1 of 2 on Billy Joel’s Bad Song
Pastor Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church. July 9th, 2017
Romans 11:1-2a; 29-32
Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, Sunday in the middle of July. Humidity has come and is seeping into our being and it will bring rain. Today is a humidity of a sermon. I want this to be a sermon that doesn’t shock you. We had a few of those. It is not really a difficult text to understand. These is a sermon that I wanted you to hear and take home and ponder and let it seep down in between the cracks and the crevices of your thought system because we are going to talk about anti-Semitism today. That is what this text is about; we need to talk about our anti-Semitism; we have to talk as Christians,
I’m not going to be talking about much Jewish history, although that’s an interesting subject in and of itself. We can talk about the settlement of the Gaza Strip and the mistreatment of Palestinians by the Jewish community. I’m not going to be talking about modern day Jewish Arab Christian relations. That’s a conversation in and of itself. It has ties to the Seven Day War which was fought in response to the Holocaust; which has ties to the Lutheran anti-Semitism of the late 1800s; which has ties to Catholic anti-Semitism in the Middle Ages which includes the Inquisition and witch trials in which Jews were pretty much wiped out in Europe; which has ties to the Crusades where the Pope sanctioned killings and attempts to recapture the Holy Land from the Arab occupants and took it in battles starting in the 600s. In the eyes of Christians and Arabs the Jews were free game for killing. We cannot sort this out. From the beginning the Jews and the Christians have a hard time
You look at the Middle East and you start studying the history and you find – I don’t even know how to get a handle on this. What is interesting for me though is if I listen to someone who’s informed on it who happens to be Jewish, they talk from the perspective: they did this to us, they did this to us, they did this to us, so therefore we are justified in doing what we are doing back to them. Then you listen to someone from the Palestinian conversation and their conversations: they did this to us, they did this to us, and their grandfather did this to my grandfather, and so we are justified. I’m not sure how to sort that out and I’m not sure Christians should. That’s not really what I want to talk about today. Christians and Arabs and Jews have had a hard time and the difficulty seems to be around land except when it’s not around land it’s around power and who has it and our desire to demonize our enemy. They are wrong in their interpretation of Scripture and we are right and we are absolututely right. It gets deep and it goes long back. And when it not land its power, when its not power its superiority, …
In many cultures, many different times, many different places have had a hard time with Judaism. The question at the core of that is: how is it that these simple people prosper almost any place almost any time? Within the Torah their community takes care of one another. They have rather strict laws of how they act toward and with one another; rather high expectations of behavior; rather unique ways of raising children as a community; rather unique devotion to their deity as opposed to the many cultures who are committed to freedom and liberty and money or royalty as the backbone of their existence. Judaism seems to hold onto their relationship with God as their defining factor; unlike a lot of Christians in our cultural religion who makes really good Americans with a little bit of Christianity sprinkled on top. A lot of cultures have asked: why do these Jews prosper and our people — whoever our people are — do not? Therefore the Jews must be liars and cheats and unpatriotic. There is actual scriptural foundation for this misunderstanding and every year around Easter we engage in it. We don’t even know we are engaging in it but if somebody calls it out we might see it. This is how we are complicit in a long terrible history of persecuting Jews. Even now to many pastors, to many church leaders without hesitation and without much thought pronounce that Jews are hell bound. A lot more who may not say that Jews are hell bound but they still when asked about the Jews hesitate and hem and haw or are silent.
Every holy week we read scriptures that say the Jews did this the Jews did that to Jesus. We might quench our faith and hate the Jews; when really we might want to let a chill run down our spine because we are a lot like them in ways that we don’t even understand. When the Holocaust came this was the number one by far argument the Germans used for the destruction of the Jews: they killed Jesus. That is a Jewish problem, let’s just kill them. Despite the fact that Jesus and all his followers and apostles that came later; every one of them was Jewish. Holy week has become an occasion for the persecution of Jews. The question of our relationship to Judaism is really not all that difficult unless you have an agenda: like land or theology of politics or money. These things tend to confuse the issue; these things tend to toss things up in the air. Having an agenda makes you ask questions that are irrelevant; which you have an agenda is what you want.
In today’s Scripture lesson Paul expresses great sorrow and grief and despair at the growing separation between his people, the Jews, and the developing congregations of the church: Jews and Gentiles. Evidently someone in the church at Rome with an agenda asked the question: who is right? Has God rejected his people? As God now in Jesus rejected the Jews? And Paul says, by no means; we are all Jewish. Paul says when God makes a promise God keeps that promise: to Abraham and Moses and all of the prophets of the Old Testament, God promised again and again to preserve the Jews; to preserve Israel as a light to nations, as a sign of the faithfulness of God. If God does not keep God’s promises to the Jews then God’s promises to us, the Gentiles, would be nullified.
The first thing I would tell you as your pastor; we need the Jews because the promises of God to the Jews are the basis upon which we base our trust in the promises of Jesus. We are related to Judaism in a way that differs from our relationship to any other faith. The Old Testament is not a meaningless collection of irrelevant ancient writings. There is no way to understand Jesus without contemplating the Old Testament. I’ll tell you, there’s nothing new in the New Testament, there is nothing new in the New Testament. If you find a story in the New Testament and it enthralls you and engages you, just go look in the Old Testament and I’ll bet you will find it told before. The story of the father and the two sons, the younger son says to Dad: give me the money, I’m going to the far country. The older son is not happy. There is a question of reconciliation. Dad I’m coming home now; Dad runs to meet the boy; Dad says kill the fatted calf put a ring on his finger, put shoes on his feet, put a robe on him and let’s have a party. The older son says: all you’ve ever given me and my friends is goat meat. Now where in the Old Testament is there a story about a gracious father trying to be reconciliatory with his two sons? It involves rings and shoes and robes and goat meat. Anybody? It is the story of Jacob and Esau. It’s the story of Jacob and Esau retold in the New Testament. There is nothing new in the New Testament,
There is no way to understand Jesus without understanding the Old Testament. Our New Testament is so firmly grounded in the Old Testament; we cannot even interpret or understand what the New Testament is saying without referencing the Old Testament. The Old Testament is also our good news, the good news fulfilled in Jesus is the good news we hear preached in the New Testament. Every year the choir sings about the messages of the Old Testament coming to bear on us in the New Testament in the presence of Jesus.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor in Germany and he was arrested and he was imprisoned. In 1943 he wrote these words: “my thoughts and feelings seem to be getting more and more like the Hebrew Scriptures and no wonder. I have been reading it much more than the New Testament for these last few months. It is only now that I know how far beyond description is the name of God that I can utter the name of Jesus Christ. It is only when one loves life and earth so much that without them everything would be gone, that one can believe in the resurrection and a new world. It is only when we submit to the law that we can speak of God’s grace. I don’t believe it is Christian to want to get into the New Testament to soon and to directly.”
It may be true that we need the Jews. But it’s also true that the Jews may not want us. It is painful to realize how many Jews view the Christian church with great pain, a lot of bitterness and very little trust. Our cross has become to them a symbol of horribly twisted and transformed sin of anti-Semitism. It is a sign of torture against God’s very own people. When Jews look at the cross some of them look at us with a great deal of bitterness. Their bitterness is a testimony — if we will listen — to the tragic infidelity of our Christian church. Specifically, a twisting of Scripture that separates, that disengages Christianity from its Jewish history. It writes Judaism out of the equation. Rabbi — I got to pronounce this right — Eliezer Berkovitz a few years ago was asked what Jews would like from Christians. His response was: keep your hands off of us and our children; that’s all. These are painful words to hear but they are words that we must hear for our own good.
The Jews remind us of a sad terrible history of wrongs against Jews and we don’t really like to be reminded of our sins. It is painful to be reminded that some of the same hateful feelings from the actions that led the Gentile Romans to crucify Jesus have led fellow Christians to persecute Jews. I think that rather than deny that history, we have to ponder our thoughts and our interpretations of Scripture, we have to repent. Repent here is that humble listening and putting out of our mind the idea that we are right to the exclusion of everyone else. This is where the church has an opportunity to soar; when the church is not all the same kind of people and there are many languages, there are many colors, when there are many different ways of seeing things. I told you before, that’s one of my points of pride about this church — pride is dangerous — but I love the fact that we have people of all different stripes here. We have people of all different colors; we have people of all different languages. We talk; we are the church; we are the church at its best.
We also have to go — and perhaps this is the reason I’m preaching this sermon — we have to regard as suspect those voices that would divide us from one another. That would say to us: well, you are real Christians and they are Jews. That proclaims the Jews as deserving of persecution and suffering, that identified them as enemies of God. We have to hold those voices suspect. My personal position is: stop listening to them. That is dangerous conversation that divides, separates; it removes what is not ours to remove. I think we have to admit, if we are to be Christians following Christ, that we have tragically by our sin against Judaism forfeited our responsibility, our right to convert the Jews. Christ did call us to go into the world and make disciples, absolutely. But if Jews are going to come to the understanding that Jesus is their Redeemer, then it will have to be from people other than us because our traditions have so betrayed our Redeemer for just over 2000 years; the persecution, the in-difference and the complicity and violence against Jews. If we want to do anything for our brothers and sisters in Christ, the Jews, then we might urge them to be faithful to the religion of their tradition. We might urge them by respecting them. We might let them get to know us; that our Christianity rests firmly on their traditions of Judaism.
We might open doors and invite to Easter celebrations and be very intentional about words we choose. We might be open to Seder invitations from our Jewish friends and go into their homes with open hearts, ready to listen and to learn what they might teach us about our God. The image that I have in my mind of our problem with Judaism is of the swimming pool in Lime Springs Iowa where I learned to swim. On this end of the swimming pool, it starts here and you can wade in, you just walking in the water and it’s around your ankles. And then on that end it gets down all the way to 15 feet deep. That’s where the diving tank is. About 3 feet deep there is a rope and you can’t go past that rope unless you passed the intermediate swimming class. And then at seven foot deep, you can’t get past that rope unless you passed the next swimming class. I remember being in the shallow end of the pool, so wanting to go there. We are Christians and we pretend that this is the pool and we pretend that we can swim; when we get where it is deep; we are going down. The depth of Judaism enriches and enlivens our relationship to Judaism and to God.
That is the great miracle that’s so astounded Paul. It is best I think to think of ourselves as honorary Jews. We have been adopted into a family that we didn’t know was ours. That’s the miracle that astounded Paul when it came time for bringing Gentiles into the church. That God’s grace and salvation have been extended to the Gentiles too. We are the Gentiles. I know, that is something we need to think about because Jesus saw himself as coming for the Jews. We have to celebrate our adoption. And as we celebrate our adoption into the family of Christ, our attempt to respond faithfully to the salvation that is come to us in Jesus, we need to be careful that we don’t act in any way that denigrates God’s people, the Jews. The good news is that despite our sin God has not rejected us. Despite centuries of horrible unparalleled injustice toward Jews, they continue. The good news of that is that the promises of God continue; the promises of God are trustworthy; and there’s nothing better that we can say in the church than thanks be to God. Amen.