I actually never preached this sermon at St. Lydia's, but I preached one sort of like it. On Sunday, February 3, I left my sermon on my dining room table, and discovered, minutes before preaching, that I had no manuscript. It was a bit of an object lesson, since the sermon itself is abut stepping into places of in-betweeness and of risk. I think this sermon is pretty good, but the one I preached that night was probably more alive.
The text is Luke 7:36-50, you can read it here.
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
Like many other 10th graders in these United States,
I read these words from a dusty old anthology
in my high school English class.
It's the opening of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself,
and one reads them at the same time one reads all the other Transcendentalists
like Thoreau and Dickinson.
I, like many tenth graders before me,
consumed the words dutifully and apparently without relish.
They were beautiful words, but they didn’t capture me or move me,
not the way they do now,
now that I am no longer a tenth grader, my mind abuzz with tenth grade things.
They didn’t capture or move me,
until my English teacher, Mr. Hansen,
who was a rare and wonderful character I will have to expound on some other time,
told us a story.
About ten years ago,
he told us,
I was reading this poem with my honors English class,
just like this one.
And in the middle of a stanza,
this boy in the back stood up and said,
“Mr. Hansen, I’ve got to go.”
And he walked out the classroom.
And he didn’t come back for three months.
It turned out that the 10th grader Mr. Hansen was speaking about
had been moved by the words of Walt Whitman and Dickinson,
And like Thoreau so many years before him,
he felt a call to nature so strong that he could not ignore it.
He walked out of the classroom and apparently just kept on walking,
at least according to the story.
I’m not sure exactly what he did for all that time in the woods,
but in my imagination,
he returned to his second period high school english class three months later,
wearing the same clothes he left in,
with twigs sticking out of his beard.
That kid in Mr. Hansen’s English class
had a response to the words of Walt Whitman.
He had a response so strong
that he was moved to do something just a little bit crazy.
This word, response, is the word that many Christian theologies use
to describe why we do what we do in Christian life and in Christian worship.
The prayers we offer,
the offerings we give,
the way we live our lives
are seen as a response
to God’s grace.
God breaks into our lives
like a rock falling into a still pool,
and the force of the impact on the water
creates a series of frenetic ripples.
The money we offer, the prayers we give, the songs we sing
are all reverberations of that first,
disruptive event of God’s love for us.
It’s the same for the woman who washes Jesus’ feet with her tears
and dries them with her hair.
Like the 10th grader who sat in my classroom ten years before me,
she has encountered something
that has moved her to respond.
And her response is just a little bit crazy.
She is a woman who never receives a name.
We remember her for her love
and for the scandal of how she makes that love manifest.
The attentions she lavishes on Jesus
are too intimate for the public setting in which they take place.
She is the only woman in a room reserved for men.
She comes up behind Jesus as he reclines at the table,
and takes hold of his feet,
a gesture that a woman would only enact with her husband.
The men avert their eyes, embarrassed,
not sure where to look in the face of this intimacy.
And she begins to weep.
And then she unties her hair,
and it falls down over Jesus’ feet.
Everyone is trying to figure out where to look,
and yet can’t stop looking
as she transgresses every border,
every boundary they’ve ever known.
She is inhabiting the margins.
This is her response
to the God who has broken into her life.
This is her outpouring:
love that is neither appropriate nor refined.
It spills over the edges
Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven;
hence she has shown great love.
But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.
Is it possible that Jesus’ parable about the two debtors
encourages us to sin?
The more sinful we are,
the parable seems to say,
the greater our experience of God’s forgiveness,
and the greater our response,
the greater our love.
In the biblical commentaries I read,
you can almost feel the scholars begin to shuffle their papers around
and readjust their glasses
when this question arises.
No, no, they argue,
It wasn’t the woman’s sinfulness that makes her more able to love than the Pharisees.
It was her knowledge that she was in need of forgiveness
that makes her different from them.
They can’t see that they are also sinners, and also in need of forgiveness.
But somehow, I don’t think this story is about knowledge.
Or self awareness of one’s sinfulness.
I don’t think it’s about what we know about ourselves
or what we don’t know about ourselves.
I think it’s about experience,
raw, and unfiltered,
about response, and about desire.
I think it’s about that moment
when you realize that your need
is as vast and deep as the ocean.
And that your need,
your need which is so vast, and so deep,
so frighteningly bleak,
like an open nerve laid bare,
is the place where you come face to face with God.
I am an only child
who grew up in a family that valued performance and achievement.
I conscientiously kept my distance from all those things
that divided good kids from bad kids,
for fear that,
if I was a bad kid, then I wouldn’t be good.
I didn’t smoke, I didn’t drink, I did my homework.
I was a tiny, blonde Pharisee
who got straight A’s.
I also rarely took risks.
I rarely crossed boundaries.
I rarely made mistakes.
I was the kid who avoided the boy I had a crush on
to never risk being rejected,
the kid who avoided classes I wouldn’t be good in
to never risk failing them.
I never crashed and burned,
but the way I was living my life wasn’t very...alive.
I don’t think Jesus wants us to sin
so that we might experience grace.
But if our lives look more like the Pharisees’
than the woman’s,
if our lives are about scrupulously staying
to one side of the line,
so that we can continue to believe that we’re “good,”
maybe we’re not really living.
In her chapter, “The Elusive Lure of the Lotus,”
found in Transformative Lutheran Theologies: Feminist, Womanist and Mujerista Perspectives,
Mary (Joy) Philip encourages the church to inhabit the margins,
and introduces her readers to the idea of the estuary:
the place where the river meets the sea.
“Estuaries,” she writes, “are borderlands that are continuously graced
by the rivers on one side and lashed at by the sea on the other.
Purity on one side and brackishness on the other.”
She explains that estuaries are in constant flux,
creating an entirely new environment where animals who must exist
in sea water or fresh water cannot survive.
But, “The productivity of an estuary,” she writes,
“is estimated to be eight times that of agricultural land
because of the rich organic material that the river brings in.
The incoming water and the ocean tides
create a chaos in which life becomes a struggle
because of the constantly changing environmental conditions,
so estuaries are places where fatality is not rare,
and yet life thrives here.”
Something happens in that in-between place
when we live in the borders between purity and brackishness
and inhabit a chaotic but rich environment
where the risks are high,
but love is abundant.
Something happens in that transgressive place
where a woman stands on the threshold of a man’s world
and loosens her hair
so that everyone catches their breath
and reels in beauty and in fear.
when we stop being careful.
When we follow God’s unruly call
to live in places of risk and daring,
to stop needing so badly to be good
and simply be:
needy people in need of more love than anyone can offer us,
anyone except the one who made us.
I don’t think Jesus wants us to sin
so that we might experience grace.
But I hear him calling us to wade just a little bit deeper into the water.
To wade out to the place
where the river meets the sea.
To wade out to a place that is so in the middle,
that we no longer know who we are:
good or bad,
saint or sinner.
Only that we have stood at the edge of our need,
which is so vast, and so deep,
and come face to face with God.
We share the sermon at St. Lydia's, and so I invite you to reflect in silence, and if you're moved, to share a story or experience that's been sparked by the text.