Tears

image courtesy of Yuichiro Chino, gettyimages.com …. sermon for the 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time …. Gospel of Luke 7:36-50 ….

 I’ve reached an age, and stage of ministry, when I’m more comfortable admitting to you that I shed tears. This week, I cried tears as I prepared the funeral for Carol V. As you might expect, I grieve the loss of someone faithful in Christian service and courageous in confronting cancer. I sympathize with the pain of separation felt by Carol’s family.

While I have a particular perspective as Carol’s pastor, I was only one of many, many people who shed tears. For the past several days, I’ve heard stories from family, friends, and church members, about the ways in which Carol was present for them and offered gifts of time and care. As we grieve, I observe that we tend to explain the tears we shed in the present in terms of the grace we received in the past.

In the seventh chapter of his gospel, Luke opens a window upon a scene of tears that just might be explained in a similar way.  Jesus is attending a formal banquet.  He is there at the invitation of a Pharisee named Simon.

As the story unfolds, we learn that Simon does not observe several customary duties of the dinner host.  He doesn’t provide a pitcher of water for bathing dusty feet, or a jar of oil for anointing dry skin. He doesn’t greet his honored guest with a kiss.  Perhaps Simon is silently snubbing Jesus’ authority (theme that this text seems to hold in common with the Hebrew Testament reading), or perhaps he is just a busy person who is casual about proper protocol.

Before Luke gets around to sharing these details, he calls our attention to the character that injects the story with dramatic tension.  She is a weeping woman, identified by Luke as a “sinner,” who interrupts the meal. Many commentators have hypothesized that her sins were sexual, and that she was a prostitute,[1] but the text doesn’t say.  The woman brings an alabaster jar of ointment, and stands “behind him at his feet,” probably meaning that those at table are reclining with feet outstretched in the fashion of the Romans.[2]

I’m not accustomed to reclining at table. But in any situation in which a strange woman began to shed tears on my feet, my feeling would be one of strong embarrassment.  My first impulse would be to jump up, and hand her a box of Kleenex.  If I had the presence of mind to speak in that awkward moment, I might ask about the cause of her trouble.

But Jesus responds much differently.  He allows the woman to bathe his feet with her tears, and wipe them with her hair. He remains seated while she kisses his feet, and anoints them with oil.

I’ve thought about this strange scene for a long time. The only way that I can make sense of this situation is to hypothesize a prior relationship.  I believe that the dinner banquet isn’t the first occasion that Jesus and this particular woman have met. Like the people you might have observed at yesterday’s funeral, there is a personal history that precedes the tears.

New Testament scholar Robert Tannehill points out that in the parable Jesus tells here, forgiveness precedes and leads to love, not vice-versa.[3]  Another New Testament scholar, Joseph Fitzmyer, analyzes the grammatical construction of Jesus’ pronouncement, in essence saying that Jesus’ pronouncement can be read to mean that forgiveness occurred in the past,[4] with a display of love in the present as its consequence.  Perhaps the woman had met Jesus a day or two before, and didn’t realize who he was.  When he forgave her sins, maybe she chuckled, not sure what to believe.  Maybe she was in shock, and didn’t say anything.  She went away, and later that night the truth of it hit her.  She knew that she had to find him, and when she did, she had to thank him.  What we observe in this scene, I believe, is not some kind of groveling behavior for which the woman earns forgiveness, but rather tears born of grace that was bestowed yesterday.

Tears of grace can be the result of a forgiveness slowly understood. Tears of grace can flow at funerals as the grace of life, love, and relationships is remembered. Tears of grace can appear in unexpected people in unexpected ways.

Princeton Seminary President Craig Barnes tells the story of a morning run, during which he was dutifully fulfilling his health plan by getting in the proper quota of minutes on the trail.

Then something happened.  The boys began to cheer wildly as another group of runners approached the end of the trail. These runners wore baggy gym shorts and tee-shirts with a homemade logo. Barnes realized they were all developmentally disabled. They had no interest in stopwatches and fit bits. A few were holding hands, fighting together to reach the end of the trail. Barnes says he joined in the celebration, that he cheered more loudly than anyone. And then, he says, he discovered that he was crying, and that he couldn’t will himself to stop crying.  Was it the resolve of the kids to finish the run that moved him? Was it the supportive cheering of the boys’ team, a gesture of love in a world of competition? Was it the fact that these kids knew more than he about the sheer joy of running on a crisp fall morning. Barnes says his tears defied his ability to analyze or explain.[5]

Another poetic Presbyterian writes, “You never know what may cause tears. The sight of the Atlantic Ocean can do it, or a piece of music . . . . A pair of somebody’s old shoes can do it . . . . a high-school basketball team running out onto the gym floor at the start of a game. You can never be sure.  But of this you can be sure. Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention.  They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go next.”[6]

Have you shed any tears lately?  Some tears are angels, God’s messengers who come telling you about your need for repentance, refreshment, reunion, or just returning thanks.  Some tears are signs of a beautiful relationship, or a gracious gift received. Thank God for the tears that are born of such grace.

[1] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX, Second Edition, The Anchor Bible, Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1981, p. 689.

[2] Robert C. Tannehill, Luke, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries, Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1996, p. 135.

[3] See Tannehill, p. 136.

[4] Fitzmyer says the construction expresses a state of forgiveness recognized and declared by Jesus, though we are not told how she came to this state of forgiveness.

[5] M. Craig Barnes, The Pastor as Minor Poet, p. 37 ff.

[6] Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABC’s of Faith, HarperSanFrancisco, 2004, p. 383.

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~ by JohnH1962 on June 14, 2016.