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Whitworth University Fall Convocation Address 2009 

Sept. 10, 2009
Bill Robinson

Today marks the 10th anniversary of our service-learning program. It has been a huge success. We thank all of you students, faculty and staff who have contributed to this expression of Whitworth's mission to serve humanity. After my remarks, Rhosetta Rhodes will announce the students who are being given the Bonner Scholar Award and the Jef Olson Service Award.

There's one part of service I've never understood. Everyone who comes back from building homes in Mexico or helping orphans in Romania reports the same thing: "I received so much more than I gave." Well, you're not supposed to. And then they close their remarks by saying, "You should do this, too. It will make you feel great." Actually, it's supposed to make the Mexicans and the Romanians feel great. You help people in need, you get more than you give, and it makes you feel great. That's weird…but it's undeniable. That's the way it works, isn't it? Serving others is so gratifying. It is so life-giving. We experience the irony expressed in the prayer of St. Francis, "…for it is in giving that we receive." That's what happens. However, at the motivational level, our service should not be for what WE get. It should be for what the people we serve get. That we are the big winners is irony, not incentive.

So, when [Vice President for Student Life and Dean of Students] Kathy Storm suggested that I speak this morning on service, I thought about this Bible story that's rather thick with irony, a story where Jesus offers "service-learning" to Simon, his host.

When Michael [Le Roy, '89, vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty] read this passage from Luke, you might have noticed the situational irony. Immediately after the self-righteous Pharisees get done pounding on Jesus for hanging out with sinners, Jesus is hanging out with the Pharisees, pretty much proving their point. The irony is sweet. It is also ironic that while the sinner in this story is busy serving, the religious guy in this story is busy condescending.

But the most powerful irony I found in the passage has to do with who's serving whom. This weeping woman is exactly the kind of person that Jesus loves to serve. Isn't she the one who needs help? Isn't she the one who should be served? She has probably been the victim of some horrible circumstance. She should be the object of service. But in this situation, she isn't. She's the subject of service. She is the server, not the "servee." She is the giver, not the receiver. Jesus allows himself to be the object so that she can be the subject. Jesus gives her control over the situation. He dignifies this sinner by giving her the freedom to serve him. Before saying anything to Simon about service, Jesus shows by example that the most enduring service we can give will dignify and empower the people we serve. In this case, ironically, Jesus serves the woman by allowing her to serve him.

Forty-two years ago, I was a freshman in college with a really warm and happy fellow student named Wes Stafford. I loved bumping into Wes. He always made everyone feel a little special. Wes is now the president of Compassion International, a ministry that brings physical and spiritual support to impoverished children around the world.

A few years ago when Wes was here visiting, he told me two things that I won't forget. He's not a very authoritarian type of guy, but he said that when he took the reins of Compassion, he announced to the organization that they would never publish a pathetic picture of a child; in fact, they would never publish a picture of a child that would fail to make that child's mother proud. His other comment was that Compassion's mission was incomplete until the children they served became independent young adults. Christlike service means dignity and empowerment. The woman Simon saw as an object, Jesus dignified as a subject.

When I reread this story to prepare for this morning, I noticed three great service lessons that Jesus is teaching Simon.

Lesson one: If you're going to serve others, you have to see others. Jesus asks a rhetorical question: "Simon, do you see this woman?" This is one of those questions that make you squirm. You're standing by the fender on your mother's car, the fender you annihilated, the fender you were hoping she wouldn't notice. She asks the big non-question, "Do you see this fender?" And you answer with a bigger non-question, "What, this fender?" As if there might be any other fender in the universe she could be referring to. Neither of you is seeking information. Your mother has asked a rhetorical question, the kind where you know more is coming. Simon had to know more was coming.

Jesus was getting a reputation as a healer. He gave sight to the blind, just as he said he would when he came out of the wilderness. And when Jesus asked Simon, "Do you see this woman?" that's exactly what he was trying to do – give sight to the blind.

The point of the question is obvious. "Simon, you're too busy judging this woman to really see her. You have put her in the ‘known sinner' category, and now that's all you can see." So, the question turns to us. Are we too busy judging people to see them, really see them? Do we categorize needy people as objects? If we do, we will patronize them, not serve them. If we want to go about Christ's work of setting people free, then we need to begin by setting them free of our categories. They don't need one more person to box them as lazy or stupid or helpless or big sinners. They are not projects. They are people. "Simon, do you see this woman?"

At a university, we assume that knowledge gives us better vision. It can and it should. But sometimes it does the opposite. Virtually every commentary on Luke identifies this woman as a prostitute. Biblical scholars argue that free-flowing hair is the scarlet letter of first-century harlots, and the bottle of expensive perfume surely came from her customers. These commentators might be right, but they need to be careful. Barbara Reid, dean of Catholic Theological Union, in Chicago, offers a strong argument that this woman was not necessarily a harlot. There are other possible reasons for her hair, her perfume and her reputation.

The only hard fact provided by Luke is that she's a known sinner. It's the commentators who put her in the harlot category. So, ironically, when they explain to readers how Simon's stereotyping impairs his vision, their vision might be just as impaired by their assumption that this woman is a prostitute. When Jesus asks the question, "Do you see this woman?,", he's telling Simon, "Where you see a sinner, I see a server." Simon saw a category. Jesus saw a person. I think Jesus is telling us that our categories can impair our vision. Learning to serve means learning to see beyond our assumptions. It means learning to see people through the lens of respect and through the lens of grace.

Lesson two: The next service lesson Jesus teaches in this story is passion. Jesus just loves this woman's heart. Incidentally, this incident at the house of Simon the Pharisee is not likely the same one that took place at Simon the Leper's house. In both cases, a woman crashed the party and drenched Jesus with perfume, but this is a different Simon, a different location, and a different time. What is the same, however, is the love Jesus shows for the unrestrained heart of an unwanted woman.

The word passion comes from the Latin infinitive that means "to suffer." I have to admit, being married to Bonnie and such, I don't really associate passion with suffering. But this definition is why Christ's crucifixion is often referred to as his passion, his suffering. In our culture, we associate "passion" with emotional intensity, often in a positive way. But both usages imply that passion is a rather uncontrollable emotion. Whether it refers to suffering, longing, excitement or even lust, passion is hard to keep bottled up.

Jesus loved this woman's passion. "Simon, do you see this woman? She couldn't hold back her tears. She couldn't hold back her kisses. She couldn't hold back her extravagance. But you, Simon, you managed to hold back all of those things." We can get very cautious in our service, very restrained. One time a guy approached me at O'Hare Airport with a very sad story. I wasn't certain he could be trusted, but I just felt led to help him. We exchanged addresses, and I lent him $20. As it turned out, I gave him $20.

This kind of a deal can make you cautious. You start thinking that whatever was leading you, it wasn't the Lord. You start thinking, "I get the prize for stupid." You vow not to get hustled again. And you get safe. And Jesus says to Simon, "Look at the risk this woman is taking. Look at her passion." I think Jesus just loves passionate, selfless service. And where does it say that God gives demerits for trusting someone who hustles you? And how do I know for sure that the guy didn't lose my address?

We probably have enough careful servers. But we absolutely do not have enough passionate servers. I hope Whitworth will inspire you students to follow the lead of this unnamed woman. I believe God is looking for students who weep. Students who weep over their own sinfulness, students who weep over hungry children and dying parents, students who fall to their knees and splash their treasure, no matter who's watching. That's what this woman did. She didn't just stand behind Jesus and cry. She served him. She couldn't help it.

Lesson three: The third service lesson is found in the story Jesus tells Simon. The first two lessons apply to everyone. Seeing and caring deeply about those in need is our human duty. But this third lesson is especially for those of us who are Christians. Jesus tells Simon a story about a moneylender who cancels one guy's big debt and another guy's small debt. He makes the point of his parable by asking Simon another rhetorical question. "Simon, who will love the master most, the one who has been forgiven much or the one who has been forgiven little?" Simon gets it right, the one who's been forgiven much.

When Jesus says more forgiveness should inspire more love, he is making a justice argument. The more we have been given or forgiven, the more we will want to serve the one who has blessed us. That's what the woman was doing. She served the one who loved and forgave her in spite of her sins. She was tearfully aware of her debt.

I love the imagery in Psalms, Proverbs and Isaiah assuring us that when God redeems us he "remembers our sins no more." That's amazing. But nowhere in the Bible does it say that we should remember our sins no more. Certainly, we should not feel guilty about the sins that Christ died on the cross to forgive. When we do that, we are questioning whether the cross was enough. But, on the other hand, we should remember that we needed to be forgiven. We messed up, and we keep messing up, and the more we mess up, the more we need to be forgiven. We are galactically indebted to Jesus. The justice parable collapses if we forget that we have been forgiven. We serve people because we love people. We serve Jesus because we love Jesus. But there is a justice argument. Our forgiveness indentures us to Jesus. And how do we attempt to repay our debt to Jesus? Jesus says when we feed the hungry, we feed him. When we clothe the naked, we clothe him. Serving others is serving Jesus. That is the code of justice in the Kingdom of God.

In this story, Jesus teaches us three service lessons. We have to see. We have to feel. And we have to repay. If you are not serving actively, do the diagnostics. Is it your vision, is it your heart, or have you forgotten about your debt? I know which one it is for me. I don't serve as much as I used to. And I know why. I'm not crying as much as I used to. I stand next to the woman behind Jesus. I explain him, I defend him, I preach about him, and I worry for him, but I'm not crying much, not for him or for anyone else, really.

In a university, it's easy to get very cerebral about service. But that doesn't feed hungry people or wash the precious and broken feet of Jesus. So this year I'm going to get my passion groove back. I know what I need to do. I have a feeling that you students also know what you need to do. And I think you're going to do it. I think you're going to have a great year. And we all stand ready to support you. I pray this will be a year in which your vision, your passion, and your sense of justice will put you at the feet of those who desperately need you. God bless you. Amen.