[Paul writes:] I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! 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…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.
My sermon from the 11th Sunday after Pentecost (August 20, 2017) on Romans 11:1-2,29-32. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.
29% and 99%. Those two numbers are important for tomorrow afternoon. That first number, according to last night’s forecast, will be the amount of sky covered by clouds at 2:44 pm. The other number is the probability that I’ll be outside, looking straight at the sun, with gigantic eclipse sunglasses protecting my eyes. I know our zip code will only get a partial eclipse but I’m still excited to see the roughly 70% of the sun covered by the moon. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen any kind of solar eclipse and the last time I did, I was putting holes in a cardboard box, wearing it as a strange kind of helmet, and watching a little dot of sunshine grow dim on a white piece of paper. I’m a little disappointed that I won’t be in the path of totality, watching the sun as it disappears behind the moon. I wish I could see the ring of fire that shows up around the moon and then experience our tiny bit of the world being consumed by the moon’s shadow. Eclipses are natural but they’re also kind of weird. We don’t expect the sun to just disappear like that. We expect the sun to be there, doing what it always does. We rarely acknowledge just how necessary the sun is to our lives. I mean, when I’m at a party and someone asks “what do you do?,” I’ve never heard anyone respond by saying, “well, without the sun, I wouldn’t be able to do much.” We get to live our lives the way we do because the sun is there and it works the way we expect it too. It burns, rotates, and shines – day in and day out. The sun is the unacknowledged foundation to who we are because without it, we’re not here.
Paul, in our reading from Romans today, isn’t talking about a solar eclipse. But he is, I think, poking the Gentiles in Rome, trying to get them to see the foundation of what makes them who they are. In this handful of verses, Paul lifts up an assumption some in this Christian community had. And this assumption isn’t, in fact, strange to us at all. I would argue that their assumption is still at the heart of a lot of our Christian theology, identity, and practice. According to Paul, there are people in this Jesus’ community who believe that God has rejected the Jewish people. The Jewish people had their chance to accept Jesus as the Messiah but they didn’t. They turned away. The followers of Jesus, then, are starting to act as if they are true people of Israel, the right followers of God, and the Jews are not. Even in Paul’s day, when the number of Christians was ridiculously small, and Jews who didn’t believe in Jesus outnumbered people who did by the millions, there were followers of Jesus who believed that their smallness, their specialness, made them part of the “winning” side. They picked God. They chose to believe. So they, according to this kind of thing, are the new Chosen people. Christianity has superseded the old covenants God made with the Jewish people, making Christians the new and improved version of God’s holy family. And since different parts of the Jewish community rejected Jesus, those who call themselves Christians believed they now get to treat the rest of the Jewish people as the opposite of God’s beloved children.
This kind of theology has been part of the Christian story for a long, long, time. It’s such a part of our history and story that it’s sometimes difficult for us to see how this kind of thinking, how this kind of ideology centered on Christians replacing Jews as God’s chosen people, has embedded itself into our own personal theology, thinking, and point-of-view. Even if we see ourselves as good people, we have inherited thousands of years of thoughts, practices, and language filled with this kind of anti-Jewish thinking. It’s part of who we are even though we didn’t actively put it there. Our baptism didn’t embed replacement theology into our bones but our Christian history did. And we feed and sustain this kind of thinking, teaching, and way of life when we focus only on being “winners,” because if there’s a winner, we need to identify, and ostracize, and penalize the loser.
This ideology of winners and losers, this way of life that tries to make ourselves the only true Chosen People of God, only works if we refuse to take Paul’s own words seriously. Paul knows there are people in Rome saying that God has rejected the Jewish people. And Paul responds with a “no.” Our translation today doesn’t really reveal the tone Paul is actually using here. Paul isn’t just saying, “no.” He’s saying “NOOO.” He’s saying that kind of “no” an almost three year-old says when you tell him it’s time to leave the pool. He’s answering with a “no” that can’t even believe you’re making this kind of statement in the first place. Paul is affirming, 100%, that God has not rejected the Jewish people and, in fact, God’s relationship with them hasn’t changed. They are still chosen. They are still God’s people. And we know this because Jesus himself was a Jew. Paul affirms and celebrates his own identity as a Jew, too. And even though there are other texts in the New Testament, verses from Matthew, John, and Hebrews, that people have used to convince themselves that they are chosen and the Jews are not – Paul rejects that kind of thinking and interpretation. The covenants, the promises God made to the Jewish people, still stand. God is still loving, caring, and tending the relationship God has with them. Paul is telling us to not let our own assumptions about winners and losers blind us to our true, and honest, reality. We are here because God loves, and cares, and is in relationship with all of us. God tends and nurtures non-Jews in a way that is unique, special, and rooted in the promises God made centuries ago to a man named Abraham who looked up, saw the stars, and knew his diverse and multicultural descendants would be countless. God promised to be with them, treasure them, and, through the Jewish people, make them whole. We don’t expect Paul to write these kinds of words that are universalist in scope. We don’t expect God to be intent on leaving no one behind. We expect God to care about winners and losers just like we do. But God is focused on creating a world where wholeness, mercy, and justice is something everyone has. Because the only thing that can outlast the evil and hatred in this world is God’s promise of mercy, hope, and love. And in a world where the shadow of terror and hatred is long, touching lives in Charlottesville, Barcelona, Kissimmee,Turkey, Finland, and more – we can live and advocate and struggle for a world where hate does not win because our sin can’t eclipse God’s ultimate expectation.