Warning: This sermon contains low-end PG-13 language.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be at least temporarily acceptable in your sight, O Lord. Amen.
In April I visited Berkeley Divinity School at Yale to test our assumptions of the school and to start to restore a flagging relationship. I found most of our assumptions unfounded, but my most unfounded assumption I wasn’t even aware of until they disabused me of it: I thought Yale would be arrogant, self-important and condescending.
What I found instead was that they lived and breathed hospitality. After I arrived at 8:30 p.m., Berkeley’s dean, Andrew McGowan, and his wife, Felicity, fed me a late dinner in their home. Cathy George, associate dean, set up meetings for me with pretty much everyone on Berkeley’s staff. They had students to greet me, guide me, and sit with me at each event, and gave me space when I needed it. Whenever I asked where I could find a glass of water, the toilet, a fan for my room because I’m a diva and can’t sleep without white noise, whoever I asked stopped what they were doing to help me.
I thought for a moment that maybe they were being so hospitable because I was a “visiting dignitary” from a large Episcopal diocese, but it just didn’t stick. For one, they could have just as easily been offended that the Diocese sent some snot-nosed millennial to their esteemed institution instead of a bishop. And, more importantly, I knew the hospitality was authentic because good hospitality is hard to fake.
Faked hospitality makes me uncomfortable, like I’m going to be asked for money or have my wallet stolen while I’m sleeping. It makes me feel like I’m a manikin being dressed in a shop window—on display, fawned over, partly naked and mostly plastic. I knew this was authentic hospitality, because it was comfortable and most of the time I didn’t notice it.
On my second night at Yale, I got to hear Robert Willis, Dean of Canterbury Cathedral, speak to the Berkeley community about the Cathedral’s role in the January Primates meeting. Just as a disclaimer to those of you who maybe have heard enough about the Primates and the Anglican Communion, let me preface this by saying that I’m with you. I think of Anglican Communion politicians like I do proctologists: I’m glad they exist in the event something gets stopped up, but mostly I’m just glad I don’t have their job.
And Dean Willis didn’t tell a tale of Primate political intrigue and backroom deals. The story he told was about the transcendent power of simple hospitality.
Some background first. The Primates met in January of this year following profound disagreements over the Episcopal Church’s decision to marry same-sex couples. There was a lot at stake: Many of the primates were threatening to force us to take down all of our “Episcopal Church Welcomes You” signs and replace them with signs that read “We Have No Idea What We’re Doing.” Or something. I’m not really sure. Like I said, I’m glad there are other people to worry about this.
What I do know is that the meeting had great potential to be fractious—some thought it might even result in a split in the Anglican Communion. Canterbury was given the high honor and great responsibility of hosting that meeting.
Dean Willis spoke of hospitality as a spiritual practice. He said that Canterbury’s staff model hospitality in every way possible. Since Canterbury is a place of pilgrimage for people all across the Anglican Communion, there’s a high probability that a pilgrim and a staff member might not speak the same tongue, so they are trained to speak the body language of hospitality: their posture, their placement in a room, the expressions on their faces are all meant to say, “You belong here. Welcome, weary traveler.”
When a pilgrim and a staff member do speak the same language, they are taught to treat every question as deserving of a dignified answer. Dean Willis said, “Even if someone asks, ‘Who is that little man hanging on the cross there?’ We take that question as an opportunity for hospitality, an invitation into relationship.”
What an incredible, revelatory breath of fresh air it was to hear Dean Willis say that. Our church can often seem like that insufferable gin-swilling guy at a party who responds, “How quaint,” to what you thought was an intelligent question. Nothing saddens me more than to think that fear of embarrassment would cause someone to hold back on inquiring about our rich faith and tradition—nothing but knowing that I might play a part in creating that fear.
So it comforts me to know that Canterbury Cathedral, the essential site of pilgrimage for our Church, for the Anglican Communion, is a place where people revel in the chance to answer any question, to make you feel at home in your Church. I pray that we, the Mayo house staff, and all of our churches will someday take a pilgrimage to this land of Holy Hospitality and make our home there.
Before the January Primates meeting, Dean Willis said that some of the Primates had asked Justin Welby to have Canterbury to themselves for a full day, to clear the hall for their important work. Not only did Canterbury refuse to turn away the thousands of pilgrims who visit each day, but Justin Welby invited the Community of St. Anselm to worship alongside the primates.
When I Googled “Primates Meeting Canterbury Cathedral” to make sure I got the details right, the first thing that came up was a reflection from Justin Welby in which the first paragraph thanked the Community of St. Anselm and all who prayed throughout their meeting:
“The first thing to say is that the week was completely rooted in prayer. The Community of St Anselm – the international young Christian community based at Lambeth Palace – took up residence in Canterbury Cathedral and prayed all day every day for the Primates as we talked together. As Primates we joined with all who gathered for Morning Prayer, Eucharist and Evensong in the Cathedral each day. And meanwhile thousands – perhaps millions – of Anglicans and others in the Christian family around the world prayed in churches and posted prayers on social media. I want to thank everyone who prayed last week. We felt it and we appreciated it deeply.”
So it was Canterbury Cathedral – washed in prayer and clothed in hospitality – that set the stage for the potentially fractious Primates meeting.
I asked if I could preach today because I wanted to tell this story to you all, and today’s Gospel has a distinct connection to Holy Hospitality.
But first let’s take a second to really appreciate just how strange this Gospel story is. For one, the only recurring character in the story is Jesus himself. Simon the Pharisee and the “sinful woman” are not mentioned before or after this passage. What’s more, a lot of action takes place off-stage. Jesus clearly knows these Pharisees well enough for them to invite him to dinner, and the sinful woman clearly has a pre-existing relationship with Jesus, as she comes to pour very expensive oil on him and wash his feet to thank him for forgiving her sins.
Also consider the scene the woman walks in to. This sinful woman crashes a boys’ club dinner party to anoint Jesus. And it’s not like she walks in and sits down to share challah and hummus, she “stood behind [Jesus] at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair,” then she, “continued kissing his feet and anointing them with ointment.”
A fancy Bible dictionary told me that “the Pharisees” roughly translates to “the Separatists.” There are a few ideas about how they got this name, but the one that makes the most sense in this Gospel and others is that they were dubbed “the Separatists” because they sought holiness by avoiding the unclean – unclean foods, unclean beggars, this unclean woman (Oxford Companion to the Bible, 1993).
So this isn’t just a strange dinner party crashing story. For the Pharisees, it’s their personal version of holier-than-thou boys’ club hell. Appalled, they say to Jesus, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known what kind of woman this is.” We’ve heard this expression before: “She’s that kind of girl.” This Gospel makes us witness to first-century slut shaming. Doubtless the Pharisees make assumptions about the ways she’s sinned, but they only know that she’s a sinner by her offerings to Jesus.
When I first heard “a woman in the city, who was a sinner” I assumed her sin was prostitution. You might have as well. But Luke’s Gospel makes no mention of this woman being a prostitute, or having committed any other type of sexual crime. She could have had a gambling problem, or said the Lord’s name in vain, or worn seersucker before Easter. The assumption doesn’t just do this woman a disservice; it does all women a disservice—suggesting that the only sins women are capable of committing are sexual (Jeannine K. Brown, Working Preacher).
(As an aside, the same thing happened to Mary of Magdalene, mentioned at the end of this passage: There’s nothing to say that any one of those seven demons cast out of her had anything to do with prostitution. She wasn’t a prostitute.)
I think it’s these kinds of assumptions that make us bad hosts. Honest care for one another takes time, so in our haste we fall back on assumptions and stereotypes: this person in the foyer has already been helped; they know where they’re going; they’ve been here before so they probably feel welcome; this person walking in the door isn’t “dressed like an Episcopalian,” they look disheveled, they’re probably going to ask for money or food.
That last assumption once got me in a lot of trouble. Two black men were at the door at Mayo House. They were wearing baggy clothes, one wore Adidas sandals with white socks. (Not judging, though, I did that in high school.) I opened the door half way and guardedly asked them if I could help them (apparently this is a theme in my sermons). In a distinctly African accent, one introduced the other man as the bishop of a Sudanese diocese. It was a Sudanese bishop and his canon, coming to talk with Bishop Johnston.
It’s important for me to remember, in my frustration over some in the Anglican Communion’s assumptions about us that I’m guilty of making just as uncharitable assumptions about them. When we come to the confession of sin, I’ll be asking forgiveness for these all assumptions I made. Make. Will make.
I think it’s easier, too, to make these kinds of assumptions when you view yourself as the master of the house, as Simon the Pharisee probably did. But if we can view ourselves not as masters of anything, but pilgrims on the same path to relationship with Jesus, the potential for hospitality opens up. We’re no longer gatekeepers but fellow pilgrims. Some of us know the way. Some of us are are still strangers on the path. We can teach each other—one offering guidance on the road ahead, the other offering perspective on what the road looks like for the first time.
Today’s Gospel passage describes a kind of pilgrimage. Both the Pharisees and the woman feel compelled to seek out relationship with Jesus: the Pharisees by breaking bread with him, the woman by anointing him. Both are good ways to seek Christ, but the Pharisees get it wrong when they seek to exclude another pilgrim, because she’s not clean, because she doesn’t know dinner party decorum. And they go even further, questioning Jesus’ ability to forgive her sins: “Who is this who even forgives sins?”
When we deny another’s place at the table, we deny Christ in the very same way. Christ wants, yearns for everyone to sit at his banquet table, not just the learned, the handsome, the ones who know where the soup spoon goes.
The Pharisees worshiped at the altar of false hospitality. They thought that knowing the rules and steering clear of those who didn’t would make them Holy. It didn’t make them Holy. It made them elitists. Jesus, however, seeks out relationship with the sinful and the dirty handed. He knows that faith in God, however unpolished, is what really matters. He tells the woman: “Your faith has saved you, go in peace.”
Good hospitality is hard. It’s counter-cultural. It means putting others before ourselves and setting aside our assumptions of the stranger. This is what I think makes Canterbury Cathedral’s hospitality in January such an outstanding witness. It was an act of Holy Defiance, of non-violent protest, if you think about it. Some of the Primates wanted to exclude the Episcopal Church for its inclusivity. Some of the Primates wanted to exclude other pilgrims from Canterbury during their meeting. But Justin Welby, Dean Willis and Canterbury said no, we are called to walk the way together, both as an international communion of saints and here together in worship. It’s a beautiful image, the pilgrims and the Primates praying together—those who have walked as pilgrims for a long time, and those who are just setting out.
It’s no understatement to say that Justin Welby credits Canterbury’s hospitality and prayer with saving the Church we love—worshiping together in that space, seeing the faithfulness of the pilgrims, like the faithfulness of the “sinful woman.” The Archbishop concluded a long letter thanking the Canterbury staff for their role in the Primates meeting with, “I repent of ever doubting the concept of sacred space.”
We don’t have to travel to Canterbury to have the same experience. We can find sacred space “anywhere two or three are gathered” as long as our focus is toward Jesus rather than toward self, power, and exclusion. We can walk the pilgrim’s path set before us with our eyes cast, not down at our feet, but up (and all around us) towards Jesus Christ.
Let us pray.
We gather here together in this sacred space.
Some of us come with questions, some with answers. Some with faith, and some with doubt.
Give those of us with questions the courage to ask them, and those with answers hospitable hearts.
Help us to seek first relationship and understanding,
to set aside assumption and prejudice,
to learn from one another, and to welcome the strangers in our midst,
so that we might know each other as Christ knows us,
and so that we might all find sanctuary in this world that has so little of it.
In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.