Homily for Peter Kingston's memorial service, January 23, 2011.
The Rev. Matthew Lawrence, Rector
The Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, Santa Rosa, CA
Shirlee asked that we read this familiar story of the Good Samaritan because it was, for Peter, something of a defining text. Peter, growing up within the cold stone walls of a British boarding school, heard this story preached with regularity during mandatory chapel services, and took it to heart. He became devoted to a path of service; a true believer in the old-fashioned ideals of chivalry and honor; love for God and love for neighbor.
Peter sincerely felt the obligations of his class - but far more than that, he felt a deep empathy and compassion for everyone who suffered.
Jamie told me this week that the only person Peter didn’t like was a bully; as a good-sized athlete, Peter never had a problem with bullies himself, but he often witnessed bullying behavior in the sometimes brutal atmosphere of the boarding school, and he always rose to the defense of the weaker boys. Once, we are told, he held a bully by the ankles out a window.
The Good Samaritan goes out of his way to help those in need. We only wish he had practiced the same compassion on himself; that he had found a way to defeat the nagging, bullying voice inside his own head.
The word “compassion” literally means “to suffer with.” In acts of compassion we enter into another person’s suffering; sometimes, like the Good Samaritan, compassion can lead us to literally take on the weight of another’s suffering.
As I imagine this story from Luke’s Gospel I see Peter coming across that man lying half dead by the side of the road, and lifting him into his rower’s arms, effortlessly, without a second thought.
It was not the suffering of others that ever weighed him down; it was his own. Peter would be the one who ignores the advice of the flight attendant about the oxygen masks, making sure everyone else had theirs on before securing his own.
The Samaritans were the most despised members of Jesus’ society; they were considered morally impure; idolaters; even subhuman. The Samaritans knew suffering on a profound level. Which was how they learned about compassion.
Like Peter, the Samaritans came to learn one of life’s hardest lessons and deepest consolations – that suffering opens us to love.
It’s a good thing that some good comes from suffering – because look how we’re suffering now. Perhaps Peter’s death will inspire us all to have more compassion for those who suffer, often in silence, with the deep and lonely pain of clinical depression.
It is a sad testimony to the devastating effects of depression that someone as loving and kind as Peter – the last person on the earth to ever want to hurt anyone – would find himself doing something that hurt us this much.
In his final days, Peter spoke - quite lucidly - about feeling incoherent. It struck us as odd because to us he always seemed so reasonable, so well-assembled. But now we know just how incoherent he was. We have caught a glimpse into the unreasoning depth of his despair – that he would do something so senseless and so completely out of character.
Since those first, horrible moments when we heard of his suicide, we’ve all been looking for answers. That night, the first thing we did was search his house, his computer, his phone, looking for a note, a text, an email, anything that could help us understand this senseless thing.
But that’s just it. There is no sense to this. This is literally the act of a man whose illness drove him from his senses.
There is no reason that explains his desperate act – the only reason is not a reason: that he died from a terrible illness.
Survivors of suicide all have this in common – we all feel guilty; we all feel we should have known; we blame ourselves for not having read the signs. And every single person who has ever lost a loved one to suicide feels this way. We're all in this club, now.
But this is what we know. Peter died of an illness. There was not a single challenge in his life that a healthy person could not have survived. A healthy person can survive the closing of a school, the loss of a job. But Peter’s very severe and very private illness weakened him too much to hold on any longer. Like a house whose foundation has crumbled and whose timbers have been eaten away, he blew over in a wind storm.
So if there is one thing that each and every person here needs to take home today it is this: This was not your fault. Don’t give his depression that victory.
Today, in your deep sorrow: maybe you might feel like this death is a withering blow. Maybe you feel like the one left by the side of the road, beaten, robbed of sense, alone. And maybe you are the one that’s been beating yourself up.
If that’s true, let this story of the Good Samaritan speak to you. Even now, at this very moment, your rescuer is approaching. He sees that you are in pain. He comes down from his horse and kneels beside you. Let him left you into his arms. Let him bind up your wounds. Let him take you someplace safe.
This is no time to refuse his help; this is no time to pretend you are fine; this is no time to try to be the good Samaritan to the Good Samaritan himself. Allow yourself be cared for, and looked after, and loved.
If you’re anything like Peter; if you, too, walk this earth with a heart that’s a little too open, and a little too broken; if you, like Peter, are a little bit too eager to care for others while your own wounds go untreated; if the only time you let yourself sit still is when you’ve been beaten-up by life’s many challenges; do us all a favor: sit with this story. Make friends with the Good Shepherd. And let yourself be loved.