Category Archives: Mercy

Putting Down Your Jar – Sermon on John 4:5-42 (take two)

You can find the script for this message here. This account of the Samaritan woman at the well was first preached in 2014, a few months after I began an appointment as First UMC’s pastor. Three years later, this text fit quite well in the Unbinding Your Heart sermon series. So here is the updated version.

Sometimes, a first-person story gets to the heart of the matter more effectively than a description of events. Sometimes, talking about the Word doesn’t mean as much as simply speaking the Word from inside the story. So on this fourth Sunday of Lent in 2017 (third Sunday of Lent in Year A, if you follow the lectionary cycle), I put on a scarf and told the story of the Woman at the Well from her perspective. Here’s the video.

As you meet Christ at your own personal well, may you recognize what the people from Sychar recognized: Jesus is the Savior of the world. That means he is the Savior of you.  Believe this Good News!

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.

Extravagant Hospitality – Sermon on Luke 7:36-8:3

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost C
June 12, 2016

For five long years, my mom was a single parent. As I look back to that period of our family’s history, it seems that those five years were my entire childhood. I was eight years old when my father went to prison. He urged my mom to divorce him and “find those girls a decent father.” I was thirteen when my mother re-married. A lot can happen between the ages of eight and thirteen. Five years can be an eternity.

During those five years, my mom worked her fingers to the bone to keep us fed and clothed and sheltered. She often worked two jobs to try to make ends meet. Mom’s work required her to be on her feet all day, and when she got home from her day shift, we four girls had a routine. Mom would collapse on the living room couch. One of us would bring her a fresh cup of coffee. One of us would brush her hair. And two of us would sit at her feet, remove her shoes, and give her a foot massage. We’d run a warm washcloth over each tired foot, then rub lotion into it, slowly massaging away the aches and pains of the workday. During this daily routine, we’d talk about our experiences of the day and listen to mom’s stories about the factory where she worked.

My mom was faithful to make sure we got to church, that we read our Bibles every day, that we prayed at bedtime and before every meal. But I think it was this holy moment we spent together every workday afternoon that really held our family and our faith together. Rubbing mom’s feet, brushing her hair, bringing her coffee – these were ways we could thank her for the sacrifices she was making for us. But the time it took to do these things was the real gift. This was time spent staying connected to her and to each other. As I pondered today’s gospel lesson about a woman who anoints the feet of Jesus, I couldn’t help thinking about rubbing lotion into my Mom’s tired feet, and what an important lesson of love I learned from that simple act.

This woman we read about today has something in common with the centurion and the woman whose son had died, that we met earlier in the seventh chapter of Luke. She is yet another person whose name we will never know. Some have claimed she was a prostitute, but the Bible never says that about her. Luke uses a different word to talk about prostitution (15:30). Here he only calls her a sinner, and it’s the same word Luke uses to describe Peter (5:8), a tax collector (18:13), and others (Luke 5:30-32; 19:7). We don’t know what her sin is, but it is one known to the rest of the community. She has a reputation. Maybe she eats pork, or has been caught lying or cheating or charging interest on loans. We don’t know. But she knows. And Jesus knows. And Simon the Pharisee does, too.

 

One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.”  Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “speak.”  “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” 

 Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.”

Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet.  You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” 

Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources. – Luke 7:36 – 8:3

How would you feel if a woman you didn’t know came up to you, took off your shoes, and started weeping over your feet? The tears would roll down between your toes, as she wiped them with her hair. And then she would suddenly pull out a beautiful jar of salve, and start rubbing the fragrant ointment into your feet, as she continued to weep. Would you be surprised? Uncomfortable? Would you push her away and ask what on earth she thought she was doing?

It’s one thing to rub your mom’s feet in the privacy of your own living room, but what if this happened in someone else’s home, at a dinner party they were giving in your honor? Would you be embarrassed for your host? For yourself? Would you be embarrassed for the woman?

I’m sure that Simon the Pharisee and all his other guests were appalled when this party crasher let down her hair and started kissing Jesus’ feet. Her behavior was scandalous. It was shameful. And I have to wonder what prompted her to behave the way she did. Had she known Jesus before? Had he already shown her mercy that others did not show? Had she already met Jesus, talked with him, expressed a desire to be cleansed of her sin, and been forgiven?

I wonder if she had, because later in this story, when Jesus speaks directly to her, he says “Your sins have been forgiven.” The Greek verb here uses the perfect tense, and that means the action has already been completed in the past, with effects that carry forward into the future. So, what had already happened to her that brought her to this room, carrying a jar of ointment? It must have been something amazing, to have prompted this very public and scandalous display of devotion.

But Jesus doesn’t flinch. Instead of condemning this woman for interrupting a meal to which she had not been invited, Jesus asks the host for permission to speak. “Speak, Teacher,” the Pharisee says. And Jesus launches into a parable.

At first, this story about two debtors seems innocent enough. Which one will have more love for the person who forgives a debt, the one who owed fifty, or the one who owed five hundred? “I suppose the one who owed more,” Simon shrugs. “Right,” Jesus answers. And then he asks the real question:

“Simon, do you see this woman?”

Keep in mind that this woman has entered Simon’s house without permission and has behaved in a scandalous manner from the moment she came into the room. Simon would have to be blind not to see her.

Keep in mind that this woman is a known sinner – whatever her sin, it is public knowledge, and Simon has already judged her, just as he has already judged Jesus for not recognizing her obvious sinfulness. Simon has been thinking, “If this guy were a real prophet, he would know who is touching him, making him unclean right here in my own house!”

Keep in mind that this woman, any woman in that time and culture, would have normally gone politely unnoticed, completely invisible to the men reclining around this table. Yet, Jesus asks:

“Simon, do you see this woman?”

“You did not offer me any of the normal signs of hospitality, but she has gone above and beyond normal. She has shown extravagant hospitality, even anointing my feet. At best, you might have put oil on my head after greeting me with a kiss and giving me water to wash my own feet. But this woman, because her many sins have been forgiven, shows greater love than you do.”

It’s easy for us to look back at Simon and smirk a little bit. “Gotcha!” we might be thinking. We see how Simon the Pharisee thinks he is better than others, how he judges another’s worth only in relation to the value he gives himself. We snicker and think, “Obviously he wasn’t paying attention back in chapter 6, when Jesus was preaching the Sermon on the Plain and spoke these words: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” (Luke 6:37)

But then it hits me. When I judge Simon for judging others, I am no better than Simon. When I look down my nose at someone else’s sin, I am just as guilty as they are, no matter what sin they carry. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” Paul writes (Romans 3:23). My sin isn’t any nicer or less offensive to God than the sin of someone who steals, or murders, or commits sexual sin. When I judge others for their sins, I am sinning, too. When you judge others for their sins, you are sinning, too. We are all guilty.

But here is the good news: Guilt does not equal shame. Our guilt may make us feel ashamed for our sins, but Jesus does not shame us, and he asks us not to shame each other. Jesus did not shame this woman, who was behaving in an extremely shameful manner. Instead, Jesus offers forgiveness when we repent, and he asks us to forgive much, and to love much.

Jesus reminds this woman that she has already been forgiven, and that her forgiveness extends through all time. Jesus tells her, “Your faith has made you whole; you are no longer broken. So go in peace.”

And then Jesus leaves. But he doesn’t go alone. Just as he called a dozen men to follow him, he also calls women to be his disciples. This is no less scandalous than the woman kissing his feet and wiping them with her hair. Jesus invites women to travel with him, to be with him. They are women from all walks of life. Some have been cured of diseases, some have been released from demons, some are married to influential men, some have come from the lowest rungs of society. All are like this woman, who has just been sent away in peace after Jesus has made her whole by forgiving all her sins.

Jesus offers you the same forgiveness. No matter what you have done or thought about doing, Jesus is ready to forgive you. No matter how you have judged others or thought yourself better than someone else, Jesus is waiting for you to let him speak into your heart in love, to make what is wrong in you right. No matter what guilt you carry, Jesus is ready to take away your shame, and invite you into his presence. You need no longer live in your brokenness. Christ offers you forgiveness that takes away all the sins of the past, and gives you a new future, a future of wholeness and peace in Christ Jesus our Lord. 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.

 

Nothing Between – Sermon on Romans 8:26-39

July 27, 2014

Today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans begins in the middle of a thought that began in last week’s reading. Like a good teacher, Paul has been circling back around his main point, adding layers of understanding with each repetition. Now we find ourselves at the conclusion of chapter eight, a chapter so chock full of meaning, it takes three Sundays to get through it all. Here we are, on the third of those Sundays, about to read the climax of this chapter, which is itself the climax of the whole letter. When we left off last week, we were groaning with all creation in anticipation of “the glory about to be revealed to us” as joint-heirs with Christ. It’s a glory that far outshines any memory of suffering, a glory that completely overwhelms our brokenness. Hear the word of the Lord, as given to the apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans, chapter eight, beginning at verse 26.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.
What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

There are at least three sermons in this passage. First, we could focus on the kind of prayer that surpasses human language, and the way this prayer connects us to God in life-changing ways. As “God, who searches the heart” looks into our souls, we could consider what God might find there, and how to recognize that probing, and respond to it from our inmost being. The groaning of creation, combined with our own and the Spirit’s groaning, is more than the groaning of grief, as we so often think of it. This is the groaning of expectation, of anticipation for all things to be restored to rightness in the fulfilled Kingdom of God. That could be a good sermon, and maybe I’ll preach it some day.

We could also spend a good deal of time considering the middle of this passage, that begins with the much-loved and often quoted verse 28:
“All things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

The problem with this lovely verse is that translators can’t seem to agree on the best way to interpret Paul’s Greek, and the various versions have led to some questionable explanations. We often quote this verse when we run up against the unpleasant in our lives. Bad stuff happens, and we try to brush it off with, “Oh well, all things work together for good, …” as if God had made bad things happen to us just so he could make something good out of the mess. It has also been offered as a trite phrase meant to comfort those who are in the midst of suffering, but this use sometimes backfires when the person hearing it thinks we are saying, “If you really loved God, if you were really called according to his purpose, you wouldn’t be having this trouble.” But Paul isn’t talking about a transaction here. Grace is a free gift. Paul doesn’t say, “IF you love God and are called.” He says, “those who love God and are called.” This verse introduces a growing awareness that our ultimate goal is to be glorified with Christ. The good that God is working in us is aimed toward this goal of glorification. It’s less about making silk purses out of sows’ ears, or shaming us into loving God more, than it is about progressing from infant believer to a fully formed disciple of Jesus. That could also be a good sermon, and maybe I’ll preach it some day.

Of course, we could also argue about that testy word “predestination” until the cows come home, without coming to any satisfactory understanding of what Paul had in mind when he used it. The word translated here as “predestined” only occurs four times in the New Testament: Acts 4:28, 1 Corinthians 2:7, Ephesians 1: 5 & 11, and here in Romans. In Acts and 1 Corinthians, the word refers to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the foundation for God’s plan of salvation. In Ephesians and here in Romans, Paul is referring to the inclusion of Gentiles in that plan, reminding his Jewish readers that God had in mind all along to offer salvation to the whole world.

We could talk about how, over the course of Christian history, this word was applied more specifically to an individual’s “predestination” and how Calvin developed an intricate doctrine of predestination that became an important element in Reformed theology. As Methodists, we might do well to review John Wesley’s sermons on this topic. In Sermon #58, he preached,

“What is it, then, that we learn from this whole account? It is this, and no more: — (1) God knows all believers;; (2) wills that they should be saved from sin;; (3) to that end, justifies them, (4) sanctifies and (5) takes them to glory.
O that men would praise the Lord for this his goodness;; and that they would be content with this plain account of it, and not endeavour to wade into those mysteries which are too deep for angels to fathom!”

So maybe today is not the day to tackle the doctrine of predestination. That might make for good discussion in a small group study sometime.

What does that leave us? Paul comes to his main point through four rhetorical questions:
Who can be against us, if God is for us?
Who can bring any charge against God’s elect?
Who can condemn us if Christ died for us, rose again, and stands on our behalf before God?
Who can separate us from the love of God?

And the answer is always the same. No one can come between God and us.
Nothing can separate us from God’s love. No one can be against us if God is for us. God will give us everything, since he already gave his only Son for our sakes.
No one will bring any charge against God’s elect, because God himself justifies us. He finds us “in the right,” and if the supreme judge of all the universe finds us in the right, no one can appeal or argue that finding.
No one can condemn us, because Christ has already died and been raised to a place at the right hand of God where he intercedes, along with the Spirit who groans on our behalf. Condemnation has been condemned.

No one can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Even when it seems God has abandoned you, Paul writes, you cannot escape his love. Paul quotes Psalm 44, a psalm of lament, to make his point. At a time when Israel felt that God had turned away forever, even then, God’s love for his people could not be destroyed. And now, even more than then, we have evidence of God’s deep love for us in the person of his own Son, Jesus. No, Paul says, we aren’t forsaken. In fact, we are “more than conquerors through him who loved us.”

What does “more than conquerors” mean here? What are we conquering, exactly? Through Christ Jesus, we can claim complete victory over the suffering caused by our sin. And what is the source of this victory? God’s great love for us, shown in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Nothing.

Paul’s final answer to the question, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” is one of the most beautiful assurances we can find in scripture. “I am convinced,” Paul writes, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

It’s a pretty exhaustive list, but what if Paul were writing this promise today? What would make the list of things that cannot separate us from God’s love?

During our meeting this week, I asked the Church Council to take a moment to think of the things that break our hearts. We listed children who are vulnerable, families who are displaced by war or natural disaster, the violence and unrest throughout the world, but particularly in the Middle East and Ukraine. We listed places and people who might be feeling separated from God’s love right now. But Paul says, “Nothing can separate us.” Nothing can come between us and the God who loves us. Nothing.

Shel Silverstein once wrote a children’s poem called “Whatif,” that lists all the things a young child might fear, such as failure, disappointment, embarrassment, rejection, even death. “What if, what if, what if?” the poem asks. Adults often play the “What if” game, too. What if I had done this differently, or said that, or made a different decision? What if things go wrong and I can’t fix them? What if?

Paul says, “Nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Stop “what if”-ing, and rest in this assurance: We are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

Rob Bell, former pastor of the Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, put out a series of discussion starter videos several years ago. In one of these “Nooma” videos, he makes this profound claim: “There is nothing you can do to make God love you less.” And there is nothing you can do to make God love you more. No matter what we do to try to make God stop loving us, it won’t work. He will not love us any less than he ever did. And no matter how hard we try to make God love us more, it won’t work, because he already loves us beyond anything we can imagine. He cannot love you less, and he cannot love you more.

Know that God loves you no matter what, no matter when, no matter where, no matter who, no matter why, no matter how.

So, live like God loves you. Live like a conquering hero, because that’s who you are. We are all completely victorious over sin and death, through the one who loved us, who loves us now, and will always love us. Live into the assurance that you are God’s own beloved child, and share that good news with the people you see every day who are hurting, disappointed, worried, convinced that they have no worth in the world. Remind them, as you remind yourself, that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 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?