Monday, August 21, 2017

The love that conquers hate

My mother was from North Carolina and my father from Maine. I have ancestors who fought on each side in the Civil War. I don’t know any details about those who fought for the Union. On the Confederate side, the two of whom I am aware, as much as I might wish that they had become disenchanted with the Confederacy or fought honorably or even suffered from PTSD, instead behaved dishonorably, deserting to escape the monotonous drudgery of life in a military garrison. A couple of generations later, in the 1930s, the KKK threatened my devoutly Christian maternal grandfather for paying his black and white employees equal wages. Somehow, love had begun to erode and then to heal racial differences.
In the first part of today’s gospel reading,[1] Jesus explains that it is not what enters the body that can defile it, but what comes out of the mouth that has the potential to defile. Jesus is answering a question about whether ordinary Jews, mostly peasants, should emulate the Pharisees and practice multiple, daily ritual hand washings. In arid Palestine, those hand washings were widely impractical if not impossible. Jesus seized the opportunity to address the broader question of whether the Pharisees were correct in insisting that Jews observe hundreds of precautionary rules to avoid accidentally violating one of the Torah’s 613 rules.
Jesus’ response is metaphorical, not literal. Even in the first century, people knew that consuming certain substances could be fatal. However, just as obviously we intuitively know that Jesus is right. What goes into the body may cause harm, particularly to self or to one’s relationship with God, but what comes out of the mouth has far greater potential lethality, able to harm not only self but many others. Bullying and verbally abusing family members exemplify this harm. Furthermore, Jesus’ use of the word “mouth” is itself metaphorical. According to the text, Jesus specifically condemns actions such as murder, theft, and adultery.
Today’s gospel set in its historical context provides a vital framework for responding to the recent events surrounding the proposed removal of Robert E. Lee’s statue from the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville.
Lee’s statue is one of more than 700 monuments to the Confederacy in the US. These monuments, unsurprisingly, are mostly located in the states that seceded and adjoining states in which large numbers of Confederate sympathizers lived. Most of these monuments were erected toward the end of the nineteenth century when Civil War veterans were dying and Jim Crow laws were being enacted.[2]
These monuments, allegedly erected to honor Confederate soldiers, actually symbolized resurgent claims of white supremacy. They therefore contribute to perpetuating racial injustice. Prominently displaying such monuments in public spaces morally offends African-Americans, Christ, and all who seek justice.
We cannot erase history. Purging the monuments will not eradicate or transform our tragic national legacy of racism and white supremacism. Trying to ignore that legacy both prevents us from learning from past mistakes and from experiencing healing and reconciliation. When I, as a child, visited Mount Vernon and Monticello, neither site had exhibits on how slaves lived, the essential role that slave labor played in allowing Washington and Jefferson the latitude to pursue American independence, or the evil of slavery. Today, both Mount Vernon and Monticello have such exhibits. Just as it is impossible to rightly understand the gospel apart from its narrative context, it is impossible to rightly understand Civil War and Confederate monuments apart from the full historical context.
Early Christian commentaries tended to gloss over the uniqueness of Jesus’ healing of the Canaanite woman’s daughter found in the second part of today’s gospel reading.[3] Thankfully, most modern commentaries emphasize that when Jesus publicly conversed with the Canaanite woman, he transcended culturally constructed, value-laden distinctions of gender, ethnicity, religion, and nationality. That makes this healing unique. We have come to accept, too often belatedly and painfully, St. Paul’s declaration that God “shows no partiality.”[4] Nationality, ethnicity, race, gender, gender orientation, and religion never alter a person’s inherently equal dignity and worth. We reaffirm our commitment to this belief every time we repeat our Baptismal vows. We do so in the expectation that God’s love can and will heal our divisions.
Sadly, a vocal, aggressive, and growing minority in this nation choose hate instead of love. These individuals and groups seek to bend the arc of history back towards injustice instead of forwards toward reconciliation and justice. Too often, this minority turns violent when their rhetoric and threats fall on deaf ears. Public statements and Tweets by some political leaders inflame and encourage these groups. You can probably name these groups as well as I can: the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, the alt-Right, anti-Semites, etc. The Southern Poverty Law Center counts 125 new such groups since 2014.
Elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel Jesus makes explicit what is implicit in the first part of today’s reading. He said of false prophets, “by their fruit you shall know them.”[5] In stark contrast to words and actions that destroy love and perpetuate hate, Jesus repeatedly exhorted his followers to love their neighbors. Healing the Canaanite woman’s daughter demonstrated love’s power to bring healing across the value-laden, cultural constructs of nationality, gender, ethnicity, and religion. The Buddha connected love as hate’s remedy more directly, saying, "In this world hatred is not dispelled by hatred; by love alone is hatred dispelled. This is an eternal law."[6]
In the hope that God will help us to speak and act with love, bridging divisions, healing brokenness, and establishing justice, our bishop and chief pastor, the Right Reverend Bob Fitzpatrick, has directed that from today until the liturgical year ends on Christ the King Sunday we conclude the Prayers of the People with collects for social justice and global peace. May these be heartfelt prayers that move us to act ever more lovingly and justly; may we join the company of saints in becoming Christ’s beloved community. Amen.
[Sermon preached at St. Clement’s Church, Honolulu, HI, on August 20, 2017]



[1] Matthew 15:10-20.
[2] Kathryn Casteel and Anna Maria Barry-Jester, “There Are Still More Than 700 Confederate Monuments in The U.S.,” FiveThirtyEight, August 16, 2017.
[3] Matthew 15:21-28.
[4] Acts 10:34.
[5] Matthew 7:16.

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