I preached this sermon at Womankind, a conference at St. James Episcopal Church in Richmond. The text is Luke 7:36-50: the woman who weeps at Jesus' feet as she anoints him at a dinner party held by Simon, a Pharisee.
2,000 years ago a woman stood outside the walls of Simon’s stately villa among a crush of peasants and villagers to watch the spectacle of respectable people.
When a wealthy person threw party, it was an excuse for everyone in town to pause for a celebration. It was not unlike a modern red carpet procession for the Oscars. In the 21st century, limos would be idling in slow procession, attendants on hand to open the doors to the snap of camera flashes.
Back then, a few folks brought instruments and started playing outside the courtyard of the great home, while everyone craned their necks to watch the dignified in their fine apparel, and thew back a drink or two, and asked someone they had their eye on to dance.
I imagine the woman standing a few yards off, in a secluded corner, because everyone in town knew her profession and few people hid their distain.
One by one the elites arrived and made their way into the house:
Wealthy donors to the temple and learned scholars,
merchants who had influence in the town.
And a teacher named Jesus who dressed simply and held himself with a mesmerizing authority.
The woman knew that his invitation was a special kind of test; a trap laid to humiliate him in front of the dinner guests.
We don’t know if the woman, who the author never identifies with a name, had met Jesus before. Some presume that she came prepared, her alabaster jar of perfumed oil secreted in her pocket, because Jesus had already forgiven her. She came that night because her heart was brimming with gratitude.
Whatever the case, she slipped past the attendants, through the courtyard, and into the crowded dinner where men, and only men, reclined at their tables, discussing politics in loud voices and reaching to refill their brimming cups. When she saw Jesus, she could find no words. She had only the tears that flowed so freely from her eyes, the ointment poured out on his feet.
She was beside herself with love —
a love that crossed all boundaries of propriety and manners —
a love that caused her to loosen her hair
and allow it to tumble down in waves.
If the men had not recognized her before, they did now. For perhaps some of them, distinguished as they were had been her customer.
These men were horrified by her behavior.
She defied all convention: all respectability in their respectable party.
Women were not to even touch men they were not married to, and a prostitute surely must have been ritually unclean and therefore defiling not only Jesus but the entire meal set before them.
Everything about it was scandalous.
Hair, loose and unbound was evidence of this woman’s profession as a prostitute. But in Paul’s letters we see that hair is let down when a woman prophesies. So we might wonder what this woman, whose name no one remembered, was prophesying.
As it turns out, she was the only one in that room of highly educated, respectable men who really understood. Only she knew the meaning of forgiveness received and love poured out. The rest of them — they were just there to posture, to parade, and to preen.
She wasn’t even invited to the table,
but here she was at the meal,
and she had something to say.
Three years ago a man whose name we know: Corey Menafee, learned that in the dining hall where he worked at Yale University, there was a stained glass window that depicted two enslaved people, carrying large baskets of cotton. One of them, Menfee observed, seemed to be smiling.
Mr. Menafee worked in the dining hall at Calhoun College, named after the US Vice President who not only owned slaves but robustly defended slavery from his place in the White House, offering, what the Washington Post called an “impassioned defense of the slave-plantation system in the South.”
For years, students had petitioned and protested, asking that the name of the college be changed, and art work referencing slavery removed. But nothing was done.
The first time Mr. Menafee saw the window, he reported feeling “hurt” and “shocked.” Every time he arrived at work, there it was. It worked on him.
“Like they say, a picture’s worth a thousand words,” he told a reporter. “That picture might have been worth a million words...I don’t know, it just hit me.”
One July day as he worked alongside his colleagues, mopping the dining hall after a meal service, Mr. Menafee had a sudden, unplanned urge. He climbed on a dining table, reached the handle of his mop up, and gave the stained glass window two firm raps. The window fell out of its frame to the sidewalk, where it shattered.
He was not thinking of the activism of the students to change the name of the college, he later reported. He was only thinking of what was right and what was wrong.
“No employee should be subject to coming to work and seeing slave portraits on a daily basis,” Mr. Menafee later told a police officer. And later, to a reporter, “I just said, ‘that thing’s coming down today.’”
Every day he served meals to the educated and elite studying at Yale University.
He did the dishes and mopped up the dining hall.
As it turns out, he was the only one in that university of highly educated,
who really understood.
He knew that such an image degraded his humanity
and reinforced historical assumptions about him and his ancestors
that need no reinforcing.
The university had him arrested. They led him out of the dining hall in handcuffs that day.
Yale might argue it was wrong of him to destroy the window.
I might argue that the greater wrong was done in leaving it up.
Corey Menafee was’t invited to the table.
But he was standing on one of them now,
and he had something to say.
Jesus ate at a lot of tables.
He was accused (as Sara Miles reminded us yesterday) of eating with greedy, conniving tax collectors and loose women. He dined on fine food with temple priests and politicians. He was hosted in humble homes where children lay ill in bed. He was fed by those who wished him ill.
But Jesus also hosted meals. One, on a hillside, where there was no table — just the green grass, twelve loaves of bread and two fish — enough to feed a multitude. And the other was in an borrowed upper room celebrating a meal unusually reserved for families, with an odd assemblage of mis-matched friends the night before everything was lost.
As Christians, we might ask ourselves which table ours most closely resembles.
the tables we grew up with…
our tables at home…
our tables at church…
Perhaps our tables are places where abundant hospitality is offered when paychecks or fat or when they are meagre. Places where we hear one another’s stories.
Or perhaps they are places where we bait and wound others, posture and preen. Where we show up to show off, drawing unspoken fences of requirement around the table so only a certain kind of person might enter.
Perhaps our tables are out in the open where anyone might share a bit of bread on the green grass.
Or perhaps they are tables of mis-matched friends drawn together when family has not done what families are supposed to.
Our tables have a way of showing us who we really are, and who, or what, we belong to.
I was the pastor of a Dinner Church for eight years, and so I thought a lot about tables. I thought about how to make our tables at St. Lydia’s welcoming to anyone who walked in the door. It was harder than it seemed. Food has a way of communicating so much about culture, food can be an invitation or a dis-invitation. How could we make our tables so that no one felt like they were in the wrong place?
At our tables, I noticed that, as in the Gospel text today, moments of truth and transformation often emerged, not from those gathered around them, but those outside them.
It was stories from our neighborhood,
news from Baltimore or Ferguson,
accounts of what was happening at the public housing unit down the street,
that forced a change in our table conversation,
and invited us to turn from the bread we broke,
toward a world that was heart-achingly broken.
Simon the Pharisee believed his table to be respectable. He invited guests from fine families.He followed the rules, to the letter for the law. But he somehow missed what hospitality looked like in the process. His home was a bastion of refinement, his guests respectable people, nothing like the crowds outside who battered at the door.Nothing like the woman who slipped inside with her scandalous jar of oil.
And yet, he missed the point.
He failed to see God when God is right was front of him,
breaking bread with him.
He failed to see grace when grace was right in front of him,
weeping and loosening her hair.
Despite all his wealth and education, Simon missed the point.
He thought the law was about order and civility,
but Jesus told him, no.
It is about love.
How many of our churches have tables just like Simon’s? Where we focus the letter of the bylaws or rub elbows with the respectable of society, ushering out the scandal of love that is standing right in front of us?
She came to the table because she had experienced grace
and poured out everything that she had.
And the respectable people turned away in shock and horror.
He stood on the table, broomstick in hand,
because he knew clear as day what’s wrong and what’s right.
“This goes today,” he said,
and the respectable people had him arrested.
How often are we more concerned
with the respectability of the message bearer
than we are with the truth of the message they have to bear?
For years, Yale had hemmed and hawed about changing the name of Calhoun college. Petition after petition, protest after protest, study after study led by respectable professors with Ph.D’s and letters after their names. And it was Corey Menafee, dishwasher, who saw the truth.
This isn’t right.
It’s coming down today.
By 2016, a year after the window broke, Yale had changed the name of the Calhoun College. They replaced the window with clear glass. African American students and workers would not have to live under the name of a man who robustly defended their oppression.
I notice that in these two stories, God’s word is spoken by two people who use no words at all.
It is their actions:
an outpouring of love by the unnamed woman
and a declaration of truth by Mr. Menafee
that cut through centuries of patriarchy and racism.
“Here I am,” they say.
Perhaps not “respectable,” but worthy of respect.
Who is it in your community who wasn’t even invited to the table, but is here at the meal and has something to say?
God operates at our edges.
God stands with and works through the people who weren’t even invited.
If the unnamed woman wandered into one of our churches today perhaps we would offer her a meal or assistance program to help get her back on her feet.
Programs are good. They make a difference for a lot of people.
But what would happen if we placed her at the head of the table, this prophet with loosened hair?
And instead of trying to help her, followed her?
That’s the difference between service and justice.
Justice puts the prophet who was never even invited at the head of the table and says,
“we are ready to learn from you.”
Justice learns her name, and remembers it.
What would happen if we structured our churches around the notion that it’s often the least respected among us who can see the truth most clearly?
After all, that’s what Jesus did.
Though their names have been forgotten or erased, the Gospel writer still records in the very next chapter that many women went with Jesus and the twelve. Mary and Joanna and Suzanna and others whose names are not recorded. They were disciples too.
Those woman healed by Jesus who became prophets and priests and healers themselves.
The records may have diminished their roles, but even the gospel tells us:
they were there.
The good news is that any table can change.
God can make something good wherever people break bread together.
God can break open love wherever oil is poured out.
God will even tap tap tap at the ossified images of our sin
we have mistaken as a symbol of our respectability
and send them crashing to the ground to shatter.
The good news, is that any table can change.