Scripture Lesson: Luke 7:36-8:3
Sermon: To Life!
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
Cynthia Moss lived among the elephants of Kenya’s Amboseli National Park for 20 years. In the book, Elephant Memories, she tells of the lives of her closest elephant companions. While Moss was following the elephants, there was a very bad drought. With no rain, most of the plant life died and the elephants had very little food to eat. This led to the death of many of the great animals. Moss tells of one group of elephants and their search for food just after the rains began which ended the drought:
The four families, with their matriarchs Torn Ear, Tania, Slit Ear, and Teresia, stood bunched together forming a single tight-knit group. With them were several independent, but young, males. In all they made up a group of 30 animals. Earlier in the evening they had moved out of the swamp up into the long tough grass just to the north of the swamp. Now they waited in the security of the tall ‘elephant grass’ for darkness. It had rained for several days in a row and there were strong smells of damp earth and new grass on the wind. The elephants did not rest; they milled about, clearly stimulated and on edge. They were as thin as ever from the long drought but their whole demeanor had changed. Instead of being slow and plodding, their gestures were now energetic and lively. There were frequent rumbles from various individuals and a reaching of trunks toward one another. The younger animals in particular seemed eager to get going, but the big females remained stationary.
Finally, when the sky was lit by only the new moon and a few emerging stars, Torn Ear made the soft ‘let’s go’ rumble while slapping and sliding her ears against her neck and shoulders, and set off toward the ridges above the basin to the north. They moved away from the protection of the long grass out onto short grass plains, which had been reduced to nearly bare ground by the long drought. . . The elephants were nervous and did not vocalize as they traveled. . . They soon reached the red-soil ridge. . . Although small bushes here had recently flushed green, there was no new grass yet and the elephants did not stop to feed. . . They walked fast, rapidly covering ground, and they eventually came to an area at the base of the hills that had received more and earlier rain than the places they had come through. Here, fresh bright-green grass was growing.
The elephants began to feed immediately, wrapping their trunks around the stalks, breaking off as big a bunch as possible, and stuffing it into their mouths. It was the first sweet, nutritious grass that they had had for many months and they ate as if they were never going to see any again. [From Elephant Memories: Thirteen Years in the Life of An Elephant Family by Cynthia Moss, pp. 65-66, adapted slightly]
These elephants leave their familiar home territory, weak and vulnerable, seeking life. They know that they must migrate, they must move, if they are to live. So they go. They follow their instincts and they follow the leader, Torn Ear, and they are not disappointed.
We, too, have the instinct for life. But unlike other animals, our journey is more complicated. We have competing paths to choose from. There are different leaders we can follow. We have to choose between right and wrong. We construct our reality. Elephants don’t have to worry about all of that. They just know what to do. And yet, like the elephants, our drive for life is very strong.
In the scripture lesson this morning, we heard a story about people who are seeking life. And they have chosen to follow Jesus to lead them to life. In his teaching, in their experience with him, they have found a new way of looking at themselves and the world that is refreshing and life-giving. With Jesus, they taste nourishing, new life that is like the fresh bright-green grass that revives the elephants.
In the story we heard today, we are told about a woman with expensive oil who follows Jesus to Simon the Pharisee’s house. We heard mention of the 12 disciples who have left home, family, and livelihood to follow Jesus. And we were told of women, among them, Mary, Susanna, and Joanna, who follow Jesus helping and giving of their money to support the ministry of Jesus and his followers. All of these and more are following Jesus. They have chosen this path that leads to life.
The way it is presented in the gospel of Luke, these people have heard Jesus’ teachings, things like ‘love your enemy,’ ‘do good to those who hate you,’ ‘turn the other cheek.’ And they see that Jesus is showing them a whole new way of relating to each other and the world. They see how Jesus is turning things upside down. And they feel the power of new life in his message. So they follow. Like the elephants in search of food, they follow because they trust that he is leading them to life. He is showing them the way to joy and peace.
We are here because we also want to follow the way of Jesus to life that is exciting and satisfying and purposeful. We have heard a rumble stirring us to follow. We look around and we see much of death and suffering. And we recognize that we have been called to take another path. To choose another way of seeing ourselves and the world. And we believe that this way, the way that we are shown by Jesus, is a way that is life-giving not life-taking.
Let’s look at how this new life offered by Jesus works for the people in the story we listened to this morning. The woman who comes to Simon the Pharisee’s house with the oil that she puts on Jesus’ feet is known to be a sinner. Apparently she has a reputation as a bad person. Simon is not happy that this bad person is at his house. But Jesus is not upset by this. He sees what she is doing as a response to being forgiven. Whatever she has done that makes others think she is a bad person, she feels she has been forgiven. The regret and shame that she felt over what she had done has been taken away. She feels she has been given another chance at life. She is a person of worth and value again. She feels that by accepting forgiveness, she has been given a new life. She is so grateful that she lavishes her gratitude and love upon Jesus.
From this nameless woman, we are reminded that forgiveness can renew our lives. And Jesus taught a lot about forgiveness. He told people that there was nothing we can do that is so bad that God cannot forgive us. Jesus showed us that God wants to forgive us. God is eager for us to be freed of the bad feelings and regrets we have when we do something that hurts ourselves or someone else. Jesus shows us how forgiveness is like that fresh grass that brought the elephants back to life.
Jesus also shows us that we experience new life when we forgive others. Offering forgiveness to others can remove the bad feelings that result when we do things that hurt others. When we forgive, we help to heal those feelings. Our relationships can be mended. We can make a new start.
Forgiveness is very important for the healing of relationships whether between individuals, in families, at school, or at work. It is also important between groups of people in society. When people come together and resolve their differences there is new life.
Unfortunately, today in our world, we see a growing fear of those who seem to be different. Who are “other.” Maybe foreign or Mexican or Muslim. This fear can lead to anger, hatred, and even violence. This is not the way of Jesus. It is not life giving. The way of life that Jesus shows us involves all different kinds of people working together and cooperating for the common good.
In the gospel of Luke, Jesus tells people to love their enemies. That is followed by a story about Jesus healing the servant of a Roman soldier. The Romans were enemies, so Jesus is showing love for his enemy. The way of life that Jesus shows us involves actually doing good for those whom we don’t like. This kind of action can lead to forgiveness and new life.
It was so wonderful this week to see people of many perspectives and religions and cultures honoring the life of Muhammad Ali. He lived as a citizen of the world, a member of the human race. He tried to overcome the differences that separate and divide people. This is the way of Jesus; a way of full and abundant life for all people.
In the scripture lesson we heard today, we are also told about women that follow Jesus, including Mary, Susanna, and Joanna. This is one of the few references to women as followers of Jesus. We are told that these women help the other disciples and give their money to support the ministry of Jesus. They are doing this because they have found new life in the way of Jesus and they want to follow him.
At that time, women were not at all equal to men in the eyes of the society. They had few rights and they were considered to be possessions of men – their fathers or husbands. If they were not under the protection of a man, they did not fit in and did not have a way to earn money and live. Jesus showed women that they were valued in the sight of God; that God loves and cares for women and men equally. This message was life-giving for the women who felt degraded and demeaned in that culture. Regardless of what society says about the worth of women, both women and men find the way to full and abundant life in the way of Jesus. Even though the Jesus movement and the church are not free of patriarchy and sexism, the foundational message of Jesus that leads to life is that all people are of equal value in God.
This message is still very important for people to hear today. The recent story of the assault case at Stanford University helps us to see in glaring terms that the worth of women is still an issue in our culture. While we may celebrate that there is a woman running for president of the United States, that does not mean that things are equal for women in this country. If you have not yet read it, I encourage you to read the statement by the woman who was assaulted at Stanford. It is easy to find on the internet and will be read out loud in Congress this week. It directly speaks to the discounting of the woman and the privileging of the man in the case. That is not the way of Jesus; it is not the way of life. It is not the way to healing, wholeness, and reconciliation for the human family. Jesus shows us the way to life where everyone is equally valued and gender, color, age, background, money, and intelligence have nothing to do with a person’s fundamental worth.
In the story we heard this morning, we are also told of the 12 disciples that follow Jesus. They have left their homes, families, and jobs to be part of what Jesus is doing and to spread his message of love and new life for all. The new life Jesus gives is so compelling that they follow, even though it may have been hard to leave their old lives behind. They leave what was comfortable and familiar and venture into something new because they want to be part of this new world Jesus is showing to them. These disciples reorient their whole lives to follow Jesus to new life.
Mary, Susanna, Joanna, the 12 disciples, and the others who follow Jesus see where he is leading them. They see the destination. Life! So they follow. The Pharisee in the story doesn’t seem so sure. He is searching. I think he wants to see this new life Jesus is offering but for him it is not yet clear. Maybe he can’t leave his old ways behind. Maybe he is afraid of the unknown. Maybe it feels like too much of a risk to him. Maybe it’s easier for those who are poor, who have less to lose, or for women, who are already in a diminished place in society, to accept this new path of life.
But make no mistake, the way of Jesus is a path of life for all. All are welcome. All belong. No one is turned away. No one left out or cast aside. The belonging and community are life-giving for all, not just some. It is a path that gives to each of us the forgiveness we need, whatever that may be. For hurting others. For hurting ourselves. For being part of systems that take advantage of others and the earth. For being too tied to material possessions and comforts while ignoring the needs of others. For denying our worth and that of others. For abusing the beautiful earth which feeds us, the elephants, and all the animals. For turning away from the way of Jesus even though we come to church. And the church itself needs forgiveness for turning its back on the way of Jesus. We can be forgiven our part in hurting others. We can forgive those who harm us. We can serve friend and foe, with dignity and generosity.
What Jesus shows us is a path of life. He leads us to a mindset, a value system, a reality, an identity that is life-giving, not life-denying. He shows us that forgiveness and love foster life. Cooperation rather than competition is the way of life. Overcoming harmful attitudes that separate and divide us are the path of life for all. Jesus shows us a way to life not a way to death, destruction, violence, and war. No. He is giving us a way of caring for each other with dignity and respect for ourselves and for all of life regardless of who we are. He is leading us to the place of refreshing peace, like that beautiful matriarch elephant, Torn Ear, leading her tribe away from the death of the drought to the fresh green grass of life.
Those elephants that made their way through the night did not go in a slow and plodding manner. They were eager, energetic, and lively, despite their weakness from lack of food. They were driven to stay alive, to pursue life, to survive.
Though we may be surrounded by difficulties and problems that wear us down, Jesus is leading us to life. He knows the way. He goes before us. May we follow Jesus. Trust his lead. No holding back. No fear. Pure life! Amen!
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