We hosted our community’s high school baccalaureate at our church this year. In recent years it has been held in the high school auditorium, but for reasons I have not heard they needed another venue this June. So when they called, we were glad to say ‘yes.’
And so it was on Wednesday night that parents and grandparents and younger siblings and graduates donning black flowing robes found their way to the corner of Third and Pine to First Lutheran Church. Family members made their way into the nave early, hoping for a good seat. Graduates gathered in the atrium, lining up so that they might come in together.
My responsibilities were few this year. I was charged with speaking words of welcome and an opening prayer. Since I know the back ways through the building, as soon as I was done, I slipped out the door behind the pulpit and made my way to the balcony. (The view really is the best from up there!) And so I sat and listened as preachers preached and students read and the choir sang and a number of the graduates stood to tell their faith stories.
One among them stood out for as he spoke he did so without notes. Clearly, he had been profoundly shaped by the turning around he had experienced in his faith in these last years. He spoke of not going to church much when he was ‘young,’ but at the invitation of a friend he connected with a faith community. He shared about he had been brought to his knees on a mission trip with his newly adopted church youth group — how he had been overwhelmed by gratitude and reduced to tears at what Jesus had done for him. After this young man took his place once more in the front row with the other graduates, we were invited to stand and sing, “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” And there he stood with his outstretched arms waving in the air — a physical gesture of his openness and his gratitude. A physical gesture, I might add, which is not often, if ever, witnessed in the front pew at First Lutheran Church. Or any other pew in our place for that matter.
I cringed a little, I have to admit. Not in judgment, really, but in worry about him for none of his peers, no one else gathered that night, joined him in this. I worried at how his peers would respond — whether they would laugh at him, ridicule him, ostracize him. Then it occurred to me that these had probably already been his to live through. And then it occurred to me that he really had nothing left to lose. He was at the end of his high school career. In fact, he would probably never see most of these people ever again…(At least this was my experience. Once I walked across that particular stage and into the future, there have been very few who populated my world then who continued to hold any kind of presence in my life.) Seriously, what did he have to lose?
I have to say that usually when I come across the story of the woman of the city in Luke’s Gospel before us now that I experience much the same thinking I did about this young man at first. I almost wish I could have taken this woman aside to convince her that there surely must have been a better time and place for her overwhelming demonstration of gratitude. And yet, as I think about it, I am certain she had thought out all the possible consequences before she came as an uninvited guest to Simon’s dinner party and wept at Jesus’ feet. And in the end, what did she have to lose that she had not already lost? Even more than that, she may have been thinking that this chance may never come again and if she did not take it now, she might never have the opportunity to (almost literally) shower on Jesus her grateful love.
And yet. While the story focuses on the unnamed woman of the city with her alabaster jar, I’m not sure that the story is really, finally, about her. Indeed, I can’t help but wonder if it really is about Simon, the Pharisee and his silent judgment of one whose life journey had been so very different from his own. At least that’s where the story seems to be left hanging, it seems to me. For while the woman is sent on her way with saving faith and Jesus’ own promised peace? Simon is left with Jesus’ words contrasting his experience of faith with that of this woman who was known as a sinner — and he comes across looking as though his life and faith are lacking in some way. And in fact, they are.
Back to the young man who shared his faith story at baccalaureate the other night. I confess that I could not help myself as I listened to him. For it is so that I found myself cringing not only out of concern for him, but also at his very young theology. Oh, while he expressed deep gratitude at God’s saving generosity, he also expressed the certainty that he had found his way to Jesus instead of the other way around. Perhaps it is ‘splitting theological hairs,’ I do know this, and yet living as I do within a theological tradition which stands firm in God’s grace and God’s initiative in sharing that grace, still I found myself categorizing the boy in a way which was probably entirely unfair. Or at least not in a way that was helpful. Perhaps not unlike Simon did with his uninvited house guest so long ago. Indeed, I confess that I have had to work hard in these last days to be open to the sense of wonder that this young man clearly has experienced in his walk of faith so far. No doubt, life will teach him that God embraced him first. And in the meantime? Isn’t it enough to just give thanks with him?
So if nothing else, wondering about Simon the Pharisee in these last days has given me pause to take a deeper look at myself and the silent judgments I make about others most every day. Oh yes, I am certainly reminded once more that the energy it takes to evaluate others is energy which could well be better spent looking at my own heart and all the reasons I have to be grateful for the forgiveness I also so deeply need and have been so freely given. Perhaps then I, too, would find I had no time left for judgment but only gratitude. Perhaps then, I, too, would discover I have nothing left to lose. Maybe then I would also find myself with my arms waving in the air or weeping at the feet of Jesus. And no doubt my faith journey would be all the richer for it.
- As you receive this story, who do you think you are most like? Simon the Pharisee or the woman with the alabaster jar? Or do you see yourself in both of them?
- Is this story more about Simon the Pharisee or the unnamed woman with the alabaster jar? What makes you say so?
- What would it look like for you if you had ‘nothing left to lose?’ What might that mean?