Romans 9. 1-5
The church is created, chosen, and called to love
just like Jesus.
Sometimes, it’s an awkward thing … being a pastor of the E.L.C.A. Being a pastor in this particular denomination … talking about racism. At the beginning of the month, we started something new. Or should I say, another something! A discussion group is, now, meeting everything Tuesday evening, for about an hour, on Zoom. The topic of conversation? A book just out. On racism. On racism and the E.L.C.A. Dear Church. By Lenny Duncan. The subtitle is a little more descriptive: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the U.S. And I have to tell you. Being a white European Christian male, talking about racism can be … well … awkward. It can be uncomfortable. (Which isn’t, necessarily, a bad thing.) The temptation is to deny. To deflect. To make excuses. But needless to say, for the next month-or-so, for sixty, seventy minutes, every Tuesday after dinner, the topic will be there. Waiting. Eyes wide open.
Same’s true – for us German-Lutherans – when it comes to anti-Semitism. For a few generations, now, it’s been the elephant in the room, for us. And for some reason, the topic always surprises us, when it comes up. A generation-and-a-half ago, when Luther’s 500th birthday rolled around, when we were all ready to light the candles and sing the song, someone goes and brings up the holocaust! How something Luther wrote was used to justify it all. To defend it. To excuse it. And we couldn’t do anything about the charges. They were right there. Right before our eyes. In black-and-white. We couldn’t wish them away. We couldn’t pretend they didn’t exist. On the Jews and their Lies. Of the Unknowable Name. Both written toward the end of his life. Both written after a lifetime of proclaiming grace and charity and love.
To say it’s an aberration, an abnormality, an exception to the rule, is to go too far. To do too little. Especially when someone like Hitler uses the words to do what he did. All we can say is that even the highest, even the holiest, don’t simply make mistakes. But they fall short – fall way, way short – of the glory. Some things are better left unsaid. Are better left unspoken. Are better left unthought. All we can say is, “We confess that all of us are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. We can’t flee it. We cannot resist it.
So, sometimes, it’s awkward. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable. We don’t talk about it, a lot. But then, it’s right there before our eyes. Like in Romans. Chapter nine. Verses two and three and four and five …
I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh …
We hear those words and we feel the heartache, the anguish. But unfortunately, they conjure up two thousand years of prejudice and bigotry, as well. Two thousand years … Twenty centuries … Two millennia … of blood and sweat and tears. We read those words and all we can hear is the crackling of the fire. All we can smell is the stink of brimstone. All we can see is the glow of the fires. Wrath. And rage. And reckoning. And retribution. There’s us; and there’s them. One saved for all eternity; the other damned for all time.
And here’s Paul – or so we imagine – pacing the floor and wringing his hands and shaking his head over a people – HIS people – lost forever. And we imagine Paul saying, “If only … If only …” “I’d give my right arm,” he says, “if I knew it would make a difference!” “I’d give my life, if it changed anything!” Thing is, that’s not what Paul had in mind! That’s not, even, what god has in mind! There’s nothing in this passage about eternal anything! Nothing about going to heaven! Nothing about going to hell! Nothing about being saved or damned! Not in the popular sense of the words, here in America!
Paul’s not saying that Israel is accursed! He’s not saying Israel is cut off! What he is saying is that he just can’t understand why they don’t get it! What they disagree! What they don’t understand! When they – of all people – should! What we’re hearing isn’t Paul’s fear. It’s Paul’s frustration! Not Paul’s reacting to impending doom, but his response to existing misconception. This, it could be said, is Paul’s version of Dear Church! His love letter to a church that, for some reason, didn’t have a clue! You can feel it in his voice! You can see it in his words. “They’re Israelites, for the love of god! They’re Jews!” The people of god! God’s daughters and sons! They have the Exodus! They have the Temple! They have the Prophets! The Law! Even Jesus is an Israelite! A Jew! This is Paul’s head-slap! Paul’s “Oy vey!” His “Oy gevalt!”
It isn’t that god is angry! It’s not that god’s enraged! That god has washed god’s hands of them! Crumpled them up and tossed them aside! Paul’s only doing what I’ve done, myself, dozens of times, hundreds of times, over the years! Polls consistently show that four-in-five Lutherans disagree with or don’t understand the basic teachings of the church! Four-in-five! Eighty percent! How many times, I’ve said, “I, too, have great sorrow! I have unceasing anguish, as well.” Not about Israel, but about Lutherans! Because of all the people in the world, they should be the very ones who ‘get’ it! The grace! The mercy! The forgiveness! The love! And I would do anything! I would do anything to change that! For them, finally, to agree! Finally, to understand! I would do anything … if even half of them could! If even half of them would!
After all, they’re Lutheran, for Christ’s sake! Many Lutheran born and bred! They’re the Reformation! They have the Gospel! They have baptism and the Supper! They have no excuses! No alibis! That doesn’t mean they’re bad people. It doesn’t mean they’re damned. It just means they don’t get it … and they should! They really, really should! It’s always been about that black cross in the middle of a red heart! That black cross that makes the heartbeat! That makes it pound! The words are an expression of the passion … the yearning … the desire … for people to understand! To understand, believe, and stake their lives on it! To understand, believe, stake their lives on it, and, then, to go on and do the same! Go on and change the world! Not by remaking the world into something it’s not. But by responding, by reacting to that world, in ways the world considers unnatural!
Turning the other! Going the extra! Doing unto! Forgiving time, after time, after time! Loving enemies! Praying for persecutors. Giving. Giving when asked. Giving when not asked! Living not, simply, as Jesus wants us to! Living not, simply, as Jesus would! But living as Jesus lived! As Jesus lives! With us! For us! Picking up crosses! Suffering! Dying! Rising! So that love spreads and our neighbors learn to do the same things!
Faith isn’t a matter of picking sides. It never has been. Our side good; their side evil. Our side god’s; their side satan’s. Our side saved; their side damned forever and ever. Amen. This is only god’s love for us all! For those who know it, who believe in it! And for those who don’t! Yet! God loves! That’s what god does! That’s who god is! All or nothing. Everyone or no one! Paul believed Israel – of all people – should have known that! Luther believed the church – of all people – should have known that! Known that because of him! And known that in spite of him!
My friends, we are that church! Created … chosen … called … to love! To love just like Jesus!