Last night I had the honor to preach at the annual PRIDE Evensong at The Church of St. Luke in the Fields in New York. I selected one of my favorite texts, the story of the woman who washes Jesus’ feet with her tears and dries them with her hair (Luke 7:36-50), and, as happens with God, the process of preparing the sermon took me places I never expected.
I don’t generally post my sermons on this blog, but this one is an exception. In preparing the sermon, I sensed the Spirit drawing together many strands of my experience, thought, education, reading, struggles, and prayer. As such, the process has led me to greater integration and healing, and deepened sense of the rightness of my life today.
So, here’s a video recording of the sermon. The full text appears below.
Do you see this woman? Do you see this woman? This is the question Jesus asks Simon the Pharisee, and it’s also the question Jesus and this text from Luke ask us. Do you see this woman?
Who is this woman we are to see? Luke gives her no name and no description other than that she is a sinner. But she also has no face. When she enters Simon’s house, she kneels down behind Jesus, obscuring herself from the gaze of those at table. She is bent down over Jesus’ feet. And presumably her hair, with which she dries those feet, falls down in her face as she goes about her extravagant work of hospitality. This anonymous woman has no name and no face. But her obscurity goes even further.
Her extraordinary boldness in approaching a man who is dining in someone else’s house, and not only in approaching, but in touching, and not only in touching, but in kissing, weeping, caressing, and anointing—this boldness suggest that this woman is either desperate for healing and wholeness or that she is so far beyond the boundaries of her society that she has nothing to lose by exposing herself to ridicule and derision. Probably both are true. Furthermore, this anonymous woman’s identity and spirituality arise from her body and her physical intimacy with Jesus. It is in her loving, sensual touch that she is healed. We cannot escape the overtones of sexuality here, overtones that only further underscore this woman’s place outside the mainstream.
And so, not only is this woman anonymous, but she is also obscene. And her anonymity and obscenity are so inextricably entwined as to be practically speaking the same thing.
The word obscene means, “that which does not belong.” That which is outside the mainstream, that which stands beyond the boundaries of what is acceptable, reasonable, tolerable, polite. Obscenity is grounded. It emerges from the body and its functions. It is, to use a fancy Greek word, chthonic, which means, subterranean or lying beneath the surface of the earth. Obscenity carries with it all sorts of lurid and even grotesque associations. Sex, body fluids, pornography, four letter words, excessive indulgence in food and drink, bathroom behaviors, dirty jokes—and the list goes on.
For a long time, and in some places and circumstances today, we queer people were seen as obscene. We were or are unnatural, outside the established regular ordering of creation and society. This obscenity was disturbing to our mainstream peers, and needed to be corrected or quelled.
But obscenity has dimensions to it that we rarely note. Urban Holmes III, the Anglican theologian, has this to say about obscenity:
One commonplace access to the chthonic powers of the earth is obscenity. […] A trivialization of the obscene is the dirty joke, whose humor is built on the incongruous and is the obverse of our fear of the dark mysteries of life associated, particularly, with the orifices of the body. […] [But] is it possible that obscenity taps an energy for mystical union?
Is it possible that obscenity taps an energy for mystical union? What if obscenity lies at the heart of the mystery of union with God in Christ? What if the obscene is the gateway to the life that really is life, the life of Jesus Christ?
If we step beyond Luke’s account of this obscene and anonymous woman, we begin to see the eucharistic overtones to this story. In all the other gospel narratives, Jesus says of this woman that she has anointed him for burial. And in the two earliest gospel accounts—Mark and Matthew—Jesus goes even further by saying that wherever the gospel is proclaimed, this story will be told in memory of her. Do those words ring the proverbial bell?
The anonymous woman is a parallel figure for Jesus the Christ—preparing him at a supper for burial; washing his feet; and anointing him. The name Christ or Messiah literally means “anointed one.” And so we see that the actions of this woman make Jesus into the Christ. Her tears are a kind of second baptism, and her love lays the table for the eucharistic feast. She pours out her life in imitation of Jesus even before he does. She is, in fact, the model of his salvific outpouring.
And so, while this anonymous and obscene woman may lie outside the boundaries of her society and her religion, she stands at the very heart of Jesus’ eucharistic ministry. She is the only person in the entire gospel accounts who makes of her life an offering in the way that Jesus does, the only one who gives her entire self in love for Jesus. We are told to remember her in the same words with which we are told to remember Jesus. And yet, for all her centrality, she remains anonymous and obscene.
Perhaps the call of this woman’s story is not so much to remember her identity specifically, but to begin to see ourselves in her, to begin to pay attention to the parts of ourselves that are obscene and anonymous. And at the community level we might begin to ask ourselves, what have we sacrificed by assimilating to the dominant culture, which is to say, what have we queer people denied in seeking to be included in the white, capitalist, corporate climate of American society?
It was not too long ago that this Pride Parade was a protest march, an assertion that though our community lived on the margins of mainstream society, we would not be ignored. The gay lib movement, as it was then called, and its later manifestations in ACT-UP during the AIDS genocide took as their center-point a radical pride in being queer, a reveling, if you will, in the obscene and anonymous aspects of our identity. We were not members of mainstream American society, and thank God. Some older members of this congregation remember the days when you’d be seated waiting for church to start on Sunday morning and in would walk two men, clad in leather, with their third from the night before.
At a certain point, both inside and outside the church, things began to shift. The keyword of the gay community, as we were then called, became “inclusion.” We wanted to be included in the structures of society: marriage, taxes, benefits, etc. And we wanted to be included in a public way in our churches.
While I don’t want to disparage the spiritual and emotional benefit of being recognized as human by the larger structures in our society and our church, and of the ability legally and sacramentally to marry the person we love, regardless of gender identity, I find “inclusion” to be a rather anemic goal.
Inclusion too often means assimilation. It means that I adopt the character of the white, straight, boring, mainstream, Doris Day society, which is the same society that oppresses, degrades, and exploits people of color, trans and intersex people, poor people, immigrants, and the environment. And it further means that I allow the power brokers of that society to coopt the cultural markers of my community and to capitalize on them. In other words, inclusion and its darker side, assimilation, mean that I become part of the straight white dream, that I fall asleep to the obscene contours of my community identity, and that I allow the capitalist money-makers to profit from my community. In other words, I assimilate to the culture of the empire, and I lose my identity.
This sort of movement is exactly what happened to Christianity in the fourth century when it became the religion of the empire. What had been a marginal, one might even say anonymous and obscene, Way became the privileged and favored religion of the most elite members of the society. At that point, everything changed. The way of self-giving love that Jesus taught, the way of smallness and humility, became the path to greatness, power, and wealth. The way that taught its followers not to stone the sinful, became the arbiter of sin and the leader of inquisition, conquest, and conversion, the upholder of chattel slavery and the genocide of the Native Americans. The small, intimate meal of Jesus’ body, became an elaborate, stylized court ritual. You see, the empire never became Christian. Christianity became imperial.
You can be certain that Christianity would never have become the religion of empire if it didn’t pay dividends to those at the top. And you can be certain that we queer people would not be able to marry today, if the corporate sponsors of our inclusion in society didn’t make a lot of money off the deal.
Again, I am not calling marriage equality and greater representation in media, society, and the church bad things. But they are not enough. And they are dangerous, if not seen as very small steps on the way toward healing and wholeness.
Far better than inclusion, is integration. Integration recognizes that there is unity inherent in diversity. Integration does not require the abandonment of identity in order to secure belonging. Rather, it realizes that true belonging is already given, and that the whole is stronger for the diversity and multiplicity of its parts. An integrated church and society would celebrate the obscene rather than trying to strip it of its earthiness in favor of a bland whiteness. We would revel in our dual nature as embodied spirits and spiritual bodies. We would proclaim with joy rather than shame that we are the stuff of the earth.
There is, too, in our denial of the obscene a more personal dimension at work. We all know the burn of shame and fear, the sense that somewhere, deep within us, lies a truth that, were it known publicly, would lead others to push us beyond the boundaries, to abandon us to the outer darkness. We all have some aspect to our lives that we would rather jettison in favor of a more acceptable, beautiful image of who we should be. Our denied hopes, the unmet yearnings of our deep hearts, disappointments at the way life has turned out, shame at our bodies, memories of abuse and neglect, and the list goes on.
But to deny the fullness of our experience does not bring healing. It only brings further fragmentation. These parts of ourselves we would deny, can actually be the gateway to our salvation. If we, like our anonymous and obscene woman, choose to embrace those parts of ourselves we find least acceptable, to pour them out in love at the feet of Jesus, we may just find something astonishing happening. We may look down, in the midst of our lives, and find that it is actually Jesus who is bathing our feet, bathing our entire bodies, with his tears, drying our bruised and aching limbs with his hair, covering our most tender places with his kisses, and showing us that there is no place within us that is beyond the revelatory power of his love. In fact, there is no place within us that is not already Christ.
The 10th century mystic Symeon the New Theologian puts it this way:
If we genuinely love Him,
we wake up inside Christ’s body
where all our body, all over,
every most hidden part of it,
is realized in joy as Him,
and He makes us, utterly, real,
and everything that is hurt, everything
that seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful,
maimed, ugly, irreparably
damaged, is in Him transformed
and recognized as whole, as lovely,
and radiant in His light
he awakens as the Beloved
in every last part of our body.
You see, there is, ultimately no part of us that is truly obscene. There are no boundaries, no margins, no barriers between us and Christ the Beloved. We are already one, and we always have been. And wherever we tell this story of perfect union, we tell it in remembrance of this anonymous woman, in remembrance of Jesus of Nazareth, and, yes, in remembrance of you, in remembrance of me.
 Urban Holmes III, What is Anglicanism?, p. 70.
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4 Replies to “an anonymous and obscene faith”
Thanks for practicing true humility in sharing this sermon… the Spirit spoke powerfully in you
Thank you for reading.
Thanks so much!