This week, as events unfolded in Ferguson, Missouri, I was struck by the difference on social media between the responses of my white friends and my black friends to the death of Michael Brown. Here in New Ulm, where pretty much everyone is white, you may not have paid much attention to the news from Ferguson. It may not have seemed relevant to our mostly German community. But as I read today’s scriptures over and over, they kept pointing me back to the news, and particularly to the pain and frustration my black friends were expressing as the week wore on. Not just the tensions in Ferguson, but the tensions in Gaza and other parts of the world all seem to come back to the fact that we, as human beings, don’t do a very good job of living together peacefully.
In our Old Testament reading today, Joseph’s revelation to his brothers might seem like a happy ending, but we know the rest of the story. Joseph brings his whole family to Egypt, and 400 years later, their descendants will struggle under Egyptian oppression. The Gospel Lesson tells us of a Canaanite woman who convinces Jesus to help her daughter, but she has to overcome Jewish prejudice against Israel’s earliest enemies in order to do it. And in our reading from Romans today, we will hear the Apostle Paul wrap up his own argument in the Gentile/Jew debate. No matter where we turn, it seems, the Bible keeps playing the race card.
When scripture collides with current events like this, we cannot afford to bury our heads in the sand and pretend we don’t see it. Maybe you think the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri has little or nothing to do with you, and the aftermath of his death may seem like a mess you’re glad is happening there, instead of here. Maybe you think we’re a long way away from that St. Louis suburb. On the other hand, our readings today might just be telling us, to paraphrase one of my Facebook friends, that Ferguson is nearer to New Ulm than we think.
Here’s the word of the Lord, as given to the Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans:
I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. 2 God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.
If the part of the dough offered as first fruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; and if the root is holy, then the branches also are holy.
But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you. You will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you. …
… for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all. (Romans 11:1-2, 16-21, 29-32)
“Has God rejected his people?” Paul has to ask this question because, apparently, some of the Gentile Christians in Rome thought God had disowned Israel, and Gentile Christians had become God’s chosen people in Israel’s place. But this isn’t true, Paul tells us. Salvation is for all who believe, whether Jew or Gentile.
Paul defends his point by reminding his readers that he, himself, is a Jew. If God had completely rejected his people, Paul wouldn’t have had a chance. Yet, here he is, a Jew and a follower of Jesus. Just because the nation of Israel had rejected God, it didn’t mean that God would break his promise. Jesus had told the woman at the well “salvation is from the Jews,” after all (John 4:22). If not for the Jews, Paul tells us, there would be no gospel story. There would be no good news. God has not rejected his people.
Paul goes on to describe salvation history using an olive tree as an example. It was common practice to prune out branches of an old tree that had borne well for many years, then graft in younger branches from an uncultivated tree to get the old tree to bear again. The strong root of the old tree would support the new branches as they fused with the established tree. “You Gentiles are like those new branches,” Paul says, “but don’t get cocky. You depend on the strong root of Jewish history, not the other way around.”
And this is where scripture collides with the events of this past week, as hateful words flew, and violence escalated in Ferguson, MO. You see, Emperor Claudius had kicked the Jews out of Rome, but Nero had repealed that edict when he came into power a few years later. While the Jews were absent, Gentile Christians in Rome had continued to grow in numbers and influence. To some extent, when the Jewish Christians were allowed to return to Rome, they came back to a church in which Gentile Christians had taken over, and had begun to see themselves as more privileged than the Jews. There may have even been evidence of a particularly troubling heresy that rejected the Old Testament and Judaism completely. It’s no wonder that Paul’s words are strong here, as he warns against arrogance. When addressing people of privilege, it sometimes takes strong language to expose that assumption of privilege for what it is: oppression.
The thing is, people who live privileged lives don’t usually see that we have freedoms others can only dream about. We take for granted that others will assume we are clean, honest, and dependable. We might even look down our noses a bit at people who don’t appear to be any of these things. When I stroll down the aisles at Walmart, I don’t have to worry about keeping my hands out of my pockets. I don’t have to” watch my step or practice what to say when – not if – the police pull me over.” But I know people who do. And I can tell you that my life of privilege makes their lives harder. Not because they have to work harder or be smarter or do more to get the same recognition I get, but because when I blithely go about my business without a care in the world, I’m creating a world that doesn’t care. And that is not what Jesus calls me to do.
“For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable,” Paul writes. God has called all his people to himself, no matter what ethnic tribe they claim, no matter what social standing they have, no matter how rich or poor they are. And since we are all called as disciples of Jesus Christ, it follows that I may be rubbing elbows with another disciple who doesn’t look like me or smell like me or think like me or act like me, but we are in this thing called faith together, as brothers and sisters, united in our love for God and for one another.
None of us is any better or worse than any of us. We each have our part in the story. Paul writes, “Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.” (vv30-32)
If the Jews had not rejected Jesus, there would have been no reason for Paul to reach out to the Gentiles with the good news of God’s saving love. If the Gentiles had not responded to that good news, there would have been no way for the Jews to see that God’s love and mercy is available to everyone. In Greek, “mercy” is the last word in verse 32. What would it look like for mercy to be the last word, the ultimate gift we might offer to one another, regardless of our differences?
As the governor sent in the State Highway Patrol to take charge of security in Ferguson, tensions relaxed a bit, but were raised again when the governor announced a curfew “until further notice.” Video footage released by the police identifies Michael Brown as a suspect in a robbery that took place earlier on the day he was killed. But the police officer who shot Michael Brown was not aware of the robbery. The details are muddy, and a grand jury will start sorting them out in the next few days. No matter who did what, or where the blame lies for protests that turned into riots, complete with military-style response from police, the last word needs to be mercy. Mercy is all we can ask, and all we can offer.
It’s unfortunate that the final verses of chapter 11 are not included in today’s lectionary reading, because Paul offers us a song of praise to conclude this section of his letter. He’s said everything that needs to be said about Jews and Gentiles having the same access to God’s grace and forgiveness. The only thing left to do is give God thanks for his goodness, to praise him for being God. Next week, we will move on to Paul’s instructions for recognizing and using our spiritual gifts. If you’ve ever wondered what spiritual gifts you possess, you’ll want to be here! But in the meantime, let us join with the Apostle Paul in giving glory to God. Hear the last four verses of chapter 11:
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!
Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?
Who has ever given to God, that God should repay them?
For from him and through him and for him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen.