August 16, 2020 /11th Sunday after Pentecost / Richard Holmer
1st Reading Isaiah 56:1, 6-8/ 2nd Reading Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32 / Gospel Matthew 15:21-28
When I was in high school, Driver’s Education was a regular part of the curriculum. The course included classroom instruction and behind the wheel training. Our teacher was the football coach, Leo Vitale. He impressed upon us the importance of defensive driving. More than once he told us: “Remember: driving is a privilege, not a right.” “If you don’t drive safely, if you don’t obey the Rules of the Road, that privilege can be REVOKED!”
Revoke is a strong word. It comes from the Latin “revocare”, which literally means, “to call back”. To revoke means to rescind, cancel, annul, nullify, invalidate. Revoke has ominous connotations – it points to serious and lasting consequences. To have your passport revoked means you are no longer free to travel outside the U.S. (not even to Canada). In essence, some of your freedom is revoked. To have a scholarship revoked could mean you are not able to complete your college education. Your career path is thereby jeopardized. Marriage vows make a promise of lifelong commitment: “till death us do part”, we say. It’s a long and meaningful promise. Yet it, too, can be revoked. In a divorce, at least one spouse is taking back or breaking a promise that was made before God and witnesses.
The potential for privileges and promises to be revoked introduces a level of contingency and uncertainty into our lives. Whether it’s a license, a vow or a last will and testament – revocation brings negative ramifications.
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What a blessing it is, then, to have a promise that is guaranteed, fully warranted, irrevocable! Such a promise conveys confidence and peace of mind. God’s promise to us in Holy Baptism is like that. At baptism God adopted you and me as his very own daughters and sons – now and forever. God’s love for us is like that of the Father in Christ’s parable of the Prodigal Son: steadfast and enduring. We are assured – guaranteed – that nothing will ever be able to separate us from the love of God.
In his darkest hours, when threats were all around and the future looked bleak, Martin Luther found courage and peace in the affirmation: “But I am baptized – nothing can change that.” His hope was founded on God’s irrevocable promise. Along with St. Paul he trusted that “even if we are faithless, God remains faithful – for God cannot deny himself.” (2 Timothy 2:13)
We would be in a world of trouble if God’s promises to us could be revoked. In short order we could be disinherited, unforgiven, unloved – hopeless. However, today we heard St. Paul unequivocally state an essential promise: The gifts and calling of God are IRREVOCABLE. With God there are no take backs, no cancellations, no nullifications. Just like Jesus, the promises of God are the same yesterday, today and forever. Thanks be to God!
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So then, what about the Jews? What about all the Jews who instead of believing and following Jesus rejected him and reviled him? The Jews were chosen by God as his people. He blessed them and remained faithful to them down through many generations. But when the Son of God came into this world, bringing the promise of salvation: “He came to his own home, and his own people received him not.” (John 1:11) The rejection of Jesus by so many of his fellow Jews was bewildering and heartbreaking for Paul. He himself had been an avowed enemy of Jesus and the Christians. But his experience on the road to Damascus changed all that. And even though his ministry was primarily directed to the Gentiles – he never gave up his hope for his Jewish brothers and sisters.
Paul admits that God’s plans and God’s ways are beyond his knowing. He describes God’s judgments as “unsearchable” and his ways as “inscrutable”. Yet Paul is certain of one thing: God will not forsake his chosen people. He affirms that “All Israel will be saved.” (Romans 11:28). He recounts God’s long history with Israel: “To them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the Law, the worship, the promises, the Patriarchs, and from them comes the Messiah.” (Romans 9:4-5). And he reminds the Gentiles that they (and we) are latecomers to God’s party.
We are like branches that have been grafted on to the ancient olive tree that is Israel. So Paul cautions Gentile believers: “Do not boast over being branches, . . . remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you.” (Romans 11:18) How can Paul be so sure that, in spite of their unbelief, the Jewish people still have a place in God’s heart and in God’s plan? Because (as with baptism) the gifts and the calling of God are IRREVOCABLE!
You and I depend on God’s steadfast, dependable promises – and so do the Jews. God’s promises to his people have not been revoked. God’s love and grace for the Jewish people have not been revoked. Their inclusion in God’s ultimate plans has not been revoked.
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However, the history of Christian attitudes and treatment of the Jewish people would seem to indicate otherwise. The tragic history of Christian anti-Semitism over the past 2,000 years stems from a terrible misconception. Christians have presumed that God has in fact revoked his promises to the Jewish people. Many have determined that Christians are now God’s people – and Jews are not. Jews have been callously characterized as enemies of God, unbelievers, Christ-killers. The sad history of persecution, oppression, pogroms and, in our own time, the Holocaust, calls for profound repentance.
Antisemitism is pernicious and enduring – and in recent years it has been on the rise. It can express itself violently (as at a synagogue in Pittsburgh) and also subtly. Upstanding Christians can make thoughtless remarks like: “Nothing against the Jews – but with them it’s all about the money. They’re greedy.” “I’m not anti-Semitic – but Jews have too much power and control.” “Jews aren’t all bad – but they did kill the Son of God.”
When we sold our house in Crystal Lake, we got a copy of the original deed – and we discovered language in a homeowner’s association covenant that stated: “This property shall not be sold to Negroes or Jews.” Anti-Semitism is a vile and harmful sin. God is not antisemitic – how can any Christian embrace any degree of such prejudice? Our Lord and Savior was born a Jew. All the first Christians were Jews. We claim the Old Testament, Israel’s sacred history, as our story. This church is named for a Jewish Christian: James, the son of Zebedee. Prejudicial attitudes toward Jewish people are inherently illogical for Christians – they are simply ungodly and unacceptable.
Today St. Paul brings us good news about God’s gracious promises to us: they are unchanging and irrevocable. Paul also presents a pointed reminder that the Jews are also, now and always, God’s people. Our standing before God is not based on our identity, our status or our traditions. Salvation is not based on our obedience and faithfulness – but on the faithfulness of God. Paul reminds us that we are in no position to condemn or exclude the Jews or anyone else – we all depend on God’s grace.
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Let us then aim to be gracious to our Jewish brothers and sisters. This is especially important today. Right now our nation is painfully divided in a number of ways. These divisions create suspicion, stress and fear. Instead of adding to this climate of divisiveness, we can seek to heal the unhealthy, illogical divide created by Christian resentment and hostility toward the Jewish people.
Because we love God, we can and we must love all the people of God.