Category Archives: Justice

Two Cents Worth – Sermon on Mark 12:38-44

November 11, 2018

Have you ever given your opinion about something, and then said, “That’s just my two cents worth”? It’s a way of letting the person you’re talking to know that this is just your own opinion, and the listener is free to disagree. When we add our “two cents worth” to a discussion, we let people know that, “yeah, this is what I think, but I could be wrong. I’m no expert. Take it for what it’s worth – not much, maybe.”

Do you remember “sound bites”? We don’t hear about them much anymore, maybe because sound bites have been replaced with tweets. Continue reading

Persistence – sermon on Luke 18:1-8

October 16, 2016
Watch this sermon here.

In today’s passage, Luke explains a parable of Jesus before sharing the
parable itself. He only does this two other times. We will look at one of
these next week, when we read about the Pharisee and the tax collector,
and the other is the story of the Ten Talents. But the explanation Luke
gives here helps to focus our attention on the importance of staying
persistently connected to God.  Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and
not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who
neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was
a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against
my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘
Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because
this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” And the Lord said, “Listen
to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his
chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in
helping them?  I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And
yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” -Luke 18:1-8

Let’s start at the end of this passage, and work our way backward. The
question Jesus asks at the conclusion of the story helps us understand it in
a way we might not see if we are in a hurry to read on to the next
passage. So let’s look backward first, to reflect on the parable of the
persistent widow and the unjust judge from the framework this question
gives us: When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?

Jesus started this particular teaching back in Chapter 17 (verse 20) when
the Pharisees asked him when the Kingdom of God was coming. He tells
them,
“The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor
will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of
God is among you.” (Luke 17:20-21)

The parable of the unjust judge and the persistent
widow closes this longer lecture about the coming of God’s Kingdom on
earth.  The Pharisees had asked “when?” but Jesus answers that how we wait is
much more important than knowing the exact moment. So he throws this
question back at the Pharisees: When the Son of Man comes, will he find
faith on the earth? In other words, will we be faithful to the end? This is
the crux of the matter – will Christ find faithfulness, trustworthiness
among his people when he comes again, whenever that may be?

Let’s go back a step further. Before Jesus asks if we will be faithful, he
assures us that God can always be trusted. God is faithful. Jesus says, “
And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and
night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant
justice to them.” (Luke 18:7-8a)

Luke reminds us of the tension first century Christians were feeling
between the expected suddenness of Christ’s second coming, and their
perceived delay of that event. Peter had also written, “Do not ignore this
one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise,
as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to
perish, but all to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:8-9, quoting Psalm 90:4)
God will not put off helping his people, but God does not operate on our
timeline – we exist on his. And rest assured that God will give justice. God
will make right the things that are wrong. God will surely heal what is
broken. But God’s patience should not be seen as procrastination. God is
showing mercy, giving us time to turn to him and seek forgiveness, to ask
him to make us whole.
“And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Recent headlines might make you wonder if it’s possible. There is plenty
that is wrong and broken in our world, today as much as it was over 2000
years ago. Justice sometimes seems like a dream more than a possible
reality. We see disappointment and pain every day, as people are
murdered, others go without food or adequate shelter, leaders turn out to
be corrupt, governments stop functioning, and self-serving greed has a
higher social value than generosity toward others. Hatred seems to be on
the rise, and mercy is hard to find.

The unjust judge of this parable would fit right into today’s culture: he
doesn’t fear God, and he has no respect for people. He models the exact
opposite of the Great Commandment to love God and love neighbor. The
judge only gives justice to get rid of the widow’s annoyance, not because
he cares about right and wrong. “Yet because this widow keeps bothering
me, I will grant her justice,” he says, “so that she may not wear me out by
continually coming.’”

Quite literally, this phrase means, “so she won’t slap me in the face,” or “
so she won’t give me a black eye.” I don’t think the judge is too worried
about a poor widow assaulting him. The judge wants to avoid being
embarrassed – or shamed – by the widow’s constant badgering. And it is
that very badgering, the continual showing up on his doorstep to ask for
justice, that finally allows the widow to win over the unethical judge.

Let’s take a look at that widow. Jesus says, “In that city there was a widow
who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my
opponent.’” We don’t know who the opponent is, or what problem the
widow has with the opponent. We only know that she is seeking justice.
And she has her speech down to six words. Persistently, day after day, this
woman kept coming to the judge, saying, “Grant me justice against my
opponent.” What else could she do? This judge is her only hope.

You see, most women were very young, barely teenagers, when they
married, so the possibility of outliving their husbands was a very strong
one. There were many widows, but they weren’t necessarily old women.
The problem was that they often had no means of support when their
husbands died, especially if they had no sons to take responsibility for
them and care for them. They did not inherit their husband’s estate – it
went to another male member of the family. If a widow stayed with her
husband’s family, she became little more than a servant in the household.
If she went back to her own family, the bride price had to be paid back to
the husband’s family. Many times, widows were sold as slaves to pay off
their husband’s debts.

With all this in mind, it’s a wonder this widow even tried to seek justice.
Yet here she is, day after day, relentlessly asking an unjust judge to give
her justice against her opponent. “How much more will God give justice to
those who ask him?” Jesus seems to be saying. If a crooked judge can be
convinced to do what is right, even if it’s for the wrong reasons, how much
more will God show mercy to those he loves?

God’s love is not only persistent, but also just. God’s loving justice, made
evident in Christ’s cross and resurrection, reveals not only God’s persistent
response to individual sin, but also God’s powerful and persistent
resistance against the unjust powers that be. Which makes me wonder if I’
ve been looking at this parable through the wrong lens.
What if God is not represented in this story by the judge, but by the
persistent widow seeking justice? Certainly, comparing God to an unjust
judge can only work from the “how much more?” viewpoint. But what if
Jesus is actually asking us to see God through the eyes of this persistent
widow seeking justice? And what if the unjust judge who will only do the
right thing to avoid further embarrassment is … me?

Methodist pastor and poet Steve Garnaas-Holmes writes:

God is not the judge, but the widow.

Jesus says, “Do not judge,” but still we judge.

We fail to fear God and respect other people.

God comes to us among the powerless,

the orphan, the widow, the Crucified One,

pleading for justice.

So busy with what we want,  

we don’t hear what God wants.

But God keeps coming, keeps pleading for justice.

She does not shout, does not lift up her voice,  

but calmly, confidently, again and again she comes.

She will wear us out with her continual coming,

until we do justice. …”
(Steve Garnaas-Holmes, Unfolding Light, October 13, 2016)  

That brings us back to the beginning of the story, and the reason Luke
gives us for this parable of Jesus: “Then Jesus told them a parable about
their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”

Many times, I think, we focus on the ‘need to pray’ part of this
explanation, and we ignore the need ‘not to lose heart.’ Jesus was
teaching his disciples the same persistence he had learned from the
Father. Jesus knew what each disciple would have to face after he was
gone, and he wanted to be sure they were prepared for what was to
come. Luke uses these words of Jesus to remind his readers, decades
later, that they should also not lose heart as they wait for Christ to come
again. And he wrote them down so that other believers, centuries later,
would also be encouraged.

Certainly Luke spends a lot of ink describing the importance of prayer.
Jesus holds up this persistent widow as a model for effective prayer, but
he isn’t talking about mindlessly repeating the same prayers over and over
again. The persistence in prayer Jesus asks of us is a faithful pursuit of
God’s justice in the world.

Praying is simply pouring out our hearts to God, who will always be faithful
to hear us. It means trusting in God, and not in ourselves. It means
constantly hoping for the time when God will make things right, convinced
that God’s justice will prevail over evil.  Just as the widow kept coming to the judge, determined, relentless,
hoping against all odds; so we are to keep praying, determined, relentless,
hoping against all odds. Not because we are “good Christians” or because
our faith is strong, but because God’s Holy Spirit has given us the courage
to pray without ceasing in a broken and scary world, that God’s Kingdom
will come and God’s will shall be done. If we are to be found faithful when
the Son of Man comes, we must keep praying, and not lose heart.

And what is it that we should pray for? The widow gets it right. Our
prayers must be for justice. Not our petty desires or what we think we
need – for God already knows what we need before we ask, and many
times what God knows we need and what we think we need are not at all the same thing. We are to pray for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will
to be done. We must not lose heart or become weary with waiting for
Christ to come again to deliver us, once and for all, from the pain and
brokenness we see all around us. We must persist in hope, persist in
prayer, and persist in seeking justice until the Lord comes.

Christ’s coming is still in the future, but God’s patience is at work in the
present. The parable assures us that God will save his people. The concern
is not when this will happen, but its certainty, and the necessity for us to
live in readiness and faithfulness.
Will Jesus come again, as he promised? Absolutely. Will God bring justice
to the world? Without a doubt. Will we be faithful until that time, pursuing
justice and working for the Kingdom of God? May it be so!

Let us pray.

“… Persistent God,

help us listen to your cries in the poor,

to your whisperings in our hearts,

to the light in your silence.

We still our minds, cease our judging, and listen.

In our hearts, a river flowing, we listen.

In the unsaid billion prayers, we listen.

We keep praying and do not lose heart. “ (Steve Garnaas-Holmes)

Help us to see injustice around us, and to work for the kind of justice that
only comes from you. We don’t ask for fairness, Lord, because sometimes
fairness isn’t just. We ask for your justice, which always includes mercy.
We ask for your justice, which always means sacrifice. We ask for your
justice, that your Kingdom might come and your will might be done here
on earth, even as it is in heaven. Make us instruments of your peace, and
advocates for those who seek justice in an unjust world. Amen.

Who is My Neighbor? Another sermon on Luke 10:25-37

I preached on this text just a few months ago, to a different congregation, so the first part of this sermon is that sermon, with a few tweaks. But events of this past week have demanded that I speak to the violence that has overwhelmed us, and the need to remind my very white congregation that Black Lives Matter.

Here’s the set up to today’s gospel reading, from last week’s reading in Luke 10. What has just happened was the sending of the 70 (or 72) into the villages and towns where Jesus plans to go next. These disciples are the advance team, and their mission is successful.

The 72 have just returned, and Jesus has prayed a prayer of thanksgiving and praise to the Father, rejoicing in the Holy Spirit and blessing these disciples. Everyone’s feeling pretty good about what has just happened. If this were a television show, the commercial break would come right about here.

Luke sets off today’s famous story with one of his signature introductions: “And behold.” Luke acknowledges what has just happened, and connects it to this story with “and.” But there’s that “behold” to show us that we are about to hear something new.

 

25 And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?”27 And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”28 And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” 29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 

30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side.32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 34 He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”

The lawyer who steps up to question Jesus only asks two questions. The first is a test, but the lawyer’s question isn’t as simple as our modern translations make it seem. A literal translation might sound more like, “Teacher, I will inherit life eternal having done or fulfilled or acquired what, exactly?” It’s a messy question, and hard to put into simple words.

Jesus identifies a teachable moment, and answers the question with –you guessed it – another question. Actually, two – and this is important. Jesus wants to know “What is in the law? You’re a lawyer, you know the scriptures; you already have your answer. You tell me what it says.” That’s questions number one.

But then Jesus immediately follows with a much more personal question – “How do you read it?” At once we realize that Jesus does not see the Law as a dead and stagnant set of words that mean the same thing to everyone. The Word of God is living and active (Hebrews 4:12), and how we read it determines how we will respond to God’s message.

The lawyer doesn’t hesitate, but begins by quoting the Shema, “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is One. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)

We think of this as a command, but the verb “shall” is not an imperative in this case. It’s more of an indication that something will surely happen in the future. You are going to love the Lord your God, because the Lord is the only God there is.

The lawyer adds part of Leviticus 19:18(b), and this blending of two verses gives us what we now call “the Great Commandment.” To love God, we must also love our neighbor.

Yes, Jesus says, you’ve got it. Go do it. But just as Jesus turns back to his friends, who are still celebrating their successful mission trip, the lawyer adds a new question, and this isn’t a test, it’s an attempt to justify himself. This guy who was challenging Jesus a moment ago suddenly feels the need to get his approval, so he asks, “Yes, but … who is my neighbor?

I can imagine the others getting quiet as Jesus looks at the lawyer. They have a hunch they know what Jesus is going to do. I imagine Jesus pausing a moment, considering the best way to teach this lawyer about the high cost of discipleship. He decides to take on this expert in the law, and everyone else settles in to listen. They know that a story is coming.

Jesus sets the scene. It’s the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. About a year and a half ago, I was on that road. We stopped at a Bedouin camp to get a good view of what is commonly called The Valley of the Shadow of Death. I think I have shown you some of these photos before, but let’s get a refresher course on what this valley looks like. ….

2015-01-14 Valley of the ShadowIt was the rainy season, so there was a bit of green showing here and there, but when we looked out across the Valley toward Jerusalem, it was hard to imagine anyone walking through this wilderness.

 

That’s Jerusalem off in the distance, on the very rim of the horizon:

2015-01-14 UP to Jerusalem

 

 

 

 

 

When we turned and looked down the valley in the other direction, we could almost make out Jericho.2015-01-14 down to Jericho1

 

In between is treacherous wilderness, and the distance was too great to be traveled on foot in a single day. This made travelers vulnerable to the robbers and nomads who spent their lives scrabbling out an existence in this wasteland.

bedouin homes

The place where our bus stopped was near a Bedouin camp. At first, we thought it had been abandoned, but the tour guide assured us that it was not.

The guide warned us to take valuables with us when we got off the bus, and keep them close. We were also encouraged to not buy anything or try to bargain with these Bedouins. And whatever we did, when the children asked us for candy, even if we had some, we should refuse. It might be a ruse to get us to open our bags or pockets – something you should never do in front of a Bedouin child. You also should not let them catch you taking their pictures.

Bedouins on the run to meet the bus 2015-01-14 10.35.17

Sure enough, as soon as the bus stopped, here they came.

I was careful to wait until the children weren’t looking to take a snapshot.

Bedouin girl 2015-01-14 10.36.45

 

 

Bedouin boy with backpack 2015-01-14 10.36.01This charming little guy had a backpack full of trinkets he was trying to sell us. Everything was “one dollar.” When we declined, he held out his hand and asked, “Candy? Gum?” He went from salesman to beggar in the blink of an eye.

As I tried to imagine someone walking from Jerusalem to Jericho, it occurred to me that these Bedouin children were a much milder version of the robbers in Jesus’ story. Clearly, they were not a real threat to us. We were in no danger of being stripped and left to die on the side of the road.

2015-01-14 Good Samaritan roadBut if this was the road Jesus and his listeners were imagining as he told the story, I could see why you wouldn’t have wanted to travel it alone.

Whenever Jesus tells a parable, he invites us into the story. There is almost always one character with whom we identify. Quite often, there’s a twist somewhere in the story that surprises us. It tells us we’ve been identifying with the wrong character all along, if we really want to be followers of Christ. The story of the Good Samaritan is no exception.

The first two people who accidentally happen by are a priest and a Levite. IF you were the man lying in the ditch, who better to come along than someone whose life is dedicated to God? At the very least, you would expect no further harm to come to you. These must be the heroes, surely.

But they both hurry over to the other side of the road. Neither of these likely heroes stop to help. They probably wanted to avoid contamination – touching this man, who looked like he might be dead, would make them ritually unclean.

It is the third traveler who is moved to compassion. Finally, someone who can do something! He gets down off his camel or donkey, cleans the man’s wounds with wine and oil, bandages him up and puts the man on the camel – or donkey. But there’s a catch. This kind person, whose care has saved a life, is – a Samaritan. The very last person on earth any self-respecting Jew would ask for help. The Enemy.

There was a long history of animosity between the people of Samaria and the people of Israel. It went all the way back to King Solomon’s son, who had failed to keep the kingdom together, and ten tribes had renounced their allegiance to David’s line. They stopped worshiping in Jerusalem, and within a very short time, had turned away from worshiping God alone. The tribe of Judah – the Jews – didn’t even really consider the Samaritans to be Hebrews anymore. As far as they were concerned, the Samaritans were worse than Gentiles.

The disciples and the lawyer who heard Jesus tell this parable might have had a hard time accepting the Samaritan as the hero. They probably assumed it would be the priest or the Levite. After all, it’s easy to justify their failure to help by remembering they were just trying to stay clean. But the person who does the right thing turns out to be a Samaritan – just about the worst possible ethnic group any of the disciples could imagine.

The difference between the Samaritan and the first two holy men who happened along that road between Jerusalem and Jericho wasn’t a matter of eyesight. All three of them saw the man lying in the ditch. The difference is what they did when they saw him. The first two made a beeline for the opposite side of the road. Only the Samaritan saw the man and had compassion. Remember that this word compassion is more than pity. It’s a gut-wrenching, heart-changing feeling. The Samaritan didn’t see an enemy lying in the ditch; he saw a person in need.
He saw a brother, a neighbor, and his heart went out to this stranger.

Jesus says, “Go be like the Samaritan.” Go be like the person you snub. Go be like the person you think you’re too good to be around. Go be like the person you think is your enemy.This week, we have seen violence erupt in an all too familiar pattern.

On Tuesday of this week, Alton Sterling was shot and killed by a police officer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

On Wednesday, Philando Castile was shot and killed by a police officer in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. These two incidents sparked a wave of protests, prayer vigils, and calls for justice.

On Thursday, a sniper attacked police officers in Dallas Texas as they protected and served during an otherwise peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstration. Five officers died, and seven officers, along with two civilians, were injured.

Each of the people involved in these shooting incidents was a beloved child of God. Every single one. Every single person was a neighbor.

While violence and anger have escalated, many have experienced a growing sense of frustration and a feeling of helplessness. What can we possibly do? How are we to respond?

We may think that we are exempt from racial unrest here in our little corner of the world. But we aren’t. We may not be shouting racist epithets or actively discriminating against people of color, but even in our silence, we still experience privilege because of our white skin. We benefit from a system of oppression and advantage no matter what our intentions are.

During World War II, Martin Niemöller was a prominent Protestant pastor who opposed the Nazi regime. He spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps. After the war, Niemöller gave lectures, and his point was always the same: through their silence, the German people, and the Protestant churches in particular, had given support to Nazi imprisonment, persecution, and the murder of millions of people. Even if they did not agree with Hitler, their silence had made them complicit in the evil that Hitler had perpetrated. Niemöller’s famous words, repeated in several different variations over many speeches, go something like this:

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews – and I did not speak out,
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Over the last several days, we have seen T-shirts and signs and hashtags on social media repeating the phrase, “Black Lives Matter,” and sometimes I see a response that says, “All Lives Matter.” One of my black clergy colleagues wrote this week that saying, “All lives matter,” is like saying “All houses matter” when there is one house on fire. Of course all houses matter, but shouldn’t we be throwing some water on the one that is burning right now? It’s like going to the emergency room with a broken leg and hearing the doctor say, “Well you know, all bones matter.” Of course they do, but shouldn’t we be taking care of the one bone that is broken right now?

Instead of saying, “All lives matter,” Jesus said, “Samaritan lives matter.”
Instead of saying, “All lives matter,” Jesus said, “Children’s lives matter.”
Instead of saying, “All lives matter,” Jesus said, “Gentile lives matter.”
Instead of saying, “All lives matter,” Jesus said, “Jewish lives matter.”
Instead of saying, “All lives matter,” Jesus said, “Women’s lives matter.”
Instead of saying, “All lives matter,” Jesus said, “Leper’s lives matter.”

Even though Jesus loved everyone, even dying for their sins, he went out of his way to intentionally help specific groups of people – the alienated, mistreated, and those facing injustice.
So saying, “Black Lives Matter” is one of the most Christ-like things we can do.” (from Stephen Mattson’s article ‘Social Justice is a Christian Tradition – Not a Liberal Agenda’ in Sojourners (08/11/15))

In the Friday Five this week, I issued a call to prayer that echoes our Bishop’s call to pray for peace and justice. If you use Facebook, I invite you to “like” the church’s Facebook page, where you will see a prayer prompt each day this week at noon. Prayer is the most basic, fundamental thing we can do as Christians, to begin the transformational healing our world so desperately needs. No ministry can be effective unless we first bathe it in prayer.

But prayer isn’t enough. It’s a start, but until we actively work at peacemaking, there will be no peace. Until we actively work at listening to the cry of pain in our community, we will keep walking past the very ones Christ calls us to stand beside. Until we actively work at recognizing the privilege we experience just by not having to think about racism if we so choose, our brothers and sisters who have no choice but to think about racism every waking moment will continue to suffer.

So let’s keep praying at noon every day this week. But let’s do more than that. Let’s look for ways we can actively work to overcome hatred and fear with the love of Christ. If a Samaritan can do it, surely we can. If a Jewish lawyer can do it, surely we can.

As we pass through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, the choice is ours. Will we see and cross over to the other side of the road, or will we see and be consumed by gut-wrenching compassion for those who suffer injustice, especially our brothers and sisters of color whose lives matter to God?

When Jesus finished his story, he asked the lawyer, “Who proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” The lawyer said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” He says the same to each of us. Amen.

Grafted In – Sermon on Romans 11

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.

 

Mercy and Justice

This is not a blog post about Martin Luther King Day, even though we celebrate 50 years of “I Have A Dream” today. This is not a blog post about the presidential inauguration. Four years ago was history in the making. Today is just confirmation that it wasn’t a fluke. Frankly, I don’t have a thing to say on either of these topics that someone else hasn’t already said better and more eloquently. (And I am not talking about Mark Driscoll, who seems to have forgotten that bit about “judge not, unless you wanna be judged.”)

What burns my oatmeal right now is the awareness that, as much as we say mercy and justice matter to us as Christ-followers, most of the Christians I know are not too comfortable making mercy and justice a reality for others. We are grateful when it comes our way, but showing mercy – real caring for another that costs us – is something we simply don’t know how to do very well. We can pray for another’s need. We can talk about a problem we see. But when it comes to forgiving someone who has wronged us or putting another’s welfare and safety ahead of our own, we look more like Mark Driscoll than Jesus.

And do we even know what justice really is? The mission statement for my denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church, focuses on the desire to see more disciples among more populations in a more caring and just world, but what exactly does that mean? Whose justice are we talking about here? And who gets to decide what that justice looks, smells, and feels like?

Jesus came into the world to shine light into our darkness, to make wrong things right again, to heal brokenness and offer hope where there is no hope. He calls each of us to participate in that same work. So I have to ask myself: What am I doing to show that kind of mercy and build that kind of justice? What are you doing to make this a more caring and just world?