Richard Maxwell

Proper 6 C
16 June 2013
Grace Episcopal Church

In the Name of God:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Happy Father’s Day!  It’s good to see you!  I’ve missed you!  We’ll have to do some catching up at coffee hour, but you’ll have to do most of the talking ‘cuz all I’ve been doing is sitting in a chair.

But before we get to that, we have some other things to consider . . . like God.  So.  Let’s look at the Gospel story for today.

The story today is a rather familiar . . . we all probably recognize it more or less and at the same time we all may be a little hazy about the details.  This is a perfectly logical because, in bare outline, today’s story is told in all four Gospels . . . BUT the details change a great deal in each telling.  Only in Luke’s Gospel is the woman identified as a great sinner:  in Matthew and Mark, she is simply a woman, described as neither good nor bad: in John’s Gospel, she is Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus.  Only in Luke’s Gospel is the story about the forgiveness of sin.  In Matthew, Mark, and John, the story is a preparation for the crucifixion and the anointing is a preparation for Jesus’ burial.  There are more differences between the tellings of this story, in some versions the woman is anointing Jesus’ head and in others his feet, but the point I want us to consider is that Luke’s version is the one that varies the MOST from the others.  I wonder why?

I’ve had some time on my hands lately . . . sitting in that chair I mentioned . . . so I went back and looked over what happens in Luke’s Gospel BEFORE today’s story.  And I discovered a couple of interesting things.  By the time of today’s story, Jesus has done a whole bunch of stuff.  He’s healed people of a lot of different diseases, he’s cast out a passel of demons, he’s preached the Sermon on the Plain, he’s even raised someone from the dead.  But before today, Jesus has never healed someone only of their sins.  That ‘only’ should be heard in quotation marks, because of course it’s a huge thing to be forgiven of one’s sins . . . in fact, it’s the most important thing that can happen to any of us.  But before today’s story, Jesus has always been confronted with a physical impairment or demonic possession . . . today is the first day that Jesus encounters someone who’s “only” need is to be forgiven of her sins.

And this leads me to the other thing I discovered.  It’s about faith.  Before today, Jesus has encountered people with great faith, and has remarked upon it.  Remember the Roman centurion, for example?  The centurion has a beloved slave who is close to death and he sends some Jewish elders to ask Jesus to come and heal the slave, which Jesus agrees to do.  But almost before Jesus sets out, the centurion sends other friends to tell Jesus not to bother:  the centurion is not worthy to have Jesus enter his house, and the centurion also understands about the chain of command:  all Jesus has to do is speak the word, and his servant will be healed, Jesus doesn’t have to come himself for the slave to be healed.  Jesus is stunned and he says, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”  So, as I mentioned, Jesus has encountered great faith before, but never before today’s story has he said this:  “Your faith has saved you.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but I find this pretty interesting.  One of the issues Christians face when talking about faith and healing is the question of the relationship between these two things:  the relationship between faith and healing.  I’m talking about the healing of physical ailments here.  So . . . is faith a requirement to be healed by Jesus?  And if it is, how much faith is required to be healed?  Put that way, the question may sound ridiculous, but there are an awful lot of sick people who feel that their illness is somehow their own fault:  “If my faith were stronger, I’d be well.”  And as sad as it may seem, there are well-meaning people who may say something like this to a sick friend, “You’ve got to pray more.  If you pray hard enough you’ll be healed.”  Unfortunately, these prayers for physical healing are not always granted.

And in looking more closely at Luke’s Gospel, I think I found something that may be really helpful for some of us.  Earlier in this Gospel, when Jesus heals a physical ailment, or drives out a demon, or even raises someone from the dead, it’s pretty clear that he’s doing it alone . . . that it’s solely through his power as the Son of God that Jesus heals people.  Jesus may comment on the tremendous faith of those who are healed, or of those who ask him to heal someone else, but that faith does not play a role in the physical healing itself.  There’s no talk of “your faith has healed you.”  Jesus has chosen to heal someone of their physical problem or demonic possession for his own reasons.  In these situations there’s no talk about faith that implies that the sick person is somehow contributing to his or her own healing.  In fact in these early stories, there’s no mention of whether the people Jesus heals are good, bad, or indifferent.

It’s with today’s story in Luke that something important changes . . . in fact, I think that all the healing stories in this Gospel may be leading up to this point.  As I mentioned a little earlier, for the first time, Jesus is approached by someone who has no physical ailment and is not possessed by a demon.  He is approached by someone who yearns for spiritual healing.  The woman who comes to Jesus is described as a known sinner.  She’s obviously heard of Jesus and what he’s doing; perhaps she’s even seen him.  She comes in weeping.  To me these tears are a sign that she has come face to face with her own sinfulness.  Through what she has seen or heard of Jesus she realizes that she has come into contact with the divine, and this perfection forces her to acknowledge her own wretchedness.  And she is sorry, sorry beyond words, sorry to her very bones, for her sins.

She brings with her the very best she can offer to Jesus: an alabaster jar filled with precious ointment.  One generally anoints the head of a guest as a sign of respect.  But Jesus is not her guest and she does not feel worthy to come face to face with him.  So she kneels down and washes his feet with her tears, and dries them with her hair.  Then, while kissing his feet, she anoints them with the precious ointment.  Does she expect anything in return?  I wonder.  She doesn’t ask for anything.  In fact, she’s silent through the entire story.  Jesus looks at her.  It seems to me that whenever we’re told in the Gospels that Jesus sees someone, we can be pretty certain that he’s seeing the whole person . . . not just the appearance, but the heart, and mind, and soul of the person.  Jesus tells her that her sins are forgiven.  And then he adds, “Your faith has saved you.”

The Greek word that is translated in our text as ‘saved’ is a very rich word.  It can also be translated as ‘healed,’ or ‘rescued,’ or made ‘whole.’  I like all of those translations for today’s story.  Today a sinful woman has been saved, and healed, and rescued, and made whole . . . her sins have been forgiven and she is now “right” with God.  There is nothing in creation that is more important than being “right’ with God.  And this woman’s faith has made it possible.  Do you see how important this is?

When we’re ill, or someone we love is in pain, OF COURSE we pray for healing.  Of course, we ask God for relief.  And it may come.  And it may not.  God can do anything, but God’s will is often a mystery . . . especially in this physical world of ours.  What God chooses to do or chooses not to do in this world is God’s choice alone.  And the answering of our prayers for physical healing is not dependent on the strength of our faith or our own goodness.

But our faith DOES make the most important of all healings possible . . . our spiritual healing.  Our faith in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, makes it possible for us to be saved, to be healed, to be rescued, to be made whole . . . to be right with God.  There is nothing, NOTHING, in this world more important than that.  And it’s ours for the asking.  In fact, I’m not so certain that we even have to ask.  Our gracious and compassionate God, loves us so deeply, yearns for us so strongly that it can seem as if our prayers are answered even before we ask.

I pray that we all know the healing love of God.

Amen.

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