Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (Luke 7:36-50) transports me to a Sunday afternoon at Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville, July of 1989. It was a high and holy day as my pastor Steve Shoemaker and my father-in-law Ed Christman joined a holy host of phenomenal women, including Paula Roberts, Tina Pippin, Holli Rainwater, Jane Webb Childress, and Dina Carroll, to lead a worship service ordaining my esteemed spouse Kim Christman into pastoral ministry. Paula let out all the stops on the pipe organ; Steve set his preaching voice aside for the afternoon and took up the cello; Ed gave the charge; Holli got the congregation dancing and laughing and crying in liturgical movement as Jane read Baby Suggs’ prophetic proclamation in the clearing from Toni Morrison’s Beloved; Dina recited Nancy Ore’s powerful poem, You Are Enough: A Woman Seminarian’s Story. Dr. Pip did some powerful preaching, and all of us concluded the service by marching down the aisle and ceremonially blessing Kim through the laying on of hands, offering our personal words of encouragement.
Kim reminded me of this when I told her what the Primary Passage was this week; Luke 7:36-50 was the text for Tina’s sermon that day. We remembered noting how the heading in some of our Bibles read The Woman Who Sinned Much when it should have read The Woman Who Loved Much. Dr. Pip preached about the long line of phenomenal women in our sacred history who had loved much, who had loved lavishly, and how the unnamed woman in our story today exemplified the bold action, often times taboo and uninvited action, required of women ordained to gospel ministry. Luke does not tell us what gave this woman her fame as a sinner; he simply narrates her unwelcome entry into the house of Simon the Pharisee who was hosting Jesus for a meal. She came in and loved Jesus in all the ways Simon had neglected, washing his feet with her tears, drying them with her hair, kissing these cleansed feet and anointing him with perfumed oil. She was, in essence, assuming the role of proper host for the Son of God, a role that Pharisee rejected in his lack of proper Mediterranean culture hospitality. While we don’t know the specifics of this woman’s background, I suspect that her daring entry into a space she didn’t belong was somewhat emblematic of her sinful life. In a culture steeped in patriarchal morality, with a clear caste system marking women for subservient and silent and hidden roles of servitude, women who defied the system clearly missed the mark, that is, they sinned. And this particular woman had likely been a pro at missing these marks, at overstepping her bounds and going where she wasn’t supposed to go, performing actions reserved for others. The radical nature of Jesus’ forgiveness in this context is not so much a pardoning of offenses, but a liberation from the very boundaries that defined what constituted a trespass, taking the No Trespassing signs from the borderlines that had been created to keep her in her caste. Once freed from these captivating limitations, she responded by loving much; she loved lavishly. She boldly sinned according to the Pharisee’s standards, simply by engaging in gospel ministry.
Women like Kim who answered the call to gospel ministry in the context of 20th century Southern Baptist life were following very much in the footsteps of this unnamed woman in Simon’s house. The Pharisees of Baptist life had invited Jesus into their house for a meal, but were hardly fulfilling their role of hosts, neglecting to welcome this strange and radical liberator in any meaningful way. In walks Kim, following directly in the footsteps of women like Vicki Tamer and Nancy Sehested and Marie Bean, entering where she wasn’t welcome, fulfilling a role reserved for others, playing host to Jesus, loving much and loving lavishly, having been “forgiven” of their trespasses across the property lines of modern day patriarchal morality. Since 1989, Kim has played this role of gospel host and loved much in various settings – in churches, in theaters, in a minor league ball park, in Cuba, and most recently in public school classrooms with children struggling valiently to learn English. For now, this is her clearing; it’s where she, like Baby Suggs, offers her great big heart. ‘Let the children come!’ she shouts, and they run from the trees toward her. Let your mothers hear you laugh,’ she tells them, and the woods ring. The adults look on and cannot help smiling.
How about you? Where does this Primary Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.