I’ve been struggling the last few weeks with some of the questions that were raised when I went to a conference at the end of May. Yes, we made fantastic six-word sentences about our ministries, we sang incredible hymns and sounded like a choir that had performed for years together, and we told stories of when we’d experienced God in our midst. But something happened at the conference that I could have never imagined or anticipated, and it lead to some important conversations, but I’ve been really struggling about how to talk about it; today’s lessons have given me a platform for what I’m about to share, so please bear with me because it’s been weighing heavy on my heart.
Depending on their life experience, most women will tell you they have experienced some kind of discrimination, harassment, or violence in their lives. Whether it was being passed over for a job, a promotion, or denied access to an opportunity because of their gender, whether they have been “hit on” in a social situation or received unwelcomed physical contact from a man, or worse yet, been the victim of rape or domestic violence, women experience the world differently than men. And add other identifying factors such as race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, and there are women for whom discrimination, harassment and violence has unfortunately become “business as usual.” And to just say “that’s unfortunate” isn’t enough. The only way to change business as usual, is to let them tell their stories, stand in solidarity with them, and advocate for change. And while there’s been a lot of political talk about a presidential candidate playing the “Woman Card,” the fact remains that women’s lives are different from the lives of men. They make up half the world’ population, and yet, so many women are still treated like second-class citizens.
The issue of sexism is an old topic in the church. We’ve been trying to undo the insidiousness of Eve’s sin in the garden of Eden since forever, and yet, the legacy that has been put upon her, among women like Bathsheba, Jezebel, Delilah, Sarah, Rebecca...these women have all been cast with a legacy of seductresses, deceivers of their male counterparts, and not to be trusted.
We see that in this morning’s story of Jezebel. It’s not a particularly good story in the history of women in the biblical tradition. But Jezebel’s decisions about how to have her husband’s adversary murdered...is really not any different than what David does to Bathsheba’s husband...both set these men up to be killed so they can get what they want; they exercise and abuse the power and privilege that they hold. And yet, in our Christian tradition, we honor David...and Jezebel...well, you don’t name your daughters Jezebel. Her name has become a derogatory term for women.
In more recent times..really since the first arguments against the ordination of women finally moved beyond the polite “well Jesus didn’t have any female disciples, how can we have women priests” to the more concrete issue that many men feared women’s sexuality at the altar...yes, there were arguments made that a woman who was menstruating or a woman who was pregnant were contaminating the Eucharist...that we have finally started to address the issue of gender disparity in the church.
And so at the conference, we tackled the issue head on when a female clergy person was the recipient of a very unwelcomed sexually charged comment after one of our workshops. The next day, our opening workshop was cancelled and replaced by a 3 hour conversation about sexism in the church...everything from wage disparity, being passed over for calls in order to hire another male candidate, the lack of family medical leave in most Letters of Agreement, to the unsolicited comments and touches by male parishioners, clergy and bishops. Three hours...and we barely scratched the surface.
So what does that have to do with the gospel?
Jesus has been asked to dine at the house of a Pharisee named Simon. It would have been customary for the host to have offered Jesus a water basin and towel to wash the dust from his feet, his hands and his face. Instead, Simon ignores the custom.
But in comes an unnamed woman who not only washes Jesus feet, but does so with her tears, and then dries them with her hair. She continues on to anoint Jesus with an expensive perfume. She is ignoring custom. She is a woman who appears unattached to any man who is gathered there for the meal, she has let her hair down in the presence of men (which was really taboo), and as Simon points out, she is a sinner.
Yet, her actions cause her to be rebuked by Simon the Pharisee. She is out of place, out of line, and unwelcome. Her sin is her cause for not being included among “the chosen” as far as Simon can tell. But Jesus has a different understanding of the situation. Instead, she is welcomed as a child of God by Jesus because she has offered love. Jesus understands her washing and anointing as a sign of repentance and love, and so he offers forgiveness and love in return.
For Jesus, being “chosen” wasn’t about who was in and who was out...it wasn’t about someone’s gender or sexuality...it was about forgiveness and love. Those who were willing to change their lives and their hearts were the ones to be included in the household of God.
Now this is good news for us, right? I think it is because it means that we’ve got a chance of being part of the Kingdom! What I gather from this story, and so many of the stories about Jesus healing people, is that being welcomed by Jesus is less about “business as usual” and more about transformation, forgiveness and love. Now I know that we “know” this, but think about how often we get tripped up in our own self-righteousness or rigidity and how often we ignore the stories of those who have suffered the label of “sinner” without even thinking about the times when we’ve been forgiven and included.
And this is the gospel message...there are no outsiders; there is no room in the kingdom of God for oppression, violence or degradation. We are ALL children of God, despite our shortcomings and failures, and because we are magnificently created in God’s image...male and female.
So as I continue to reflect on the ways in which my foremothers of the Jewish and Christian tradition have been manifested in our corporate memory, and the fallout of that legacy even in our current time and place, I invite you to do as well. And I invite us all to consider how we have participated in the unhealthy “business as usual” situations and circumstances where women are left nameless, cast as less than, and unwelcomed. Until we can repair this situation and fully welcome one another...well, we’ve still got a lot of Kingdom work to do. Amen.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.