There was a dark cloud over the city of Los Angeles this week. Flames ignited by a racist verdict and fannedby years of neglect and injustice destroyed the homes, the livelihood, and maybe even the hopes of innocent persons of all races. The city raged. The city cried. The city wounded itself in its anger.
We are angry. For many of us, our anger is mostly focused on the Rodney King verdict and how it representsmore than some isolated aberration, but rather a deep, long-term, widespread injustice. For some of us, our anger is focused on those who burn and loot and, out of either anger and frustration or greed and desperation, destroy parts of the city we love. And maybe for most of us the angeris directed at both. But whatever the focus of our anger, we can all join with Jesus as he weeps over the city saying,' would that even today you knew the things that made for peace.
Almost two thousand years ago there was a dark cloudover the city of Jerusalem. There was a crucifixion. De-struction and death seemed to reign. People had hoped that after years of oppression and suffering, after years of hopelessness and despair, their salvation had come. Butthen there was the verdict: "Crucify him!" The hope was crushed and the world fell apart.
And for many of us, in our personal lives, there is a dark cloud over our hearts. There is anger over our own hurts, there is fear about our own future, there is pain over how others have treated us, there is guilt over how we have treated others. So we, like the disciples following the crucifixion, hide behind shut doors, afraid of the outside world. Or we, like the looters, express our despair in self- destructive ways—hurting ourselves and those close to us.
There are times in our personal lives and in our life as a community when we face the fire—when fear burns inside us, or grief and pain singe our souls; when bitter-ness and resentment flame up in our hearts, blinding us with its heat and smoke. There are times in our lives when fire would seem so great that we believe our destruction is certain. We can hear no words of love over its crackling. We can see no images of hope beyond its flames. As Bruce Springsteen says:
When the night's quiet and you don't care anymore
And your eyes are tired, and-there's someone at
your door, and you realize you wanna let go.
And the weak lies and the cold walls you embrace
eat at your insides and leave you face to face
with streets of fire, streets of fire.
Each of us walk the streets of fire at times in our lives. Whether we come through these times as charred ruins or whether we come through them as refined silver dependson whether or not we have opened ourselves to God's presence with us in those times. If we meet the God of justice and compassion in the fire, then it will refine; if we do not, the fire will destroy.
Our scripture this morning has a powerful message for those who have come through fire and pain and who seek to make sense of it. Last Sunday I spoke about Thomas demanding to touch the wounds of the crucified one in order to believe in the resurrected one, and how we must touch the wounds of the Christ in the suffering of our neighbors if we are to experience the resurrection. We must not lock ourselves away in fear. We must be sent forth as Jesus sent forth his disciples from their hiding place behind the shut doors. We are sent forth to understand how and why people hurt.
This is the first thing I believe the resurrection gospel tells us about dealing with this situation. You cannot deal with it by pretending you can hide from it, or arm yourself against those threatening forces "out there." The wounds in our city are deep and unattended: a 50 percent unemployment rate in some of our neighborhoods, an increasingly widening gap between the rich and the poor, a siege mentality among many in law enforcement that tends to view whole communities as "the bad guys."
When vast sections of the population of a city have no stake in its economy, no access to its decision-making process, and no sense of being protected or served by its legal system, then the smoldering has already begun, and all that is needed is a gust of wind for the inferno to start. When people are neither protected nor served by the law, then lawlessness reigns. Lawlessness reigned long before the explosion of last week, and our neighborhoods have been looted for years. As Woody Guthrie said in his song about "Pretty Boy Floyd the Outlaw": "Some rob you with a six gun; and some with a fountain pen." These are hard realities to face, but our faith tells us that we cannot receive the resurrected one unless we receive the crucified one.
We must know and understand our city's wounds if we as a city are to have new life. The second way in which the disciples tried to deal with the trauma of the crucifixion, and that first appearance of the resurrected one pressuring them to get out from behind theshut door, was to try to get back to normal, to return to business as usual. Peter says, "I'm going fishing." The others like the idea. "We will go with you," they say. But this response was not productive. As the scripture says, "They went out, got into the boat; but that night, they caught nothing."
Those who believe in resurrection do not go back to normal following the crucifixion. They go on to new life. And we already see the signs of that new life here in L.A. Like the resurrected Christ cooking breakfast on the shoreline, we have begun our "Operation Resurrection,"setting up networks to bring food to the hungry, housing to the homeless, seedling the burned ground with renewed community efforts to bring healing and justice. For us to return to normal would be to return to the tomb. We do not go forth with our brooms and our shovels, like the women went to the tomb, to clean the body. We go forth to prepare the way for new life. No more business as usual.
Finally, another response to all this is to give in to asense of impotence. "Yes we care, but we are powerless to do anything about it." I believe it is this kind of spirit inPeter that Jesus challenged when he kept asking him, "Doyou love me?" "Yes I love you, Jesus, but what can I do?""Feed my sheep," says Jesus. Do we know and love the resurrected Christ? Well, then we have a hungry world to feed. And we can do it. Christ says go out into the deep andthrow out your nets again. "Don't tell me there aren'tenough resources. God has provided enough if you areguided by my love."
I am disturbed by some of the news reports about hownothing was done after the Watts riots. It's true thatthings have gotten worse in many ways. But some of thesereports seem to imply that nothing can or will be done. It's almost as if we are being prepared to lower our expectations, as if we are being set up for failure. But we are an Easter people, and we are called to claim the resources and the power to bring God's justice to the city of the angels and to heal its broken heart. Let us come now to the communion table that our hungers might be fed and that we might be nourished and strengthened for the work ahead.
This sermon was originally published in the book Dreams of Fire, Embers of Hope (a collection of sermons preached on the Sunday after April 29, 1992 in the pulpits of various faiths throughout the city).