June 16, 2013
Can Faith Save?
June 16, 2013, Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Sermon: “Can Faith Save?”
Text: Luke 7: 36-50; 8:2-3
In 1978, Dr. Frank Stagg was standing in the entrance to the seminary campus (Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) with his wife Evelyn holding the bound galley of their new book, Women in the World of Jesus. Dr. Stagg, who was my New Testament professor at the time when I was in seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, was eager to introduce me to his wife, Evelyn, the co-author of the book, and to tell me about their exciting discourse and research on the important role of women in the early church. They knew of my desire to seek ordination after seminary and wanted to support any conversation stirring on campus related to women’s ordination. They did this by teaching and scholarly writing on the equality of roles of men and women in the ministry of Jesus and life in the early church.
Reading this passage (see the right column on this page) from Luke brought back, for me, the significance of Evelyn and Frank’s research and their encouragement to base justification for women’s ordination on more than just a movement toward equality in our time. They stressed in their writing that Jesus’ manner of teaching consistently pointed to a compassionate treatment toward women in the Jewish-Greek-Roman world of the 1st century and an elevation of their status. In this passage, the setting may be the home of the Pharisee, Simon, but the focus is on the faith of the woman from the city, the sinner, who entered the home where Jesus was visiting to offer gracious hospitality, adoration and, even, worship. The focus was on defining faith, a faith that saves.
It was not uncommon for people like this woman to learn about a gathering of dignitaries in a home in the city and enter to listen, ask for help, anoint with oils/spices. They usually kept their distance, but, in this case, this woman shockingly touched Jesus by taking his feet and boldly washing them and drying them with her hair. We think of it as a beautiful caring image but to them, it was probably disgusting and obscene. It was “too” bold! I imagine Jesus, too, was shocked that this woman would be so forward knowing the company and setting. So, what was his response? Throw her out and collude with those who could easily spot sinners and rightly punish them?
What does Jesus do with the situation? We are glad it becomes a “teaching” moment. It could have gone in a different direction but Jesus puts the dignitaries on the spot, asking them a question related to faith and God’s grace. He asked them to answer a question that would have a “logical” answer; it was related to getting them to use their “logic,” their common sense, to name what faith in God was really about and the role of forgiveness in faith. Who should benefit the most from forgiveness of debts? Of course, the greater sinner would be the most grateful that sin had been forgiven. What followed, logically, would be the response of gratitude for being saved. The woman, Jesus concluded, showed her gratitude by demonstrating her interest in his care with an intimate, humble, sincere act of washing his feet and drying his feet with her hair. It was a bold act but made a statement. It seems Jesus stretched himself to find “good” and honor in what she did.
I explain it as Jesus teaching a literal application of faith related to real life. He did not turn her away but accepted the gift. It was, as commentators will surmise, being compassionate as God is compassionate. Her faith saved her because she was bold to extend to Jesus a belief that he taught the love of God in a way that she could be included in God’s realm. She, a sinner, could be included in this great love.
We see that Jesus took the discussion of faith to a new level with his question to Simon in his home; the direction was to God’s love and compassion, instead of God’s judgment. The exercise was a stretch of faith for these men at the party, these powerful, respected, learned, righteous teachers of faith; it seems, according to the lesson, they have much more to learn about the depth of true faith and the kind of faith that “saves.”
Who are they learning from? A woman, a sinner, a person they feel had no place in their world for teaching them anything. Yet, that is exactly what we read happened.
They learn about the meaning of faith from her act. What was this faith that saved this woman? Is it a faith that can save us? "I love the recklessness of faith. First you leap and then you grow wings," says William Sloane Coffin, wonderful teacher/theologian, in his book of wisdom sayings, Credo. Was Jesus teaching us how to be open and learn of God’s love, how to increase our faith, but being reckless in the extension of mercy?
This clergyman, Dr. Coffin, had no interest in doctrines and creeds as hitching posts; instead, he said we should use the love of God as the hitching post. It is a force that brings diverse people together whereas, far too often, doctrines serve as walls that keep people apart. Coffin states: "Love measures our stature; the more we love, the bigger we are.” How can we practice this love? Where do we practice it?
Loving means going to the places where the wild things live! Faith is to be defined again and again so that we do not put it in a box and think we have the answers all neatly processed, packed, and ready to be filed. Faith invites us to leap and grow wings, to stretch ourselves, our imaginations, our opinions, our ways we see the world. Our faith invites study, curiosity and a humble desire to be open. In our “heads” we know this but do we practice it in real life? Do we find places to stretch our comfortable assumptions, our neatly defined theologies, and those beliefs that are water tight and secure?
Perhaps that is why it is good we marked with Google Doodle this past week, the birthday of Maurice Sendak who gave us Where the Wild Things Are in 1963. Yes, he would have been 85 on June 10. He died more than a year ago but we are grateful that through the storybook characters, Max and his otherworldly creatures, we can still be taken to another place to roam, and rant and be other “kinds of beings” like the ones in this children’s book.
These other beings “roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws.” Yes, Max needed to be in the “struggle,” to live with the “monsters” and be a princely hero in the world of monsters yet Max needed to come back to reality. After “dwelling” with the “other beings” he could come back to a safe, reassuring bedroom where his warm supper waited. He could reclaim the real world because he had allowed the voyage to the place of the struggle. Max leapt into the world of recklessness so that he could come back with new understandings about himself and his world.
Max learned that the world is not always kind, fair or good; he learned that the world is not always sugar and spice and everything nice. Max learned that it is not always ethical and moral. Good does not always win out. Nightmares are real and to be encountered. Max comes back from his imaginary world understanding more about the real world where he lives. Yes, Max was growing up!
The parallels are clear for us, aren’t they? Faith is about growing up; about growing wings and leaving the “nest.” We are grateful for children’s writers like Maurice Sendak who help us as adults consider the ways we are “growing up” and learning to define a faith that saves. This faith is not always found in the security of what we know and trust, although that is our starting point. Faith is to be found in the struggle, in the nightmare, in the places where the wild things live.
Upon reading the book, Where the Wild Things Are, at the urging of Goggle Doodle, I was reminded of how important it is for us to prepare our children and youth for adulthood by guiding them to a faith that does not always give us easy, predictable answers. While author Sendak encourages a flexible mind and a little bit of exploration which is necessary to come up with ethical answers, so we encourage the same in the world of faith. This, in my estimation, will be, in the end, the faith that saves.
This approach, I will offer, parallels the teaching of the gospel and confirms the line from Coffin, "I love the recklessness of faith. First you leap and then you grow wings.” What do you think? Can this kind of faith save us? Is faith defined daily by how we respond to situations like the one Jesus faced, bringing compassion to judgment and condemnation?
Coffin has this, too, to say about defining faith: “There is nothing anti-intellectual in the leap of faith, for faith is not believing without proof but trusting without reservation. Faith is no substitute for thinking. On the contrary, it is what makes good thinking possible. It has what we might call a limbering effect on the mind; by taking us beyond familiar ground, faith ends up giving us much more to think about." (Credo) Faith asks that we grow up that we become kinder, gentler people and that we are more forgiving and less judgmental. Faith asks that we leap and then grow wings. Faith takes us beyond familiar ground and, if we will allow, gives us much more to think about than we imagined. For me, perhaps for you, this is a faith that saves.
As this is Father’s Day on our calendar and we want to honor fathers, we remember those fathers who have taught us about a faith that has made “good thinking possible.” I honor my own father, Paul Rogers, who did this for me. He demonstrated with his life, a “faith” that can and will save. Yes, his faith, saved me from extreme prejudice, pride, and arrogance.
My father inspired me to seek “goodness” and compassion in life. He was one of the first to teach me about respect for all people regardless of color of skin or language or lifestyle. He was “for” women in ministry, even ordination, when most of his fellow church members were “nay”/against! What can I say? I am grateful for my father who lived a “faith that saves” and passed on, in his simple, unassuming way, an expectation for his children and others he would influence to do the same. I say this because my sister posted a picture of my dad on Facebook and the comments were all about what a great Christian example he was! Not everyone has a “father” who taught them about a saving faith but there is someone, perhaps, you are remembering today who has helped you stretch, grow, and be confirmed in your trust of the “leap of faith.”
What do you think? Can faith save? May God give us wisdom, guidance, patience and compassion as we “grow up” and allow a mature faith to infuse our being and bring us into God’s loving presence. May we know God’s goodness and grace, giving us companionship for days where there is safety and “sure” knowing and when there are days we take passage to be where the “wild things” live. May we be grateful for people in our lives who have shown us the way to a “saving faith.” We are grateful for Jesus, the Christ, our Teacher, our Savior. Amen.