Sunday, August 17, 2014

I Wonder What Your Verse Will Be?

Joseph and his Brothers - Dore

I was all set to offer an extended commentary on the Joseph narrative in Genesis today, but my preparations were interrupted by the news of the tragic deaths of Michael Brown and Robin Williams.   Both of these deaths have affected me deeply, as they have so many of you.  Both of these deaths underscore the fragility of life, its giftedness, beauty and promise; and the violence and despair eating at the heart of our culture.   And both of these deaths challenge us to mine the resources of our faith tradition to find the strength and wisdom to respond in ways that promote healing.

Robin Williams felt like a neighbor, and he was to those of us who live in San Francisco and Marin.  We saw him around town, as well as in the movies.  We celebrate him as probably the world’s most famous Episcopalian.  He was raised in our tradition and proudly, and humorously, claimed it as his own.  He was one of us by virtue of geography, of faith, and, most importantly, by virtue of our shared humanity.

Robin Williams was human.  His humanity was revealed in his artistic brilliance, his deep commitment to justice, and the way he offered himself so generously.  Life is a gift and he made of his life a gift to others.  His humanity was also revealed in his sensitivity to the shadow side of life, and his struggle to enfold the darkness into that light which the darkness cannot overcome.

Like so many creative souls, Robin Williams lived with depression and alcoholism.  This, too, makes him very human and very accessible to us.  At least a third of us live with mental illness or addiction or both.  We know what that is like.  We were rooting for you Robin.  You reflected so many of our own struggles, so many of our own hopes and dreams.  That is why it is so hard to lose you. Not because you were so talented – although you were – but because you were so much like us.

In one of Williams many outstanding film roles, as English teacher John Keating in The Dead Poets Society, he quotes Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass:

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?

That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

And then Keating asks his students, “I wonder what your verse will be?”

In the midst of so much suffering and injustice, so much that seems futile and worthless, there is life.  We are here; and we can contribute.  Our grief over Robin Williams is that he, like all too many people, did not live to enjoy more fully the unique and irreplaceable beauty of the verse he contributed.   The play goes on without him, but, oh, what a part he played!

It isn’t that he didn’t know the worth of his life.  The fact that he gave so much to the world, worked so hard, persevered so long in the face of profound inner pain testifies eloquently to the value he placed on life – all of life – including his own.  Most days he more than managed in spite of it all.  Just because he eventually succumbed to his disease, does not mean that his last day should become the lens through which we judge all the rest.

Beloved sisters and brothers: know your worth, contribute the verse that only you can contribute.  We need you, like we needed Robin, to make us more fully human, more fully whole.  If you are living with addiction or mental illness, you are not alone.  Get the help you need and understand that you are not your disease; you have a disease.  You are a beloved child of God.  Don’t despair.  God is not done with you yet – and neither are we. 

If Robin Williams’ suicide broke my heart, Michael Brown’s death makes me angry.  There is nothing that this 18 year-old did, or could have done under the circumstances, that justified his being killed by a police officer in the middle of a sunny, Saturday afternoon in a St. Louis suburb.  As Amy Davidson noted, writing in The New Yorker,

"It cannot, or must not, be easier for the police to shoot at an eighteen-year-old who is running—away from the officer, not toward him—with his empty hands showing, than to chase him, drive after him, do anything other than kill him. Teen-agers may not always be prudent; there is no death penalty for that, or shouldn’t be. Michael Brown was black and tall; was it his body that the police officer thought was dangerous enough? Perhaps it was enough for the officer that he lived on a certain block in a certain neighborhood; shooting down the street, after all, exhibits a certain lack of concern about anyone else who might be walking by. That sort of calculus raises questions about an entire community’s rights."[1]

It also raises questions about just how much we value the lives of black men. As Greg Howard points out, a group of white gun rights activists who walk into a Chipotle restaurant with assault rifles are considered at worst, heroes, and at best, a little loony, while unarmed black men are shot and killed for reaching for their wallet or their cell phone.   How is that a black teenager like Michael Brown is killed by police, while a white man like James Eagen Holmes can walk into a movie theater, kill 12 people and injure more than 70, yet the police manage to capture him alive? 

Exacerbating this contempt and fear of black men is the way in which the putative “War on Drugs” has militarized local law enforcement all over the country.  Part of the reason we're seeing so many black men killed is that police officers are now best understood less as members of communities, dedicated to keeping peace within them, than as domestic soldiers. The drug war has long functioned as a full-employment act for arms dealers looking to sell every town and village in the country on the need for military-grade hardware . . . Officers have tanks now. They have drones. They have automatic rifles, and planes, and helicopters, and they go through military-style boot camp training . . . Give a man access to drones, tanks, and body armor, and he'll reasonably think that his job isn't simply to maintain peace, but to eradicate danger. Instead of protecting and serving, police are searching and destroying.
If officers are soldiers, it follows that the neighborhoods they patrol are battlefields. And if they're working battlefields, it follows that the population is the enemy. And because of correlations, rooted in historical injustice, between crime and income and income and race, the enemy population will consist largely of people of color, and especially of black men. Throughout the country, police officers are capturing, imprisoning, and killing black males at a ridiculous clip, waging a very literal war on people like Michael Brown.”[2]

We seem to have a long way to go still before the lives of African-Americans are valued as fully human.  Michael Brown also had a verse to contribute, a uniquely beautiful life.  His struggles, his hopes and dreams, are ours too – or they should be.  We all are diminished by the structural racism embedded in the institutions of our economy and civil society – most blatantly in our criminal justice and penal systems.  But we are not all diminished in the same way or to the same degree.  We have been deprived of Michael’s verse.  Michael has been deprived of his life. 

So, how do we respond? At the end of the story of Joseph, he is reunited with his brothers, the very brothers who, out of bitter hatred and rivalry, had sold him into slavery.  Despite his dysfunctional family, the enormous injustice he suffered, and the challenges of surviving in a foreign land, Joseph rose to a position of power in Egypt.  Then, during a time of famine, his brothers come to Egypt as supplicants to buy grain, and discover that the one they left for dead is very much alive. 

“Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come closer to me.’  And they came closer.  He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.  And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life . . . So it was not you who sent me here, but God.”[3]  This is one of the most profound statements of faith in all of scripture.  Joseph makes use of his power, not for revenge, but to preserve life.  He recognizes the common humanity he shares with his brothers – “Come closer . . . I am your brother” –  and forgives them so that together they might create a new future.   Joseph trusts that God is working through suffering and injustice to preserve life and to pronounce a blessing, and he accepts his responsibility to exercise his freedom in cooperation with God’s life-giving purpose.   Like Joseph, we can use our power to preserve life, to add a beautiful verse to the powerful play that God is continually rewriting when we get our part wrong.  

The Syro-Phoenician woman in today’s Gospel reading knew her worth, and the worth of her daughter.  She felt no compunction about approaching the Son of God in her need.  She will not be treated as less than a “dog” – “dog” being a euphemism for “prostitute.”  She was able to integrate her worth and her need, the light and shadow, and demand the wholeness that any mother knows is her daughter’s birthright.[4]

Like this unnamed mother – like Michael Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden – we need to insist on the value of all human life.  We need to demand from our laws and leaders and ourselves a healing and reconciliation that knows no limits.  We need to tell the truth – “I am your brother, whom you sold into Egypt” – even when it is painful or risky.  And we need to be willing to use our energies for God’s healing purposes, building schools and mental health clinics instead of prisons; focusing on drug rehab rather than the militarization of police; finding a way through our long and continuing history of racial injustice toward racial reconciliation.

“God sent me before you to preserve life.”  That is the verse I want to contribute. 

I wonder what will your verse be?

[1] Amy Davidson, “Why Did Michael Brown Die in Ferguson,” The New Yorker at
[2] Greg Howard, “America Is Not For Black People,” The Concourse at
[3] Genesis 45:1-5, 8a.
[4] Matthew 15:21-28.

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