Sermon for Closing Worship at 2016 Northeastern Iowa Synod Assembly

Molly Beck Dean, Program Director, ELCA Youth Gathering


Luke 7:36–8:3

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.”

8:1Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, 2as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

A party. A nameless woman. A powerful man. A hero.


A story we read about in scripture this morning. A story that has led the news and been viral on social media all week. Now don’t worry, I’m not drawing direct parallels to these stories. The woman in this passage did not choose to remain nameless, while the Stanford rape victim has mostly chosen anonymity. And while those two young men on bicycles can be hailed as heroes, they are certainly not Jesus Christ.

But honestly, church, I’m frustrated and angry with some things and I think Jesus would be, too, if he were walking around today.

And sometimes I wonder where I will find the energy and the gumption and honestly sometimes even the will to be church for the sake of the world when so much of our world is a hot mess. But you know what? I’m raising two children in this hot mess. And I’m walking on faith journeys with some amazing teenagers in this crazy world and they need me to dig deep and pray loud and get mad and live in hope. So this preacher is going to preach like it matters because we are

So this preacher is going to preach like it matters because we are Church for the sake of the world.

In our Gospel reading, Luke shows us a Jesus who respects women, who loves and accepts them as children of God, same as men. And while we as a world, as a country, as a humankind like to hold up examples of how things have changed and gotten better for women and others who are historically “less than” over the years, I fear we are still drastically falling short of Jesus’ example.
When a judge gives a pitifully light sentence to a man who sexually assault someone because of all the potential that will be lost if this young rapist is forced to serve a longer sentence, we as people of faith should be outraged.
When children who are fleeing a life of poverty and danger that none of us can imagine are locked in detention centers, our hearts should break.
When laws like the “bathroom bill” in North Carolina are passed, we as a country need to take a deep breath and do a reality check. And the reality is that more than 50% of Transgender youth will have had at least one suicide attempt by their 20th birthday compared to less than 10% of the general youth population. Transgender people are dying at alarming rates – by their own doing or by the hands of others –and we should be devastated.

And not only should we be feeling all these feelings, but those feelings should call us to action.

We are here to serve and advocate for our brothers and sisters in need, to call the unnamed out of the shadows and into the light and hope that Christ Jesus provides.

There are plenty of women who remain nameless in the Bible and probably many stories which feature women were completely left out because of when and who wrote down the inspired word of God, but God still knows the stories of those named and unnamed women in the Bible just as God knows the stories of people today who continue to feel unheard and unseen.
But what does it mean to be unnamed? It means that instead of being greeted with special and familiar words, you are known by your reputation, by “what” you are. Being unnamed instantly notes you as not important. I mean think of the “important” people in the Bible – there are so many names tied to their existence, generations of names listed – son of so and so who was the son of so and so.

Names matter. Without a name, you might as well not exist.

I’m sure that if any of us had arrived at this assembly and were handed a blank name tag we would have immediately questioned why our name wasn’t printed and then would have written it in. Being known matters. Imagine what being deemed invisible does to your self-worth, to your soul…when all you are known by is what you did or didn’t do or who you belong to or what bad fortune has touched your life.
Brock Turner’s nameless sexual assault victim wrote a deeply moving statement before his sentencing. In it, she said “In newspapers my name was “unconscious intoxicated woman”, ten syllables, and nothing more than that. For a while, I believed that that was all I was. I had to force myself to relearn my real name, my identity. To relearn that this is not all that I am. That I am not just a drunk victim at a frat party found behind a dumpster, while you are the All-American swimmer at a top university, innocent until proven guilty, with so much at stake. I am a human being who has been irreversibly hurt, who waited a year to figure out if I was worth something.”
To figure out if I was worth something. Isn’t that exactly the reason this woman shows up at Jesus’ feet more than 2,000 years ago? She, too, was irreversibly hurt, likely from her own sin, but also likely by the laws and attitudes of her community and she came that night to see if she was worth something. And there, at the feet of Jesus, she heard the good news that she was. That her faith, her love for God was enough.

Again and again in the gospels, Jesus draws our attention to unnamed, invisible people, those that others have cast out or refuse to see – the leper, the woman, the crippled, the child. Jesus dignifies them with direct address, with touch, with healing and forgiveness.

He turns his back on the privileged. In this story that’s Simon and the other Pharisees – he literally turns away from Simon to look at the woman who is washing his feet with tears and perfume and says “Do you see this woman?”
Of course, Simon saw her – everyone saw her come into the room. Everyone apparently knew her story…or thought they did. No one spoke to her or of her. She quickly became invisible until Jesus turned to her, spoke to her, forgave her of her sins and used her to teach Simon a lesson about hospitality, forgiveness and love. And given Simon’s place in his society, it was likely a very hard pill to swallow. Scenes like this are what led to Jesus hanging on a cross. Jesus performing miracles was one thing, but turning the world’s order upside down was another.
And today’s world has an order to it, too. Most of us in this room live in this country with great privilege within that order. We get to choose when and how we enter into difficult conversations that our country and our church are having right now. Conversations about gender, race, sexual orientation, origin of birth and economic status.
The probation officer in the Stanford sexual assault case weighed the fact that Brock Turner had to surrender a hard-earned swimming scholarship when recommending a sentence. If this young woman had been sexually assaulted by an un-athletic guy from a community college, what would his sentence be? If a first time offender from an underprivileged background, and let’s just leave race out of it because we know the story would be different then, was accused of three felonies and displayed no accountability for his actions other than drinking, what would his sentence be?
How fast you swim or how rich your parents are should not be a factor in our justice system. And we being people of faith and of privilege need to have something to say about that. There are people who need us to acknowledge their existence, to turn our backs to privilege and to say with loving hearts, “Do you see this woman? This man? This child?”

And so I ask you, sisters and brothers, who are the invisible people in your community? Who are the ones whose names you do not bother to know or speak? Who would Jesus be turning to and speaking to if he was at dinner in your neighborhood?

The reason Simon does not think Jesus is a prophet is because he lets this sinner touch him. Simon does not understand the true nature of God’s love and acceptance. Simon would reject the woman and think that she was unworthy of God’s forgiveness. And if you start acknowledging and touching sinners, castaways and unnamed people the Simons of this world will not understand.
If your church becomes the place that migrants or prostitutes or transgender kids come to because they know it’s a safe place to grow in faith and to find a better tomorrow, if your church is lucky enough to become that Jesus-place, you will have members or long time supporters walk right out of your doors and never come back. You might even lose personal friends who can’t believe that you would associate yourself with such a place and such people.

This discipling, Jesus-following thing is not easy, my friends. It is not for the faint-hearted.

It is hard, counter-cultural stuff It’s not easy or popular to call out wrongs in our world or our community or our congregation or our household. It’s so much easier to just let the invisible people stay invisible. This is the kind of work and life that should bring you to your knees every day because if we truly believe that God’s love and forgiveness is for everyone and if we truly believe that Christ died for all our sins then we should fall on our knees and pray for the guts to live like that. To live as Gospel-telling servants in this world. Bishop Ullestad reminded us on Friday night that God chose to come to this world not as a person of privilege, but as a slave. Not to be served, but to serve and that we are called into the same life.

Do we believe that or not?

A couple of days ago Vice President Joe Biden released an open letter to Brock Turner’s victim. And regardless of if you love him or hate him, his words speak undeniable truth.
“I do not know your name — but I see your unconquerable spirit. I see the limitless potential of an incredibly talented young woman — full of possibility.
I see you. You will never be defined by what the defendant’s father callously termed “20 minutes of action.” His son will be.
We will speak out against those who seek to engage in plausible deniability. Those who know that this is happening, but don’t want to get involved. Who believe that this ugly crime is “complicated.”
We will speak of you — you who remain anonymous not only to protect your identity but because you so eloquently represent “every woman.””
It is my deepest hope for this Church that each one of us can find words like these in the days to come. Words that lift up the invisible and speak Christ’s love to those who thought they were forgotten.

Because not only is it what we profess to do and be about for the sake of the world, the deepest truth is that we are all the woman weeping at Jesus’ feet. Sinners in need of hearing our Savior’s words – “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Join the conversation! 1 Comment

  1. Help. Thanks. Wow.


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About The Rev. Dr. Joelle Colville-Hanson

The Rev. Dr. Joelle Colville-Hanson has been Director for Evangelical Mission, ELCA for the Northeastern Iowa Synod since late 2013. Part of her job description is to help leaders and congregations use social media and other digital means for outreach and mission. She writes and edits this blog as well as runs the social media accounts for the synod.




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