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Breaking Silence

A sermon preached by Jay P. Rowland at the First Presbyterian Church, Rochester MN on January 17, 2016.  To learn more online about Martin Luther King, jr and read his some of work:


Text: Isaiah 62:1-5

Breaking Silence

My daughter Hannah is working on a family history project for school.  She’s gathering history about my parents and grandparents. And about me too.  About my life before I got married. She was particularly interested in the years I lived in Los Angeles about 25 years ago now …

Once I started down that road I kept going.  I guess the memories were ready to spill. One memory in particular I’ve found myself remembering often in recent months. That memory is filed under the man’s name: Rodney King.  As I’ve thought about the Isaiah passage, those thoughts collided with my memories of that situation and I’m still not sure what to do with it all.

I find myself wanting to remember it here and now, in this pulpit, during a worship service… and hope that God can and will use it as only God can for God’s own purposes.

[1]In the hours after midnight one March evening in 1991, Rodney King was driving with two friends in his car with him.  For whatever reason the California Highway Patrol (CHP) took interest and spun their lights to pull him over. King did have a criminal record and happened to be out on parole for some offense. When the CHP chirped he admittedly panicked and sped up to try to get away. A high-speed chase began and the Los Angeles Police (LAPD) joined in at that point. King came to his senses and decided to end the chase and pull over. What happened next was … unforgettable.

LAPD officers ordered his two friends out of the vehicle without incident. The officers ordered King under arrest and moved in.  They tasered him, tackled him and hit him with their side-handled clubs to bring him down to the ground. Once down, LAPD officers continued to beat him into submission kicking him and striking him more than fifty times with their clubs.[2]

These days the issue of excessive force by police is no longer under the radar.  In the year 2016 it’s called a “trending” issue. But back in 1991 most people didn’t think much about it–or I should say most white folks like me didn’t. But the African American community in LA and many U.S. had been telling anyone who would listen.  Nobody was listening.  Until that night in LA when a man named George Holliday heard the commotion outside his apartment building 90 feet away, picked up his brand new video-camera, went out on his balcony and recorded what happened.  Holliday’s video found its way to local TV newsrooms, and it quickly became a national story. The horrifying scene was repeated and burned into our national psyche over the next year.

The LAPD police officers[3] were suspended and criminal charges were filed by the L.A. District Attorney.  The first controversy of the trial happened before the trial even began when the defense requested and received a change of venue due to the widespread publicity (90% saturation in the Los Angeles).  It was moved out of L.A. County to Ventura County, a predominantly white and affluent county. The jury was composed of nine whites, one biracial male, one Latino, and one Asian.[4]  On April 29, 1992, the seventh day of jury deliberations, the jury acquitted all four officers of assault and acquitted three of the four of using excessive force. The jury couldn’t agree on a verdict for the fourth officer charged with excessive force.

I was working at Paramount Pictures in Hollywood at the time. When the verdict was announced I and most people living in the Pacific Time Zone were at work. We were all stunned by the verdict. Soon the office buzz was “there’s gonna be trouble.”  I thought that was an overreaction. But within an hour smoke became visible on the horizon from looting and fires burning in protest.  That’s when Paramount ordered everyone to go home.  That’s when I got scared.

It was the longest drive home from work I’ve ever had.  Heading west from Hollywood to my apartment in Venice was relatively safe. I was driving away from the infamous flash-point of South Central LA where a white truck driver named Reginald Denny stopped at red light at the intersection of Florence and Normandy, was pulled from his rig and beaten on live television. For the next two days and nights fifty-five people died, mostly Koreans & Latinos[5], and two-thousand people were injured as a result of the violence.  The Marines were dispatched and enforced curfew. It was the closest thing to marital law I’ve ever experienced.  All I could do was wait in my apartment until it was safe to come out again.

That first night, I remember wondering if this was the end of the world.!  I truly worried that the violence and chaos would take over the entire sprawling city and even overtake me there in my apartment–like the angel of death in Exodus.  It was so weird watching it on television and knowing it was right out there beyond my own door.

When I’d go outside to take a break … I remember … the smell. If you’ve ever been near a house fire, it was that smell—of things burning that aren’t supposed to burn.  After two long days and nights, it finally ended–except for the smoldering from all the fires. The smell and smoke remained for days.  In the bright light of day, the aftermath was as overwhelming as the terrifying chaos in the night.  I think we were all scared by then–all of us: Black folks, White folks, Asian, Hispanic, etc., not only in Los Angeles but nationwide. I think we were all scared … about the verdict, about the police brutality against black people, about the violence and riots.

There was no going back to “business as usual”.  I couldn’t pretend or live as if what had happened was suddenly, automatically all better now that the chaos had subsided.  But in those first moments and days after the riots finally subsided, feeling helpless and not knowing what else to do, people instinctively gathered their brooms and dustpans and shovels and got to work cleaning up and caring for our broken city, and in the process one another. God’s love and grace on display: people who didn’t usually interact were now working side by side, leaving their relative comfort and “safety” of their own neighborhoods to go wherever they could help.  At work a group of people organized us to help a large downtown Catholic church with an ongoing project of packing and delivering food to poor families in the poorest district of downtown LA—the infamous “skid row” section.  My own PC(USA) church had an ongoing relationship with a small non-denominational church in South Central and I looked up their address and decided to worship there one Sunday morning.

All of this is to say that this experience is forever a part of me. I take it with me wherever I go. But rarely if ever do I know what or how much to say—including today.  The racial situation in our nation is so complex. It’s an uncomfortable subject to discuss in public—for me anyway. And so I haven’t.  When Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson MO two summers ago, I saw the same issues blow up, the same frustration and rage that brought Los Angeles to its knees. But I didn’t see any transformative actions or discussions happening on the scale and depth I saw after the Los Angeles uprising of 1992.  Every time another black man is killed by a white police officer I wonder if it will trigger the “big one” … the inevitable “earthquake”-atomic bomb of racial oppression and rage hovering over our nation. This is what was on my heart during the Ferguson protests, and every incident since then. But I didn’t know what to say or how or when or where to say it.

So I said nothing.

A few days ago my friend Rev. Simeon Spencer, a black Baptist preacher in Trenton New Jersey posted on his FB page his view of the armed standoff in Oregon making news headlines. I share it so we can all hear a different and straightforward perspective:

I said I wasn’t going to post about this, but I just can’t help myself. So, here it goes.

How in the ham fat do a group of armed, white men get to occupy federal land in “protest” for better than two weeks now–since January 2nd? Really?  If that were a group of armed black, muslim or native Americans “protesting,” everything in me says this would have been over on January 3rd–or at least by NOW. We would be hearing “terrorism” and “lawbreaking thugs” and all kind of stuff All. Over. The. News.  But no. They can do that on federal property–ARMED. And the beat just goes on…  But mouth off during a routine traffic stop while unarmed; don’t put out a cigarette when asked; walk through a neighborhood wearing a hoodie; be 12 playing with a toy gun in a park: and you die. And people blame you for your death.  THIS, my friends, is what people are referring to when they talk about their experience of a reality so many claim doesn’t exist called “white privilege”

I don’t want anyone to feel guilty or to despair but at the same time I can’t keep silent anymore. That doesn’t seem right either but I don’t have any solutions to offer.  All I know is that I long for meaningful political and civic leadership—but I see no sign of it.  I have no problem with the #BlackLivesMatter movement. I believe the movement is not only necessary, it’s legit.  It’s not about any singular incident, it’s about generations of systemic racial injustice and state-sanctioned homicide in the form of young black men being shot or killed by white police officers who evade or avoid accountability and responsibility for these deaths.

Having said that, let me also say this: Whenever I hear of another police involved fatal shooting, I grieve for everyone involved—including the police officer(s).  I can’t imagine being a police officer and having to make such decisions on the spot. It’s too much to put on any human being. And yet we do because someone has to be “out there” on the front lines every day and they deserve our respect and support.  But we as a church, as a nation, as people of God, we must face the reality that when white police officers draw their weapons on a black male suspect, too often and too quickly it all goes terribly wrong.

And I can’t help but picture Jesus on the receiving end of those fatal bullets (see Matthew 25).  Especially when I remind myself that that Jesus was a Palestinian Jew.  Type the word “Palestinian” into a Google image-search; the faces are closer to what Jesus looked like than most anything we usually see.  If Jesus lived in the United States these days he would most certainly experience insult and suspicion.  His skin color and his features match the stereotype profile of what a “terrorist” looks like.

Theologian Brooks Berndt observes that whenever we grapple with the difference between what is and what ought to be, we are in good company.  The Biblical prophets find themselves in a place of moral ambiguity, tension, between “what is” and “what should be.” And Berndt says they and we have a couple of options. One is to remain silent and lament privately. Another option, the one taken by the Prophets, Berndt reminds us, is to speak out–to expose the contrast between the way things are and the ways things can be if God’s will is to be followed.   The prophet Isaiah is a good example. Today he says “for Zion’s sake, I will not keep silent.” Earlier he announced his conviction that God wants “to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners …” Later Jesus himself adopts these words from Isaiah as his own “job description”.

At the time Isaiah says these things, however, Jerusalem–God’s holy city—is in ruins, burned to the ground by pagan invaders.  It’s being called “Forsaken” and “Desolate.”  He might as well have been talking about our cities and neighborhoods.

Tomorrow our church will be closed, our schools will be closed; banks and post offices too in order to honor and celebrate the life and ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King jr (MLK).  He had the ability to puncture our national bubble of denial about racism and poverty and get people to feel the moral weight of our social and cultural and political failures. But he also had a way of motivating people from diverse backgrounds to work together for a better day for our children.  He did this more effectively than any other leader Black, White, Asian or Hispanic has been able to do before or since. He was a once-in-a-generation leader, speaker, preacher, minister—a prophet.

I believe MLK can still inspire our nation, can still pull us together toward a vision of what God expects from God’s people.  His words are still vital and relevant today. But like any prophet, like Isaiah, King must be heard.  Too often, his most daring ideas are muted or silenced on his own holiday which is meant to honor and continue his life’s mission.  There is so much more to learn and know about MLK than the final words of his “I Have A Dream” speech which is perhaps all that what most white folks know or care to learn or hear from him.

MLK would urge us to see this ongoing racial tension as a great opportunity—as creative tension.  King’s words, his actions, his critiques and his suggestions still contain the power to challenge and encourage us to grow and change as a nation.  The Black Lives Matter movement is but the latest invitation to us as a nation and as a church to take substantive action toward righting wrongs and letting the light of Christ shine into and transform generations-old injustices.

In honor of God’s promises articulated by the Prophets, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., let’s consider it our sacred duty as people of faith to stand with Isaiah and with all the biblical prophets, to stand with MLK Jr., to stand with Jesus our savior in the midst of this awful and uncomfortable tension of racial inequality and injustice … and raise our voices in calling for and looking for and working for a new and different vision one that is not coming and perhaps cannot come from our political processes and leaders.  Martin Luther King Jr. continues to serve as a model and guide for all people willing to break the silence and speak out for justice.

King clung to God’s hope and plan for Jerusalem to be a shining example for all people and all nations to see that good things are possible and achievable when God’s people in all their diversity come together to seek and work for God’s will.  When I read and interpret Isaiah, whenever the city of Jerusalem is mentioned, I imagine “Jerusalem” to include every city where God’s people pray and hope and work for peace.  The future is what we make of it.

There is still time. There is still hope if we but hear and heed the Prophets. These words close the 62nd chapter of Isaiah

Go through, go through the gates,

prepare the way for the people;

build up, build up the highway,

clear it of stones,

lift up an standard over the peoples.

The Lord has proclaimed

to the end of the earth:

Say to daughter Zion,

“See, your salvation comes;

his reward is with him,

and his recompense before him.”

They shall be called, “The Holy People,

The Redeemed of the Lord”;

and you shall be called, “Sought Out,

A City Not Forsaken.”



Let it be so … for Jerusalem, for our children.

[1]  For convenience I consulted only one (online) source for the factual information summarized in this sermon. This source is also an excellent & brief summary of the entire saga, from the arrest of Rodney King, to the trial, to the riots:
[2] ibid
[3] The LAPD officers’ names: Stacey Koon, Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, Theodore Briseno, Rolando Solano
[4] ibid
[5] ibid