Matthew 15:21-28, Genesis 45:1-15
It’s been a week of news – news about hate and the violence it engenders. In our own country, we’re confronted by groups that have embraced hate – sometimes with a sickening coating of Christian justification. We have found that the ills of the past are not dead and gone. Anti-semitism and racial hatred have claimed our attention. Our leaders are, too often, tentative in their response, concerned about their political base more than the morality of the rhetoric. Not only the news from our own nation, but international events have reminded us of the power of hate as a van careened down a pedestrian mall.
“Love the sinner, hate the sin.” That Christian assertion has become prominent. It is used as a way of responding to the clash of lifestyles, opinions and cultures that always threaten to tear us asunder. “Love the sinner, hate the sin.”
I suppose if we were perfect human beings this lofty advice might work. But we’re not. That word “hate” looms large. It’s full of emotion and anger. How can we be trusted to separate that hate from the person we see as culpable? We can’t! We can’t!
How many people are hurt or even destroyed by loved ones who claim they are hating the sin, but loving the person? “I’m doing this because I love you,” abusers often proclaim. Or, the phrase “love the sinner, hate the sin” is used as an excuse to have no relationship with the “sinner” at all. The hate of the “sin” is so extreme, that there can be no real relationship with the “sinner” at all. Does that not mean that the hate has come to include the person as well?
Sandlin wrote, “The problem I have with this one is the comma. It should be a period.” So, our cliché should be “love the sinner.” Except, Sandlin went on. “After further thought, I have a problem with the comma, everything that comes after it and ‘the sinner.’ Who am I (and who are you) to be deciding for someone else what is getting between them ad God? I’m all for doing it in regard to our own lives, but in someone else’s life? Hands off. Who do we think we are? God?”
This morning’s gospel story follows a discussion that Jesus had with the Pharisees and scribes about honoring tradition. The Pharisees and scribes were upset because Jesus’ disciples ate without following the washing rituals. Jesus noted their desire to keep the tradition, the laws and rituals that gave structure to their lives. But, he also noted that sometimes those very traditions were used in ways that allowed them to mistreat others. The commandment to honor one’s father and mother was broken in order to adhere to a commandment to give offerings to God. He went on to speak of what defiles a person – and it was not the rule breaking that the Pharisees and scribes would generally note. “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.”
“What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart.” Are these not timely words for us? We have seen the destruction that is generated by the words of hate – words spoken on a large scale. Perhaps we can learn from the chaos and the pain how important our own speech is. What do people hear from us?
This discussion is followed by the encounter that was our lesson for this morning, Jesus’ interaction with the Canaanite woman. It is, for our ears, a strange encounter. A woman came seeking help. At first, Jesus didn’t even interact with her. She was female – and she was an outsider. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” When she persisted he responded more harshly. (And his words are genuinely harsh.) “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
His words are close to hate speech. He is telling her – in front of his disciples – that she doesn’t matter. She doesn’t count. She isn’t worth anything – especially his time, attention, and help. We might cringe. Yet, how often does the church, how often do God’s people, see those outside as not worthy of our time, attention, and help?
Now, we could spend a lot of time asking why Jesus responded in such a way, so seemingly out of character. I think I will take it as an invitation to see ourselves in him, to acknowledge our willingness to “hate the sin” of others so much that we dismiss them or ignore them – even when we might declare, righteously, that we actually do love them!
The Canaanite woman challenged Jesus, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Picture her, desperate for help for her child. Perhaps she stood, finding within herself a dignity that her own culture and that Jesus’ culture did not extend. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” She would be seen. She would be heard. She would be acknowledged.
And, he acknowledged her. ‘“Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.’ Jesus, I’m sure, did not hate that woman. But, by his tradition he had been schooled to “hate her sin.” And that hate distanced Jesus from her.
Sandlin concluded his little reflection on this cliché saying, “Now that I think about it, the problem I have with this one is that there’s not a period after love. Love. Period.”
That’s a wonderful statement. But, as we know in Christian history and in modern times it’s easier to speak of love than to act loving. How do we face the hatred that erupts in our world? The debates are raging. We know, after the events in Charlottesville, that there is always a temptation to speak of love but react with violence. There are those who see the threat embodied in today’s hate groups and tell us that the only way that we can effectively counter their message is to take up our own arms. It is true that some of the pictures coming out of Charlottesville last week show us armed combatants on both sides. The armed resistance proclaimed that the only way to combat force was/is with force.
How do we love in the face of hate? How do we love those who hate?
In Charlottesville, there were those who came in silence – as a testimony against spewed hate. They came. They did not engage so as not to fuel the flames. Many see such a response as weak. It appears powerless in the face of hate. But, let us remember the one who set the example for us, Jesus the Christ.
For those caught up in the chaos that led to the cross, Jesus’ way appeared weak. He would not fight back. He would not endorse the sword or active resistance. He may not have been fully mute, but he also did not actively resist the hate and fear. The cross seems to be a symbol of violence’s power to silence those who resist. It seems to say that hate triumphs over love. Love appears to be weak when it refuses to join the violent battles that pit human beings against each other. Love appears weak when its primary proponent is crucified.
Love Wins is a book by Rob Bell that came out some years ago. He, a successful mega-church pastor, wrote about love being the central call to us as God’s people – without all those careful limitations we put on it, such as “love the sinner, hate the sin.” It was a well-received book. Yet, his church rejected him. He lost his job. Love wins as a philosophy seemed too weak.
Love wins when we recognize the cost and are willing to pay it. Part of the cost is our own willingness to risk the world’s violence and hatred – to risk being victims, to risk being labeled or derided or victimized. Susan Bro, Heather Heyer’s mother, said her daughter recognized the risk in going to join the protesters last week. She added that Heather’s death is a reminder that we need to pay attention, we need to speak up and out in the face of hatred.
Again, lofty words. How do we love in the face of hate?
I read a wonderful story on Facebook this week. It was the story of how one black man is standing up to hate –especially the hate professed by members of the Klu Klux Klan. “In his spare time, he [Blues musician Daryl Davis] befriends white supremacists. Lots of them. Hundreds. He goes to where they live. Meets them at their rallies. Dines with them in their homes. He gets to know them because, in his words, ‘How can you hate me when you don't even know me? Look at me and tell me to my face why you should lynch me.’”
I hear echoes of the story of the Canaanite woman who stated her case before Jesus. The article goes on to say, “Davis, a Christian, has met with white supremacists for three decades. He never tries to convert the Klansmen. He simply becomes friends with them and they give up the KKK on their own. According to an interview with The Independent, Davis is ‘happy’ to be friends with former Klansmen:
It’s a wonderful thing when you see a light bulb pop on in their heads or they call you and tell you they are quitting. I never set out to convert anyone in the Klan. I just set out to get an answer to my question: ‘How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?’ I simply gave them a chance to get to know me and treat them the way I want to be treated.
They come to their own conclusion that this ideology is no longer for them.
I am often the impetus for coming to that conclusion and I’m very happy that some positivity has come out of my meetings and friendships with them.
Love. Period. Did Davis take risks? Yes. He takes risks in approaching those who have professed hatred. And his risk taking has been condemned by many in the Black community. So that, too, is a risk. Many Africa American leaders have critiqued him for being willing to reach out to those who have demeaned them.
“Love the sinner, hate the sin.” That cliché is too easy. It allows us to qualify our love. “Love. Period.” It sounds easier – but it demands our all. It asks us to be vulnerable to hate and its outcry. It asks us to take risks – the risk of rejection and, yes, even the risk of death. It is the way of the cross. Yet, the way of the cross holds promise – the promise that even the world’s worst violence cannot separate us from God.
Susan Bro said at her daughter’s funeral, “They tried to kill my child to shut her up. Well, guess what, you just magnified her….Say to yourself, ‘What can I do to make a difference? and that’s how you’re going to make my child’s death worthwhile…. I’d rather have my child, but by golly, if I gotta give her up, we’re gonna make it count. This is just the beginning of Heather’s legacy.”