GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER
Text: Luke 7:36-8:3
“Paint a picture of the church.” As a child, you take things quite literally, concretely. So, that is how I took my Sunday School teacher’s instruction to do an exercise that I hated, largely because I flunked “Coloring 101.”
When I looked around the class, though, my best friend, Robbie, loved this exercise. He could draw an amazing cathedral with a towering steeple and a long, seemingly endless nave. He would then add gargoyles, just for a bit of flourish. Nothing in his drawing bore any resemblance to the rather mundane 1950s architecture of my childhood church that was actually a cavernous gym which doubled as the Sunday sanctuary. I suspect that had John Borden Evans attended the same Sunday School class, he would have left Robbie in the dust.
I doubt if anyone ever asked Luke to “paint a picture of the church.” If he did, I am pretty sure that he did not pick up a brush or a crayon and start sketching the outline of the local synagogue in his town or the house-church where Christians gathered on the Lord’s Day. No, I am pretty sure if Luke were asked, in effect, “What does the church look like?” he would respond by telling a story, our Gospel story today.
The late Clarence Jordan sets Luke’s story in Southwest, Georgia in the late 20th century and he retells it this way:
A certain church member invited Jesus home for dinner. He accepted and went into the church
member’s house and sat down. Then a shady lady of the town, who had heard that Jesus was
being entertained at the church member’s home, bought a bottle of high-priced perfume. She sat
at his feet sobbing, and her tears began to wet his feet. She dried them with her long hair and
kissed his feet and dabbed on some of the perfume.
When the church member who had invited him saw what was going on, he thought to himself, “if
this fellow were a real man of God, he would recognize the kind of woman that’s fondling him and
know that she’s a shady character.”
As Jesus tells this story, invitations have been sent out for a dinner party. The night of the party has come and Jesus has arrived at the home of Simon, a Pharisee, a prominent Jewish leader in town. So far, there is nothing especially exciting here, just another dinner party for the well to do in the city.
A certain woman in town, though, did not receive an invitation. And, it was not as if Simon struggled to decide if this woman should be included. The thought never crossed his mind. This woman was not on Simon’s dinner list or on the dinner list of any respectable citizen in town. First of all, she was a woman and this affair was for men only. She was also a woman from the streets or a “shady lady” according to Jordan, or in the imagery of Les Miserables, she was a “lovely lady” – you fill in the details.
Even though uninvited this unnamed woman crashes the dinner party. She bathes Jesus with her tears, then dries them with her hair, and after that, anoints him with expensive perfume. Our English translations do not quite capture the persistence of this woman. Her tending to Jesus is continuous, extravagant, sacrificial. She makes herself at home in a home that has no place for her and she is not about to leave until she does what she has come to do.
Well, Simon, the host of this dinner affair, is not pleased. And, can you blame him? Someone walks into your home uninvited, sits down on the couch, and puts his feet up on the coffee table. Do you offer him a cup of coffee? The situation here is even edgier. This woman is not welcome at this dinner party or at any time. Simon wants to have nothing to do with her and he is astounded that Jesus acts as if she belonged there.
The fact that Jesus allows this woman to touch him at all only confirms for Simon that Jesus is no righteous child of God. Jesus may be a guest in his home, but Simon is not going to put up with this unwanted guest acting in her unwanted, ungodly, sensuous way, so he gives Jesus a piece of his mind.
Jesus hears Simon out and then tells the host a simply story with even a simpler conclusion. A 2022 telling of the story goes something like this: A certain banker forgives the debt of someone who owes him $100,000 and the debt of someone else who owes him $10. That’s the story. “So, Simon,” asks Jesus, “which debtor will love the banker more?” “The one who had the greatest amount forgiven,” says Simon. “Got that right,” says Jesus.
Then Jesus points out to Simon the biting irony that since he walked into Simon’s house the only person who has acted like a gracious host is the uninvited, unwelcome woman. Evidently, she has offered the hospitality that Simon has withheld. She does not wait for an invitation that will never come. She finds Jesus and behaves toward him with the gracious, loving, and sacrificial joy of someone who is no longer defined by her past. Fred Craddock writes, “The story screams the need for a church, not just any church but one that says, ‘You are welcome here’.” (Luke, p.106).
On its best day, and there are lots of them around here, Cove is such a church. People are welcome here not because we are community of squeaky-clean Christians who always get it right and always treat each other with compassion and kindness. Cove has plenty of bumps and bruises and scars to show anyone who wants to see them. No, people are welcome here because this is not our house; it is Jesus’ house, a community of those forgiven through his love and sacrifice. We extend hospitality because we have received hospitality, God’s lavish, relentless, gracious hospitality.
Early on in my time here, I invited a group of Cove folks to paint a long banner to hang outside the sanctuary. The banner read: “YOU ARE WELCOME HERE.” That was a fine exercise and many of you participated. My greatest contribution to the exercise was opening the cans of paint. Since then, I have tried my best to paint those words not on a banner but on our hearts, or more precisely, to ask that God do so, more and more, until you and I become a bunch of “You are welcome here” people inside this sanctuary, in neighborhood homes, in the workplace and in our places of fun and play. We become the “You are welcome here” community even to people we have been taught to hate or distrust and avoid at all costs.
So, think with me for a moment. I want to invite you to engage in a slightly different version of my childhood Sunday School exercise. What would it look like to welcome someone into this church community with the lavish, reckless, gracious abandon that the woman shows to Jesus? What changes in our thinking and behavior would need to happen for us to invite people into this community of faith who are “not like us”? What would it take for us to show the extravagant, persistent, and tenacious hospitality of the excluded women to people who look differently than we do on this Juneteenth Sunday, who love differently than we do, who look differently than we do, who vote differently than we do, and who often think differently than we do?
YOU ARE WELCOME HERE. Those are words in which you and I were bathed when we were baptized and those are words Luke uses to paint a picture of the church, a community of forgiven sinners, a community that has a lot to learn from an unnamed, uninvited woman who crashes a party with extravagance, hospitality, and love.
If nothing else happens from the time you have spent in worship at Cove today, may you leave with a new or renewed zeal to welcome friends of every age, neighbors of every complexion, colleagues of wide-ranging perspectives, and even those people who you normally avoid whenever you possibly can. May people see us, witness our hospitality, and never need to see a sign hanging outside but know from knowing us that at Cove YOU ARE WELCOME HERE.
That is a prayer worth living into, my friends, and one that you live into so well.