(Genesis 45: 1-15; Matthew 15: 21-28)
I try to imagine myself in his shoes, in her shoes, and if I’m honest, I really don’t know that I could have done what either of them did.
I don’t know that I could’ve stood up for myself as someone seeking healing and wholeness, instead receiving a cold shoulder and condescending comment. If I were the Canaanite woman in the passage Eric read earlier, I probably would’ve just walked away, resigned that no one really cared about my struggles. I seriously doubt I would’ve pushed back, turned his words on himself, showed in a non-threatening, persistent manner that neither I nor my request for my daughter’s healing were going anywhere anytime soon.
And I don’t know that I would’ve wrestled with things as much as Joseph did. The pain from all those years ago; the pain of being abandoned by my own brothers, mad with jealousy, selling me into slavery and passing me off for dead….. If I were Joseph, I think that pain would’ve won out; and the minute they showed up on my doorstep seeking relief from the famine back home, I would’ve revealed myself then, oh yes; but revealed in anger and rage and fury, not reconciliation and forgiveness, and certainly not passing it off as some “you meant this for harm / God meant it for good” thing.
Emotions are running high in these stories today – the woman is at wit’s end. The disciples are irritated, annoyed. Jesus – well, Jesus is acting mighty strange for Jesus here. “Indifferent at best, uncaring at worst,” is how one commentator puts it. Joseph’s brothers are hungry and anxious.
And Joseph? Well, he’s an emotional wreck. He’s known for a while his brothers have come to him, not recognizing him; and he’s done some strange things because of it. Like accusing them of being spies, or planting his own silver cup in one of their food bags to make it look like they stole it. He is torn – torn between his long desire to reunite with his family, and the very understandable human reaction of anger, hate, vengeance. He’s an emotional wreck.
Jill Duffield, editor of the Presbyterian Outlook, says about these scriptures: “We’ve got grief, anger, relief, frustration, love, fear – the roiling gamut of human feelings are woven into these stories, and I find this messy display a relief. God utilizes our whole selves, our whole lives, all our complex feelings and relationships to make manifest divine truth and will.”
That divine truth and will plays out in both instances, does it not? The woman persists. Joseph reveals himself in compassion and grace. So what exactly is it that enables and empowers the Canaanite women and Josephs of the world to choose, as the apostle Paul once said, “a more excellent way?”
That is what our lectionary texts today, I think, seek to lay before us. That is what they pose to you and me; people who, like her, are looking for healing and wholeness. People who, like him, are faced with confronting the pain of the past in order to move into the hope of the future. What they did, did not just happen; it was active, not passive; it was intentional and in some cases agonized over.
What they chose to do is love. The hardest kind of love.
See, sometimes love is easy, right? Sometimes it comes naturally. I’m home sitting on my couch, and my dog Rocky jumps up beside me – he’s allowed to do this in the Lindsley home – he jumps up beside me and puts his head in my lap. I love Rocky, and I don’t have to think twice about it. A dear friend hugs me and tells me they love me, and I say it right back to them without even thinking, because I mean it and it’s easy.
But there are times when love is a chore, when it is burdensome, even. There are times when love goes against every grain in our body, every instinct we have, every rationalization we can conjure. And oftentimes it happens to be the very time our love is needed most. That is when love is hard work; hard, hard work that requires of us things like intentionality, fortitude, humility, forgiveness and letting go. That is when choosing to love is at its most difficult.
Because there are many things that work against us when it comes to choosing love. Hate is obviously one of them. Hate keeps us from being our full loving selves. But hate, I would submit to you, is not the root of it. For hate is a reaction, an act. Hate is what Joseph could have unleashed on his brothers – imprisonment, retaliation, whatever. Hate is what the woman could’ve succumbed to, had she walked away, given in, not stood up for herself.
But hate is not the source. It’s the fire, not the spark. That spark is something else. The spark, my friends, is fear.
So let’s talk about fear, shall we?
Let’s talk about fear, even though I know Grace spoke eloquently about it in her sermon last week. Let’s talk about fear, because these are fear-filled times we are living in, and a double-up is probably not a bad idea.
Let’s talk about fear, because what happened in Charlottesville last weekend, and the aftermath of the days that followed, had fear written all over it. Our inclination is to say that hate was the driving force of it all, what drove the white supremacists to gather and violence to fester. Hate is what led to the death of Heather Heyer, who was fond of saying, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” Hate is what you and I saw in full display on our television screens and social media feeds.
But it was more than hate. Deeper than hate. Listen to what Jeffrey Pugh, Professor of Religious Studies at Elon University and part of the peaceful clergy presence in Charlottesville, listen to what he said he saw that day:
It was hard to see at first, but if you looked deeply past the swaggering, strutting, smirking and smug arrogance, the fear was visible in their eyes. I’m not even sure they were aware of it, but it was there buried in their shouted slogans, angry and distorted faces. Fear is what possessed them to have so much artillery, so many guns, so many other explosives in their vests. Fear creates such chaos in our hearts that we desire to draw others into it because no one wants to live in that space alone. Fear is a parasite that feeds on itself.
Friends, think through this with me a bit, but what if all the consternation and conflict in our world today – hatred, violence, white supremacy, terrorism both domestic and foreign, nuclear threat, the list goes on and on – what if all can be stripped back like layers of an onion to reveal nothing more than fear? What if fear is the common denominator of it all? And if that’s the case, then it begs an important question from us people of faith: what do we do about this fear?
In the movie “The Replacements,” actor Gene Hackman plays a professional football coach. The real players are on strike, so the roster is stacked with “replacement players,” in essence, the ones who weren’t good enough to make the team the first time. They haven’t won a game all season, and Hackman is starting to realize that their problems go beyond simple X’s and O’s.
So in a team meeting he asks them, what are you afraid of? Players throw out expected answers: spiders, heights, the dark. No, no no, I’m not talking about that, he says. What are you afraid of? A silence follows, and then one player steps up and says, Not being good enough. Another nods his head and adds, Losing my job once the players break strike. Someone else pipes up, Getting injured. Heads around the room go up and down as they begin acknowledging their shared fears.
What are you afraid of, people of God? In your lives, in the life of the church, our country, our world right now? What are the things that keep you up at night, that weigh heavy on your soul; what fears keep you from doing the hard work of love?
What do you think they were afraid of, are afraid of? Those who gathered last weekend to proclaim their white supremacy in a quaint Virginia town, to spew an ideology that is absolutely antithetical to everything Jesus lived and died for; that has no place in the church or this country or this world? Might their fears have been exposed in the slogan they bellowed in deep, dark voices; that one about how they would not be replaced?
Think about those words, y’all. There is fear in there – do you hear it? And it is more than the fear of someone who is black or Jewish or not of “white ethnicity.” No, the fear in that slogan, in that whole perverted ideology, is the fear of loss, the fear of being irrelevant, the fear of not mattering anymore. Even deeper, it is the fear, as Buddhist poet and peace activist Thich Naht Hahn explains, the fear of death itself, and ultimately of being nothing at all
Now that fear is a fear we all have at some level, whether we care to admit it or not. But when that fear takes over the human heart, to the extent it did in those young men marching the Charlottesville streets, it is irrational. It is repugnant. It is also unsustainable. A news report I saw this past week; the anchor interviewed a former member of a white supremacist group. What was it, the anchor asked, that caused you to leave the group? His answer might surprise you: he said, exhaustion. Exhaustion! He said people in white supremacist circles are exhausted people; that they typically only last three to five years in the group, because it takes so much energy to live in and maintain that level of fear.
And what brought you out of that exhaustion, the anchor asked. You want to guess what his response was? Love. He said love is what brought him out of his fear; love is what led him to start a recovery group that helps former members of hate groups readjust into the society they once railed against. Love.
I’ve always been drawn to the way the apostle Paul talks about love in his letter to the Colossians, and I’m particularly fond of The Message translation. Listen:
So, chosen by God for this new life, Paul says, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it.
Wear love. It sound strange, I know; we’re not used to thinking of love as something we put on, something we choose as if it’s a piece of clothing we grab out of the closet. We think love is supposed to come automatically as followers of Christ. But the truth is that love takes effort, intentionality, discipline, courage. Love involves action, motion, a reorientation. As Frederick Buechner said, Turn away from madness, cruelty, shallowness, blindness. Turn toward that tolerance, compassion, sanity, hope, and justice that we all have in us at our best. Turn away from fear, because it is exhausting. Turn to love, because that’s where life is.
You and I, we have lots of questions to ask ourselves in the coming days, weeks, months, years. How do we wear love in a world full of fear? What do we “turn away from” and “turn to?” What inner consternation might we undergo, as Joseph did, when we give ourselves over to love; what confessions about our biases and positions of privilege do we need to make in order to see fully and love completely? And what ways are we called upon, right now, to stand up and speak out, as the Canaanite woman did, so that those in positions of power, as the song goes, may know we are Christians by our love?
Because the truth of the gospel we proclaim and live, my friends, is that fear cannot stand to look into in the face of love. It can’t stand it, because it’s tired, so tired, behind all the raging hate and anger and hurt, it is tired. And it knows it. And we know it, thanks to stories like the one Lisa Sharon Harper shared. Lisa went to Charlottesville as part of that peaceful clergy presence last weekend, walked right into that fearful scene, as she put it, “just holding on to the call to love.” Choosing to wear love that day, hard as that was.
At one point, she and dozens of clergy from around the country stood for hours in front of a line of white supremacists who were wearing helmets and bulletproof vests and armed with guns. Those pastors spoke words of peace and love to those men, sang hymns to them. The men, in turn, stood stoic in their silence, having been firmly instructed by their leaders not to say a word to the press or protesters.
And when it came time for her group to leave to avoid the increasing violence happening, Lisa looked at the man directly across from her and spoke to him one last time, saying: I just want you to know, we love you.” And in that moment, the man’s face, grizzled and exhausted from the day, suddenly softened. And he replied: I love you, too.
Fear wilts in the presence of love. And so our calling is clear; to wear love in these trying times, to put our love on full display – no matter how uncomfortable it makes us, no matter the emotional roller coaster it takes us on, no matter how tempting it is to look the other way or stay comfortable in the privilege we possess.
For the sake of the gospel, for our country, for the church, for our own sake, God; help us do the hard work of wearing love. So that they will know we are Christians by our love. Indeed, it is all that easy. And it is all that hard.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 From his Facebook post made a couple of days after the Charlottesville event.
 From Fear: Essential Wisdom For Getting Through The Storm by Thich Nhat Hanh (HarperOne: 2012).
 From Secrets In The Dark: A Life In Sermons by Frederick Buechner.
 https://thinkprogress.org/clergy-in-charlottesville-e95752415c3e/amp/, visited on 8.17.2017.