For the week after Gray’s death, people protested but, to the best of my knowledge, things did not get out of hand. Then last Monday, the day of Gray’s funeral, riots broke out. People were hurt. Cars and buildings were burned. A curfew was imposed. The Governor of Maryland declared a state of emergency.
In one story I read, a resident of Baltimore was quoted as saying, “I've seen stuff like this on the news in other cities, but I never thought I would see it in front of my doorstep. It's crazy.”
The problem is that it is not crazy, not even particularly unusual.
Like she says, we have seen this before, with depressing frequency. We have seen stories like this one often enough that we become hardened to them. We interpret them with stereotypes: racist cops or angry Black youths or intractable urban problems or something like that. Then we move on.
But if we linger with the story, if we let ourselves feel its impact, if we hear it as a real story involving real people, if we think of it as part of our story, then it does seem crazy.
I am sorry for everyone involved. I am sorry for Gray’s family and friends, who grieve his loss in the midst of chaos. I am sorry for all the good cops who are unfairly smeared when people paint with too broad a brush. I am sorry for Baltimore residents who have to live in the aftermath of violence and destruction, as well as the alienation that comes with it.
But being sorry does not get us very far.
The pressing question for us is, can we think of events like this as part of our own story? Not just as something that happened in a city a long way away to people we do not know, but as the kind of thing that happens in our world? What can we learn about our world from what happened in Baltimore?
If we focus just on the death of a young man in police custody and the riots that it touched off, we get a glimpse of the sickness of our world. We see violence and poverty and racism. We see human pain and anger and suffering. We see hatred and judgment.
In Baltimore last week, we can see the sin and brokenness of our world. We see a desperate need for the good news.
We can also see some grace notes. Ordinary people turned out the day after the riots to clean the streets. They wanted to rebuild their communities, to show pride in their city. As one headline said, brooms had replaced bricks. That is part of the story of last week too.
But the real test has only begun. Going forward, what kind of community will Baltimore be?
Have the authorities learned to respond with overwhelming force to crush future protests? Will angry young men seek violent outlets for their rage? Then the cycle of injustice and violence will continue, and we can expect more eruptions.
Or will the community come together to pursue justice and the common good? Can the many different constituencies rise above their hurt and their suspicion and their anger? Can they experience transformation and grace?
That question is not just for Baltimore.
We are not there. But what happened in Baltimore last week is a striking picture of the world we all live in, a world marred by sin and suffering, interspersed with grace notes.
Like the people of Baltimore, if in our own ways, we have been hurt. We have been angry. We have done things we regret.
Like the people of Baltimore, we have experienced grace notes, God sightings. We have done what we can to rebuild broken relationships, to re-establish trust, to strengthen our communities.
Like the people of Baltimore, if normally less dramatically, we have had to ask ourselves the question, what now? Do I seek revenge against those who have hurt me? Or do I try to break free from the cycle of violence? Do I forgive? Do I love?
As soon as we ask the question we know the right answer. But it is hard. There are risks involved in making ourselves vulnerable to people who may hurt us.
But it is what Jesus did.
At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, Satan tempted him with power over all the nations of the world. If Jesus agreed, he would not be crucified. If he agreed, Jesus could force people to do right. Jesus could impose his will on a broken world. But that would mean bowing down to Satan.
So Jesus said no. Jesus said no to power and domination. Jesus chose crucifixion instead. Jesus chose to overcome evil with love, not with force. Jesus died, asking God to forgive those who killed him.
And Jesus calls us to do the same, to take up our crosses, to oppose evil and injustice with love.
We are a people shaped by what Christ did. We are a people shaped by the enduring presence of our crucified Lord.
As Christ’s Church, as the body of Christ in the world, as people empowered by the Holy Spirit of God, we are called to show forth God’s love, to be a community of love, to grow, and to help each other grow, into the image of our Lord.
We cannot change what the people of Baltimore will do as they try to put their community back together. That is their task, with God’s help.
But we can witness to the power and the possibility of self-sacrificial love in our world. We can witness to God’s commitment to justice and to love. We can witness to the constructive possibilities of forgiveness and mercy.
We cannot control what others do. We cannot guarantee that our witness will change anything at all.
But we can act in the faith and the hope that sustained Jesus through the cross and into the new life of resurrection. In this Easter season, we can act, confident that God’s grace will prevail in the end, somehow.
And our gospel reading reminds us how we can do that: by abiding in Christ as Christ abides in us.
Faced with his own great suffering, on the last night before he was arrested, Jesus said to his disciples, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit . . . .” But “apart from me you can do nothing.”
In the end, our task is simple. Our task is to abide in the Christ who abides in us. We draw our life from Christ who roots us in God.
Without our divine life source, we can do nothing.
But when we act out of our abiding in Christ, when Christ’s life flows through us as we act in the world, then we can leave the results to God, hoping that somehow we will bear fruit in his name, that somehow the world will come to know the love of God a little bit better.
And so I give thanks to God for the new life that Christ makes possible despite the brokenness of our world, for the invitation to abide in that life, and for the hope that our fruit may somehow contribute to God’s final victory.
In the name of our crucified and risen Lord. Amen.