Grace Is Grace
We’re about to start another remodeling project at our house, which reminds me of the book I once owned called Kitchen Redos, Revamps, Remodels and Replacements: Without Murder, Madness, Suicide or Divorce. As soon as our kitchen was done I got rid of the book, because it was too creepy-realistic. The central premise of the book was this: Retrofitting anything is always much harder and far more complicated than starting from scratch; so unless you really, really, really love your house, don’t do it – just move.
The Apostle Paul really, really, really loved his house. The Temple, the synagogue, Judaism. And he worked for thirty years trying to retrofit it to include Christ-followers – both Jews and non-Jews worshipping Christ and serving the gospel together within the larger house, if you will, of Judaism.
Different sects (as in sections) of Judaism already existed in Paul’s time: Zealots and Pharisees and Samaritans. The same is true today. If you are ever in Jerusalem, you’ll see all flavors of Judaism – some religious, some not. Even the most religious Jews, the Orthodox, have sorted themselves out into different sects. There are Orthodox Jews whose socks and pant legs are indicative of the sect they are part of: black socks, white socks, short socks, high socks, pant legs outside of socks, pant legs tucked into the socks. So Paul’s idea of another new sect wasn’t that far out, except for the part about including Gentiles. In the end, that was the deal breaker.
Nearly a hundred years after Paul preached and wrote, along came the suggestion of describing the Christian church as non-Jewish altogether. In effect, it mostly was already. No doubt there were anti-Semitic intentions therein. But had he lived to see it, Paul would have protested. He preached and worked his heart out and he didn’t get his way – obviously. But imagine if he had.
Obviously we can’t account for lots of other maybes, but we’re just pretending anyway – so let’s try. If Paul had gotten his way, we wouldn’t be here, but we might be next door. On any given weekend next door at Beth Shalom, just like now, the Reformed Congregation meets for worship on Friday evenings. They are the liberal Jews who are cool with having a woman rabbi. The Conservative congregation worships on Saturday mornings. And the Orthodox congregation has their own place near campus. If Paul had had his way, we’d be worship-ping over there on Sunday mornings with the other Gentiles and the Christ-following Jews – just one big happy Jewish religion.
Think of the real estate that would be available – just in this town! Just imagine. Had Paul gotten his way: no Catholics and Protestants; no Baptists, Presbyterians or Methodists; no Episcopalians, Pentecostals or Lutherans.
What else? Of course there would be other stories to tell. But think of all the blank pages in our history books. No Crusades! What would Billy Graham revivals have been called without the Christian crusades to annihilate the Muslims? No Roman Inquisition. No Portuguese Inquisition. No Spanish Inquisition. Would there have been an Enlightenment? A Renais-sance? Think of the books and the movies we’d have missed, if Paul had gotten his way. We owe him everything; and still, Paul didn’t get his way.
Only in glimpses and glances does the church reflect the Oneness of Christ for which Paul gave everything. So here we are – next-door neighbors and friends, mostly. I say “mostly,” because New Testament texts like Romans 11 are divisive between us and must be handled respectfully. For his part, I’m not sure Paul would be so much disappointed as glad it isn’t his problem anymore. He did the best that he knew, in the time that he lived, with the information he had. It wasn’t his fault folks didn’t follow his lead. After all, not even Jesus gets his way in our lives all the time, amen?
Are you – am I? – the people we would be if Jesus were getting Jesus’s way in our lives? Probably not. So we gather: to tell ourselves the truth before God; to be encouraged by the word; to enjoy the taste of the grace that makes us hunger and thirst for more; and, hopefully, to leave here week after week a little bit braver and a little more ready for Jesus to have his way in our lives and in our life together. I’d like us to pray together and then take just a few minutes’ consideration of Paul’s address in chapter 11, which I am calling “Grace Is Grace.”
We are yours, we say, O God. Give us a glimpse of what a life that might be, we pray. Amen.
Chapter 11 is Paul’s mic drop. In speaking to the Jews, he speaks to every dominant group in every human society everywhere: “You can share your privilege, and I promise you won’t die.” In speaking to Gentiles, he speaks to every marginalized, disinherited people made to feel less than – not for anything they’ve done but by virtue of their birth. “Knowing you are equally loved by God does not entitle you to lord over anyone, including those who oppress you.”
If that doesn’t sound like you, you are in Group One. Jews were the first privileged Christians. Somebody had to go first. With the privilege comes the responsibility – amen? – the responsibility in this case to go tell, which those first Jews were assigned by Jesus himself. Go where? to the ends of the earth. And do what? and make disciples of whom? all nations. And what do you remember from sermon after sermon, about the word for “all nations”? Ethne. Gentiles.
That’s us, friends. Welcome to the ends of the earth. I remember being a kid and learning all about the ends of the earth. That’s where our missionaries went, carrying Jesus from here to there. Always east: to Europe, the Middle East; to Africa, the Far East; to China. The heroes – like Adoniram Judson and Lottie Moon. Somebody tell me who Lottie Moon was.
I went to Baptist Sunday School from bed babies to the college class, twenty-two years of Sunday School class. But it was not in Sunday School but a history class at Arkansas State University that my understanding of the ends of the earth came completely undone.
The gospel was not first dispensed in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania or in Richmond, Virginia. In fact, it was first dispensed in the East and it traveled west. We were literally almost the LAST to know. And somehow we ended up thinking we were first and that it was our job to get the gospel shipped overseas before the whole world went to hell for our neglect. We are the ends of the earth and would do well to remember it – to remember Paul was talking to us in Ephesians 2, where he wrote:
So then, remember . . . you Gentiles by birth . . . remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus, you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh, he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace,
as well as in Romans 11. For, not only are we the Jews so prone to use our power to exclude, we are also these Gentiles so prone to lord over others as if we were the first, rather than the very last guests to arrive at this party, skidding through the doors of the banquet hall as they are closing once and for all. My favorite preaching teacher, Fred Craddock, was fond of saying, “Wherever and whenever and for whatever reason anyone is not welcome to sit at table with you, to eat with you, then you do not have church.”
How easily, friends, how easily do we equate sharing with having less? Because we have not yet caught the vision and the scent of our Oneness in Christ, that only when our siblings are welcome do we have any grasp of the gospel, of God’s welcome of our sorry selves. Either everyone eats or everyone starves. Unless we are one, we are alone, clinging to a fantasy.
Apart from Christ, what do we have worth clinging to? Joined with Christ, there is no end to grace.
So why do we cling to what we cannot keep? And why do we fear losing what we know, in our heart of hearts, can never be taken from us? We cling, because living by faith is really, really hard. Trusting in the truth, acting on the truth we cannot see and hear, is never, ever the easier, simpler life choice. The world doesn’t reward us for it – sometimes quite the opposite – because we are few in number too, which can make faith in the unseen sometimes feel all the crazier.
Paul uses the example of Elijah, who was so discouraged and sick of faith he told God he was the last living prophet on earth. God told Elijah to stop being so dramatic (that is in the “extended edition” of Romans), because in fact there were still 7000 faithful prophets left in Israel. But it can feel that way sometimes, can’t it? Like the world is going to hell this very day, and it literally does not matter if you try to be faithful or not.
Paul goes on relating his theory of how the Jews’ rejection of the Christ opened the doors for the Gentiles’ inclusion. And if such an awesome outcome could come from their lack of faith, just imagine what might happen if they were to turn that ship around and start doing as they ought. But in the question he answers I can hear a hint of that same fear that is so constant in our socio-political lives now.
Radicalism and even violence is an everyday occurrence now, sparked in no small part by a culture’s fear of losing our place in the world. “Identitarianism” is one word for it, white supremacy retrofitted for an extremely sensitive culture. It’s easy for us to brush aside such thinking as ignorant – low-class, even. Though we wouldn’t say that. Think it maybe, but not say it. However, the Christian question is “Are they welcome?” and “will we be church?”
Grace is grace is grace, Paul says, or we are not church. Let us be church, friends, today and in all the days God gives us. Shall we pray?
Who Do You Think You Are?
I am a follower of Christ, and the Holy Spirit is a witness to my conscience. So I tell the truth and I am not lying when I say 2 my heart is broken and I am in great sorrow. 3 I would gladly be placed under God’s curse and be separated from Christ for the good of my own people. 4 They are the descendants of Israel, and they are also God’s chosen people. God showed them his glory. He made agreements with them and gave them his Law. The temple is theirs and so are the promises that God made to them. 5 They have those famous ancestors, who were also the ancestors of Jesus Christ. I pray that God, who rules over all, will be praised forever! Amen. [Romans 9:1-5, CEV]
You know, anytime someone says, I promise I’m not lying, folks are going to assume, Yeah, he’s probably lying. Here we have the Apostle Paul swearing by Jesus and the Holy Spirit that he ISN’T lying, when he says he’d rather be cut off from Christ than offend his Jewish kinfolks.
A couple of hints that he might be lying or, as my mama used to call it, storying (“Now Annie, I think you’re storying to me) – for one, in this very text he uses “they” instead of “we,” when speaking of Jewish history. We know from the fifteenth chapter of Acts and the book of Galatians, along with other texts, Paul was perfectly willing to offend his Jewish brothers ALL the time. So why would he say it here? Hyperbole. Exaggeration. The Bible is stuffed with it – storytelling liberty. It’s what storytellers, Jesus included, did, using over-the-top language to make a point.
No doubt Paul knows they know he’s storying in that self-deprecating way in order to deprecate them too – which is exactly what he does, starting about verse six and carrying on for most of three chapters, much of which is a line-by-line recitation of Jewish religious failure: failure to be faithful; failure to understand their own religious history; failure to understand the Christ event in light of that religious history.
Summed up, in my own words, like this: Either everything Judaism has taught us so far brings us to the conclusion that the Christ event applies to every person equally OR the point of our own religion is to paint some divine, spiritual justification over our own pride and prejudice. We are either one in Christ or none in Christ. As he says it in I Corinthians, chapter 1: either the cross is for everyone or the cross itself is powerless.
Paul has many ways to say it, but he has nothing else to say – at least, nothing else that matters until the church has nailed this down. Because until we have this nailed down – that the salvation we claim belongs to everyone equally, you and me and you and you, and every human being on the planet – we’ve nothing else to do that can truly be called church. Any-thing else makes us a service organization, nothing new, nothing different from what far-better-organized service organizations in this world are doing. Undeserved and unconditional kindness is all we have that humanity can get nowhere else.
And if we don’t have it, friends, we can’t give it. Everything else we do with the name Christian church on it is a cover for our own self-delusion, our own attempts at being good rather than our acceptance of God’s goodness toward all of humanity – and us therein. Anything we try will be contaminated by that human pride and prejudice we learn in the world, and the world cultivates in us. God does not love us because we are good. God loves us because God is good. And while we benefit from that enormously, don’t we also push back against it?
Paul is pushing back against that – pushing back in Romans, chapter 9. They are having trouble with the “F” word again. What’s the “F” word of church? FAIR, of course. His Jewish congregants apparently think it unfair that gentiles get to join the church without having to follow all the Jewish laws they themselves must follow, particularly circumcision (understandable) and food laws. If we can’t have cheeseburgers, neither should they.
Isn’t it funny how things change and how they don’t? And how Paul’s argument holds. It’s the gospel that holds, of course. We can only guess what his congregants have said, but it sounds like they’ve attempted to make the case that “the promises of God belong to us because we belong to Abraham.” Paul’s retort is that plenty of people belonged to Abraham that weren’t included in the promise.
He’s already made the argument in Romans that far more people than they were ever willing to even acknowledge were included in the original promises to Abraham. Here he points out that plenty of people belonged to Abraham that were NOT included in the promise. Ishmael and Esau are his examples. AND, occasionally God would go out of God’s way to use someone totally beyond the pale – the Pharaoh for example – to accomplish the promise. The point being: your argument is lame.
And then, Paul asks the superlative question of the text. Who do you think you are to ask that question? Who do you think you are to even use the word “fair” in reference to God? Don’t you think that the God who excludes whomever God wants can also INCLUDE whomever that God wants? God can do what God wants, and it is none of your business.
Consider for a moment that God has included you? What have you done lately to deserve inclusion, my friend? What have you done, ever, to include such undeserved kindness? Would you call it fair that you have the gift of God in Christ Jesus? And yet you propose to tell God who is or is not equally deserving, to add conditions for others, when God has put no such conditions on you?
Paul will go on and on this way for a bit, calling his church folks “lumps of clay,” which is truly awesome. You know that moment when you realize you’ve lost an argument and you are no longer trying to win – you are just trying to save face? How icky it is to me depends on how invested I am in my reputation, versus my desire to live in the truth – because losing can be life-changing, when it brings us into conversion, when some sliver of truth opens itself up to us. And there comes this wave of nausea and grief at how wrong we were in some idea or belief or way of being. But it isn’t embarrassing, because swirling in that same wave is a new kind of joy and energy that is released upon the realization of truth we did not see before.
Friends, I did not always believe as I do now about the full inclusion of all people, uncon-ditionally, in church life and leadership. I didn’t not believe in it either. I was just sometimes itchy and uncomfortable around some people, and so I let other people’s stridency speak for me. But then I had friendships with people from groups around whom I’d been previously uncomfortable. Then I got uncomfortable with the stridency. It felt mean to me. I decided I couldn’t be part of Mean Church.
So I studied the Bible. A lot. And while it's not a preacher-y, Bible-y way to say it, I decided the whole exclusion theology of my church experience was built on the dominant group’s anxiety and fear. (Remember my discomfort?) And while Jesus doesn’t talk specifically about gay people or trans people, Jesus constantly talks to fearful people, saying over and over and over again, Do not be afraid. And even though he drives me crazy sometimes, Paul really is the most fearless disciple in the entire New Testament. He is the living epitome of Jesus’s suggestion that we do what he did and expect him to deal with the fallout.
I don’t do that. I’m a total coward. But I am convinced of God’s faithfulness despite my chicken-hearted ways. Paul has won the argument long before he ever quits writing. He makes and proves his theological case. The problem, of course, is that theological proof wasn’t Paul’s project. In spite of many thousands of dissertations since, Paul’s purpose was not systematic theology – because he wasn’t a theologian; he was a pastor. His purpose was ekklesia – community; church; life together. A life together in which followers of Jesus reflect the gospel of Jesus: that in Christ the undeserved, unconditional, salvific love of God has been woven into the make-up of human be-ing. It is part of us, part of creation.
What chlorophyll is to leaves, the love of God is to human be-ing. What warmth is to sunlight, the love of God is to human be-ing. What sweetness is to a summer peach, the love of God is to human be-ing. Who do you think you are to question that? Paul asks the church. We shall question it until we know, friends – until we know that love, the way we know our own breath. And only then, only then, will we detect it and celebrate it in the faces and the being of all seven billion of our seven billion brothers, sisters, and gender fluid siblings on this planet.
Would you pray with me? To know your love for us, O God, to recognize ourselves as your darling, darling ones, without need of improvement or change – for this we pray, that we might discover it in one another too. Amen.
The Myth of Separation
Reading Number Nineteen from The Tao of Healing: If all the scientists, analysts, and theorists disappeared today, not one part of truth would be lost. If all the judges, lawyers, priests and prosecutors disappeared, not one part of morality would be lost. If all the investors, speculators, and brokers disappeared, not one part of wealth would be lost. On the contrary, truth, love and abundance would be more easily received. Center yourself first in the Wholeness and all the parts will be yours.
The truth cannot be separated like the yolk from the white. Every shred of truth holds all of it. In every human being there is the fullness of Christ. And what we conceive as difference is the conjecture of our own fear – our pride acting in reverse – bearing no resemblance to the faith we claim.
And yet we never stop, do we? We never stop de-centering ourselves. Moving ourselves around inside the expanse of the creation. Re-arranging our environments for the reasons people do. For convenience. Efficiency. Productivity. Those are the reasons we say out loud. Safety, as much as anything. We all want to live in the safest neighborhood we can afford. We'll sacrifice to get there. When we bought our first house, the realtor told us we'd be happier if we bought a bit more than we could afford. Salaries go up, she said; your house will stay the same size.
We separate ourselves. It’s what we do – put as much space as possible between ourselves and whatever makes us feel unsafe. We organize and categorize and classify and grade our lives and the lives of those around us, based on our respective fears. There aren't many people I actively avoid – fewer than a handful – but loads I don't go out of my way to see. It's better for my mental health, I say to myself. Maybe. Or maybe I’m just making up excuses to cover up some fear.
It’s this reconciliation that is on Paul’s heart and mind as chapter eight winds down – the reconciliation between what we claim to believe of God and the kind of people, the kind of believers, and the kind of church we choose to be.
Let’s pray together: Put us in the eyes-wide-open presence of our fears, O God. Set them side by side with your love for us so that we know we have a choice, each and every day, to live like your beloved children and your church. Amen.
“The most stunning rhetoric of the New Testament” is Professor Luke Johnson’s assessment of the last third of our text for today, Romans chapter eight. Johnson frames it as the opening argument by a defense attorney out to prove to a jury – the Roman church/ us – that, believing as they so obviously do in the righteousness of God (also called justice, remember), they by definition also believe in the full inclusion of the Gentiles in church. Either Jews AND Gentiles have ALL been reconciled by God in Christ Jesus or the righteousness of God itself doesn’t stand. The full case is made in chapters 9-11. The opening statement is here, framed in eight questions.
These eight questions are what I want to consider – more quickly than it sounds like – considering. Number one is the most rhetorical: What shall we say about all this? Like when a parent says, what am I going to do with you? The kid is about to find out. The next seven questions, plus three chapters, are what he has to say about this.
Numbers two and four are the same question, twice stated: If God is on our side, can anyone else be against us? If God says his chosen ones are acceptable to him, can anyone else bring charges against them? Anyone who’s been in Sunday School a minute knows the Sunday School answer is supposed to be “No.” Anyone who’s lived in this world fifteen years or so knows the answer so often turns out to be “Yes.” I’ve lived the better part of my life among people who said without hesitation that God loves everyone the same, but who live as if we don’t take that idea seriously at all.
Full inclusion of all people is part and parcel of our faith. And yet, look around the room. How diverse are we, really? In experiences – yes. How about all the other qualifications of diverse? In race and all the connections therein, we’re aren’t more than four white paint chips apart. Socially, politically, economically, educationally, we end up pretty much in the same neighborhood, the best neighborhood we can afford – for the school district and the property values, but for the unspoken as well: safety.
My husband grew up in West Memphis, Arkansas. If you know anything about East Chicago or East St. Louis you know everything you need to know about West Memphis. He was six when the police came to interview his family about yet another murder on their street. “What do you suppose was the motive, robbery?” asked the detective. And in his tiny six-year-old voice, my husband piped up, “Robbery? In this neighborhood?”
We don't call it segregation, for heaven’s sakes, or privilege. We call it the same thing all parents everywhere call what they do: the best we can with what we have for our kids – never recognizing how we might have conflated the gospel of the world with that of the Christ. The gospel preached by the world is one of irresistible self-interest, one that anesthetizes our fears and blesses our stereotypes. And somehow, we missed the moment in which we chose that gospel instead of the gospel of Jesus.
Friends, we have no permission – biblical or otherwise – to play or defend this mad, mad game of human segregation, of separation, of irreconcilability and at the same time lay claim to the righteousness of God.
The third question is in verse 32. In King James it reads: He that spareth not his own Son but delivered Him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things? I chose King Jimmy for saying best what we know deepest: that, having Christ Jesus, we already have everything. That, having Him, we have nothing else to ask for. We have a million other explanations, but at the end of the day, what if it is our fear of scarcity that drives our faith into segregation, separation and exclusion? Our confidence that if there is enough for everyone, there won’t be enough for me?
Over and over in human history, the fear of scarcity has turned to policy and theology, to no good end. People always get hurt. As you know, I’ve made quite a mess of things in my grand plans to be at Pridefest this year. I didn’t do my homework. I drove some of you crazy. I am considering it my chance to practice humility and your chance to practice kindness.
Another piece of that pie that I didn’t know was a piece of it is this. In just a few weeks I’m leaving for a big vacation. I’ll be gone a month. I had this great idea to invite some of my oldest Baptist clergy colleagues to supply preach for me while I’m gone. They are a married couple, recently retired from campus ministry. They excitedly agreed – for a week. Then they read our website. The same website that another group said isn’t bold enough in support of LGBTQ+ people. My friends apologetically had to go back on their word. I want to take the high road. Outwardly I have. Inwardly – sigh. It is not easy for me – mostly because I still think I am right.
I am still pretty mad at the idea that gospel preachers have declined to preach the gospel to people they believe most need to hear the gospel. That would be you, by the way. They don’t want to appear to agree with you by attending church with you. I’m wise to the lack of humility I am currently projecting. I am searching for the line between arrogance and Righteous Indignation.
At the same time – decline to preach the gospel, really? After what he’s given us, who are we to withhold anything in our pockets from anyone else, the gospel most of all??? Do we own the air we breathe? Do we own the stars and moon? Do we own the gospel? The antidote to scarcity is radical generosity. Give yourself away and see how much self you still have left. Find out there is no end to what the Lord can do with a person or a church that has given up fear as a way of life.
Question five: If God says his chosen are acceptable, who can bring charges against them? Really, the same as questions #2 and #4 but pressing the point that God who created and initiated this way of being called righteousness, called justice, called grace – translated, remember, as undeserved kindness – God does not give it for us to hoard like candy, to use as bait for catching others. Do we understand, friends, this acceptance we have received from God is the only thing we have to pass on in God’s name? Like Mattie says in True Grit, “You must pay for everything in this world one way or another. There is nothing free except the grace of God. You cannot earn that or deserve it.”
So much else we have, we treat like something God means us to have, never acknowledging how hard we’ve squinted at the scriptures to come up believing that. Can you condemn them? goes Question Number Six. No, indeed, comes back the answer. No indeed, knowing what you know of Christ. No, indeed is in fact the answer to questions two and three and four and five and six and seven. Can anything separate us from the love of Christ? Nope. For added drama, there is a list. Can trouble? No. Suffering? No. Hard times? No. Hunger? No. Poverty? No. Danger? No. Death? No. For many, poverty is harder to imagine than death. Still the answer is no.
It’s hardly a complete list, but the point is still made: nothing human-made or inflicted can separate us from the love of Christ. Because the love of Christ is not an additive. It does not exist somewhere apart from our existence. It is here, now, within and among us, again as close and real as breath. Paul says, look at us; we are constantly about to be wiped out like sheep in a butcher’s pen. Which sounds terrible, but only to people too attached to life as a sheep, people with no idea of the peace that follows the tiny peace available in a world that is not that different from a sheep pen some days.
The climax of the rhetoric Professor Johnson describes is here in verses 37-39. Those seven man-made dangers already listed are matched by seven cosmic ones – cosmic threats as useless as the first to separate us from the love of Christ. Not life or death, not angels or spirits, not the present or the future, and not powers above or powers below. Nothing. No thing. Not one thing – on earth or in heaven.
Aren’t you the slightest bit tempted to imagine it? To believe it? That in Christ we have all we need. And so does everyone else. That no one we meet ever needs us. They may need us to share what we have. But they don’t need US. Any more than we need them. Because in us all the fullness of Christ already dwelleth. (I’m going to start speaking in King James.)
But together – only together – shall the great oneness of Christ be plain to us. And only when it is plain to us shall we ever be through with the fear-driven, soul-sucking, heartbreaking myth of human separateness. We just won’t need it anymore.
If all the scientists, analysts, and theorists disappeared today, not one part of truth would be lost. If all the judges, lawyers, priests and prosecutors disappeared, not one part of morality would be lost. If all the investors, speculators, and brokers disappeared, not one part of wealth would be lost. On the contrary, truth, love and abundance would be more easily received.
Let us center ourselves first in the Wholeness of Christ and we shall surely, here and now, have a taste of heaven. Would you pray with me?