Known By the Company We Keep

Jun 16th

Known By the Company We Keep

Luke 7:36-50

John Knox Presbyterian Church

June 16, 2011

The History of Tom Jones, Foundling is one of the earliest English novels ever written, (1749).  It provides a very detailed insight into the intricacies of 18th Century societal conditions in England.  It is the story of a boy, born out of wedlock and abandoned at the home of a gentleman of great virtue and compassion – Mr. Allworthy.  

Rather than sending this foundling off to an orphanage, Mr. Allworthy chose to raise him as if he were his own son.  Thus, Tom Jones had all of the advantages and upbringing of a country gentleman on a large and wealthy estate in an age when children born out of wedlock were generally expelled from polite society, and were seen as morally defective. 

Mr. Allworthy was subjected to all sorts of gossip in the community for treating this UNWORTHY child as if he BELONGED in the home of a respected gentleman.  Notwithstanding the judgement of his neighbors, Mr. Allworthy was steadfast in his commitment to the young man, and held him in great affection. 

Even though he enjoyed the refinements of this level of society, young Tom Jones engaged in some misadventures as a teen, some of which were misrepresented to Mr. Allworthy as being so treacherous that he eventually sent the young Jones away, forbidding him ever to return. 

The ensuing chapters of this very long novel (940 pages!) follow Mr. Jones as he pursues a young woman of great beauty and virtue – Sophia – who has also left her own father’s neighboring estate rather than be forced to marry a man whom she despised.  

In the absence of Tom Jones, a nephew of the compassionate Mr. Allworthy, did everything in his power to smear Tom Jones and undermine any rekindling his love for young Tom.  Eventually, the disgust and shame of the whole community was directed at this Tom Jones, who was uniformly reviled in polite society. 

That’s the kind of shame that characterized the woman in our gospel lesson this morning: She was despised as a person unworthy of the attention, respect or even the company of anyone who valued their own reputation or social standing.  She was worse than a “nobody”… and certainly not someone you’d invite to a dinner party!  

But, here she is at a dinner held in Jesus’ honor by a spiritual leader in those parts!  That is the first big surprise in the story… There’s no explanation of how she got there.  She just showed up because she heard Jesus was there!  

The reaction to her presence was much the same as the social reaction to Tom Jones whenever he showed up in polite company and engages the guest of honor in conversation: “If he knew what a disreputable person he’s talking to, he would be HORRIFIED!”  That’s exactly what Jesus’ host – Simon – was thinking, we’re told.  

Whether it’s bullies in the schoolyard, or the insecure socialites of high society, there is no lack of the kind of social contempt today that pushes people to the margins.  A deep sense of defectiveness and failure becomes part of a person’s very identity – “Losers” they’re called.  And it’s almost an automatic reaction toward those marginalized people to avoid them… worse yet, not even see them! 

It’s no wonder people come to believe they’re as sinful and defective as the woman in Luke’s story. Eventually the constant fear of ridicule will cause one to move through the world in a slouched and downcast posture that expresses their desire to be invisible, closing themselves off from the world. Often addictions and other destructive behaviors only compound their feelings of low self-worth. – What they wouldn’t give for an opportunity to start over… A NEW BEGINNING! (So, this woman has the audacity to show up at a respectable dinner party, she is so drawn by the loving and gracious presence of Jesus.) 

Then comes the second surprise! – Jesus confronts his host with a rebuke, comparing the extravagant welcome of this unnamed woman with the rather perfunctory hospitality extended by the host himself.  And in confronting Simon, it’s as if Jesus is confronting US!  - “Here you are folks, looking askance at a woman who is scorned and ashamed.  And yet, SHE recognizes that her hope lies in the mercy of a loving God… More to be pitied are those who live with the ILLUSION that their religiosity makes them, somehow, MORE WORTHY of God’s acceptance and love.” 

- The message is clear for us: If our lives are shaped by the Spirit of Christ, then we will not only SEE those invisible “losers” around us… but we find some way to reach out to them with God’s love. 

Jesus Christ, and the forgiveness of God that he embodies, is the gateway for that new beginning for every person we encounter who carries that heavy load of shame… the “losers” who might be invisible unless we make it a point to look with the eyes and the heart of Jesus to see them, and extend those simple gestures of recognition and respect that reflects the gracious invitation of Jesus.  An invitation that culminates in the glorious assurance… “Your sins are forgiven… Go in Peace!”  Or, even better – “Welcome into our circle of care.” 

Sam Shoemaker, was the Pastor at Calvary Episcopal Church in New York City from 1926 to 1951.  He was a man of great charisma and vision, and influenced many important people during his lifetime.  Among those who credit Shoemaker with their own faith and development, was Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous – which has given a new beginning to millions of men and women around the world over the past 80 plus years!  Bill Wilson credited Sam Shoemaker for giving him the idea of the Twelve Steps that became the heart and soul of AA over the years.  

At some point in his ministry Shoemaker wrote a small piece called I Stand by the Door, which has been shared as a challenge to people of faith for many decades.  I think it summarizes the challenge before us today; so I’ll share it with you: 

I stand by the door.

I neither go too far in, nor stay too far out.

The door is the most important door in the world

-It is the door through which men walk when they find God.

There is no use my going way inside and staying there,

When so many are still outside and they, as much as I,

Crave to know where the door is.

And all that so many ever find

Is only the wall where the door ought to be.

They creep along the wall like blind men,

With outstretched, groping hands.

Feeling for a door, knowing there must be a door,

Yet they never find it...

So I stand by the door.

 

The most tremendous thing in the world

Is for men to find that door - the door to God.

The most important thing that any man can do

Is to take hold of one of those blind, groping hands

And put it on the latch - the latch that only clicks and

And opens to the man's own touch.

Men die outside the door, as starving beggars die

On cold nights in cruel cities in the dead of winter.

Die for want of what is within their grasp.

They live on the other side of it - live there because they have not found it.

Nothing else matters compared to helping them find it,

and open it, and walk in, and find Him…

So I stand by the door.

 

Go in great saints; go all the way in –

Go way down into the cavernous cellars,

And way up into the spacious attics-

It is a vast, roomy house, this house where God is.

Go into the deepest of hidden casements,

Of withdrawal, of silence, of sainthood.

Some must inhabit those inner rooms

And know the depths and heights of God,

And call outside to the rest of us how wonderful it is.

Sometimes I take a deeper look in,

Sometimes venture in a little further;

But my place seems closer to the opening…

So I stand by the door.

 

There is another reason why I stand there.

Some get part way in and become afraid

Lest God and the zeal of His house devour them;

For God is so very great and asks of all of us,

And these people feel a cosmic claustrophobia,

And want to get out.  “Let me out!” they cry.

And the people way inside only terrify them more.

Somebody must be watching for the frightened

Who seek to sneak out just where they came in,

To tell them how much better it is inside.

 

The people too far in do not see how near these are

To leaving - preoccupied with the wonder of it all.

Somebody must watch for those who have entered the door

But would like to run away.  So for them too,

I stand by the door.

I admire the people who go way in.

But I wish they would not forget how it was

Before they got in. Then they would be able to help

The people who have not yet found the door,

Or the people who want to run a way again from God.

You can go in too deeply and stay in too long

And forget the people outside the door.

As for me, I shall take my old accustomed place,

Near enough to God to hear Him and know He is there,

But not so far from men as not to hear them,

and remember they are there too.

Where? Outside the door –

Thousands of them. Millions of them.

But - more important for me—

One of them, two of them, ten of them,

Whose hands I am intended to put on the latch.

So I shall stand by the door and wait

For those who seek it.  “I had rather be a doorkeeper”

So I stand by the door.