Proper 16, Year C, 2019
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home
In May of 2001, the finale of the second season of West Wing aired. For those that may not remember, West Wing was a drama about the life and work of the Oval Office, which was particularly well known for a unique style of filming and dialogue. The show starred Martin Sheen as President Josiah Bartlett. In the show, Sheen plays the President as a devout Roman Catholic. Sheen is, in real life, also a devout Catholic. This matters because in filming this finale of season 2, the setting is the Washington National Cathedral. They are there for the funeral of the President’s secretary. It is a very untimely and tragic death, and the President is struggling in his faith and furious at God. After the funeral, the President asks his chief of staff to have the secret service agents seal the cathedral while he remains behind for a moment. Furious, the President begins to walk towards the sanctuary of the cathedral, ranting at God in his anger over the injustices that have occurred. He mixes his insults between English and Latin. He stops at the bottom of the steps leading up to the high altar. He curses God. Then he turns, lights a cigarette, then tosses on the mosaic sanctuary floor and grinds it in with this shoe as we walks away. Martin Sheen has later said in interviews that it was a very difficult scene to shoot. Not only was he incredibly uncomfortable raging at God, whether in character or not, but he nearly refused to do the part with the cigarette. The actor so held the sanctity of the place he was filming in that it was hard to even pretend.
This came to mind this week as I contemplated our Gospel lesson. What makes something holy? What makes a space or a day or an event holy? Moreover, what makes the things we do or the things we wear or the things we say acceptable in such a space? Sometimes I wear a zucchetto on my head during the mass. It’s a traditional head covering of a priest, and it is removed during the canon of the mass. But why then do I cringe when I see pictures of a priest from LA wearing a Dodgers baseball cap during their annual service where they celebrate the opening of the season? What makes one hat more appropriate than another? The answer to that question is that it boils down mostly to tradition. Different traditions inform different levels of acceptability. In our Gospel lesson Jesus is pushing back against the traditions of the institution. He does so primarily to highlight that there can be a big difference between the command of God and the tradition of the institution.
In the commandments handed to Moses, God tells the people that they are to keep the seventh day of the week, the Sabbath, as holy. It is a day of holiness and rest. Then, because we are so good at it, humanity extrapolates what that really means. So when Jesus is sitting in the synagogue teaching, with the whole community gathered because that’s what you did on the Sabbath, he takes the opportunity to show where the failing is. The woman Jesus heals does not ask to be healed. None of her friends ask Jesus on her behalf. Imagine her just sitting in the synagogue, checking out the readings of the day from her bulletin, and Jesus calls her over and heals her. This of course angers the passive aggressive leader of the synagogue who begins to preach to know one in particular that if they are there for healing they ought to come on a different day than the Sabbath. Healing is, according to them, work, and so not permitted on this day of obligation. They should be turned to holy things, which apparently to them doesn’t include releasing this woman from her ailment.
Jesus wants to teach that there may be other ways to think about how one observes a holy day. And when the leader of the synagogue has something to say about it, Jesus points out that in the traditions of the people, they have made accommodation so that they can ensure their animals have water. How hypocritical then not to see the importance and holiness in healing this woman. Sometimes the absurdity of tradition when it serves no function, or worse causes harm, has to be pointed out. In this case it goes even deeper because this gets at the root of what it means to follow God’s commands and to live by the values of God’s kingdom! What honors God more? Sitting on your hands and watching people suffer, or doing something about it even if the institution has decided it’s not the right time.
We have to be on guard with ourselves and how we live out our faith. That is, after all, why we are here. This isn’t just some hobby to fill your bored Sunday mornings. We have chosen to follow God, to follow the way that God teaches us through Jesus. Sometimes, as I mentioned last week, that’s going to upset the apple cart a bit. It’s not always welcome. But that doesn’t change the truth of the message.
Recall when I said that the values of the Kingdom of God are not about being coerced into behaving a certain way, but rather feeling called to live that way. So too it is when we seem to force our institutions and traditions on people instead of inviting them into a way of being. I’m not saying tradition is bad, I’m saying that having a, “because I said so” approach is not the way to instill the love of God or the desire for the Kingdom in others. Instead we should live by example, showing why we do something, why something matters, and always be willing to check ourselves against the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In our Gospel reading Jesus is using his authority and power to show that the Kingdom of God isn’t the sort of place where suffering should continue just because, “this isn’t the right time.”
As our collect today says, we are called as a church to show forth God’s greatness to the world. Let us do so with love, with compassion, with a rich tradition that keeps the fires lit, and keeps the praises of God flowing from our lips. May our house be one that draws people to the love of God, a place we make holy by our words and our deeds, and not a golden calf that we worship in God’s stead. May we live faithfully, as God asks us to, always looking towards the glory of the Kingdom that offers us a way of grace, peace, and joy.