Unexpected Tears

by Kari Baumann

Luke 7.36-50, NRSVUE

Atticus and I enjoy the videos of a woman on TikTok named Elyse Myers, who initially became famous for going on a very bad date that involved going to Taco Bell and ordering 100 hard shell tacos for two people. As you can imagine, it did not end well. We like the part of the story where the guy dumped all the tacos on the table and yelled, “Let’s Feast!” Elyse is a new mom, someone who is always up for an adventure, and who tells funny stories about herself. Over the past couple of years, her account has also become a place where she tries to spread positivity through pep talks and uplifting messages, making her page a bright spot on the internet. Elyse has a story in one of her videos about being told that she was “too much.” This is extremely relatable to me, and probably to many of you: your feelings are too much, your opinions are too much, if you raise your voice you are being too loud. Your expression of your true self is too much, your requests for equality and inclusion and accommodations are too much, and on and on. Elyse was fed up with that message and she told the person, “If I’m too much, then go find less.” You can buy t-shirts on her site that say “go find less.” I love this idea, that if I am too much, or Elyse is, or if someone tells you that you are being too much, that person is absolutely welcome to go and find less somewhere else.

We have just begun a sermon series called True Fiction, on the parables that are only in Luke, and one of the things that I think you might notice in the coming weeks as we work through them is that there is a lot of shamelessness – in a good way in the events surrounding these parables, or even in the parables themselves. People in these stories are willing, like Elyse Myers, to take up space and not see themselves as “too much.” There’s a friend who is knocking at another friend’s door at midnight asking to borrow some food, and there’s a woman who bothers a judge over and over again until she receives justice, and today we have a woman who absolutely does not care what the other people at the dinner party think of her, because she is so overwhelmed with gratitude about the change in her life after she encountered Jesus. She is crying and anointing his feet, and Simon, the man who owns the house, thinks that she is being too much, that Jesus should probably rethink letting a sinner such as this woman touch him. 

Church history and scholarship have also painted this woman as being “too much.” If we took a poll, those of you who are familiar with the story might be inclined to identify this woman as a prostitute or even as Mary Magdalene, who does anoint Jesus’ head in other gospel stories. Neither of those common beliefs is found in the text itself. This story is not the same one as Jesus being anointed for his burial. This is a forgiveness story. We do not know a lot about her, but all the text says about her is that she is – or possibly translated that she “used to be” – a sinner.

When we talk about the Bible being a human book, this is what it means. There are biases present in this short text: the fact that this woman does not have a name, that she is called a sinner and we think we know what that means. We do our best here to read the Bible honestly and not pretend that it unbiased. It contains the biases of the people who wrote it, biases that, at times, speak in favor of enslavement, in favor of disempowering women. And yet in the same book we see calls for freedom and the idea that all of us are created by God and in God’s image. We are given a choice, whether to continue to perpetuate bias, or whether to emphasize and elevate the part of the bible that calls us to transcend those biases.

When we see Jesus’ response to this woman, it is striking in contrast to how the others respond, and honestly how some of us might respond if we were present in that situation, watching with wide eyes as she weeps. Jesus does not think she is too much. He does not identify her as a sinner, but as someone who is greatly forgiven. Jesus is not annoyed by her tears. Jesus sees her maxed out in her feelings and honors her response as one of faith and gratitude and points out that she has taken what she was given and turned it into a welcome for others. Notably, he also does not tell Simon to go and find less, but he calls Simon in, inviting him into the idea of this abundance, these abundant feelings, this abundant hospitality, this abundant forgiveness. Do not accept less for yourself, Jesus seems to be saying. 

I have thought a lot about this woman and her tears since choosing this passage. A few weeks ago, author and theologian Frederick Buechner died at the age of 96. I saw a lot of friends sharing favorite Buechner quotes online, which seemed to me to be a better-than-average use of social media as I scrolled through and got to enjoy so much Buechner. I know many of you have also spent time with his words over the years. To me, Buechner is a very “College Park” author, because very early in my tenure here, Michael lent me a couple of his books, which I believe (but cannot promise) that I did return at some point. Buechner’s thoughtful interplay of culture and faith focused on redemption and a deep spirituality, laced with hope and humor. 

It is hard to pick a favorite Buechner quote, but one of my favorites is from his book Beyond Words and is about tears. “Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention. They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where…you should go next.”

What makes you tear up? The first ten minutes of the animated movie Up? The ending of Toy Story 3? Steel Magnolias? Anything at all where the dog dies? Millie Thomas and I talked a couple of weeks ago about accidentally doing a read-aloud where a dog died and losing it in front of the kids, every teacher’s fear when doing a read-aloud. Many of us cry at homecoming videos where military surprise their families. I definitely cried watching Serena Williams at the US Open this week.

I had many friends who were positively affected by the government student debt forgiveness and I saw a lot of posts online where people declared themselves “surprisingly emotional” or said things like, “I can’t stop crying,” as they anticipated what they might be able to do now, things like eating more fresh fruit and vegetables, buying new clothes and books for their kids, helping an aging relative pay bills, moving into a larger place or maybe even being able to own a home, being able to pay off medical debt. When a debt like this is forgiven, it can be life-changing, and many responded to that change with tears of relief and joy. 

We cry at the news and difficult anniversaries. Many of us cried with relief when we got our first COVID vaccine, a huge release after so much fear. We cry when we see someone we care about overcoming challenges. We cry at the loss of someone we love or someone we simply admire like Frederick Buechner or Chadwick Boseman or Anthony Bourdain. A perfect sunset, or other thin places where God seems near might bring those unexpected tears to your eyes.

It is important to note that these tears we are talking about today are not ones of shame or embarrassment, not from being called out or having hurt feelings. These are tears that call us in to God’s presence. And Buechner tells us that those tears help us see and accept and respond to God at work in our own lives. We see that not just in this passage in Luke, where the woman is testifying to her life being changed with her tears, but in older stories in our Bible. In Jeremiah, as Jerusalem is about to be destroyed and the people exiled to Babylon, the wailing women were called out to lead the community in publicly mourning and vocalizing their grief. And in what is perhaps surprising, we see God in Jeremiah 8 and 9 identifying with the wailing women, identifying with those who are crushed, weeping day and night. The labor of grief is not left for the women, for the people, but God shares in this work. In talking about this passage in her book A Hole in the World, Amanda Held Opelt says, “In a world that sees the emotions of women as a liability, let us remember that God sees them as a holy asset.”

When I read that, I was stopped in my tracks, because it is rare in my experience to feel that public displays of emotions are an asset, let alone a reminder of God’s work in the world. This is true not only in our individual lives but also as we collectively grieve things like the environmental racism that has led to the city of Jackson Mississippi not having any water, and as we move to repentance as we work both to provide water in the short-term and to work for policy changes to protect people in the longer term. 

This anonymous woman in Luke shows us in her own way how rituals of grief and repentance can mirror each other, and that shame has no place in either. She is a sinner, yes, but so is Simon, and so is everyone at that table. So are all of us. The only difference between her and everyone around her appears to be that she has accepted that, that she has processed it and she knows exactly how grateful she feels. Instead of that being a place of weakness, we can and should see it as a strength. She is a reminder of what Hannah Gadsby says in her performance Nanette, “There is nothing stronger than a broken woman who has rebuilt herself.” Jesus does not leave any of us alone in our broken places, nor does he ask us to restore ourselves all alone. From that gratitude, both her tears and her loving welcome pour out. 

Pastor Drew Jackson says this well in his book God Speaks Through Wombs, which is made up of poems exploring the first eight chapters of Luke. In a poem about this story entitled “Three Kinds of Sinners,” he says, “There are three kinds of sinners in this world. 1. Those who know it. 2. Those who don’t. 3. Those who don’t care. The ones who know pour out perfume. The other stand around judging and wondering at such waste.”

Let us be the ones who know, who pour out our perfume in public and are not embarrassed to do so because of the change that the gospel of Christ has made in our lives. At the very heart of our Christian faith is the idea of generosity and grace without needing repayment. And while we might think of this on an individual level, the truth is that gratitude is about connection to others. Communal gratitude is joy and brings us closer to the ideal of justice. And public gratitude, as seen in this story, is a powerful first step in that direction. We often think of gratitude as an individual exchange – you give me something and I am grateful, or vice versa, but the truth is that gratitude connects us to one another. When we consider the constant flow of giving and receiving and responding that happens all around us all the time, we too become more generous, more inclined to live fully into our own giftings, and more inclined to find ways to help others. Gratitude and love and forgiveness can allow us to see the world as it is and to challenge it to tell a different type of story. 

What would it be like to give in to that opportunity for new life, to feel gratitude so deeply that we aren’t afraid to pour our feelings out like perfume? How would that affect the ways we see ourselves, and the ways we treat others, and the ways that we are vulnerable with one another, that we offer our bodies and our emotions and our lives in service of this powerful message of a new life, without shame or fear that we might be too much. What would happen if we were to bring our fullest selves, without shame, to the banquet and to see that as holy work in the world? 

Do you see this woman? Jesus asks Simon. Do you see yourself in her? Do you see how Jesus knows you and is willing to accept you – all of you – as you are? Can you look past the ways you see both yourself and others as sinners and see the wonderful work of God in complex humanity? The gospel that Jesus offers us is powerful enough and loving enough and subversive enough to restore not only the ones who have been hurt but also those who do the hurting. It is so beautiful that it might even bring tears to your eyes.