Do You See Her?
A sermon preached by the Reverend Jered Weber-Johnson
at Saint John the Evangelist Episcopal Church in Saint Paul, Minnesota
June 12, 2016
So, yesterday I went for a run in the afternoon sun. We’d had a full morning and I needed to fit it in, and it was either run in the heat of the day or not at all. I convinced myself that I could do it, that I was strong enough and in shape enough, that a short run – though difficult – could be managed in the 90 degree heat and I convinced myself as I turned onto the River Road, that this was “easy”. I’ve got this – I told myself. And, as I shuffled along I found myself passing a guy walking his bike. It was clear as I passed that the heat had bested him, that he was walking when he’d rather (or needed to) be riding. Ever so briefly, as I passed him, I allowed a surge of pride to overtake my thoughts – was it pity I felt for him. I know I judged him as I passed. I judged him without knowing anything about him – his weakness in light of my own fortitude… and as I silently pitied his pitiable state, my foot caught a rock. Like a cartoon character being pushed out of a plane, like Chaplain slipping on a banana peel, I suddenly lost my connection to the earth and just as suddenly I regained that connection. I fell. I crashed. I plowed into the dirt in front of me… two steps in front the guy walking his bike.
As he offered to help me up and confessed to having made similar falls under similar such circumstances, the humility washed over me. The rest of my run I had the fortune of reflecting on that fall and the pride that preceded it. What is it, I asked myself, that allowed me, even if briefly to tie my own worth to my strength, my ability to win and conquer and dominate. I was proud in that moment as I passed him. And, just as easily, whatever minor struggle that biker was facing, I found myself disturbed by how easily I was able to connect his own misfortune with his worth. Somehow, without even knowing him, I needed him to deserve his struggle – to have brought it on himself. Perhaps he hadn’t had enough water. Or perhaps he’d made poor decisions the night before. Perhaps he just hadn’t put in the work to be strong enough to finish his long ride.
As I continued to shuffle along my mind shifted slightly away from the biker and my fall, and I began to reflect on how the themes of dominance, worth, judgement and shame are such a prevalent part of the wider culture in which we live. Why does our culture want us to believe that our worth depends on the worthlessness of others? And, worse, coming out of that problem, what drives us to assign personal fault or blame when we see others struggle and fail? Why do we blame the wounded, the broken, and the victim? Another story of police brutality and we ask what the suspect must have been doing to deserve it. Another young woman assaulted on a college campus, and we ask what she must have been wearing, did she have too much to drink, was she sending out the wrong signals? Did she deserve it? Do they deserve it?
The great 19th century existentialist Soren Kierkegaard warns us “To become better or seem to be better by means of comparison with the badness of others is, after all, a bad way to become better.” Amen to that!
Today the gospel lesson tells us again the story of the woman of the city who washes Jesus’ feet with her tears and her hair and who anoints his feet with her kisses and some costly ointment. The story is told in each gospel in varying forms and in this particular one, Luke decides to frame it as being a story about sin and forgiveness.
Jesus is at a fancy dinner, invited there by a Pharisee, someone who purportedly understood the Law and sin and forgiveness and God, and their meal is interrupted when a woman of the city wanders through the doors and falls at Jesus’ feet, and this scene unfolds. The only things we know about this woman, Luke tells us, is that she is a sinner, and a woman of the city. From these two pieces of information tradition has constructed the story of a woman of ill-repute, a prostitute and someone of little societal worth. After all, in her day and age, she would have been considered property – of a husband, an eldest son, or, now alone, the property of anyone who would have her. And, regardless of her specific sins, Simon seems to sense the scandal unfolding before him. Jesus, a teacher and a prophet, is allowing this known sinner to touch him, to caress and kiss his feet, to bathe him with her tears and wipe them with her hair, and finally to lavish him with costly perfume. The physicality of it, the sheer heedlessness of it must have struck him as scandalous. It would certainly strike us as scandalous.
And, Jesus sensing Simon’s judgment and scandal, seizes on the moment and begins to illuminate and draw attention to this woman’s generosity and abundant love. “Do you see this woman?” he asks. Do you see her? Do any of us see her beyond the trite description of sinner? Do we see her humanity?
At the sentencing of Brock Turner, the anonymous victim read a powerful letter to him, to the judge, and to all of us, a painful retelling of her victimization and a powerful laying bare of the truth about rape culture in our country. At the end of that statement she says, in part, her coming forward with this story was to ensure that her assault and the resulting justice would be seen by young girls everywhere, by victims and those afraid of becoming victims. She writes:
“And finally, to girls everywhere, I am with you…As the author Anne Lamott once wrote, ‘Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.’ Although I can’t save every boat, I hope that by speaking today, you absorbed a small amount of light, a small knowing that you can’t be silenced, a small satisfaction that justice was served, a small assurance that we are getting somewhere, and a big, big knowing that you are important, unquestionably, you are untouchable, you are beautiful, you are to be valued, respected, undeniably, every minute of every day, you are powerful and nobody can take that away from you.”
Do you see her? Do you see her shining there?
In the gospel this morning the woman steps forward – intrudes on the scene from whatever trauma she’s been living, and without speaking a word she demands to be seen – by Jesus. She demands to be seen by a God whose love is so abundant and profuse that it can do nothing but heal and forgive and restore. She stands there anointing Jesus’ feet, shining with an abundant love that drowns out the paltry hospitality of Jesus’ host. She shines knowing that she is already forgiven, that whatever sins and failings the world would try to define her with, she is already reconciled to God. Her great love, her abundant offering, is given then with that knowledge that she is free.
You could argue that forgiveness is freedom. When we are forgiven we are freed from the narratives of domination and blame that would define us in comparison to others. When we are forgiven we are free to see that our worth and the worth of others is infinite and untouchable, that it can’t be taken from us. And, as one colleague wrote this week, forgiveness is “Freedom to fix our mistakes, to work for reconciliation, to choose every day following never to take even one step down the same path that might wound someone again…Freedom to say: You don’t have to pay this back to God. That relationship is restored. Now what will you do to restore the world in which you live?”
“You are the man.” she says. “Do you see her?”
Do you see that you too are forgiven of many sins? Now, go and love greatly!