Genesis 1: 26 – 28 and Luke 7: 36 – 39 Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN In her new book, Shameless: A Sexual Reformation, Nadia Boltz-Weber opens her book with a powerful illustration. While in an airplane, flying over the farming fields of the Midwest, she gazed down at the fields below her and noticed something peculiar. The patterns of crops seemed to be planted in circular shapes, but the fields in which they were planted were square-shaped. How many of you know what Nadia is referring to? A couple of weeks ago I flew out to Chicago for my best friend’s 50th birthday celebration and sure enough there were circles of crops in lots that are square. Nadia being a city girl and knowing nothing about farming couldn’t come up with a reason for why farmers would do this.
She did some research – and it ends up that it goes back to an invention from 1940 by a farmer named Frank Zybach. Zybach invented the center pivot irrigation system, which effectively revolutionized farming in America. The center pivot irrigation system is exactly what it sounds like. It is a form of overhead sprinkler that operates from a central pivot point and rotates around in a circular pattern, watering the crops within the sprinkler’s reach. It’s not that the crops are planted in circular patterns, they’re just watered that way. The water simply never gets to the crops in the corners.
Nadia reflects, “God planted so many of us in the corners, yet the center pivot irrigation of the church’s teachings about sex and sexuality tends to exclude us. Many of us were taught that if you do not fit inside the circle of the church’s behavioral codes, God is not pleased with you. So, we whittled ourselves down to a shape that can fit those teachings, or we denied those parts of ourselves entirely…” (p.4). In essence, she says, “It taught me that God’s plan is for everyone to be a heterosexual, cis-gender Christian who never has sex with anyone until they marry their one true love and have babies…” (p.3). It is a small circle of people; however, who fit into “God’s plan.” I don’t fit into that circle. Divorced people don’t fit into that circle, people in unhappy marriages don’t fit into that circle, anyone who has had to keep their love life a secret don’t fit into that circle; people who have sex before marriage don’t fit into that circle nor do those who are asexual, bisexual, transgender, gender non-binary, nor people who are non-Christian. She concludes, “If that’s God’s plan, then God planned poorly” (p. 3).
Undoubtedly, there are corners of the fields that the church has left unwatered – leaving many rejected, ashamed, unseen, unnourished and unloved. Yet, ironically, Jesus is found in the corners! We see that in our scripture passage in the gospel of Luke this morning. This scripture can be found in all four gospels – Mathew, Mark, Luke and John – with some variation. In other words, this is a very significant scripture passage.
We meet a woman who the church has cast into the corner. Our scripture says she was a “woman of the city…a sinner”. The Amplified Bible calls her “an especially wicked sinner”, “a notorious sinner”, “a social outcast, devoted to sin.” We get the idea. She was most likely a prostitute, a harlot.
This woman goes to the home of Simon, the Pharisee and brings with her an alabaster jar of perfume. Those who have studied ancient customs tell us prostitutes of that day often wore a vial of perfume hanging by a cord around their necks. In a culture where bathing was infrequent, a drop or two would be used to entice prospective customers. This woman pours out not just a vial of perfume, but the entire contents of her alabaster jar to anoint Jesus.
And then the tears came. The tears of a prostitute, the turbulent waters of her soul, were suddenly released and spilled out like perfume, leaving her vulnerable, exposed. She baptized Jesus’ feet with her tears….tears of sorrow, tears of joy. It was messier than she expected, but that’s how most of her life had been – messy.
With her head bowed in reverence, her body soon followed as she dropped to her knees only inches from Jesus’ feet. Her hair would have been bound up, according to social custom. To let her hair down in public would be considered bold, provocative, abhorrent. But she didn’t care; she was at the feet of Jesus.
Loosening her long hair, she let it fall around her shoulders, then bent over farther still, patting and wiping and caressing his tear-drenched feet…using the dark strands like a silken hand towel. She rubbed his heels, arches, and toes until they were dry once more.
Overcome with emotion, with gratitude, with devotion, she let her mouth follow the same path her fingers had taken and lightly touched his feet with her lips. She kissed them. Her unabashed affection was breathtaking and beautiful. This is a model of holiness – sensual, embodied and free from shame.
Notice Jesus’ response – he does not rebuke her. He is a rabbi. She is a prostitute. Rabbis and prostitutes don’t interact in such a fashion – he would have every reason to rebuke her. No, he receives her affection; he affirms her love.
It is Simon who does the rebuking. He says, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is – that she is a sinner.” In other words, Simon is saying that does not fit into the circle of the church’s teachings – the church has relegated her to the corner – rejected, unseen, unnourished, unloved. Jesus, however, is right there in the corner with her.
Over and over again, the religious authorities tried to put rules around who is in the circle of God’s plan and who is not. Don’t hang out with prostitutes and tax collectors; don’t waste expensive perfume, don’t talk to Samaritan women; don’t touch lepers – Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. Jesus came along and touched lepers, against the rules. Jesus hung out with prostitutes and tax collectors, against the rules. Jesus talked to a Samaritan woman, against the rules. Jesus set an adulterer free, against the rules. (After all, adulterers were to be stoned to death, not set free.)
Jesus hung out in the corners. He went to the corners to care for those who had been wounded, those who were separated from others; the motherless, the sex workers, the victims, the victimizers. Jesus is found in the corners.
Why? I believe that the scripture passage that we heard from Genesis has something to do with it. We read that God created humanity in God’s own image, male and female God created them. Notice that the scripture passage does not say “male or female,” but “male and female.” We all have within us imago dei, the image of the Divine. Every person is a child of God, worthy of dignity and respect.
I am grateful to belong to a church that also goes to the corners especially in the areas of sexuality and gender identity. This congregation has been Open and Affirming for over 20 years – Open and Affirming not only of the laity, but also of the clergy. I give thanks for a congregation that spends hours and hours in discussion over how to make our restrooms more inclusive and then commits resources to creating gender neutral restrooms. I am grateful for this congregation that is willing to go to the corners, especially in areas of sexuality and gender identity.
I believe, however, that we can extend Nadia’s metaphor to other areas as well. What would it mean for us to go to the corners in areas of race, socio-economic status, age, citizenship, physical and mental differences? I heard a story this week and I wondered how would we respond as a congregation?
It is a true story about a father and son who attended an Evensong service at King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, England this last Father’s Day. The son’s name is Tristan. Tristan is a 9 year old, joyful and alert, who loves church buildings, services and choral music. He also is non-verbal and expresses his excitement by calling out and laughing. His expressions are often loud and uncontainable. It is part of who he is, so there is no realistic way for him to be quiet. Many autistic people are like Tristan in this way.
Halfway through the service; however, an usher approached the family and said that the reverend had asked him to tell the family to leave because he was disruptive. The usher seemed “embarrassed but insistent” and soon enough the father and son got up to leave. The father wrote a letter to the reverend that said, “Might I suggest that you place a sign at the front of the chapel, clearly identifying which categories of people are welcome and which are not?” The father went on to say, “My son might not be able to talk, but he knows perfectly well what is going on around him. He isn’t even 10 years old and he knows that he is unwelcome.” The letter went viral and thousands responded.
Fortunately, this story has a happy ending for it
turns out that the reverend knew nothing about the incident. On behalf of the
church, however, he apologized and asked to meet with the family privately so
he could gain some insight into how the church (and his ushers) could “do
better” (Dixon, C. “Dad Writes Viral Letter
After Autistic Son Is Kicked Out of Service, Church Apologizes Immediately,” The Autism Site Blog, June 17, 2019).
As I read the story I wondered, “How would we respond to someone loud and uncontainable – no fault of their own?” My prayer is that we will continue to find ways to widen our welcome. After all, if we are going to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, we will follow him right into the corners sharing the living water of Divine love with all. Amen.