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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Beautiful Feet and Mercy Kissing Peace

Romans 10:5-15
God is always doing a new thing. This we believe. Yet despite our belief about the eternal workings and creativity of God, we humans have a tendency to cling to our ideas of how God works, thus in our minds, we keep God and God’s potentiality in a box.
Our lessons today all point to the fact that God has always been doing new things for the sake of God’s relationship with humankind. Our Christian witness tells the story of the way in which God has done the greatest new thing in sending God’s own Word to dwell with, in and around us through the incarnation of Jesus Christ into the world, the biggest game changer there ever was or will be.
Still, the wall we consistently smack into, comes because we are so entrenched in our ideas of what was. We are attached like barnacles to a pilings and rocks to the way things have always been. This includes our understanding of how God works, despite the biblical witness of God’s unceasing pursuit and faithfulness to this relationship God desires; to our welfare and salvation. All of our previous and current understandings of how things work are both limited and limiting.
In the August issue of The Lutheran magazine, Pastor, author, and columnist Peter Marty reflected in an article entitled “God language,” on the 1969 Apollo 11 lunar module landing. Marty helps us remember that at the moment that his feet hit the dirt (or whatever you call the substance covering the surface of the moon), Neil Armstrong uttered the now-legendary words, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Marty comments that if this historic moment had occurred just 15 years later, cultural shifts would likely have insisted on more inclusive language, influencing this statement instead to be something like, “One small step for man,” [or, even, person, I would suggest] “one giant leap for humankind.” 
Marty writes, “Language changes over time. In the church,
however, we can be slow to make adjustments to linguistic shifts.” Marty then expounds on the patterns and impetus for using gendered language for God, and the problems and limitations of such language; but I believe that the application of his illustration goes far beyond linguistic tendencies and applies as well to the ways in which we understand God, how God is working, and how our lives are impacted by God’s grace and mercy. God always doing a new thing for the good of humankind and for the sake of God’s eternal relationship with us is illustrated in each of our readings today, and is a topic Paul continues to wrestle with in the epistle reading.
          Readings from Romans remind us of how Jesus’ faithfulness expanded “God’s circle of mercy and grace” to include those previously considered excluded…emphasizing just how new a thing God has done in Christ.
You might remember that in this portion of Paul’s epistle to the Romans, Paul is addressing what is a point of crisis for him. This crisis arises from the fact that most of the Jewish people, his people, have not accepted the gospel of Jesus Christ. He doesn’t understand why this gospel has had no effect on them. What is God’s plan here? What new thing is God still doing in the life of these people?
As in chapters 1 – 3 of this same epistle, Paul asserts that both Jews and Gentiles alike are estranged from God and under the power of sin. All suffer from disobedience to God in some form. All reject God’s love and God’s law to some extent. But for Paul there is good news in this: God still saves people out of those conditions. God remains faithful. God is merciful to all and so through the Word of God, Jesus Christ, the word of salvation is still very near, for everyone.
The Greek word, pas, is used repeatedly in this section of the Paul’s letter – a fact that points to its importance in this scripture. This word can be translated as either all or everyone:
All of this is because God is faithful. God is relentless in God’s attempts to win heart and soul of all. God pursues all people to the end of the world. And in God’s faithful, relentless pursuit, God is doing a new thing here: God has become the righteousness of everyone who believes in God and calls upon God’s name, and in Jesus Christ God has opened the gates of life for all.
Lest we forget this, in chapter 9:15 Paul reminds us of the foundation of God’s promise to Moses, spoken in the wilderness tent: “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” The extent and purpose of God’s righteousness will be determined by God, and God alone. God will not be boxed in by the limitations of our thinking, believing or understanding. Further, “Those who were not my people I will call my people.” (9:15)
For those who still believe that it is their participation in the law that saves, Paul adds, “For Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.” Christ both fulfills and annuls the law. Borrowing from the beautiful words of our psalm reading for the day, in Christ, God’s “steadfast love and faithfulness have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” (85:10)
Paul’s point is twofold and is relevant for us today. First, we ought not presume that we can make our salvation happen; not by following the law, not by doing good works, not by praying the right prayers, singing the right songs, not even by possessing the “correct understanding” of how God works. Our righteousness is the result of God’s effort. We don’t manufacture our salvation or attain new life on our own. Christ is the means of God’s manifestation of life for all, and God claims us through the faithfulness of Christ. God will give what is good for all.
The good news in this word is the accessibility of God that is inclusive and broad in its scope: Christ’s faith is a game-changer in our walk with God. The embodiment of faith, first and foremost, is the faithfulness of Jesus that brings new life. And for all of us who have tired and failed at perfection, this is good news. For all of us who have known times of trial and doubt, this is good news. For all of us who have been worn down by the idea that unless we are able to live sinless lives we are doomed or that God cannot forgive us our failings and sin because they are too large, this is good news that we can embrace.
So where, we might ask, does the law come in? When we believe in Christ and Christ lives in our hearts, our faith is evident in our actions. It is not our actions that save us. But in faith, our actions, influenced by the law and inspired by Christ bring the good news of God’s love and mercy for the world.
In study with one of our Confirmation students this week, the topic of discipleship came up. We talked a bit about the measure of discipleship that was made popular a few years ago; WWJD - What Would Jesus Do? Remember that? The idea was that each of us, along with all who believe in Jesus are disciples and that fact impacts our lives in ways that are evident to the world.
So “What Would Jesus Do” became the mark and measure for our decisions and behaviors in order to guide, rather than condemn. The law works in the same way. For disciples, living in obedience to the law of God made evident through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus becomes a way of life. For disciples, living Christ-shaped lives becomes our goal. In his book entitled “Power Surge: Six Marks of Discipleship for a Changing World,” Michael Foss describes the six marks of this kind of life. According to Foss, the marks of discipleship are Prayer, Worship, Scripture, Service, Relationships, and Giving. According to Foss, developing these areas of our lives will help us to grow in our relationship with God and will grow our discipleship in the world.
What does it mean, then, for God to work in and through Christ, and always, still, doing a new thing? Where do we see God working in this way in our lives and in the world?
The final verse of this second reading points to the answer: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” This declaration points to the text from Isaiah 52:7 “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, Your God reigns.” Today, this messenger announces the presence and victory of God. Today, this messenger proclaims the good news of God in Christ through word and action. Today those whose feet are beautiful, share God’s love, peace and mercy through acts of kindness, love, compassion, forgiveness, faithfulness and generosity. The disciple of Christ is this messenger. The disciple whose feet are beautiful who make God known to the world is you. And me. May it be so.

Monday, August 4, 2014

What's God Doing?

Romans 9:1-5
          Paul has a problem. It’s a problem that causes him such enormous struggle and grief that he says that he would sacrifice his own salvation and place in God’s kingdom if it could make a difference. I think it is a problem many of us can probably identify with.
In the chapters of Paul’s letter to the Romans that precede chapters 9 – 11 which we enter today, Paul has been writing about the wonder of God’s love. He has been writing about the wonder of how God has opened up the gates of heaven first to the Jews and now to the Gentiles as well. He has expounded on the grace of God that frees humanity through the righteousness of Jesus Christ. He affirms, over and over that God’s faithfulness is revealed in God’s covenants, and that nothing can eradicate the promises of God.
          Paul goes to great lengths (that’s another way to say that Paul can be wordy and his arguments rather circular) to assure the reader and hearers of this letter that salvation is God’s doing and is neither earned nor deserved by Gentile nor Jew. All have fallen short of the glory of God, and been judged guilty by God. All have been condemned to death by the utter failure of humanity to ever live in right relationship with God, to ever live in covenantal fidelity. That is, Paul says, we would be condemned, we would be overwhelmed by the power of death if it were not for God’s love, God’s faithfulness, and God’s determination for us.
          The first eight chapters of this letter to the Romans contain nothing less than Paul’s powerful confession of the veracity of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He develops a strong argument for the power of the faith in which God engages us; he makes connections through scripture to God’s providence throughout all of history. Paul has set the stage in these chapters, by telling his story, by testifying how God has intervened in his own life – with a truth so powerful that he, Paul, a faithful Jew, was converted from his persecution of Christians and became a dedicated proclaimer of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul is convinced that all God’s promises of life and redemption are found in Christ and belong to the “providential hand of God.”
          Just last week we heard the apostle’s powerful words of conviction regarding God’s absolute reign over the powers that might threaten us, a reign that is sealed through faith in Christ that is itself God’s doing. Paul writes, “For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Jesus Christ, our Lord.” (8:38-39) Paul is convinced that God’s righteousness saves us, that God’s faithfulness redeems us from the grave, and that it is through God’s grace revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus that salvation is won, and that believing in Christ, nothing ever can or will change that, nor take away from us the status of God’s beloved, redeemed, inheritors of the kingdom of God.
          So what is Paul’s problem?
          Paul enters some of the deepest waters of the New Testament here, as he contemplates the fate of the Jewish people. New Testament theologian Matt Skinner writes that at the time Paul wrote this epistle it was becoming more and more apparent that the Christian gospel would not receive a positive response from the majority of Jews who heard it.
With great compassion, Paul opens this ninth chapter of the letter with a heartfelt expression of anguish for his people; for the Jews. “I am speaking the truth in Christ,” he writes, “I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit. I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.” Paul’s struggle arises out of the love and compassion that he bears for the Jewish people – the Israelites – the people of the covenant. Are they “people of the covenant” no more he wonders? What happens to them? If salvation is brought through faith in Christ but there is a fundamental rejection of the gospel, what then? These are not questions and problems only for Paul. World events both past and present detail the stereotypes we assign to the Jews which bear evidence that this problem and the questions it inspires persist.
          Paul’s questions present a minefield. What does it mean to be “the chosen people” who reject God? What does it mean to fail to accept Christ as God’s new covenant? What does it mean for those who fail to receive Jesus as the Anointed One, the Savior, the Messiah? For, if the people of the first covenant, the one God made in antiquity with the Israelites – Paul intentionally uses that historic name as a reference - are not now saved, does that mean that God isn’t really faithful all the time? If God is not faithful to the promises made to the people of Israel, what does that mean for Jews, for Gentiles, for God?
          Paul’s suffering is personal because these are his people he is thinking about. These are the people with whom and for whom he locates his own history and faith formation. Paul is thinking about his family, his friends, the people from synagogue that he’s known his whole life. In broader terms, Paul is thinking about all those Jews to whom he is connected through his birth and their shared history– these are the people he knows and identifies with. These are the people he loves. This is more than a struggle for Paul. This is a crisis for him.
          Skinner writes, “Paul did not write Romans 9-11 as a “Christian” passing judgment on “Judaism,” as much as he wrote as a Jew trying, like the prophets of old, to make theological sense of the dynamics of disobedience and restoration among Abraham’s descendants. The question driving this section of Romans is “What’s God doing?” It’s not “What’s wrong with these unbelievers?” The situation threatened to ignite a theological crisis in Paul’s day, if it could be supposed that the gospel meant the expiration of God’s promises to those God had already chosen.” Could God have given up on the Jewish people?
          It might be tempting to think that these issues don’t pertain to us. After all, we are Christians, far removed from Paul’s experience of conversion and the crisis in which he finds himself. We are believers in Jesus and in the gospel of grace and redemption. But these are important questions, and important passages to think about, because they wrestle with serious questions about God’s character and about the limit of God’s love and the steadfastness of God’s word. And there is that burning question – “What’s God doing?”
          Friends, I submit to you that God’s history with Israel is our history too. What we encounter here is not an “us and them” question, but a “we” equation. The Jewish people’s rich theological heritage is part of our heritage. This is why it is important to consistently remind ourselves of the entire biblical witness – why we include Old Testament readings and psalms along with New Testament readings in worship each week. It is why our worship and liturgy is sprinkled throughout with references and biblical passages from the entire corpus of the scriptures both old and new. All of our worship and imagery, in fact, is rooted in the Old Testament – within the story of God’s relationship with the people of Israel as it was unfolding.
Further, to understand where Paul is coming from, consider this: how many of you know of someone who has struggled, or have struggled yourself because a loved one, a family member, an adult child perhaps, or even a friend has “fallen away” from the faith? How many of you may wonder about a friend who has never known Christ or rejects the gospel we proclaim? Where is their salvation? What will happen to them? If any of these questions resonate with you, then you might have a wee bit of understanding what it might have been like for Paul.
          I can tell you that in my ministry I have been met by parents, husbands, wives and siblings who have suffered anguish like Paul’s when their loved one has died outside the bounds of the church and therefore, seemingly outside the bounds of God’s love and saving grace. I can tell you that I have often heard the despair of parents of adult children who have turned their backs on the church, or their faith. I have fielded questions about what happens to people who die without ever having known or accepted Christ. What, they want to know, what, we want to know, is God’s promise to them?
          I cannot say with certainty that I can answer all of those questions – I do not know the mind of God. But I believe that God, who relentlessly pursues humanity, who expands the redeemed to include all of the creation, who saves even a lowly, insignificant creature like me – and you – and then feeds us endlessly from his own body and blood, this God is able to work for the good of all whom God loves. The same God who created the ordered cosmos out of chaos and man and woman out of dust and bone, can and will work in ways we cannot fathom or explain to bear good fruit for the new creation of the kingdom of God.

          Paul S. Berge, Emeritus Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary writes, “The Jewish people are not only the recipients of all that God has to give, but they are the people from whom the seed of promise has come as they bear the very gift of God to the nations: "And from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen" (9:5b). Paul has saved the greatest of God's promises to last. The identity of the Messiah is the greatest of God's gifts to Paul's kindred according to the flesh. This brings Paul to the only words that can express the focus of all that he has said in these introductory words--a doxology of praise to God--"God blessed forever. Amen!"