When Worlds Collide

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Where else would this group of people ever come together in fellowship… if not around the table of Christ’s feast of grace?

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 7:36-8:3
June 16, 2013
Peder Stenslie

Right at the end of my junior year in college I became friends with a man who had fled South Africa some 10 years earlier.  He had been involved in antiapartheid protests and had to flee to avoid arrest and very brutal prison conditions.  Leaving behind a wife and child, he then lived in very difficult conditions in neighboring Namibia.  Just recently, he had received permission to come to the United States to study.

It was an eye-opening experience getting to know him and spend time with him.  I was very puzzled one day when he emphatically declared that there was absolutely no prejudice in America.  None!

Well, I certainly knew that America had its share of problems with prejudice and racism; but I gradually realized that he couldn’t see it because he hadn’t lived here long enough to recognize its familiar expressions here.  He just didn’t know our world yet.

Likewise, I recognized that it was very hard for me to grasp the world he had come from.  Some of the things he said and decisions he had made troubled me; but how could I understand the conditions and situation of his life in South Africa or Namibia?

We enjoyed each other’s company but it was really difficult for us to grasp the world the other came from, and that made for some interesting moments that reminded me of the expression “when worlds collide.”

The origin of that popular expression — as far as I know — is the title of a 1933 science fiction novel, followed by a movie of the same name in 1951.  But the expression has been taken into general use and applied in many different contexts.  “When Worlds Collide” has been the name of documentaries, business reports, scholarly articles, a news column, a role-playing game, musical compositions and a very funny Gary Larson cartoon… to name a few.

Whenever it is used, the expression refers to contact between radically different cultures, classes or personalities, and the misunderstanding and conflict that often follow.

The expression “when worlds collide” describes well the events that unfold in today’s Gospel Lesson.  The 1st world that comes into view is that of the Pharisee.   He comes from a leading class of his community.  He is upright, proud, wealthy and powerful.  He is used to being in control, being respected.  He believes he is in full command of his world, his standing in the community and his relationship with God.

He wants to meet Jesus… probably because he wants to bring Jesus under his command as well.  He wants to test and observe Jesus so that he can fit him neatly into his mental map of the world.  Is he a prophet?  A teacher?  A hoax?  Simon will observe Jesus for himself and decide.  And if he concludes that Jesus is for real and important, it would be good to score some points with him, use Jesus to his advantage… to enhance his own position and standing.

Everything was probably going according to plan until the calm of that very proper and composed occasion was shattered by an abrupt collision with another world very far removed from that of the Pharisee.  A woman of the city crashed Simon’s party and carried on in a very bizarre and embarrassing way.  What a terribly uncomfortable moment it must have been for Simon and his guests!

The woman didn’t belong there.  Her place in society was far beneath the pharisee and his circle of friends in absolutely all categories imaginable.  She didn’t belong there… and yet she came.  And when she came, it wasn’t meekly, quietly… hiding in the shadows… hoping to get a glimpse of Jesus from afar, hoping not to draw attention to herself.

She entered Simon’s home without restraint, bearing a gift, and making a beeline to the guest of honor.  She wept loudly and touched him in very strange and unsettling ways, washing his feet with her tears and drying them with her hair, then kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment that she brought.

The Pharisee and his friends were horrified.  With the exception of Jesus, the woman was surrounded by hostile faces.  The Pharisee strongly disapproved of the woman’s presence, her behavior… indeed her very being.  In fact, for Simon, this incident was proof that Jesus was a hoax.  The lesson has Simon saying 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.”

But the collision of worlds is not finished yet.  In Jesus, yet another “world…” the realm of the Kingdom of God,… is on the move.  The expression “when worlds collide” takes on whole new meaning as Jesus responds to the Pharisee’s disapproval of the woman.

Jesus lays out for the Pharisee the way and work of the Kingdom of God… the “world” that should have changed and shaped Simon’s heart as it had the woman of the city.

Jesus makes it clear that distinctions of social class and standing that are so important to the Pharisee are completely meaningless in the Kingdom of God.  The woman understood this, which is why she was able to be so bold and brave.

By way of parable and explanation, Jesus tries to teach Simon about what matters in the Kingdom of God.

As was the case with the woman, it begins with recognizing our sinfulness, our inability to live right, our deep need for God’s grace and mercy… our terrible poverty when we pretend to be our own masters in life.  This is important because it opens up our hearts and minds to receive what we need to make our lives whole.

What matters in the Kingdom of God is that we grasp the all-important truth that in Jesus there is immeasurable and unconditional love and complete forgiveness… power that brings growth, healing and joy to our shallow and shattered lives.

What matters in the Kingdom of God is letting God’s Spirit fill our hearts with love and gratitude so that our thoughts and actions come to reflect the love and grace of our creator.

The Kingdom of God… the realm of God’s life-giving power and will… had laid hold of the woman of the city.  We don’t know the details of her experience, but we do know that it filled her with deep love and gratitude and amazing courage and boldness.  It enabled her to cross rigid class boundaries… to do what others would never have dared to do because she realized that above and beyond anything else in this world, what mattered was the power and love of God active in her life.  It empowered her to choose life over shame and self-destruction.  And that is an amazing thing.

There is so much to learn from today’s Gospel lesson.  It helps us understand how the Kingdom of God works in our lives and world.  It shows us what it looks like.  It reminds us that we who follow Christ are no longer slaves to the values and prejudices of the cultures, classes or circumstances from which we come.  Rather, the Gospel sets us free to break boundaries and answer Christ’s call to new life… and in the interest of new life… to go where we’ve never gone before and to be who we’ve never been before.

Look around you.  Look at us.  This is what the Kingdom of God looks like.  This is what the Kingdom of God does.  It brings together people from many different walks of life… from very different worlds… different experiences.  Where else would this group of people ever come together in fellowship… if not around the table of Christ’s feast of grace?

When the Kingdom of God is on the move, people very different from each other are drawn together… worlds collide… boundaries and limits are shattered… new life is found… new brothers and sisters are made… strength, hope and freedom are born out of bondage, despair and weakness.

That is what happens in the Kingdom of God.  Christ called and welcomed the woman of the city into this world.  And she came.  He calls and welcomes all of us as well.

Amen.