This summer I attended a virtual conference called Womanist Dialogue #Say her Name: Preaching and teaching for Freedom hosted by Rev. Dr. Mitzi J Smith.
(Rev. Dr. Mitzi Smith is a teacher, preacher, biblical scholar, author and founder/president of living in full empowerment. She is the first African American female to earn the PhD in New testament from Harvard. ) If someone asks
The Say Her Name campaign, is a social movement that seeks to raise awareness for Black female victims of police brutality. It was created by the combined efforts of the African American Policy Forum and the Center for intersectionality and policy studies in 2014. It is meant to include women in the national conversation about race and policing. While the killing of black men brought us names and stories, the killing of black women and their stories have not been heard –women such as Elenaor Bumpers, Martina Brown and Kayla Moore and many more.
In the womanist dialogue #SayHerName: preaching and teaching for freedom ,
I heard amazing women of color put flesh and bones around the big idea that Rev. Dr. Smith said, “We must read differently so that we can preach differently.” Dr. Teresa L Fry Brown a womanist scholar at Emory University spoke about how your name is the essence of your being and if your name is not said its like you don’t exist. This is true for how the women feel today and it is true for how we read our sacred text. She asked, “What about the unnamed women in the bible who were in the background who go unnoticed?” She challenged us to #SayHerName in order to humanize the characters.
In our scripture today, the narrator says that wherever the gospel is told, her story will be told…she will be remembered. But let’s think for a moment…In the planning of Holy Week, do we tell her story? Do we say her name. Nope. We do palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and then Easter Sunday. So today, we are going to #Say Her Name. Because as important as the Last Supper is, we must remember that there was a First Supper initiated by a woman.
Today, we continue on in our teaching series following Henri Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved. In this book, we see a new friendship begin to flourish between a writer named Fred who identified as a secular Jew and Henri Nouwen who is a catholic priest, academic, and prominent speaker about the Spiritual Life. As this friendship develops, Fred commissions Henri to step away from writing to insiders in his Christian tradition and instead write a book for people who are outside of feeling that they belong to any particular religious tradition. Fred said, “If you don’t who will? Visit me more often; talk to my friends; look attentively at what you see, and listen carefully to what you hear. You will discover a cry welling up from the depths of the human heart that has remained unheard because there was no one to listen.” (23)
As you and I are beginning a new friendship and a new season of ministry in the life of The Heights Christian Church, I see Nouwen’s book as a conversation starter and a way for you to get to know my heart for ministry. Nouwen suggests to us that a way to look at the journey of becoming the Beloved is to follow the path of the words that we hear every Sunday as we gather around the communion table. He offers us 4 words: Taken, Blessed, Broken & Given.
Today, we arrive at the word Given. Nouwen writes, “Don’t you think that our desire to eat together is an expression of our even deeper desire to be food for one another? Don’t we sometimes say: “That was a very nurturing conversation. That was a refreshing time?” I think that our deepest human desire is to give ourselves to each other as a source of physical, emotional, and spiritual growth. Isn’t a baby at its mother’s breast one of the most moving signs of human love? Isn’t tasting the best word to express the experience of intimacy? As the beloved ones, our greatest fulfillment lies in becoming bread for the world. That is the most intimate expression of our deepest desire to give ourselves to each other.” (Pg 112)
Nouwen says that we are called to give ourselves in life and to give ourselves in death.
Let’s explore what it means to give ourselves in life.
The woman’s story in our sacred text today is a story about the gift of her life and her story comes to us in many forms throughout the gospels. In three out of the four stories, she is the woman who has no name. For our purposes today, we are going to #SayHerName so I will borrow the name that John gives her knowing full well that John’s gospel was written much later and the story set in a very different situation. John tells us her name is Mary. In Mary’s story, we receive very little information about her. If you read the four accounts closely, each account has a different message that the author was trying to tell and so details are changed and shifted. But in Matthew’s gospel, the one that we read today, Mary is a women with an alabaster jar who walks into a dinner at Simon the Leper’s house to anoint the head of Jesus. She does not state why and the disciples are angry at the amount of money she wasted. But Jesus scolds the disciples and says that Mary did a good thing to prepare him for burial.
So, let’s talk about this dinner party where food and wine were tasted, where those gathered saw each other and heard each other, where a laugh prompted the touch of a hand to the other’s shoulder in a gesture of good will. Dinner is a very intimate and sensory rich experience. And here comes Mary. Mary, a woman and an outsider, enters the door of the home of simon the leper. She is not invited and so she takes a risk to come to Jesus. Mary is courageous and she has planned this moment perfectly. She brought with her an alabaster jar of a very costly ointment that was fragrant in its smell. And she anoints Jesus’ head with oil.
Now, there are two words when the authors of the gospel wrote about the type of anointing she gave Jesus. In some of the texts it uses a word that refers to the anointing that means you are set aside for a special purpose…it is how kings were anointed. In other accounts, a word is used that is in the practice of anointing the body for burial. But Maybe as we bring the texts together to get a much fuller picture of what is going on maybe she is bringing both of these ideas together. Maybe She is signaling who he is…an anointed one for special purpose and she knows where all of this is leading very soon….to his burial. In the first supper, all those who gathered were in denial. They had listened and dismissed what Jesus kept saying to them about where he was headed. But apparently not Mary. If Mary came to anoint him for burial, then she was the only one who took seriously Jesus’ prediction that he would be given in death. #SayHerName.
In Luke’s account, Jesus asks, “Do you see this woman?” He is not asking did you glance at her or do you know her. He is asking, “Have you recognized that she is created in God’s image and so her actions have something for us to learn from?” But we know that the disciples did not see this woman, instead the gospels tell us that they were angry and dismissed her gift and judged her action.
Now, we can be really hard on the disciples about how they behaved… but Don’t we do this too…in more subtle ways?
I’ll just speak for me…When someone offers me hospitality or calls to ask if I need anything this week, I am quick to dismiss the gift that this person is offering which is the gift of their life. I do it automatically because I either don’t believe that they truly want to know what I need or I think well, they have more to do than I do so my need is not that bad.
When I do this I am devaluing this beautiful human life that is generously offering me a gift of themselves!
Or, I am quick to judge. I have been welcomed into homes and offered a lavish dinner and judged this is a waste of this person’ money because I know that the family struggles to pay their bills. Or someone sees a way to beautify the sanctuary and offers a generous gift and I judge their offering because I see our transient population struggle with basic food, water and shelter.
But Jesus says to me as he says to the disciples, “Practice receiving gifts well so that you honor the gift of the human being that is in front of you…see them and accept the gift of their life.” And Jesus says, “it is not your right to judge” and then he quotes from Deuteronomy reminding us that it is a daily requirement that we open our hand to the poor and give to those in need while in this moment at this time…this is a one time…special gift…that must be honored because it is someone giving something precious of their life to another.
And more often the gift of our life has nothing to do with a monetary gift. I called up a member this week and she quickly asked me what I wanted and I shared that I was just calling to get to know her and spend time visiting. I thought at first that our conversation might be short and simple, but she opened up and invited me to meet her friends and invited me over to her home for lunch. She commented over and over again how much she appreciated my call. This small simple act of offering the gift of my life helped her feel more alive, animated, and curious about me!
Nouwen writes, “More surely than ever before, I know now that we are called to give our very lives to one another and that in so doing, we become a true community of love.”
Nouwen turns our attention to see that just as we are given in life..We are given in our death: He says, “Still as the Beloved, I am called to trust that life is a preparation for death as a final act of giving. The deaths of those whom we love and who love us open up the possibility of a new, more radical communion a new intimacy, a new belonging to each other. If love is indeed, stronger than death, then death has the potential to deepen and strengthen the bonds of love.”
Nouwen’s words remind me of our final resting pose at the end of every yoga class. The final resting pose is called Savasana or corpse pose. In savasana, you are lying down on your back with your arms by your sides palms facing up. In this shape, we close our eyes and we wait for the body to get really still. We notice that the breath gets smaller and more shallow. As we rest, the mind quiets. We stay like this for 3-5 min practicing for our final rest where we will take our last breath. In an article called the Savasana of Lent at artandtheology.org, the author writes that “the practitioner embraces the impermanence of life and, by doing so, is empowered to live with greater gratitude for what is, right now, and with a continual attitude of surrender. Facing one’s mortality is seen as freeing rather than fearsome.”
It is from this pose that we rise up off our mat to embrace the newness of life today! It’s a beautiful and powerful experience and creates a different relationship with death!
I don’t know if any of you have had an experience where you meet a loved one who has long passed in a dream or suddenly you smell something and you are reminded of this loved one or you say something and you know those words were spoken before by a loved one. Last year in a class at Claremont School of Theology, I was invited to expand my idea that my meditation practice was just about healing myself and helping me to be a good person. I was asked to create a display of my ancestors…some who have long since passed and others who are still living and to explore what it would be like to practice my meditation on their behalf as well…that my meditation practice was not only healing me but is healing generations of family members through my prayers. I will say that I experienced a sense of connection that even in death they live on in me…in my very DNA. I also recognized that death is no match for the power of love. If love is stronger than death then our relationships continue in a different way.
Jesus asks us to remember Mary long after her death and today we say her name proudly so that across time and space and through the bonds of love we invite a relationship with the one that Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” The gift of her life and her death continues to bless all who #SayHerName. Let us prepare to come to the communion table.