A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on June 16, 2013 (Proper 6, Year C)
Over the top. Some people just don’t know how to dial it back or they don’t care to. Like Tammy Faye Bakker with her make-up. Or Liberace with his candelabra. Or Elvis with his Jungle Room Or the woman I noticed at last month’s Hingham Middle School band concert who was hootin’ and hollerin’ like she was at Fenway Park (part of me was horrified but the other part thought it was awesome). Or the woman we meet this morning in Luke’s gospel.
Talk about over the top. She shows up to a dinner party and starts showing her affection for Jesus in a way that, um, shatters the norms of social convention, shall we say. This woman certainly knew of Jesus’ reputation — he was kind of a rock star at this stage in his ministry — and she likely had a past encounter with him; her extraordinary display of gratitude certainly points in this direction. But just as the guests were about to start eating, just as they were about to dive into their leg of lamb or whatever was on the menu that night, she throws herself at Jesus’ feet and starts crying all over them and drying the tears with her hair. And if that wasn’t awkward enough she then starts bathing his feet with kisses and rubbing oil all over them. Just a bit over the top, don’t you think?
Now, if you invited a prominent member of the community over to your house for dinner and someone walked in uninvited and started acting like this you’d probably call the cops. Sure, the whole nature of dinner parties was different in Jesus’ day. Rather than just inviting a few couples over for drinks and a quiet sit down dinner, these affairs were held outdoors and the local townspeople would often gather to take in the spectacle. But still this whole scenario would have caused a bit of a scene.
Yet Jesus doesn’t rebuke her. He doesn’t stop her from her public display of affection or pull her aside and say, “Can we talk about this later? This really isn’t a good time.” Quite the opposite. He holds her up to his host and to all of his guests as a model of how to show love. With perhaps a touch of foreshadowing the Last Supper when Jesus himself washes the disciples feet and gives them that New Commandment — that you love one another as I have loved you.
Sometimes we could stand to be a little more over the top in our love of God. Don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you to start kissing each other’s feet during the Peace. Or to start waving your arms around during the hymns. Or insisting that Bryna wear more makeup.
But what about being over the top in your prayer life? Or in your generosity? Or in the way you treat others? What about being over the top as an advocate for the poor? Or in sharing your faith with others? Jesus invites us to love God and love neighbor with reckless abandon and that can mean going over the top sometimes in our devotion to our faith and one another.
The other thing this story shows us is that authentic relationship often transcends social norms. Breaking down barriers between people sometimes means shattering the rigid rules of etiquette. The woman in this story would have been skewered by Miss Manners. “She did what? Oh the horror!”
The man who gives this party wasn’t exactly honest in his intentions to invite Jesus to dinner. We learn that his name is Simon and that he’s a Pharisee, a member of the religious establishment. The Pharisees were always trying to trap Jesus in his words or get him to utter some heresy they could nail him on. They always fail, of course, in a Road Runner/Coyote kind of way. But that may have been the motivation. Certainly the accusation that he cavorts with tax collectors and sinners is borne out as this woman is labeled “a sinner” at the very beginning of this passage.
We hear Simon grumbling about this — “Surely if this man was a prophet he’d know what kind of woman this was.” Jesus knew alright. He knew exactly who she was, what kind of woman she was, and what she desired — it’s the same thing we all crave: forgiveness, salvation, and peace in the form of relationship with the Divine. Which is precisely what Jesus came into the world to offer to all humanity.
Simon sticks to the safety of what’s socially expected but refuses to be vulnerable with the one person who can offer true transformation. Jesus rather forcefully points out that when it comes to welcome and hospitality Simon, despite his wealth and standing in the community, does the bare minimum. He follows the conventions of entertaining right down to the fork in the proper location. But Simon is as stingy in his hospitality as the unnamed woman is lavish in hers — and it’s not even her house!
Now it takes courage to move beyond the surface in our relationships. Sometimes we get burned or hurt. But when we risk opening ourselves to others and especially to Jesus that’s when our hearts aren’t broken but broken open in new and life-giving ways. For Jesus, true relationship trumps the book of manners in the same way that the Spirit of the law always trumps the letter of the Law. It’s all interrelated.
When I cheerfully ask one of my boys, “How was school today?” and I get the inevitable, grudging answer “fine” I wouldn’t expect anything less. But what about when a friend asks you how you’re doing and you say “fine” when you’re really not. When you’re hurting inside or feeling wounded or vulnerable. Again, social convention can get in the way of real relationship.
Now sometimes we’re in a hurry or it’s not the right time or place — you’re not going to pour out your soul to the plumber who says “How you doing this morning?” as he makes his way over to unclog the toilet in your downstairs powder room. Or when the waitress stops by your table at the Ninety-Nine and say “Hi my name’s Misty and I’ll be taking care of you tonight.” Her idea of “taking care of you” probably doesn’t include listening to your marital problems.
I had a seminary professor who got around this superficiality by, not every time but occasionally, looking straight into your eyes and asking, “How’s your soul?” Now that’s a question that gives you pause. There’s not much room for a pat answer like “Oh, it’s fine, thanks.” He was really asking, “How are you as a fellow child of God? What’s on your heart? Is there anything that troubles you or is giving you great joy today? How’s your spiritual life?” These are questions worth answering occasionally but also ones that are important to ask of those in our lives for whom we care deeply.
Being over the top doesn’t necessarily mean causing a scene or spending a boatload of money on your four-year-old’s birthday party. Sometimes it’s all about taking the time to check in with your soul and with those around you. Go deeper with your fellow pilgrims on this journey of life and faith; be over the top in your love of God. And enjoy the richness of a life lived from the heart.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2013