Category Archives: Mercy

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?