Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church

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Two weeks ago, the last time I preached, we looked at Romans 9.  Paul expressed “great sorrow and unceasing anguish in [his] heart.”  He would even “wish that [he] were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of [his] own people, [his] kindred according to the flesh.”[1]  Paul had this great sorrow and unceasing anguish for his fellow Israelites, who did not know Christ.  This sorrow and anguish compelled Paul to take the Good News - the gospel message of Jesus the Messiah - to Jews and Gentiles alike.  I urged you, likewise, to have such great sorrow and unceasing anguish in your hearts for those outside the walls of this sanctuary who do not know Christ and the promises Christ has made for us.

For many years, the Roman Empire had tolerated the Israelites.  It was largely a pragmatic decision, and it wasn’t necessarily unique to the Israelites.  The empire saw Roman citizens as superior to the others, and they looked down upon the peoples they subjugated.  The Israelites, also, had a perspective of superiority over others in a sense.  They saw themselves as having a special status with God; they were chosen by God.  Israelites generally considered the world split into two groups — Jews (the Israelites) and Gentiles (all other people) in that time.  The Israelites objected to their occupation by the Romans and rightly so.  The world was split into two groups to Romans and Israelites.  To the Romans, there were Romans and all others.  To the Israelites, there were Israelites and all others.  Certainly, the situation was different for the Romans who were in power.

In Romans 11, Paul asks first, “Has God rejected his people?”  Answering his own question, Paul responds, “By no means!  I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin.”  Using himself as an example of one who believes the Good News of Jesus the Messiah, Paul responds with confidence, “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.”[2]  Paul, though, still needs to address his earlier observation that most Jews have not accepted this same Good News.  This is the problem and question Paul is trying to address.

 

 

The Gentile believers seem to have a different answer to this question.  It seems, they believe God has now chosen them and abandoned the Israelites.  This offers us and Paul a significant problem, however.  God truly had chosen the Israelites and had made a covenant, a permanent promise, to the nation Israel that God helped form through the Exodus.  Was God now breaking his promise?  Could God be trusted?

Some time before this letter was written, Israelites (including Jewish Christians) had been expelled from Rome, but now they were returning to Rome in great numbers.[3]  It’s possible the Gentile Christians even saw the returning Jewish Christians as second-class.

In verses 11-24, Paul uses the image of an olive tree to challenge this perspective of superiority.  Our lectionary skips over this passage.  The olive tree represents the people of God.  Some branches, some Israelites, who had not accepted Jesus, have been broken off of the olive tree.  The Gentile Christians, a “wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree.”  Paul tells the Gentiles, “…do not boast over the branches” for it is the root that supports the branches and not the branches that support the root.  It was the patriarchs of Israel that were the roots, and they supported the tree.  Some Jewish branches were broken from the olive tree because of their unbelief, but the Gentile Christians were grafted in, only through their faith.  Paul warns them, “so do not become proud, but stand in awe.”  Further, as “God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare [the Gentile branches].”  The Israelites may not persist in unbelief and may be grafted back into that same tree.[4]

Our passage picks back up at verse 25 where Paul begins to explain why Israel has been found in unbelief.  Some Israelites have been hardened “until the full number of the Gentiles has come in.”  Paul writes, “As regards the gospel the [unbelieving Israelites] are enemies of God for [the Gentile’s] sake, but as regards election [these Israelites] are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.”[5]  God intends to maintain God’s promise to the Israelites, but has hardened their hearts for the benefit of the Gentiles.

As I mentioned two weeks ago, T. F. Torrance explains the unique selection of Israel for a particular purpose.  God chose Israel, so that God could create a culture, a language, a pattern of worship and life through which God could be made known.  Ultimately, God was working to create this environment so that the Messiah could be understood by a community when God sent Jesus — both human and divine — into the world.[6]

They fulfilled this role.  God came to earth in human form — in Jesus the Messiah — and was understood by both Jews and Gentiles, but not all of them.  Some Israelites had seen themselves superior to the Gentiles, and they objected to the faith being opened to Gentiles who didn’t follow the Torah or the law and its teachings.  Their hearts were hardened, and they did not believe.

Now, the GENTILES were doing something similar.  They were demonstrating sentiments of superiority, but Paul warns them.  “All Israel will be saved.”[7]  God will keep his covenant — his promise — to Israel, and it’s possible the Gentiles may not be spared.

 

 

In seminary, I had two neighbors from South Sudan.  They were from the second largest tribe, the Nuers.  Their families and tribe members were in danger as the largest tribe, the Dinkas, were in power.  This situation still exists in this day.  In December 2013, violence began; Dinkas began killing Nuers, and Nuers began killing Dinkas.  I remember one of my South Sudanese neighbors sitting at my kitchen table talking to me, wrestling with whether he should remain here in the United States, while encouraging his family and friends to risk their lives to maintain the peace, or whether he should return to South Sudan to take up arms if necessary to protect his people.  Some feared this situation might escalate to the genocide observed in Rwanda in 1994.

We’d like to think this violence and hate happens somewhere else — in South Sudan, the Ukraine, Ethiopia, and other places.  We like to think this projection of superiority happened in another time as with the Romans, the Israelites, and the Gentiles in the time of Jesus or shortly thereafter.

In the last several months, however, such violence seems to have moved closer to us based on the rhetoric of leaders and events in Charlottesville, Virginia, just over a week ago.  OUR NATION, which pledges allegiance to its flag including the words, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”  This pledge — or promise — seems irrelevant after seeing the images of the violence every adult in this sanctuary has likely seen over the last week — violence that resulted in the injury of at least thirty-five people and the death of Heather Heyer when a white-supremacist drove a car through the counter-protesters.

Perhaps, Charlottesville seems distant to us, also.  Often, we think these issues are limited to the Southern United States or other parts of our nation.  I was surprised this past week as I read the Intelligence Report by the Southern Poverty Law Center.  Within their resources is a hate map that shows geographically where hate groups are located.  They count 917 hate groups in the United States.  My surprise was that they counted forty-seven hate groups in the state of New York.  Twenty-six were located in the five boroughs of New York City — the majority in Manhattan.  Four were on Long Island or other places very close to New York City.[8]  Hate groups are closer to us in New York City than we might realize.

Disparity and discrimination based on race and ethnicity continue to be evident in our city.  In 2015, Business Insider reported that more than 80% of executives at Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan, Bank of America, Citigroup, and Morgan Stanley are Caucasians.  More than two-thirds of these same executives are male.[9]  The shelter we run in the basement of our building is far more racially and ethnically diverse than the upper levels of Wall Street.  We can point to many such metrics around our city.  I hear reports of the quality of public school education varying dramatically across this city — and often following racial and ethnic lines.  Entrance exams to colleges and universities continue to benefit whites.  Probability of imprisonment and sentence length is still affected by race in some places.  Large inheritances and a lack of taxation continue to maintain the status of particular families through generations.  Gentrification is destroying ethnic neighborhoods and forcing minority groups out of their homes.  Affordable housing continues to disappear — impacting people of color disproportionately.  These injustices go against the pledge we make to the flag and to the republic; can we be trusted?   There is tremendous work to do here in New York City.

 

 

One of my favorite images in scripture comes from Revelation 7.  John writes, “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude [before the throne of God] that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne [of God] and before the Lamb…”. They were worshipping God together.[10]

I love the image of people from every people group, nation, race, ethnicity, tribe, and language gathering before God and worshipping God together.  As John recognizes that these people come from different backgrounds, I trust that every group brings aspects of their culture that are consistent with God’s intentions to that worship.  We all respect what each person has brought, and each item that is brought adds to our worship together.

After events in Charlottesville, Virginia, this image seems harder to imagine, but as Paul indicates in Romans in regards to the Israelites whose hearts have been hardened.  God will keep his promises.  His wisdom is greater than ours, and we should not think that our observations of occurrences on earth today will negate his promises.

God, though, invites us into his work to make this the true reality.  It is part of our Christian vocation to confront injustices of all kinds and to create a reality where our human promise that our Republic could be “one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” is made true.  I hope we do this as we vote.  I hope we do this as we encounter people of every race and ethnicity in this city.  This congregation continues this work as we volunteer in the ESL program, our shelter dinner, and the homeless shelter.  Hopefully, we do this as we vote, also, with our finances.

In the last week, National Geographic published an article titled, “What Science Tells Us About Good and Evil.”  They focus on differences between extreme altruists and psychopaths and indicate that scientists hypothesize that these two behavior types evolved from the benefit of cooperating within our own social groups and the willingness to discriminate against — even harm — those in social groups competing for resources.[11]  I add, also, that we continue to be conditioned in similar ways by our culture.  Trusting this is true, I have to also look inside myself for how I am at risk of bending to this evolutionary development.  As deep as this exists in my psyche, I have to admit that I may continue to be blind to these tendencies.

I suspect we do not have any members of the alt-right or hate groups in our sanctuary today.  As I’ve reflected on events in Charlottesville, I’ve wanted so much to see a change of heart in those who represent hate groups.  I realize what I am about to say may be difficult — even controversial.  As I’ve reflected on that desire and how I could participate in making it happen, I’ve had to also identify my own faults in these matters.

I’ve had to consider how I view those who promote hate, as I fear that hate begets hate.  I worry that counter-protests — while helpful — very helpful — in demonstrating that there is significant opposition to what hate groups profess — may be unhelpful in trying to win the hearts of those who hate.  I worry particularly of their children who may perceive we hate them as much as they and their families hate — whether this is true or not.  As we ostracize people, they are forced to find support from those unlike us, and I worry that some who are now members of hate groups would not have landed there had we offered an openness and respect to them, even where we disagreed firmly with their rhetoric on these issues and made it known to them.  Imagining myself doing this seems viscerally wrong, but it is not entirely unlike a loving God who sent his only begotten son so that all of us who sinned might have eternal life.

Christ being sent did not make right the actions of sin.  Treating members of hate groups in this way should not have us deny our calling to confront injustices in our world.  We are called to work alongside God so that God’s Kingdom may come on earth.  One day, there will be a great multitude [before the throne of God] that no one can count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb…” They will be worshipping God as one people.[12]  This is God’s promise to us, and God will keep his promises.  As Paul states, “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!”[13]

 

In the name of the Father,

and of the Son,

and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 

SIGNIFICANT SOURCES REFERENCED

 

Business Insider.  These charts show just how white and male Wall Street really is.  http://www.businessinsider.com/wall-street-bank-diversity-2015-8. {accessed 2017-08-19}

 

Cross, F. L., and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Oxford;  New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

 

The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989.

 

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

 

National Geographic.  What Science Tells Us About Good and Evil.  http://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2017/08/science-good-evil-charlottesville/. {accessed 2017-08-19}

 

Southern Poverty Law Center.  Hate Map.  https://www.splcenter.org/hate-map.  {Accessed 2017-08-19}

 

Torrance, Thomas Forsyth. The Mediation of Christ. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1998.

 

Vox.  The scientific case that America is becoming more prejudiced.  https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2017/8/14/16143582/charlottesville-prejudice-psychology.  {Accessed 2017-08-19}

 

Wright, Tom. Paul for Everyone: Romans Part 1: Chapters 1-8. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004.

 

Wright, Tom. Paul for Everyone: Romans, Part 2: Chapters 9-16. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004.

 

[1] Romans 9:2-3, NRSV.

[2] Romans 11:1-2, NRSV.

[3] Moo, 12-13; Wright, Part I, 7; Wright, Part 2, 56.

[4] Romans 11:11-24, NRSV.

[5] Romans 11:25-29, NRSV.

[6] Torrance, 7.

[7] Romans, 11:26, NRSV.

[8] https://www.splcenter.org/hate-map {accessed 2017-08-19}

[9] http://www.businessinsider.com/wall-street-bank-diversity-2015-8 {accessed 2017-08-19}

[10] Revelation 7:9-10, NRSV.

[11] http://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2017/08/science-good-evil-charlottesville/ {accessed 2017-08-19}

[12] Revelation 7:9-10, NRSV.

[13] Romans 11:33, NRSV.