Right after seminary, I was working as a temp at a law office. I was in one of those cubicle mazes and sat at a desk all day, filing things, and entering data into databases. It was riveting. The woman that worked in the cubicle next to me would often strike up conversations, eventually we got around to the fact that I had just graduated from seminary and that I was on the way to becoming a pastor in the Presbyterian Church. We talked a little about church but the conversation died pretty quickly after she found out I was a pastor. This is not uncommon, but one thing she said has stuck with me for the last decade. She said, “I grew up going to church, but I have to get my life together and once that happens I can get back to going to church.”
What I wanted to say was, “NO! NO! NO! Church is the place where you can go when your life is falling or has fallen apart, church is a place to find healing, church is a place where you can say, the hard thing, where you can confess, where you can be real, where you can be forgiven, where you can be loved just as you are and loved enough not to stay that way.”
I think I said, “Oh well, I’m sure you could go back to church now.” Then we both turned back to our work and went on about our day.
Unfortunately, I think her perception is the perception of many. They perceive, rightly or not, that they will be judged, if they darken the doors of the church before they’ve “figured it all out.”. This woman was a single mother, she had a few tattoos, and from what I could tell of her office stories she didn’t live the holiest life. One might say, she was “a woman in that town who lived a sinful life.” But to be honest, which one of us hasn’t.
If the church isn’t a place that we can welcome anyone, then we have lost what I believe to be a core message of, not only our Holy Scriptures, but of all Abrahamic faiths, radical hospitality. The willingness to be open, to be accepting, to welcome in all comers, the stranger, the immigrant, the refugee, the foreigner is a key tenant of our faith. That radical hospitality allows us to create a space for people to feel comfortable being themselves, being real, being authentic. Radical hospitality allows a space for people to let go of the shame of “should ofs”, the guilt of “what might of beens”, the disgust of “I knew betters”. Radical hospitality allows us to bring our history with us, it allows us to deal with our history, and it reminds us that we are loved beyond measure. God loves us, warts and all.
In our scripture reading today, Simon the Pharisee, a religious leader, has invited Jesus to dine in his home. Suddenly, an uninvited, unnamed woman appears who is described simply as a “sinner in the city.” Without speaking, she weeps, wets Jesus’ feet with her tears, wipes them with her hair, kisses them, and anoints them with perfumed oil.
There are many ways to look at this story, I first want to talk about, how this woman of ill repute gets into this dinner, like many commentators explain this as a custom of symposium, a public place in a large home where people are invited to come and talk about big issues, some talk, some listen, but the crowd is often a mix of various people from various classes, groups, and perspectives. That explains how she got in, now I want to talk about what she did, in contrast to what the Pharisee did.
She offered Jesus the ritual of hospitality, first the washing of his feet, with her tears, then she offered him a holy kiss, a kiss of welcome, and she anointed his feet with oil. This lavish hospitality is at the core of first century Palestinian culture, the oversight by the “religious leader” is egregious to say the least. Normally in his case, a servant would have done this ritual, he was/is above it, it is for others beneath him. Whereas she comes to Jesus, just as she is, she knows who she is, she knows her reputation, she knows her own sin, and yet she come to Jesus offering him hospitality as a form of repentance.
Simon, the Pharisee, appears not to believe he needs repentance, he acts as if Jesus allowing this woman to touch him was shameful. He thinks to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”
Often when we sit in places of privilege we think that we don’t need repentance. We are where we are because God shined God’s light on us, or some other such idolatry. It’s far easier to point out how other people need repentance than our own issues. Jesus tells a parable about repentance and forgiveness. We all have debts, we are all in need of repentance the rich, the powerful, the poor, the powerless. As the Apostle Paul says, “We all fall short of the glory of God.”
The woman’s sins maybe different than the Pharisee’s but both of sinned. Most readily we see that the Pharisee has committed the sin of inhospitality, which is high on the list of terrible things you can do according to the Hebrew Bible. In Ezekiel, it is said that the sin of Sodom inhospitality. Radical hospitality is not a suggestion it is a mandate.
Radical hospitality is also terrifying. If anyone can walk through your doors, the anyone can walk through your doors. Registered sex offenders, felons, children, families, old people, young people, conservatives, liberals, sinners, holier than thous, loud mouths, the disabled, transgender people, haters, lovers, on an on. Radical hospitality is not safe.
In fact that radical hospitality is laid out pretty distinctly in, our denomination, the Presbyterian Church USA’s constitution, not only for our churches but for our nation. In the Book of Confessions, part 1 of our constitution, in the Confession of 1967 it says in Part 4 paragraph B.
“b. God’s reconciliation in Jesus Christ is the ground of the peace, justice, and freedom among nations which all powers of government are called to serve and defend. The church, in its own life, is called to practice the forgiveness of enemies and to commend to the nations as practical politics the search for cooperation and peace. This search requires that the nations pursue fresh and responsible relations across every line of conflict, even at risk to national security, to reduce areas of strife and to broaden international understanding. Reconciliation among nations becomes peculiarly urgent as countries develop nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, diverting their manpower and resources from constructive uses and risking the annihilation of mankind. Although nations may serve God’s purposes in history, the church which identifies the sovereignty of any one nation or any one way of life with the cause of God denies the Lordship of Christ and betrays its calling.”
Sometimes, when we read this we can say, “YEAH our nation should be more welcoming!” We should welcome refugees and immigrants, we should be hospitable to them because that would lead to less war, less conflict, and more harmony, more love.
The question is, what are we doing to display the radical hospitality of Jesus? What are you doing? What can we do in Red Wing, MN to create an environment of radical welcome? What will we do to create an atmosphere of love and trust where people can be themselves, their true selves, not their “Church Selves” not their best foot forward selves?
If we are able to find, to create, a space for people to be vulnerable, to be authentic, we can let go of the shame of our sins, we can talk about our shortcomings, our what might of beens, our should haves, and move more fully towards repentance. We can turn to God, with all that we are, with our whole heart, and finally love ourselves, so that we can love our neighbor
May it be so.