Soon after I moved to Massachusetts, I met a friend whose Christian life really impressed me. She was involved heavily in her church and she did a lot of outside ministry work too And she carried herself with a humility but also a quiet certainty of who God was and who she belonged to.
I attributed it to the fact that she had grown up with a parent who was in the clergy. I thought surely that was what had shaped her faith and her interests. And one night we were talking and she was telling me about some of the ministries she was involved in. And one of the ones to which she was most devoted was a ministry to people in prison. And so, I asked her what had caused her to get interested in prison ministry.
She replied, simply: prison
What I hadn’t know until that point was that she herself had done time. As a young woman she had battled a serious addiction. And one night she made the choice to get high, and she stole a car. And she ended up going from a well-known New England prep school to serving several years in a Georgia prison
I was thinking about her when I was reading this text because this is the classic text about unlikely disciples. Jesus is invited to a Pharisee’s home to eat dinner, and you should always be a little wary of dinner invitations from Pharisees, because it’s probably less about getting to know you, and more about looking for what you’re doing wrong
And on this night, something scandalous happened. A woman, who was apparently known to be a sinner, came into the dinner party. She had a jar of expensive oils with her. And on the ground she wept and washed his feet with her own tears. And then she anointed them with the oil.
The Pharisees were aghast. This was all the evidence they needed that this man was not a prophet. If he were, he would have known who she was, and he would never have let her come near him.
But of course he does. Jesus lets everyone come to him. He allows her to bathe his feet with her own tears. Tears shed for a life ill lived. Tears shed for a redemption that is to come.
And he uses it to teach them.
Jesus asks Simon about a man who forgives two debts. One is small. And the one who is forgiven does love the man who does it. But one is big, and how much more does that person receive in the forgiveness? The one whose life is changed most drastically will become the one who most loves the one who forgives.
For the woman who was washing his feet, who probably was Mary Magdalene, there had been a life of bad choices. And yet she was one of the first to recognize the grace that was in Christ. So much so, that it is she, not the disciples, who anoints Jesus for the first time. Her debt had been large, and now she saw it being forgiven purely out of Christ’s love for her.
Sometimes the people who need grace the most are the first to really understand it when it’s offered. And sometimes they are the people who we never would have expected.
In college our chaplain was a man named Sammy. And he had gone to seminary in New York City during the 1950’s, but afterwards he returned back to south Georgia, where he had grown up. And one of the reasons he came back was that he wanted to work for civil rights.
One Sunday he delivered a sermon about segregation to his entirely white congregation. And afterwards someone came up to him and said, “some people aren’t too happy about your sermon.” And the same guy said, “you see that man over there? He’s the head of the Klan here in south Georgia.”
From that point on Sammy and the head of the Klan butted heads, and it was made clear to Sammy that he was not wanted there. And then, one night, he got a call. It was the Klan leader asking him to meet him out at a bar on the highway. This was the sort of bar where there was a lot of drinking and fighting and sympathy for the Klan, and he was a little worried about why he was being called out there.
But when he got there, the Klan leader was sitting at a table. And he was broken. And he told him how he couldn’t stop drinking, and how his wife was leaving him, and how his whole world was falling apart and now he was questioning everything about how he had lived his life. And he said to Sammy, “Reverend, would you pray for me.”
And Sammy looked around at the bar and said, “Here?”
And the man replied, “Pastor, don’t you believe in Jesus?”
This man whom he had disagreed with in every possible way taught him something about the grace of God that night. First, that no one is beyond it. And second, that Jesus is everywhere waiting for us to accept it. Even in that south GA roadside bar, and even to a Klansman.
Sometimes the best representatives of Jesus’s grace are not people who have led perfect lives. Sometimes they are people who have struggled to make the right choices. Sometimes they have a past. Sometimes there are things that seem shameful. But they are often the best witnesses to the fact that Jesus’s grace can find you, no matter where you are.
For the disciples this was an issue. They were already facing problems. And now the face of the movement, this man they followed, was letting this woman with a past touch him in front of the Pharisees. It didn’t look good. Surely there were “better people” who could attest to who Jesus was.
In the musical Jesus Christ Superstar the scene is played out like this, with Judas singing these words:
It seems to me a strange thing, mystifying
That a man like you can waste his time on women of her kind.
Yes, I can understand that she amuses,
But to let her kiss you, stroke your hair, that’s hardly in your line.
It’s not that I object to her profession,
But she doesn’t fit in well with what you teach and say.
It doesn’t help us if you’re inconsistent.
they only need a small excuse to put us all away.
Judas was right. They only needed a small excuse. But he was wrong about the rest. No one could preach to the grace of Christ more than this woman could. And so when he sings about “wasting your time on women of her kind” he couldn’t be farther off the mark. Unfortunately, that’s how society, and often the church, sees some people sometimes. As wastes of time.
But they are not wastes of time, but are often the best witnesses to Christ’s grace. Last week I told you the story of a ministry in Nashville called Magdalene House, and the business the women run called Thistle Farms. I didn’t tell you what some people in Nashville often said about this ministry. Things like, “Why waste your time and the church’s resources on these prostitutes. Use it on “nice” people.”
This church was the sore spot for the diocese. Never got funding, etc. They were sort of ashamed of it. Yet this program changes lives. Women who had been left for dead are now self-sufficient, healthy, and full of hope.
And they also become witnesses.
I participated in a baptism service for them once in a river. You could almost feel the release of the past, and the river could have been their own tears. And I wondered, why are these women’s stories not plastered in every church in the diocese? This is grace. This is what the Gospel is all about.
We’re the church and this is what we do. We welcome people with a past. Because there are things in all of our lives that we regret. The ones who accept Christ’s grace belong here the most because they are some of Christ’s best witnesses to the Resurrection, because they themselves have been resurrected.
The thing that I’m always struck with about people who have truly been transformed by God’s grace is that they don’t deny where they came from. They may not tell you about it all the time, but they don’t deny where they were. Part of that is because they’ve come to realize no matter where they were, Jesus was already there. They never would have found a way out if he hadn’t been there, offering his grace.
Hhe was there in prison with my friend who served time. he was there in the roadside bar with the klansmen. and he was there on skid row in Nashville with the women who were trying to escape a life of addiction and being treated as commodities. And he’s there in all the dark places of our lives.
Our affiliation with the UCC teaches us that. The United Church of Christ has a slogan: No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. And that’s the truth of the Gospel. We are welcomed no matter where we have been. And we are welcomed because where we’ve been is not where we are ultimately going.
Our past brought us here today, and it informs our journey. But it does not dictate it. Only Christ does. And grace is our only roadmap on the journey of life.
If it can find the young woman in prison, the alcoholic at the roadhouse, and the women on the streets, then surely it can find us. And it is only when we truly receive that grace, that we can truly follow Jesus. Without it, the words of the Gospel are hollow. But with it, they are everything. May Christ’s grace illumine even the darkest corners of our lives, and bring us all to the table with him. Amen.