“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