Real Friendship, Real Justice, Real Love

John 15:1-8

baltimore.jpegBy now the majority of your have at least heard or read something about the story of Freddie Gray, they young man who died in a police van in Baltimore, Maryland. I’m sure you’ve heard about the protests of recent weeks and days and also about looting and violence. And perhaps you’ve also heard that six police offers have been charged in the death of Freddie Gray. Stories like this one in the media come and go [because…ratings], but I hope we won’t be so fickle. It is up to all of us as individuals to read as much as we can and to diversify what information we put in our heads. It’s important to continue to read stories from people in Baltimore, and not to just take the word of media outlets as to what we should pay attention to or what’s trending.

It’s also important to not ignore Baltimore—its people, and the cries of: Black Lives Matter! Baltimore is Philadelphia, or any town, suburb, or neighborhood. The systemic problems in society of racism and discrimination, of violence and mistrust, are present everywhere and are embedded in our communities.


Sadly, most churches will remain silent. It will be “business as usual” and things will go on as if nothing has happened or is happening.

Why is this?

The quick answer is that the institutional church is a part of society and so reflects the embedded racism and discrimination. One doesn’t have to look hard to see that churches are segregated. We could spend weeks talking about that.

Frankly, I am tired of all this—so can you imagine how my African-American friends and colleagues feel? Another killing in another street in another city involving another Black life. And no, this is not about demonizing police officers. This is about people who feel that they don’t have a voice, that they are treated like junk when they are human and deserve so much better.

But I’m white and I’m male; I’m privileged.
I can talk and talk about this but I’d rather just listen. So I have been. I’ve been attentive to the voices crying out on Twitter, Facebook, news outlets, and I’ve listened to my friends and colleagues face to face–in a café, in a restaurant, in a church, on the basketball court.

And so I’d like to share some thoughts from some African-American voices. Preachers, teachers—people.
You may find the full texts of their messages here:

The first is Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D., someone I met a couple of years ago when she was still in Philly. Now she teaches Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School in Texas.

wil.jpegShe shares:

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.

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…

God builds the beloved community through the encounter of [very different] bodies. God can use them to transform the world, because they listen to and hear each other.​

markt.jpegThe Rev. Mark Tyler,
Pastor of Mother Bethel AME Church, member of POWER, and a partner of the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia.

If our nation cared as much about the lives of Black people as it does the loss of property, we would not be discussing Baltimore this morning. “We will prosecute to the full extent of the law” is what is heard when talking about looting, but silence is heard when unarmed, handcuffed Black men are killed by the police. Why not the same anger and outrage for dead people as burned out buildings?

juliab.jpegJulia Blount, a NY Middle School Teacher:

Every comment or post I have read today voicing some version of disdain for the people of Baltimore — “I can’t understand” or “They’re destroying their own community” or “Destruction of Property!” or “Thugs” — tells me that many of you are not listening. I am not asking you to condone or agree with violence. I just need you to listen. You don’t have to say anything if you don’t want to, but instead of forming an opinion or drawing a conclusion, please let me tell you what I hear:
I hear hopelessness; I hear oppression; I hear pain; I hear internalized oppression; I hear despair; I hear anger; I hear poverty.

I try to conceptualize what it is like for my students who got wanded by the NYPD, my students who have been stopped and frisked, my students whose parents work multiple jobs, my students on free and reduced-price lunch, my students whom white adults move away from because they look “scary.”

I try, when I can, to listen to them, because only by validating their feelings can we begin to find a way to overcome the challenges they face. That doesn’t mean I let them off easy when they do something wrong. But I try to understand the why.

I don’t need you to validate anyone’s actions, but I need you to validate what black America is feeling. If you cannot understand how experiences like mine or my students’ would lead to hopelessness, pain, anger, and internalized oppression, you are still not listening. So listen. Listen with your heart.

jacqui.jpegAnd Rev. Jacqueline J. Lewis, Ph.D., Senior Minister at Middle Collegiate Church: New York, NY. She writes:

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.

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.

Love is the power with which we can do more than we can even imagine.

As we grieve today, as we mourn today, as we work for justice today, I urge you to consider that all of our holy texts hold love as a value.

Considering all this, I am thinking about love and this idea of a vinegrower, a vine, and some branches.

The vinegrower created love—look at creation. It’s beauty, it’s harmony, it’s love.
Then the vine, according to John’s Gospel, was and is the full expression of that love. Love for the cosmos, love for ALL humanity.

And the branches? Well, if they stay connected to that vine, then they stay connected to the vinegrower—to the source of love.

The branches then become creators themselves—creating love in the world. Branching out with that love and cultivating it. This is the fruit.

But love is not an abstract concept in this case. It’s not romantic or easy.

Love is about being in relationship with people.

If we truly want to create a world that is peaceful and full of loving relationships, then we have to orient every part of our being in that direction. We can’t just talk about it. We have to bear that fruit in our personal and collective lives. We have to choose to connect to people who also are striving for peace, justice, and love. Sometimes we have to cut ourselves off from those who are destroying, killing, and separating and discriminating. We have to join hands, minds, and hearts with those who strive for a more peaceful and loving world; with those who are honest about the sickness in society; with those who tell the truth even when it’s unpopular; with those who are not afraid to stand up for justice or to stand with someone who is marginalized.

This is real love.
This is real friendship.

Choosing to be branches means asking this question:
What kind of world do we want to create?

We have the ability to create on this earth. We can create peace, love, and justice, or we can create violence, hate, and injustice.

So what do we really want to create?

We’re not helpless on this planet. We’re not puppets in a show—unless we decide to act like it. We are free to not just believe in things, or to pray about them, or even just to talk about them—we are free to create the things we want to happen.

paulsplaceJayna Powell has known me since I was a baby. She went to seminary with my dad. Jayna lives in Baltimore and is the director of volunteers at Paul’s Place, Inc. Paul’s Place is an organization striving to improve the quality of life in the Washington Village/Pigtown neighborhood and the surrounding Southwest Baltimore communities. They provide programs, services, and support that strengthen individuals and families, fostering hope, personal dignity and growth.

This past week, Jayna and others at Paul’s Place were posting to Facebook. Here are some of their posts:

The last 24 hours have been difficult ones for the people of the City of Baltimore. We have witnessed deeply troubling violence engulf portions of this city. At a time like this, it would be very easy for us to collectively give in to despair and uncertainty for the future.

That is precisely why the work of Paul’s Place has the power to positively transform the lives of our guests. Rest assured that our staff, volunteers, and partners will continue to promote our mission, always treating everyone with dignity and respect.

Even though this hour may seem dark, we at Paul’s Place are committed to helping everyone we serve be able to move to a brighter future.

We join all others in praying for our city today. We are so saddened by the events of last night. The violence that happened in our city was not in our neighborhood and today we will have hundreds of people coming to find a safe place for a warm meal. And we need volunteers to serve it!

We have a HUGE donation of clothes to be sorted…if you can, please come ANY TIME today to help us serve our meal (at 11) and sort clothes…ALL DAY!

Folks heard our call to action and dozens have showed with a simple, “How can I help?” We have witnessed the true spirit of Baltimore and her people as neighbors from near and far pour into our doors looking to serve and #‎Bmore. Thank you to our amazing volunteers!

Come on down and help us serve our guests again as we make a point to show that we are here…no matter what rages around us…we are here to serve! Thank you Baltimore for your support!

Friends, we have a choice to create and cultivate love in our communities and in our world. Let’s not stand by and wait to do it. Let’s not ignore the cries of those who are not heard.

Let’s listen.

And then let’s love.

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Josh grew up in the Midwest before completing a B.A. in Theatre at Northwestern College [IA] and a Masters of Divinity [M.Div.] at Princeton Theological Seminary [NJ]. An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ [UCC], Josh has lived and worked in the Midwest, East Coast, Hawai’i, and Mexico. He is the co-founder and Executive Director of The Welcome Project PA, host of the Bucks-Mont PRIDE Festival, and he is Pastor of Love In Action UCC, an open and affirming congregation featured in a Vox Media episode of Divided States of Women with Liz Plank and in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Josh has 20+ years of nonprofit experience, including leading workshops and training in corporate, medical, and academic settings, focused on diversity & inclusion, grant writing, fund raising, and program management. Josh is a fellow of Interfaith Philadelphia, and designs and coordinates HS and University student groups for interfaith immersion service-learning weeks. Josh also co-facilitates Ally trainings for LGBTQIA+ inclusion and interfaith cooperation. He is a founding member of The Society for Faith & Justice, and a Collaborator for Nurturing Justice, and a member of the Driving PA Forward team via New Sanctuary Movement. He also performs regularly with the dinner theatre company, Without a Cue Productions, and has developed theatre arts curriculum for use in religious and secular settings. Josh also enjoys running, singing, traveling, learning languages, or making strange and funny faces. He lives in Center City Philly.

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