Sermon for February 19, 2017

February 19, 2017
Don’t worry, it’s not contagious
Luke 7:36-50

Most folks in Punkin Center, Kansas, didn’t even know the woman’s name.[1]  She was very old, and other than occasional trips to the doctor, she never left her rundown house on the very edge of town, so very few people had even laid eyes on her in years.  She didn’t belong to either the Catholic church or the community church, which was formed when the Methodist, Christian, and Baptist churches in town merged about thirty years ago.

Back when she was able to get out, anybody who saw her would shoo their children away.  Anyone still around who’d grown up in Punkin Center knew her as “the woman who shot her husband,” because that’s what their mothers would tell them as they urged them into another aisle at the store to avoid her.

If anyone had ever bothered to find out, they would have discovered that her name was Lucy Carter.  She had moved to Punkin Center with her husband Ezekiel when he had gotten a job at the foundry that had once stood about two blocks from her house.

No one knew about the way Ezekiel treated her:  he was a cruel and sadistic man, worse when he was drinking, which was just about every weekend from the minute the factory whistle blew Friday evening until he passed out Sunday night.  Lucy had generally done any shopping she needed to do in town on Friday.  That meant that whatever bruises Ezekiel had given her the weekend before had faded enough so nobody noticed them if they didn’t look too closely.  And nobody ever looked very closely at Lucy Carter.

Lucy put up with what Ezekiel dished out for a lot of years.  As soon as their children were old enough, they left town—they hadn’t been safe from Ezekiel’s wrath, either, even though their mother had tried to protect them.  They urged Lucy to leave Ezekiel, to come live with them in the city, but after years of trying, they realized she never would and gave up.

Lucy and Ezekiel had been married forty-three years when she finally decided she’d had it.  By that time the foundry had closed, and Ezekiel’s weekend drinking had expanded to most of the week.

One Tuesday night in November, as winter closed in, Ezekiel administered a savage beating to Lucy.  It went on for hours, and Lucy ended up with fractures of her jaw, left wrist, and skull.  He even brought his pistol out of its hiding place and waved it around, shouting about how he should have used it on her years ago.  Finally he passed out on the kitchen floor, the gun toppling from his hand.

Lucy picked up the pistol, took aim, and shot him in the forehead.  The recoil knocked her backwards, and the pain in her head and arm flared white-hot.  She lost consciousness for a few moments.

When she awoke, there was blood everywhere.  She called the police.

At the trial, Lucy’s court-appointed attorney painted her as a battered wife driven to desperation.  But she was still convicted and sent to the women’s prison outside Moravia.  She spent a decade there, not speaking to anyone, not even her children who visited at least once a month.

Her daughter wrote to the governor regularly, enclosing copies of the police report and hospital records from that night, arguing that Lucy was defending herself from escalating violence, and begging for her sentence to be commuted.  Finally a new governor was elected, who was herself a survivor of domestic violence.  She found a letter from Lucy’s daughter on her desk her first day on the job, and she commuted Lucy’s sentence almost immediately.

Lucy returned to her little house in Punkin Center.  For awhile she worked in the shoe store downtown, mostly in the back office, but occasionally out on the sales floor when they were shorthanded.

Like everyone else in town, Amy Oneal had heard the whispers about “the woman who shot her husband,” and the rumors about why she’d done it, which were all over the map but nowhere close to the truth.  Amy had been in college in Topeka when Lucy was released from prison, and she had read the news reports about why she was in prison, why she’d shot Ezekiel.

But talking with her mother, she discovered that few people in town knew or cared about the real story.

Amy worked with Lucy at the shoe store on summer breaks.  Lucy never talked much, certainly never said anything about Ezekiel or about her time in prison; but she was always kind to Amy.

Some years later Amy and her husband Noah, a dentist, moved back to Punkin Center.  By this time Lucy had retired and become a virtual recluse, emerging from her dilapidated home only to see the doctor.  She survived on Social Security and the occasional check from one of her kids.  Another woman she had worked with at the shoe store brought her groceries every week.

Amy had grown up in the community church, so she and Noah quickly became active there, co-chairing the Local Missions team.  The missions team had a Valentine’s Day dinner every year, which drew folks from the entire county.  They used the proceeds to help elderly or disabled people in Punkin Center make needed repairs to their homes they wouldn’t have been able to make otherwise.  After the dinner each year, the team would receive suggestions of residents who could use their help.

Last year the team met on April 20.

Amy called the meeting to order and Noah opened with a prayer for all the residents of Punkin Center, especially those who were in need.  “May we see Christ in their faces, and may we be Christ’s hands and heart as we work for them,” he concluded.

The treasurer gave his report on the annual dinner, noting that there had been unusually large attendance, and some folks had given quite substantial donations beyond the cost of their dinner tickets.  He indicated that there was enough money to repair several homes that year.  Then Amy reviewed the list of folks whose names had been given to them.  There were only three nominations.  One of them was Lucy Carter.  The woman who brought Lucy her groceries each week had asked Amy to put her name on the list.  Lucy’s roof was leaking, and the porch steps were rotten.

The other two residents who had been nominated were easily approved; both of them had been in the community for years, and everyone knew and liked them.  But the process came to a screeching halt when Amy read Lucy’s nomination.

“Who is Lucy Carter?” asked Eileen Chapman, the team’s secretary.

“That’s the woman who shot her husband,” old Joe Snyder replied.  He had worked with Ezekiel at the foundry until it closed, and had his suspicions about what happened in his home on weekends.  But in those days, you minded your own business.

“Oh, her,” Eileen said.  “I don’t think it’s a good idea for us to help her.  Wouldn’t it look like we were condoning what she did?”

“I agree,” said Mark Bennett.  “People will be upset.  They won’t come to our dinner next year.  Maybe we won’t be able to help anybody.”

“I can think of at least a few church members who will probably leave the church,” said Pastor Christine.  “They came to me a couple weeks ago, because they had heard she was nominated.  They were offended that we would even consider helping her, and said if we did, they were going to take their money and go somewhere else.”

“We sure can’t afford to lose anybody over this,” Olivia Jackson said.

“No, we can’t,” said Eileen.  “Some of those same people came to me.  They said that if we help her, everyone in town will think we’re letting her off the hook for murder.”

Joe spoke up again.  “I’m not excusing what she did,” he said.  “But I knew Ezekiel, and he was scary when he got mad.  I can’t imagine what all Lucy went through living with him.  Maybe she didn’t feel like she had any other option.  Maybe if she hadn’t done what she did, he would have killed her—from what I heard he came awful close that night.”

“But the Bible says, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’” Olivia pointed out.  “If we help her, aren’t we saying the Ten Commandments don’t matter to us?  Lucy Carter is a killer, and I don’t see any exceptions to that commandment.  We can’t give our money to a murderer.  I move that we reject her nomination, and I further move that her name not be considered at any time in the future.”

“I’ll second,” said Eileen.  “She doesn’t deserve our help, and it would look bad.”

The committee discussed the matter some more, and when they started repeating themselves, Noah called for a vote.  The vote was six to three in favor of the motion—Amy, Noah, and Joe cast the “nay” votes.

“That does it,” said Frances Kirkpatrick, who had until that point been quiet, mostly because she was a soft-spoken person who just plain couldn’t get a word in edgewise.  “We cannot and will not associate ourselves with a sinner like that woman.  We have done the right thing.”

Several others nodded.  But Joe said, “You all ought to be ashamed of yourselves.  Didn’t you ever do anything wrong?”

“Not like that,” said Frances.

“Isn’t church supposed to be the place where we get our sins forgiven?” he asked.  “If what Lucy did was a sin—and quite frankly, I’m not sure I wouldn’t have done the same thing in her situation—she did her time…”

“Not nearly enough time,” interrupted Ike Stokesberry.

“That’s not up to you or me, Ike,” Joe replied.  “And it was a long time ago, and it seems to me that what’s past is past.”

“Not with murder,” said Simon Kirkpatrick, Frances’ husband.  “The law says there’s no statute of limitations for murder, so why would we allow one?”

Amy realized that the argument was about to start again, so she quickly called for a motion to adjourn the meeting.  Most of the team members left with heads held high, quite satisfied with the outcome of the meeting.  Amy, Noah, and Joe sat in silence for a long time, until Joe asked if he could say a prayer.

“Good Lord, you were called a friend of sinners when you walked this earth.  What has happened to your body?  Forgive us our lack of understanding, our refusal to show grace to those around us, to pardon sinners as you pardoned us.  Help Lucy, because she doesn’t have much of anybody else.”

 

The following Saturday morning, two pickups pulled up in front of Lucy Carter’s house.  Amy and Noah Oneal got out of one, and Joe Snyder got out of the other.  They got to work on the porch steps.

Lucy came to the door and asked what they were doing.  “Looks like your steps could use fixing,” said Joe.  “Hope it’s okay.”

“I brought some brownies,” said Amy, handing them to Lucy, whose eyes filled with tears.

“This is the nicest thing anybody’s done for me in ages,” she said.

[1] This story is much expanded from one Richard Eslinger told in his commentary on this passage in Feasting on the Gospels.  There was an actual “woman who shot her husband” in my hometown when I was growing up; I never knew her name, but she did occasionally wait on us at one of the shoe stores downtown.  Her husband had abused her, as I recall, and she did serve a short prison sentence for shooting him.

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