Saturday, August 25, 2007

Under His Nose

Here's tomorrow's homily. This is one of those pesky political ones . . . because faith really is inescapably political, if you're paying attention. What we believe in private can't help but influence what we think should happen in public (although not everybody's as obnoxious about it as the Christian Right).

And no, I have no policy recommendations. I'm just asking the same questions everyone else is. The maddening thing is that the Gospel -- at least as far as I can tell -- points very clearly to answers, but offers no blueprints as to how to make them happen in any reasonable way.

The readings are Jeremiah 1:4-10 and Luke 13:10-17.


This morning’s readings from Jeremiah and Luke are both about the triumph of relationships over rules, of love over legality. In Jeremiah, God assures the prophet, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you. . . . Do not say, ‘I am only a boy.’” God knows Jeremiah intimately -- better than the prophet knows himself -- and therefore knows Jeremiah’s gifts and abilities. This knowledge overrides the general rule that young people have not yet learned enough to speak God’s word, to be effective prophets.

Likewise, Jesus cures a woman in the Temple even though she comes there on the Sabbath, the day when, according to the Law, no work should be done. The leader of the synagogue sees a breach of the Law. Jesus sees the particular, individual woman in front of him, the daughter of God who has been crippled for eighteen years. He doesn’t want her to suffer even for one more day, and he silences his critics by reminding them that they feed and water their livestock on the Sabbath, even though doing so is also, technically, a violation of the Law. We care for those we love whether we have been commanded to rest or not, perhaps because such loving ministry feels much less like work to us than like worship.

Throughout the Bible, love trumps law. Think of how God spares the city of Ninevah, despite Jonah’s indignant protests. Think of how Jesus heals the daughter of the Canaanite woman, even though she is, according to the Law, not someone with whom he or his disciples should associate. Think of Jesus’ commandment at the Last Supper: “Love one another as I have loved you.” The law of God is a law of love, not of unbending rules.

When I was in high school, I babysat for an Orthodox Jewish family who deliberately employed a gentile to watch their children on the High Holy Days. I could do things they weren’t allowed to do, like turning lights on and off and using the phone. The mother of the family explained to me, though, that the very young, the very old, and the sick were exempt from such restrictions. People in these categories were not expected to fast, because that would be harmful to their health; and if a baby, an elderly person or someone who was sick needed care, family members were allowed to do anything they had to do to help the vulnerable person.

I was impressed by how carefully she explained this, and I admired the idea of overriding abstract rules to take care of real people. But the concept didn’t hit home until I was in college.

My family wasn’t wealthy, and I was at an expensive school. My parents were divorced, and for complicated personal reasons, my father couldn’t help pay for my education, despite what looked, on paper, like an impressive income. My mother accepted this, and I’d gotten a very generous financial aid package. For the first two years, everything was fine.

Then, during my junior year, the rules changed. My father had to submit a tax return to the school, and the school decided that he had to pay a certain amount towards my education. My father wrote a letter explaining why this wasn’t possible. My mother wrote a letter explaining why it wasn’t possible. I went to the financial aid office, where a very nice woman listened to me explain why it wasn’t possible, and then told me that the rules were the rules, and that she couldn’t do anything for me. The next week, I went back, and she told me the same thing. The week after that, I went back again, in tears. She patted my back, handed me tissues, and listened sympathetically. She was very sorry, but she couldn’t change the rules.

Terrified that I wouldn’t be able to stay in school, I went back to my dorm. The following week, I found a flyer in my mailbox advertising a scholarship for students planning to go into law or government. Since I had no interest in those careers, I threw the flyer away.

A few weeks later, my phone rang. It was the woman from the financial aid office, asking why I hadn’t applied for the scholarship. “What scholarship?” I asked. When she reminded me about the flyer, I said, “I’m not going into those fields, so I’m not eligible.”

“Just fill out the application, okay?” When I began to protest that I didn’t meet the criteria, she said, “Susan, just fill it out.” I told her I’d thrown it away. She sighed and said, “Okay, come down here right now and get another one, and fill it out! It’s due tomorrow!”

I filled it out. I got the scholarship, for exactly the amount that the school had insisted my father had to pay. Many years later, I told this story to a friend who had worked as a financial-aid officer at another school. She said, “Oh, sure. I did that kind of thing all the time. The students who came in were always scared and angry. They thought we were a bunch of petty bureaucrats ready to recite lots of rules about why we couldn’t give them money. But we were there for the students. We wanted to give them money, and whenever we could find a loophole, we used it.”

It certainly helped that I’d cultivated an individual, if rather weepy, relationship with the financial-aid officer. Like Jesus looking at the crippled woman in the Temple, this university bureaucrat saw me as a person, not as a statistic.

The leader of the synagogue, on the other hand, saw a dangerous precedent. If Jesus healed the crippled woman on the Sabbath, his Temple might be overrun with sick people interfering with rest and worship. When he looked at Jesus’ patient, he saw a generalized threat, not a particular human story. His fear of all the sick people who weren’t in the Temple, but who might be if he bent the Law, kept him from loving the woman who was right under his nose.

We still see that kind of fear today. Debates about public policy are driven by fear of immigrants, of convicts, of the uninsured poor. Debates about church policy are driven by fear of women, of sexual minorities, of change itself. I don’t mean to suggest that these debates have simple solutions; all of them are fueled by complicated factors -- including competition for scarce resources -- and by genuine concern about the wisdom of certain precedents. After Jesus’ miraculous cure of the crippled woman, the Temple may indeed have been overrun by sick people seeking healing. We aren’t told that part of the story. What we do know is that Jesus responded to the need that was right under his nose, and that he calls us to do the same.

Whenever we find ourselves using the law as a reason for excluding or denying someone, we’re called to remember the Law of Love, which replaces unbending rules with individual relationships. This may require us to cultivate relationships with those we fear. Everyone I know who does prison ministry is no longer afraid of convicts as a class; everyone I know who has worked with the homeless -- including the many people here at St. Stephen’s who’ve volunteered with homeless parents and children in the Family Promise program -- is no longer afraid of the homeless as a class. Parishioners who initially feared Family Promise have told me, “Now that I’ve spent time with the families, I know that they’re people just like me.”

In all of our national and church debates about whom to welcome and whom to turn away, we face difficult questions about allocation of time and money, about the best timing and procedures for implementing change, about how to soothe and reassure those who are frightened by the new and unfamiliar. But we don’t face the question, “What would Jesus do?” We know what Jesus would do. The Gospels answer that question, again and again. Jesus would nurture relationships, turning fearsome strangers into beloved friends. He’d respond to the needs that were right under his nose, even if he had to break the rules to do it.



  1. Anonymous1:22 AM

    Thank you, Susan, for another thoughtful and thought-provoking sermon.

    I, too, benefited from a kindly financial aid officer, a woman who not only kept me in college after the tuition went up but also helped me make the quantum leap from commuter to resident.

    As you say, though, it's the policy questions that are associated with putting love ahead of rules that are so hard to figure out. When I'm in the United States, I often hear people praising the European welfare states for doing a better job of taking care of their tired, their poor, their sick, and their hungry - but when I am here in France, I still see just as many beggars on the train on my way to work or on the sidewalk on my way to church. I have been coming here for twenty years now, and it seems to me that the number has remained constant through every change of political party in power whether the president was Mitterand, Chirac, or Sarkozy. Sometimes giving feels right, sometimes it feels wrong, and always, always, always the decision itself feels difficult.

    If you or any of your readers happen to have any thoughts about this particular problem, I would be very glad to hear them.


  2. Sometimes giving feels right, sometimes it feels wrong, and always, always, always the decision itself feels difficult.

    Hi, Jean! I have so much to say about this that I'll post about it separately, later today.

    Thanks (as always) for your comment!


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