"No Mere Will to Mastery, Only Care..."

"No Mere Will to Mastery, Only Care..."

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 7:36 - 8:3

In her book, “She Who Is”, theologian Elizabeth Johnson shares a stanza from poet Adrienne Rich:

Vision begins to happen in such a life
as if a woman quietly walked away
from the argument and jargon in a room
and sitting down in the kitchen, began turning in her lap
bits of yarn, calico and velvet scraps,
laying them about absently on the scrubbed boards
in the lamplight, with small rainbow-colored shells…
Such a composition has nothing to do with eternity,
the striving for greatness, brilliance —
only with the musing of a mind
one with her body, experienced fingers quietly pushing
dark against bright, silk against roughness,
pulling the tenets of life together
with no mere will to mastery,
only care…

“With no mere will to mastery, only care…” Dwell with that. Breathe it in. Hold it in your soul for a while. Now, let’s set it over in the kitchen and come back over here to the dining room. We’ll slip back into the kitchen and get it when we’re ready for it.

This morning’s gospel story from Luke takes us into the dining room of Simon the Pharisee. He’s invited Jesus over for dinner. A woman in the city, a “sinner”, so says Luke, hears that Jesus is at Simon’s and she goes, too. Did she barge in or try to slip in unnoticed? Luke doesn’t say. Nor does he say what earned her the label “sinner” but tradition has it that she’s a prostitute. It’s an interesting feature of bible stories that the women who are prostitutes or adulterers are tagged as sinners. Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston taught us, “It takes two baby, it takes two baby, me and you, just takes two.” Funny how the men in those prostitution and adultery equations never seem to get outed, labeled, shunned. Just the women. Anyway, the “woman of the city, a sinner,” shows up at the dinner with a jar of ointment and stands behind Jesus, weeping. Think about the weeping: If you’ve been shamed or shunned and summon the courage to stand and be noticed in front of your shamers, your abusers, you might weep. If you have determined that the embodiment of divine love and grace somehow has shown up for you and your pain and shame are about to be transformed, redeemed, and you will be iminently freed from darkness and released into new and hopeful light, you might weep. If you believe Jesus is the very presence and power of God sent into the world to save the world, and there you are and there he is — right next to each other — you might weep. Why is “the woman of the city, a sinner” weeping? I don’t know. I’m guessing all of that.

Now she’s bathing Jesus’ feet with her tears, drying them with her hair, kissing his feet over and over again and anointing them from her jar of ointment. Awkward. More than that — scandalous. Simon’s offended and strenuously objects. Jesus tells Simon a little story. Then, proceeding from the story, he reproaches Simon and commends the woman. He announces that the woman’s sins, “which were many,” are forgiven. T-h-a-t causes even more scandal. “Who is this who forgives sins??” Jesus culminates it all with a saying that’s foundational for all who embrace a theology of grace: “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

So… how much time you got? We could preach this story six ways to Sunday: the pharisaical judgmentalism that Jesus so often fixes in his sites...the power that men exercise abusively over women — then and now; the layers of meaning of the woman’s anointing of Jesus’ feet; the forgiveness Jesus offers. You could probably think of a bunch more. But the story doesn’t stop with Jesus and “the woman of the city, a sinner.” There’s a transitional element in Luke’s story and we either include it with this story or with the next. It goes best with this one: Jesus says to the woman of the city, a sinner, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” And then it continues, “Soon afterwards he [Jesus] went on through cities and villages, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them [Jesus and the twelve, i.e. the men] out of their resources."

In our world, this week, that transitional story feels important.

In our world, this week,  anger, frustration and disbelief have hold of many of us as we contemplate the story of a man accused of raping an unconscious woman and who texted pictures of her naked, abused body to fellow members of his college swim team, and was sentenced to only ninety days in jail. In a pre-sentencing letter to the judge, the victim of the crime addressed her attacker directly:

“You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice, until today… I am no stranger to suffering. You made me a victim. In newspapers my name was 'unconscious intoxicated woman', ten syllables…"

“The woman of the city, a sinner”...ten syllables… “unconscious intoxicated woman”...ten syllables that remind us that victims, women who are victims especially, are still labeled in a way that attempts to paint them with culpability. The vice president of our country showed us a better way when he said, “It’s on us. All of us… I see you… what you endured is never, never, NEVER a woman’s fault.”

In our world, this week, Hillary Clinton became the first female nominee of a major political party to be president of the United States. The news is accompanied by serious speculation that the vice president on the ticket might also be a woman. Put party politics (or intra-party politics) aside for a moment and consider late night host Stephen Colbert’s take on a woman being a major party nominee to lead her country: “That is something you could only see in a sci-fi novel...or...any other country in the world,” as he showed the pictures of eight other women who have held the highest offices of other countries. In other words, exceptionalism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and in our allegedly exceptional country we have much work to do.

In our world, this week, women are still being paid about a quarter less for the same level of work and responsibility as men.

In our world, this week, there are still many churches and church denominations, including major ones, with stained-glass ceilings that prevent women from being pastors and interpreters of spiritual/religious/theological truth.

In one of my smaller worlds, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, I have the good fortune of being an honorary member of a group of women — entrepreneurs, leaders, professionals, young and old — who gather to support one another in a town that has been for too long and in some ways continues to be a good ol’ boys’ town. One of the “Mavens” posted this week on the group’s Facebook page, “Women of power don’t compete, we collaborate.” The group is named for their leader, Mary, owner and creator of Mary’s Gourmet Diner, where what Mary does in the kitchen is the stuff miracles are made of.

So this would be a good time to head back to the kitchen where we left that poem from Adrienne Rich. And I’m walking a high wire here because in order to say something involving women, I just brought us to the kitchen; except I didn’t, it’s Adrienne Rich’s metaphor, so we’ll roll with it. Our world, here in the U.S., is dominated lately (and as it ever has been) by a lot of loud male voices that seem intent not on pulling us together but instead on pulling and pushing us apart. Only male voices? No, not entirely, but still mostly.  So back to Adrienne Rich’s imagery:

Vision begins to happen in such a life
as if a woman quietly walked away
from the argument and jargon in a room
and sitting down in the kitchen...

None of us, I think, would argue that we aren't inundated with a lot of “argument and jargon” in the room, wherever the room. Nor would we argue that division seems the usual result. So, in Rich’s poem, the woman leaves for another room, a kitchen in this instance, and, working with disparate materials, she

began turning in her lap
bits of yarn, calico and velvet scraps,
laying them about absently on the scrubbed boards
in the lamplight, with small rainbow-colored shells…
Such a composition has nothing to do with eternity,
the striving for greatness, brilliance —
only with the musing of a mind
one with her body, experienced fingers quietly pushing
dark against bright, silk against roughness,
pulling the tenets of life together
with no mere will to mastery,
only care…

Luke’s gospel story for today...the one that takes place in the dining room...is rife with argument and jargon and mastery: Simon the Pharisee, who’s offended because he’s the master of his home and this woman of the city, a sinner, is disrespecting his mastery. And when she disrespects Simon’s mastery, she also disrespects all the other good, religious men of that city who would be called “master” by the women in their lives, respectable women and women of ill-repute alike. In our world now, civic discourse is framed in terms of mastery, not as in mastery of an art or skill or talent, but mastery as in who gets to be master of whom.

So what if, for our world, for right now, the gospel, the good news, is in the transitional element of the story, the part where “Jesus went on through cities and villages, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them [Jesus and the twelve, i.e. the men] out of their resources" (Luke 8:1-3). What if the good news from Luke’s story for us, for this week, is that Luke very specifically points us not only to the story of one brave woman who defied the labels, the abuse, and the mastery that leading men of her city attempted to hold over her; and also that Luke takes us further and points us to Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and many other women who brought their resources of great provision to the table and whose partnership and collaboration were gratefully received by thirteen men, and that together, in collaboration, they sparked a new and divine vision for life, pulling the tenets of life together with no mere will to to mastery, only care… only care...a care through which, in the words of Elizabeth Johnson, “suffering and evil are overcome, light dawns, courage is renewed, tears are wiped away, [and] a new moment of life arises."

May you and I, women and men together, learn to compete less and collaborate more. May we discover ways to join hands, to leave the room of argument and jargon together, to sit together in a different room, one where we can collaborate toward a new vision that brings together darkness and light, silk and roughness, and all the other disparate aspects of our lives, not for the sake of mere mastery of others, of creation, nor even of ourselves, but for sake of a deep, renewing, healing care...only care.

Rev. Bruce Cole

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