Love, Hate, Life & Death – Caroline Dean (8/20/17)

“Love, Hate, Life & Death”
August 20th 2017
Rev. Caroline Lawson Dean

A reading from Matthew 15:21-28
Jesus went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.
Let us pray: God of Mystery – when words fail, may your Spirit be near. When hatred is unveiled may you give us courage and kindness to show up in love. When we are able to see our own vulnerabilities & limitations may we have the courage, like Jesus to begin again. Amen.
Y’all (as we say in the south when we are keeping it real, letting our guard down a bit), I am tired. This week has been busy. My to-do list included coordinating a prayer vigil for Charlottesville in 24 hours, a memorial service & wake, a sermon, a bridges run, and the continued efforts involved in building a baby. To top it off, I convinced myself that obsessively analyzing reactions to the White Supremacy marches in Charlottesville counted as “online sermon preparation.” And indeed some of that analysis has been helpful! But some of it was a way to numb some of my fear and grief from the week. And perhaps exploring the spiritual practice of distinguishing between numbing and meaningful, mindful online experience is a sermon for another day.
At times this week I have been stuck between too many words and not a single one. How can we possibly capture the original sins of our country and our neglectful attempts at repairing those original wounds? How can we balance these harsh realities with hope in the beauty of God’s mercy & justice? How can we call out and name evil? While also naming limitations in ourselves, our own communities and the ways that we can all grow? How can we be moved towards action, filled with hope, courage & God’s love?
That was all on my “to do list” this week, no big deal. And let me share up front that some of this work will have to happen in your continued conversations and ours as a church community moving forward.
Last weekend, Brantley and I were at our family baby shower at my brother’s house in Northern Virginia. At this shower we shared in the kind of joy abundant that comes in the company of dear family and friends who have known you in each chapter. Dear best friends from college years and grad school showered our baby with thoughtful hostess gifts and the occasional inappropriate joke. Aunts and cousins showed up from distances as far north as Massachusetts and south as Durham North Carolina. My mom dug up my baby blanket from the basement and adapted it to feature pictures of each of the cousins on both the Lawson and Dean sides of the family. My almost 90 year old beloved grandmother (who is 70 something in spirit) made a special effort to get to the shower. She gave our baby – her namesake – a necklace from her jewelry collection that she wants our baby girl to know her by. This baby has grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, extended family and friends – not to mention a cherished church family – who love her so well already – it is beyond a miracle.
And yet during the middle of my shower I heard about Charlottesville. I heard about Rev. Traci Blackmon, our United Church of Christ Executive Minister of Justice and Witness who was giving an interview on live TV, as a counter protestor. And in the middle of the interview, she had to be physically removed from the scene to pull her to a safety avoiding an outbreak of violence nearby. And then a few hours later – while I was making bracelets with my 7 year old nieces, who in the end wrapped them up tight in a ball of yellow tissue paper as a gift for our baby girl - I heard about Heather Heyer’s death.
And there it is, life and death, love and hate, all balled up together. When you are building a baby & our country’s brokenness and original sin is so apparent, so emboldened – it is a bit scary. As a new parent, it already feels vulnerable to birth something so fragile, but this year those feelings are magnified as we face complex systemic injustices like climate change, institutional racism, poverty, and globalism all the while holding in prayer & protest, an administration in power that is in denial at best, and actively immoral at its worst.
Let me pause here and say that a lot of white folks, including myself, have been baffled or surprised by the levels of overt misogyny, racism, white supremacy of folks who hold powerful offices in our country – and it takes discipline & reminders from my friends of color to help me reorient & remember that this is nothing new.
Dr. Rev. William Barber writes, “In order to understand American (history), you have to understand that what we see now is as “American as Apple Pie.” When someone uses racial fear and hatred to excite people’s temperament – this same process happened right after the civil war – there was a period called reconstruction, followed by a period of deconstruction, when people used racial fear & attacks on voting rights...The same thing happened after the Civil Rights movement.” Dr. Barber asserts that “we are in the birth pains of a third reconstruction. We need a radical revolution of values – a moral revival that deals with systemic racism – and policies that hurt people.”
Speaking of reviving our morals. A Canaanite mother tracked Jesus down one day. She is on her home turf, Jesus is out of his comfort zone in the land of Gentiles. And perhaps Jesus is also tired and worn out. This mother is desperate and Jesus is quite frankly is a bit of an ass. She comes to Jesus, a Canaanite – a known enemy of the people of Israel and “idol-worshipper” according to social norms in Jesus’ tradition – and she asks him to heal her daughter. Jesus ignores her, she shouts, he almost dismisses her and she kneels, beckoning for him to, “Have mercy!” Then he denigrates her by calling her a common derogatory name for a Canaanite woman at the time - “a little dog.” She comes back with a savvy retort “even little dogs get crumbs under the master’s table.” And for whatever reason this gets through to Jesus. He heals her daughter and revels in the “great faith” of this persistent mother.
Jesus is worn out, he gets it wrong and he says something prejudiced – even racist. He takes a good amount of time to overcome his lack of compassion for this mother & her sick daughter.
This text is unique for two reasons. First, Jesus rarely rebukes or turns away someone who is marginalized. He does however, come out strong against those in power, religious leaders, and self-righteous folks who think they know it all. And so this story is rare and interesting. Another important reading of this text is that perhaps it represents a turning point in Jesus’ ministry, when he encounters someone who he had been taught was “lesser” and he eventually manages to find empathy for her. This is perhaps his own moral, even spiritual revival. I like to imagine that this incident introduced Jesus to foundational ideas for his own ministry “blessed are the poor” “the humbled will be exalted” “love your neighbor as yourself” – even when that neighbor is a Samaritan or a Canaanite woman.
So what do we do when we are tired, vulnerable, when we, like Jesus, fail? What do we do when we are grief stricken and angry at injustice in our nation & our world?
Like the woman of great faith, we shout, we kneel, we beckon, we are savvy, & we persist. Here is an important response to the challenges of our season, we as a people of faith can say out loud, “white supremacy is a sin.” But it’s not just a sin, it is our country’s sin. In fact historically speaking white supremacy is a sin of the mainline protestant church – our church tradition (among many others). Dr. King talked about how the most segregated hour was on Sunday morning. Passive and active participation in systemic racism is the sin, dare I say, of all white folks – not just extremists. And here it’s really important to understand two levels of racism – there’s personal prejudice (which we all subconsciously carry) and institutional powers that are unjust – which we all accidentally perpetuate. And we have a new round of Interfaith Race Dialogues coming up this fall for anyone who want to learn more about dialoging on race, in a safe and non-judgmental space.
It is also really important to remember that white supremacy is a sin in Northern New Jersey. It can be easy to perpetuate stereotypes about the North and the South and in doing so off load some blame for the injustices that exist in our country onto other regions, other towns. What if systemic racism looks different in each community but it is equally present in the North & the South.
Here’s the deal about Charlottesville that I learned in one of my news binges this week. On their town council before they voted to take down the statue the council voted unanimously to set up an “equity fund” which will support an African American Heritage Center, funding for a park in a local African-American community, GED training for folks in public housing and so on. Now this does not suggest to me that Charlottesville, or UVA for that matter, is a place where they have healed their local iterations of systemic racism – however it does suggest to me that they have courageous leadership and constituents who are willing to look at their local history of oppression and make amends beginning overt processes of reconciliation.
This is why Charlottesville is an easier target for the White Supremacist gatherings because their local government is taking a stand for justice. Love and Hate, side by side.
And so I wonder what it would look like for us to take a hard local look at some of the iterations of systemic racism in our history as a town, as a region? And what would it look like to take specific actions of reconciliation and healing in those areas?
And in that process, what do we do when we like Jesus are confronted with our own personal vulnerability, limitation and fear? What do we do when we are confronted by some of our subconscious prejudice and white privilege? Where do we even begin?
Reformed White Nationalist Christian Picciolini (Peach-O-Lini) did a recent interview on NPR. He spoke about his work with recovering “white nationalists” who need mentoring, community and a sense of identity after leaving extremist groups. Picciolini shares that when folks have “meaningful interaction with someone they claim to hate. When they receive compassion from the people that they least deserve it from, that is the most transformative process and I’ve seen it happen hundreds and hundreds of times.”
What can we do as a beloved community to get proximate to folks who are different from us? To give and receive compassion from communities that we are separated from in many different ways. And like the mother who came to Jesus – when we draw closer - may we have the courage to cry out together – “Have Mercy, oh God, Heal us!” For the sake of our children & our children’s children may we work together to build beloved communities for and with the next generation.
The White Supremacist protesters in Charlottesville embodied radicalized fears & vulnerabilities. Those fears birthed hatred, tribalism, & violence. And instead of shouting “Have Mercy” out of their hatred came the cry “You will not replace us!”
Author and Activist Brian McLaren writes: “All of us, especially people of faith, need to proclaim that white supremacy and white privilege and all other forms of racism and injustice must indeed be replaced with something better – they must be replaced with (beloved communities) where all are welcome, all are safe, and all are free. White supremacist (dreams) must be replaced with a better dream – people of all tribes, races, creeds, and nations learning to live in peace, and mutual respect.”
Beloved community of many tribes, and creeds and races - out of our fear & our grief let us birth kindness and courage. Let us birth strength in community & resolve for the work ahead. And now holding on to peace and love – let us go out in hope, Amen

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Once, when Jesus was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord if you choose, you can make me clean.” Immediately the leprosy left him. And he ordered him to tell no one. “Go,” he said, “and show yourself to the priest, and as Moses commanded, make an offering for your cleansing as a testimony to them.” But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places to pray.

Barbara Brown Taylor in her book, An Altar in the World, tells a story about a time when she was guest preaching at an Episcopal church in the south. She arrives early to check out the sanctuary & get settled in. She immediately noticed that behind the altar there was a striking mural of the resurrected Jesus, stepping out of the tomb. After greeting a member of the altar guild, a manicured and proper southern lady, Barbara walks up behind the altar to get a closer look at the mural. She says that Jesus looked “as limber as a ballet dancer with his arms raised in blessing…except for the white cloth swaddling his waist, Jesus was naked. His skin was the color of a pink rose. His limbs were flooded with light.”
Barbara felt protective over Jesus with so much skin showing, he is all exposed in such a public place. She recognized the beauty in this painting that in Jesus' moment of transcendence, he remained human, he came back wearing skin. But then she also quickly noticed that something was missing, the wounds in his hands and feet were apparent – though not grotesque. His arms were thin but strong, but then staring at his underarms, she noticed - that Jesus had no body hair! “Beautiful, isn't it?” asked the woman who was polishing the silver. “It surely is that,” Barbara said, “ but did you ever notice that he has no body hair? He has the underarms of a six-year-old and his chest is a smooth as a peach.” And the woman shrank in awkwardness. “Uh, no, um, wow…” she said.

This may or may not have sent me on a Google hunt to find a picture of a hairy Jesus, but alas, in the collective Christian imagination, Jesus is really into hygiene. Seriously though in a majority of these portraits, Jesus skin is silky and “rosey” and white and “hair free.”

And this perfectly manicured Jesus is problematic especially when I imagine Jesus in our gospel reading today. First of all - let's get something straight up front, Jesus was not fair-skinned, which is another sermon for another day. Second of all Jesus most certainly did not have access to spa treatments, sunscreen, or a personal trainer. I mean seriously though it looks like he baths in milk and does mint julep masks every day! And yes, Jesus was crucified, but he looked damn good doing it! The reality is that Jesus was a poor drifter teacher who trudged around in dirt and grim and touched lepers. And who knows, Jesus may have even been uglier or fatter or shorter or grey-haired or balding than our perfect-bodied Jesus! Why would that be such a scandal?

It would be a scandal - because we are generally uncomfortable with our own bodies – we decided to manicure Jesus' body and make it perfect to make us feel a little more at ease about the imperfections and struggles in our own bodies.

So Jesus' messy body – with smelly feet and bad breath and hunger and pain and a couple grey hairs – one day in his travels encounters a man who's body is covered in leprosy. And the man's frail and weak body covered with open wounds throws himself on the dirt ground at Jesus' feet in desperation. And Jesus heals him and restores him to his community. And I need Jesus to have a messy, real body in this scene. Because imagining the rosy pink flesh that is unblemished and perfect touching the broken body of the leper with open wounds just doesn't do it for me. “Rosey-skinned”

And perfect bodied Jesus doesn't fit in this story for two reasons:

1) Jesus' body certainly stands in contrast to our leper friend. The leper's flesh is rotting and open to infection, while Jesus' skin is shiny and new. If Jesus' body in our cultural imagination is perfect, unblemished, without warts or bad breath or hangnails, then we can hold his body at a bit of a distance. And the reverse is also true, Jesus can hold our bodies at a bit of a distance – and he would hold the body of a man with leprosy at a distance.

2) Leprosy is contagious, physically and socially – by touching this man, Jesus risks, pain, brokenness, loss of feeling, loss of limb, being socially ostracized. So when Jesus' body touches this leper – he risks being contaminated with this curse – this social and physical death. He puts his body on the line. And to top it off Jesus risks his own religious authority – if he contracts leprosy, everyone will think that it is his fault- that he deserves this suffering because he has sinned.

And so rosey-skinned-unblemished-no-body-hair-Jesus just doesn't do it for me in this scene. He is too ethereal, too perfect to risk touching a leper. The rosey-skinned Jesus has a special body and he can stand apart from us – he doesn't really get what it's like to be human. The Jesus with body hair, he is on our team, he is vulnerable, he touches lepers. He has skin in the game. He is moved with pity to touch a man who is untouchable.

But here is where the rubber hits the road, (START SLIDESHOW) just like the portrait of Jesus' perfect body we idealize the perfect human body now more than ever, and our relationships with our bodies are so complicated and loaded that we often cope by ignoring our bodies until they scream at us for attention.

Think about the struggles that land in our bodies: Struggles in our sex lives, with body image, with our relationship to food, our ability to balance rest and work, our relationship with other people's bodies, bodies that don't fit quite so easily into nice categories. We have an insidious cultural habit of demeaning and objectifying bodies in order to sell perfume. And don't get me wrong the Christian church has been the worst, trying to control our sexuality, and creating negative images of our bodies to suppress and oppress certain people with shame.

All of these complications and struggles divorce us from our bodies. Like the leper our bodies are fraught with illness – we are the most addicted, overweight, prescribed adult cohort in human history. These sacred vessels created in God's image are at risk of being subsumed by the quest for the “perfect body.” This dichotomy between our own body and the perfect body - divorce us from our bodies – suppress the beauty that we already are for some ideal or we ignore our bodies because they are loaded with shame

So here's the deal – This leper story is a story about isolation. This man is divorced from his own body, and kicked out of his religious, social and familial support system to battle this disease alone. And to top it off he is isolated from God, in their cultural context, this disease is proof that he has sinned before God and is therefore paying penance for his sins in suffering. So this man is left utterly isolated.

Jesus' miracle here is that he restores this man to his own body. When you have leprosy you lose sensation – you lose your connection to your nerves, which can eventually cause loss of limb. And so when Jesus heals him – he now is restored to his own body. This man is also restored unto his community, and they can now begin tending to the wounds of his soul from the pain of social isolation.

Like the leper we need Jesus to restore us to our own bodies and to restore us to authentic communities that can help us heal.

Why are people cast out in our society because of their bodies? Maybe they are too fat, too thin, too old or too young. Maybe they happen to love the “wrong body.” People are isolated because they are differently-abled, or their bodies carry the weight of illness or chronic struggles. We carry shame around in our bodies, not just eating disorders and a distorted idea of what “healthy” bodies look like but the general feeling that we are unaware of our bodies and our connection to God through them.

When we affirm Jesus' imperfect skin, we also need to affirm our own sacred skin. How does our culture try to divorce us from our own bodies? How do we lose touch with the sacred goodness of each unique body that is created in God's image, with one uniform and oppressive definition of “healthy” and “beautiful?”

Here me now when I say, “you are a person of beauty and worth, created in God's image.” How does that mantra change us? How can we develop rituals to remind ourselves of the sacred connection of our bodies and souls and minds? What does cherishing and affirming your body look like for you? Is it a yoga practice or a sport? A good bath, a long walk? Is it a nap or a morning routine?

Jesus says, “This is my body – broken for you”

Jesus body was broken

Our bodies are broken

And yet we celebrate them today as a place of sacredness – that God calls “GOOD.”

A beautiful miraculous gift – these things that we walk around in

These bodies that heal and breathe and walk and sing and dance

These bodies are our spiritual homes

May we gather in communion today with this mantra

“I am a person of beauty and worth – created in God's image”

And may that mantra heal us and draw us into communion with God and each other.