A sermon preached by the Rev Linda S Harrison
Prop 15-Ord 20; August 20, 2017
Isaiah 56.1, 6-8; Psalm 67; Romans 11.1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15.10-28
Three years ago this Sunday, when the these were the appointed texts, we were reeling from the death of Michael Brown and the ensuing unrest of Ferguson, MO. We were talking about the militarization of our police force, white privilege, and systemic racism.
This year, we have the immediate aftermath of a white supremacist march in Charlottesville, VA, and the death and injuries at the hands of a self-described white supremacist using a car as a lethal weapon.
We’ve had so many violent incidents stemming from fear and hate and division between the murders of Michael Brown and Heather Heyer. Too many to recount.
As a nation, and a congregation, some of us are weary, some of us are resigned, some of us are enraged, some of us are disgusted, some of us are numb.
What we cannot be, what we must not be, is hateful ourselves. The prophet Isaiah exhorts us to maintain justice and do what is right. And what is justice? We’ve heard justice language so much from the prophets and from Jesus. But what exactly is justice?
Cornel West reminds us that justice is what love looks like in public. That means justice is respect for the dignity of every human being as creatures of the same God. That means justice recognizes the innate and inherent worth of each individual as a human being. That means justice will not tolerate name calling, shaming, spreading false rumors or lies. That means acts of justice are neither reactionary nor vengeful. That means justice is hard work, but it is the work we are called to do as followers of Jesus.
Jesus’ teaching is clear – there is no alternative interpretation: what comes out of the mouth has the potential to defile. What we speak, and how we act, is rooted in how we truly feel, or as Jesus says, what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart. Is what comes from the mouth informed by evil intentions? Is it false witness, slander, name calling, shaming, blaming, dehumanizing?
Justice is what love looks like in public. Justice, then, is not rooted in a heart set on evil intentions. It does not bear false witness; it does not name call, or shame.
Justice does call out injustice. And to call out injustice while remaining true to love is a very difficult line to walk. We will do it imperfectly – and do it we must.
When Jesus encounters the Canaanite woman, he does in fact call her a name. He calls her by one of the more heinous racial slurs of his time: dog. I have been accused of blasphemy for that remark, yet I stand by it – let’s not launder the meaning: Jesus called her a dog – not a cute puppy – and the prominent image of dogs at that time was that of scavenger. Was there evil in Jesus’ heart? I do not think so. Was there hurt and frustration and pain for his people? Very likely. Jesus calls out injustice and does so imperfectly. He was, in a very harsh way, calling out the injustice of the oppression this wealthy woman participated in by virtue of her ethnicity.
In case you don’t remember a sermon from three years ago, the author of Matthew mentions the region from which the woman comes. This little detail points to a possible subtext of the story. The Canaanite woman, a gentile, was probably a member of the landed classes. She was likely a wealthy woman who benefited from and took part in the oppressive system that kept Jewish peasantry subjugated. The “lost sheep of Israel” to whom Jesus refers need not be, as traditionally interpreted, sinners or the unrighteous among the Chosen People. The “lost sheep” just might be the poor and destitute Jewish peasants off whose backs this woman, her family, and her community lived.
Jesus called out injustice, and did so in a way that I would not condone. Name-calling and shaming, in real life, often shut down dialogue before it has a chance to begin – it is not what love looks like in public. It does, however, make for a dramatic and effective story here. The wealthy woman owns the label, sees her role in the exploitation of a people, humbles herself, and claims but a scrap of God’s mercy. The exchange changes Jesus’ perspective as well and opens his heart to a wider mission in the world. Jesus sees her common humanity and her pain. She demonstrated that even gentile oppressors are capable of a change of heart and repentance, so that Jesus also changed his heart.
Dialogue leads to love in the public sphere.
White supremacists groups and nazis are planning more marches and demonstrations around the country. The ideology and tactics of these groups is to shame, blame, and dehumanize populations and groups of people that they fear – and let’s be very clear, at the heart of the matter, these groups are fueled by the fear of a perceived loss of power and control. — BTW, I commend to all of you the work of Brené Brown and her work on fear and shame from which I am heavily relying upon for this sermon. — A very short summary of her work: one of the paths fear can take us down is when we feel fear it makes us feel ashamed. Both fear and shame are unpleasant feelings that foster a sense of worthlessness. We turn the fear and shame into anger in an attempt to negate the feelings of worthlessness. Anger needs a focus, so sometimes we find an external scapegoat for the anger, which is furthered focused into hate against the one who is scapegoated and we lash out in violence against the scapegoated – either verbally by shaming and dehumanizing or physically or both.
Brown asserts that human beings are not hard-wired to hurt another human being. Dehumanizing a person or a segment of the population — denying them their basic humanity — opens the way for violence against the ones who are now viewed as less than human.
So my point, while calling out the injustice of nazi groups, we must be careful not to fall into the same trap of shaming and dehumanizing. As Brown so succinctly said in a recent live Facebook interaction, “Call out the bullshit, but be civil.” Dehumanizing an entire class of people based on skin color is what has gotten us here in the first place. Jesus is clear: what comes from the heart has the potential to defile — in other words, it is sinful because it breaks relationships. Shaming is not a tool of justice — as Brown says, it is emotional off-loading. We can, and should, hold white supremacists accountable for their actions and their violent and hateful rhetoric. That is the work of justice, to call out injustice. Holding others accountable is more difficult than shaming and it takes much more energy and focus. To refrain from publicly shaming, sorry to say, is now counter-cultural. Shaming has become the norm and it makes our society a very dangerous place because all factions have dehumanized each other which can too easily lead to mass violence.
And once again, I remind you, following Jesus is not easy. In the midst of living the Jesus love ethic, we have to take time for ourselves, nurturing our souls in prayer and contemplation, in worship and singing, in the partaking of the spiritual feast where we are weekly fed with the mercy, grace, compassion, and love abounding of our awesome God. We look to the cross and the empty tomb through which we gain strength and encouragement in the knowledge that dehumanization, violence, and death are not the last words.
The last word is God’s; the last word is Love.
Blessed be God forever. Amen.