Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
“It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” (Matthew 15:10)
What a week to read this gospel. White supremacist, KKK and Nazi groups shocked America. Emboldened by the words of the President and elected leaders, they gathered in surprising numbers to chant their racist hate-filled slogans and violently confront their so-called enemies. One news commentator had told us to expect. ‘When you blow enough dog whistles you shouldn’t be surprised when the dogs come around.’
Words and intentions matter. They matter to God. It makes a difference to God whether our intention is to hate or to oppose hate. Perhaps what is most sickening about the week’s events is that every hateful word came from the mouth of a child of God.
Hate is like an infectious disease. Whenever we hate, we betray our birthright. We undermine our humanity. We obscure the image of the living God, the imago Dei, in which we were created. Whenever our intention is to degrade, dismiss, deny, or harm another human being we are working at cross purposes with God.
It seems straightforward, but this is an especially tough lesson for us as we become increasingly locked in polarizing political debates. It is a tough lesson for the church considering its historical role in turning a blind eye toward slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration, or in some cases, providing bad theology to undergird it. This is a tough lesson when it feels like the whole country is going to the dogs. The trouble is people on both sides of the debate agree with that statement. Name calling is evidence you and I may be coming down with the hate disease.
Just look at Jesus in our gospel today. In an amazing role reversal, this time, Jesus is the pupil and not the teacher. Jesus called the Canaanite woman a dog. The disciples begged Jesus tell her to go away. He insulted her and said he’s not here for her and her kind. I’m so thankful to Matthew that he includes this story.
It’s not an excuse, but it happened on vacation. For the past three Sundays, we’ve seen Jesus in retreat. After the death of John the Baptist he sailed across the Sea but the people followed him along the shore. After feeding and caring for them, Jesus sent the crowds away and walked up a nearby mountain to pray while the disciples headed out across the Sea of Galilee by boat.
And today we find Jesus 70 miles further north in the district of Tyre and Sidon, cities of Lebanon. He is traveling where no self-respecting Jewish person would go, someplace he expected privacy. He is at least 50 miles north of the border. Perhaps he was searching for a place where he might prepare himself and the disciples for what was coming next in Jerusalem.
Yet even here news of his ministry had spread. He was recognized on sight.
Matthew uses the word “great” 20 times, but only once in connection to faith. Ultimately, Jesus commended this Canaanite woman whom he called a dog for her great faith.
Matthew goes out of his way to tell us she was a Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21-28). The label is strange. In Jesus’ lifetime, nobody was still called a “Canaanite.” It was part of ancient history even then. The region of the Canaanites no longer existed on the map. It would be as if Matthew were calling New York City by its old name New Amsterdam! Matthew calls her a “Canaanite” on purpose: it meant that she is not only an outsider, but she is part of an enemy people.
Love your enemies, Jesus says. Everybody knows that. But it’s never easy, not even for Jesus. Our gospel today challenges us to look beyond artificial boundaries and borders of ethnicity, nation, and creed that naturally divide people into insiders and outsiders –making us feel safe with some people and afraid of others.
Often in scripture, it is the outsider who turns out to be the true insider. One of the defining characteristics of grace is that we are surprised to see it where we found it. Christ is revealed in those whom we are expecting only to serve, and/or among those whom we are prepared to hate.
Over the years, Christians have tried endlessly to soften this story. Jesus was only trying to teach the disciples they say, or Jesus was merely having some fun in verbal sparring, or he wasn’t calling her a bad dog, but a cute cuddly sort of dog. These explanations fall short I think.
This encounter marked the turning point in Jesus’ own consciousness, confronting his limited perception of the wider mission at hand beyond the tribes of Israel, including people of every nation. The Canaanite woman proves she is not only worthy of Jesus’ mercy; in this instance, she is his teacher and preacher. Down through the centuries she offers a timely rebuke to political, racial, and religious divisions. We are reminded, “There’s a wideness in God’s Mercy, like the wideness of the sea” (ELW #588).
Words matter. Whenever religion becomes more about external regulations and observances it is going down the wrong road. Jesus’ iconoclastic teaching canceled out all the food laws of the Old Testament. It set people of faith on a new footing with God and each other. There is only one rule, the Golden Rule, love our neighbors as ourselves. In Christ, we are called to love even our enemies and pray for them.
If any rule, no matter how pious sounding, leads you to violate the Golden Rule then break that rule. If exclusion becomes the rule –break the rule. If ‘I win and you lose’ is the rule—break that rule. If the rule is ‘need more to be more’ –break that rule. If white supremacy is the rule –break that rule.
Jesus commandment moves us beyond believing the faith as a way to the afterlife to practicing the faith in ways that make a difference in the here and now. Let love happen. You don’t even have to be good at it—just try.
While the world swirls around us there are always people, places, and opportunities to let love happen in answer. Later today there will be a short 30 minute Memorial service for a man named Aaron at our ECT sister congregation, Unity Lutheran Church.
Aaron was a 19 year old who happened by on Tuesday August 8th, interacted with other youth participants of a summer program run by RefugeeONE, and later committed suicide on the Unity front lawn. No one knew Aaron from RefugeeONE, from Unity, or the neighborhood. Neither he, or his family, have so far been identified. He left nothing but a few notes in his pocket and a chalk-drawing on the sidewalk of a cross, the Star of David, and a crescent moon—the three symbols of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Pastor Fred and friends at Unity will offer prayers, scripture readings, and sing hymns to remember his life before God. One or two mental health social workers will offer thoughts on suicide prevention and overcoming stigma.
“In Christ,” Paul writes, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) Christians are radical egalitarians when it comes to the inclusive love of God. We are all equidistant from the heart of God—including our friends, our enemies, and the strangers among us who just happen by. In every case our call is the same. Let love happen. It’s hard for us to keep an open mind toward strangers about whom we’re afraid. But Jesus has shown the way. He showed us he could be changed. Can we?