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Preaching with Your Mouth Shut

An Excerpt of a Sermon from Luke 7:36-50
Sometimes the best sermons are the ones that don't say a word out loud

In the Gospel of Luke, the woman gets into trouble because of the script she writes with her body. She’s born as a woman into a society where women are viewed as second-class citizens. She can’t get the same type of job as a man, though she has the same skills. Or if she does the get the same job as a man, she won’t get the same pay. She can barely survive with the amount of money she’s making. I guess that’s why she starts this new job. She’s desperate for money and you know people will do almost anything for more money. She tries to hide her new occupation, but her nosey neighbors soon find out, because it’s hard to hide what your body says. She no longer wears a head covering and her hair is down and unbound and you know what that means. She’s a “hip hip ho.” If you aren’t down with the hip-hop homiletical talk, let’s just say she’s making a living on the streets with her body. A living—when she’s actually killing herself. She’s working to put bread on the table but her tears are her food day and night.

Washing Disciple’s Feet; He Qi © 2013 -- Word travels around town about her new “hobby.” She loses her friends and family and finds more foes. No one calls her for the girl’s night out. No one calls her for the family get-togethers. They only call her names. She’s a call girl. It’s as if she’s not even human anymore. They strip her of her identity. Now, she’s only known as the “sinner woman.” If it wasn’t bad enough to be a woman in her town, imagine what it’s like to have your last name become “woman” and your first name “sinner.” She becomes untouchable. No handshakes, no hugs, no pats-on-the-back, no passing of the peace, no high fives, no one to wipe her weeping eyes. She’s dirty. A no-body. An outcast in her own backyard.

No one offers advice to help her. No one shows her another way to live or another way to love. Actually, she thinks she has no reason to live any longer. A lack of peace will make you think lots of crazy things. She has no peace. She has no name. In fact, she has no voice. She doesn’t say a word in this passage. Only the men speak. But this mute will soon teach us through her body talk. This outsider, still not allowed to be ordained in many churches, will give a homiletical lesson we’ll never forget.

Some of the best sermons don’t even use words. This peace-less woman thinks no one accepts her, forgives her, or loves her until the rumor mill begins turning about Jesus being in town and eating at the Pharisee Simon’s house. Jesus is her last hope. The one who causes the blind to see and the lame to walk and lepers to be cleansed and the deaf to hear and the dead to be raised is also known to break bread with tax collectors and sinners, so maybe he’ll accept her too. Jesus is her last hope. If he is the Son of God, the Prince of Peace, as some are saying, she wants to be with him because she knows that he can stop the chaos in her life. He can give her peace. If Jesus can’t help her, no one else can. If Jesus can’t straighten out her crooked situation, no one else can. So she puts on her fanciest dress and finest jewelry, fixes her hair, pours priceless oil in a jar, and carries some hope in the chest of her heart and sets out to go to a Pharisee’s house, knowing full well that the Pharisee will not welcome her presence. But people will do whatever they have to do in order to get peace.

She arrives at Simon’s house and takes advantage of the social custom that allows needy people to visit such a meal to receive leftovers. But she’s not interested in breadcrumbs because all she had eaten up to this point are her sorrows. What would be one more day without bread? She just wants to meet Jesus. There is something different about his presence, his table posture, his body talk, and his piercing eyes that see right through her chaotic soul. She rushes toward him, stands behind him, then weeps before him, bathes his feet with her tears, dries them with her hair, kisses his feet and anoints them with refreshing oil. She doesn’t speak a word, but she preaches. She doesn’t speak a word, but her body talks. She preaches with her mouth shut. Words cannot capture what he was about to do for her. Sometimes words aren’t enough. She doesn’t care what the others think because she senses the difference in him. It’s as if when with him, God is with her.

Her tears reveal her remorse, but Jesus doesn’t say a word. He doesn’t have to, because as she kisses his feet, she senses his love for her. She just wants to love somebody and have somebody love her in return because nobody ever does.

I’m sure you know that not all true sermons will be received gladly. People will hear what they want to hear even if you never said it. This woman’s sermon is no different. Some sermons may be received with a loud “amen!” while others may be received with an “oh my!” Some sermons will be received with a round of applause. But other sermons will be received with flying objects thrown at the preacher—and not in affirmation! Simon the Pharisee throws fighting words at the woman’s embodied sermon delivered to Jesus. “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” Look at who’s touching him! That ole sinner woman. Look at who’s touching him! That crackhead. Look at who’s touching him! That man who beat his wife. Look at who’s touching him! That mother who abused her children. Look at who’s touching him! That person who hasn’t been in Sunday school for months. Look at who’s touching him! That atheist neighbor. Look at who’s touching him! That Divinity School professor. Simon has a problem, not just with her body talk but with her touching Jesus.  

And today that’s how we act many times, too timid to look at each other face-to-face, body-to-body in the flesh, perhaps because of all of the child-abuse scandals and sexual harassment lawsuits in the church. It seems easier to send an email or a text message. That way you don’t have to look at anybody. But let me say that you can’t do incarnational ministry without a touch. You can’t physically touch someone in a hospital through Facebook or Skype. I know there are things written about intimacy over the Internet, but we don’t serve a virtual Jesus. He came in a historical body. This unchurched woman preacher shows Simon the way through her body talk. She preaches with her mouth shut.

Mary Magdalene; He Qi © 2013 -- www.heqigallery.comSimon didn’t get it the first time, so Jesus adds his two cents. He tells Simon that the one for whom the creditor cancels the greater debt loves the creditor more than the other does. Jesus tells Simon that he’s been a rude host and that the sinner woman is the respectful host. The irony is that Simon was the one who invited Jesus and yet shows no hospitality. His hospitality was hostile. All of the footwashing, anointing, and kissing were the usual customs of hospitality—and it’s the sinner woman who does it.

Jesus receives her hospitality but, most importantly, he receives her for who she is. She has no idea why she treats him the way she does, but when he tells her “your sins are forgiven” she realizes that she showers him with love because he pours forgiveness over her life. Simon thought she was the one touching Jesus, but in fact he had already touched her so much so that her heart was singing. Her physical action is a response to his love. With every tearful wipe of her hair on his feet, he wipes her sinful slate clean. Bathing his feet with her tears does not compare with how he bathes her with the salvific baptismal waters of the Spirit. Her past becomes the past in an instant. She no longer suffers shame and guilt over who she is or what she did. She’s no longer a no-body, because he makes her a some-body. She thinks she welcomes him, but he actually welcomes her that day into the kingdom of God. Jesus is the real host. Words can’t express what he’s done for her. Words can’t express what he’s done for us.

But he doesn’t stop there. He knows that her life has been chaotic up to this point so he decides to live up to his name as a storm-stiller. Not only does he forgive her, but he bestows the best benediction one can say over a person—“Go in peace.” Three words we all need to hear. Go in peace. That is his blessing over her life: go in peace, go in shalom, go in prosperity, go in wholeness, and go in goodness. Three words you need to hear when you have a badly broken body. Three words essential to effective ministry: Go in peace. We’re not told where to go, therefore anywhere and everywhere you go, go in peace. He didn’t say, “Go and create a new fancy website for your congregation.” He didn’t say, “Go and bring in all the big-name preachers to hold a revival.” He didn’t say “Go and jump on the megachurch bandwagon.” He just says, “Go in peace.” And isn’t that what people really want? Not more church programs but peace? Go in peace. It’s body movement and action, not another church meeting to talk about the last church meeting where we talked about the last church meeting. I know we like to use words in the Protestant tradition but sometimes you can’t just talk the faith, you have to walk the faith, move and groove in the faith, preach with your mouth shut and realize, as St. Augustine reminds us, that your life can be an eloquent sermon.

The best sermon one may ever hear or the best sermon you might ever preach may actually be spoken by your body, by your life. So go in peace. Jesus gives the woman his very self because he is our peace. And he says to us, “Go in peace, go in me, walk in me. Clothe yourself in me. Let your body do the talking.”

One of my students told a story about his father who died when he was very young. But one of the things he remembers about his father, a preacher, is this: when preparing for church, his father would iron his money because he didn’t want to give God any wrinkled money. Some of the best sermons don’t even use words.

I know this because Christ’s body tells me so. He preached a sermon that changed the course of history and he didn’t even use words. Jesus’ body spoke when Jesus’ body broke. When he was wounded for our transgressions, his body was talking. When he was bruised for our iniquities, his body was talking. When he was hung high and stretched wide, his body was talking. When he was oppressed and afflicted, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent so he did not open his mouth, his body was talking. He preached with his mouth shut because his body was talking. A performance of the body we’ll never forget. His body says all that needs to be said to us. But if you need a translation, here it is: This is my body broken for you. This is the cup of my blood shed for you.


About Luke Powery

Luke Powery was installed as the dean of Duke Chapel in September 2012. He was also appointed associate professor of the practice of homiletics at Duke Divinity School. He had previously taught at Princeton Theological Seminary; he received his B.A. from Stanford University, his M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary, and his Th.D. from Emmanuel College, University of Toronto. He is the author of Spirit Speech: Lament and Celebration in Preaching (Abingdon Press, 2009). His most recent book, Dem Dry Bones: Preaching, Death, and Hope, on the spirituals as a resource for preaching, was published by Fortress Press in 2012.

 Powery’s teaching and research interests include the Holy Spirit and preaching; lament, loss and Christian hope; African American preaching and worship; and worship’s relationship to social justice. Seeking to spread the gospel through both the spoken word and song, he has recorded on albums representing musical forms as diverse as Christian hip-hop and children’s nursery rhymes. He was raised in the Holiness-Pentecostal tradition and ordained by the Progressive National Baptist Convention. “I am deeply grateful, overjoyed, humbled, and honored to be entering the living tradition of Duke Chapel’s ministry in word and deed to its various constituencies,” Powery said. “I look forward to, as the Chapel motto says, ‘keeping the heart of the University listening to the heart of God,’ which beats with love for the world.”