Date: March 6, 2016
Title: “Off the Record with An Unnamed Woman”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: Luke 7:37-50
Novelist Sue Monk Kidd tells the story about a woman who said something that struck her as rather odd. She writes:
On the eve of my birthday, this woman said to me with a completely serious face, “When I turn 50, I want to become notorious.” “Notorious for what?” I asked. This seemed to throw the woman. “Well, I’m not sure”, she said, “I haven’t gotten that far along with the idea.”
Kidd wondered if perhaps this woman had not bothered to look up the meaning of the word “notorious”. According to the Dictionary, it means “Famous for something bad – well known for some undesirable feature, quality, or act…” Given that information, “notorious” doesn’t necessarily seem like such a good idea! And yet, Kidd said:
After my conversation with the woman, practically against my will, I began to entertain a thought: What would I want to be notorious for at 50?
What would you want to be notorious for at any age? That is a great question, and it is one which may have been asked by the woman in Luke’s story which we read today. Appearing out of nowhere, unnamed, and uninvited, that woman breaks all the rules. She flagrantly crosses the lines of gender, social custom, and public etiquette. She blatantly steps out of her place. And she becomes notorious – well known, famous for her audacity and her extravagance, for her vulnerability, and her love.
This woman was not a tax collector. She was not an adulteress. Nor, as has often been suggested by a patriarchal Church, she was not a prostitute. Rather, Luke simply calls her “a sinner”… someone just like me, or just like you. We don’t know exactly what her particular sins were nor do we know how she knew Jesus, or what had transpired in her life prior to this story. All we do know is that this woman has answered Kidd’s question for herself. She will be notorious for her vulnerability, and her gratitude, and her love. Knowing herself better than anyone else knew themselves in this story, this unnamed woman is no longer concerned about the “Simons” of life – those who would set themselves up as gatekeepers and guardians of the “rules”, those who would be the first to judge and criticize and ostracize anyone who strayed beyond the bounds. The unnamed woman is no longer afraid to pour herself out, and to become vulnerable for the sake of her joy.
Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the family that invited some people over for dinner. These guests were not particularly good friends – the occasion was really just a “payback” kind of meal. You know the kind – they invited us over for dinner, so now we are obliged to reciprocate. In an event, as everyone gathered around the table, the mother looked at her six year old son and asked him to say grace.
Normally this child loved to offer the blessing, but he hesitated, saying “I’m not sure what to say tonight.” So his mother told him, “Well, just say what you’ve heard your father say.” Ah… you can already see it coming, can’t you? Sure enough – that child bows his head, folds his hands, and solemnly intoned, “Dear Lord, why on earth did we invite these people to dinner?”
Simon the Pharisee may have felt the same way about his dinner party. He may have started the evening with mixed emotions, uncertain what to think about Jesus and his followers. So he invites the local clergy over, thinking they would have an intriguing evening discussing theology, maybe solving a few of the world’s problems over a glass of wine or two; when all of a sudden, that unnamed woman shows up and perfumes the air and fills the awkward silence with her sobs. Poor Simon doesn’t know whether he should set another place at the table, or maybe just show Jesus and the woman into another room, ask them to hold it down while the rest of the party moves on into dinner.
Maybe it is Simon’s discomfort – maybe it is the confusion of the moment or the dissonance of the scene –that causes him to react with such vehemence. Caught off guard, Simon is convinced of his own righteousness. He cannot fathom his own need, he cannot risk his own vulnerability, he cannot acknowledge his own brokenness. And so, he is clueless when it comes to God’s grace.
So if we were to go “off the record” with this unnamed woman today – if we were to ask her to put down that alabaster jar and share with us the wisdom of her heart – what might she say? I think she might tell us first, that it is no good pretending to be someone or something that we are not. All the time and energy we put into impression management, trying to fool the world (and maybe even ourselves) into thinking we are perfect, and trying to deny our own broken places… all of that is wasted energy and squandered time.
Madeleine L’Engle once wrote:
When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability. To be alive is to be vulnerable.
And Brene Brown, in her “Manifesto of the Brave and the Brokenhearted” puts it this way:
There is no greater threat to the critics and cynics and fearmongers
than those of us who are willing to fall
because we have learned how to rise.
With skinned knees and bruised hearts,
we choose owning our stories of struggle
over hiding, over hustling, over pretending.
When we deny our stories, they define us.
When we run from struggle, we are never free.
So we turn toward truth and look it in the eye…
As the woman lets down her hair and wipes her tears from Jesus’ feet, she would tell us it is okay to be real, to be authentic, to be honest with our brokenness and with our healing. There is nothing quiet or reserved or small about her gratitude. Theologian Paul Tillich says the woman responds with “A holy waste, a waste growing out of the abundance of her heart”. Hers was not a reasonable response to Jesus’ forgiveness and grace. And yet, as Tillich reminds us again, “Religion within the limits of reasonableness is a mutilated religion…because calculating love is not love at all.”
As the woman goes on her way, she might suggest that gratitude and joy go hand in hand. Which brings us back to Sue Monk Kidd as she grappled with that question about notoriety. She says a few weeks later, she was struck by a poem by Mary Oliver in which the poet writes:
When it’s over I want to say:
All my life I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
If I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
The words of the poem brought Kidd to answer the question for herself. She writes:
Let me become notorious for having a deep awareness and a wild amazement at this life God has given us and this world in which God places us. Let me be notorious for being aware and for being amazed at God’s abundant gifts of grace in each of our lives.
When it comes right down to it, the unnamed woman might tell us, it is not really about being notorious. It is simply about being faithful, and having the courage to be who we are. Thanks be to God! Amen.