Blog|The Rev. Canon Anna E. Rossi
“When it comes to figuring out our collective relationship with God, and our resources for addressing the pressing social issues of our time, I imagine, like me, in the wrenching violence of this past week and year, you feel out of your depth.”
A homily preached at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco
Sunday, July 10, 2016, 6 p.m.
Proper 10C Deuteronomy 30:9-14;Psalm 25:1-10; Luke 10:25-37
The word is very near to us; it is in our mouths and in our hearts for us to observe.
When it comes to figuring out our collective relationship with God, and our resources for addressing the pressing social issues of our time, I imagine, like me, in the wrenching violence of this past week and year you feel out of your depth. Like Moses’ murmuring band of Israelites, we’re not always sure of our footing on the path to freedom, much less our voice in its story. We’ve crossed through some Red Seas. But at a personal level, there is always someone else who is more in the know or in the right. It can feel like we are some special sauce, self-help guru, or herbal supplement short of even glimpsing that Promised Land.
When the authors of Deuteronomy locate God’s word in our mouths, it is precisely because that word is alive and dynamic, it is meant to be probed, dissected, debated out loud. And then met again. Can you hear the still, small voice within you that whispers, that the special ingredient, and its attendant insider/outsider status is a lie? The truth is that we are terrified by the alternative: our own responsibility for wrestling with God; for shedding the dearly held convictions that no longer hold water; and for pursuing deeper knowledge and truth.
Our nation’s founders pursued many things, life, liberty, happiness. Like the French storming of the Bastille, and the Israelites pressing through the wilderness, they pursued freedom. We tend to define this as freedom from tyranny and oppression, or from regulations about what we can and cannot do. Seldom do we recognize, let alone light fireworks to celebrate, what we are freed for. Even secular documents assume that freedom is inalienable from equality and fraternity, as if to declare that my life cannot be reduced to “me,” but is bound up in the common welfare of “we”. Truly, the freedom to build an equitable community is not up in heaven, nor beyond the sea; it is endowed here among us.
Like the lawyer in today’s Gospel, perhaps we are tempted to be pedantic about what this “freedom for” means. We may want to specify and ratify a bill of responsibilities. Jesus is clear that loving God and neighbor isn’t an action we do out of fear to be more pious, rather fulfilling our freedom for one another is bound to our love of God.
Lest we domesticate this familiar parable of the Good Samaritan, I invite you to walk for a bit in its terrain. In my mind’s eye, this road from Jerusalem down to Jericho wasn’t exactly Highway 101, but maybe the desert equivalent of Sonoma County’s River Road: rural, but well-traveled.
This past January, I had the privilege of accompanying a band of pilgrims to the Holy Land. We left Jerusalem and drove south to Jericho. In the in the early pre-dawn silence, we ascended sand-dusted cliffs to meditate as the sun rose above the horizon. Deep in the caverns beneath the cliff, where there was no water or foliage in sight, I could make out a narrow winding path. From atop the cliff, it was no wider than my thumb. This is the desolate topography for today’s Gospel text, as well as Psalm 23, where it is more vividly described as “the valley of the shadow of death.”
On such a road, the man who fell into the hands of robbers was a conspicuous sight. The priest and the Levite would have to take great strides to circumvent him. No specialized medical, legal or religious knowledge was required to know that passing by the man spelled his certain death. To the priest and the Levite, acclimated to the aura of the Holy of Holies, the ritual purity of avoiding an unclean body would have been paramount, but not so to the Samaritan.
Samaritans are outsiders, descended from three Israelite tribes, who were left behind during the Babylonian exile. Their retained only an early portion of the Torah and none of the other books in the Hebrew canon. A few commandments shy of 613,and a mountain away from the Jerusalem Temple, Samaritans were the less than Kosher backward cousins, cut off from the main, segregated.
Segregation, the rift in our social fabric, remains deep and wide, as this week’s violence in Baton Rouge, Dallas, College Station, and suburban St. Paul, attest. We are separated by geography, resources, race, religion, access, and time. In a 1968 sermon in National Cathedral, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King named Sunday at 11 a.m. as the most segregated hour in American life. While we’ve made slow progress in the integration of religious life nationally, I’m aware of the increasing segregation of another hour: 7 p.m. The dinner hour when over 16 million children feel acute hunger pains, and half-eaten lavish restaurant meals are charged to expense accounts. Some feast from the bounty of “Whole Paycheck,” while others skimp from food pantries and convenience stores.
We are set apart also in the practical considerations: Do we pray before, after the meal, or not at all? Do we serve meat or not? Drink wine or not? Eat with forks, fingers, or chopsticks? At this hour, it is hardest to be with anyone whose race, class, religion or culture is meaningfully different from our own. At this hour, we are not free for one another.
If this segregation looms like the valley of the shadow of death for many, the Psalmist reminds us that it is precisely there, in the midst of the valleys and ditches, that God spreads a table. My seminary professor, Jon Berquist, prompted me to consider that the table is the place not where we gloat in front of our hungry foes, but where we are joined with those who trouble us; it is in the joining that we dwell in the house of God. Paradoxically this place of greatest desperation is also where we could be freest for one another.
Within each of us is a good Samaritan, but none of us is free for one another all the time. The freedom to descend into the ditch with our neighbor, the freedom to eat with those who trouble or challenge us must be nurtured and cultivated. Sunday by Sunday, we gather around the Eucharistic table to be strengthened and freed for one another. Our challenge is to go out and be that freedom in a world captive to division.
At the personal or household level, I wonder if you, like me, appreciate small, achievable actions. None of us can singlehandedly fix the entirety of segregation in our country. But each of us can affect its integration in our hearts and homes. I’m working out my own practice of eating across the aisles. I invite you to join me. Who around you is segregated or in danger of being cut off? Is it a colleague, a neighbor, someone in your own family? Who is “different enough” from you to make the thought of eating together uncomfortable? Invite that person to eat with you. It can be as simple as a coffee break at work, or a PBJ on a park bench. Resources are not the arbiter of possibility.
My patron saint of food, Author and former Chez Panisse sous chef Tamar Adler writes:
“The simple, blessed fact is that no one ever comes to dinner for what you’re cooking…We come for the opportunity to look up from our plates and say “thank you.” It is for recognition of our common hungers that we come when we are asked.”
Truly, the word is very near to us; it is in our mouths and in our hearts for us to observe.