ON Scripture: Preaching Reflections on Michael Brown and Ferguson
Editor's Note: In light of this week’s events in Ferguson, Missouri, several writers at ON Scripture took a few moments to reflect upon what they would/will be preaching on this Sunday. To continue the conversation, join on Twitter at #onscripture.
Eric D. Barreto, Associate Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary: St Paul, MN
The last thing a preacher wants to do on a Saturday night is to log into Facebook.
I exaggerate, of course, but I found myself scrambling last week when I learned of Michael Brown’s shooting last Saturday. My sermon for Sunday morning was ready to go. But I had to reassess all my work when I heard the witness of so many African American friends in particular as the news from Ferguson began spreading across social media. The frustration and disbelief, rage and disappointment, resignation and passion I heard moved me. But even more convicting was the fact that so many others were simply unaware of this event at the moment and unfazed by its repercussions.
In certain communities, no one had to pay attention to Michael Brown. In certain communities, his death did not resonate with significance. In certain communities, no one would confront the preacher and ask why she did not respond to the death of this young person.
And yet in other communities, his death was a touchstone, a cause for prayer and lament and righteous anger and faithful expectation.
These distinct reactions are a raw reminder that our communities of faith remain largely segregated. Though we worship the same God, the contexts within which we seek God’s face are radically different. In such a divided context, what does it look like to love your neighbor? What does it look like to be “one” church even as we are profoundly divided?
In Luke 15, Jesus weaves together three powerful parables. One is about a lost sheep, the second about a lost coin, the third about a lost son. We often read these stories as parables about God seeking us out, about God’s relentless love for the sinner. While this is certainly true, this is not the primary impetus for Jesus’ telling of these stories. Instead, he was motivated by the grumbling of certain authorities that Jesus shared meals with sinners and tax collectors. In short, Jesus was eating with “those” people, people we don’t actually value as children of God.
These parables are about those of us on the inside more than it is about those on the “outside.” The parables are about the “found” more than they are about the “lost.” In fact, it may be the “found” and “righteous” who are most lost and mired in sin. As long as that one coin is lost, as long as that one sheep is wandering in the wilderness, as long as our ungrateful brother is squandering his inheritance,we are not we.
We are not complete as long as our sisters and brothers are not in our lives, as long as their voices and cries, insights and anxieties are unheeded. These parables demand that we turn to those neighbors we blithely neglect or purposefully avoid. These parables call us to a radical love.
In other words, God is drawing us to our neighbors near and far. This is one of the gifts and delightful burdens of social media. Our neighbors are no longer just next door or even in our neighborhood. Our neighbors are here and there and in places we have never imagined. God is calling us to listen to them. Our preaching should do likewise this Sunday and every one after.
Billy Michael Honor, New Life Presbyterian Church: College Park, GA
Admittedly, in the spirit of the late Reverend Dr. Vernon Johns who once preached the sermon “It’s safe to murder Negroes,” I was quite tempted this coming Sunday to preach a sermon of my own titled “It’s still safe to murder Negroes.” But upon further reflection I’ve chosen to homiletically respond to the police shooting of young Michael Brown and the ensuing outrage of the Ferguson black community with a sermon titled “Confessions of a Tired Black Preacher.”
Generally speaking the sermon will invite hearers into my struggle as a young black male preacher in the United of States America, as I try to understand what the message of the Christian gospel has to say to the perils of racial prejudice in our times. The substance of the sermon will be my attempt to show that the Christian gospel calls us to directly confront racial and ethnic prejudice in all of its various forms. Though I will use various historical, theological, and artistic sources to make this point, my primary source will be the New Testament Book of Acts (chapter 10, verses 9-35). By using these verses which contain the story of how the Apostle Peter was confronted and then convicted by the Spirit about his prejudice against all non-Jews, I hope to inspire listeners to confront the prejudice in their own hearts and communities. I also hope to show through these verses that the gospel requires us to confront and change systems of racial and social privilege that continue foster feelings of mistrust and animus among various groups.
Finally, I hope to encourage the hearers not to give up or get weary. But to keep fighting the good fight until justice rolls down like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!
Valerie Bridgeman, Visiting Associate Professor of Homiletics and Hebrew Bible, Methodist Theological School in Ohio: Delaware, Ohio
“Wounded for Us”
….But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities….
—Isaiah 53:1-8 (NRSV)
Known as one of the “suffering” servants” passages, Isaiah 53:1-8 is considered by many Christians to be a prophetic utterance about Jesus’ passion. Jewish interpreters, for whom these passages were first written, do not think of them this way of course. For them, these texts are about a Messiah to come who will bear away all offense so that the people of God may be redeemed. Some scholars have said that the suffering servant is in fact the whole “chosen people” collectively.
But I am struck by this text in the wake of Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson, MO.
Brown was cut down at age 18 when bullets shot by a police officer riddled his surrendering body. We have the testimonies of at least two eyewitnesses and a slowly developing story from the police of what happened. But from where I sit, no matter which story one is inclined to believe, Michael Brown has become a symbol, a scapegoat really, of our diseased society, of the US body politick.
We were subjected to the sight of his body uncovered and surrounded by police. Witnesses say it was there for four hours (though the official state-sanctioned account is that he was covered after 15 minutes). One witness said the officer just kept shooting him and never attended his felled body. He was struck down. And some sectors of our society believe he was slaughtered like an animal; others, that he was struck down “by God” (i.e., a agent of the god-ordained or even divine state).
Michael Brown’s death has exposed our transgressions and our iniquities as a country and a culture. The centuries’ old illness of racism and dehumanizing black bodies reared its head this past week. Black citizens saw police strapped for war zone combat in the face of their grief and protests.
These Ferguson citizens screamed in the face of police who trained their military-grade weapons on the crowds. Wounded. And Michael Brown became the symbol of a community’s rejection, of black communities–not just in Ferguson, but throughout the country–being despised.
I know. Slowly, we are hearing that Michael wasn’t “innocent,” that he had stolen cigars. But we will not know that from him, and it is hard for some of us to trust any report from those who have taken more than 4 days to give an account. Michael was crushed and bore the punishment for being black in the USA for us all.
It’s not the typical “Jesus reading” of this text, is it? But “by a perversion of justice,” Michael’s life was snuffed out; he was “cut off from the land of the living.” And we have been left to ponder how we will be a people of a different Realm, one that does not need a scapegoat, one that does not despise or reject ANYONE. We are left to ask of God, “Why are the Michaels of our communities bearing all our iniquities?”
And dear God, how do we repent so that it never happens again?
Greg Carey, Professor of New Testament, Lancaster Theological Seminary: Lancaster, PA
This week many churches will read Matthew 15:21-28, the story of the Canaanite woman who approaches Jesus, as their Gospel lesson. I can’t imagine a richer text that might help congregations grapple with Michael Brown’s shooting and the intense conflicts that have followed it.
I find the Canaanite woman’s story hard to hear. Here’s a woman who needs help for her daughter, yet she just doesn’t count as a real person. Nor does her daughter. Jesus’ disciples want Jesus to send her away, and Jesus seems to agree. Jesus refuses to meet her, dismissing her because she is not an Israelite: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” (15:24). She kneels before Jesus, and he calls her a dog. Jesus and his disciples deny this woman’s humanity.
People are angry in Ferguson, and around the country, because their humanity has been denied. Witnesses say Michael Brown was shot after he stopped and put his hands in the air. We’ve heard too many stories of unarmed black men being killed or beaten when they pose no real danger to anyone.
One key dimension in our society’s race struggles involves the failure of white people to hear—and believe—the experiences of our non-white neighbors. The Canaanite woman struggles to be heard. She cries out. That doesn’t work. She kneels and begs. Jesus rejects her. Finally, she says something so clever that Jesus relents and grants her request—the only person who wins an argument with Jesus. What does it take to be heard?
The Canaanite woman’s story shows us what it looks like when someone’s humanity is denied and what it sounds like when no one will listen. Congregations need time to reflect on these realities—and how they play out in our society.
Karyn L. Wiseman, Associate Professor of Homiletics, The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia: Philadelphia PA
One of the most important things in preaching is addressing the particular context of the specific day, place, and time for your preaching. On this upcoming Sunday there is no doubt that the issues around the tragic death of Michael Brown should be addressed in any and all contexts. Being sensitive to the needs of your particular context in regards to race, violence, oppression, police intervention, the nature of peaceful protests, the cry for justice, and the dramatic fear for the children, especially sons, within the African American community is vital.
Some congregations, unfortunately, live this reality day in and day out. Addressing another child taken by violence will be regrettable, but imperative and natural. The outrage will be very visceral and real. The cry for justice for all persons in these communities is part of the witness of faith.
Some congregations, however, will feel as if this is an event affecting others—someone unlike themselves. Addressing this situation with them is even more imperative, in my opinion. We have to find ways to relate to, understand, connect to, and empathize with our brothers and sisters of color. Finding connective moments in the texts and stories to help your listeners relate in more personal ways will be important.
Our Christian faith and our human morality implore us to see the world not as the priest or Levite walking by the one on the side of the road, but, instead, to view the world through the eyes of the broken and battered one on the side of the road. This takes work on all our parts, more for some than others since their life experiences are more in line with the “walkers” than with the “side of a road” person’s reality.
The lectionary reading for this week, Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28, reminds us that even Jesus had to be pushed to open up to ALL persons. The cultural and social standards of the day excluded Canaanites. But the mother in this text refused to accept Jesus’ first response of exclusion. She pushed and persisted until he relented. This moment opens up Jesus’ ministry to all persons in powerful ways. We, too, regardless of our contexts need to persist in calling for justice—for all persons. Keep on pushing for change.
Brian Bantum, Associate Professor of Theology, Seattle Pacific University: Seattle, WA
“For if any one is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who observes his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.” (James 1:23)
There is no justice without sight.
How can we begin to see what justice might look like if we cannot acknowledge our nation’s cataracts? How does a nation that perpetually responds to threats to its “security” with tens of thousands of troops, drones, and other murderous technologies begin to speak peace in its own cities and suburbs? We are so drunk with our own power that we see even the smallest affront as having murderous intent and respond with a force inflated with the steroids of wealth and fear, killing the guilty and the innocent alike all the while imagining ourselves as the innocent victims.
When will America begin to see itself as it is? When will it flee from its self-deception and remember its legacy? We are a nation built upon a color line. It is a line that does not need to be spoken, but winds itself around the necks of the dark peoples of this nation with distorted images and “probable cause” and “diseased” illegal aliens and the presumption of black criminality that defunds schools and builds prisons.
We cannot know justice until we can begin to see ourselves as we are: a nation that does not see itself as it is. Do we have the courage to glance at the mirror again? What will we see in our schools, in our neighborhoods, in our cities and our workplaces? Can we begin to see ourselves in the words spoken to us by those who have been killed, jailed, and oppressed for so long?
This post first appeared at ON Scripture, a project of Odyssey Networks.