Sermon: “Baltimore, Why?”

1 John 4:7-21

At first it seemed like footage from a movie.  Or maybe the news from a country full of unrest.  But the images were next door, literally.  A member of our church, Josh Banks, saw the flames out his apartment window on Monday night as parts of an urban farm burned.   Like many of you, I have gotten calls and emails from people in other parts of the country, and even from Cuba, worried about my family and concerned for our church and our city.

We all should be concerned for our city.  Riots are never the answer, but a clue to deeper problems.  Martin Luther King’s definition of a riot was repeated in several of his speeches almost 50 years ago:  He said:  “a riot is the language of the unheard.”  He would never condone rioting, he was committed to non-violent resistance.  I have not heard anyone this week condoning the rioters’ behaviors.  No one thinks it is a good idea to destroy property anywhere, but it is especially senseless to destroy property in your own neighborhood.  I see a lot of wisdom in King’s assessment.   Communities who have too long been unheard will use rioting and violence in order to be heard, an extreme measure in order to get us to listen.  And I say, us, because we are all in this, no matter which country you come from, which color your skin is, or which language you prefer.  If you live here, you are a part of a system that has perpetrated injustice for too long, particularly toward poor blacks, and even more particularly, poor black men.  Anger and frustration have boiled over into harmful behavior, using a language that shouts a message in the faces of our police department, our city leaders, and our churches.

We are Baltimore.  Some of us have lived here all of our lives, and some are much more recent arrivals.  But we make up Baltimore today.  So I turn to you, Baltimore, and I ask:  why?  Why did this happen this way?  Why did this particular death of a young man named Freddie Gray ignite protests calling for justice?  And why did the peaceful protests turn ugly and violent and harmful?  Why are we under a state of emergency with a curfew and 2000 national guard members patrolling our streets?  Why, Baltimore, why?

There are no easy answers.  It is clear that the riots were not only out of anger over the treatment of Mr. Gray by police officers.   The roots of this rioting and looting are very deep.  There are people in this city who have grown up in poverty stricken neighborhoods, who have to overcome huge obstacles in order to break out of the cycle of poverty.  There are young children who are wise way beyond their years about what goes on at their street corner.  There are families who are broken by addictions of various kinds, broken with little hope of restoration.  Poverty is a root of rioting, Baltimore.

Social injustice, double standards, racial profiling, inequitable treatment at the loan office or the swim league or even while shopping at JC Penney’s.  It is the racism word we all hate to hear but which can not be ignored.  Long term, systemic injustice based on race, on socioeconomic class, on education level is a root of rioting, Baltimore.

Other roots are the pent up anger and frustration, the lack of opportunities for healthy recreational outlets, the barriers to post high school education, the scarcity of real jobs, and a sense that things are never going to change.   James Parks, in his prayer for justice on Friday afternoon’s prayer vigil described people living in the strait jackets of poverty, injustice and oppression. Each of these are roots of rioting, Baltimore.

Cleaning up the broken glass, offering food and water, providing a place to renew prescriptions for those who lost a pharmacy, rebuilding the corner store are important responses to rioting.  But until we, Baltimore, confront the roots, we continue to be at risk of escalating violence.   In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., : “social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”           (MLK, 1967)

First, we have to admit why, Baltimore.  Only then can we begin to really address injustice as a community.  It is not just policing.  It is not just decisions of one elected official or another.  It is woven into the fabric of Baltimore.  But our work in our community is more than preventing future riots.

Our work is love.  As Christians, we operate on love.  The  simple command we have from the Lord is to love one another.  We heard the word love over and over again this morning in the scripture.  Why love?  Because love comes from God first.  Love in the form of a savior, Jesus.  Love which offers life.  Love which becomes our modus operandi because we are the recipients of love.  Love which becomes visible.  It is a simple message and it can take many forms.  I like what one artist has done with his love project.  Michael Owen has made Baltimore buildings in various neighborhoods around the city his outdoor art gallery, painting what has been called a love letter to Baltimore using  silhouettes of hands, anyone’s hands, spelling out love.  What if love did speak out from our walls, from our homes, from our church?  What if we were, as James Parks prayed on Friday, “fulltime, every day outlets for God’s love and justice”?

I just wanted to start the conversation this morning.  It is a first step. But the conversation must continue…

How would you complete these sentences?

If I/we really listen to Baltimore, I/we might hear…..


One way I can demonstrate God’s love to Baltimore is….


Then take the conversation home with you to ponder. Let’s keep talking and work together to change a broken system.  Amen.

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