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Preaching Reflections On Freddie Gray and Baltimore

04/29/2015 06:31 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2015

In light of this week's events in Baltimore, MD, several of our ON Scripture writers took a few moments to reflect upon what they would/will be preaching on this Sunday. To continue the conversation, join us on Twitter at #onscripture.

Rev. Eric D. Barreto, Ph.D. Associate Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary: St Paul, MN

Here we are, again.

The cycle of police violence and public outrage are once again filling our lives. Or I should say that these conflicts are burdening some with the weight of history of oppression, silencing, and violence while others of us have the luxury to see these events as yet another piece of breaking news, here today but gone tomorrow when some other bit of sensationalism will draw our eyes.

Here we are, again.

And perhaps we are here again because we do not really listen. We gaze at each other's pain and lament, but we don't really see in a way that will shift our vision, clarify our perspective. We hear each other's stories but don't really listen in a way that will change us in a profound way, lead us to question our deepest held assumptions. We post a hashtag but don't embody these digital signatures in our everyday lives.

This week, many Christians will be hearing one of my favorite texts in the Bible: Acts 8:26-40. It is a vibrant, powerful story. But one detail has drawn my attention most recently.

Imagine that you are this wealthy, powerful, educated Ethiopian official. You are riding in a glorious chariot and reading Isaiah off a delicately copied manuscript. You are pondering the mysteries of God when some stranger appears out of nowhere. This stranger is running alongside your chariot struggling to keep up, barely panting the words, "Do you understand what you are reading?"

This question is audacious, ridiculous. The Ethiopian should ask his driver to speed up and leave this breathless stranger in the wilderness. Instead, this powerful, wealthy, educated official asks a critical question of faith: "How can I unless someone guides me?"

Indeed, how can I understand the plight of my neighbor unless I sit at their feet, walk their streets, hear their pain, participate in their deepest joys? How can I unless someone guides me? How can I understand unless God brings the neighbor into my life? How can I understand unless God gives me ears to hear and eyes to see? How can I unless God gives me the grace and patience and humility to heed the witness of those the world tramples?

So, preachers of the gospel of Jesus Christ, how do you speak about Baltimore this week? Listen to the witness of our neighbors. Listen and learn and love.

How else will we understand? How else will God speak to us? How else will we avoid being here once again in a few months time?

Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School: Fort Worth, TX

I am preaching on Sunday and I am using the lectionary. I am focusing on "hearing and listening" from Ps 22:24:

God did not despise or detest the affliction of the afflicted.

God did not hide God's face from me.

God heard when I cried out to God.

And from Acts 8:

26 The messenger of the Lord said to Philip, "Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza." (This is a wilderness road.) 27 So he got up and went. Now there was a Nubian eunuch, a senior official of the Kandake, queen of the Nubians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship.

We can't escape the violence in the scriptures or in the streets. The violence imposed on the body of Jesus was neither the beginning nor the end of his story. And it was not only his story. His people were subject to lethal violence whether guilty or innocent on individual and national levels. The story of the Jewish people is one of slavery, deliverance, occupation and subjugation and, in times of desperation, resistance, rebellion and retaliation. Aspects of the Israelite story are shared with the poor, marginalized and oppressed in every time and place, including ours.

It may not be your experience, but many poor black and brown people experience the police as an occupying force, at best daily harassment at worse lethal violence. Twenty-three years ago anger and pain boiled over in Los Angeles. Last summer it boiled over in Ferguson, MO. This week it boiled over in Baltimore, MD.

Dr. King taught us that riots are the language of the unheard. Are we listening? Will we hear the voices of today's street-prophets? Or will we allow the spectacle of violence to become an excuse to turn away? The Church has listened to these stories read and preached for millennia, but have we truly heard them?

God hears the cry of the psalmist as surely as God hears the cries from the streets and those of mothers like our Virgin Mother who have lost their sons to police violence.

And, at the intersection of race and ethnicity, the Greek gentile apostle Philip crosses paths with the black Jewish bureaucrat serving an African queendom. And God builds the beloved community through the encounter of these very different bodies. God can use them to transform the world, starting to each other because they listen to and hear each other.

Jochum Professor at Valparaiso University: Valparaiso, IN

James 1:19-20

"You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God's righteousness."

The Echo of Easter

In the echo of Easter, we greet one another, "Christ is risen. Alleluia!" There's a lot of pressure on witnesses. I speak of those who do not have the right to remain silent; Spirit-compelled, they speak of those things they have seen and heard (Acts 4:20). Yet, in the high-pressure echo of Easter 2015, some find themselves speechless, divided again as a nation.

Tribal instincts are alive, full force, red-hot, gobbling up grotesque, pixelated distortions of one another; even believers can forget quickly the ultimate death we've already died, with Jesus, from which we're raised as martyrs, confident, risking freely every other death in pursuit of both peace and justice.

In this kind of Easter echo, we must test the spirits. News media often airs oversimplified stories boosting ratings, but not building up community. Social media can be recklessly one-sided, an echo chamber of noisy images dividing us from others created in God's image. Verbal flame-throwers get lots of Likes but they don't do much to promote love for neighbor or simple civility. Saying, "they just don't get it," or "they just need to get over it," is not taking seriously others for whom Christ died.

In the echo of this Easter, we know resurrection revolutions "will not be televised" (Gil Scott-Heron). Few were there on Good Friday, fewer the first Easter. Resurrection revolutions rarely go viral on social media. Resurrection revolutionaries know that Facebook is no replacement for face-to-face dialogue; they run from the deadly tomb of stereotypes, witnessing life to Joe Plumber, Jane Professor, Juan Immigrant, single moms working their way uphill through life's many-sided complexities.

Like Christ, we rise: above the noise-making, political grandstanding, social-media showboating, fear-mongering. We rise: as peacemakers, bridge-builders, hope-dealers, "quick to listen, slow to speak," confessing concretely the resurrection insurrection: Christ is risen, indeed. Alleluia!

Associate Professor of Homiletics and Director of United Methodist Studies at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia: Philadelphia, PA

Ephesians 4:25 Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.

As a preaching professor, I teach my students that context is one of the most vital parts of preaching - in any time, place, or situation. The preacher has to know what it happening in the community and in the culture around them - as well as what is happening in the larger world. I often have students say to me, "But if I talk about tough stuff, someone might get mad. What do I do?"

What I say to them is what I say to you now - preach the gospel, speak the truth, and make people uncomfortable, if necessary. What the students would admit after I pushed them was that many in their churches did not think the situations of violence and protest in Ferguson over the last few months or in Baltimore this week really affect them.

BUT they do. As Barack Obama said this week, "[what if] we don't just pay attention to these communities when a CVS burns, and we don't just pay attention when a young man gets shot or has his spine snapped, but we're paying attention all the time because we consider those kids our kids."

You see if we view our context as the wider world and we consider "those kids our kids," then we cannot help but talk about them from the pulpit. We cannot help but speak truth about and to our neighbors. In this text, Paul reminds the church at Ephesus that they are all part of a larger body and that speaking truth about reconciliation and unity is essential. That reconciliation and unity come when we live our faith, walk the walk, and talk the talk. It happens when we speak truth as neighbors, brothers, and sisters. It happens when we enter into the pulpit unafraid of making any mad - knowing that at times it might be the best thing we can do in love. Preach the gospel of love and unity this week. That's what we are called to do.

Professor of New Testament, Lancaster Theological Seminary: Lancaster, PA

Were I preaching this Sunday, I'd strongly consider preaching from Psalm 137. This Psalm features one of Scripture's most notorious lines: "a blessing on him who seizes your babies and dashes them against the rocks!" (Jewish Publication Society translation).

No one can excuse that line. No one will ever justify killing children in any manner. Our guts twist in revulsion at the image of bashing babies against rocks.

Then again, a friend pointed out that the media describes the looting and rock throwing as violence, yet it withholds judgment for the police officers under whose care Freddie Gray suffered a fatal spine injury. Few off us condone looting or rock throwing, but we know the context. Like many other cities, Baltimore displays a shiny exterior to visitors, but its urban core has been abandoned to decay. Neighborhood segregation correlates with pockets of intense poverty. The Baltimore Sun was reporting patterns of police brutality long before Freddie Gray's fatal encounter.

The author of Psalm 137 gives voice to a violent rage. The Psalm locates itself among Judahite exiles in Babylon, people who have witnessed the destruction of their holy city. They have suffered greatly. They have seen horrific things. They experience the profound grief that accompanies the loss of home and loved ones: "How can we sing a song of the LORD on alien soil?" Perhaps more intense than all those losses, the people know what it means to be mocked, disregarded. "Our captors there asked us for songs, our tormentors, for amusement." As their own city succumbed to violence, they heard their neighbors cheer on: "Strip her, strip her to her very foundations!"

Come to think of it, I'll share Psalm 137 before I teach this Sunday. I can't defend this Psalm, but it does help me understand what dehumanization does to us. The Psalm shows us how anger, violent anger, can stand before God.

Pastor of Pulse Church: Atlanta, GA

As a preacher, I make no claims to sermonic objectivity. I understand that to great extent preaching is as much biographical as it is theological. So when I stand to preach this Sunday my intention will not be to only proclaim God's truth but to tell my truth as well. The fact is as a young black male in the United States I am not a detached observer of unjust policing, racial profiling, white privilege and black rage. I live in the midst of these realities on a daily basis and this compels me to preach a sermon titled "When Black People Get Crazy."

In the Bible in 2 Corinthians chapter 5 verse 13, Paul, the writer and church leader, responds to critics who say his actions are crazy and the work of a mad man by declaring that "If we are out of our mind," as some say, it is for God...." In other words, Paul says if my actions are crazy it is for the sake of a greater divine cause.

In the same spirit of the Apostle Paul I hope to proclaim that given the degree of existential pain and oppression that blacks have experienced in this country, the anger and indignation of some is not only understandable but divinely inspired. Just as Paul saw his actions of institutional disruption for the sake of the gospel as an act of God, I submit that blacks and all people fighting for the cause of justice in the streets and halls of power are doing divine work as well.

If we truly believe that God cares about the lives of all people, specifically black lives, then we must believe that God stands with those who have been driven to the brinks of existential craziness and bold action for greater cause of divine justice. These words I will share on Sunday.

Ingrid E. Lilly, Ph.D. Visiting Scholar at Pacific School of Religion: Berkeley, CA

Adjunct Instructor at San Francisco Theological Seminary: San Anselmo, CA

The Dominant Lie of Peace

Probably the most challenging sermon to deliver is one that raises consciousness by annihilating a cherished lie. It is hard to critique calls for peace in Baltimore. Being 'against peace' does not play well with the comfortable. So let Ezekiel be your strong arm. He is flipping enraged at the concept of false peace.

Ezekiel's excoriating anger in ch. 13 is directed at the dominant lie. 'Prophetic' visions peddled in the main stream pervert the character and quality of peace, mocking its very meaning at a time when its reality is most sorely needed.

"They have misled my people, saying 'Peace," when there is no peace; and because when the people build a wall, these prophets smear whitewash on it."

The issue is safety. The city walls are all that stand between a life of security and military siege. Walls are basic protections. But the dominant lie paints the picture of peace to avoid facing the crumbling infrastructure of a city on the brink of violence.

The riots in Baltimore and recently in Ferguson should direct peace-lover's attention to the lies we tell about security in our society. Baltimore has a history of undue force as Baltimore-born commentators point out. A toxic mix when the citizens also face poverty and incarceration problems. There is no question that the Ferguson Police Department routinely violates the civil rights of its black citizens.

American security is unequal. No peace comes of returning to the status quo. Peace is to quit whitewashing our society.

Associate Professor of Biblical Preaching and The Alvin N. Rogness Chair of Homiletics at Luther Seminary: St Paul, MN

To address the unfolding events in Baltimore when preaching this coming Sunday, I would focus on the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel reading, John 15:1-8, specifically verse 5, "I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing." A response to Baltimore has to have something to do with bearing fruit because bearing fruit has everything to do with who you are in relationship. The manifestations of our faith are not individual expressions of our theological commitments and convictions but are deeply lodged in and arise from the communities of our lives. The potential for faith's actions that arise from love for the sake of abundant life is deeply truncated when we do not realize that the bearing fruit of our faith is premised on dependence. Because life is nothing without belonging, without intimacy, without relationship.

Our lack of response to the events in Baltimore arises from the inherent fear of bearing fruit. That fear has many levels. Because once we bear fruit, we lose control. We chance exposure. Others will be able to see on what or whom we rely; in what and in whom we locate and lodge our strength, our trust, and the ways we choose to be in the world.

Bearing fruit is risky business. It will reveal who you are and on whom and what you depend. It will expose your lack of self-sufficiency. It will show others that there is no other way to be but to be dependent, but to be in community. Many will think it's weakness. Many will think the ties should be broken, that we should move on. Many will think that being cut off is beneficial because it will result in some sort of self-actualized and admirable autonomy.

But we have to be different. And that's what needs to be preached.

Senior Minister at Middle Collegiate Church: New York, NY

Creating The World We Want

Monday night , as a straight Black ally, I attended a United4Marriage equality rally in Times Square anticipating the Supreme Court hearings Tuesday. Before I spoke, a religious leader hissed, "Read your Bible!" I said, "I read my Bible in Hebrew, Greek, and in English!"

Why is that the question?

While the list of dead bodies -- black and brown female, male, trans and gay bodies -- lie dead in our streets; while Baltimore burns in the fires where racism, desperation and violence converge; while we wonder if SCOTUS will scuttle gay marriage, the burning question for me is "What are people of faith going to do about it?"

Are we to be paralyzed by these things? Or are we, as my Bible says, "able to do more than we can ask or imagine through the power at work within us" and create the world we want?

My favorite text in scripture is:

God is love, and those who live in God live in love and love lives in them (1 John 4:16).

Love is the power with which we can do more than we can even imagine.I am counting on people of faith to put Love-In-Action. Do something, do one thing today, to right a wrong, to communicate a kindness, to create the world we want. A just world. A world in which Black Lives Matter. A world in which gay love is sacred. A world in which every life is precious.

Recently my Muslim sister, Linda Sarsour, organized and marched with the New York Justice League from New York City to Washington D.C. to protest police brutality. Love and a vision for a just society put her faith in the line and her feet on the ground.

What can you do? What will you do?

If we each do something because love abides in us, we can create the world we want. We can create The Beloved Community, right here on earth, as it is in heaven.

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