In the lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures today, Joseph was a dreamer. It was one of the many reasons his brothers didn’t like him and tried to kill him. He had a gift for seeing the future broken loose from the chains of today.
The annual memorial service for another dreamer, Dr. Martin Luther King Junior, at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta begins each year with a haunting line from this passage, comparing the plot to murder Joseph the dreamer with the assassination of MLK who had a dream. “Behold, this dreamer cometh. Come now therefore, and let us slay him… and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” People describe it as chilling.
I wouldn’t dare to speak for the status of Martin Luther King’s dream. But I think I am safe in saying that this weekend, the events in Charlottesville have showed us that his dream, a dream that really originated not with one man but from more divine sources, has been tested sorely.
White supremacists gathered in Charlottesville this weekend to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. They encountered a fierce group of counter protesters, and violence ensued, with rocks thrown and pepper spray sprayed at random, and a car driven into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing at least one person, and a helicopter crash with police onboard taking the lives of two officers. It was a hateful scene.
Before I go on, I want to just name something. I want to say that before I think about what the Christian response might look like, I just need to name that I’m angry. I’m angry that we live in a country where bluster and inciting the mob and provoking each other has become the new normal. This incident recalls for me the church shootings in Charlottesville two years ago. I’m beyond words at the fact that those nine children of God were killed in Charlottesville simply for being black in church. The response in my then home town of Apple Valley. In that town my wonderful parish had a vigil for the victims and I’m angry because we drew fire from the local community for being too “pro-black.” My kids stood by at school and watched as white children wore confederate flags on their shirts to school as Charlottesville decided whether to remove those symbols of racism. As these children wore those shirts publicly, they taunted children of color who then had to decide whether to stand up for themselves or walk away. One particular African-American child stood up for himself and was beaten, and that makes me angry. And I’m angry because somebody’s parent let that child wear that shirt to school.
I’m angry, too, at myself. Because I’ve been complacent. As a person of European descent I have had the luxury of putting race on the shelf. I have been able to pull out my concern for the peril of driving while black after the latest incident, or get angry after the most recent public shooting in El Cajon of a person of color, until I go back to normal. But I’m angry at myself because normal for me seems to somehow ignore the racism that exists everyday. I don’t have to have “the talk” with my children about why they will be treated different. I don’t get watched when I’m shopping in a store, and people don’t clutch their purses a little tighter when they see me coming or cross to the other side of the street because the sight of me scares them. I have the privilege of moving in and out of concerns about racism at my leisure. And I do. And that makes me disappointed in myself. And I’m not alone, and that makes me disappointed in all of us.
But anger and disappointment isn’t going to solve this. In fact, anger may make this worse. I believe I have to figure out how to deal with my anger, and my grief and my fear, and then figure out what I can do to work on this problem. And that’s what I think we have to do as the church, too. But we aren’t going to get through the anger and the grief and the shock of it all if we don’t name it.
I also don’t want to minimize the anger over race. But I know that many of us feel overwhelmed right now with anger and shock. It is tied into the anger and shock and the fear of so many other questions. It is tied into the question of whether we care enough about each other to provide for one another in sickness with health insurance, as the Good Samaritan cared for the injured one on the roadside. And it is tied to whether or not the human family is compassionate enough to break down the walls of nationalism and treat immigrants as human beings, just like the Holy Family were welcomed when they fled from their home as they were persecuted and dehumanized. And it is tied into the question of whether we will really embrace women as equals in the workforce, despite the voices legitimizing the crazy letter from the Google employee this past week and the call from Paul that in Christ there is neither male nor female. And it is tied to whether or not we will, as humanity, find a solution to our disagreements without resorting to nuclear war and total annihilation, seeking the peaceful way of Christ. This is tied in to what it means to be the human family of God. It is tied into the question of whether or not we belong to each other at all; whether we are a human family or just a human race.
The letter to the Romans describes that family of God: “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.” One of my favorite lines from Archbishop Desmond Tutu is similar. He says: “This family has no outsiders. Everyone is an insider. When Jesus said, “I, if I am lifted up, will draw . . .” Did he say, “I will draw some”? “I will draw some, and tough luck for the others”? He said, “I, if I be lifted up, will draw all.” All! All! All! – Black, white, yellow; rich, poor; clever, not so clever; beautiful, not so beautiful. All! All! It is radical. All! [Kim Jong-un, Vladmir Putin, Donald Trump] – all! All! All are to be held in this incredible embrace. Gay, lesbian, [transgender] so-called “straight;” all! All! All are to be held in the incredible embrace of the love that won’t let us go.”
It’s amazing that the love of God for this family is perfect even though the family of God isn’t perfect. And the wonderful thing about the Hebrew Scriptures is that those folks aren’t perfect either. Joseph is a tattle-tale, his father really plays favorites, which causes jealousy among the rest of the family, and the brothers then take it way out of proportion and decide to kill him. What is more human than that? You can’t help but have compassion for the whole human family, with all its foibles, when you study the Hebrew scriptures. You love them. And you get angry with them for being disappointing. And you watch as God loves them even when you’d rather they be forsaken and left behind.
The hope of this story is that it doesn’t derail the main theme: this story of Joseph is one chapter in a long story on the way of Abraham’s descendants becoming a strong nation, the dream of God for that time. And even though they aren’t perfect, God is taking their foibles and imperfections and working God’s dream out among them, even as they stumble, even as they attempt murder, even as they treat each other horribly.
That doesn’t negate the pain of Joseph as he is down in that well in that story, or of Jacob when he believes Joseph is dead. Similarly it does not in our time negate the grief or anger of the mothers who lost their babies in Charlottesville. God didn’t put Joseph down in the pit, and God doesn’t make anyone think murder is a good idea, and God didn’t do any of those awful things in Charlottesville or anywhere else, and racism is abhorrent to God’s dream. But the promised land still came to be for the descendants of Jacob. And God’s dream is still alive now even when so much appears to stand in the way.
As Martin Luther King Jr, said: the moral arc of the universe is very long, and it bends towards justice. There are more chapters to the story than we can see from where we stand right now. And the tears God sheds for each tragedy pour out as God weeps with and for us. But the moral arc of the universe is very long, and it bends towards justice.
That isn’t meant to take away our anger. But I hope it strengthens our resolve.
When I look at Peter in this gospel, I can’t explain it, but I feel hopeful about the future. Peter gets out of the boat and risks of himself to go towards Jesus. And he doesn’t make it. He falters. I can relate to that.
But Jesus reaches out, and I picture him saying as a parent, “You of little faith! Why did you doubt? You got this!” But the more important point is– Jesus reaches out and saves him. Peter’s inability to have complete faith doesn’t cause him to drown, because Jesus saves him anyway.
And I guess that is the core of my faith, and the essence of my hope: That God completes those things which seem impossible. Hope is the essence of things unseen, and right now stability and love and peace in the world are unseen to me. Maybe its naive faith. Maybe its blind. But its faith, and its what I have. And I think that demanding anything else of God would be proof, and not faith.
There was a strong counterpoint to the hate-filled, torch carrying white supremacists this weekend. A group of clergy and faithful lay people, who had travelled to Charlottesville at risk to their own safety formed a counterprotest, locked arms with each other, and sang “This little light of mine” even while the other group shouted at them while holding assault rifles pointed in their direction. This courageous moment inspired faith and hope across the nation, with responses like “I’m so grateful for their strong presence” and “hide it under a bushel, no! I’m gonna let it shine.”
The dream of God is God’s to dream. Racism can’t dismantle it. And my invitation, and yours, is to get out of the boat, and walk into the middle of the frightening storm, and work on that lovely dream of God with courage, and trust that it’s going to be ok even though all you can see tells you otherwise. Be not afraid!
The Rev. Cn. Jeff Martinhauk
Proper 14A, August 13, 2017
St. Paul’s Cathedral, San Diego