“Respect for Justice"

“Respect for Law: the Cornerstone of Citizenship”

(a sermon based upon Romans 13:1-8 on page 987 in the pew Bible)

 

by

 

Rev. Dr. Paul A. Lance, Minister

First Congregational United Church of Christ

201 South Second Ave., Alpena, Michigan 49707

 

August 2, 2020

        

         In the seven years that I have been your Minister, I have rarely preached on a text from the Apostle Paul.  However, in as much as this coming Tuesday is an Election Day here in Michigan, I thought it may be wise to hear St. Paul’s advice as given in his letter to the Romans, Chapter 13, verses 1-8.

 

         “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.

         “Therefore, the one who resists the authorities, resists what God has appointed; and those who resist will incur judgment.

         “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.  Would you have no fear of him who is in authority?  Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good.

         “But if you do wrong, be afraid!  For he does not bear the sword in vain.  He is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrong-doer.

         “Therefore one must be subject, not only to avoid God’s wrath, but also for the sake of conscience.  For the same reason you also pay taxes; for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.  Pay all of them their dues: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.

         “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.” (unquote)  So says St. Paul.

         It must have been tough to be a Jesus-following Christian while living in the Capitol City of the Roman Empire, where the Caesar was the top-authority -- a “son of a god”, if not a divinity in his own right.  The Roman coins had images of Caesar’s head on them… much like our U.S. Quarters have a likeness of George Washington and our dimes have Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and our pennies Abe Lincoln.

 

         Around the margins of the Roman coins (where ours say “In God We Trust” & “Liberty”) were such illustrious titles for Caesar as “Son of God”, and “Prince of Peace” (that’s the Pax Romana, of course), and “Savior of the World” (Salvator Terra).  We Christians recognize these very same words as titles for Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God… not as referring to the pagan power-mongers who persecuted Christians!

 

         But for the Apostle, who had never met the Christians of Rome, to imagine them laboring in the shadow of Caesar’s Throne -- under the thumb of the Imperial government on its own turf -- it made all the sense in the world to advise them to play it cool: “be subject to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except from God,” he writes, “and those [authoritarian systems] that exist have been instituted by God.”  By that, I’m sure he means the biblical God of the Jews, not Caesar himself, nor any of the Pantheon of Roman divinities that populated their pagan Temples.  “Be subject to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except from God.”

 

There’s a personally expedient reason for the Apostle to give that advice, too, I suppose… since at this very time, St. Paul has appealed his case to Rome.  He is on his way to the City!  Paul was transported as a prisoner to Rome and was being held for a hearing of his case before the Honorable Theophilus. (See Luke 1 & Acts 1)

 

         “Therefore,” writes Paul to the Romans, “the one who resists the authorities, resists what God has appointed; and those who resist will incur judgment.” He goes on to tell them they should pay their taxes.

 

“Pay all of them their dues: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.”  (This sounds like good advice for the politicians who work within the “beltway” of Washington DC today.  Except that it seems they give honor and respect only to the leaders of their own party, not at all to everyone who is a “public servant”.)

 

St. Paul’s recommendation that the Christians of Rome should pay appropriate honor and respect toward the authorities over them, as well as pay their taxes and revenues as demanded, sounds a bit like Jesus a generation earlier in Judea.  In Matthew 22, verses 15-22, the Pharisees tried to trap Jesus in a dilemma, by asking him a question about paying taxes.  “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?”

 

If Jesus advises, yes, pay taxes to the Romans who were occupying their land with foreign Legions – troops who thought they were above the law and who could oppress and violate Jews at will, enjoying a sort of Roman immunity – Jesus could have been accused of being a collaborator with the occupying enemy!

 

But if Jesus suggests that they should not pay taxes, he can be accused of sedition.  And, in fact, according to Luke’s Gospel (Luke 23:2), when Jesus is brought before Governor Pilate on Good Friday, he was accused of “forbidding the people to pay taxes to the Emperor.”   But, if you recall Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees, it was: “Give to Caesar the things that belong to Caesar, and give to God the things that are God’s.”

 

Since the Roman coins had the Emperor’s likeness and name on them, give them back to the Romans.  All of them!  Be done with them!  Opt out of the Roman economy, the foreign currency, entirely!

(!)  Oh, no… The scribes & Pharisees (and the priests and other elite ruling families in Jerusalem) would never do that!  Give it all back?

 

 

         And as for “giving to God the things that belong to God”… That’s really just about everything else, beyond coinage & currency!  “The Earth is the Lord’s and everything in it,” says the Psalmist. 

 

         The scribes and Pharisees shared Jesus’ belief that “every-thing” belongs to God, even life itself.  All good things, all life-giving things -- and all of Nature, and all natural processes -- are God-given. (!)  Jesus was reminding the Pharisees of their own theological assertion that there was only One God, and to that God every member of the House of Judah (the House of Israel) owed allegiance – unqualified allegiance – regardless of the claims of any earthly power, even the mighty Roman Empire.  God was above all!

 

         Yes, the Apostle Paul told the Romans to pay their taxes, and so did Jesus.  And, like St. Paul, the Christian tradition (from Constantine onward for 1700 years) has consistently called upon its members to honor church authorities and civil magistrates… and to pay our due to them, in respect & in tribute, in taxes and in tithes… as well as pay all the fines and fees and regulatory red-tape they lay upon us all.

 

         In the face of all the competing claims on our allegiance – which would include the partisanship of current political allegiances (where Republicans demonize Democrats, and vice versa – and where Independent voters say “a pox on both their houses”!) – and must include the profound street protests all across our country to raise awareness that “Black Lives Matter” – as well as the confusing politicization of our national response to the Corona Virus…  In the face of all the competing claims on our allegiance, is Jesus really the Lord of our whole lives?  Do we believe that God is the “owner” of it all, and we are merely “stewards” in service to the Common Good?

 

         As we make the choices that determine how our lives are lived (day by day), will we be able to “turn aside” from every other loyalty (and allegiance) and truly seek to do God’s Will?  That’s top priority!

 

         St. Paul advises his readers to show respect for the authorities who rule above them, and to pay their taxes (fines and fees) to those who hold authority over them.  His words have become a Christian doctrine for many people… but not for everyone.  Not everyone pays their fair share of taxes. (!)  Not all who rule over us politically are held in respect; not all who are called “Your Honor” have actually been honorable. (!)  If we’re honest, we must admit: not all laws have been fair; nor have they served the Common Good, but rather only some segment of the population. How laws are enforced, too, has become problematic in many jurisdictions: local police have overstepped their role “to protect and to serve” and even federal forces have been used in violent, militaristic, inappropriate fashion.

 

         But I believe those are “exceptions” to the rule of law and order.  In America, especially, where we pride ourselves in making our own laws and electing our own lawmakers, and funding our police locally   -- always with an eye to what unites us and what furthers the “common good” over our natural self-centeredness – respect for law is the cornerstone of good citizenship. Paul would be proud of us!

 

         As Patty & I have begun sorting through old stuff as I near retirement -- wondering what is worth keeping, what can be given away, and what goes into a dumpster -- I came across some of my earlier writings.  One document in particular is worth mentioning.

 

         Back in the Spring of 1969, when I was in 10th Grade at Alpena High School, I took part in the Optimist Club’s “Oratorical Contest”.  To be an “orator” meant writing a speech and delivering it from memory to a public audience.  The topic we were given in 1969 was “Respect for Law, the Cornerstone of Citizenship.”  Here’s what I said:

 

         One cannot have citizenship without the citizen.  One cannot have a citizen without a country.  One cannot have a country without laws.  Respect For Law, the Cornerstone of Citizenship.

 

         Just as crabgrass is a weed in a lawn, so too has disrespect for law become a weed in America.

 

         This blight was produced by, and feeds upon, not a lack of laws, but a lack of community pride; a lack of community respect toward those laws.

 

         “Respect for law” deals with a generality.  It does not mean respect for some laws and ignorance of others, nor does it give reference to the intensity of respect for specific laws; but, rather, “respect for law” means great and equal respect for all laws: Local laws, Federal laws, and International laws – all laws.

 

         A person who steals a loaf of bread is just as guilty of breaking a law as is a person who takes a life.  A person who steals a loaf of bread during a riot is just as guilty as one who steals it in a time of peace.  Respect for law means respect for all laws.

 

         A nation can be compared to a child’s sand castle on a beach.  What happens when the castle loses the child’s interest and he goes off to find shiny stones or sea shells?

 

         Waves roll in and silently slide out – roll in and slide out; taking with them particles of soil, eroding the surface.  A wave washes up and over the castle.  As it is pulled back to sea, it leaves behind just a mound of sand.  A second wave, and the beach is empty.

 

         The only way that the child could have saved his castle would have been by building a wall to keep the water back.

 

         Disrespect is like the wave.  It will dissolve a nation unless a wall is built to save it.  The kind of wall needed here is the hardest kind to build.  It is a invisible wall, not built of materials, but of ideals and concepts.

 

         The nation’s laws make up the bricks.  These bricks must be strong.  To have strength, the laws must be just and fair.

 

         The people’s respect itself forms the mortar.  Regardless of how great or strong the bricks are, if the mortar is weak, the wall is weak.

 

         What ingredients are needed to make this “mortar” strong?

 

         First, admiration.  Admiration is the most obvious quality of respect.  The words are often used synonymously.  A law that is not admired cannot be respected.  People do not admire, and therefore do not respect, laws that are overly permissive, discriminatory, or immoral.

 

         The second ingredient is service.  If a law performs a service for someone, he will respect that law.  If a law performs a service for anyone -- despite his color, religion, or background -- that law is a law to be respected.

 

         The third ingredient is the most essential – trust.  There is just as much trust today as there ever was; it’s just that people are hoarding it more. (!)  Trust is like love. When you give it, you will receive it; but when you hoard it and hide it, you will lose it.

 

         Admiration, service, and trust.

 

         Finally, the magic ingredient that pulls everything together is – people.  People.  Poor people, rich people; farmers, businessmen; laborers, scientists.  People.  The love of people, the challenge of people, the unpredictability of people, the loyalty of – people.

 

         You, me, and everyone else.  These are our laws.  We made them, and we made them to govern ourselves.  They are a part of us as an arm or a leg is part of us.

 

         If we hurt these laws, we are hurting ourselves, for we conceived these laws as we would a child.  In a different manner, of course, but with the same result. The laws are ours.  We must hold them close to us. Protect them as we do our children, respect them as we do our flag.

 

         As President Nixon said: “In order to have respect for law, the laws must be in the hearts of the people – not in their hands.” (end)

 

         It turns out that I won the contest in Alpena, and the contest in Northern Michigan.  As a result, as a high school sophomore, I went for the first time in my life downstate to Lansing, and was introduced by our State Representative to a session of the Legislature, who gave me a round of applause.(!) I lost the contest at the state level, but I felt great about my effort and my experiences with those politicians as well as with the Optimists Club, who gave me that chance.

 

It’s been 51 years since I wrote that speech, and (frankly) except for a few references to “he” & “his” which could have been “he or she” or else “their” (to be more inclusive), I think much the same thoughts today as I did back then.  I knew I wanted to be a preacher when I grew up, and this is (probably) my earliest example of giving a talk on an important subject to a room full of strangers.  Who knew that I’d be doing it again from this Alpena pulpit!

 

As we again use our right as citizens to vote in Tuesday’s election, do so with your mind on what’s best for the common good, not your self-interest; and do so as much as possible out of respect for our lawmakers & law-enforcers.  We’re all in this thing together, after all.  Let’s act that way.  Okay?   Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

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