Called to care

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Isaiah 35:4-7a;  Psalm 146 James 2: 1-17; Mark 7:24-37

Rev. Dr. Deborah Meister

This has not been a good week for people from the East Coast of the United States.  Thursday morning, even before my prayers, I sent an e-mail to my family who live in New York City, asking them to check in, to let me know whether they and their homes were all right. Friday, when the papers started to show the flooding in Philadelphia, I sent still more, reaching out to my friends there to check on them. Even before Hurricane Ida hit, I had sent messages to people in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Washington, D.C., and the Berkshires, sending them my prayers that they would be safe. I’m sure many of you have reached out in similar ways this year, to friends in B.C., Haiti, Germany, Mexico, or any of the other places which suffered the devastating effects of climate change. It’s become a kind of liturgy of the 21st century: saying the same words, making the same gestures, over and over again: Are you OK? I’m thinking about you. How can I help? It’s part of the reality of living with climate change, and this year, it’s hard not to feel that the world we knew, the one we were born into, has already passed away. I’m old enough to remember when the weather report was boring. I wish it still were.

Today is the start of the Season of Creation, five weeks in which the church urges us to direct our attention to the intricate web of life which sustains us and all the creatures of this earth — and to our obligation to care for it. From the time I was a small child, I was entranced by the beauty of the natural world. I found it a place of healing and renewal, a direct revelation of the goodness of God. Before I was baptized as an adult, I found it much easier to see God in a mountain range or in a majestic tree than to see God in a human face. But this year, I am greeting this season not with anticipation, but with a deep and abiding sorrow — a sorrow large enough that I do not really know what to do with it.

Along with that sorrow, there is anger. Climate science has been established long enough that I was taught about climate change in kindergarten, and yet, the powers of the earth have done nothing to avert it. They have not pushed hard to develop green technologies. They have not regulated emission of carbon or other greenhouse gases. They have not even stopped subsidizing destructive forms of energy. They have not mandated less destructive agricultural practices, nor have they leveled with the population of the first world about the fact that our way of life is unsustainable. The rich and the powerful have reveled in their millions and billions, and when someone tugged on their sleeve to whisper, “Remember the earth,” they have shrugged and muttered, “Après moi, le déluge!” Literally.

Oh, we have made small changes: we have recycled (where that was available); eaten less meat; used public transportation when possible. But the collective private actions of people of good will are worth nothing unless the big generators of pollution — cars, airplanes, factories, power plants, Big Oil, industrial agriculture — change their ways. The Quaker teacher Richard Foster reminds us that the pagan god Mammon represented not the worship of money, but the power which money holds over us. My friends, Mammon has been alive and well in the 20th and 21st centuries. It’s hard not to feel that Mammon, not Christ, has been in charge. And Mammon needs to be dethroned if any of our children are to live as we would desire. This year is giving us a taste of that reality.

One reason for my anger is that I am tired of fearing for those I love. Over the year and half of this pandemic, much has been made of the toll of being separated from the people we love — and it’s real! But there is another difficulty people are not naming: the constant strain of caring about people whom we are essentially powerless to protect.  Today’s Gospel points us straight at that reality.

The story about the Syrophoenician woman appears in two Gospels, Mark’s version, which we heard today, and Matthew’s, which is longer. A woman comes to Jesus, begging him to heal her daughter, who is possessed by a demon. In the version we heard today, Jesus reminds her that she is a Gentile — in other words, Not my problem. In Matthew’s account, Jesus initially says nothing, while the disciples urge him to send her away. In both cases, what they are saying is that the Syrophoenician woman is outside the circle of their caring.

For whom do we care?

Caring is the heart of our faith; it is the first and great commandment. We cannot love God with all our heart and all our mind and all our soul, and our neighbor as ourselves, without investing ourselves deeply in the things of this earth. And caring was the first commandment God gave to humankind: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill and tend this earth.” (Gen 1:29) And yet, caring is not easy. It is a challenge, a burden, and a gift.

The burden, perhaps, has been most evident this year — evident in wearing masks, in staying home, in avoiding travel, in making a hundred daily choices that we would never really have wanted to make. We worry constantly about the aged people we love and about the young heading to school. Under normal circumstances, those of us who are middle class could use money to circumvent some of that burden, but if you’re talking about a disease to which no one is immune and for which there is no cure, money doesn’t help (except to create a vaccine). Caring has pushed us right up against the limitations of our capacity to act. It reminds us that we are only human — finite creatures, not gods. It’s not a reality many of us embrace with enthusiasm. Jesus preached about it in his first sermon, when he reminded the good people of his hometown that  “there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when…there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent” to only one of them. And “there were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’” (Luke 4: 25-27)  The people reacted by trying to throw Jesus off a cliff. No one wants to hear that God is not a magician, that God might not just swoop in and save us. That we might have to find ways to help one another.

But if caring is a burden, it is also a challenge which can give life. The basic question is the one I asked earlier: for whom do we care?  In my first sermon here, I talked about our circle of concern and our circle of influence. The first is the group of people or issues we care about; the second is the sphere in which we are able to have an actual impact (other than by prayer).  Faced with a level of threat which can be overwhelming, the temptation is to narrow our circle of concern — to tune out, or turn in, or to care only for our own. Even Jesus has trouble seeing beyond the boundaries of a small group: he says to the Syrophoenician woman, You are a gentile. Your daughter is not my problem. 

The anthropologist Robin Dunbar hypothesizes that our minds evolved to care for no more than one hundred fifty people, which probably corresponds to the size of the groups we lived in during key points in human evolution. Within that constraint, it’s easiest to prioritize our family and friends, and let everyone else eat cake.  And one hundred fifty people is a lot of people! Trying to care for that many, really care for them, takes work. Going beyond that risks compassion fatigue. I suspect that many of us know that fatigue intimately right now: it’s hard even to hold in our minds the flooding from Hurricane Ida, the people displaced by fire, those still trying to recover from the earthquake in Haiti, and —wait! Wasn’t there some issue in Afghanistan, too?

And that’s only the last few weeks.

Against that tendency to turn inward, we have God’s mandate to love. In that first sermon, the one which almost got Jesus thrown off a cliff, part of what his hearers found offensive is that both of the people God helped were Gentiles. Not Hebrews. Not the people God was “supposed to” care about. Jesus challenged them to see that God’s circle of concern is larger than our own, which means our own might need to grow.

It’s the same challenge the Syrophoenician woman offers to Jesus, when she says, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Now, this is an ugly passage, perhaps the ugliest story about Jesus. The woman appeals to Jesus to help her child, and Jesus compares her child to a little dog, a kunaria. He uses an epithet which suggests that her child is sub-human, probably because of her ethic origin. We’ve all heard language used like this, and it should make us shudder. However, the woman turns it around by reminding him of house-pets — dogs which are part of the family. It’s not a great solution. I’d rather she had refuted the epithet. But it works: rather than confronting Jesus head-on, she reminds him that he has an obligation to all creatures who seek a relationship with him.  Matthew’s account makes it clearer: when Jesus reminds her that she has no “right” to his help, being beyond the covenant which bound God and Israel, the woman cries out, not for her “rights,” but for mercy (Matt 15:22).

Mercy is what we are called to give one another, and, when we make the attempt, we discover that caring is also a gift. It makes us larger human beings. When my stepmother is in a situation which makes her want to do or say something petty, she likes to say, “I’m a bigger person than that.” She uses it ironically, while naming what she would like to say, but it also serves as a reminder of the person she wants to be. Each act of caring makes us grow. Even Jesus learns from caring for that woman.  When he meets the deaf/mute man, who would have been defined as ritually impure, he offers mercy without hesitation (Lev 22:22). Mercy is what reveals in us the likeness of God.

At this time of challenge and grief, we are called to care more: more deeply, more passionately, more effectively. Effectiveness is key. (Faith without works is dead.) In one of my favorite novels, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, an aged but fiery abolitionist walks out on his town, saying, “No good has come, no evil has ended. That is your peace. Without vision, the people perish.” And vision, in Scripture, does not tend to come from kings or princes. It comes from the margins: from prophets, from children, from slaves, from ordinary people like us who have suffered too much for too long. Their cries are the ones which reach the ears of God, our God, the one whose name is Mercy: God with us. Our work is to care, more than we imagined we could. To care, to work, to march, to cry out for ourselves and for those who have no voice. “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped… For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert” — even the stony desert of our heart (Is 35:5,7).

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