by The Rev. Lisa Caine
The following is the sermon delivered by Pastor Lisa Caine for the Dec. 8 service. The focus scripture is Romans 15:4-13.
It was Flannery O’Connor who said “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.” One of the ways we define ourselves as Christians is to confess we are people who have been awed by the love and grace of God and have not been the same since. We do things differently. When you get down to it, when we are at our best, we are just a bit odd. When we are at our best, we try to bring peace to conflicted situations, we share love even with those who don’t like us, we offer joy to the sorrowful, and hope to the discouraged, all the while realizing that ours is often a minority voice. The voices of conflict, hatred, sorrow, and despair can seem so much louder and more prevalent than the quieter voices of peace, love, joy, and hope.
This past week we were reminded of a voice of love and peace that was not destroyed by hatred and conflict, although for 27 years it was silenced in a prison cell. Nelson Mandela died on Friday. Did you know his mother was a Methodist and he was baptized in the Methodist church? In the face of the cruelty and hatred of apartheid in South Africa he became the pre-eminent voice for freedom and equality. In his early years he did not rule out returning violence with violence, hatred with hatred. He despaired that because the violence leveled at black south Africans was so intense and so overwhelming, non-violence, turning the other cheek seemed to lead only to greater brutality, defeat and death. What else was there to do but fight fire with fire?
However, in his 27 years of imprisonment he had a lot of time to think about things, and he had a choice to make. He could feed his hate; he could become bitter; he could plot revenge. Or he could change himself. He could forgive his enemies, and he could learn to love them. I am sure you have read many of the powerful statements he made over his lifetime, but the one that struck me this week is his affirmation that “no one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
When I read that statement, I was reminded of the lyrics from the Rogers and Hammerstein song “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” from the musical “South Pacific.” It is hard to believe today, but at the time it was written in 1949, it was thought to be terribly controversial, and wouldn’t you know it – a bill was introduced in the Georgia Legislature outlawing entertainment containing “an underlying philosophy inspired by Moscow,” and a lawmaker stated his concern that such lyrics could justify interracial marriage and thereby undermine the American Way of Life.[i] These are the lyrics to this Marxist song that threatened our country’s foundations:
You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught from year to year,
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid,
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six, or seven, or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate.
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
Mandela was right; Rogers and Hammerstein were right: You have to be taught to hate and fear. Jesus knew that when he said to his disciples, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” And then he added, “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44)
It is this teaching of Jesus that makes us a bit odd. We not only are called to love one another, but reminded that we can’t save our love, affection, concern, compassion, or care for those just like us – family and friends who agree with us, who hold the same values or viewpoints that we do, who speak the same language, or share the same religion, ethnicity, or nationality, or come from the same economic class. Our love must extend to those most unlike us – the stranger, the outsider, those with whom we disagree and have nothing in common, even to our enemies who truly hate us. We are to love them.
This kind of love Martin Luther King, Jr. said is not sentimental or affectionate emotion; this kind of love means love means understanding and redemptive good will.[ii] It means holding positive, life-affirming thoughts about our enemies. We are to pray for them, not that God will smite them dead, or convince them of how wrong they are and how right we are, but that God will bless them and care for them as God blesses and cares for us.
That’s a tall order since those who are carefully teaching hatred have so successfully justified it over the years, legitimating it as being in the service of something noble and good – God, truth, morality and values, country. We are taught to hate or fear those not like ourselves. When hatred and fear are connected to religion or to patriotism, guilt is never a problem because our violence is always necessary and good and redemptive, while the “other’s” violence is always bad and evil and destructive.[iii] Richard Rohr has noted that hate, “ is always sure of itself.” It has a sense of certainty and clarity, with no self-doubts, no self-criticism, and little patience with those who have questions.[iv]
As in 1949 America, or in mid to late-century South Africa, fear and hate become deeply entrenched, become ways of life, and exclusionary systems are put in place to institutionalize and legitimate them. And it is still so today. We are still struggling with the desire to legitimate and institutionalize our prejudices against those perceived to be different. Look at the Congress fighting over how to resolve issues concerning undocumented immigrants, the poor, the hungry, and work equality for the LGBTQ community.
Just as hatred is carefully taught, so love also must be carefully taught. The early Christians were set apart by their faith, and by their sense of having been touched by the love of God in the person of Jesus; he was their model to strive for and to be like. And people would remark “See how they love one another.”[v] But, maintaining that level of love and acceptance day in and day out is difficult to do. Thus, many of Paul’s letters include teachings about love. Writing to the Romans, he teaches and admonishes them to “welcome one another, just as Christ has welcomed you.” In other words, “give yourselves to others; make space for them, make no judgments about them, readjust your identity to make room for them.”[vi] In First Corinthians, he tells them “Love is patient, love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth” (vv. 4-6). In Galatians, he reminds them “do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (5:13b-14). In Colossians we read, “Above all, clothe yourselves with love which binds everything together in harmony” (3:14).
This love that Paul talks about has to be carefully taught because love can be easily confused with self-interest or neediness. We have to be taught to love others for their sakes not for our own, whether they are friend or enemy. I think this can be difficult teaching for those of us in the powerful majority to understand and to practice. It can be more clearly seen in the love of the vulnerable, the minority, the person in a position of weakness, whose love can redeem the seemingly invulnerable and powerful person. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote about how much the white person needed the love of the black person because of the distortions created by segregation and the soul-scarring that it caused. He encouraged his listeners to love the white person because “he needs the love of the Negro . . . the white man needs his love to remove his tensions, insecurities, and fears.”[vii]
We can see that same kind of love, the love of the excluded for the excluder, in our own church today. Although many gay and lesbian people are leaving the church because of its stance on marriage and ordination, there are those who stay, those who live lives of love just like the love that Jesus demonstrated and that Paul taught about, and in so doing are witnessing to us in the majority. Some of us heard our friend Leland Spencer last June when he preached at the Reconciling Ministries Network worship service. In his remarks he explained why he stays in the church this way:
I am often asked why I remain in the United Methodist Church, and my answer is long and complex, but it always includes a reflection on my baptism. I believe we get a glimpse of the church at its best when we baptize an infant, marking her or him for inclusion in the beloved community of God. I stay because the power of that sacrament is stronger than the Book of Discipline. I stay because I saw the church at its best when I grew up in a congregation that took seriously the vows it made at my baptism. I stay because week by week, babies are baptized in United Methodist Churches all around the world, and some day, about a tenth of those babies will grow up and identity as LGBTQ, and they may also feel called to ministry in the church that baptized them and nurtured them, or perhaps desire to get married by their pastors and in their churches. Now that will hold true whether folks like us stay in the church or whether we go elsewhere, so isn’t it better for those babies if we stay? Indeed, I stay for those babies, and I stay because at my confirmation my pastor invited me to touch water and remember my baptism, and then I made a vow to accept the freedom and power God gives me to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. I didn’t know then that the church itself would be one of those forms. But I know it doesn’t have to. I have seen the church at its best, so I can’t give up on the church at its worst.[viii]
I think this kind of love shown by Leland and others who choose to stay and witness, will ultimately be the cause of change in our church.
The kind of love we are to be taught and then carefully teach others is an active, creative, welcoming, community-building kind of love, founded on grace, and full of compassion and forgiveness. It is a love that includes, rather than excludes; that is open to change and shares power; it grows through peace and patience, trust in God and in one another.
I am so glad that we have this place to come where we can learn together and be reminded over and over again what it means to love one another and the world. I am glad for famous examples like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr. whose trust in the power of love changed governments. And, I am glad for friends like Leland whose patient loving witness to the church will change us as well. I am glad that our children are being carefully taught by Sunday School teachers, like those who led us earlier in lighting the Advent candle of love, who love God and who love the children, and share that love every Sunday in their classrooms. Surely our children must be carefully taught by their teachers, by their parents, and by all of us – not so that they can be toughened up and hardened against the darkness of the world, but to make them bearers of light of the light of love to dispel the darkness. May it be so. Amen.
[i] “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught,” Wikipedia, quoting author Andrea Most “The Politics of Rogers and Hammerstein’s ‘South Pacific,’” Theater Journal, 52, iii, Oct 2000, 306.
[ii] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Antidotes to Fear,” A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., 1986, 519.
[iii] Richard Rohr, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, 2007, 135.
[iv] Rohr, 136.
[v] Bruce Bower, Stealing Jesus, 1997, 53-54.
[vi] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation,1996, 29.
[vii] King, 519.
[viii] Leland Spencer, “Bridge to Everywhere,” June 12, 2013