Tony Soprano smirking and saying, “Fuggeddaboutit Jesus … Come on in.”

And then the most curious of all:  A Woman. A Woman with an uncovered head. A Woman with long hair. A Woman with an uncovered head and long hair carrying a jar of ointment. A weeping Woman with an uncovered head and long hair carrying a jar of ointment.

What I want to know is how on earth did she manage to get into the house of a Pharisee? How exactly does she crash the dinner party? Somehow, she manages to get in the door, approach the table, and kneel quietly behind Jesus.

Can you imagine the reaction of the dinner guests as this Woman bends over Jesus and begins to sob, then soaks his feet with her tears, caresses them dry with her hair, repeatedly kissing his soles, his toes, and his ankles, and finally breaks open her alabaster jar to anoint his salty skin with perfume.

Try to fully imagine this. The uninvited Woman enters the dining room. Around the table, conversation falters, then comes to an uncomfortable end. She begins to cry. The temperature inside that room rises. Every man simultaneously reaches for his wine glass.

As the Woman wrapped Jesus’s feet in her strands of hair, where did the men around the table look? — or didn’t dare to look? And I wonder if Jesus — never one to make things easy — captures Simon’s gaze and holds it, extending the discomfort, forcing his host to imaginatively experience every searing kiss that grazed Jesus’ skin.[v]

When we study the New Testament, each Gospel tells about the Woman at the dinner party, and each time two things happen: 1) she anoints Jesus’s feet, and 2) someone is there to reprimand her.

Each and every time there’s the account of a dubious who dares to love Jesus in the flesh — to love his spirit and his body with her own. Each writer might frame the story differently, but each telling remains the most sensual, most scandalous in the New Testament.

You know historically, this woman who anoints Jesus is known as a prostitute. Also translated as temptress and siren.

Don’t get me started. Nowhere in scripture does it say she’s a prostitute. Nowhere. But I’m embarrassed to tell you our own Presbyterian Worship Planner subtitles this section of Luke, quote: “Responses of a Pharisee and a Harlot. I kid you not. Really? Truly? Is the “sin” of a woman perpetually carnal and eternally sexual?

Here’s what we do know:

“And a Woman in the city, who was a sinner,

having learned that Jesus

was eating in the Pharisee’s house,

brought an alabaster jar of ointment.”

Well that must be it. She’s from the city. She’s an urbanite. Therefore she must stand on the corner, whistle for customers, manage a transaction, and get to business. Really? Truly? Curious.

What we DO know is she says nothing and does plenty.

Unlike the other Gospels, we find here, her act of anointing does not point to Jesus’ future or foreshadow his death. Instead, in Luke, anointing is seen as an act of sheer hospitality, utter generosity, and total praise. What we do know is she is a generous person, kind, thoughtful, and in need of mercy.

In the context of sin and forgiveness, Jesus reveals,

“Those who are forgiven little, love little,

but those who are forgiven much, love lavishly.”

Simon’s love is thin and brittle. He doesn’t in any way recognize his need for mercy, so his welcome to Jesus is miserly.

The Woman, in contrast, knows full well the extent of her brokenness and her hope in the wide embrace of Jesus’ forgiveness, so her love for him is boundless.

Oh to have boundless love for our Lord. Imagine. To reach out to him through our shame and regret, our sorrow and remorse, our guilt and our yearning. To have Jesus receive us with gratitude and tenderness.

And that’s where our Lord gets us. He understands us.

He asks us,

“Do you see this Woman? Do you witness her?

Are you looking at her?”

It’s a lacerating question, because NO, we don’t see her. It would be too personal. Too sensual. We can’t imagine ourselves publicly kneeling before our Savior; sobbing, bathing him with our tears, cleansing him, offering him comfort. We don’t ever know her name.

But here she is in all her glory. Today, she’s our Rabbi. She sets herself as an offering before her Lord. Full of sin, she lays before him her gifts of vulnerability, generosity, and a capacity for love. She breaks into a dinner party and lays bare the truth of need:

  • the dusty feet in need of cool water,
  • the sunbaked skin in need of fragrant ointment,
  • the ever-sacrificing servant in need care,
  • the ever-healing Lord in need of healing touch.

It’s a Sacrament of sweat and salt; dust and tears;

A Sacrament signed and sealed,

through perfumed feet and ardent kisses.


And then to her, like the fresh breeze of a Benediction,

he says:

“Your sins are forgiven.”

“Your faith has saved you.”

“Go in Peace.”


And to all of us, as we kneel before him, a Benediction:


“Your sins are forgiven.”

“Your faith has saved you.”

“Go in Peace.”



[i] Luke 7: 36-50 NRSV: One of the Pharisees, named Simon asked Jesus to eat with him, and Jesus went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that Jesus was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind Jesus at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited Jesus, saw it, and he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is, who is touching him – that she is a sinner.” Jesus spoke up and said to the Pharisee, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “Speak.” “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, the creditor canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love the creditor more?” Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” And Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

[ii] Barbara Brown Taylor. An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. New York: HarperOne, 2010.

[iii] Debie Thomas. “What the Body Knows” June 5, 2016, www.journeywithjesus.net.

[iv] Emmy Kegler. “Well, this is awkward: a sermon on the foot washing sinner at Simon the Pharisee’s house.” Sunday, July 28, 2013, Emmykegler.blogspot.com.

[v] Debie Thomas.