I bring you greetings from the New England Synod assembly, where Lutheran lay folk and clergy from all over New England came together in Springfield this weekend to make a few decisions, talk about our life together, and share stories over tables in a convention center or over food and beers after plenary sessions. One difference I noticed from my home synod in the Southeast is that tables in the convention center are grouped by conference, so by smaller geographical reasons. I had hoped that this was for a game of Risk, so we could take over the other tables. I had my eye on one of the Vermont/NY tables before I was corrected.
Meanwhile, the outside world marched on.
I don’t know if the other women in the room feel this way, but it’s been quite a few weeks to be a woman recently. There has been a story on the news, again, of a woman raped on a college campus, whose assailant got away with a very light prison sentence. And again, people defended the judge and the defendant and questioned the woman: her morals, her conduct, and what she was wearing. And again, everything crashed in on women, or at least me, as we were reminded how far we have still to go to make the world a safer place to be a woman — as if women didn’t already know.
Also this week, no matter what you think of the woman herself, a woman all but sealed the nomination for President by a major political party, and that has never happened before. Of course, history is rarely simple, but a woman being nominated for President is about to be something that has moved from the category of something that could happen to the column of something that has happened. At a very basic level, that matters, especially for women.
But talk about conflicting messages. We are in an age where we’ve come so far on gender, but we still have so far to go.
With that in mind, I think that it’s pretty fitting that our Gospel text today puts women in the spotlight from start to finish. This is particularly remarkable because in the first century Middle East, unlike today, little girls did not grow up seeing women lead companies and nations and even religious groups like they do today. Instead, most women depended on their fathers, then their husbands, then, if necessary, their husbands’ brothers. If they had sons, they depended on their sons. If all the men in their lives died, they were typically destitute, as we talked about last week. They simply had few options.
Here and there, a particularly crafty woman may forge a trade for herself. Sometimes, that trade was in merchandise, like Lydia, whom Paul mentions in the New Testament. Other times, that trade was selling themselves — and prostitutes, if they managed to survive physically, then found moral condemnation. Other women found themselves under the scrutiny of the religious authorities. Then as today, religious authorities laid claim to women’s bodies. Like still happens in some parts of the world today, women who were found guilty of — or even accused, is the thing — of sexual sins were outcast. A woman who was even accused of adultery by her husband would quickly find herself, at the very least, an outcast, destitute, shunned by her religious community.
We find Jesus today at the home of a religious leader — a Pharisee named Simon. They are having a nice, respectable dinner when all of a sudden, a woman comes in. And not just any woman — a woman with a reputation. She kneels at Jesus’ feet, behind him, and started kissing his feet. She weeps on them. She wipes them with her hair.
This is a familiar story, but in case you missed it: This scene is an absolutely, outrageously unexpected and even awkward turn of events.
Any interruption of dinner is always a bit jarring, at least to me. You have to get up to go see what the dog is barking at. There’s an urgent phone call for someone at the table. Eating is sacred to us in a lot of ways, and any interruption of dinner jars us out of what we were doing.
So if Diego can interrupt my dinner by barking at a fox in the parking lot, I’m guessing that I would be more than a little weirded out if a woman that I did not even consider a friend came crashing into my dining room to cry on my guest’s feet.
This woman, this already marginalized member of society, obviously condemned by the religious authorities over the sins that everyone found out about, weeps on Jesus for quite awhile. We don’t know if they’ve ever met before this. Luke doesn’t say, but I imagine they have. I sense a backstory. She says nothing to him: no confession, no nothing. I can’t imagine what would’ve warranted this reaction if she’d never seen him before, so maybe this wasn’t the first time. Maybe he caught her eye days before in the crowd and she just knew that this man, whom they said was the Messiah, would not condemn her but would let her be part of what he was doing. Or maybe they had a whole conversation, like with the woman at the well. Unlike many religious leaders, Jesus had no problem talking to women he didn’t know. Or maybe they hadn’t talked or met — maybe she’s just heard about him.
Whatever the case, this is her reaction: a lavish, display of emotion and love.
And Jesus makes no attempt to stop her, and this is when the dinner host, Simon the Pharisee, gets judgy. Jesus can’t be a prophet, he thinks, because he doesn’t know that this woman is a sinner and she’s touching him. You might’ve missed it, but he thinks all this and doesn’t say anything out loud.
But Jesus seems to straight up call him out anyway: “Simon, I have something to say to you.” Simon, forget the principal. You’ve been called into the Messiah’s Office.
And Jesus tells this story about how people who get themselves in debt deeper love their master more when their master forgives them, and he makes Simon say his point out loud: that those who have messed up more love more. This is what you call getting called on the carpet by the Savior of the world.
After that, Jesus does not go on to talk about how big her sin is, like we might expect. He talks about the ways that she has shown better hospitality than Simon himself. And the Middle East as today highly valued hospitality. This is like telling a Southern lady that she’s not a good hostess. It cuts deep.
Ouch. Sorry, Simon the Pharisee, the sinner’s got quite an edge on you.
The ones that the world calls the biggest screwups are the ones who get it — how to show hospitality, how to pour out love.
That’s the kind of God we’re dealing with, folks. The one who recognizes the biggest love in the ones the religious authorities have written off. Those who have been pushed to the margins appreciate being seen as fully human and fully loved. She doesn’t come in to beg for forgiveness; it wasn’t necessary. She comes in knowing forgiveness and pouring out gratitude. She is known, she is loved, she is welcome. She is beloved. No begging necessary.
And then, just in case we weren’t sure where Luke and Jesus stand on women in ministry, Luke mentions several of what my friend Kathleen refers to as Jesus’ ministry “sugar mamas” — women, mentioned by name, who poured out resources to support Jesus and the disciples. Who’s included in the kingdom of God? Even women.
Throughout Scripture, God both reaches out to and uses the gifts and resources of the marginalized. People pushed to the edges of society — the freaks and the outcasts — aren’t just people whom Jesus serves. It’s not just that Jesus reaches out to the poor little people to show charity. Jesus invites them to contribute. He doesn’t just listen to them and forgive them; humbles himself and relies on them.
I get the feeling Jesus isn’t really into our traditional social hierarchies.
You see, regardless of how much I may want to make it one, this isn’t just a cheerleading infomercial for women. Women are only one category of the pressed down that are lifted up here. Also included are all those — of any gender — who have been pushed to the margins, of society or of your own social circle or your own family: by your gender, your sexuality, your race, your own mistakes, real or perceived, or the sins of someone else. If you have been distrusted — with or without good cause — you are welcome. Those shunned by everyone have the first seats at the table. And everyone — regardless of social status, regardless of history — has something to offer, to do to build God’s kingdom on earth, to feed the hungry, befriend the lonely, to give the world a charge of hope in the face of despair.
To give others the love that God has given to us simply because we breathe.
During worship at synod assembly last night, the preacher, Pastor Linda Forsberg gave a bang up sermon. She talked about how baptizing children always chokes her up — I’m one baptism in, and I get that. To take a child in your arms and say “You are God’s beloved, kiddo — welcome to the family” is powerful and beautiful. She said that she knows, though, that soon enough, there will be other voices. The child will get older and go to school. Kids can be mean, and it doesn’t get much better in adulthood. As kids the insults are “too tall,” “too short,” “too skinny” or “too fat.” In adulthood they get worse: lazy. Worthless. A drunk. Or, like in the text today, sinner. But you fill in your own blank. We are so good at pushing each other to the margins.
Linda said her prayer for each person baptized is this: out of all those voices, “may God’s voice always be the loudest voice you hear.” You aren’t the worst things they say about you or even the horrible things you may say about yourself. You are beloved, child of God.
She had us repeat it, over and over. “May God’s voice be the loudest voice you hear.”
The woman in our text today hears God’s voice: “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.” And that’s how one of God’s beloved broke up that nice Pharisee’s respectable dinner party.
It’s been an interesting week for women, for sure: a week of something new and a week of despair. But life is not only complicated for women.We all hear complicated messages about our own worth.
But God’s voice transforms us into something else. It transformed the woman from “sinner” to beloved child. It transformed Mary Magdalene from demoniac to disciple. The nameless wife of Herod’s steward became Joanna, benefactor to the kingdom. God’s voice changes drunks into healers and the “worthless” into inspirational teachers. God takes what the world sees and changes it into what the world needs just because of love.
In this world of conflicting messages, beloved people, may God’s voice always be the loudest voice you hear. And may God’s voice and the shocking and powerful knowledge of own worth as children of God light up our eyes and bring you back to life, transforming you into not just a forgiven child of God, but a healer, a disciple, a part of the kingdom.
Because if forgiven and loved people who know their own worth, regardless of what anyone else may claim — if people like that can bust up dinner parties, who knows what else we’re capable of? Amen.
(1) Sermon title taken from Jars of Clay album, Who We Are Instead, Essential Records, 2003.
Zhuravlev, Firs Sergeyevich, 1836-1901
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