One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to have dinner with him, so Jesus went to his home and sat down to eat. When a certain immoral woman from that city heard he was eating there, she brought a beautiful alabaster jar filled with expensive perfume. Then she knelt behind him at his feet, weeping. Her tears fell on his feet, and she wiped them off with her hair. Then she kept kissing his feet and putting perfume on them.How many times have we heard it? All you need is love! Love makes the world go ‘round! Love is a wonderful thing! Love will find a way! If we just have love enough, everything will be OK! Really? SUPER! Now on to reality. I’ve met people who live their lives believing no one loves them. They think, “Nobody understands me. Nobody cares about my pain. No one cares if I live or die.” Even in marriages and partnerships, we can feel like the one we love no longer understands us. I think of a couple I once knew, let’s call them “Mark and Beth.” Mark and Beth fell in love after college. Their eyes sparkled for each other. Their steps were light. They felt that unique, special attraction for each other. They got married, believing they would forever supply each other with a permanent sense of self-worth. As time went on, Mark expected Beth to be as accepting and forgiving as she was when they were dating. Beth expected the same from Mark. The sparkle dimmed. They began to feel disillusioned, even betrayed by one another. They replaced affirmation with sarcasm and ridicule. They each expected unconditional love and selflessness from the other, and each failure to do so was another brick in the growing wall between them. Mark and Beth recently celebrated their 15th wedding anniversary. Although they have shared many years together, they experience very little real love.
When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman is touching him. She’s a sinner!” Then Jesus answered his thoughts. “Simon,” he said to the Pharisee, “I have something to say to you.”
“Go ahead, Teacher,” Simon replied.
Then Jesus told him this story: “A man loaned money to two people—500 pieces of silver to one and 50 pieces to the other. But neither of them could repay him, so he kindly forgave them both, canceling their debts. Who do you suppose loved him more after that?”
Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the larger debt.”
“That’s right,” Jesus said. Then he turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Look at this woman kneeling here. When I entered your home, you didn’t offer me water to wash the dust from my feet, but she has washed them with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You didn’t greet me with a kiss, but from the time I first came in, she has not stopped kissing my feet. You neglected the courtesy of olive oil to anoint my head, but she has anointed my feet with rare perfume. I tell you, her sins—and they are many—have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love. But a person who is forgiven little shows only little love.” Then Jesus said to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven.”
The men at the table said among themselves, “Who is this man, that he goes around forgiving sins?” And Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” Luke 7:36-50
In some ways we are all frustrated lovers, wanting to be understood but feeling alone. We want to love and be loved, but we can feel incompetent, inadequate and insecure. Some will say, “If I can only do something to make myself more likeable or desirable . . . if only I can be successful . . . if only I can make myself more beautiful . . . if only I can be more self-sacrificing to serve another, THEN all our relationship problems will be solved.”
We know all about imperfect love. We have examples all around us. Today, we are going to look at an example of different kind of love in the story we just heard from Luke’s gospel.
Jesus reclines at a table. He’s at dinner with some of the movers and shakers in the neighborhood – the important people. Suddenly an uninvited guest comes in -- a woman with (ahem) a reputation. She follows a common practice of the lower servant class, not only washing Jesus’ feet which are dusty from walking with sandals on dirt roads, but washing them with her perfume and drying them with her hair. The important people object. But Jesus says this woman has more right to be there than many others. He says, “This woman had more sins forgiven than others so she is being extravagant with her love.” The writers of the Greek New Testament have a word for his kind of love: agape.
Some of us have heard this word before; agape. We are told it means unconditional love, or selfless love, like the love God has for us. I have a problem with this definition. The idea of selfless love perpetuates a dangerous idea. Is the woman who washes the feet of Jesus showing selfless love? At first glance, we see a woman subordinate herself to Jesus, as if being a woman is of secondary value to the community. We see a system in which women and men must remain divided by sexism, racism, economic injustices and imperialism.
We still live in that system. We expect women, especially mothers, to be selfless saints who give up their dreams in order to fulfill the needs of others. Some men and dads are expected to do it, too, but it’s preached strongly to women. Often these goodly "saints" are revered by those whom they serve because of their caring ways. What better way to promote this useful servitude than by continually commending self-sacrificers as "moral," "saintly," "devoted," and "virtuous"?
It turns out, people who act out of selfless love may in be in danger of losing the very Self they ought to be developing. And, they may end up hurting the people for whom they care. Think about it. If a moral saint is spending all her time feeding the hungry, healing the sick and raising money for OXFAM, and packing peanut butter sandwiches for the homeless, then she’s not taking time to read a good book, go for a brisk walk, or enjoy the smell of warm wet earth after a passing Summer thunderstorm. If a moral saint is giving all of himself to save the world, he has no time to be an artist, or a good parent, or a skilled listener. There’s no chance for a truly selfless person to have the time or moral permission to develop the skills, talents and personalities that makes us interesting, well-rounded people.
Selfless behavior is immoral when it prevents you from knowing your own intrinsic and equal value as a human being. What kind of love asks you to discount your Self for the sake of the other? What kind of love asks you to deny your needs? Where’s the mutuality? Where’s the trust? Is that what Jesus wants from the woman who washes his feet? Is this the kind of love God wants from us? That God has for us? Selfless love? No! There is no such thing. Everyone wants to be desired. Everyone wants to feel needed. Selfless love may seem ideal, but it eventually denies partners what they need—to be desired and needed as equals.
I know plenty of people who give selflessly of themselves and feel rejected by those they love. What kind of love is that? As long as we feel rejected, we cannot love fully.
I know people who have been manipulated by others in the name of serving God. If God appears to us as an unhappy recipient of selfless love who gives according pleasure and condemns according to wrath, we cannot love perfectly.
If we can be in touch with the true spirit of agape, our imperfect relationships can change. Like the woman who washes the feet of Jesus, we can share in extravagant kindness and complete forgiveness – a love so true that once we feel it, we can’t stop sharing it.
I’ve been thinking about agape in terms of another word: Namaste. Even though it is commonly used as a greeting, Namaste also expresses spiritual meaning. Namaste means “the divine in me blesses and honors the divine in you.” It’s agape – love in action. Imagine a despised, deprived, seemingly subservient woman of ill-repute washing the feet of Jesus as a servant. Imagine the scandal. Imagine the shame. Imagine the system that perpetuates and her posture. And imagine Jesus saying, “She has done nothing wrong. This nameless woman has shown agape. The divine in her just blessed and honored the divine in me.” Imagine if WE could do this. Instead of discounting ourselves to bolster another, we could say, “Love is known when we give and take as equals. The divine in me blesses and honors the divine in you.”
I will be the first to admit, I am not skilled at showing this kind of love. I feel it all the time, but I have a hard time expressing it. Some of you here at CCC have picked up on that. To be honest, for me, having a persona of selflessness can be an easy way to deflect agape. If I can serve you, then I can hide my own discomfort with receiving love. So I want to tell you all about my learning and my commitment about love in action.
Just like you, life has brought me pain. There are times when I l’veet down my guard and then felt like others took advantage of my vulnerability. I came to CCC hurt by other churches, feeling disillusioned and betrayed. I told myself there was no way I was going to allow that to happen again. Those experiences reinforced a guarded exterior that does not show how I am really feeling inside. It has become such an automatic response, I don’t always know I’m doing it.
Here’s what I’m learning: I have trained myself to be so emotionally non-responsive, I can forget that others need to experience a wider range of emotions from me. I have something to receive from others as well as something to give.
Here’s what else I’m learning: I am learning to trust again. I’m learning to allow what I honor as the divine in you here at CCC to uncover and honor that which is divine in me. I am learning what it means to be mutually giving and receiving as a pastor and a congregation. You have helped me to do some of this, and today I want you to know I’m ready to take the next step.
When Pastor Amy was here with us, she served as an emotional buffer for me in many ways. Amy is such an emotionally generous and warm person, I could let her field many of the emotional issues that felt challenging to me. We do not have that anymore. I am your pastor. And we need to learn together how to do agape. I’m willing if you are. You know what I need from you? I need straightforward information about your needs. I need to know how you are feeling, and how you perceive my response when you express it. And I need to learn how to receive what you have started to give me after two years together: appreciation, support, friendship, and trust.
It’s the beginning of agape. In the words of Fulton Sheen, love is a mutual self-giving which ends in self-recovery. It’s what God wants for all of our relationships. Agape means that each and every one of us is created in the image of God, co-workers with God in struggling for the liberation of humanity and for a world order that respects each one’s dignity. God loves us so powerfully, and God wants to love another person or creature through us. That’s what I yearn for in my own life. It’s what I want for each of you. Healing power stirs us. We can affirm God. We can affirm our own being. We can affirm others from whom we are estranged. To love this love is to love God. And if you can love God, then you may also be able to accept Life and love it. Because Life accepts you; life loves you; and life wants to reunite you with itself.