In ancient times waters stood for chaos. In the first chapter of Genesis the Spirit of God hovers over the waters. God brings life out of darkness, out of the waters, out of chaos.
God parts waters. And God brings life and freedom out of human chaos as well. Scholars tell us Exodus is partly an “origin story” for God’s people. When that Red sea parted, when the people marched out of Egypt, escaped slavery, when God’s people walked through on dry ground, they wrote their origin story. Salvation was an act of creation. The people of the bible became the people saved by God.
That night, with the fiery cloud and Egyptian army at their back, and with the sea ahead of them, God’s people learned who God would be to them. God is a God who saves. Our God sees us through the chaos to freedom.
It’s been a long weekend.
Friday morning we learned that former police officer Jason Stockley was found not-guilty of the murder of Anthony Lamar Smith. Perhaps this verdict feels most painful because it feels like nothing has changed. Hundreds of protests happened after Ferguson. We marched. We met. We prayed. After countless dialogues, discussions, and trainings, it feels like nothing has changed.
Earlier this week I had coffee with a colleague, an attorney who spent most of her career working pro-bono or legal aid cases. She practiced what is sometimes called “poverty law.” This was several days before the verdict came out, and my friend was sure the officer would be found “not guilty.” Missouri law, in her experience, gives some of the broadest authorization to use force of any state law. She said it would be almost impossible to prove premeditated murder, even with the evidence so many of us have seen and heard. I told my colleague that I was still holding out hope there would be something other than a not-guilty verdict, some continuance or lesser charge. Sadly my colleague was right. She knew this history, knew the law, and knew the judge.
In the last few days we have seen pain and anger erupt again in St. Louis. We’ve seen some chaos this weekend: Streets and businesses shut down. Tear gas has been sprayed. Rubber bullets have been shot. Bricks have been thrown. Windows have broken. Protesters have been arrested. I know a number of us are feeling sad, angry, frustrated.
I know a number of you here had tickets for the U2 concert that was cancelled. I know that’s one of our demographics. I know some of you are upset Ed Sheeren’s show was cancelled, that’s one of our demographics too. I know some of you were upset you missed seeing Nick Cannon who was out protesting last night, that’s another demographic. And I know a number of you have no idea who any of those folks are. That’s another demographic here at Holy Communion as well.
I know that many of us wish this would all just go away, just calm down.
I want to invite you to pause.
Over and over again we’ve heard these protests are about the verdict that was released Friday. Newscasters and neighbors have debated evidence, talked about whether this man’s death serves as a worthy cause to protest.
I want to ask: is this verdict really the reason for the protest? Is the death of Anthony Lamar Smith really at the heart of what we’re seeing in St. Louis? I ask that question because so much of the debate seems centered on the evidence in this particular case. So much of the news coverage switches between talking about the latest action on the streets and debating the merits of the case.
Now, I have hangups about what the judge decided. I do not have a law degree, but I have a hard time when a judge introduces conjecture into an opinion, and particularly when a white official uses words like “urban” to describe his bias in the case. The verdict reads with such a double standard. The judge starts the opinion with pages about how he is bound to find the facts of the case, not to be swayed by public opinion. Then he tells us that in his opinion it would be an “anomaly” for an “urban heroin dealer” not to have a gun. Let’s talk about anomalies: it would be an anomaly for a white judge to convict a white police officer for killing a black person.
Beyond that I promise I’ll leave the questions of legality and judicial analysis to the attorneys.
This weekend I kept coming back to something I heard from our friend Noah Bullock, when we were down in El Salvador. Noah is the executive Director of Cristosal, an organization we partner with fighting for human rights in Central America. Noah talked about how often human rights abuses are committed against people who are labeled as “criminals.” Noah said, “even if someone has a criminal record, they have human rights.” That’s what we mean when we call rights “inalienable.” Christians only believe in one “blameless victim.” (That’s Jesus). Moses didn’t have clean record. He lead God’s people out of Egypt, but before that he had killed an Egyptian. Moses wasn’t clean.
So I want to ask, is the best use of our energy debating the facts of this specific case, or should we see what is happening in St. Louis as one facet of a larger question? Is all of this anger part of a larger story? Can we see the pain and anger as part of something bigger, something systemic? If we spend our energy defending the verdict, our we ignoring the system? The systemic racism so many encounter day in and day out? Is this all about one verdict? Really? Ask yourself. Question your newscaster, your co-worker, is one verdict all that’s at stake, or is the verdict a symptom?
A small group of us from Holy Communion tried to join in an action at Kiener plaza yesterday. I say we tried, because we found out once we made it to the plaza that we were in the wrong place. So we drove up to Delmar. After marching just a few blocks, I got a phone call from organizers asking if Holy Communion might serve as a sanctuary in case the action turned into a massive confrontation. I spent most of the evening standing at the door of University United Methodist Church, waiting to see which way the march would move. The stoop outside University United Methodist turned into an interfaith pastors meeting as Orthodox Jewish, Presbyterian, and UCC colleagues all showed up and talked as we waited to see if we were needed.
I know not everyone in this congregation feels comfortable joining in the protests. I personally have struggled with how to engage. I struggle with the protests. I really do. Seeing all of the broken glass in the loop this morning after I listened to the organizers pleading with folks to leave peacefully, it makes me angry.
I trained as a community organizer in my last parish, and I find the kind of protest we’ve seen in St. Louis frustrating. I want planned direct action to provoke some specific reactions. I want a list of demands. I worry that the statements we heard from the governor and the mayor about “protecting the right to protest” mean that many of our officials don’t plan on making any changes. They don’t see the organizers as a body that can make change, but rather as a problem to manage. The government is simply planning to wait out the activists. I feel frustrated, and and, as a white cis-gendered clergy person, I know that part of my job, especially on these issues, is to keep listening.
But even as I struggle with how to respond to the calls to clergy and people of faith to show up, I keep thinking about this story from Exodus. That next morning, after the walk through the sea: the Egyptian army is no more. Israel is no longer in Egypt’s land, but the work has just begun. God’s people don’t cross through the Red Sea and march straight into the promised land. It’s not that easy. They march into the desert, into the wilderness.
Back in February Dr. Howard-John Wesley, the pastor of Alfred Street Baptist Church in the Washington DC area preached about Dr. King’s time in Jamaica after the passing of the Civil Rights act in 1964 and the Voter’s Rights Act of 1965. Brother Martin took some time after these landmark wins to contemplate what came next, after these two landmark laws. After the laws were passed there were still riots in Watts, California and worker strikes up in Detroit, Michigan. So Dr King took some down time in Jamaica to think and to pray. And he wrote his fourth and final book: “Where do we go from here?: Chaos or Community.” Dr. Wesley argues that we are still asking that question in America. Where do we go from here?
That’s the question facing God’s people who have just crossed the sea, isn’t it? Where do we go from here? After this verdict, after this weekend, after these three long years in St. Louis Missouri, where do we go from here?
In Dr. King’s eyes there were two potential destinations: chaos or community. You can wander around the desert lost forever, or you can start making your way to Jerusalem.
Over the next days I will continue to turn up for actions, because I believe it is important to witness the pain and the anger in the black community, and I believe it is important to witness the moments like I did last night, hours before any property damage occurred, when the leaders told folks to go home. I believe I have listening to do. And I will be taking my own safety, and the safety of anyone who comes out from Holy Communion very seriously. I would rather err on the side of caution.
But I want to make another commitment with you today. That commitment is this: Our work won’t end when this season of protests quiets down.
A few weeks ago your senior warden Scott Ferguson and I hosted a small gathering of clergy and lay church leaders from around the St. Louis Metro area. We met with an organizer friend from Washington DC who talked about the work that has been done in Baltimore and Cleveland over the past three years. Cleveland and Baltimore saw similar protests following officer involved shootings in 2014, but there is an important difference between our city and those cities. Both Baltimore and Cleveland have elected new prosecutors in the last two years. and in of those other cities every candidate who ran for county prosecutor promised to engage a special prosecutor for every officer involved shooting. Both cities have a coalition, led by people of faith, that demanded action and sustained attention after the protests were through.
Interfaith coalitions with that kind of power take a long time to build. Faith organizations that can win protections for human rights, for human dignity, they take time and energy. My friend Martin Trimble, the organizer who was with us a couple of weeks ago described those years of building relationships, he called it “slow patient work.”
I keep coming back to that phrase. I have a feeling that what’s next involves a mix of listening, of witnessing, and if we want to see a change, it is going to take a great deal of slow patient work.
So today, I finish this sermon with an invitation to pray. Pray for the St. Louis region. Pray for the days and nights ahead. And, if you can, pray with your feet. But after these nights pass, keep praying. Build relationships. Question the narrative your receiving, and listen. The road to the promised land is long, and we will only get there together. We are seeing these days that it will take a great deal of slow patient work to follow God out of the chaos and into the beloved community. May God bless us on the journey.