Scripture: Mark 12: 28-31 and Luke 7: 36-50
Sermon, Aug 7th, 2016, “Do You See?”
Sawubona friends! Do you know what that means? Last July at a conversation on race and faith with IndyCAN, the faith based justice organization here in Indianapolis, the presenter asked, “Does anyone know what sawubona means?” I eagerly raised my hand, because I actually knew what that word meant. The only reason I knew was not due to my vast knowledge of Zulu or Afrikaans languages. Instead I learned the term on my flight from Dakar, Senegal to Johannesburg, South Africa a year before. The intro video for South African Airlines begins with “Sawubona!” as a welcome. So I eagerly raised my hand like a kid in school trying to impress his teacher and said, “It means I see you.” I later learned that it also means “I see you, I respect you.” The response is Sikhona, which means “I am here. I am present with you. Or I am here to be seen.” Let’s try this greeting together. Sawubona. Sikhona. Sawubona. Sikhona. I see you. You are here.
I absolutely love this greeting. I’m not sure why it grabbed my attention so much when I first heard it, but it did. Maybe these words struck so much because I recognized that this little greeting is so important. On some level, it holds a solution and a challenge for not just the people of South Africa, but for people of faith as well.
It’s important to ask questions and seek after what’s most important in life and faith; to ask “What are the most important things to believe?” It’s the basic question of our book that we are studying this August. What is most important to Jesus? We’re not alone in asking that question. His disciples were seeking after the most important teachings, advice, and words to hear. Even the religious elite, the teachers of the law, became interested in what was most important to this Rabbi, this teacher, named Jesus of Nazareth.
The teachers of the law, just wrapped up, what I can only imagine was a heated debate on marriage and resurrection. In Mark, one the teachers then asks the question to Jesus, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” Jesus quotes the Shema from Deuteronomy in the traditional Books of Moses, the Pentateuch. The word Shema simply means “Hear, O Israel.” What’s most important? Jesus responds with the words of the Shema, “The Lord is one. Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.”
These words are so important, Deuteronomy says to impress these words on your children, talk about them at home, on the road, when you lie down and get up. Tie them on your hands and foreheads. Write them on your doorframes and gates. Or put another way, don’t forget these words!
What’s most important? Love God with everything you are and have. But Jesus doesn’t stop there. Jesus adds another phrase to what’s most important. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” I know what many of you are thinking, “If Jesus would have just stopped with the first part. Loving my neighbor is difficult. You don’t know my neighbor, it’s challenging.” While that might be true, Jesus recognized that you cannot separate these two realities of love. If you love God, you must love your fellow human being. These two things cannot be separated.
Yet it seems like today everyone loves everyone else. I hear it all the time. I love this person or this group of people, but….or except this thing.” The word love is used often today. I love my neighbor, I just don’t like anything they do or say or believe, but I love them. I wonder then what does it really mean to love?
Jesus loved a good meal. He would eat with tax collectors, sinners, even the occasional church goer. One evening, the story is told in Luke that Jesus enters a Pharisee’s home for dinner. An unnamed woman, only known as a town woman who was a sinner, crashed dinner with an alabaster jar of costly perfume. She stood behind Jesus who was at the table. In the first century world, dinner guests sat differently than we do. Jesus would have had his feet behind him. His feet would have been closest to this crying woman. She began to wipe his feet with her tears and hair, and poured her perfume on his feet.
That must have led to some interesting dinner conversation. I’m sure people were talking. Then the religious leader, the dinner host makes one of those comments that he said to himself, but probably wanted everyone to hear, “If this man was really a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is – that she is a sinner.” He would have known what kind of woman she is. Even as I was reading commentaries this week, many label the woman “a sinful woman”, but I did find one that read “a forgiven woman”.
We’re so quick to label and judge other people. It was true 2,000 years ago, it’s true today. Do you know whose sitting next to you in the pew? How do we label them? Do you know what kind of people we serve when we house the homeless, feed the hungry, or donate to those we label “the poor”? They are the people that Jesus dined with, talked with, healed, and saw. We’re equal in the eyes of God, equally loved, equally in need of grace. This unnamed woman in Luke was not just a “sinner”, this woman was a forgiven child of God. It was Jesus who said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you.”
What’s most important to Jesus is to love God and love neighbor, for these two realities cannot be separated. First, we have to begin by seeing other people. People were important to Jesus. That’s why he spent time at dinner meals, teaching, talking, and healing. He didn’t label or judge or push this woman out, he welcomed her at the table. And instead of responding with a direct answer to the Pharisee, named Simon, who called into question Jesus’ place in the faith, he does as he often did, he tells a story.
Jesus tells a brief parable to Simon to illustrate that those who have had a great debt cancelled will love more than those who have only a small debt forgiven. The unnamed woman showed Jesus great hospitality and love. While some of the actions that Jesus mentions as signs of welcome go above and beyond what might be expected in first-century hospitality, such as anointing a guest’s head with oil is not a required sign of hospitality, the point is that the woman in her actions has provided great hospitality because of her great love for Jesus and his mercy.
Of course, this woman came in love and gratitude for who Jesus is, yet Simon could not give a proper welcome to Jesus. Jesus then asks Simon the sacred question, “Do you see this woman?”
Do you really see her? Not for what you label her or believe she is, but do you really see her? This woman is a beloved child of God, who is forgiven and redeemed in Jesus Christ, just like you and me. Could we say the African greeting with confidence to this woman in Luke? Could we say Sawubona, I see you, I really see you?
Remember, this greeting is twofold. It does mean, “I see you,” but it also means “I respect you.” It might be that I see your need and respond, but I also see beyond your need. I see you, I respect you as a fellow human being, a brother or sister in this journey of life. Author and priest Henri Nouwen wrote “Compassion is born when we discover not only that God is God and humans are human, but that our neighbor really is our fellow human being.”
The Pharisee had no interest in showing respect to this woman from the city, this sinner. He didn’t see her as a fellow human being. He knew her place and expected her to know her place too. Yet, Jesus sees this woman and respects her. Jesus allows this woman to touch him. To love is to see and to respect. The people we serve with our ministry partners in our city need to be seen and respected. They have stories, opinions, and dreams that must be valued.
We do a really great job here at Meridian Street seeing a need and responding with great generosity. In July we were challenged to offer donations to our ministry partners and you responded with what I’m calling a Christmas in July miracle. Your donations were amazing! Let’s keep that momentum going, let’s not just see the need, but let’s see the people, for who they are as children of God and recognize that they have a voice and story to be heard and shared too. Consider yourself invited to begin volunteering with IHN, Fletcher Place Community Center, Soup’s On at Robert’s Park, or at the Martin Luther King Community Center with this question in mind, “Do you see?” Jesus asks, “Do you see?” Let’s move our ministry into a place of seeing others as brothers and sisters and begin building relationships, where we love and respect those we serve not just as recipients of our generosity, but as friends.
What’s most important to Jesus, we ask? To love God and love neighbor. To truly love our neighbor, as Jesus said, is to see our neighbor and to respect our neighbor, to authentically say “Sawubona”: I see you, I respect you regardless of race, economic or job status, education, ethnicity, sexuality, immigration status, religious background, ethnicity or any other label or characteristic we attempt to use to divide us and force us to either not see someone else or to see others based on those labels. Instead, as we respond to Jesus’ call to love God and love neighbor, we can’t separate those things. To love is to see and respect everyone we encounter.
“Do you see?” Jesus asked Simon. “Do you see,” Jesus asks us. May we be able to say to all people and truly mean it: “Sawubona” I see you. I respect you. I love you. Amen.
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