Sermon, August 20, 2017

Sermon.08.20.17

St. Paul’s – Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

Genesis 45.1-15; Psalm 133; Romans 11.1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15.10-28

 

Last Sunday we considered Paul’s sorrow and anguish over the plight of his own people, the Israelites, through whom we received “the adoption, the glory, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises;” to whom “belong the patriarchs;” and from whom “comes the Messiah” (Romans 9.4-5; NRSV). We considered their unenlightened zeal for God, their attempts to attain righteousness through the law. Paul noted that our salvation comes through our confession of Jesus as Lord and our trust (belief) that God has raised Jesus from the dead. Paul notes “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved,” but then asks, “how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed … to believe in one of whom they have never heard … to hear without someone to proclaim him … to proclaim him unless they are sent” (Romans 10.15; NRSV). We ended by noting “how beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news” (Romans 10.15; NRSV).

Paul then asks, “Have they not heard” (Romans 10.18; NRSV)? Yes, they have heard. As evidence, Paul quotes Psalm 19.4: “Yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world” (NRSV). Whose voice, whose words? We must remember this Psalm begins as follows: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19.1; NRSV). Paul is acknowledging God’s natural revelation which should elicit acknowledgment and praise.

Since they have heard, Paul asks, “did Israel not understand” (Romans 10.19; NRSV)? Paul responds by quoting Moses and Isaiah. In Deuteronomy 32.21, Moses has God say: “They made me jealous with what is no god, provoked me with their idols. So I will make them jealous with what is no people, provoke them with a foolish nation” (NRSV). Paul renders the second part of this verse as follows: “I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation; with a foolish nation I will make you angry” (Romans 10.19; NRSV). Here Paul is arguing the righteousness of the Gentiles which comes through God’s love and grace alone will cause jealousy among the Israelites – they will long for the same relationship with God. In further support, Paul, quoting Isaiah 65.1, says, “Then Isaiah is so bold as to say, ‘I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me’” (Romans 10.20; NRSV). Paul then points to God’s characterization of the obstinacy of the Israelites by quoting Isaiah 65.2, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people” (Romans 10.21; NRSV).

Given this line of thought, Paul next asks, “Has God rejected his people” (Romans 11. A; NRSV)? Again, we encounter his familiar response, “By no means!” Paul then cites himself as an example that God has not abandoned the Israelites: “I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew” (Romans 11.1b-2a; NRSV).

Paul reminds them of God’s response to Elijah’s lament (found in I Kings 19) that the Israelites had killed all of God’s prophets and destroyed all God’s altars. In his despair, Elijah cried out, “I alone am left, and they are seeking my life,” but God responded, “I have kept for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal” (Romans 11.4; NRSV). Paul says, “So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (Romans 11.5-6; NRSV).

As Paul continues, he points out that much of Israel has stumbled, but not so as to fall: “through their stumbling salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous” (Romans 11.11; NRSV). To explain the nature of the relationship between the Israelites and the Gentiles, Paul employs the allegorical image of an olive tree. As Paul observes, “If the root is holy, then the branches are also holy” (Romans 11.16; NRSV). In the event some of the branches are broken off because of unbelief, and a wild olive shoot (the Gentiles) is grafted in, it has no cause to boast over the other branches; the wild olive branch should not become proud but should rather stand in awe (Romans 11.20). After all, Paul warns, if God did not spare the natural branches, God may not spare the wild olive branch. Paul says,

Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness toward you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off.  And even those of Israel, if they do not persist in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. For if you have been cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these natural branches be grafted back into their own olive tree (Romans 11.22-24; NRSV).

 

Lest the Gentiles think they are wiser than they are, Paul says he wants them “to understand this mystery: “a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11.25-26; NRSV).

When viewed from the perspective of the gospel, Paul says, the unfaithful of Israel may be considered as “enemies of God for your sake” (the Gentiles). Yet when viewed from the standpoint of election (of God’s promise to Abraham), they are “beloved, for the sake of their ancestors” (Romans 11.28; NRSV).

What we have covered is the fuller context of the closing words from the reading of the Epistle: “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 11.29-32; NRSV).

What are we to make of this? What lessons can we draw from this lesson?

First, despite our differences, and our feelings of moral superiority, we all participate in brokenness. If you are like I am, the images from Charlottesville evoked a mixture of feelings ranging from anger to disappointment and disgust. I found myself thinking, I am glad I am not filled with the hatred displayed by members of the alt-right. In that respect, I am like the Pharisee who prayed, “God I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector [or like these alt-righters who are so filled with hate].” I need to be more like the tax collector who stood afar off, would not even look heavenward, beat his breast and prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18.10-13; NRSV). As Paul says, we are all imprisoned in disobedience. We all stand condemned before our God, salvation comes only through the grace of God.

Second, as Christians, we are called to a witness of love and peace. In our disdain for hatred, racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and homophobia, it is all too easy to meet violence with violence. If we turn to violence, if we meet violence with violence, we act out of our own fear and anger. Born of such feelings, our actions say, “Step aside God; I’ll handle this!” In Romans 12.17-19, Paul says, Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (NRSV). We do need to confront violence and hatred, but we need to confront them with love.

We saw the witness of love and peace in the several hundred Christian, Jewish, and Muslim clergy and other people of faith who gathered in Charlottesville as a witness prior to, during, and after the demonstration. We saw this witness in the Love Over Fear Sunrise Service conducted at 6:00 AM on Saturday in advance of the alt-right rally (https://www.vox.com/identities/2017/8/14/16140506/congregate-cville-charlottesville-rally-protest-interview). These actions are good, they serve as a witness, but how do we embrace others who are radically different from us and invite them into dialogue? We need to wrestle with this question.

Third, we need to trust God to use adversity and calamity for ultimate good. Our Old Testament reading from Genesis speaks to how Joseph was sold into slavery and taken to Egypt as a part of God’s providential plan. I suspect if we could see Joseph when he was bound, sold, and on his way to Egypt we would have seen a very different Joseph from the one who graciously recognized the work of God and granted his brothers forgiveness.  As Paul notes, God used the pride and the rejection of much of Israel as a means of sharing the gospel with the Gentiles. Is God using the events of today as a means of humbling his people? Is God leading us through the wilderness, despite all our cursing and grumbling, into something better? In prayer, humility, and love, can we trust that God’s plan is being fulfilled?

Only by the grace of God can we truly live the life of Christ.      Amen

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