Tommy was a very devout young man. He was living with severe retardation and cerebral palsy. His total vocabulary was at best 150 words but he communicated well with his infectious smile and easy laugh. He enjoyed riding his adult tricycle in the parking lot of the habilitation facility where I worked for several years. He would often be seen riding his tricycle and singing songs of praise to God. Tommy viewed God slightly differently than most and yet his view of God might rival the leading theologians. He would sing, “All praise God in Heaven. All power glory to Him in de Highest. Hail Mary and Dracula Power forever and ever. Amen.” You see, Tommy combined good and evil into one source. And if good and evil were closely aligned then why not recognize that fact in worship.
I think Tommy was on to something. We have all faced tragedies in our lives. And if we haven’t, I guarantee, that at some point in our lives we will deal with some level of misfortune. Misfortune will come either to our beings personally or to someone close to us in our daily circles. So if this is true, then wouldn’t it be better to accept this rather than trying to avoid and ignore the tragedies? Is there a different way for us to approach and deal with tragedies?
Our story this morning about Joseph who was his father’s favorite had tragedy bestow upon him. Now perhaps he shouldn’t have bragged to his brothers about his dream of them bowing down before him, but he was a little kid after all. He was probably tired of the taunting and sibling rivalry his brothers threw at him and so a little bragging, a little gloating, probably felt good but it did land him in trouble.
His brothers took things too far in putting him in his place in the pecking order. Stripping him of the special coat made for him was humiliation enough, but then to toss him into the cistern and then sell him into slavery into an unknown, unsafe future is beyond the normal scuffles that brothers partake in. And to then tell a tale of woe to their father was over the top injury because it was not just the father who would grieve, but each of the brothers as well for their part in a dastardly wicked and evil plot to place their brother in his place.
To act in such a manner requires the coldest of hearts, one that is impervious to feeling compassion for another. How they lived with their evil actions against their brother is not revealed in the story, only that they felt some remorse as the story plays out in Pharaoh’s palace.
Yet, Joseph also had a charming personality which gained him favor in the eyes of those who enslaved him. So he was over all well treated as a slave and even though he was imprisoned falsely, his personality gained him favor within the prison. He used his talents well and eventually was placed in a position of power that enabled him to save not only himself but also his family who betrayed him. Hindsight might suggest that providence was guiding these events to unfold so as to save the Hebrews from the famine and drought that was to descend on the region years later.
And whether providence was at work here or not herein rests an important truth. If we are open to the process of life’s unfolding, life will always win out with new opportunities, new possibilities, new configurations that were unimaginable prior to an unfortunate circumstance.
In my personal life, I have witnessed amazing outcomes from tragedies that should have destroyed the spirit of a people. In the 1980’s the AIDS epidemic struck with ferocity at the gay community. People were being expelled from their homes, their schools, from hospitals, from employment when it was learned the person had AIDS. I remember one mother who struggled with her faith community because her son was living with AIDS and needed someplace to die. Her church family, where only a few years before he had served as an acolyte, told her to leave him to the judgment of God because this disease was a sign of God’s deep displeasure with her son. How could she, who gave birth to him, deny him a mother’s love which is as eternal as anything in the human experience? She chose love over the church and welcomed her son home where he lived his final days. She was not alone in her response to choose love first. A community of people drew close together to support one another, to fight for medications to be developed, to fight for justice.
The AIDS epidemic when it violently erupted in America was indeed a tragedy. It was a tragedy that those who knew the teachings of their respective faith to love, allowed their hearts to grow cold with fear. Yet, within that tragic unfolding, there were millions of people who said yes to love and welcomed people with AIDS into their lives. There were people who were complete strangers to one another who felt their hearts expand with love for the other. Tragedy created an opportunity for a response of love to develop and a new spiritual and compassionate awakening began to sweep over the land.
I saw it again in the days that followed the massive airline hijackings on September 11 2001. The image of the planes being flown into the world trade towers will forever be etched upon our minds. Many in the country responded with intense anger against a people of a religion that is not understood here. And while anger in the short run is understandable that anger has hardened the hearts of many against people of the Muslim faith. Yet, there were a few who chose love over hatred. A few, who recognized that the actions of a few does not mean this was done in sympathy of the whole of the Muslim world.
In my home town of Danbury, the United Jewish Center quickly responded to protect the members of the local Mosque. The Jewish men would stand guard outside of the Mosque during prayer and the women would escort the Muslim women while they did shopping to make sure that no harm would come to these neighbors. Two groups of people, who in the larger context are considered old enemies, came together to support one another during this tragic time in our lives.
This week as well as being the holy week of Easter is also the holy week of Passover. The time when Jews remember that they were once strangers and slaves in the land of Egypt and therefore are commanded to welcome the other, the stranger so as to not cause the same atrocities they experienced on another group of sojourners. New opportunities to love arose out of those tragic days surrounding September 11th So few in our country remember that their faith calls them to love anew when tragedy strikes.
Today a decade after those planes went down at the hands of radical extremists; our country has amplified our hatred towards Muslims and foreigners in our land. Instead of finding ways to bring our country together, there are forces that seek instead to divide our country, to segregate our country, to destroy the dream of E pluribus Unum; Out of many, One.
We are now witnessing yet another tragedy unfolding in our midst. We have families who are being torn apart because of a broken system that encourages xenophobia, which encourages fear of the other, which encourages oppression. For us here in Tuscaloosa, the passage of HB 56 was coupled with the devastation of a tornado that destroyed thousands of homes in our poorer communities. Many in the state are responding in a manner that rivals the racist callousness of the Jim Crow era of the 20th century. The revisions proposed to HB 56 in the form of HB 658 seeks to placate the needs of the strongest opponents: The businesses, law enforcement, and clergy. It does not address the injustice to a family that is torn apart.
I recently heard of a family where the parents are being deported to Mexico but their child, born in the US and therefore a US citizen has been denied to go with them by Alabama’s Department of Human Resources (DHR) because life in Mexico is no place for a young child. The arrogance and racism of DHR is appalling and yet it affirms the reason why the family came to this country in the first place—to have a better life.
DHR is not the first institution to decree that children are better off without their parents. This story was told in Australia in the last century where children born to an Aboriginal parent and a White parent were removed from the Aboriginal parent because the state could provide a better life for the child than the Aboriginal. These children were trained to be servants to white families which was deemed the highest vocation they could attain. This current tragedy offers us an opportunity to rise up in love.
We are called to love our neighbor as our selves. I cannot imagine anyone of our families wanting the state to determine that our children would be better off in their care than in our care as the children’s parents, regardless of our social economic status.
Therefore, while the revisions to HB 56 would exempt immigrant clergy and missionaries who volunteer their religious services, I cannot in good conscience accept this law when this exemption comes at the price of families being torn apart for no other reason than immigrant status. It still would be illegal for me as a clergy person to knowingly provide services that would encourage or support an undocumented citizen to remain in this country. A law I will continue to break because as Martin Luther King, Jr. says, “One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
What new opportunities, new possibilities to love the other are waiting to be discovered by us? What doors will open up for us that had not this evil crossed our door we would not have these powerful choices to love before us?
What stories of these days will we tell our children’s children that when we tell it, it will seem in hindsight to have had the hand of providence guiding our path? Good and evil are closely aligned. It seems to me when Jesus said to not resist evil; he meant that we must find the opportunities to respond in greater love and in the process find the grace to create good.
The story of the Christian resurrection is about love prevailing over the power of death meant to end once and for all that messenger of love. The disciples were given a choice in the tragedy of the crucifixion. They could run and hide, some did. They could deny all knowledge of the man arrested and crucified, some did. They could despair of all hope of redemption and take their life, and some did that too. Or they could grieve the tragedy and choose to embody the message that the realm of love lives within us and ultimately change the world. Some did that too. Hallelujah!
The Hallelujah they experienced was a cold and broken Hallelujah that Leonard Cohen wrote in the wonderful song Louise sang this morning. Good and evil closely aligned. May we have the strength to offer a broken Hallelujah and in the process embody love. Blessed Be.