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The Risk of Worship

Updated: Oct 27, 2018

WARRENTON, VA – In October of last year and against the backdrop of beautiful autumn trees, a steady procession of women in their cars and SUVs rolled into Ezra Leadership Institute to participate in ODPC’s women’s retreat on “Women Mentoring Women”. The keynote speaker Rev. Christine Lee would drive in from New York City later that same evening to deliver her first sermon of a series: “The Risk of Worship”. Oftentimes we hear about retreats by word of mouth, or through the account of a close friend but this time, we thought to bring the retreat to our readers by publishing Christine’s sermon in full along with a slideshow to relate the experience. Following is a transcript of Rev. Christine Lee’s sermon, “The Risk of Worship” as prepared for publication and release by the Threshold editorial staff.

October 23, 2015 | THE RISK OF WORSHIP


So I don’t know about you guys, how you’re feeling coming into this retreat, but I’m coming in from crazy land. I have been going non-stop. There’s a comedian named Jim Gaffigan who has four, maybe even five kids by now. When people ask him what it’s like to have four kids, he says, “Imagine that you’re drowning…and then someone hands you a baby.” I don’t even have kids, but that’s how I feel: like I’m barely keeping my head above the water, and then someone hands me a baby. It’s been an intense season at church with lots going on. My past few weeks have been nuts. I haven’t been sleeping well so I’ve been really exhausted. In the back of my mind, I was thinking, “I have no idea how I am going to have time to prepare for this retreat.” I had a general idea of what I wanted to talk about and had sent it off to Tae for the retreat booklet. Tae emailed back and was like, “This looks great, I can’t wait!” and, in the meantime, I’m stressing because it felt like I had sent the packaging, but hadn’t actually created the product yet.

By this past Monday, I was stressing out big time because I needed to write four talks, had not started on any of them, and had a busy week ahead of me with not a ton of extra time. It was going to be like cramming for finals. Monday is typically my day off and, at about 4:00 PM Monday, I was stuck on tonight’s talk about worship. I was struggling with how to organize the content and articulate what was on my heart. So, I got up and started cleaning. I am totally not a housework kind of person. Whenever our house is really clean, my husband Jimmy will be like, “The house is spotless. You must be procrastinating,” because he knows that’s not normal behavior for me. So I’m standing in the kitchen, washing the dishes, I’m feeling really anxious. I was thinking things like, “This is going to be a disaster. Tae is so going to regret that she invited me to come. They’re gonna think I’m a terrible speaker. I’m gonna bring shame upon my family.” All these thoughts are going through my mind.

At that moment, I felt this nudge from the Lord. I felt like He was saying, “Christine, it’s a little ironic, isn’t it, that you’re going to speak to this group of women, and you’re writing this talk about worship, about what it means to be focused on ME; and, right now, all that you’re focused on is YOU and what they’re gonna think of you.”

In that moment, He was giving me a case in point – starting with me and my own heart — of why, as we talk about women mentoring women, we have to start with worship. Because we can so easily make it about us: our ability, our adequacy, or our giftedness. And it’s not. We have to start with our heart’s focus in the right place. Our true north. And that’s what I want to talk about tonight.

To help facilitate that, we’re going to look at the story of the woman with the alabaster jar from Luke 7, one of my favorite stories in Scripture. Some version of this story is included in each of the gospels, and I’ll come back to why that is later. Some people conflate this story and say that all four versions are about the same woman. Others say that it happened more than once with at least two different women, which is why some of the details differ. That isn’t our concern here, but I’ll just say that all four versions share these elements: a woman comes to a dinner party where Jesus is a guest; she anoints Jesus with a very expensive perfume; she is criticized and Jesus praises her for what she has done. I’ve chosen Luke 7 as our primary text but I’m going to draw from the other accounts as well. I want to look at three movements that happen in this story: from self-consciousness to God-consciousness; from illusion to reality; from servant to lover; and how they move us to worship.

1. From self-consciousness to God-consciousness. “One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment” (Luke 7:36-38, ESV).

Imagine this scene with me. Jesus is invited to dinner at the house of a Pharisee named Simon. The Pharisees were a sect in Judaism that was zealous about keeping the law given to Moses by God. Pharisees often get a bad rap, but they were trying to do right by God. For them, the law was a reflection of God himself: good, righteous, and holy. And, by aligning your life with that law, you would be in right relationship with God. The Pharisees were popular, influential, and represented the powers that be in Israel — the moral and spiritual authority of society. Jesus, also a well-known if unconventional rabbi, goes to this Pharisee’s house, presumably with his disciples. While Jesus had his confrontations with the Pharisees, the fact that Simon invited Jesus into his home to eat with him meant that, at the very least, he had sufficient trust in Jesus’ ritual purity. Simon probably has his Pharisee friends there as well, so there’s a whole lotta spiritual going on in that place. It’s a who’s who of the religious establishment, even more intense because they are also the political establishment. You can imagine the conversation happening there, high-minded theological discussions about this aspect and that aspect of the law.

Into this very spiritual, respectable crowd, comes this woman. The only thing Luke tells us about her is that she was a sinner. Usually it’s assumed that she was a prostitute, though Luke doesn’t specify. But it’s clear that she has lived with some kind of major moral failure, one that was egregious enough to mark and identify her as a “sinner” in a society that despised and looked down on sinners. She hears that Jesus is eating at the house of this Pharisee and shows up. I want us to think for a moment about what it took for her to show up, how risky this was for her. First of all, she wasn’t invited. Not only was she not invited, but her identity as a sinner would only be that much more highlighted by showing up to a party of those who represented the exact opposite of who she was: the most spiritual, religious, and righteous people in their society. Her sin and shame, that she was defiled and unclean, would be that much more exposed in contrast to their ritual purity. It’s like that recurring dream people have of being naked in public. Everyone was clothed in their righteousness. Everyone, except for her.

But she didn’t care. Something about this rabbi Jesus, who he was, his teaching, that he was called a friend of tax collectors and sinners, moved her so deeply. Maybe she had a personal encounter with him, like the woman at the well. Maybe she had been one of the multitudes who sat on a hillside and heard his stories, like the one about the father who ran out to meet his disgraced son and welcomed him home. Maybe she had heard him say things like, “I have come not to call the righteous, but the sinner,” and thought to herself, that’s me. He came to call ME.

There are two words that come to mind that describe what happens next: costlyandfoolish. Luke writes in verse 27 that she “brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.” By ointment, we’re not talking Neosporin. A better translation is perfumed oil, and we learn from other gospels that these alabaster jars of perfumed oil were worth three hundred denarii, nearly one year’s wages. Think about that. The median income in the U.S. is $50,000. In one moment, she poured the equivalent of $50,000 on his feet. You can understand why, in similar accounts in other gospels, much of the discussion among the disciples revolves around how wasteful this was, how the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor. What she did was costly.

But it wasn’t just financially costly. This already looked down upon woman stood among this powerful, respectable, spiritual crowd of religious authorities and she became a fool. If she had even a shred of respectability left before that moment, she threw it all away for Jesus. She wept at his feet, so much so that she washed his feet with her tears. I’ve always pictured this scene as this really lovely beautiful moment where she is crying softly and beautifully. But if she is washing his feet with her tears, that’s a LOT of crying. When I cry a lot, it’s not pretty. Oprah calls it the “UH-gly cry.” My eyes get all red and puffy, long strands of snot hanging off the end of my nose, which is huge and swollen. It is not a pretty sight. And then she takes down her hair. It was considered shameful for a woman to take down her hair in public, but she did it anyway, to wipe his feet. Can you just imagine? She’s weeping, sobbing loudly, kissing his feet, dumping $50,000 of oil on him, they’re all trying to eat, and now there’s this funky combination of food smell and perfume smell, like mixing curry with roses, which doesn’t sit right with their stomachs, and now they’re all feeling nauseous. I imagine those spiritual, respectable people looking at this unwelcome interruption and thinking, “What a mess! She is just a hot mess.”

Do you think this woman cared in that moment about what other people thought of her? No. She walked right into the middle of that righteous gathering, with all of her ritual impurity and mess and embarrassing behavior, and you get the sense that in this room, there is only one person she is conscious of: Jesus. She is utterly un-self-conscious. You can tell because this is not normal behavior for a self-conscious person. A self-conscious person would be dominated by thoughts like: “Who am I among these people who are so much more holy, perfect, put together, than I am? What will people think? They might think I’m just trying to draw attention to myself.” Or even, “Oh, I don’t want to impose on anyone, Simon didn’t invite me….” Self-consciousness would have been an obstacle to her adoration of Jesus because Jesus would not have been the center. She would have been.

One area that I think a lot of women can get tripped up around this is in the struggle with insecurity. I’ve had to fight that sense of insecurity and inadequacy my entire life. Despite the fact that I am standing up here in front of you and might not seem nervous, I still get nervous before I have to speak. It’s better now, but when I was first starting to do more of it, I would get SO nervous, so fearful, and so afraid of what people would say and what they would think of me, it was debilitating. I remember this one night where I had to speak somewhere and I felt like I was going to throw up. My heart was pounding. I went into a bathroom stall to hyperventilate for a few minutes and pray. And I remember so clearly, hearing God say to me, “Christine, your reputation and what people think of you is an idol in your life.” Not in a condemning way, but a firm, loving, splash of cold water in your face way. And I was like, “An IDOL?? This is my insecurity, my fear, my inadequacy; it’s my poor self-esteem! Not an idol!!”

We tend to think of a prideful person as someone who is haughty, arrogant, and brags about themselves and their accomplishments. Most women tend not to see themselves in that light. However, sometimes we describe prideful people as being “full of themselves.” That is something that applies to all of us, even the most insecure among us. You may not be bragging about how awesome you are. But you are so chained to this inadequate sense of yourself, that you are unable to see outside of yourself, which makes you a slave to SELF instead of God. To be full of oneself is to be so fixated and preoccupied with your inadequacies, your issues, your sin, your past, your needs, and your reputation, that there is no room for God. Your brokenness, your insecurities, and your fears so dominate the landscape of your consciousness that you can’t respond to God because you are bowing down to that inadequate sense of SELF. And that’s idolatry: worship of something other than God. What is that for you? How does your sense of self, whether it’s an inflated or inadequate sense of self, become an obstacle to seeing and responding to Jesus? In worship, we move from self-consciousness to God-consciousness. Jesus-consciousness.

2. From illusion to reality. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner” (Luke 7:39). Simon is making two false conclusions here: 1) that Jesus is not a prophet and 2) that he didn’t know who was touching him and what kind of woman she was. Jesus, true to form, corrects both of his mistakes by telling him a story about a creditor who had two debtors. One of them owed five hundred denarii (about a year and a half’s wages) and the other fifty (about three months’ wages). When they were unable to pay, he cancelled both of their debts. Jesus asks Simon, “which of them will love him more?” And Simon responds, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” Here is this woman Simon is staring at and judging, she’s pouring out everything she has for Jesus, a sinner utterly exposed in that righteous group of people, and he is appalled, but it is Simon’s heart Jesus exposes.

In verse 43, Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.”

Jesus holds up this woman’s costly and foolish act of love, her gratitude for having her debt cancelled, as a mirror to Simon’s own heart. “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much.” Simon, she knows who she is and what she has been saved from. I’ll never forget this one summer when I was on staff with Intervarsity. I staffed an urban project at Lawndale Community Church, a church on the West Side of Chicago that does incredible work in the community. One of their ministries is called Hope House, a transitional home for men struggling with drug addiction. And I remember this one Sunday, as the choir was singing, seeing the faces of these men, tears streaming down their faces, as they sang, You are the God of second chances,because they knew that God had given them a second chance; they knew what God had saved them from.

If you are a former drug addict or this woman who was known to be a sinner, it’s easy to point out what you’ve been saved from. Some of us have those stories, you know what you have been saved from very clearly. But what if that’s not your story? If you don’t have a “I was a drug addict/alcoholic” story? I don’t think what Jesus was saying here is that Simon was more righteous than the woman, that he really had less of a need to be forgiven than she did, because as it says in Romans 3:10, “There is none righteous, not even one. There is no one who understands, no one who seeks God.” Ephesians 2 says, “You were dead in your transgressions and sins. ALL of us… were gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath.” [Emphasis added.] Jesus is saying, “Simon, there is no difference between you and this woman. Just like she was, you are alienated from God, you are dead in your sins, there is nothing you can do to save yourself. There is one difference: she knows it and you don’t. And because she knows it, she is able to receive forgiveness from God. And because you don’t know it, you can’t receive from God, and that is why you love little. Her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.

She’s living in reality. You’re living in illusion. You live in the illusion of your own righteousness and she lives in the reality of God’s mercy. And you rob yourself of the opportunity to love much because you are your own savior, always striving to save yourself and make yourself righteous, adequate, and worthy in the sight of God and others.

Colossians 2:6 says, “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him.” [Emphasis added.] We receive Jesus as Lord, knowing we are sinners in need of God’s grace, but it is so hard to continue in that grace. The gospel isn’t something we believe once and then move on to bigger and better things. It is something that we need to know the fresh reality of every day of our lives. But many of us live in this illusion, as if after we received Christ Jesus as Lord, after being saved by the grace of God alone, that now it’s all on us. We need to prove and earn our worthiness. And so we run around like a chicken with its head cut off, trying to be perfect; the perfect Christian, perfect woman, perfect mother, perfect wife, perfect employee, perfect student. Afraid to disappoint, afraid we’re not going to live up to these unreachable standards of perfection. We are playing God in our own lives, and it’s exhausting, because it’s an illusion, not reality. You are not God. And just like Simon, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to love much because we are trying to save ourselves and show ourselves worthy in the sight of God and others, rather than throwing ourselves on HIM.

3. When we worship, we move from self-consciousness to God-consciousness, from illusion to reality and, finally, from servant to lover.

She has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair…from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet…she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. In the other accounts of the woman with the alabaster jar, the disciples criticize her and say, “Why this waste? For this could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor.” It’s a very valid concern. Fifty thousand dollars, blown in one shot, it’s wasteful. The disciples were trying to be faithful. They knew that serving the poor was a good thing to do. They wanted the poor to be fed and clothed, and that’s great. But look at Jesus’ response in these other accounts. He says, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial.”

I’ve been reading this book by Ronald Rohlheiser called The Holy Longing and he points out something about this story I’d never thought about before. He said, if this woman had gone to Jesus’ grave with this outpouring of affection and perfume, it would have been accepted, even admired. You were allowed to anoint a dead body, but it wasn’t acceptable to express similar love and affection to a live one. Nothing has changed in two thousand years. We still save our best compliments and flowers for the funeral. She chose not to wait for the burial. She chose to pour out the extravagance of her tears, perfume, hair, love, and affection on him now. Foolishly, recklessly, and extravagantly now.

Matthew 26:10, “She has done a beautiful thing to me…Truly I say to you wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.” There’s a connection between this beautiful thing she has done and the gospel. There is something about how this woman loved that mirrors the love of Christ for us: costly and foolish, where the God of the universe didn’t consider being God something to be grasped, having respectability and people’s love and approval, but made himself nothing for us, humiliated himself, made himself a fool for us, though he was rich, he became poor for our sakes. He poured out everything for us so that our debt would be canceled, and we would no longer be objects of wrath separated from his love. He wants us to grasp that reality — look that truth in the face — because when you see it, truly see the reality of it, like this woman did, there is no other response but love. And we lose our fear, our guilt, our self-consciousness, our reputations, our need for success, and our failures; we lose them for the sake of Christ, for the love of Christ, and become truly FREE. Free to love God, free to be a fool and not care what others think, which then frees us to love others and pour it all out there for Christ and, in the process, point others to the worthiness of Jesus.

When I first came on staff at All Angels’, I was meeting with this woman named Sue Pincusoff who is a counselor and spiritual director in NY. She was asking me how things were going at All Angels’ and, of course, I was stressed, anxious, and afraid of failing. I had my hand in a gazillion things and was trying to keep my head above the water. I’m going on and on about all of this and how I’m doing. And then in her quiet way, she just looks me straight in the eye and says, “Christine, above all else, remember that you are a worshiper first.” She didn’t say, remember that you should always worship. Or try to be a worshiper. She said you ARE a worshiper first. That’s who you are. I’d lost sight of that, my center, my focus. I was trying to do all this ministry, trying to serve people, disciple people, but for what? For whom?

There is a missionary from Mozambique named Heidi Baker, who comes from a more charismatic tradition. My friend Marion loves her and she once gave me a CD of one of her sermons. I listened to it and I was like, “this woman sounds CRAZY.” She’d be talking, then break out into laughter, then start speaking in tongues, and then sing a worship song she’d made up. I couldn’t even make it through 5 minutes of her message. Then I found myself at a conference where Heidi Baker was speaking. And can I tell you? I can’t even describe it. It was one of the most powerful messages I’d ever heard, and not because of what she was saying. She still sounded crazy! But there was such a powerful sense of the presence of God, like we were in the throne room of God. And listening to her, seeing her, I felt like I was seeing a TRUE worshiper, like Jesus talks about in John 4. She lives in that atmosphere of worship, and wherever she goes, she brings that atmosphere with her. She did not care what anyone thought about her. And she’s a smart woman! She apparently has a Ph.D. from the University of London in theology. Her love for Jesus is so evident, her utter giving of herself to him was so wholehearted, so joyful, and so beautiful, it was breathtaking and it led ME into worship!

Sisters, we cannot take other people where we ourselves have not been. We can’t lead other women into a deeper love relationship with Christ when we don’t have that ourselves. Someone once said Jesus has a lot of servants but not many lovers. To be a lover is the opposite of being prudent. It’s about being wasteful. Wasting time with the one you love and lavishing upon your beloved; instead of being preoccupied and distracted, being captivated by only one person.

And here’s the thing: it’s not even about, “Well, what can I give Jesus? What’s the equivalent of my $50,000 alabaster jar of perfume? Maybe I need to give him more time. I’m going to have 2 hour quiet time in the morning or use more of my gifts to serve him in ministry.” Lovers don’t calculate. I read a devotional by this Anglican priest named Sandy Miller who talked about attending a pastors’ conference. He was getting so pumped up and excited about God’s kingdom and what God was doing in their city. The conference center was on the beach, so he went out to take a walk by the ocean, and he prayed, “God, I will do anything for you, I will go anywhere for you.” And this is what he heard the Lord say back to him: He said, “Sandy, all I want is you.” All I want is you. It’s not about what you can do for me. All I want is you, wholly surrendered, wholly given to me, like a lover is wholly surrendered, wholly given to her beloved.

Psalm 27 says, “One thing I ask, this is what I seek, that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon his beauty and to seek him in his temple.” That is worship: our gaze on him, but also God’s gaze on us… and it’s in that beholding, when we behold him beholding us, that mutual gaze of love, we are transformed. 2 Corinthians 3:18 says, “And we with unveiled faces, beholding the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”

So, where is your heart tonight? What have you been so full of that there has been no room for Jesus? What illusions about your own sufficiency to prove your worthiness and to hold your own world together have you been clinging to instead of the reality of God’s mercy? How is God inviting you to move beyond being a faithful servant and into being a passionate lover? After we close in prayer, I’m going to share a few practical tools with you, but right now, I’m going to invite you to bow your head and, in the silence of your own heart, I want you to imagine yourself as that woman with the alabaster jar standing there before Jesus, looking at you with such love and compassion. What do you want to say to him? Spend a few moments with him now.

This sermon manuscript was published with the permission of Rev. Christine Lee. Christine served as the guest speaker at ODPC’s women’s retreat on “Women Mentoring Women” in October 2015.  She is currently the Vicar of All Angels’ Church in New York City.