Extravagant Faith
 — Dawn Christenson

June 12, 2016

Galatians 2:15-21
Luke 7:36-8:3

Well, Paul is certainly engaged in one of his rants with the people of Galatia. And this rant is almost as convoluted as portions of John’s gospel. So, let’s see if we can’t unravel it a bit.

Paul said: “For if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.” Whoa, that’s quite a statement, Paul. And Paul is right on target. You see, the looming problem in Galatia is an argument over whether or not the gentile Christians should be circumcised. The Jewish Christians were circumcised, according to the Jewish Law and tradition in which they were raised. But the Gentiles (Celts & Greeks) among them couldn’t be held accountable to those Laws. And Paul went on, later in his letter he says: “For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” I love that – “clothed with Christ” – living one’s faith by sharing the love and grace of Christ; living as servants for humanity and creation; welcoming the stranger and the outcast. That’s beautiful. And that’s what Christianity is supposed to be – with no divisions, demands or power struggles. That’s why Paul goes on to say later much later in his letter: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, for all of you are one in Christ.” Finally he gets to the point and says: “For in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision or uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” Amen, Paul!

Okay, just what does that mean for us? I mean, circumcision or uncircumcision are not exactly a sticking points for us in the Church today. What is? Oh my goodness, just look at all of the hang ups of doctrine and dogma that exist among all of the various denominations within Christianity. ‘We’re in. You’re out.’ ‘No, you can’t possibly be saved, because you don’t do it this way.’ ‘You don’t believe the right stuff.’ Or how about: ‘I don’t care what the Supreme Court says, same-sex marriage is not marriage. It is an abomination and a sin. And those who engage in that are going to hell.’ Really? Well, then it’s pretty funny how God called a gay woman to the ministry. I guess it’s true – Jesus really does like hangin’ out with sinners. At least I’m in good company with him. Of course, then there is the sin of all sins – not following Robert’s Rules of Order in a church meeting. God forgive us. Yes I am poking fun. But do you see how silly getting caught up and bogged down by rules, regulations and details can be? And I’m pretty confident that God’s love and grace is not found in those picky little details.

I guess it’s just human nature to get hung up on the small stuff … and it’s all small stuff. And for a recovering perfectionist like me, it’s easy to fall into that trap. That’s what Simon the Pharisee was doing. He was getting hung up on who this woman was and how she had lived her life. Oh, but I just love the way Jesus calls Simon out – subtly or maybe not so subtly pointing out all of those hospitality protocols and details that Simon failed to do for Jesus. (Don’t judge, lest ye be judged.)

Simon’s 1st fault: It was customary to have a basin of water available for guests entering one’s home to wash their stinky, dusty feet. It was a courtesy to make the guests feel comfortable. Simon didn’t do this. His second 2nd fault: It was customary to greet one’s guests with a kiss. Who does not appreciate a warm welcome into someone’s home? Simon didn’t do this. And his final fault: It was customary to anoint a guest’s head with oil. Simon didn’t do this either. Simon failed the Jewish hospitality test on multiple counts.

And in contrast, this woman expressed such extravagant faith and hospitality – ‘Faith working through love’, as Paul said. Not only did she wash Jesus’ feet – she did it with her tears – tears of joy and of gratitude. She dried his feet with her hair. Humbly, she kissed his feet. And then she opened an alabaster jar of very expensive, aromatic ointment – it must have cost her a fortune, perhaps all she had – yet she used it to anoint Jesus’ feet. No, she doesn’t follow Jewish customs to a ‘T’. But getting the details right is not the point here. The details are not important. What is important is her extravagant welcome; the extravagant expression of her faith in love – love of neighbor, humbling herself in service to him. Humble service – that is precisely what Jesus taught his disciples to do on the night of his betrayal. He, their Lord and Savior, humbled himself and washed and dried their feet. Then he told them to do the same, for one another and for others in need of God’s love and grace. “Love one another as I have loved you.”

How can we live out extravagant faith working through love? That is what we will be trying to discern with the ReVision process this year – “Re-Vision – Casting a new vision for our church.” And as the UCC materials state, we need to “Be open. Be Bold. [and] Be humble.” Unlike the Galatians and Simon the Pharisee, we cannot afford to get caught up and bogged down by details. Too many details and rules hamper creativity. And by hampering our creativity, we put ourselves in the way of God’s creative activity in the world. You see, I believe that God created the heavens and the earth and God is creating still – through and with us. How dare we let ourselves, our egos and those darned details get in the way?

Details have their place. I know. In the work that I currently do in that veterinary emergency room and intensive care unit, details, protocols and procedure are very important. The lives of the patients I serve depend on my colleagues and me paying attention to minute details and follow procedures and protocols to a “T”. And sometimes no matter how hard we try and in spite of the excellent care we provide, some of those battered and horribly diseased bodies of our patients can’t go on. And in those moments my colleagues and I need let go and relinquish those blessed creatures to God’s eternal care. It’s intense and it’s not easy. And if I have learned anything from the intensity of my workplace, the intensity of my clinical pastoral education at Bronson Hospital last summer, and the pain of the losses I have experienced in both places – I need to take care of myself. I need to take care of my own emotional pain and grief. If I don’t, I can’t serve others. If I don’t, I’ll be crippled by it.

Wounds do that – especially those that are left festering and unattended. If we don’t treat our wounds, especially emotional wounds – they can’t heal. That’s the difference that I see between the woman who anoints Jesus versus the Galatians. By receiving grace and forgiveness, the woman was beginning to heal and thereby able to serve Jesus in an extravagant expression of her faith. In contrast, the Galatians were at odds with each other. I think the argument over circumcision was just the tip of the iceberg for them. If you like symbolism, circumcision was probably symbolic of their woundedness. And their unresolved wounds – whatever caused those past hurts – were significantly impairing their new church. And their community of faith and their ministry were crippled. When people get hung up on petty differences and details, there is usually something much deeper at the root of it. Unfortunately, Paul’s letter doesn’t divulge what might have been beneath the surface of their argument. But I think it’s clear that they are avoiding dealing with the real issues.

Sure, it’s human nature to avoid conflict. We don’t like bringing up past issues, hurts or losses, because we don’t want to face the emotional turmoil. We don’t want to make people mad or make them cry. It takes courage and great love to face the pain of our wounds. If we do, like the woman in our gospel story, we can heal; we can move forward; and we can live out our faith and ministry in extraordinary ways for the sake of many.

Okay, I’m going to take a risk here and name the elephant in the room, by bringing up our loss of Pastor Tom. And this is a unique loss, brought about by finances not death. It has wounded us. Unless we deal with our collective pain and grief over this, we won’t be able to effectively move forward with our ReVision process. We won’t be able to effectively minister to those in need, to the homeless vets, widows and orphans and the voiceless who need us to cry out for justice for them, like we talked about last week. We will be crippled, just like the Galatians. We need to help each other heal. We cannot bury our grief. If we bury it and avoid dealing with it, like Mount Vesuvius, it will erupt and it won’t be pretty when it does. And a lot of people will be hurt by the eruption.

So, I invite us to open up and engage in conversations about our loss of Tom. In love, we need to treat this like every other loss, nurturing one another through the pain of our grief and helping each other cope. And since I ripped off the bandaid too soon exposing this wound, I am willing to take the heat. My number is in the directory. If you feel the need to talk or even vent your pain, give me a call. I’ll listen. And I’ll pray with you. But I can’t single-handedly help this community heal. As a community, we need to work through this together. We must. And we must do it now for the sake of everyone here … for the sake of all those out there who need us to minister to them and to advocate for them. Our healing will provide a strong foundation on which we can build our ReVisioning process. Let’s not allow petty details or the pain of grief to stand in the way of God’s creative activity. In love, let us be open, be bold and be humble. May the love of Christ guide all we do so that we can make a difference with our faith – in extravagant ways, working through love.

Thanks be to God. Amen