Tag Archives: Romans 8

Psalm 44 Demanding a Fulfillment of God’s Covenant Promises

Love is Not a Victory March by Marie -Esther@deviantart.com

Psalm 44

<To the leader. Of the Korahites. A Maskil.>
1 We have heard with our ears, O God, our ancestors have told us,
what deeds you performed in their days, in the days of old:
2 you with your own hand drove out the nations, but them you planted;
you afflicted the peoples, but them you set free;
3 for not by their own sword did they win the land, nor did their own arm give them victory;
but your right hand, and your arm, and the light of your countenance, for you delighted in them.
4 You are my King and my God; you command victories for Jacob.
5 Through you we push down our foes; through your name we tread down our assailants.
6 For not in my bow do I trust, nor can my sword save me.
7 But you have saved us from our foes, and have put to confusion those who hate us.
8 In God we have boasted continually, and we will give thanks to your name forever. Selah
9 Yet you have rejected us and abased us, and have not gone out with our armies.
10 You made us turn back from the foe, and our enemies have gotten spoil.
11 You have made us like sheep for slaughter, and have scattered us among the nations.
12 You have sold your people for a trifle, demanding no high price for them.
13 You have made us the taunt of our neighbors, the derision and scorn of those around us.
14 You have made us a byword among the nations, a laughingstock among the peoples.
15 All day long my disgrace is before me, and shame has covered my face
16 at the words of the taunters and revilers, at the sight of the enemy and the avenger.
17 All this has come upon us, yet we have not forgotten you, or been false to your covenant.
18 Our heart has not turned back, nor have our steps departed from your way,
19 yet you have broken us in the haunt of jackals, and covered us with deep darkness.
20 If we had forgotten the name of our God, or spread out our hands to a strange god,
21 would not God discover this? For he knows the secrets of the heart.
22 Because of you we are being killed all day long, and accounted as sheep for the slaughter.
23 Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever!
24 Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
25 For we sink down to the dust; our bodies cling to the ground.
26 Rise up, come to our help. Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love.

Psalm 44 is an audacious psalm of a community that dares to articulate their disappointment with God’s perceived faithfulness. The psalm moves sequentially from the plural voice of the speaking community to the singular voice of a leader in a responsive plea as we move through the psalm. The community remembers the past, the stories they heard of how God did act in powerful ways in the days of their ancestors and contrasts the promises of their ancestors with their experience of God’s inattention to the covenant God made with the people. The people, amid their crisis, have expected more of God in the present and boldly demand more of God for the future.

Working through books like the Psalms and Jeremiah have made me realize how impoverished much Christian spirituality is because of our unfamiliarity with the protests of the prophets and the laments of the psalmists. Our Jewish ancestors and contemporaries in the faith tend to speak more openly in protest to God when unjust suffering is felt by the individual or by the nation. The Hebrew scriptures have the entire book of Job which wrestles with, but never truly answers, the question of unjust suffering. The faithful need a way to express their anger, disappointment and perplexity when the unfairness of the world causes the faithful to suffer when they have done nothing to merit that suffering. They need to trust that God can hear and will act on these audacious cries of the community.

As I was reflecting on this Psalm I was reminded of the powerful and painful words of Zvi Kolitz’s fictional Jewish man dying in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in Yosl Rakover Talks to God:

I die at peace, but not pacified, conquered and beaten but not enslaved, bitter but not disappointed, a believer but not a supplicant, a lover of God but not His blind Amen-sayer.

I have followed Him, even when he pushed me away. I have obeyed his commandments, even when He scourged me for it. I have loved him, I have been in love with Him and remained so, even when He made me lower than dust, tormented me to death, abandoned me to shame and mockery…

Here, then, are my last words to You, my angry God: None of this will avail you in the least! You have done everything to make me lose my faith in You, to make me cease to believe in You. But I die exactly as I lived, an unshakable [sic] believer in You. (Davis, 2001, p. 134)

In this psalm the Jewish ancestors, who handed on their tradition and faith to Zvi Kolitz, have continued to believe and trust in God when God appears to have abandoned them to shame and mockery. The psalmist can love God but is not pacified and will not be God’s blind amen speaker. They call upon the traditions and stories of their people, the resilience of their faith and their covenant with God and demand that God be the God that the covenant promised.

The first three verses of the psalm are spoken in the assembled voice of a community demonstrating that the actions of God in the past have been handed on from generation to generation to the present community. The specific memory recalled is the memory of the book of Joshua when the people of Israel is brought into the promised land by the strength of God’s action rather than their own military prowess. God is remembered as the one who uprooted their enemies and planted them in a land that they now consider their home. God acted on their behalf and against their enemies. In the fourth verse an individual speaks of their allegiance to God and their reliance upon the strength of God. In verse five the community responds that it is through God’s power that they can triumph over their foes and adversaries. Verse six returns to the voice of an individual stating that their own weapons of war cannot deliver them. Verses seven and eight conclude this liturgical back and forth in the voice of the people stating that God has saved them, confused those who hate them and in response they have boasted and given thanks. The first eight verses echo with the sounds of remembrance, praise and thanks but something has changed in the community’s life that will reverberate in the remaining two thirds of the psalm. Something has turned the community that boasts in God and gives thanks into a community that will accuse God.

Yet becomes the pivot point of the psalm. In verse nine we abruptly pivot from adoration to abandonment. God was the one who was trustworthy in the past for the ancestors of the psalmist, but God seems to have left the people on their own in their current crisis. In a conversation when you have a string of compliments followed by a ‘but’ or in this case a ‘yet’ everything before recedes into the background. In the psalm the ‘yet’ allows the action of God for God’s people in the past to recede from view as the current experience of rejection and abandonment comes forward to occupy the central position in the community of the speaker. The present has overwhelmed the past. The experience of God’s absence at this critical time in the community’s life highlights several difficult questions.

Rabbinic tradition links Psalm 44 to the time of the persecutions of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who reigned as a part of the Seleucid Empire between 168 and 164 BCE. (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 409) If this is the case it would make it one of the later pieces of the Hebrew Scriptures, written in a similar time to the book of Daniel in most scholars estimation. The reason this time period would be significant in the story of the people of Jerusalem is that it also marks one of the points when a foreign empire would attempt to disrupt the worship of the God of Israel and force the Jewish people to conform to the Hellenistic beliefs and practices of the empire. Those who remained faithful were subject to persecution or execution as Antiochus IV Epiphanes attempted use military force to enforce conformity. The Jewish uprising in 167 or 168 BCE would eventually be successful allowing the reestablishment of the temple and a brief period of independence for the Judean people. The rededication of the temple after this revolt is celebrated in Hanukkah each year and is told in the narratives of 1 and 2 Maccabees, which is a part of the apocrypha for many Christians.

Whether the situation in the psalm refers concretely to the persecution under Antiochus IV or another situation of crisis it brings the community to the point where they wrestle with the perceived absence of God in a critical situation. The psalm moves beyond lament and into accusation. As Walter Brueggemann and William Bellinger, Jr. can state insightfully: “Verses 9-12 describe the defeat of Israel with a series of “you” statements that fix the blame singularly on YHWH, from whom better had been expected.” (Brueggeman, 2014, pp. 209-210) The accusations are told in terms of a military defeat with the language of plunder, in the agricultural language of sheep led to slaughter, in the language of the marketplace where the people are sold for a small price showing their insignificance to their master, and finally in the language of honor where the people’s honor is mocked by their neighbors and they have become a byword, a pithy example, of shame among the nations. In this psalm their God has failed to be the warrior they could trust in, the good shepherd who would lead them faithfully, the God who held them as a treasured possession, and the one who by honoring the name of God would allow them to be honored among the nations. At this critical moment God has failed to live up to the terms of the promises God made to the people. The pain and disappointment of the moment has transformed into a “moral claim against God.” (Brueggeman, 2014, p. 211)

Even though it appears that God has broken faith with the people the people have not broken faith with God. As the poet and their community wrestle with why they are suffering unjustly they look and examine if they have turned away from God in some manner and their answer is ‘No.’ They have not forgotten, they have remembered. The psalmist is confident that they have remained faithful to the covenant that God made with them and so they utter these words in protest at the way God appears to have defaulted on the covenant. Yet, even during the accusations and disappointment the psalmist knows that the resolution relies upon God’s action. They demand God rouse, awake, cease hiding, remember and redeem. They have been sold yet they can be bought again, they have experienced death, but they trust that God can bring life, they have experienced defeat but if God again fights for them, they will experience victory. They call upon the hesed (steadfast love) of God as their only hope of redemption.

This experience of isolation is brought into one of the great expressions of God’s unwavering faithfulness when the twenty second verse of this psalm is placed in the middle of the Paul’s triumphal statement that nothing will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord in Romans 8: 31-39. Paul argues to the early Christians that even when they experience situations where they may perceive their own weakness and their distance from God that God’s steadfast love, experienced in Christ, will not be broken. One of the gifts of having both Psalm 44 and Romans 8 is being able to hold faith and experience in tension. There may be times where it feels like God is absent or has failed to uphold God’s promises to the individual or the community and yet the faith insists that God’s steadfast love will ultimately overcome the separation. If this is the psalm of a community that endured the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanies IV it would also be the psalm of a community that would see that tyrants reign end and their redemption come. They saw God’s redemption and could see their circumstances transformed from dishonor to honor. Yet, not every situation has a happy ending and there may be some within the people of faith who can utter at the end the fictional words quoted above:

You have done everything to make me lose my faith in You, to make me cease to believe in You. But I die exactly as I lived, an unshakable [sic] believer in You

One of the gifts of the scriptures we have is that they are broad enough to accommodate the various experiences of the faithful ones and give language for their prayers in the times of isolation and celebration. Psalm forty-four is a prayer from the place of isolation that boldly demands that God uphold God’s promises and has the courage to accuse God based upon the faithful one’s experience of suffering.

An Authentic People: Being the Body of Christ- A Sermon from July 28, 2013

Aime Nicolas Morot, Le bon Samaritain (1880)

Aime Nicolas Morot, Le bon Samaritain (1880)

Last week I talked about who we are, that at our root we are baptized children of God, marked with the cross of Christ and sealed by God’s Holy Spirit. That nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord and nothing can take that away from us, nothing can change who we are, that we are God’s chosen people. So I guess the next logical question to come out of this is so now what do I do with this? How do I live out of this?You see for a lot of Christian traditions the way they understand the journey of faith is it ends when they make a choice for God and that is the high point and you have reached the goal, but as Lutherans Christians we understand it differently…God made a choice for us and we spend the rest of our lives trying to live out of that incredibly gracious calling that God has for us, to make sense of the new world of possibilities that creates for us. And God does have a dream for us and a calling for each of us in the midst of our lives. And God has always had this dream and vision for working through God’s people. Of us being the body of Christ, to use Paul’s language, of being the hands and feet of Christ reaching out into the world. If you remember through the Story that we went through last year God begins by setting a family and then a people aside to be a blessing to the world. As we recall from Genesis 12: 1-4

Genesis 12:1 The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. 3 I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.”

James Tissot, Abraham and the Three Angels

James Tissot, Abraham and the Three Angels

Abram, later renamed Abraham was not set apart for his own benefit, but so that all the families on earth would be blessed through him. His life was to be a blessing to others and he was to live out of this calling and adventure that God set before him. Did Abram lose sight of this vision at times, yes, did he focus on his own understanding and his own strength, yep, but God kept calling him back to the vision that God had, to the adventure God had laid before him. God never abandons Abraham and Sarah or leaves them. Later when it was no longer just a family, but an entire nation Moses reminded them (Deuteronomy 4: 37)

37 Because he loved your ancestors, he chose to bless their descendants, and he personally brought you out of Egypt with a great display of power.

And in Isaiah we see some of the vision that the people were to be if they could live into God’s vision of shalom and peace:

Isaiah 2: 2-5
2 In the last days, the mountain of the LORD’s house will be the highest of all– the most important place on earth. It will be raised above the other hills, and people from all over the world will stream there to worship. 3 People from many nations will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of Jacob’s God. There he will teach us his ways, and we will walk in his paths.” For the LORD’s teaching will go out from Zion; his word will go out from Jerusalem. 4 The LORD will mediate between nations and will settle international disputes. They will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will no longer fight against nation, nor train for war anymore. 5 Come, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

Paul captures this vision in Romans when he speaks of creation’s redemption is waiting on us:

Romans 8: 18 Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later.
19 For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are.
20 Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope,
21 the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay.
22 For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.
23 And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us.
24 We were given this hope when we were saved. (If we already have something, we don’t need to hope for it.
25 But if we look forward to something we don’t yet have, we must wait patiently and confidently.)
Creation is waiting on us to become the people we have been created and called to be. Paul has a lot of confidence in this vision of what we as a gracious people can be and how powerful that would be, but as I think about it-Paul has every reason not to trust people, Paul who has seen the very churches he founded bicker and squabble over leadership, spiritual gifts, money, power, becoming intoxicated with the way things are in the world, becoming impatient for God to come and act now, and yet, in the midst of all of this, Paul has an amazing confidence in God to take these people with all their problems and addictions, these people who don’t know their right hand from their left and for them to be transformed by God’s love and turned into a gracious people who can reflect this transforming love of God into the world by being transformed into the people they were always created to be. People who can love the Lord their God with all their heart and soul and mind and strength and to love their neighbor as themselves. Yet I think often we are like the lawyer in Luke’s gospel, we come in asking the wrong question:

Luke 10: 25-37
25 One day an expert in religious law stood up to test Jesus by asking him this question: “Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?”

Now to be fair, when the people of Jesus time talk about what we translate as eternal life they are talking about a very earthly reality, it is the new creation and it is something that God going to do on earth and it is tied in with Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God. In effect this lawyer or scribe asks, “what must I do to be a part of what is going on with this kingdom of God you are always talking about.” It is something Jesus’ has pointed to so many times that he lets the lawyer answer the question:

26 Jesus replied, “What does the law of Moses say? How do you read it?”
27 The man answered, “‘You must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.’ And, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”
28 “Right!” Jesus told him. “Do this and you will live!”

I think we also know the right answer, if you listened last week you know that for Jesus love is the law, you shall love the Lord your God with all you heart and soul and mind and strength, from the very heart of the Jewish understanding of the law (Deuteronomy 6:5) and love your neighbor as yourself ( Leviticus 19:18). Jesus had been calling people back to this throughout his ministry, it wouldn’t have been a surprise and it wouldn’t even have been very controversial, yet doing it-that is another matter, and how far does it extend, who can I justify excluding from this, who is my neighbor and who isn’t

29 The man wanted to justify his actions, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Where can I put up fences, where can I draw a line between holy people and unholy people, between righteous and sinners, between insiders and outsides, who can I eliminate, help me see where the boundaries are. You certainly can’t mean everyone…not the Samaritans, the Romans, the revolutionaries, the Greeks, the Egyptians, the sinners and tax collectors, the prostitutes, the uneducated, the out of work, the poor, those who speak different, who believe different, who act different, who worship other gods, surely not them. Who can I leave out?

Jan Wijnants, The Parable of the Good Samaritan (1670)

Jan Wijnants, The Parable of the Good Samaritan (1670)

30 Jesus replied with a story: “A Jewish man was traveling from Jerusalem down to Jericho, and he was attacked by bandits. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him up, and left him half dead beside the road. 31 “By chance a priest came along. But when he saw the man lying there, he crossed to the other side of the road and passed him by. 32 A Temple assistant walked over and looked at him lying there, but he also passed by on the other side. 33 “Then a despised Samaritan came along, and when he saw the man, he felt compassion for him. 34 Going over to him, the Samaritan soothed his wounds with olive oil and wine and bandaged them. Then he put the man on his own donkey and took him to an inn, where he took care of him. 35 The next day he handed the innkeeper two silver coins, telling him, ‘Take care of this man. If his bill runs higher than this, I’ll pay you the next time I’m here.’ 36 “Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by bandits?” Jesus asked.
37 The man replied, “The one who showed him mercy.” Then Jesus said, “Yes, now go and do the same.”

Go and live like this, and you will know what the kingdom is all about, live in a world where you build walls to separate us from them and you will never know. Live in mercy and grace, unafraid of what might happen, unafraid of the contamination of unholiness, willing to risk that in caring for someone else: a stranger, a beaten down one left on the side of the road that you also might be looked upon as the ceremonially unclean social outcast and religious heretics that most of the Jews believed the Samaritans to be. They were in many ways worse than the rest of the gentiles for in their eyes they were an unholy mingling of the chosen people with the other nations and they worshipped the same God in the wrong way at the wrong places and they refused to admit that the ways that the real Jews did it was right. Generations of hostility marked the border between Jew and Samaritan, Yet Jesus calls us to imagine a world beyond walls, where our own actions make neighbors of those in need and our love is a part of the healing of humanity and the rest of the world.

I want to invite you to imagine with me what the body of Christ, as Paul called the early church would look like if we could be captured by this kind of a vision. I want you to imagine what it would be like if everyone was here not because they felt they were supposed to be, or that they were trying to take care of the afterlife, or that they were here because mom or dad, of husband or wife, or friends thought they should be but rather imagine for just a moment if everyone was really here because they loved God with all their heart and soul and mind and strength and every song sung was a love song toward the God who loved us and would not allow us to be separated from that love, every prayer was in the confidence that God not only heard but cared for the words that were said, and we trusted that we were here in this place because as the Greeks in Jerusalem said to the disciples, “Sir, we want to see Jesus”. And what would it look like for the body of Christ to live out of that love, carrying it out into the world unafraid of the boundaries that had been set up between righteous and unrighteous, between classes and races and sexes, between us and them and we really were planted like the trees of life around the trees on each side of the river of God in the new creation with leaves for the healing of the nations. Where we are so grounded in the love of God that we really can love ourselves and from that place of love we can risk going out to love our neighbors. Where we begin to lean into the new creation and we begin to heal ourselves and heal the world, for as Paul points to the world is indeed waiting on the revelation of these children of God. And it begins with acts of love, caring for the man on the side of the road or the person going through a divorce, or the child who doesn’t seem to fit in, or the mother dealing with a screaming infant, or the person who doesn’t speak English or who can’t seem to find a job. It means being willing to be a part of Christ’s reaching out into the world through us to be a foretaste of the feast to come in the new creation. Sometimes it means bearing the disbelief of a society that cannot believe that we would give away some of our money to someone else, or that we would reach out to talk to and touch those who no one wants to touch. There is a story of a young priest who went to see Mother Teresa in Calcutta and after following her around during the day was struck by how unreligious her work seemed and then when he remarked to her how unclean and unholy it seemed she reached down and picked up a man dying who weighed very little and turned towards the this young priest and said here is the body of Christ given for you, for it was there in the poor that Christ was appearing and she was able to serve him.

purple rose 01 by picsofflowers.blogspot.com

Freedom for Fear and Shame: Grace in our Lives-A Sermon from July 21,2013

I don’t think it is a coincidence that the most common command in the bible is “do not be afraid.” And yet fear is a very real force in all of our lives and it causes us to do some things we are often not proud of. Fear causes us to shut ourselves off from others and even from God, and shame does this as also. Fear and shame are a little different, fear is related to something external, it can be another person, something in our environment, something that might happen, but it is fixed on something outside of oneself. Shame is focused internally, it focuses on the fear that someone else will not accept us if they know something about us, that they won’t like or love or care about me anymore. That they won’t want to be near me, it is the fear of disconnection with other people. Both fear and shame have a profound impact on our lives, they begin to tell us “we aren’t good enough” or “who are you to believe that you can do this” and they can keep us trapped inside that which is known and safe. We may shut ourselves off from other things or other people.

There has been a lot of coverage in the news over the last couple of weeks of the George Zimmerman trial, and I’m not going to go back into the trial itself, nor am I going to try to guess what the jury should or should not have decided. But the incident between George Zimmerman and Travoyn Martin was an episode based out of fear. You see, it arose out of one man seeing another man walking through the neighborhood on a stormy night, reacting out of fear and confronting him and eventually killing him. George Zimmerman believed Trayvon was a threat and he reacted out of that. Now we can’t go back and change the past, we can’t wave a magic wand and make everything better, but can we imagine a better future.  This one of the things posted last week that I really liked was from Jermaine Paul, who is a singer, but he wrote, “How cool would it be to live in a world where George Zimmerman offered Trayvon a ride home to get him out of the rain that night.” That’s a different world than what we live in, but it is a world worth imagining and a world worth fighting for. I think it is a world that Jesus envisioned and  we are going to hear more about as we go through the sermon today, but it is not the world I grew up in.

Those who know my story know that I spent four years in the Corps of Cadets and another 4 ½ years in the Army and they taught me a lot of the same things. They taught me a lot of what we commonly think about as courage, but courage as they taught is was to be bigger, badder and stronger than whoever else might be a threat. So instead of someone else being a threat you then you can be a threat to them but over the last thirteen years I’ve had to learn about a much different type of courage. The word courage comes from the latin word for heart ‘cur’ and courage literally means to be able to tell the story of one’s heart. That’s vulnerability, that being able to open up to who you really are. To be honest in my time in the Army you didn’t open up who you are but you pushed it down inside and you built up your own little suit of armor around yourself so that you were impervious to anything anyone might say or do about you. But real courage is being willing to take off that armor and to be open and vulnerable knowing that you are able to show who you really are. Knowing that you can be hurt and wounded because your armor is down, that someone might not accept you or the things you create or do. It is the courage to be who you are because who you are is valuable.

We live in a culture that doesn’t understand the very well, we live in a culture where our biggest idol is not money or power, at least as I’m coming to believe our biggest idol is security. We are so desperate to feel safe and secure. A lot of these things come in different forms and we are afraid to have enough to retire, afraid that someone might break into our house, someone might strike as a terrorist in the heart of our city. Yet, I think we have become more and more willing to surrender pieces of who we are to feel safe. We begin to give away pieces of our identity in order to feel safe. Yet, I need to be honest with you: security is a cruel, cruel god. If security is your god, then faith becomes transformed into certainty. There is no longer any room to question or to doubt, and yet when faith is transformed into certainty you are a short, short step from extremism. Faith as the bible understands it is about relationship and a journey, and if you notice from the stories of the bible the disciples often don’t get it and yet they keep following behind Jesus and in the journey they learn and grow. Love becomes trumped by the law. We begin to lock things down, making it more about absolutes and less about getting to know and love others. The world becomes transformed into them and us and we build up walls between us and them. Some of the walls are physical and some of the walls are emotional and social. This was the image of the wall I grew up with:

Berlin Wall

This is the Berlin Wall, it was built before I was born and while I was in college I got to see it come down, it was the wall that everyone knew about as I was growing up. The Berlin Wall separated East from West Berlin, two groups of people who were not really separate ethnically, sometimes even a family was split apart by the wall, but they were divided by two political systems. The wall separated two groups of people and it kept one group in and one group out and it was built out of fear, for security and honestly I believe it also was built out of a sense of shame.

But we come to know a very different God in Jesus, you see for Jesus faith is learned by following and we are following the one for whom love is the law. If you remember Jesus’ two great commandments, you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus goes even further in the Sermon on the Mount when he tells them “you shall love your enemies” or in John’s gospel when the disciples are gathered around the table and he says, “I give you a new commandment, that you are to love one another.”And love comes up again and again and again as what Jesus commands and that is much different than trying to get it all locked down into a particular way. And as we follow Jesus we realize the world is no longer broken down into them and us, but rather as Paul can say in Galatians:

28 There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3: 28)

All these things that in Paul’s life that had been the defining things became unimportant. Are you a Jew like or are you a Gentile, not a Jew, are you like us or are you not. Are you a slave or are you free, are you a man or are you a woman, rich or poor, college educated or not and we can put all those things in there, but ultimately in Christ all those things no longer matter. And Paul had to learn this in his own life. If you remember Paul’s story, he started out as a Pharisee and he understood that there were certain things that made him right with God and he was so convinced that these early followers of Jesus were wrong that he was out to wipe them out. He stood there looking on as they stoned Stephen and then he was on his way to Damascus to find any of Jesus early followers he could and bring them back to Jerusalem in chains. Until Jesus met him on the way. Paul recounts this way of thinking in Philippians 3:

4 though I could have confidence in my own effort if anyone could. Indeed, if others have reason for confidence in their own efforts, I have even more! 5 I was circumcised when I was eight days old. I am a pure-blooded citizen of Israel and a member of the tribe of Benjamin– a real Hebrew if there ever was one! I was a member of the Pharisees, who demand the strictest obedience to the Jewish law. 6 I was so zealous that I harshly persecuted the church. And as for righteousness, I obeyed the law without fault.

Paul may have been righteous, and I don’t think Paul had any sense of guilt for the way he followed the law, but it was a righteousness without love. And Paul realizes that now everything has changed because of what is now important in his life. Paul continues:

7 I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done8 Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ

You see Paul had to go through this transformation in his own life, from a world where he was separated from those who were not like him: I am a Jew and beyond that I am a Pharisee and a very zealous Pharisee, so zealous I persecuted these early Christians. I’m righteous, these other people are unrighteous, I’m a saint, they are a sinner, I am good they are bad.

And then we encounter Jesus, and have you ever noticed that Jesus is always getting in trouble for being with the wrong people at the wrong? Almost all his controversies are because he either is healing on Sabbath or he is touching and eating with the wrong people. He touches a leper, that should make him unclean- and yet instead it makes the leper clean. He is sitting at the house of a Pharisee and then a woman comes in and anoints him with perfume and washes his feet with her tears, and while the Pharisee is thinking, ‘if this Jesus was really a prophet he would know what kind of woman this is and not let her touch him’ but instead Jesus says to him ‘do you see this woman, when I came in you didn’t anoint me nor did you wash my feet, but she anointed me and has washed my feet with her tears and her sins which are many are forgiven.’ Or he hangs out with sinners and tax collectors, like Matthew. This is Carvaggio’s painting of the calling of Matthew:

The Calling of St. Matthew by Carvaggio (1599-1600)

The Calling of St. Matthew by Carvaggio (1599-1600)

Jesus is on the right pointing and Matthew is in the center of the table with a bewildered look on his face, with his fingers pointing to himself as if to say, ‘me, you are calling me.’ This is how Matthew records it in the 9th chapter:

9 As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at his tax collector’s booth. “Follow me and be my disciple,” Jesus said to him. So Matthew got up and followed him.

10 Later, Matthew invited Jesus and his disciples to his home as dinner guests, along with many tax collectors and other disreputable sinners. 11 But when the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with such scum?”

 

I actually like that translation, even though they take a little freedom with the word there, for I think we often think of being at the table with Jesus being like this:

Picture1

Where everyone is holy and righteous and good, yet people in Jesus day saw it being more like this:

 

Lords supper modernWhere Jesus is there with the sinners, tax collectors, all the wrong people the people they didn’t want to hang out with. Sinners and tax collectors in Jesus day were no less likely than the people in the picture above. In my own experience I keep being stretched as I encounter Jesus among the least likely people I expected. Matthew continues the story

12 When Jesus heard this, he said, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor– sick people do.” 13 Then he added, “Now go and learn the meaning of this Scripture: ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.’ For I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.”

 

We come from a tradition, the Lutheran tradition, that gives us a great place to wrestle with this because the person we take our name from, Martin Luther, wrestled mightily with this. Luther started out as an Augustinian monk, the most rigorous of the religious orders of his day, and Luther strove to do everything the right way, to live according to all the rules to try to be right with God and Luther never felt he could achieve that. Staupitz who was Luther’s superior in the order as well as his confessor, after sitting through hours and hours of hearing Luther confess is reported to have said, ‘Luther you come in here confessing every little thing you have done, you can’t so much as fart without coming here fearing condemnation and yet I’ve never once heard you confess anything remotely interesting.’ Yet Luther was afraid that he couldn’t keep all the commandments and love God. He was convinced that God didn’t love him, at least before the reformation breakthrough where he realized that God loved him well before he ever began his journey that led him to monasticism. It transformed him so much that later in his life he could tell his friend and younger colleague, Philip Melancthon who was trying to get everything right and was afraid of making a mistake, “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ evermore boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death and the world.”

Paul also had to come through this transformation from being viewing righteousness as being a part of the law to being transformed by the righteousness of God that comes through the love of Christ. As he writes in Romans 8:

So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. 2 And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death.

There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ. Who can take that away from you? Nobody. You have been freed from the power of sin and death, now that doesn’t we don’t find ourselves struggling, but the victory has already been decided. Paul continues

3 The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. 4 He did this so that the just requirement of the law would be fully satisfied for us, who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit. 5 Those who are dominated by the sinful nature think about sinful things, but those who are controlled by the Holy Spirit think about things that please the Spirit.

 

So who gets to say who we are, who gets to have that word. Is it others who say that we should be afraid of those who are different from us, who ask us to build walls between ourselves and others. No. Is it our own selves telling us that we are not good enough, smart enough, worthy enough. No. It is the God who made us the baptized children of God, who marked us with the cross of Christ forever and sealed us by the Holy Spirit. That God who promises that nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, nothing in our lives, nothing in heaven or on earth, no rulers or powers, nothing.Who are you, you are baptized children of God and no one, nothing can take that away from you, and you are loved. And it is in that love that we can imagine the way the world looks in light of that love, Jesus spends most of his ministry talking about the kingdom of God, talking about his vision of the way life should be. This was not a new thing, in the Old Testament this would have been talked about in terms of living in God’s shalom, God’s peace and vision for the world and harmony with God and the world around them. That is why the two great commandments are you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. And as we begin to claim who we are in light of this love and identity those things like fear and shame which cause us to give away potions of who we are begin to lose their hold on us. Now this isn’t easy, I certainly don’t claim to be the one who has mastered this. There are times in my own life where fear kept me paralyzed or shame made me believe that I was unloveable. I can own that, and the reality is that I didn’t earn it. Martin Luther would say that “God’s love doesn’t find that which is pleasing to it; God’s love creates that which is pleasing to it.” We weren’t right with God on our own, God went out and made us right, God goes out seeking us because that is who God is. That gives us a great opportunity. You see, in the midst of Jesus ministry he never built any walls, but he sat at a lot of tables and tables bring us together. He sat at tables with those many in his day would have excluded. I had the opportunity to hear Bishop Mark Hanson, the Bishop of the ELCA a couple years ago and he related a story how when he was elected bishop a colleague who he trusted told him, ‘your calling is to take the walls that divide us and turn them into tables for conversation.’ I think that is what Jesus did, he took the walls that divided Matthew from the rest of the community, ‘he’s a sinner, he’s a tax collector’ and he brought him to the table where he was included as well as the other sinners and tax collectors. That’s what Paul did in going from the ministry that divided Jew and Gentiles to being the apostle to the Gentiles. And grace frees us from that shame, that fear that we need to create a different and better past, indeed grace is freedom from having to seek a better past. The reality is that who you are is accepted right now, God has made you and claimed you. So take down the walls and join those at the table. Amen.

 

 purple rose 01 by picsofflowers.blogspot.com