Give What You Owe

[This sermon was preached by Niger A. Woodruff, on September 2, 2014 in Wightman Chapel, Scarritt-Bennett Center. Rev. Woodruff is the Assistant Director of Admissions and Vocational Discernment at Vanderbilt Divinity School]

Romans 13: 8 – 14

For the glory of the Living God; the One who said give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what belongs to God. Amen.

Don’t shoot!

Don’t shoot me with six hollow bullet-points:

  1. The investigation needs time.
  2. Let the judicial process run its course.
  3. Don’t rush to judgment.
  4. There are two sides to every story.
  5. Wait for all the facts to come in.
  6. We don’t know what happened.

Yes, we do! We know exactly what happened. A whole neighborhood of folks saw the entire thing! Multiple eyewitnesses have already reported what they saw. It happened in the middle of the day. It was around noon… when Jesus was crucified. Condemned an enemy of law and order Jesus was executed in the middle of the day, around noon, in front of a whole neighborhood of folks, by someone acting as an absolute authority over his life and his death. Under no obligation to serve and protect the populace of poor people residing in and around Jerusalem, with sadistic precision the Roman Empire operated as supreme judge, jury, and executioner. Imagine growing up in a community where you saw men killed on a regular basis. Picture seeing such brutality as a daily reality; consider how every moment served as a relentless reminder that your life was deemed disposable simply because of how someone else perceived you, in order to intimidate and oppress you all the days of your life, even to the point of deciding the day your life should end.

What would you do whenever you walked to the well for water, or ambled alongside the riverbank, or hiked up the mountain, or marched to the temple to pray; and there standing in your way was an authority figure you better not cross, because it was the Roman police who carried out the order of crucifixion upon Jesus and countless others who had no rights that the Roman authorities were bound to respect. Death at the hands of the Roman police was a day-to-day danger for someone who looked like Jesus. But what Rome intended to be a justifiable end for an unnecessary life, God determined to be a pregnant pause…

To give birth to the church, and clarify the meaning of love and justice, God raised a crucified Jesus from the dead, making the resurrection God’s punctuation mark where Rome thought they could perpetually place poor people, period. And so inasmuch as there remains an unmistakable cry for an end to the hostility and a call for the righteousness of love on behalf of the victims of an unjust judicial system, I am here today to demand that the church pay up, period. You owe me, and I have come to collect the outstanding balance. Give me what is long overdue. No, you do not owe me any money; you owe me nothing but love.

Give me what you owe.

  • Be patient when you notice me approaching from a distance. Without becoming anxious, assume I have no interest in your purse.

Give me what you owe.

  • Be kind when you see me wearing a kufi in the airport. Or see my sister wearing a hijab. Offer us a friendly, respectful disposition.

Give me what you owe.

  • Don’t envy my swag when you see me rocking j’s, jeans, and a white tee.

Give me what you owe.

  • Don’t insist I speak in the tongue of our colonial mis-education.

Give me what you owe.

  • Don’t be irritable or resentful when I offer no explanation of my blackness.

Give me what you owe.

  • Don’t rejoice in the wrongdoing done to Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Sean Bell, Eric Garner, Timothy Stansbury, Oscar Grant, Aaron Campbell, Alonzo Ashley, Wendell Allen, Jonathan Ferrell and countless unarmed black men day after day because it is a wrongdoing done to EVERY American by the Continental Congress of the United States on July 4, 1776 and preserved up to this very 2014 moment by a supremacist culture that proclaims black men have no rights that white men are bound to respect.

Give me what you owe.

  • Rejoice only in the truth: Since the time before time, in God’s eye, Black am I, and beautiful because I was conceived of in the mind of the One who raised Jesus from the dead. I stand here before you today as the very image and likeness of the Living God. So give to me what is due. There is more than enough to go around! Lady Liberty has so much love to give. But Church you have even more. Give to Uncle Sam what belongs to Uncle Sam. But give every person coined, cast, and created in the image and inscription of the Living God what you owe.

Give our Muslims sisters and brothers what you owe.

Give our Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex siblings what you owe.

Give every immigrant Child of God what you owe.

Give the 47% 100% of what you owe.

Pay all persons of the planet the accrued debt of human recognition christened love. Because love for God cannot end where your neighbor begins. Love never ends! Give love to everyone who begs to be recognized as a person of sacred worth, a person who has the divine right to matter, a person who has the human right to visit the doctor, to eat healthy food, to acquire affordable housing.

Give love to everyone. Give love to anyone who begs, “Don’t shoot!” because deadly force continues to be used to kill persons who do not deserve the penalty of death. When the Roman Empire believed they had absolute authority over life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, Jesus Christ was killed, in the middle of the day, around noon, as a whole neighborhood of folks watched the entire thing. Multiple eyewitnesses have already reported they saw Jesus holding his hands up as nails were shot through him. One of the witnesses even said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Do you remember him? He was one of two other men deemed disposable that day. We don’t know what the two men did. We’re still waiting for all the facts to come in. But what we do know is, Scripture calls the two men thieves/criminals. Perhaps the men were accused of a strong-arm robbery. But there they were, hanging on the cross, dying the same death as Jesus.

As you go about the rest of this day, look for the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven, and remember all those who died as Jesus died: Unarmed. Killed by someone acting as supreme judge, jury, and executioner. Wherever you fail to see a glimpse of the Kingdom this day, keep in mind, no one has a greater love than this – to lay down one’s life for those deemed disposable. A greater love is what we owe. Today is the day of settling your debt. Go and give to others what is long overdue. Love. Love. Love. Amen.