A Beautiful Mess

Luke 7:36 – 50
May 24, 2020
Matt Goodale

You can watch a recording of the sermon here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zTpStnBBp4w&t

Today’s scripture is from Luke 7:36-50:

36 One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at table. 37 And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, 38 and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” 40 And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.”

41 “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 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 wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” 48 And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

In our text today, we witness a dinner party that turned real awkward, real fast. Jesus was invited over to the house of Simon, a prominent teacher of the Jewish law. Simon was playing the role of good host, a very important role in Jewish society. When someone like Jesus, whose reputation was growing like wildfire across Judea, came through your town, it was often the prominent leaders in the community who were looked to in order to host a very fine representation of one’s town. Simon’s job was to impress Jesus, not only for his own honor, but for the honor of his whole town.

We can imagine Simon’s delight at Jesus accepting the invitation to come to his house for dinner. Word of this man, Jesus, had spread quickly, and many suggested that he was a prophet, a man sent directly from God. Others wondered if he was in fact the Messiah Israel had been waiting for. We can imagine Simon rounding up all the most important people in town to join for dinner. Everything had to be perfect. We can imagine him passing out tasks to servants, emphasizing that everything had to be just right for God’s prophet. Food was prepared, cakes were baked, wine uncorked, reclining pillows puffed up for ideal use. The house would be cleaned spotless. There’s no way that God’s prophet would be disappointed by such a hospitable and polished dinner party.

And of course, everything and everyone at the dinner party would be ritually clean. That went without saying. Nobody who had come into contact with death, bodily fluids or sin would be allowed in. God’s prophet would surely be pleased to see everything clean and up to ritual standard.

And then the moment of the dinner party arrives. Jesus comes, is greeted and shown a seat of honor at the table. All of the town’s religious elite and other people of importance are in attendance. We can imagine Simon smiling to himself at a job well done, a party well prepared and curated. Everything and everyone is in their place. The party is neat, immaculately clean and in good order; this is such a place that one can imagine God’s representative feeling at home. This is truly the type of place one could hope to encounter God and hear a life-changing word from God’s prophet.

But then, much to Simon’s chagrin, the unthinkable and the unplanned-for happens. A woman of the city –a derogatory term for someone who was without doubt a sinner and ritually unclean—wanders into the dinner party, uninvited and unclean. Only one verse in Luke’s account is spent describing Simon’s party before the woman arrives. And verses 37 through 50 are dedicated to describing the beautiful mess that ensues.

The woman wanders over to Jesus who is reclining at the table. She kneels at his feet and begins to weep over them, letting her tears fall onto his calloused and dirt-worn toes. Then bending over further she wipes his feet dry with her hair. She tenderly kisses his feet and then breaks open the alabaster jar of perfume she has come in with, anointing him.

To put it bluntly, this party has gone from polished spectacle to disastrous mess in a matter of moments. There’s an unclean woman on the ground, crying, wiping the prophet’s feet with her own hair. There’s broken shards of alabaster jar all over the place. We can imagine everyone staring in disbelief at what is unfolding. Jesus, supposedly God’s special prophet, has let this sinful, unclean woman touch him, making him unclean as well! The man for whom the party was thrown will have to be asked to leave because nobody is allowed to share a meal with someone who is unclean. The dinner party is ruined, Jesus’s authority is now in question, there’s still an unclean woman kneeling on the floor who won’t leave. What. A. Mess!

But if we have learned one thing from scripture’s stories and life’s experience, we know that God’s work is most marvelous in the midst of mess. We know that God’s redemption is most noticeable in broken places. We know that God’s forgiveness is only known after we’ve screwed up. We know that God is in fact more present in the belly of the whale than the exotic heights of Tarshish. We know that God meets us not in our perfection, but in our sin, our mess. We know that God is very experienced at taking the mess of life – ordinary, disastrous, ugly mess – and transforming it into something beautiful and redeemed.

When I was in high school I participated in my church youth group’s annual event, Crud Wars. The event was exactly like it sounds, and more. Fifty to sixty of us high schoolers were split into four teams and competed in outrageously ridiculous events on our church’s back lawn. The whole lawn, an area of about 100 by 150 feet was covered with tarps and dish soap to create a giant slip n slide. The teams competed in different challenges while slipping all over and getting soaked in water and bubbles. But the main event was the highlight of the whole night. The Crud War. Each team was given giant bins of flour, shaving cream, water balloons, and my personal favorite, wet dog food. The only directions we were given was “go”. More than fifty of us collided on the giant slip n slide surface with handfuls of shaving cream, ready to smear on the nearest face we could find. The entire field quickly became encased in the thick smog of flour. The smell of dogfood was quite strong and every few seconds you’d get smacked in the back of the head by a water balloon.

It was a beautiful mess. Friendships were formed and strengthened on the crud field. There’s something about smearing wet dog food in someone else’s hair that can be a very bonding experience. God was present in the joy, the laughter, the smiles, the new relationships, and by the end of it all, some of us had encountered God in a new way. We learned through practice rather than teaching, that God is not only present in the solemn church services, the tall-steepled church buildings; we learned that God does not only speak to us through scripture or through silent and isolated prayer. We learned that God can indeed meet us anywhere. Even on the crud field. I do not know whether this was my youth leader’s intention or if it was just meant to be a fun event, but I remember coming away from that experience with a greater sense of where God can meet me.

The unnamed woman in our story encounters Jesus in the mess of her life. She does not clean herself up before entering into God’s presence, like most of us attempt to do. She comes as she is: tears, broken past and all. It seems that someone forgot to tell her that God can only meet you when you’re ritually clean and spiritually righteous. Someone forgot to mention that God can only be encountered at the temple, a holy place set apart; she doesn’t seem to know that God cannot be present at something as ordinary as a dinner party. Someone forgot to let this poor woman know that God prefers to associate with the godly and the righteous, not sinners like her. This unnamed woman, seemingly oblivious to social and religious customs, wanders into God’s presence. She finds herself forgiven, loved and embraced by Jesus.

Simon, on the other hand, finds himself blind to God’s presence in his very midst. He thinks to himself: “There’s no way this Jesus could be of God, because God doesn’t touch sinners. God wouldn’t get involved in a messy situation like this, with a woman like that.” You see, Simon made the mistake that all of us make from time to time. Simon presumed to know where and under which circumstances an encounter with God could take place. At the Temple? Absolutely. In the synagogues? Of course. Only while being ritually pure? That goes without saying. Simon knew where and how to find God, but he did not realize that God had in fact found him, in the ordinary mess of life.

Like Simon, many of us think we know where and under which circumstances we can find God. In church? Absolutely. While reading the Bible? Of course. During prayer? That goes without saying. We know where and how to find God, but do not realize that God in fact finds us, in the ordinary mess of life. God meets us in the mess of what it means to be human. To be human is to look at yourself in the mirror and not always like what you see; to be human is to wonder what your purpose in life is; to be human is to mourn the slow loss of function in your body as you age; to be human is to grieve death and tragedy and to cry out, “Why God?”; to be human is to experience the heartache of broken relationships; to be human is to be loved and redeemed by God.

If we believe that the word became flesh, that God decided to put on a body and move into the neighborhood, then that changes everything about what it means to be human. All of the sudden, we worship a God who is not like any of the other gods. The other gods remained aloof from humanity, they could only be met in temples and had to be appeased with sacrifices. But when Jesus showed up, we realized the good news that our God does not wish to remain aloof from us. Our God wants to become like us, to walk among us, to know what it is to be human; our God wants to encounter us, not in the temple or at the altar, but in the midst of being human. Like Simon, we try most of our life to fix, earn and build our way up to heaven; but instead, God has brought heaven down to us. We cannot manufacture God’s presence. We can only stumble into it.

To be human is to know the mess that is life. Things go wrong, the unexpected happens. This is the reality we’re all living in right now. Life is a mess for most of us in the shadow of COVID-19. We are living in isolation from friends and loved ones. Our routines and habits are interrupted. For many of us there’s a constant feeling of anxiety as we’re reminded that the future is uncertain. We don’t know when life can go back to “normal”. We don’t know when we can gather safely again in the comfort of our sanctuary.

We look around at the rest of our nation and the world, and it is a mess. Like Simon, nobody was prepared for this to happen. And yet, God is here to meet us. God is right in the middle of the mess, redeeming, loving and healing, usually through ordinary people. Most of us don’t expect to see God in the mess, so like Simon, we don’t look. But if the cross is any indication, we know that where there is suffering, God will be there; where there is chaos and mess, God is already long at work redeeming.

We hear beautiful stories that have risen from the ashes of COVID-19. A seven year old girl who buys groceries for the elderly in her neighborhood every weekend. Healthcare workers who take risks every day they come in to care for their patients. We see people building sinks so that those who are homeless can wash their hands. Every time I see someone with a mask on in public I think to myself, “Thank you,” because we all know how uncomfortable those masks can be, and yet each time someone decides to wear one, it is an act of love. Though we still hear stories of division, never before have we seen such a cause that has united people across class, race, nationality, as we all seek to do what we can to take care of our communities. Even though a service can’t be held at this time for Mariann Donley, last weekend she was honored by probably 40+ households who all drove by the Donley home in an act of remembrance, solidarity and love.

Yes, life is a mess right now. Yes, most days it is ugly, gray and bleak. And yes, God is especially present in the midst of it all.

Jesus tells Simon a parable about two debtors who were both forgiven large debts by a moneylender. “Which debtor will love the moneylender more?” Jesus asks. “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt,” Simon responds. “You have judged rightly,” says Jesus, “for the one who is forgiven much also loves much. But the one who is forgiven little, loves little.” In other words, mess is a prerequisite for love. Because it is in the mess of our life that we encounter God’s healing and forgiving touch. The unnamed woman encounters Jesus, because she comes as she is, mess and all. We are called to do the same.

I must admit that I am suspicious of churches whose building are too polished, whose Sunday services are perfectly curated, whose programs are meticulously manicured. I don’t doubt that they do a lot of good work, but I am suspicious because I wonder what message is being sent to the churchgoers who come in those doors for an hour or so and then go back to their ordinary life. I worry that it is too easy to feel that you are in God’s presence when enclosed in a gorgeous building, surrounded by well-manicured people, while worshipping to a concert-level production and enjoying a meticulously produced service. I worry, because if that’s the type of environment you’ve been told you can encounter God, then where will you look for God when you walk out those doors and go back to your “normal” life? You will probably look for God in the beautiful, the put-together parts of your life.

I believe church should accurately reflect real life. Real life is messy. And if there’s one thing that can be said about our church and most every church right now, it’s that they’re messy. We are no longer able to worship together the way we wish we could. This isn’t what we planned for. And yet, we don’t need a church building to encounter God. We don’t need well put-together services or rehearsed choir music. All we need is breath in our lungs and the readiness to stumble into God’s presence anywhere, anytime. Starting next week we’re beginning a new series on encountering God in the ordinary, messy and mundane parts of life. We often miss God in the messy and ordinary parts of life because like Simon, for too long we have been taught that God’s presence is manufactured or entered into. Read this book, say this prayer, go worship in this building. But we worship a God who has come to meet us. And this God meets us where we most need him—in the messy, the difficult, the real parts of life.

Life is a mess right now. We all know it, we all see it. But the question remains: how will we respond to the mess? Will we keep waiting for life to go back to normal to find meaning, beauty, and God? Or, like the unnamed woman who encountered Jesus in the mess of her life, will we choose to embrace the mess, with our eyes wide open for God’s fingerprints all over? We don’t need a church building to stumble into God’s presence. God meets us where we are. Friends, this is good news indeed. Let us endure quarantine together in one spirit, eager to find the next unexpected place we will stumble into God’s presence. Amen.