Gospel: Luke 7:36-50
36One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” 40Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “speak.” 41“A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” 43Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” 48Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Grace and peace to you, beloved of God, in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
We’re starting the summer off with a series about worship, a series taking a little bit of a closer look to the things that we do each week in which and what, exactly, they’re all about. We started off with an overview of what worship is, an imagining of the kingdom of God fueled by what we do, what we read, what we sing, and what we hear. Last week, Pastor Jeni dove into the idea of praise – that’s more than just a type of music and can’t be nailed down to one specific action. Praise is our response to the incredible gift of grace that we receive from God as a gift.
Today, in our gospel, we meet a woman who has a very dramatic response to this gift. It’s almost a haunting scene, to see this woman weeping and coming to Jesus to offering him everything she had. The perfume was extravagant but the action itself was even more so. She knew what the religious leaders would say, she knew that she was deemed unworthy of their presence (including Jesus), yet she came all the same. She had a life before she came before Jesus, one she certainly wasn’t the proudest of, but also included love and laughter, I’m sure. And it all lead to Jesus, it all lead to what we see here. Her reliance on love and her experience of sin brought her to the feet of Jesus. And the person she was when she left was different than when she came. She was forgiven, Jesus tells us, before she even came to him by her faith. When she came to him, she left changed. She left forgiven. She left saved.
As we think about worship this summer, I can think of no better illustration for prayer than this woman’s experience. As we pray, we approach Jesus and we leave changed. I think, on some level, we know that, but on a practical level we often forget. While we may not always say it, prayer is often approached as a means to an end. Meaning that we pray in order to get something for it. The way prayer is practiced is often one of asking. And that’s not always a bad thing – God wants to know your needs – but that often leads to us treating God as if we had some magical, cosmic vending machine where we put in our token prayers and get a treat. Think about the prayers we often offer outside of church – Please, God, let them be okay. Please, God, I need this job. Please, God, let my team win, or my summer be good, or that we have good weather. And I can’t stand here and tell you it’s wrong to pray for things to happen, circumstances to change, and for needs to be met. We do it every Sunday during our prayers of intercession.
But if prayer is only a wish we throw out into the universe, we have missed the point. The point of prayer is not to have God do things for us, but for us to become more like God, as we see in Jesus. Prayer doesn’t just change the world around us, but it actually changes us. Take a look at the prayers we say over confession and forgiveness, the Lord’s Prayer, the Prayer of the Day, and the prayers of intercession and you’ll soon see that these prayers are not empty, pious words. The power in prayer doesn’t come through the words be said correctly or every request being answered. The power in prayer comes from the change we experience in ourselves. We never leave prayer the same as when we came.
I like to use the analogy of a relationship in terms of prayer. The people we care about in our lives are people we talk to and we share experiences with. And those people make a huge impact on our lives. We are never the same after we establish a relationship with someone else. After every interaction, after every conversation, after every experience the imprint they make on our lives grows deeper and deeper. These relationships we value are marked by spending time together, by conversation and interactions that further imprint that person into our lives. These relationships change us and these changes are exactly what we need. As we pray, as we bring forth our cares and concern, as we bring our very selves to God, we are changed. The imprint of Jesus in us grows stronger and stronger with each prayer.
And if we are changed in prayer, that changes the world, too. Not necessarily in a way we always recognize, but subtly, slowly, patiently, as we change, so does the world. When we pray, we leave changed and then we go to act. To offer a quote often attributed to Pope Francis (yes, I’m a Lutheran quoting the Pope – please be kind), “You pray for the hungry and then you feed them, that is how prayer works”. Prayer not only changes us. By changing us, prayer changes the world. It changes the way we treat others. It changes the way we care for creation. It changes the way we experience love and grace and the way in which we show God’s love and grace to others. When we pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done”, we leave to live in the kingdom and follow the will of God. We don’t make God fit into our kingdom, we are changed to fit into God’s. We don’t bend God to our will, we are molded to God’s will.
It starts with God. We pray because we know that God forgives, loves, and saves us. Prayer is not a quarter in a cosmic vending machine or the key to some magic elixir to make everything easy and perfect. If bad things are happening to you, it’s not because you didn’t pray hard enough. Prayer is not even the way we find salvation. We are saved, by grace through faith in the death and resurrection of Christ. What prayer is is the conversation of grace. Through this grace, we are forgiven and freed. Through our prayers, we are changed. And, of course, we will fall again, we will forget, we will need forgiveness again. And so we come to God in prayer again, always leaving changed. God’s love and grace never run out, the well of prayer runs deep, and prayer changes the world by changing us.
Although this woman is mentioned in other gospels, she remained unnamed and we don’t see her, her oil, or her hair again, yet I think we can follow her example. Though we don’t have Jesus physically here with us, we have Jesus here among us and in us. As we are forgiven, let our prayers change us. As we pray, let our lives, our actions, our very selves be molded to match the kingdom. You are forgiven. You are loved. You are changed. Amen.