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Do you see this woman?

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Imagine you are in the room. What are you seeing? What are you thinking?

Today’s Text: Luke 7: 36-40, 44-48

Pastor Phil
Pastor Phil

This reflection was offered at First United Church of Christ/DC as part of our confirmation trip to Washington, D.C.

Simon, the well-established Pharisee. Jesus, the wandering rabbi. An unnamed woman with long hair. A house. A meal. And dirty feet.

Today’s story from the Gospel according to Luke contains a lot of vivid images, none more vivid than the unnamed woman letting down her hair, dripping tears on Jesus’ feet and then gently anointing them with oil. It’s not only vivid. It’s sensuous. Even shocking.

She, after all, was apparently known as a sinner. We don’t know what her sin was, but whatever it was, it made her an outcast. And she surely had no corner on the market in sinning – it’s just that hers was apparently more public.

woman-simonSo she brazenly entered Simon’s house, touched this man named Jesus – something a woman should not do to an unrelated Jewish man – and then wound up rubbing his freshly cleaned feet – something that does not happen casually.

Let’s go into the room where it happens. Let’s look at the story from the vantage point of each of the characters.

Simon was a Pharisee, that group of Jewish leaders distinguished by strict observance of the law and generally thought to have pretensions to superior sanctity. Presumably he had been hearing a lot about Jesus and was apparently curious about this rock-star of a rabbi.

There’s nothing in this story to suggest that Simon invited Jesus to dinner to trip him up – although that is what some of the Pharisees were up to.

But Jesus seemed quite willing to cross social boundaries to meet not only Pharisees, but with tax collectors and lepers, centurions and a lone woman by a well. In Luke’s telling of the good news, this is one of three times that Jesus eats with Pharisees.

Simon, then, is the host whose obligation is to make his guest feel honored and comfortable. Simon had apparently overlooked that part of his hosting duties. Still, Jesus sat down with him for a meal.

Just before this, some of the followers of John the Baptist had been talking to Jesus, trying to figure out whether he was the one John had been talking about. After they leave, Jesus compares himself with John, concluding with these words – John came eating no bread, drinking no wine and you say he has a demon. I come eating and drinking and you call me a drunk and a glutton, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.

Jesus was aware of criticism of his work. He was aware of the unease the Pharisees had with him. He noted that Simon had not followed the etiquette of a host. Yet he sat at the table anyway.

Then there is the woman, the person with no name, only a shady past and a bold present.

Imagine you are there. What are you seeing? What are you thinking?

Simon is pretty clear about what he is seeing and thinking.

He mutters, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is, who is touching him, that she is a sinner.”

So there.

Except that Jesus sees so much more.

He asks Simon, “Do you see this woman?”

Dr.-Otis-Moss-IIIOtis Moss, pastor at Trinity UCC in Chicago, does a wonderful riff on this question.

“Do you see this woman?

“Do you see this person who has been dismissed by Rome and your theological doctrine as a non-entity?

“Do you see this woman, nameless to all the men, defined as sinner, rebellious, unclean and of low moral wattage because men who have idolized their gender have scandalized her humanity?

“Do you see this woman?

“I want you to see this woman beyond your constructs, beliefs, cultural dogma and foolish ideology. I want you to see this woman.”

Loretta LynchWhen North Carolina put into law anti-LGBT statutes earlier this year, including the infamous bathroom provisions, Attorney General Loretta Lynch filed a lawsuit describing these laws as “state-sponsored discrimination.”

But she said more. She told transgender citizens, “We see you. We stand with you.”

Do you see this woman?

When a battered-but-brave student at Stanford University wrote a searing letter to the man who raped her, she wrote about not being seen by those at the party she was attending, not being missed by her friends, not even really being seen by the man who was simply using her for his own needs. Many of you know the storm her letter has created.

This week, Vice President Joe Biden wrote to her.

biden“I do not know your name — but your words are forever seared on my soul.” He wrote. “I do not know your name — but I see your unconquerable spirit… I do not know your name — but I will never forget you. The millions who have been touched by your story will never forget you.”

Do you see this woman?

I think we often assume that the unnamed woman with the unconquerable spirit who washed and anointed Jesus’ feet was a prostitute.

But what if she was a rape victim? Some people would cast them as sinners.

What if she was trans? Some people would cast them as sinners.

What if she was homeless? Some people would cast them as sinners.

Do you see this woman?

Folks at First UCC have a long history of noticing the people that others might quickly dismiss. Today’s celebration of Pride Sunday is one example. So is your focus on caring for the most vulnerable, advancing human rights, protecting creation, engaging the world. So is your work with Shaw Community Ministry, teaching life skills to children and teens, something we will be supporting today with the second offering,

You know how to see this woman, this man, the unnamed, the outcast.

I hope we do that at our home church in Wisconsin as well, serving food to the hungry, seek justice for those in prison, looking across the globe to see our brothers and sisters living in occupied Palestine.

IMG_8656Today, we’ll head out with Raine and Patrick and Marlyse as Sam takes them and Amelia and Kevin and Luke and Diane and Rebecca and me to the National Portrait Gallery to see the faces of those who struggled for social justice, to the Mall to see the faces of those celebrating pride in the many expressions of sexuality and gender, to U Street to see the experiences of African–Americans in this community across the decades.

And we’ll be asking, “Do you see this woman?”

But perhaps the bigger challenge for us – all of us, those in Washington, those visiting from elsewhere in our nation – perhaps the bigger challenge is to watch for those we might not be seeing, to open our hearts to them, even when that is hard to do.

What about the Pharisee at the table? Do we see him?

Who do we overlook personally and professionally?

My pastoral colleague Dan Schultz, who grew up at the church I serve in Wisconsin, writes about pastoring a working class church in central Pennsylvania 20 years ago, seeing the discouragement, hearing the anger, yes, hearing the racism among those in his congregation. He tried to see beyond the surface and help open them to another way of seeing the world.

My friend Kathy Cramer in Madison traveled the state in 2007 to hear what folks in the diners and gas stations and bars thought about government and the University of Wisconsin where she was a professor. She saw them, listened to them and gave voice to their anxieties in her new book, The Politics of Resentment.

Neither Dan nor Kathy agreed with many of the folks they got to know. But they did get to know them, to see them as fellow human beings, to take them seriously.

Do you see this woman?

What about the factory worker, the farmer, the convenience store clerk, the janitor who don’t take showers before they go to work but wash off the sweat when they get home? Do we see them?

There are just too many people to see, aren’t there? The crowd of those who need our love and care just keeps growing. Maybe God can keep up with them. Not us.

Maybe there is one more person we need to see.

Maybe when we pray, when we try put ourselves in God’s presence, maybe we should take a new approach. Maybe we should pray with our eyes open. Maybe we should pray in front of a mirror.

Do you see this woman? Do you see this man? Do you see this person? Do you know that you are made in God’s image and held in God’s love?

Seeing ourselves as beloved by God does not make us superior to anyone else.

We don’t need to look at the woman with the long hair and the alabaster jar as a sinner crashing our party – the party of the ones thinking they are God’s favored ones.

We don’t need to look at ourselves as the ones who have God and spirituality and social justice and life all figured out.

We just look in the mirror and pray with our eyes wide open. We see ourselves and then we see others reflected in that mirror as well. We see them all as part of that patchwork of God’s creation.

Let’s go back into the room where it happened.

The unnamed woman broke through the social barriers.

Simon was shocked, offended by her behavior, her flaunting of her femininity and her flouting of the rules.

Jesus was grateful and compassionate and took this as a teachable moment.

But then what.

Did the woman just slip back out into the evening? Did Simon and Jesus just have a rich discussion of Torah and law and wisdom?

What if the woman stayed at the table? What if she joined the conversation?

What if both Simon and Jesus learned something from her, not of the fine points of theology and law but of the experience of being shunned and the joy of being welcomed?

What if they not only saw this women? What if they heard this woman?

What if saw those we too often overlooked? What if we heard them?

How would our lives be different?
How would their lives be different?
How would our world be different?

Do you see this woman?