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By Their Fruits

 © Robert P. Hoch 

First & Franklin Presbyterian Church October 28, 2018 

From the Pastor’s Desk: 

On Sunday, I misstated the number of deaths this year. Last year, 342 people were killed in Baltimore. As I write, Baltimore has recorded 260 deaths since the beginning of 2018 – a grim achievement. 

Next Sunday, please plan to join us for the reading of all of Baltimore’s victims of homicide to date for this year. We will read the names as part of our All Saints Day observance. Following the service, we will tie 260-plus ribbons to the Park Avenue side of the church. We will eventually deliver these ribbons to city and state leaders. 

At the end of Sunday’s sermon, I called our congregation to participate in a BUILD action on November 3 to get out the vote for November 6. We will be joining other churches in the community in the last lap of the drive to encourage, nudge, remind, and help people to get to the polls on November 6. 

In terms of police presence for BUILD’s action Saturday, we may or may not have a police escort as we have in the past. BUILD has informed the major in charge of the Harlem neighborhood that we will be gathering. And BUILD has been given verbal assurance that the police will “kick-up” their street presence in the neighborhood. And on Sunday afternoon the Baltimore Police Department ordered an increased police presence around houses of worship throughout the City of Baltimore. 

If possible, please plan to join BUILD’s action to get out the vote on November 3rd. We will be meeting at 12 p.m. at the Roots and Branches Elementary School on 1807 Harlem Avenue, Baltimore, 21201. We will receive training from 12:00 to 12:30 and then we will canvass the neighborhood. Plan to be finished by 2:30 p.m. If you would like to participate and need additional information, please email Gwen Brown, organizer for BUID, at browngw83@gmail.com 

If you would like to carshare, please reach out to me at rhoch@firstfranklin.org. I plan to meet with volunteers who would like to carshare at the church at 11:30 a.m. We will leave for the action at 11:45 a.m. 

If you can’t make it, say a short prayer for our city, nation, and leaders. And remember to vote on November 6th . . . 

As Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea — for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As Jesus went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately, they left the boat and their father, and followed Jesus. 

Matthew 4:18-22 

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.” 

Matthew 5:9 

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, ask your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:43-48 

I am again in a place where the events of the previous few days cannot be passed over in silence. To do so, would be criminal negligence on my part. Or worse. Eleven people were gunned down on Saturday’s Shabbat service. Observant Jews had gathered in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA. They were praying. Singing. They were naming a child. And a white male came into the synagogue with an AK-47 style rifle started shooting and did not stop shooting until he himself was shot. Earlier he had posted a picture of a collection of pistols on Facebook, calling them his “Glock Family.” He was injured by police gunfire. Eleven people of prayer were killed in a house of prayer. Several others are seriously injured and in critical condition. 

One observer noted the irony that we send prayers to those who were shot while praying. 

Cesar Syoc mailed pipe bombs to 14 people plus the CNN newsroom: George Soros (October 22); Bill and Hillary Clinton (October 23); Barak Obama (October 24); John Brennan (October 24); CNN newsroom (October 24); Debbie Wasserman Schultz (October 24); Erik Holder (October 24); Maxine Waters (October 24); Robert DeNiro (October 25); Joe Biden (October 25); Cory Booker (October 26); James Clapper (October 26), Kamala Harris (October 26); and Tom Steyer (October 26). 

All received nearly identical pipe bombs. None exploded. But the explosion of fear is real enough. 

On Wednesday, October 24, Maurice E. Stallard and Vicki Lee Jones, both African Americans, were gunned down in a Kroger’s grocery store by a white male, 51-year-old Gregory Bush of Louisville, Kentucky. At the time of the shooting Maurice (he was shot in the back) was with his 12-year-old grandson. Bush had only a few minutes earlier tried to gain entrance into a predominantly Black church. It is being investigated as a hate crime. 

We struggle, I think, to comprehend what is happening in front of our very own eyes. We hear conspiracy theories, which are not only on fringe networks but circulating as mainstream media stories. So-called “mainline” politicians repeat those stories. Our president condemns the violence in its immediate aftermath and then, hours later, seems happy to hear people chanting, “Lock her up!” 

At his rallies, he mimics a violent attack on a journalist by a U.S. politician. He does this to cheers and applause. 

And, only a short time after saying we need to come together as a country, that political violence has no place, he says that the media has created this toxic environment. He points at the bank of journalists that cover his rallies and calls them “enemies of the people” — not very long ago, a gunman walked into the newsroom of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis with the intention of “killing every person present” (his words). Five people were murdered that day. 

We then guess or argue about whether the president’s remarks caused the extreme fringe to do extreme things. Is there causality? Did A lead to B? I think there is. Maybe you think not. Maybe you’re right. 

Or maybe causality is the wrong question. 

Dahlia Lithwick, a writer for Slate Magazine, says the question isn’t whether the president causes these tragedies by what he says or doesn’t say. We need to stop the guessing game. It’s a rabbit trail, leading nowhere. Instead, she urges us to examine what actually happens. Examine instead what his followers do, or what they believe the president wants them to do. 

She takes a familiar quote from novelist Maya Angelou: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” She says we need to rewrite it: “When someone shows you who they want their followers to be, believe them.” 

She says that the original quote — “when someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time” — this isn’t quite right for our present political environment. Instead, focus on who our purported leaders want their followers to be. What kind of life-form does their rhetoric give birth to? Do they want to create fear? Or anger? Or space where reconciliation is a real possibility? 

When someone shows us who they want their followers to be, believe them. 

“It’s a better fit,” she writes, “for an age in which reality is impossible to pin down and everything is a posture or a pose rather than a statement for which the issuer could be held accountable. It is a better fit for an age when allegedly thoughtful sober men claim this president was just being ‘playful’ when he celebrated assaulting journalists, or claim that he’s just using rhetoric when he says that he is indeed a nationalist, with all that word implies” (Dahlia Lithwick, “Stop Trying to Understand What Trump Says and Look at What His Followers Do” (October 27, 2018) accessed at https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2018/10/squirrel-hill-shooting-trump-anti- semitism-america.html). 

When someone shows you who they want their followers to be, believe them. 

When making an arrest, engage in police brutality. When you don’t like a journalist, body slam. When you disagree with her testimony, mock the victim at a rally. 

Do all those who support Trump do these things? No, not at all. Let me repeat, not at all. But there are those who believe Trump, who follow him, and make themselves into the image he portrays. When someone shows you who they want their followers to be, believe them. 

It’s an interesting notion. 

It brought to mind Jesus’ words: “Come follow me and I will make you fish for people.” Jesus says in Matthew, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” 

“Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse.” 

“Pray for your enemies.” 

“Give water to the thirsty, food to the hungry, shelter to the homeless. When you do these things, you have done it unto me . . .” 

You will be known as my followers because of the love you show. Jesus makes followers in his likeness. 

Jesus said, Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 

Everyone wants peace, but people who follow Jesus make peace because they follow the Prince of Peace. Not everyone who prays to Jesus, follows him. Not everyone who preaches Jesus, walks with him. But a follower of Jesus does look different. Somehow, the gentleness of Jesus shows. The tenderness of Jesus shows. The courage of Jesus shows. The love of Jesus shows. In the grit and on the doorsteps and in the street. 

Jesus wept with those who weep. In our city, there are over 250 people who have been murdered this past year. And many of their loved ones grieve in the closet. They can’t grieve the loss of their loved one openly. Shame. Poverty. Self-blame. Despair. Society does not acknowledge this tragedy. But Jesus makes us into disciples, who empathize with the hurting . . . we speak names otherwise ignored. 

We take a ribbon and, in the eyes of everyone, we stand with those that the world refuses to see. 

You resemble followers of Jesus . . . by their fruits you shall know them. 

Jesus died. And his followers insist that his death was not without meaning. We don’t always know what that meaning is, but we believe in resurrection, in light out of darkness, in joy after sorrow, in healing out of hurt, in life after death. 

And you’ll see that belief here every Sunday. 

Maybe in all of this, we have a simple duty. Show Jesus by being his followers in Baltimore. 

Baltimore United in Leadership Development (BUILD) invites us to join faith communities from this city in Sandtown Winchester next Saturday. It’s in the bulletin. 

It’s not a march. No angry signs, or sarcasm. We’re not signing people up for any party, Democrat or Republican. It’s walking in a neighborhood that knows a lot of loss. We’ll be working to get out the vote. 

The Baltimore Police Department has already increased its presence in our city, as it attempts to meet the upsurge in violence. So, yes, this is real. As real as it gets. As real as it was in the Tree of Life synagogue yesterday. As real as today in this house of prayer. 

If Jesus were here today, do you think Jesus would leave the fate of democracy to demagogues and nationalistic rallies and Facebook? 

What about his followers? What kind of community does Jesus want us to be?

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