This week is National Police Week. All across the country, law enforcement officers and community residents are gathering to honor the memories of officers who have been killed in the line of duty. I was asked to speak at our local memorial service for fallen officers hosted by our church this year. Here is the message I delivered today:
To Stand in the Gap
30 “I looked for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found none.” — Ezekiel 22:30
A National Tribute
We are gathered here today during the observance of National Police Week, to honor the memories of the eight fallen Pittsylvania County peace officers who gave their lives in the line of duty. Each year, between 140 and 160 law enforcement officers are killed in the United States. On average, an officer dies in the line of duty every two-and-a-half days in our country.
So, we have gathered here today to remember not only these officers who made the ultimate sacrifice, but all officers who have put their lives on the line for their communities. In the Commonwealth of Virginia, approximately 438 officers — 433 men and 5 women — have been killed protecting and serving their fellow Virginians. These were experienced officers with almost 9 years of service on average. And, they were officers in the prime of life — the average age of Virginia’s fallen is 39.
The portrait of this tragedy gets even darker however. As I talked with Sheriff Taylor about today’s service, he told me that police officers are killed, not just in the heat of the moment by a desperate fugitive, but increasingly police officers are the victims of planned assassinations. We live in dangerous times.
The Problem in Ezekiel’s Day
The passage I read this morning comes at the end of a long critique of the nation of Israel. The nation had fallen into patterns of lawlessness and violence. The weakest members of ancient Israel’s society — the widows, orphans, and strangers in the land — were being victimized by the strongest and most violent.
God, speaking through the prophet Ezekiel, was pronouncing judgment on the land. So, the parallels between the ancient world and its problems, and the 21st century and our problems are striking.
But in this one verse in Ezekiel, God says, “I looked for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found none.”
In other words, if God had found someone, even a single person, to stand in the gap, to build up the wall of defense on behalf of the people, then God would have spared the nation. Sadly, God did not find a single individual, and in 586 BC, God’s people would find themselves in exile in a strange land.
But Ezekiel says, God looked for a person to stand in the gap so He wouldn’t have to destroy the land, and he didn’t find anybody.
Now, I have studied enough theology to know not to press this comparison too far. America isn’t Israel, and conditions aren’t exactly the same as they were then.
But, it seems to me a similar situation existed, and someone needed to stand in the gap to save the nation. Someone needed to defend the weakest in the land, and restrain the strongest. Someone needed to put his body between those who would do evil, and those who might become their victims.
In Israel almost 2,700 years ago, God said he couldn’t find anybody to stand in the gap. In America, in 2010, we have police officers.
To Protect and To Serve
According Webster’s Online Dictionary, “to stand in the gap” means —
“To expose one’s self for the protection of something; to make defense against any assailing danger; to take the place of a fallen defender or supporter.”
And that’s what our law enforcement officers do everyday — expose themselves to danger for our protection. Those of you who serve this community in law enforcement literally are the only line of defense we have against the forces of evil and lawlessness. You stand between us and them, between safety and chaos, between peace and anarchy.
You are the reason we can go to bed at night confident that trained and dedicated law enforcement officers are patrolling our streets while we sleep.
You do the work we could not do, in places we would not go, with courage we do not possess. You stand in the gap for us, and for that we are grateful.
I am amazed at the professionalism, restraint, and self-control exercised daily by law enforcement officers throughout our land. You deal with the worst of our citizens, in the most dangerous situations, with the least amount of violence possible. And you do this day in and day out, week after week, year after year, for too little pay, and even less appreciation.
It is no wonder that the “thin blue line” binds fellow officers so tightly. No one else could possibly understand what you do each day.
And when an officer’s misconduct makes the headlines, it is news precisely because it happens so seldom.
On Behalf of a Grateful Nation
When military honors are accorded a fallen war hero, or a veteran of the armed services, an American flag is presented to the fallen soldier’s family, with the words, “On behalf of a grateful nation….”
Those same words apply to the officers whose lives we honor today. On behalf of a grateful community we honor the eight peace officers who gave their lives in a variety of circumstances over a period of over 80 years, to stand in the gap between those who break the law, and those who are protected by it.
To the families and descendants of those officers who put their lives between ours and danger, our hearts go out to you. For while we see fallen officers, you mourn the loss of your fathers, grandfathers, husbands, uncles, and sons. Our loss as a community is immense, yours is immeasurable.
From the words of Jesus, our prayers for you are “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
While our debt to these fallen heroes can never be repaid, we can express our profound appreciation for their courage and example by supporting you, and all of the others like you who have lost loved ones in the line of duty.
A New Day Coming
The Bible tells us that one day
“The wolf and the lamb will feed together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox,”
But that day hasn’t come yet.
The Bible tells us that one day men will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, and nation will not rise up against nation, but that day hasn’t come yet.
The Bible tells us that one day the dwelling place of God will be with humankind, and there will be no need for the sun by day or the moon by night, for God himself will give light to the heavenly city, but that day hasn’t come yet.
Until that day comes, until the Prince of Peace rules unchallenged in his creation, until evil is vanquished, until the oppressors are bound, until the meek inherit the earth,
God is still looking for those who will stand in the gap, who will put their lives between evil and the innocent,
those who will, in the words of Joshua, “be strong and of good courage.”
Until that day when “Love and faithfulness meet together;
righteousness and peace kiss each other”
We need those who will stand in the gap, who will build up the wall, who will save the nation.
Jesus said, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man will lay down his life for his friends.”
We honor those today who stood in the gap, who gave their lives, to protect the citizens of this community. May their memories live on in our hearts forever.