The Revised Common Lectionary has us continuing to read from Paul's Letter to the Romans, and I continue to preach on those texts at St. Francis. The full manuscript of my sermon for August 14 can be found here. Below is an abridged version of that sermon, on Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32, that has been edited for this context:
Today we heard these words as Paul concludes the second major section of Romans, in which he explores the question of the relationship between Christians and Jews.God has imprisoned all in disobedience, so that [God] may be merciful to all.
In the midst of all of his rhetoric, Paul finds a metaphor; although the lectionary committee in their infinite wisdom cut that out from the middle of today's reading! Personally, if I were put in charge of the lectionary and it was up to me to decide what to keep of Paul and what to lose, I have to tell you I’d keep more of his metaphors and lose some of the rhetoric. In any event, here in part is what we didn’t hear read today:
If the part of the dough offered as first fruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy. And if the root is holy, then the branches also are holy. But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root* of the olive tree, do not vaunt yourselves over the branches. If you do vaunt yourselves, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you. You will say, ‘Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.’ That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe.
Paul is telling those Gentile Christians in Rome not to be too proud, but rather to stand in awe because they have become “honorary Jews” through Christ. “You have been grafted into the life of Israel,” he says, “but you are still supported and sustained and fed by those Jewish roots. And you need to draw on those roots in order to bear good fruit.” Jesus talked a lot in his ministry (as did the prophets before him) about how the goal of faith is to bear good fruit. But disconnected branches, without roots, cannot do that.
And then he concludes: “God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.” All of us rely on the mercy of God. That is the “kicker” to this whole long second section of Romans. That is where this theological reflection has led Paul. Try making that your own prayer for a day or two, or maybe a week or a month. Like a mantra. All of us rely on the mercy of God. That one sentence takes us to the very heart of Paul’s theology. It’s important to notice how he gets there but because he is, well, Paul…he is easy to lose along the way. But this is the point: Jew and Gentile—everybody gets imprisoned in disobedience.
And all rely on the mercy of God. It isn’t our own righteousness that saves us, but God’s mercy! If we start to think that we are saved, or loved, because of what we have done—because of how great we are; if we start to compare ourselves to other Christians or to non-Christians and find ourselves somehow “the winners”—the real Christians, the truly faithful, then we are in big trouble. Do not become too proud. Stand in awe of God’s mercy, because all of us rely on the mercy of God. That wise counsel tells us who we are, but it also tells us who God is.
Recognizing our own failings and shortcomings is not about beating ourselves up. There is a way of confessing our sins that can leave us feeling like we are bad to the bone. As I understand the gospel, that doesn’t do God, or us, any good. It leads to guilt, rather than to repentance, and it’s hard to dig out from underneath guilt. The story of our faith is that we are created in the image of God. We are a holy people, claimed and marked and sealed as God’s beloved in Holy Baptism. But we are human. We are made of dust, and all of us fall short of the glory that God intends for us. Paul understood that at a very deep level. He knows that when he was so sure he was right, when he was so proud as a Pharisee and so eager to please God by squelching heretic followers of Jesus, that he was acting against the mercy of God; even if he didn’t know it at the time. He thought he was being faithful, but he was being unfaithful. I suspect if we are honest with ourselves we might acknowledge that we have some experience with that. It’s not the same kind of sin as being willfully disobedient. It’s not the same as knowing that speaking ill of our neighbor is wrong and then going ahead and speaking ill of that neighbor. I’m talking about when we do what we are certain is right, with the best of motivations, with certitude and piety—and then later on discover that we had it all wrong and have made a mess of things.
God is merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. That is not a New Testament idea—something Jesus said in order to start a new religion. That notion is rooted in the theology of Moses and the prophets and scattered throughout the psalms. God is merciful and steadfast and kind: not because we deserve it, but simply because it is who God is. In fact, it’s not an idea limited to the Bible. These are the opening words of the Holy Qur’an, the first and most important words of the very first Surah that are prayed every single day by faithful Muslims:
In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful
Praise be to God the Cherisher and Sustainer of the Worlds;
Most Gracious, Most Merciful…
In Arabic, as in Hebrew, the root word for mercy is closely related to the word for womb. The God who has birthed us, loves us: how could that God reject the offspring of Her own womb?
What would happen to us if we started to truly live out of that reality? How would it change us? Perhaps when we see someone else who is carrying a heavy burden, we might show them mercy rather than judgment. Perhaps we’d worry less about how other people are acting and more about how we can become more merciful, as God is merciful. The word “Christian” has a bad rap these days and I don’t think it has a bad rap primarily because of a secular media or because people hate Christians. I think it has a bad rap because too many people, in the name of Christ, speak judgmental and bigoted words. And people think that because some very vocal people are out there saying things that are judgmental and bigoted that that is what it means to be a Christian. What would it take for the world, when hearing the word “Christian” to think: God is merciful to everybody? What would it take for the world, when hearing the word Christian, to think: “see how those Christians love one another?” What would it take for us to realize that we are all utterly dependent on God’s mercy, every one of us, one day at a time—and then to live on that grace moment-by-moment, trusting that God’s mercy makes full and abundant life possible. I submit to you that we’d be on our way to living our mission to participate in transforming a world that often feels cynical and caustic and unbearable into a new creation that is more meaningful, more hopeful, and more loving?
God has imprisoned all in disobedience, so that [God] may be merciful to all. At the end of the second section of Romans, Paul concludes that to be human is to be imprisoned in disobedience. We are a stiff-necked people: we Christians, Jews, Muslims, secular-atheists. All of us.
And still, God is merciful to all: most gracious, most merciful.