A Meditation on Honoring the Body
Sunday, February 20, 2022
As I sat down Friday morning, in a Dover café, to pull together some thoughts for this morning’s meditation, two young women passed by on Central Avenue. Holding hands. Their jackets billowing in the gusty wind. Their heads bobbing in conversation. Just holding hands. It’s such a simple thing, holding hands, such a human thing—but it struck me Friday as a beautiful and sacred thing. Maybe even—in some ways—a revolutionary thing. Two young women in Dover, New Hampshire, enjoying one another’s company, leaning into their future together, honoring one another’s bodies. Just holding hands.
I knew nothing about them, obviously. Were they lovers? Were they on their way to an important appointment? Were they grieving something big? Or planning something daring? But their hands reminded me, just for a moment, of what it means to say that we’re made in the image of God. We are created to honor one another. Created to trust one another. Created to enjoy one another. Made in the image of God. Yeah, a revolutionary thing.
I almost chased them down to thank them; but then I heard the voices of my own daughters in my head, saying, “Dad, that’s creepy. Even for a minister.” So I went back to work.
Sharon Salzberg writes, “When we contemplate the miracle of embodied life, we begin to partner with our bodies in a kinder way.” When we contemplate the miracle of embodied life, we begin to partner with our bodies in a kinder way. We know almost nothing about the unnamed woman in Luke’s story this morning—the woman who anoints Jesus so extravagantly—except this: she has come to partner with her body, she has come to enjoy her body, she has come to honor her body in a generous way, in a kinder way. And in honoring the miracle of her body, she accepts responsibility, she dares to believe that she can honor Jesus’ body too, that she can offer comfort and protection and inspiration to a neighbor in need. “When we contemplate the miracle of embodied life, we begin to partner with our bodies in a kinder way.”
That’s you, my friends. Each one of you participates in “the miracle of embodied life.” There’s nothing insignificant about you. There’s nothing insignificant about your “embodied life.” You are the miracle. You are engaged, every day, with every breath, in the miraculous.
You’ve heard the story. There’s a dinner at Simon’s house, a dinner thrown in Jesus’ honor it would seem; and it would seem that Simon’s invited some of his well-credentialed friends to meet the impressive teacher from Nazareth. And given that particular culture and that particular setting, it’s safe to assume that Simon’s invited men, and only men, to his table. This is kind of a “power” meal at Simon’s house. Where alliances form and deals are made. And in the manner of that day, Jesus and the brothers are reclining, leaning in, curled up comfortably around Simon’s table. As they make connections, trade stories and share a traditional Palestinian meal.
Interestingly, she doesn’t pause to ask permission, this woman who hears of Jesus and follows him to the house that night. She doesn’t ask permission because she’s confident she’d never get it. But she crosses that cultural line, she breaks that unspoken rule, and she enters anyway. Something in her own body, something in her own spirit is awakening now, is aware of her own kind of power, the power of kindness. Or what the theologian Ruby Sales calls “authentic somebody-ness.” Authentic somebody-ness. That’s what’s rising in her, that’s what’s moving her to kindness. “Authentic somebody-ness.”
And standing behind Jesus, aware I imagine of their leering disapproval, she anoints Jesus’ feet—first with her tears, and then with the perfumed oil she’s brought along for just that purpose. For this transgressive anointing at Simon’s table. You know, the Greek word “christos” (or Christ) is akin to the Hebrew word “messiah”—and means the “anointed one.” The anointed one. This transgressive anointing is a big moment in the story—the moment when her courage, when her kindness calls out the fullness of grace, the expansiveness of mercy in his ministry. Jesus is the Christ because she trusts him, believes in him, anoints him to be the Christ.
It’s a stunning moment for so many reasons. That she’s busting up the patriarchy, at least momentarily, to assert her power, her right, her claim to ministry and participation in the beloved community. That she’s assuming the prophetic role—this is what prophets do, after all—in anointing Jesus, in blessing him with love and spirit and God’s touch. And that Jesus quickly realizes that she’s the true practitioner of the faith he’s been teaching—a faith that issues in hospitality and protection, sanctuary and generosity.
Simon—for all his spiritual expertise, for all his standing in that community—never thought of washing Jesus’ feet. He never offered a kiss, a sign of welcome, in greeting him. Only the unwelcomed woman truly grasps the essence, the radically human and incarnational dimension of Jesus’ gospel. Anointing him. Tears and oil. Hair and blessing. Honoring his body. And this, this, this is “authentic somebody-ness.” What it looks like.
So back to those two young women on Central Avenue for just a moment. It takes courage and commitment to honor one another’s bodies. Does that seem right? It takes courage and commitment to honor one another’s bodies. Whether that’s extending shelter to a refugee from war, seeking safety on his journey to freedom. Whether that’s taking your lover’s hand on Central Avenue and walking her to an important interview or appointment. Whether that’s sitting still with a friend facing cancer and a difficult decision at the end of life. It just takes courage and commitment, and a deep kind of faithfulness, to shelter one another, to protect one another, to honor one another’s bodies.
If you worshipped with us last Sunday, what you experienced in this space was a community committed to honoring and protecting and, yes, even celebrating one another’s bodies. In baptizing a teenager. In welcoming a refugee. In building a culture of such trust and respect that both the teenager and the refugee embrace hope and grace—even in a world that smothers us with despair and meanness. Did you see the joy in young Hannah’s eyes last week, after her baptism? Or the gratitude in Antony’s? Or that moment when she, Hannah, gave Antony a hug, two dear children of God, blessed by love? I think my friend Dale Hempen said it best last week: When we invite God’s light into our lives, when we honor one another like this, the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us--not on some distant star, but among us--between us, delighting and sheltering and honoring us.
And it’s not by accident. Those two young women on Central Avenue have undoubtedly learned to trust one another; they’ve undoubtedly risked vulnerability and honesty and exposing their biggest dreams to the light of day. And here, at church, we’ve worked for years and years to build a culture of care, an ethic of kindness and respect, a mission that risks discomfort in pursuit of justice and the common good. None of that’s by accident. We have to give ourselves to this gospel project. We have to devote ourselves to a counterculture of lovingkindness and affirmation. Sunday after Sunday. One conversation at a time. Prayer by prayer by prayer.
Now, it’s interesting that in the other three canonical gospels—Matthew, Mark and John—this same story is included much closer to the end of Jesus’ life. And indeed, scholars speculate that Luke has done some cutting and pasting—to resituate the story of Jesus’ anointing much earlier in his ministry. And it’s always fun to ask: Why would Luke do that?
Well, obviously, it’s impossible to know for sure. But we’d be wise to note that right after this scene—the woman’s crossing the line, and anointing Jesus’ body, and shaking the patriarchy: right after this scene, Luke describes Jesus’ gathering a community of disciples and dreamers, lovers and healers, activists and preachers. And they all go off together: to make good trouble together. And he’s serious about training them, and mentoring them, and emboldening them to be the kingdom of God. To give birth to the kingdom of God. Together.
And here’s the thing, in Luke’s story. It’s undoubtedly (and quite explicitly) a community of women and men, a community of many, a community of all manner of sexual orientations and gender identities. A beloved community. And there’s really no question that Jesus is breaking some rules, defying some cultural expectations by doing it this way.
So it could very well be that Luke wants the world to know—and the church to remember—that Jesus has learned from her, and that Jesus needs her, and all kinds of women and men like her, to build with him a movement that breaks rules and heals the broken, a movement that shines with mercy and confronts the empire, a movement that redistributes wealth and embodies hope. Jesus is changed by her. By her touch. By the ways she breaks the rules. By the grace with which she honors his life, and his body. Her “authentic somebody-ness” has transformed his notion of the kingdom of God. And Jesus is all about that now.
It strikes me this morning, as we teeter again at the edge of military conflict, as the world’s great political and economic powers position armies and 21st century weapons for damage and destruction in Ukraine, that our story can seem particularly naïve and even silly in a world like ours. Patriarchy is very much alive and well. And war still makes the world go round. Does her kindness really make a difference? Does her courage, her transgression really break the cycle?
But our gospel is far from naïve, my friends, and terribly realistic where violence is concerned. Jesus is on the long and winding road to Gethsemane, after all, and then to Golgotha, to the cross. The one anointed in Simon’s house is the one crucified by Roman soldiers and left to hang on that awful tree. Which is to say, that every victim of human cruelty is the child of God. Which is to say, that every victim of every war is the anointed One. Which is to say, that in Ukraine this morning, as in Afghanistan this morning, as in Cameroon this morning, as in Columbia this morning, Jesus is broken and afraid. Jesus is hoping for relief. Jesus is carrying the cross for us. That’s not really naïve: but it is faith. It is our faith.
Our challenge this morning is to dare to believe that communities of kindness can counter systems of oppression with human compassion, with tenderness and touch, with grace. Our challenge in this place is to dare to believe that courageous churches expose the impotence of violence—yes, I said it: the impotence of violence—and elevate the only power that heals and warms. The power of love. The power of care. The power of hope.
I think that’s what she does for Jesus—in the story this morning. I think she reminds him what the power of love can do. I think she calls him to stand up to violence, to toxic masculinity, to all the ways empires devalue and demean and maim human communities. War is not inevitable. Violence is not our destiny. She frees the dream in his body, the vision in his spirit, the light in his eyes. And her anointing, her touch inspires Jesus to build a movement with his friends, to create a church with all kinds of people, to march for freedom. Together. We are that movement now. We bear that vision now. We dream that dream. Together.
Amen and Ashe.
Ashe (“a-shay”) is a concept found in Yoruban culture (Nigeria/Africa):
an awareness of power, conferred by the Creator God, upon all beings and spirits.
Ashe is the power to make things happen, the power to do good, the power to effect change. And it is a divine gift! In 2022, our African American friends across the church are using this as a companion to Amen.
Amen acknowledges God’s presence and blessing. Ashe invokes God’s partnership and power!