Just to show how fast the world has been spinning, when I wrote last week’s reflection early in the previous week and submitted it, within 24 hours it has all changed. The seriousness of the COVID-19 epidemic had become evident, and by weekend many dioceses, including my own (California) had mandated no touching and no cup, and, within another day or two, diocese after diocese shut down all services and gatherings. The Eucharist was forbidden to us, at least physically if not spiritually. The churches were closed. And now we are sheltering in place, not just the elderly and sick. Everybody, except first responders, health care workers, and the world’s skeleton crew.
So here I am, writing early again for Monday, March 23, 2020, and God only knows what will happen between now and then. My previous parish live streamed an hour of their rehearsal and ran the service Sunday with all the polish of a Broadway opening night, bluegrass band and all, and my current mission gathered in a park to say Morning Prayer, in the rain (they broadcast with a smart phone, all three or four of them), and I stayed healthy and watched services around the country, praying with new and old friends. I was well churched. At 8am, I prayed Morning Prayer online with Church of Our Saviour. Then I prayed with and spiritually received the Eucharist (the tears were love, not loss) with the Washington National Cathedral, a service of devotion and dignity straight out of the Prayer Book. Even they lost their feed for a few minutes in the middle of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon. A strange new world. Because of my age and a history of asthma I was housebound even before the mandate extended to all. But then the phone calls, messages, texts from people, podcasts from all over kept me in the loop of life and love.
It is a learning experience, and not just some useful reflections on liturgy. How many of us have sat with the dying? I certainly have. The two things that can reach through those last moments are the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm. The old versions. Not the inclusive language versions, however lovely or theologically sound. Words people remember. Baked into their bones. The way the repetition of the Eucharist week after week bakes into our bones. I’m not a walking, talking conservative. I love the language of the New Zealand Prayer Book. And the creative liturgy and liturgical music which many parishes have developed, in part to encourage new families to come and stay. But when the chips are down, new and shiny doesn’t work. Now might be a good time to dive deeply into the core of who we are: the baptismal covenant, the Creed (Nicene and Apostles), the words of the Eucharist, which, granted have changed, but at least let us put in a marker at the 1979 Prayer Book. And old hymns. They are a treasure trove of poetry and theology. And Scripture reading. And the old-fashioned notion of memorizing verses. Things to draw on, which pop into our hearts and minds when we need them, need them to reach out to our Father in Heaven, to our Saviour, Christ Jesus. Not to get stuck, but to get us free enough to hear the voice of God.
In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians he was torn between teaching these new Christians to live a righteous life as a church in a pagan society and the impending promise of the return of the Messiah and the end of the world. And once again his Pharisaical theological training breaks through; dietary laws, marriage laws, idealized, almost unrealistic, rules of interpersonal behavior. So Paul goes back and forth between teaching them to be courageous sons and daughters of Christ and to be polite, keeping a low profile, and not offending. But even given my fascination with those two poles, living like Jesus with a great deal of personal freedom to listen to the Holy Spirit versus living like a nice, well-behaved rule-following member of Christian society, I was pulled back to today’s Gospel.
Mark 7:24-37 is yet another encounter with a woman, an unclean woman, a foreign woman, who knows how to challenge Jesus with a theological argument. In John, it is the woman at the well, the Samaritan who follows the law of Moses, but is considered an outsider by the Hebrew people. There is the woman with the hemorrhage, who recognized a prophet and steals his power to heal her. Faith, but until Jesus calls her and makes her say what she needs is he satisfied with her. Again in John, the back and forth with the two sisters before raising Lazareth, and the sweet scene between Jesus and the same two sisters in their home (Lk 10:38-42). Overall, the women in his life are more astute than his male disciples, aren’t they? And they challenge him. They talk back. And they break the rules, and in breaking them, they are saved. Today’s woman is a mother with a daughter with a demon. We don’t know how the daughter was tortured by this demon, but her mother needed his help to heal her. She has faith in this foreign prophet, this healer named Jesus.
Jesus is tired. He is very, very tired, trying to get away from the crowds. Boats, friends’ homes, nothing seemed to work to free him from the needy but persistent crowd. In Matthew, this woman is even considered an unwelcome and persistent pest by the disciples. These women! But here the scene is between Jesus and this woman who breaks in on his solitude, his rest. She begs his help for her possessed daughter. He snaps at her that he is here to feed the lost sheep of Israel. She quotes a current proverb that even the dogs eat the crumbs under the table. And Jesus is caught up short. He sees her, really sees her. A human person with whom he can debate, but moreover, whom he can save. And he does, both her and her daughter. This is about food, nourishment. This narrative falls between the two feedings of the masses, the five thousand (Mk 6:31-44) and the four thousand (Mk 8:1-10). Jesus’ bread is so bounteous that there is enough to feed all, and baskets of leftovers, with crumbs under the table plenteous enough to feed the lost, the little ones. And this woman feeds him as well. As we do when we pray to God, thank God, returning to God the love which he gives us.
We, too, are in a difficult place, just as the people in the Church in Corinth were. Just as the woman in need was. We are starving. Perhaps we need to remember what we heard, not so much from today’s Epistle (1 Cor 10:14-11:1), but from the one from Sunday, March 15, Romans 5:1-5, “Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Amen.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.