Palm Sunday Sermon: Anointing Woman

READING The Anointing Woman  

Mark 14 + Matthew 26: 6-13

SERMON “The Anointing” Rev. Dr. Victoria Weinstein 2002

The global Christian community enters Holy Week today, the drama of the final days of Jesus of Nazareth’s life, his last meal with his closest community of disciples, his betrayal and arrest, his sham trial, his crucifixion. Today is Palm Sunday, the day that commemorates Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem, the Holy City that had been occupied by Rome since 63 AD, so for about 90 years by the time this happened.

 Arriving by colt, or donkey, depending on which account you read, he is nevertheless consistently reported to have been cheered by hundreds of ardent fans and  followers. If you have ever seen “Jesus Christ Superstar” which treats Jesus like a rock star, that isn’t  inaccurate. He was a messianic celebrity to his people (the Jews living under Roman occupation) whose lives were very hard, with very few rights under the law, taxed into poverty, expendable, and murdered en masse when they dared to rise up against Rome. There was nothing unique about Jesus’ method of execution; Rome had been using this public form of torture and execution for a long time. The historical accounts are dreadful and the victims unknown and unnamed.

This is a very dramatic, crowded, busy moment in the gospel narrative. Think of protests you have been to, the noise, the clamor, the anger, the hope, the intensity.  Think of marches, people upset about injustice, coming together at a gathering spot after a trek with their families, friends and children to hear admired leaders. These are all appropriate analogies since Jesus’ message, although mystical, theological and religious, was always grounded in justice, in the demolishing of hierarchies of domination. He is beloved not just because of what he says and the vision he promotes of the kin-dom of equals, but for the miracles he has performed: he has healed the disabled, the chronically ill, he has raised the dead. And to his crowd of supporters, he has kicked the right hornet’s nests.

I was quoted this week [2022] in the Boston Globe as saying that Easter had deeper meaning for me as I learn more about systemic racism, the state-sanctioned brutality that is part of the unfortunate fabric of American society –  that has protected the privileged at the cost of a segment of society that has been enslaved, demonized and victim-blamed for centuries. There are too many parallels between  Jesus’ community’s predicament and that of colonized and enslaved peoples throughout all of history –  and although Jesus’ life, death and resurrection have different meanings for people depending on their religious, ethnic and cultural identity, he is for us an avatar of prophetic witness and radical, revolutionary love. 

He is the opposite of an emperor; he is a servant-healer, an advocate. He is the opposite of the project of empire; he is the project of empathy, which in Unitarian and Universalist theological tradition, is God’s own project, God’s own longing.

Empathy is the ability to put oneself in the experience of another being: to allow the body, mind, spirit to exist with that other being, opening oneself to to feel what they feel.  Some people come by this quality naturally, and being natural empaths can go hard for them. ( I have a form of empathy that causes me to feel physical aching when I see even images of injuries. It’s not a convenient quality: I have fainted during hospital pastoral visits, no matter how much I mentally prepare.)

Too much empathy can make one feel like a sponge for all the sorrows of the world, but little or no empathy is not a workable alternative. We see that today, we see it in savage, barbaric examples in Ukraine, what is being done to the people, animals and land there… we see it also in our own country, most recently in mind in legislative violence that dehumanizes women, and transgender youth. The world is never short of case studies in empathic absence and failure: All indecency and cruelty begin when the perpetrators of it fail or refuse to imagine the impact of their behavior on others, or on their environment, which also has its own consciousness. 

So I want to look at a moment in the gospels where God’s project of empathy was lived out not by the main character, Jesus, but by an unknown woman we know only as The Anointing Woman. 

Jesus has stopped for dinner close to Jerusalem, in Bethany on the West Bank.  His confrontation with the powers and principalities is going to come to a head very soon. But for now, dinner with his disciples at the house of Simon the Leper. 

It was the custom in those times to recline at the table and to be have the meal served by women or servants. I mention this because when Jesus presides at what we call the Last Supper, he takes on the role of servant, upending social expectations and subverting gender roles.

In the house of Simon, Jesus is in the midst of a crowded social situation, we can imagine that he and the twelve disciples are tired, as it has been a busy and highly charged time being who they are and doing what they do. Not only are the eyes of the adoring crowds upon them, so are the eyes of the political authorities. There are spies and informers around.

Out of nowhere, with no introduction, enters the Anointing Woman :one gospel account identifies her as Mary of Bethany, the three others do not give her a name. She has a jar of precious perfumed oil (today it would be essential oil) worth about a year’s wages, and she pours it out and anoints Jesus’s head – or his feet, depending on which version you read. This is a symbol of messianic recognition, as kings were so anointed at their crowning. But anointing a body with oil is also a ritual at the time of death, in preparation for burial, which was also the role of women in Jesus’ time and cultural context. That’s why the women were the first at the tomb on Easter morning.

But let’s go back to the dinner. I imagine a sense of hubbub. People talking over each other. Passing of dishes. Food, drink, people in and out. 

The woman comes into this scene and walks up to Jesus. To get the oil out of an alabaster jar, the jar has to be broken, so she can’t save any of the oil, it’s all flowing onto Jesus. One of the Scripture passages describing this encounter mentions that powerful fragrance. 

Again, depending on which version we are reading, she is either touching Jesus on his head, or she is at his feet, and in two reports, she is crying onto his feet and drying her tears with her hair. 

Tears, and oil. She does not say anything, or if she does, it was not remembered. The Anointing Woman breaks into the ( mostly male) center of activity and does this incredibly intimate, immediate thing with Jesus. 

No one really knows what it means. There is no consensus whatsoever on the identity of the anointing woman or the meaning of what she does. 

But I don’t think we need scholars and theologians to interpret what it means. We can simply watch the moment unfold in our imaginations: She enters. She is poor and yet she carries precious oil, worth a lot of denarii. She sees this man, the savior, the promised one foretold by the prophets, eating dinner in the next room. Maybe what she saw in him is the Messiah.  Or maybe what you saw was a tired man who has walked many many miles stopping to give teachings and to heal the sick in body and in heart; a man whose feet are dusty who is hungry, a man who is grateful for food.

Whatever she saw in him, whether or not she had seen him up close before, she saw him with profound empathy. And that is why I cry whenever I read this passage. Alone of all the characters who meet  Jesus along the way of the gospel journey, the Anointing Woman doesn’t ask him for anything, doesn’t ask him to heal her, doesn’t ask him questions about how to attain eternal life, doesn’t touch him clandestinely so that he can heal her of a medical condition… all of which are fine things to ask of a prophet and healer and teacher!! They are poignant requests! But she alone, she sees Jesus as the vulnerable one. She sees what is ahead for him. She recognizes that he is in danger, she knows the outcome, she enters the room like truth itself, with love, with empathy, she pours out this beautiful ointment on him. Alone in the room, both she and Jesus understand the poignancy of what she is doing.

The disciples don’t get it. They start in immediately with petty attack, why did you do that, we could sell that oil and take care of more people, what are you doing, what a waste!

She has no response. I picture her in this intimate closeness with Jesus, bringing this act of beauty and care to him that transcends words and argument. Sometimes it is not time to debate, strategize, argue and compete. The poet Jeni Coyzyn wrote, “The way towards each other is through our bodies. Words are the longest distance you can travel/so complex and hazardous you/lose your direction.”

The woman with the oil walked right to him, to the center of everything, to the center of attention, not to make a point, not to present an argument, not to get something for herself but to give, to recognize, to bring the moment from chatter to stillness, from dinner time to the inevitability of death. She infuriated everyone there who thought they knew better than her how to spend the richness of that fragranced oil but she knew exactly where it belonged: not as an item for sale, but as a blessing to be bestowed, out of her poverty a spirit of abundance. 

History has not known how to interpret her, how to identify her… or how to emulate her. We still tend to miss or distance ourselves from the inbreaking of the holy with chatter, debate, and critique. But Jesus himself is reported to have spoken in her defense, chastised the petty and critical reaction to her gesture and said, “wherever the story of my life is told in the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”

I thought, therefore, that you should also know about her.

The Anointing of Christ, Julia Stankova 2009

The UU Search And Call Process

Our ministerial search process is unwieldy and downright crazy. The UUA Director of Settlement, Rev. Keith Kron, and I have had conversations over the years about how much time and energy it takes our congregations to settle a parish minister. Anyone who is paying attention to this issue is well aware that the enormity of the undertaking is out of proportion to the size of our congregations, the level of experience and availability of their active members, and especially the typical length of tenure in our pulpits. I will check with Keith, who will hopefully comment here, but I believe the average tenure in UU congregations is about six years. If UCC folks can chime in about your statistics, I would love to know!

My comments and observations are those of a clergyperson who has served full time in the parish for twenty-five years and been in the search process twice. Along the way I also earned a Doctor of Ministry degree, focusing my dissertation on the origins of the church covenant as the organizing document of the original New England congregational Puritan churches, and the continued relevance of covenants today. I am what you might call a nerd of congregational polity, especially as is practiced by UCC and Unitarian Universalists, who share a common historical origin.

I am also a clergy consultant and have been a congregational consultant, although not very much in the past decade. I maintain an avid care and curiosity about the health of the liberal church and am deeply concerned that our search and call process is working against our congregations in the Unitarian Universalist Association. The fact that there were more open pulpits than available interim ministers this past season alarmed me. I got back to thinking seriously about this issue.

An informal scan through the church openings for parish ministry on the UUA website reveals a heartening trend toward multiple categories of ministerial hiring options: contract ministers, interim ministers, developmental ministers. Although I haven’t studied the intricacies of all of these categories, they apparently allow for more flexibility in getting a clergyperson on board without assembling a large Search Committee who will be expected to earnestly labor over at least a full year to assemble a complicated congregational survey (that doesn’t reveal many of the most salient realities about the congregation), comb through interminable ministerial profiles (that don’t reveal many of the most salient realities about the applicant), and ultimately organize a series of (expensive!) weekends for the arcane ritual known as pre-candidating. After yet more hours sequestered in an undisclosed location and having sworn utter secrecy unto the death about those under consideration, the Search Committee chooses one Candidate, whom they are then bound by blood oath to present to the congregation with the enthusiasm of Yente the Matchmaker trying to earn her commission from Lazar Wolf the Butcher by arranging a betrothal between himself and Tevye’s eldest daughter Tzeitel.

This all culminates in an exhausting torture known as Candidating Week, where the congregation tap dances charmingly and the Candidate tap dances charmingly, the minister looks around to see if they can afford to live in the community, the board and miinster hammer out details of the Letter of Agreement, and everyone goes to way too many gatherings and meetings. At the second Sunday, the minister leads a second worship service after which they vamoose out of the building and the voting members of the congregation decide whether or not to elect them as their settled minister.

No one will ever remember or care about this unless I’m around, but if the vote goes well and the congregation extends a call that is accepted, the clergyperson becomes the MINISTER-ELECT of the church until such time as they are formally installed.

As I said, I am a nerd who spends a considerable amount of time thinking about the 17th century origins of congregationalism, and I hold as sacred the freedom of the local congregation to call (and to dismiss, if necessary) its own minister. I just don’t think that it needs to be such a sadistic exercise to get everyone to that vote.

PeaceBang’s Suggested Candidating Process

Saturday afternoon: The candidate arrives with family. Dinner with search committee.

Sunday morning: Candidate leads worship service. Coffee hour.

Lunch break.

Evening forum with the candidate. Congregation submits questions to the organizers who break them into categories and eliminates duplicates in advance. Suggested topics: theology, vision of church, adult faith formation, community engagement, social justice vision. Let the candidate demonstrate that they have done some homework perusing the congregation’s materials. This is not a time for the candidate to start getting to know the congregation, but a demonstration that they are reasonably acquainted with the major issues and initiatives.


Zoom (and perhaps a few phone calls) with groups of parishioners who were unable to attend in person. Getting-to-know-you.

Monday evening: Dinner with the Board or Parish Committee. Items for discussion: Letter of Agreement, special attention to compensation and benefits, clear understanding of vacation/time off/days off, staff structure, reporting and evaluation methods.

Tuesday: Day at church starting late morning. Meet with staff as group and one-on-one where recommended. Detailed building tour.

Done by 5PM. Candidate explore community.

Wednesday: Community meetings with partner organizations, local clergy, mutual aid societies, etc.

Evening: Children and youth drop-in or other activity. Meet with faith development lay leaders, teachers, OWL teachers, etc.

Thursday: Daytime, check in with board leaders, search committee, anyone who has unfinished business.

7PM Congregation convenes for vespers or meditation service, meeting and vote.

Here is some of the rationale for this abbreviated candidating process:

  1. When we treat candidating as an opportunity for various “constituencies” within the church to interview a minister, we are setting up the church and the minister for a fragmented experience and therefore, failure. There should not be silos of church groups meeting separately with the minister to assess their fitness for the position. The church is not a collection of special interest groups. Everyone meets and discerns the rightness of the fit together as the holistic entity they should be (or should aspire to be).
  2. Ministers in search very likely already have demanding jobs. Expecting anyone to take an entire week off of work, inclusive of two consecutive weekends, is incredibly presumptuous and creates a huge financial and logistical imposition on anyone who isn’t already serving in a parish setting.
  3. By eliminating a second worship service, you eliminate the need for the candidate to schedule almost an entire day for worship prep.
  4. You are not choosing a life partner, messiah or lifetime appointee. You are choosing a human being who is hopefully very qualified, sincere and dedicated to the possibility of working with your congregation in good faith for the next 5-7 years to help it live into its mission.
  5. An abbreviated candidating process helps alleviate some of the incredible and outsized stress assumed by the Search Committee and other church leaders, an especially important consideration in these times.

Clergy Burn-Out: The Current Crisis

Hello, folks. I’ve been meaning to get back to blogging but life intervened! But now I am on vacation and have time to dedicate to an important conversation about clergy resignations.

So many clergy have joined the Great Resignation and I think lay people need to know a lot more than they are being told about exactly why. Let’s start with this tweet series from @BelindaJoy79, from May 2022:

Literally every single fellow frontline pastor I speak to is pretty much at their end. The finger gets pointed at Covid for this one and I’d say that’s only a fraction of the issue. When I was called to ministry I didn’t expect to spend 80% of my time running a business.

“Shout out to the parish pastors – you are crushing it, while it is crushing you.” ~ @mytalkcolleen is making me feel very seen this morning. I’m not a business manager, but I’m required to be. I’m not a WHS expert, but I’m required to be. I’m not a HR manager, but I’m required to be. I’m not a fundraising guru, but I’m required to be. I’m not PR savvy, but I’m required to be.

I’m not an accountant, but I’m required to be. I’m not a handyman, but I’m required to be. You catch my drift right? We’re breaking under the weight of the administrative tasks that keep being placed upon us and we barely get to engage in the parts of ministry that we were called to and trained for. And when we do we’re so exhausted there’s little joy left in it. I spend most of my days operating outside of my area of expertise, skill and interest and it’s soul destroying. And most of my colleagues, if they didn’t fear recriminations of speaking freely would say the same thing.

We huddle around coffee tables and in prayer rooms and share our truths and try to bolster each other. But without systemic changes, nothing changes and the rate of pastors leaving is just going to increase.

PeaceBang here again. I can’t fix this problem.

But I can speak to it. I have an insider’s perspective and an interest not only in ministry right now, but in the history of ministry in the U.S., and in the evolution of clergy archetypes over time.

Of course there are myriad professional stresses on clergy right now, just as there are on workers in many sectors. The pandemic has required many of us to pick up advanced tech skills on the fly, fixing the sinking boat while it is out on the high seas in choppy waters. Many workers have been thrust into an entirely new way of doing their jobs.

I doubt, however, that many of them have taken sacred vows to love the community within which they do their job. I doubt that many of those other workers (educators perhaps excluded) are expected to be available 24-7 to accompany everyone in their workplace through medical, emotional and spiritual crisis.

This changes everything. This makes clergy fairly unique in the professional landscape. It’s that love thing. It’s that sacred vows thing. No one wants to think of clergy as being people in a job, but of course we are. Especially in the increasingly corporatized culture of churches, we are very much people with a job, and while the spiritual aspect of our calling is still central to our own sense of what we are doing and why, that aspect is increasingly being lost, glossed over or given very short shrift in our ministry settings. We are evaluated and reviewed according to job descriptions. We are subjected to satisfaction surveys (I’ll be writing a separate post on best and worst practices in clergy “performance” reviews — and surveys are among the worst and most damaging). We are treated as employees, or as I have heard again and again on calls with members of the clergy who have resigned from the parish or are considering doing so, “the help.” And as BelindaJoy tweeted, most clergy are operating completely outside their areas of expertise, skill and interest, and it’s soul-destroying. So what? you may ask. Why are ministers so precious that they can’t handle the kind of soul-destroying professional obligations the rest of us have to endure in our own jobs? Suck it up, buttercups!

Well, I get that. But ministers are only able to actually do our jobs when we are spiritually healthy and our souls are whole. I’m sorry. It’s just true. You cannot minister with a sick heart or have anything worthy to say when you have had insufficent time to reflect on what to say or how to say it. The fact is, behaviors, expectations and crushing pressures within the church these days are heart-breaking. Clergy are leaving because they cannot keep their hearts open.

We are all traumatized in this country. I need not enumerate the reasons but I’ll pop out a quick and very incomplete list: the earth is literally burning. Rising fascism in government, democracy under real threat. Gun violence, mass murders. Racism and the carceral state. Extrajudicial murders of Black people. Criminalization of immigrants. Women’s rights eroded and millions of lives imperiled as a result.

One of the trends I have observed among resigning clergy is that their leaders operated as though they were not in crisis or traumatized. This needs more analysis, but I find it really important to note that especially among majority-white, highly-educated congregations with management-class lay leaders, there has been particularly egregious scapegoating and bullying behaviors resulting in clergy resignations.

Church members who do not recognize that they are highly anxious, upset and frightened by the present and for the future often target clergy as the source of the feelings they cannot acknowledge. Going after the minister gives them a sense of purpose, and they often genuinely feel they are protecting or benefiting the church by their crusade.

If you belong to a congregation where your minister was suddenly and unexpectedly (to you) ousted, I hope you will thoughtfully raise the issue of scapegoating and bullying with your leaders (or better yet, become a leader if you can and make it a priority to engage in this community reckoning with a consultant). This dysfunctional dynamic is not rare but it is too rarely confronted.

What behaviors within our congregation, either institutional or individual, supported our minister in keeping their heart open for the work of ministry?

The role of the clergy is expected to be filled by someone who had a sense of calling, and whose calling was affirmed and confirmed by a community of faith. Clergy are those who are entrusted with the care of souls; only secondarily are they executive directors of institutions. They cannot care for souls or be present as spiritual companions and leaders if they are play-acting being okay, and many of them are doing exactly that. They quit their parish positions because they don’t want to keep acting like they’re okay — and they never felt safe enough to be honest.

Why couldn’t they be honest? Because although clergy archetypes vary somewhat from region to region and from tradition to tradition (the learned rabbi, the fiery evangelical, the warm rural pastor, etc.) they almost all have in common a Calm, Wise, Eternally Patient, Mature, Gentle, Loving (Most Always Straight, White) Man. This is the image actived in the deep recesses of the collective unconscious when one says the word “minister/priest/clergy.”

Surprise, surprise, very few actual ordained clergy serving churches naturally conform to this archetype. And because they do not, they face constant internal and external pressure by communities of faith that have often not examined their own fantasies and nostalgic notions of the clergy persona.

So, another key question for congregational reflection:

Was our minister able to be fully authentic with us during their term of service? Are we honest with each other in community? What are some of our unexamined assumptions about what a minister looks/sounds like socially, emotionally and personally? What are our unexamined assumptions about what kind of personality traits and emotional style people who belong to this church (and especially leaders) should have?

The mainline Protestant church (and in this I include UUs, who are theologically diverse but culturally extremely similar to mainline Protestants ) has often failed in its commission to be counter-cultural. The church is now a regarded by most people as a product that exists to meet their needs, or perhaps a fondly-regarded public utility. Church leaders and clergy are desperate to reconvene Covid-diminished congregations and/or to find new paths toward relevance and vitality. What no one wants to openly admit is that churches are spiritual communities, not service providers. Nor, unless this is an explicit aspect of their mission, are churches community program centers.

Is our church open and clear about the fact that the church exists to not to provide experiences or collect opinions but to make demands of love, service and care of the people who feel called into spiritual community?That each person beckoned by God/Conscience out of their aloneness to become part of this endeavor should be taking seriously their own spiritual growth? And that there is no “the church” that is not the current generation of active members and friends?

That is what it means to be counter-cultural in a consumer society.

Above all, ministers are responsible for helping the community identify, define, articulate and live out its mission in the community. With all of the other responsibilities now assigned to clergy, hundreds report that their time for the essential tasks of studying and preparing for programs, sermons, and time for pastoral conversations are being squeezed into days off or late nights. Their discernment of how to set priorities are being constantly questioned and undermined by chronic critics who have assigned themselves a position of great influence within the congregation and have often been allowed to rampage unchecked for decades.

Healthy congregations reward creativity, not negativity. What kind of person has the most influence in your congregation?

As churches experience more survival anxiety, the minister is often the one held responsible for attracting, nurturing, leading, maintaining what we still traditionally refer to as “members,” even as patterns of participation and engagement have changed so radically in the past few decades, the meaning of membership is vague and mostly unbinding for members of the community. The generation of elders who knew how to do traditional church have mostly moved away, are in nursing homes, or have died.

What tasks or jobs did our minister quietly take on as volunteer engagement diminished or changed entirely? Did we ask them? If they told us, whose responsibiity did we think it was to assume those tasks? Were our leaders willing to let things go, or was our former minister expected to keep the church “business as usual?”

Does our congregation have a robust, lay-led and designed program of mentorship? How can our new minister support the church in this, or do we expect them to initiate, create, recruit for and run these trainings on how to be and do church?

I hope this generates good and productive conversations in your congregation or your clergy group. A word to the ministers: please live more authentically with your people. I have so often attended collegial gatherings where sweet-faced ministers sneer and complain about their “people” when it is obvious that their veneer of holy affect interferes with their ability to share their genuine thoughts and feelings with their community. This is on us, too. If you are allergic to showing anger, frustration, disappointment, ignorance, fear, sadness, grief because you think you have an image to uphold, do not be surprised that your facade will crack under the extraordinary tensions of these days.

Whose side am I on here? I am on the side of the church. I believe in the Church. I ardently believe that identified spiritual communities that exist to carry on ancient rituals and traditions, to create new ones, to gather people together for the contemplation of the most urgent questions facing humanity, to pray, to educate children in wonder and reverence, to offer rites of passage that give greater meaning to birth and death and to worship God, are a good thing.

I care about your church.

Blessings on your way. Peace. Bang.