Love’s Power Over Shame

A Sermon on Luke 7:36-8:3

My stop for the elementary school bus happened in the middle of the route.  All the kids in my neighborhood would walk to the end of our street, Columbia, where it intersected South River Rd. to wait for the bus.  On a chilly fall day I climbed the steps and took my seat near a friend, as the bus took off again.  Rather than continuing to the next street we’d turn on about a half mile down, the bus driver stopped short, and we riders swayed forward unexpectedly.

There was a new kid.

Photo Credit: tiahenriksen via Compfight cc

All pairs of eyes on that bus strained to see the new kid as he mounted the steps.  After getting a quick look at him, I leaned in to my friend and whispered, “He’s got a conehead.”  My friend guffawed.  It was the height of the late 70s, and Dan Ackroyd and Jane Curtin had been doing their sketch on Saturday Night Live.  Not that I’d ever seen it, I was tucked into bed long before the show.  But I had seen pictures and commercials, and the Coneheads were the talk of the school.

Almost immediately I regretted what I said.  His mom followed him on the bus, concerned, wanting to make sure she talked the bus driver.  With a longer observation, I noticed this new kid likely had developmental issues.  Yet by that time I heard my seat mate whispering not so quietly to some of the others around us, “Look at the conehead!”  The belittling name I had coined spread on the bus like wildfire.  I slunk down into my seat, my face flushed red.  As I heard the put-down again and again, I become more and more ashamed.

Jesus accepted a dinner invitation from a Pharisee named Simon.  Clearly this religious leader had heard of Jesus and his reputation as word of his miracles spread.  It’s not been too long since that young man from the town of Nain had been brought back to life.  Simon greets Jesus somewhat stiffly at the door, pointing the way in.  After the cocktail hour and making small talk, Jesus takes his place at the table.

As soon as they’re all seated, a woman no one had seen or invited skulks in and kneels behind the place Jesus reclines.  Immediately she begins weeping.  Her tears fall on Jesus’ feet, and soon the dust accumulated that day on his journey begins to wash off.  Soon she lets out her hair to tenderly dry his feet. After this, she opens a jar of ointment she’s brought and anoints Jesus, taking his feet into her hands, massaging the balm in and then gently kissing them.

Simon and his friends stare in utter disbelief because Jesus doesn’t do anything to stop this woman and her antics.  They all knew her reputation, and they are shocked that Jesus doesn’t have a clue.  Simon wonders to himself, “If this man really were a prophet like I’ve heard, he’d know exactly what kind of woman this is who is touching him.”

Jesus, knowing what Simon has been thinking, spoke up. “Simon, I have something to tell you.”  “Teacher, speak.” At this point, every pair of eyes in the room is locked on Jesus.

“A certain lender has two borrowers.  One owes him almost two years’ wages, the other about two months’.  Neither could pay him back what they owed, so the creditor decided to cancel both their debts.  Now which of them will love him more?”

Simon’s face flushed hot; he’s pretty smart.  He’s getting the point already, and he’s trapped.  “I suppose,” he replies hedging a bit, “I suppose the one who owed him more.”  “You have judged rightly.”

Turning his gaze in the direction of the notorious woman, Jesus continues, “Do you see this woman?  Do you actually see her?  I came to your home, and you did not give me water to wash my feet after walking outside all day.  She has bathed them with her tears and dried them with her hair.  When I entered you didn’t greet me with a kiss, and she has not stopped kissing my feet.  You refused to anoint my head with oil; she has anointed my feet with ointment.  Therefore, her sins, which were indeed many, have been forgiven; that’s why she’s shown me great love.  But the one for whom little is forgiven, loves little.”  Then addressing the woman, he gently said, “Your sins are forgiven.”

A gasp went up from the table.  They looked at one another, eyebrows furrowed.  “Who does he think he is, saying something like that?” they asked one another.  While the murmuring continued, Jesus simply looked down at the woman: “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Luke doesn’t tell us how or when the party breaks up, but my money’s on abruptly and soon.  He also doesn’t mention what happens to the woman, yet we can likely figure that one out.  She left that place lighter, no longer ashamed of her past.  She held her head up for the first time in years, looking people directly in the eyes.  She no longer skirted around the edges of the town afraid of the whispers as she past while finding solace in the shadows, but ventured further out then she’d been in years.  Her love for God from that time forward would have been palpable; you could see the peace reflected in her face.

Shame is insidious.  That story about Brian I told—that is his name, I think, the kid who made his way on the bus that day, although I’m not positive which is a shame—it lurks in the shadows of my mind even now nearly 40 years later.  Being devious wasn’t usually in my playbook, and I suspect someone else would have happened upon that hurtful nickname all on their own, but I was the cruel one that day.  I was the bully.  I’m still ashamed of my what I said, and I’ve never breathed a word of this story to anyone ever before.

It resurfaced from the depths because of the shame that permeates our gospel text.  The scandalous woman certainly felt chronic shame over what she had done.  Her reputation lay in tatters.  Again and again she heard that she didn’t belong, that she was a sinner, she was worthless.  But just as Jesus’ reputation had made its way to Simon the Pharisee, this woman had heard it as well.  Something deep inside made her trust that Jesus would not push her away.  That spark of hope rising up in her gave her the courage to walk into that den of snakes, who clearly knew what she had done and had likely joked about it with each other.

One commentator writes, “Whatever draws her to Jesus must be stronger than what threatens to expose her.  Even Simon’s snide mutterings cannot deter her.  Imagine the courage it takes to walk into the center of ridicule to express her love and gratitude for Jesus.  Before Jesus has even said a word to her, the tears tell us that something has happened.  She already knows the power of his love and acceptance.  It is an overwhelming moment of gratitude and freedom.”

For those who’ve faced chronic shame, who’ve been sucked under by a rip-tide of self-loathing, be certain of this: Jesus loves you.  He knows how you’re constantly downcast, afraid to make eye contact.  He gently places his hand under your chin, lifting it up, his eyes meeting yours.  “Whatever has happened in the past, it doesn’t matter anymore.  The weight that you’ve been carrying, the shame you know all too well, I’m taking it from you.  I love you.  Uncover the peace that has been missing from your life.  Go from this point forward, and live.”

For those of us who find ourselves more like Simon, who’ve either caused someone else’s humiliation, or haven’t put a stop to another person’s bullying, know this: Jesus loves you.  Notice that both debtors in the tale Jesus’ spun have their debts forgiven.  Both are totally in the clear.  The prick of your conscience due to memories from long ago or from an incident this morning, well, Jesus knows those things too.  He looks into your eyes and your flushed face and says, “No matter what you’ve said, or what you’ve thought about one of my sisters or brothers, I forgive you.  Recognize my face in them, see my eyes in their eyes.  Do not reduce them to tears any longer; rather, lift them up so their face exudes my glory.  If you can, make amends.  I love you.  Uncover the peace that has been missing from your life.  Go from this point forward, and live.”

If Simon and his friends had only found themselves in Jesus’ story they too might have left that night with peace.  Let us not make their same mistake, wandering home today carrying the same burdens we entered with.  Rather, let us find freedom, forgiveness and peace on this day, and may the light of Christ’s love lift us up removing all the shame from our lives.  Amen.