“The one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” A prophet is a sentinel. In the fortified cities of ancient times, it was the sentinel’s job to keep watch on the city walls and to warn of approaching trouble. There’s no mystery about it: An effective sentinel effectively warns the people. The sentinel does not creep through the streets, whispering “danger!” No, the effective sentinel sounds the alarm – sounds the trumpet, rings the bell – making sure that people hear. That’s the sentinel’s job. What people do with the warning is not the sentinel’s responsibility, but theirs.
We are a nation in crisis. More than one. Indeed, an interconnected host of crises, each with its own moral and spiritual dimensions. Climate change. No longer looming. Here. Climate change is here. Its effects will get worse. How much worse depends on what we do. The situation, which grows more pressing day by day, demands the kind of focused and concerted national effort that equals and even exceeds our efforts to win the Second World War. We have not a moment to waste, especially as we as a nation have spent nearly four years not just wasting time but making things worse. Then there is the pandemic. We’d love to be done with COVID, but we’re not. As of this morning, 189,000 Americans have lost their lives to COVID, and that number increases by about a thousand deaths every day. There is a second wave on the way. How bad it will be depends on what we do now. And like rebellious children we continue to fuss about wearing masks. Then, the crisis precipitated by the killing of George Floyd just over three months ago – a killing of the kind that had become so commonplace as to be routine, but one that – through the grace of the Holy Spirit – shook the nation into a state of wakefulness. Then, the ongoing crisis of government and leadership – which has made us the laughingstock of the world. Then, the COVID-related collapse of the economy and the resulting crises of joblessness, poverty and hunger. Other crises too, here before the pandemic, back when we half thought that coronavirus had something to do with beer: The objectification and exploitation of women; our treatment of immigrants; a pandemic of gun violence.
And it’s hard, along with a hundred other adjectives you could throw at it. But – I know it sounds odd to say it – every crisis is by its very nature a blessing, for the first step in getting out of trouble is recognizing that you’re in trouble. The times are hard, distressing, and filled with struggle, but from the struggle comes genuine and lasting reform. We the confused, we the anxious, we the weary – we are blessed, because we are loved and called to repentance and rebirth. And we are blessed with prophets among us, great men and women, larger than life, household names, like John Lewis and Rosa Parks and Dr. King; but also with the prophets of the everyday. Call them minor prophets, if you must, but they are prophets nonetheless, and some of them are here with us this morning.
As a nation, we need some adults in the room. We have been and are being warned. It’s time to step up. By the grace of God we are learning that racism will destroy us. Now we must step up and make ourselves aware of the ways in which this systemic, metastasized cancer has spread. That is the job of every American. It is decidedly not the task of Black America to teach the rest of America about racism. Racism and its effects are not a Black American problem but an American problem. Systemic racism is not Black America’s problem to solve. What a ridiculous proposition that would be, to shirk our national responsibility all the while pinning the blame on Black America: “You were supposed to explain this in a way that we could understand it.” “You were supposed to present the facts to us in a way that would change our hearts.” Thing is, the facts, though frequently ignored, were never hidden. The demonic reality of plantation life was evident all the time, just behind the mesmerizing façade of white columns and false gentility and lace curtains and Spanish Moss. And for that matter, Black Americans have been telling the truth about racism for a very long time, appealing to both reason and emotion. Most of these appeals – and, truth be told, most of the warnings as well – have fallen on deaf ears. Is it any wonder that so many Black Americans are fed up and exhausted? Or, in the words of Doc Rivers, the coach of the LA Clippers: “we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back.” That’s exhausting. And heartbreaking. Heartbreaking that any American or group of Americans would be driven to feel that way.
It is for systemic racism as it is for every crisis that confronts us: It’s time for America to grow up and step up. Please don’t wait for someone to come along and take your hand. Read a book. Watch a documentary. Listen to people who know things. Educate yourselves and your children, and let’s roll up our sleeves and change things for the better. Let’s do it together.
We’ve all heard perfectly well-meaning people say that things won’t really change until America as a whole has a change of heart – the kind of deep spiritual conversion that theologians call a metanoia. There’s truth to that, but at the same time it’s worth challenging. Of course, it’s going to take time for everyone to catch up. Let’s face it: Some of us are slow learners and at any given moment half of us are below average. But we cannot wait for those who don’t or won’t get it. They’ll either come along or they won’t. Meanwhile, we can move ahead. We can choose leaders who have the capacity to lead with integrity and grace, and we use the great gift of the law as a tool to curb the extremes of bad behavior. That’s what law is for. As Dr. King is famous for having said, “Morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. [The law] may not change the heart, but [it] can restrain the heartless.”
There may be times when a prophet must shout to be heard, but the prophet’s more perfect calling is that of communicating. That’s a hard concept for many of us. We’d rather win arguments. That’s the point of debate, right? It’s like a football game: One side wins; the other side loses. In a society that has been suckered into seeing everything in terms of winners and losers, communicating is a challenge.
Let’s try a thought experiment. It’s a beautiful day and you decide to go for a walk in City Park. Minding your own business, you encounter a group of protesters. They’re holding signs, and it’s clear that they’re on the other side. Doesn’t matter what side, just that it’s the other side. The wrong side. Bravely, because you are brave, you approach one of them. You say, “Good morning, friend. I could not help but notice the sign you’re carrying. Are you aware that you’re on the wrong side of this issue?” And, removing from your back pocket the list of facts, statistics and salient points you carry with you for just this kind of occasion, you proceed to show this fellow, point by point and in calm and reasoned language, that he is in fact wrong – not just about the issue at hand, but about pretty much everything. At the end of which he blinks back a tear, puts down his sign and says, “Friend, I want to thank you, for this morning you have saved my life. I now see that I have indeed been wrong, and not just about this but about virtually everything. Thanks to you, I intend here and now to change my entire worldview. I shall abandon falsehood forever. And let this be my sacred vow: This very moment I shall go to the Board of Elections and change my party affiliation.”
Question: What’s the likelihood of this happening? Has it ever happened? Not to me. It’s a fantasy. That’s just not the way it works. Not the right time, not the right place, not the right words. There has to be a better way.
Which suggests that if we are to engage in prophecy or the changing of hearts we should do so in a way that increases the likelihood of our being heard. Maybe find a different starting point? Maybe start by recognizing our common humanity? Maybe realize that most of us, regardless of our politics, just want things to be better than they are? When we have been blessed to see the truth of something, we do indeed have a duty to speak the truth, but in love. In ways that are appropriate to who we are. Without name-calling. Without passive aggression. In ways that build up. In ways that invite. In ways that can be heard.
Love is the fulfillment of the law. Love demands relationship. It’s hard to hate someone you know. We are called to be in relationship, first with God and with God in Christ, and then with one another. That’s why this time of calamity and challenge is so hope-filled. Hope is everywhere: In every Black Lives Matter sign; in every call to live in harmony with the Earth, our Common Home; in every word of reverence, respect, and solidarity. We hope because we are loved. We’re called to change because we are loved. We’re called into relationship with one another and with the whole of creation because we are loved. We are called to change because, in the love that is Christ Jesus, change is possible. Rejoice in the love that has brought us to this place. Praise God.