Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Honoring the Body

Rev. Kathy Donley



Scripture Lesson:  Luke 7:36-50


All four gospels report some version of this story.  The details vary widely across the 4 stories.  Matthew and Mark record that a woman anointed Jesus’ head, while Luke and John say it was his feet.  Luke thinks it happened in Galilee, while the others are divided between two locations in Bethany, which is much closer to Jerusalem.  Mark and Matthew report that Jesus said “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” 


It certainly seems that Jesus means that the story will be told in celebration of the woman’s action.  So it is disappointing to learn that with regard to Luke’s story, “with very few exceptions, scholars either call her a prostitute or they claim that the label that narrator gives her of ‘sinner’ surely indicates that the anointing woman is a [sexual sinner].”[1]  A careful reading of the Lukan story shows that the nature of the woman’s sin is never specified.   A couple of chapters earlier, in Luke 5, Peter said to Jesus, “Get away from me, for I am a sinful man.”  By his own admission, Peter is a sinner, and yet, no one ever interprets that to mean that his sins are of a sexual nature. Yes, the double standard persists.    Christian tradition has long associated sexuality with sin.  It has associated sexuality with female bodies and therefore, drew a straight line between female bodies and sin.  This is part of what puts the practice of honoring the body in a more ambiguous place. 


Over the last few Sundays, we have reflected on faith practices.  We started with the practice of saying yes and saying no and moved to hospitality, contemplative prayer and forgiveness.  We might disagree about how and when to do those things.  Some of them, like forgiveness, might seem like ideals hard to put into practice, but it would be the rare Christian who would argue that they should not be part of our faith life. But about the practice of “honoring the body”, there might be more disagreement.  There have always been some among us who find the human body scandalous and repugnant.  One of the first theological controversies was the question of Jesus’ own body.  The Gnostics were so firmly convinced of the inherent badness of the flesh, that they taught that Jesus’s body was just an illusion.


The story we heard from Luke is sensuous, by which I mean, it appeals to the senses.  If we were there, we would have smelled the nard, a heavy scent filling the air.  We might have heard the sound of her tears.    We would have seen the woman let down her hair, which women did not do in public in that time.  Jesus would have been reclining, lying on a couch with his head close to the table and his feet extended behind him.  In that position, a servant could have come and washed his feet, which would have been dusty from the road.   But it would have been a male servant, because women did not touch men in public.   There is an intimacy in this story which might have made us uncomfortable if we had been there.   And that’s why this event is so scandalous. 


Except that Jesus does not appear scandalized.  In every version of this story, he defends the woman’s actions, and in two versions, he says that this story will be told as part of the proclamation of the gospel. 


The practice of honoring the body begins with remembering that human beings are created in God’s image.  All that was created God pronounced good. And on the last day of creation, when humans were created, God said it was very good.   John’s gospel affirms that Jesus, the Word, became flesh and dwelt among us.  Jesus took on human form as an incredible expression of love.  The mystery of incarnation is one of the central doctrines of our faith.  So is the idea of the resurrection of the body, which was part of the earliest versions of the Apostles Creed, in the 3rd century.    The apostle Paul, wrote to the church at Corinth “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you.”   Paul also uses the image of the faith community as the Body of Christ.  A robust theology that affirms the goodness and even sacredness of the body is not hard to develop.  Honoring the body means behaving in ways that affirm that bodies are worthy of care and blessing and should never be degraded or exploited.[2]


We honor the body when we respect human needs for food and water, sleep, exercise, work and play.  We honor the body by caring for babies and the elderly, by exercising patience with those who need more time to understand or to get out of the car or to find the words they want to say.  We honor the body when we educate and support adolescents struggling with sexual pressure or identity.   We honor the body when we notice and care about the wounds of others, when we are aware of the vulnerability of others -- refugees all over the world, and children living in a gun-loving society, and women and girls in a rape culture.   We honor the body when we look in the mirror and affirm with the psalmist “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” 


Our culture is hyper conscious of image.  We see it in glamor magazines and advertisers selling every imaginable product using images we find attractive or sexy or youthful, so that we can find ourselves attractive or sexy or youthful.  But our obsession is not limited to adults.    One study found that 42% of 1st-3rd grade girls are unhappy with their bodies.  Forty-two percent.   They want to be thinner.[3]  The number of cases of eating disorders has increased every decade since 1950.    If the church would take honoring the body seriously, perhaps we could have an influence on these kinds of things. 


Unfortunately, we live within the culture and we often reflect it unthinkingly.  With little intention or awareness, we say things that dis-honor the body.  I knew a woman who was told quite seriously that she had the wrong kind of hair to be a pastor’s wife.  Last year, I attended the American Baptist Mission Summit.  There was a contingent of American Baptist Girls present.  On the first day, they all wore the same t-shirt and were readily identifiable in the group.  Since this is an organization that often seems to be on the verge of extinction, seeing so many present was a sign of hope.  And then later, I was part of a conversation about the future of the church and how to engage younger people.  One of those AB girls said that her friend had dressed up for the morning session.  And another woman in the session had greeted her with “That’s a pretty dress – where’s the rest of it?”  And she had felt shamed.


Now honoring the body could involve having some honest conversations about appropriate clothing.  But trust me when I say that when a stranger makes a comment like that to a young person – that is not a good strategy for letting people know we care about them and want their participation.


The scholars who assume that the woman in Luke’s story is a prostitute suggest that the ointment is a tool of her trade and that her weeping indicates her shame.  I disagree with their assumptions, but I do wonder about those who know about the power of healing touch because of their experiences with degrading or exploitative touch. 


True story – A young woman named Irene went to Hollywood in the hopes of becoming an actor. She did get some parts and had some connections, but along the way, she also become a heavy drug user.    Looking for work to support her drug habit, she took a job as one of the first topless dancers in Southern California.  She said, “I used LSD and speed daily in order to work.  This was before topless dancing became popular, so there were only a few women doing it.  But I don’t know what other kind of work I could have found because I was so stoned I had to go fast.  It became a cycle – I had to use speed to dance and I had to dance in order to get the drugs.”    She took a job giving massages that led her directly into prostitution.  Finally, when she was 35, she broke the cycle.  She quit using drugs and began to take care of herself.   She made a strong beginning but after about a year, she suffered some major crises.  She was forced to move from the apartment where she had isolated herself and that caused some tremendous fear for her.  Her weight dropped to 88 pounds.  “I was starving myself,” she said.  “It was obvious that I was dying.”  She ended up at three workshops done by Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, a specialist on the issues around death and dying.  In those workshops, she discovered and revived the parts of her self that had been deeply wounded in the past.  She said, “by being truly heard, witnessed and forgiven, I gained the tools I needed to continue living.”  At the end of the third workshop, Irene raised her hand to speak.  She announced to the group, “I’m a prostitute and I’m going to become a counselor.”


She began by contacting hospice of San Francisco and volunteering to massage people who were terminally ill.  It was 1982 and at that time there were no such massage programs in California.  “It was perfect,” she said. “I had a deep need to do service and surrender myself to Jesus for my own healing.”   In 1983, she contacted San Francisco General Hospital’s Unit 5A – the ward set aside for the first AIDS patients.  She talked with the staff about her experiences with hospice and how people with AIDS were deprived of human touch. She was the first volunteer to do massage therapy on the unit.  She founded a non-profit corporation that which led to massage projects for persons with HIV/AIDS worldwide.[4]  In the last decade, her focus has been on massage for those at the end of life and she has received many awards for her work. What a powerful practice of honoring the body!


As we draw this time to a close, let me invite you to try something.  Don’t worry, I won’t ask you to touch anyone’s feet.  Hold your hand out in front of you.  Look at it for a moment.  Then put it down where your neighbor can see it. 


Now look at your neighbor’s hand.  Imagine what this hand has experienced.  How old or young is this hand? Think of the work it has done, the care and caresses it has been given. Has this hand ever cradled the back of a newborn baby’s head?  Can this hand knead bread or pound nails or knit or shovel snow?  Has this hand ever hung on very tight and pulled someone to safety?   Are there scars on this hand?  Or broken bones mended within?  Or arthritis?   Has this hand ever clasped the hand of a dying person or a woman giving birth?  This hand is worthy of honor.


Let us pray: 

Bless to us O God our sleeping and our waking

Bless to us O God our hopes and our desires

Bless to us O God our souls and our bodies

Bless to us O God the handling of our hands.

Bless the hands of those around us.

May the work of all our hands show our love for you and our love for others.  Amen.




[1] Theresa Hornsby in A Feminist Companion to Luke, Amy-Jill Levine, ed. (Cleveland:  Pilgrim Press, 2001), p. 122

[2] Many of the premises of this sermon are based on the chapter on Honoring the Body by Stephanie Paulsell in Practicing Our Faith, 2nd ed,  Dorothy Bass, ed ( San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 2010),

[3] https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/get-facts-eating-disorders

[4] Sherry Anderson and Patricia Hopkins,  The Feminine Face of God, (New York:  Bantam Books, 1991), pp 82-84.