The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
Transcribed from the audio.
Gracious God, help us always to seek the truth, come whence it may, cost what it will. Amen.
Those who govern our calendars and the changing of the seasons would tell you that we have 20-plus days left of summer. For those of us in the Cathedral community and many communities around the city and nation, and even more broadly, abroad, today is it. Summer ends today because school starts tomorrow. We will welcome back on the Cathedral Close the students of the three Cathedral schools and that pattern and rhythm will happen across our city. We will welcome back rush-hour. Well, we may not welcome it back, but it is a reality. We will hone our skills at finding those scarce street parking spots, working harder at getting a table at our favorite restaurant. The truth is, we hit a reset button starting tomorrow that governs the rhythms and rituals and ordering of our lives.
Surveys show that most of us want some structure and guidance and rhythm and ritual in our lives—not just for own lives, but the sorts of rituals and rules that help us live well in community. That is part of what I believe Jesus is addressing in today’s gospel lesson in that rather sharp conversation that he has with the Scribes and the Pharisees. But it’s helpful to put those things in context first.
In the gospel of Mark, in the previous several chapters, we have the story of Jesus in his ministry in and around the Galilee where he is breaking all sorts of rules: touching a leper to heal him; touching a dead child to bring about resurrection; healing the sick and the brokenhearted; breaking bread with outcasts and sinners. And he’s drawing such crowds in breaking these rules that he’s gathered and garnered everyone’s attention. Immediately prior to the story you hear in today’s gospel, it brings news of everyone carrying the sick on mats wherever they hear he is going to be because they know that his touch brings about healing and wholeness and life.
So in today’s gospel lesson the Scribes and the Pharisees call Jesus out because the disciples are breaking one of the rituals and traditions that governs life in community. They’re not washing their hands before they eat. Now, bear in mind there were over 600 rituals and rules that governed a faithful Jew’s life. Many of them were related to health and well-being, not only for the individual, but within the community. Jesus gives a rather sharp response that they’re missing the point: that you can follow all of the rules and the rituals but still not be in total and whole obedience to the commandment of God to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and spirit and to love your neighbor as yourself. You might have a checklist: you’ve gone to church, you’ve taken your vitamins, you’ve done your daily walk and meditation, and check off that you’ve been faithful to all those things.
Jesus asks the question, is there more? In the words of Walker Percy, “You can get all A’s and still flunk life.” Jesus uses that as a teaching moment—to the scribes and Pharisees, the crowd, disciples, you and me—that true purity and obedience to God comes from the heart and our intentions there. In Jesus’ day the heart was believed to be the center of one’s whole being, where one’s will was located, where one’s capacity for compassion and love and justice resided, but also the capacity for the list of more evil intentions. Jesus was saying pay attention to the most important part: who is our neighbor? I think that’s part of what Jesus was trying to say and how to be faithful.
For me, Jesus’ definition of neighbor takes on a whole dynamic with the story that follows today’s gospel lesson. It is the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman. It’s next week’s gospel lesson, but here’s a preview. The Syrophoenician woman was a Gentile. Jesus is in the region of Tyre and in that day Jews and Gentiles just didn’t mix. They had different religious beliefs. They were viewed as other: you didn’t mix, you didn’t share food, you certainly didn’t intermarry and the objective was to avoid one another at all costs. The Syrophoenician woman knows Jesus’ capacity to heal and she begs him to heal her daughter. Jesus, in a rather shocking response, basically calls her a dog and says that his ministry is for the Jews. That’s not exactly what he says, but you will get the point and that she is “other”. And in not so many words, but the way that I interpret her response is, yes, technically, I may be considered other, but I am your neighbor.
It is the only instance in the gospel of Mark where a woman bests Jesus in an argument. She gets his attention. He heals her daughter, goes on to heal a deaf man in the Gentile area and for me totally breaks open the notion of who is our neighbor. It’s a vital question in our country and in our world today. When we look at the human tragedy and crisis of children and people fleeing their war-torn countries: immigrants, migrants, refugees, not just in this country, but abroad. It is a human tragedy of epic proportions. It begs the question, who is our neighbor and what is our responsibility? Good people can and do disagree on what is our responsibility, but I don’t think anyone can make a compelling argument regarding who is our neighbor. We can’t claim to be a member of the global community and claim that only when it inures to our benefit, financial or otherwise.
War does some horrible things. This summer during my vacation I finally had the opportunity to read a book that many of you have recommended to me. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction this year. The book is All the Light We Cannot See. It’s set during World War II. The two protagonists are an unlikely couple. One is a French girl who, at the age of six, loses her sight. The other is a young German boy orphaned, living in an orphanage with his sister. The novelist tells the most incredible story of their lives and how the world around them changes dramatically with the war, how darkness begins to descend on all of them, and particularly the protagonists who find themselves caught up in a war not of their own making.
Toward the end of the book the German boy, now in his teens, as is the French girl, has the opportunity to save her life. Remember, by nation and definition, she is the enemy and he is faced with that moral dilemma on what’s my responsibility, who is my neighbor? Spoiler alert: he saves her life and in so doing saves his own soul. In that time, in that moment, light and life and love and meaning and hope and purpose come together where there had been darkness before.
Quaker Gene Hoffman says that an enemy is one whose story we haven’t heard. I would expand that for all of us to consider that anyone that we might deem the other is one whose story we have not heard. Tomorrow, many of us will go back to the rhythms and rituals and the busyness of our lives. I believe Jesus asks each one of us not to get caught up in the preoccupations of our daily existence and miss the opportunities that God puts right in front of us, maybe even the person sitting next to you in the pew, to reach out, to touch hearts, to transform lives, to bring light and life and love and giving and hope and purpose to our lives. Not just obedience from following the rules, but sharing the love of God that resides in each one of us. It may mean that we have to break a few rules and get our hands dirty but I have it on good authority that that’s okay.