I heard an interview on the radio this week that maybe some of you heard too (http://www.npr.org/2015/08/21/433478728/one-lawyers-fight-for-young-blacks-and-just-mercy). The lawyer Bryan Stevenson, now head of the Equal Justice Initiative, was talking about what happened to him one night outside his middle-class apartment in Atlanta, when he was sitting in his car listening to music and getting a few papers together for the next morning. Stevenson, who is black and was in his twenties at the time—a recent graduate of Harvard Law School—saw a police car approach and wondered why they were there. He quickly realized that they were there because he was there, because he was a young black man sitting in a parked car at night in a white neighborhood. Never mind that he lived in that neighborhood. He was right outside his own apartment. The police didn’t want to hear about that. They grabbed him, pointed a gun at his head, and said “Move and I’ll blow your head off.” Terrified, he began saying to them “It’s ok. It’s all right. It’s ok. It’s all right.”
Bryan Stevenson cooperated with the police that night but they held him for about fifteen minutes without ever acknowledging that they had no earthly reason to suspect him of a crime. They searched his car illegally. While he was being subjected to this humiliation, some of his white neighbors came to see what was going on. Here are Stevenson’s words: “Neighbors were coming out. People were complaining about other burglaries in the neighborhood. They were asking the police to interrogate me about their missing items. You know, ask him if he has my vacuum cleaner, ask him if he took my cat. And it was sort of surreal and terrifying.” When the police finally gave up and prepared to depart, Stevenson asked them to apologize for what they had done to him. Their words: “Next time, we’ll get you.”
Stevenson has spent his career defending people on death row, mentally ill people convicted of crimes and incarcerated without proper care, and children who are tried and convicted as adults and then subjected to unfathomable abuse in prison. He has written a book called Just Mercy—I think maybe we all ought to read it. It’s about the terrible need for reform of our justice system, and our troubling disregard, as a culture, for people whose sentences and sometimes even convictions are plainly wrong. We allow people—especially we allow black people, poor people—to suffer extraordinary abuse and even execution because we lack the will to correct our laws and institutions. And Bryan Stevenson, a committed Christian who studied at Philadelphia’s own Eastern University as an undergraduate, has the heart and soul and conscience and courage to be a spokesperson for those forgotten victims of our criminal justice system. He is a force for redemption.
Picture young Bryan Stevenson that night outside his apartment, and imagine the sense of unreality he must have felt as the police and his own neighbors accuse him of crimes for no reason other than the color of his skin. There’s a strong feeling of annihilation in this story, a wiping out of Stevenson’s whole reality, his whole social existence, everything he had accomplished and everything to which he aspired. There is the very real danger that he could lose his life. And at that moment, though he is too frightened to say much, he does his best to speak in a way that will reassure both himself and the police who are so sure that he is dangerous: “It’s ok. It’s all right. It’s ok. It’s all right.”
A whole world opens up in this moment as Stevenson tries to speak. He invests his speech with his very humanity, urgently trying to convey through words what and who he is. He can barely get these short sentences out but he tries to fill them with his dignity and innocence. He tries to convey that he understands where the police are coming from even though they have a gun to his head and are not listening to him. He tries to communicate across a vast chasm: “You have nothing to fear.”
But the police and his white neighbors cannot hear him at all. They have a story already about his guilt. They have no room for a successful young black man in their neighborhood. To the extent that they see him at all they see him in jail. They don’t know that a whole world is opening up in front of them, a world in which his innocence and their racism are about to be exposed. They don’t know that everything they cling to as respectable people is being called into question. No one but Stephenson seems able to grasp that in the name of law and order and civil society they are just this side of pulling the trigger and committing murder.
That space that opens up that night in front of those white people could be their redemption. If they could hear what Stephenson is saying—“It’s ok. It’s all right”--the whole world could change. Though he can barely speak, Stephenson is speaking words of eternal life. Words that bring his humanity before them. Words that would force them to acknowledge who he is and what they are. Words that would unravel them and open them up to God in another human being.
I know that when Jesus says “I am the bread of life” he doesn’t sound that much like Bryan Stephenson. But I can promise you this: when Jesus says “I am the bread of life,” he is thinking about Stephenson, and about the people Stephenson defends, and about centuries of people like them, people who through a toxic combination of hatred and indifference are left to pay the price of injustice. People who are simply disposable in the eyes of their neighbors. And Jesus is also thinking about centuries of people who can’t and won’t hear the voices of the exploited, who won’t hear those words of life: “I am innocent. I am human like you. I am suffering unfathomable pain. I Am.”
For many weeks now we have been hearing Jesus talk about being the bread of life. We have explored his words from every angle. We have paid his words deep respect, despite the fact that we don’t understand them. Or maybe because we don’t understand them. We come here day after day and kneel and receive the bread and the wine and we pledge ourselves to live in this state of not understanding. I don’t know about you, but the more I hear Jesus saying that he is bread this summer, the more I feel that he is speaking to me across a chasm. I’m not bread. I don’t know what he means. Outside the context of my faith, bread is something I buy and eat and sometimes waste.
It’s clear that I’m not alone feeling this way. His original followers were also put off when they heard him speak. They left him. His unbearable strangeness made them want to turn away. And though we don’t hear about it in this chapter of John’s gospel, the people around Jesus are gradually turning against him. Though they had seen something compelling in him, they are putting that attraction behind them and becoming indifferent to his words. And gradually they will become more hostile. He will go from being a fascinating teacher to being a disposable victim. He will die an innocent death. That will be an unremarkable reality for most of the people around him.
When Jesus says “I am the bread of life,” he speaks not only of his power to sustain us for all eternity, but of his willing surrender to the world’s indifference and hatred. The two are intimately linked. He speaks to us from that place of victimization and exploitation. He speaks of forgiveness and redemption. And he opens our eyes to our own cruelty. “Eat my flesh and drink my blood,” he says. “I am your victim. If you can hear me speak, a whole world will open up in front of you. Your own salvation lies in your ability to admit your fear of me, and your hostility.”
When Jesus says “I am the bread of life,” we may hear him in many different ways. We come here to do just that, to hear him say “this is my body” and to explore that truth from every conceivable angle, week after week. As we listen deeply to his words, let us be drawn to the people among us whose words seem not to matter at all. Let Jesus abide in us, and draw us right to the side of those who are most disposable in our world, or those whose lives can become disposable on the turn of a dime. To whom else would we go?
Preached by Mother Nora Johnson
23 August 2015
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia