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The Woman Who Loved Much

A sermon by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo.

The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 7:36-8:3

June 16, 2013

1 Kings 21:1-10, (11-14), 15-21a; Psalm 32; Galatians 2:15-21

In the past few years, I’ve become a big fan of blogger Rachel Held Evans. She’s young, smart, and a little sassy. I pay attention to what she has to say because she’s one of us, born and raised in the church, and she desperately wants to stay attached to the faith. But in doing so, she voices a lover’s quarrel about the church. I think she’s someone we should listen to as even Christianity Today, listed her as one of “50 Women to Watch,” an impressive list that included the likes of Pulitzer novelist Marilynne Robinson, Condaleeza Rice, and Anne Graham Lotz.

Rachel and her husband live in Dayton Tennessee, a backwater town made famous way back in 1925 in a court case that came to be known as the fundamentalist-modernist controversy as it pitted conservative Biblical faith against science and evolution.[1] So a few years ago, Rachel Held Evans wrote honestly of her faith journey in a book titled, Evolving in Monkey Town about her struggle as a 20-something woman trying to authentically live the faith in the 21st century who also happens to live in the little village of Dayton Tennessee. It’s about her questions and the maturing of her faith from childhood to adulthood.

Rachel followed that up with her description of a year she spent trying to live completely all the commands in the Bible for how a woman should act. She called it, A Year of Biblical Womanhood. While she clearly identified how the Bible instructed women in how to live, she discovered the near impossibility of living biblical womanhood. Male pastors and teachers may recommend it as the biblical model, but until they actually read the Bible and try to live it themselves, they should realize something is wrong in holding it up as God’s ideal. In truth what they are describing is some idealized mid-20th century of stay-at-home woman who does not work and who supports their every command.

You must realize that you bear witness to how the church is enriched by seeing both women and men as equal persons in God’s kingdom. You’ve become “a different kind of Baptist” in doing so and have moved in ministry to blessing all God’s children, girls and boys, men and women, by giving each person a chance to listen to God and to freely respond to whatever God calls them to do or be. This is clearly woven into our congregational DNA developed and implanted over decades by the full range of your ministers from Jack Wilson, Ed Bratcher and on down the list of pastors until me. We’ve consistently taught you to consider that you are a person who is made in God’s image and that you have a mission and a purpose in life in answer to the question, “What is God calling you to do or be?”

But you must also realize there are many, many churches that don’t agree with you about this kind of freedom, don’t you? These are churches where the men can be called by God to ministry but not the women. Women are not allowed to exercise authority over a man. These are churches where the boys’ who control the social order here instruct men and women definitively about the gender roles they are to play in life. This view is called complementarianism, a view dedicated to upholding the complementary ways in which women and men are different and how they have specific roles they are to play.

But there’s another view that understands any differences that might exist as a part of a larger pattern of equality whereby gender roles are understood by an openness and freedom in life and calling. In this view, the roles for men and women are played out similarly as each person answers the call of their gifts and their desire to responsibly give an answer to God unimpeded and supported by the community. This view is called egalitarianism.

But beyond the obvious gender questions, this story begs to explore the question of holiness and desire. To begin with, the gospels present Jesus as an egalitarian who sees women appreciably rather than objectifying them as inferior beings. Jesus’ sympathetic inclusion of women is startling in the first century or any century. So where did his sympathy for women, and even women who were considered sinners, come from? Perhaps it came from his understanding that how we live does not limit God’s love of us. Perhaps it came from understanding that morality is not the path toward living in God’s love. Perhaps it came from knowing that labeling promiscuous women as sinners was how the community viewed his own mother as she was a girl who was pregnant before she was married.

Over the centuries, the church drained Jesus’ life of all desire, insisting that neither he nor his own mother ever experienced desire or intimacy. The church has long extolled the virtues of abstinence, at least until marriage, of sex within marriage as merely the perfunctory exercise of procreation, not to satisfy desire. The church has taught that abstinence and a near-denial of the body are the holy habits that lead us to God and that desire is the tool of the Devil. We’ve conveniently divided body from soul and have done so because we think morality is how God judges us. But here’s the story of a sinful woman in which she engages Jesus in a different argument and he ends up defending the morality of her passion.[2]

This story of the woman sitting on the floor has more layers to it than we can consider in one sitting, and often the church has focused on one or two of the surface issues but not come close to thinking it through in depth. There are multiple meanings from the simple to the complex. There are simple truths we can easily recognize about the power of shame and the grace of God, about contrition and forgiveness, about hypocrisy, and about hospitality.

We don’t know why the woman with no name, the woman who loved much, came into the room and acted with such drama. Can you imagine how much courage it took for her to do so? She had no name but the men in the room knew her as “a woman of the city.” That salacious moniker was an insider’s joke, wink-wink. The boys didn’t care that she didn’t have a name because she didn’t need one. She entered the room and every head snapped her direction. She looked around the room and found the man she was looking for. She said nothing, not a word, nor was there any indication she had anything she wanted to say. The moment was silent until her actions called out in a language of pain and sorrow and passion that needed no words. She knelt quietly behind Jesus where in Middle Eastern fashion he sat on the floor with his feet tucked behind him. She was openly weeping by this time and her tears fell freely down her cheeks and onto his feet. She wept so completely her face was visibly wet and Jesus’ feet were equally wet. She let down her hair and used her hair to tenderly dry his feet absorbing her own tears back into her long hair. Then they noticed the alabaster jar she brought forth. While holding Jesus’ feet in her hands, she poured the anointment on his feet and rubbed them until the sweet smell of the ointment had pervaded the room. It’s then the room erupted with the protests of the boys. They did not speak to her; rather they demandingly directed their questions to Jesus. He was made to answer for what this woman had done as if he was somehow responsible. The story, even when read simply, is provocative with surprise, begging to be understood deeply. It’s a story I suppose is heard differently by men and women. Like most social situations where women and men are engaged, what’s going on the surface and what’s really happening are startling. This is thus a story that demands it be read and discussed in the community where it can be nuanced and heard from others who have the vantage point of seeing something the rest of us miss seeing.

Remember Jesus’ prayer, “may the kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” So how are things in heaven? How is it we exist in heaven as women or men? If heaven is a place where inequality and injustice are banned, how are things different?

This story is embedded with big issues and tough questions:  About the value of all persons, male and female; about how we treat one another and about all the gender rules of a game that has been handed to us to obey and sustain; about the role of sex, our bodies and the nature of sensuality, and about how sexual desire is the backdrop to nearly everything essential about our lives; about the ways we cruelly label people for things in their life we may or may not even understand; about the power of our reputations and how there are things we cannot easily undo; about how we accept labels, branding persons for some failure in their lives, turning persons into things; about how Jesus never condemned anyone but the hypocrites; maybe even how moralizing judgments are in fact unconscious projections we place upon others, things about us we cannot accept about ourselves – such projections should be interpreted as “My comments/judgments about you are really about me”

Rachel Held Evans wrote this week about the kind of love Jesus showed the woman who loved much. “When God wrapped himself in flesh, strapped on sandals, and set up his tabernacle among us, he made a beeline for the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the despised, the sinners, the misfits, and the minorities. He ate with them and drank with them, and despite warnings from the religious leaders, he made them his disciples and friends.”[3] And so must we.

[1] It was a court battle that epitomized the fundamentalist-modernist debate that has continued to the present. Any conversation which pits faith over against science revisits this lively conversation.

[2] Nancy Rockwell, “The Woman on the Floor,” www.biteintheapple.com/the-woman-on-the-floor/, 6/9/13

[3] Rachel Held Evans, “Love Opens the Door: A Plea to American Churches Regarding Gay Scouts,” www.rachelheldevans.com