(Romans 13: 8-14)
Teresa and I have a Sunday afternoon routine that involves going for a walk downtown and stopping for coffee at Better Living Through Coffee. And, when the weather is nice, we like to take advantage of the bistro tables they have set up on the plaza. Usually we look out over the water and stare at the mountains taking in God’s handiwork and enjoying the tranquility. However, this past Sunday was different. As we were heading downtown, we could hear a lot of horn honking and yelling. When we got closer, we saw that it was some sort of motorized parade with cars and trucks sporting Back the Blue banners and flying American styled flags with a blue stripe. When we got to Better Living Through Coffee the procession had come to a stop because some Black Lives Matter protesters were blocking the street in front of the Palace Hotel. The two sides faced off with horns honking, protesters chanting, and signs being waved. We decided to get our coffee and take in the show. The yelling intensified, fingers were waved, and provocations exchanged as the police stood calmly by monitoring the situation. A man who appeared to be the manager of the Palace Hotel stood nervously in the door probably hoping that the confrontation wouldn’t escalate into property damage. Eventually, it got quiet and both groups broke up and went their separate ways after, I guess, they got their points across. Law enforcement was to be commended for allowing both sides to demonstrate and, at the same time, maintain the relative peace of an otherwise balmy Sunday afternoon.
It made for some interesting conversation over coffee as Teresa and I agreed that we could support the basic premise of both groups. As we both went to college and graduated with degrees in Criminology and I was both a police officer and an attorney, we backed and supported good law enforcement. As Teresa grew up in a town with a significant black population, taught in two school districts with a large population of minority children, and I patrolled many minority sections of Houston and, as an attorney who was court-appointed to represent many indigent minority criminal defendants, we could empathize with the fact that many African Americans believe their lives don’t matter to other Americans. And, I honestly do not believe that the main body of Black Lives Matter protesters despise the police any more than I believe the majority of Back the Blue supporters think black citizens deserve less police protection than they get in their communities.
There were, no doubt, Christians on both sides passionately expressing their beliefs. However, we would hope that most Followers of the Way wouldn’t be screaming obscene insults and finger waving at other possible Christians, or non-Christians for that matter. They certainly weren’t showing the love of neighbor as they would want to be loved, nor were they fulfilling the law of Christ before it is too late.
And this is the point the Apostle Paul is trying to make in his letter to the church in Rome. In our scripture reading for this morning the Apostle starts out by saying; Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. What debt is he talking about you might ask? I don’t have anything but a car note and a mortgage. Paul is talking about our permanent indebtedness to Jesus Christ for the lavish love he has poured out on us. Christ loved us unconditionally and gave up his life on the cross so that we might have redemption for our sinful nature. And the only way we can even begin to repay this debt is by fulfilling our obligation to love others in turn. Paul continues by saying; The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. So, I guess there’s no point that you can get to when you can say you’ve loved enough “neighbors” in your lifetime, and you’re done. There is no quota system on love.
And, Paul says we better not put this off because the time is coming for you to wake up from your slumber as salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over, and the day is almost here. There’s no time for such foolishness, so let’s put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. He admonishes us to behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature. Yeah, I know, me and my church do all that stuff Jesus talked about in the 25th chapter of Matthew when he told us to make sure others are fed, clothed and housed as well as they can be. But are we as concerned about issues of social justice? Well, loving others as ourselves also means actively working to see that these needs are met too.
So, what does our Methodist Book of Discipline say about this social justice stuff? Well, in paragraph 162 of the Social Principles, The Social Community, it starts right out by saying; The rights and privileges a society bestows upon or withholds from those who comprise it indicate the relative esteem in which that society holds particular persons and groups of persons. And that’s the core issue with the Black Lives Matter cause. They do not believe they are held in the same level of relative esteem as other Americans, white Americans who have the same rights and privileges as a matter of their birth. White privilege as they call it. It’s easy for many of us to dismiss such a claim as nonsense and to profess that we are not racists, but it’s just as much the perception as it is the reality. Our Book of Discipline continues by saying; We affirm all persons as equally valuable in the sight of God. We therefore work toward societies in which each person’s value is recognized, maintained and strengthened. The preamble to the Constitution tells them that they were created equal and have certain unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but to them it sure doesn’t seem that way. Our Book of Discipline says; We support the basic rights of all persons to equal access to housing, education, communication, employment, medical care, legal redress for grievances, and physical protection. Right now, they are justifiably upset over the recent spate of shootings of young black men and women by law enforcement and are demanding justice. But Black Lives Matter is a bigger umbrella as their frustration and disillusionment also comes from the inability of the governing bodies who are supposed to be providing those basic necessities others have and take for granted. They may be frustrated with the politicians who promise the moon and can’t deliver a candle to light the darkness. Right now, the police are the visible representatives of the government they believe has failed them. And, I can tell you from my experiences as a police officer, a defense attorney, and a prosecutor that they want to be treated the same as anyone else by the justice system, no more and no less.
So, what do we do as a church? Under the section on Rights of Racial and Ethnic Persons, our Book of Discipline says; We commit as the Church to move beyond symbolic expressions and representative models that do not challenge unjust systems of power and access. If it’s wrong, we say so and challenge our elected officials to do something about it that is more than just a symbolic gesture. Under the section on poverty, which affects all persons, our Book of Discipline says; As a church, we are called to support the poor and challenge the rich. To begin to alleviate poverty, we support such policies as: adequate income maintenance, quality education, decent housing, job training, meaningful employment opportunities, adequate medical and hospital care, humanization and radical revisions of welfare programs, work for peace in conflict areas and efforts to protect creation’s integrity. If we truly love our neighbors as ourselves why wouldn’t we want them to have such basic rights and opportunities. Why should we feel threatened by someone who wants to live in a decent house, get a good education, work to improve themselves, make more money, and get to go to a doctor when they are sick and not at death’s door?
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. What about all this violence? The assaults committed on one another, the shootings, the businesses being vandalized and burned down, and the looting? That can’t be right? How do you or the church justify that? Answer me that. Well, you’re right and in paragraph 164, subsection F, Civil Obedience and Civil Disobedience, of our Book of Discipline, it says; Citizens have a duty to abide by laws duly adopted by orderly and just process of government. Therefore, we recognize the right of individuals to dissent when acting under the constraint of conscience and, after having exhausted all legal recourse, to resist or disobey laws they deem to be unjust or that are discriminately enforced. Even then, respect for law should be shown by refraining from violence and by being willing to accept the costs of disobedience. We do not encourage or condone any form of violent protest as a legitimate exercise of free speech or civil disobedience. We offer our prayers for those in rightful authority who serve the public, and we support their efforts to afford justice and equal opportunity for all people. We assert the duty of churches to support those who suffer because of their stands of conscience represented by nonviolent beliefs or acts. In short, the United Methodist Church, does not condone acts of violence or the destruction of property, but we do support those who suffer because of their stands for social justice and do so by acts of nonviolence.
As difficult as it may be at times, Christians must obey the law of love, which supersedes both religious and civil laws. How easy it is to excuse our indifferences to others merely because we have no legal obligation to help them, and even justify harming them if our actions are technically legal. But Jesus does not leave loopholes in the law of love. Whenever love demands it, we are to go beyond human legal requirements and initiate the God of love. Because Christ’s love will always be infinitely greater than ours, we will always have the obligation to love our neighbors, holding them in relative esteem, even if they are yelling and finger waving at us.
It is our obligation and duty as a people, as citizens, as a church, as Followers of the Way, to implore those in disagreement to stop yelling at one another and listen with an open mind. It’s okay to disagree, you just don’t have to be disagreeable. As citizens and taxpayers who love this country, now is the time to exercise our power and influence over our elected officials by demanding that they do something that is more than a symbolic expression that does not challenge this unjust system of power and access. Now is the time that we unequivocally demand that they take a stand for what is right that shows how we hold our neighbors in that relative esteem to which they are entitled as a brother and sister of Jesus Christ, and a child of a loving God.
Please pray with me.
Gracious and loving Father, we need your guidance and wisdom now more than ever. Help us to see more clearly what it means to love our neighbor, even the ones we don’t know or the ones who don’t look like us. Help us to see one another as you see us, merely children, children who want and desire to be treated equally and fairly by his or her brothers and sisters. We know that in your kingdom all lives matter but here on earth we often fail to see that our systems of government or society treat people differently. Help us to quiet the yelling and shouting so we can hear what the other person is saying. When we do that, we will see that we really have much more in common with one another than the differences we think divide us as a people. With your son, Jesus Christ as our role model, move us to do what Jesus would do in these situations restoring harmony and peace to a world afflicted by hate and divisiveness. In the name of the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ, we pray, Amen.