Sermon by Professor Stephanie Paulsell, Interim Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, and Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies, Harvard Divinity School, November 15, 2020. (File photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications)
When I was a child, my father would sometimes lean back in his chair at the end of supper, take a deep breath, and exhale the word “Ephphatha.” Ephphatha is an Aramaic word that Mark’s gospel records Jesus saying as he opened the ears of a man who could not hear. Ephphatha, Mark tells us, means “be opened.”
But my dad didn’t say ephphatha because of what it meant. He said it because he liked the way it sounded. It sounds like a contented sigh, something my father could breathe out after a delicious meal, in complete satisfaction. So when I come across ephphatha in the Bible, I have to remember that it means “be opened.” Because for me it means Thank you. It means I am so glad to be around this table with these people.
Now, maybe my father’s sigh of satisfaction did have to do with being opened — not ephphatha as a command, but as an acknowledgment that he had been opened by this meal, opened to something greater than himself in the simple act of sharing food around the table. We associate our bodies so often with their limits that we risk missing the way our bodies open us up to transcendent experiences as well. Some meals do open us. And it’s our hungry, thirsty bodies that bring us to the table, where we might be transformed.
This month, we’ve been focusing in our Instagram Live series on table practices. We’ve talked about how we might open ourselves more deeply in conversation, by asking questions that invite each other to talk about the things that matter most to us. We’ve talked about how difficult it is in our charged political climate not to say the same things over and over in exactly the same way, and how finding fresh ways to say what we mean might help us listen to each other more closely, understand each better, and inspire us to action beyond the table. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said in his address to Harvard Divinity School graduates back in 1838, everyone longs for a few real hours of life. When we open ourselves to each other by inviting each other into conversations that go beyond our well-rehearsed assertions and responses, we open that possibility.
Alanna, in her meditation on table blessings, reminded us that opening ourselves to the rhythms of God’s creation is one way to invite each other into a few real hours of life. The blessing Alanna taught us opens us to God in gratitude for every part of the plants from which our food grows, from the fruit and the blossoms through the leaves and stems and down to the root. (If you haven’t heard Alanna sing her family’s table blessing, I encourage you to watch her video on the Memorial Church’s Instagram page.)
When we slow down long enough to open ourselves to the source of our food — the sources of our lives — it’s possible to feel life itself opening all around us. In the psalm that Sally read for us, it’s in the regular rhythms of life by which our lives are sustained — seedtime and harvest, daytime and nighttime, working and resting, eating and drinking — that we feel God’s hand opening. All of creation looks to God for nourishment, the psalmist sings. When God opens God’s hand, we are filled with good things. Opening ourselves to the rhythms of creation teaches us that God’s hand is always opening. God is not capricious — opening for some, closing for others. God’s creation can produce enough for everyone. When people go hungry in the face of this abundance, it’s not God’s hand, but our hand, that has closed.
But in the days we are living through, it can be hard to feel God’s hand opening in the rhythms of the world. The distinction between daytime and nighttime is lost when we stare at our screens for hours. It can be hard to find the boundary between working and resting when we do all our living in the same space. It can be difficult to feel God’s hand opening as the days get shorter and the virus keeps moving among us. Covid-19 is so rampant that schools are closing, business hours are shortening, and our health care workers are pleading with us to mask and distance ourselves because the hospitals are getting full again. This surging virus has its own rhythm, but one that is within our power to disrupt, one we must disrupt in order to protect each other’s lives.
Some of the openings that happen during meals are disruptive, as the story from the gospel of Luke that Jeromel read for us this morning demonstrates. There comes a moment, in all four gospels, when a woman walks into a house where Jesus is eating supper and opens a jar of something extravagant — expensive perfume, sometimes — in this story, ointment — and pours it out onto Jesus’s body — sometimes on his head, sometimes, as in our story today, on his feet. And it’s not just an alabaster jar that she opens — she herself is also open and she pours herself out, weeping over Jesus’s feet and wiping them dry with her long hair.
This disruptive opening is not in the flow of the rhythm of the dinner. Jesus is dining with other religious teachers, his colleagues — they are no doubt debating scripture and points of the law. When the woman enters the house and begins pouring out ointment and tears, the host is embarrassed for Jesus. If this guy were really a prophet, he thinks, he would know that this woman is a sinner. She’s a disruption in the flow of things, a stick in the spoke of the wheel of the evening. You can almost feel the table conversation come to an uneasy halt.
But Jesus has been drawn into her flow; he has been opened by her actions. Ephphatha. And he tells his host that if there’s any embarrassment in this moment, it’s the host who should be feeling it. “I entered your house,” Jesus says, “and you gave me no water for my feet, but she bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my hair with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment.” The host had neglected to offer the traditional practices of hospitality — practices of opening oneself to one’s guests — and the woman with the ointment had stepped into that absence, opening those spaces of intimate welcome wide.
Now, why did the host withhold these gestures of hospitality? Maybe the host was so overwhelmed by Jesus’s presence in his home that he forgot to wash his feet or kiss him or anoint his head with oil. Maybe what seemed like disrespect was really a respect so profound that it immobilized him, closed him down, and his words of welcome got caught in his throat. Or maybe, in his engagement with Jesus’s ideas, Jesus’s body didn’t come into as clear a view. Or maybe the host was being cautious, waiting to see what Jesus was really like before welcoming him with a kiss. Or maybe he was worried about what his friends would think of him if he knelt to wash the feet of this strange teacher. These are all deeply human responses; I can imagine myself having any of them.
When the woman enters the room, though, Jesus meets her open jar, her open eyes, her open hands with his own openness. Before the tableful of men who regard her as a sinner, he observes, “Your sins are forgiven.” With her jar of ointment in her hands, she observes, “You’re a human being whose body is worthy of care and whose life has so opened me up that I cannot stop weeping.” Emerson would call this, I think, a real moment of life, where we see each other, not through the labels attached to us but in a deeper, truer way. Here, in the absence of the traditional gestures of hospitality, this unnamed woman entered the room and let her disruptive, extravagant gestures create a new space at the table, new openings where forgiveness could be offered and love could grow, a new opening in the story of her own life, and maybe ours as well.
The host may be waiting to see what kind of prophet his dinner guest will turn out to be. But the woman knows she holds something precious in her hands, and she opens her hand to anoint Jesus’s feet, to gather up her long hair and wrap his feet in it. She makes a spectacle of herself, holds nothing back, pouring out every ounce without fear of running out.
These would be startling gestures at any time. But in these days of covering our faces and keeping our distance — these days of holding back — it’s especially startling to think of her tears falling on Jesus’s feet, her face close to his, their breath in the air between them. By contrast, we are listening separately to this service this morning, sitting at home, or taking a walk, perhaps gathered with a few others, perhaps alone. We are trying to put ourselves in the flow of God’s rhythms, to feel the opening of God’s hand, even as we worship in our separate spaces, even as we are kept from gathering for the meal that opens us, that disrupts our myths of scarcity and our zero-sum approach to the good things of this world.
The last time we gathered in person in the sanctuary of this church, it was March 1, the first day of Lent, a communion Sunday. We set the table, and said the prayers, and Jesus and Lara stood in the aisle and gave everyone a squirt of Purell before receiving the bread and the wine. Unknown to us then, our church would be closed the very next Sunday. But on that last communion Sunday, we did our best to join one another safely at the table, a table that challenges us be always making room for others, a table where everyone receives the same amount and there is always enough for everyone.
Like the woman who weeps over Jesus’s feet and wipes them dry with her hair, we, too, even in these times of fear and separation, have precious things in our hands. Even masked and distanced — especially masked and distanced — we are holding each other’s lives in our hands. We are holding the fragile democracy that we make and remake together every time we vote, every time we protest, every time we make our voices heard. We are holding our community, far-flung as we are, in our hands in a gesture of prayer. And we are challenged by the woman at Jesus’s feet to pry the lid off of our own jars of ointment and pour it out. Everything we are holding is worthy of reverence, worthy of the most extravagant gestures. Even in these days of closing down, let’s keep opening up in all the ways we can. Let’s pour out our devotion and make a spectacle of ourselves for the sake of each other, for the sake of the world. For even with our hands so full, when we keep opening them, God pours out more life.