Reflection for August 31, 2014

Jeremiah 15:15-21, Romans 12:9-12, Matthew 16:21-28

Adjustments. We all make them. We adjust our lives as we live them. Of course, we have plans and projections. We set goals, and we work to accomplish them. We often do. But all along the way, we are making adjustments, changes, adapting, and re-purposing. We Lutherans are even known for something called the Reformation, probably one of the biggest human shifts or adjustments of the late middle ages. We adapt economically, socially, politically, religiously, and personally.  We adapt every day we put on clothes in light of the weather, what we will be doing, and who we will see. And we adapt when we recognize that something big needs to change in our lives or families.
Adjustments. We make adjustments in our lives of faith as well. The readings today speak to two different adjustments made by people as they live their faith lives.
In the first reading, Jeremiah has been a faithful servant. As a prophet he has declared the word of God. His faithfulness is not rewarded. It only has brought suffering and grief. He calls to God, “Why do you cause me to suffer so much? Have I not followed your will? Have I not been faithful? Where is my reward?”
Many of us at times feel this way. We have been faithful. Perhaps not as faithful as Jeremiah, but faithful nevertheless. Still, it seems sometimes that heavy burdens are laid upon us. Should we not be rewarded with relief from suffering?
In verse nineteen, God responds to Jeremiah. The response is interesting, and it calls for an adjustment in thinking. God does not make suffering go away. God, the divine, enables the strength needed to work through it. Eventually, all things, even this sorrow, will pass. And in the meantime, God walks with us through the suffering.
God, not as problem solver, but as companion, moves us through the suffering. That is a basic adjustment God makes in Jeremiah’s thinking in the first reading. And this is perhaps the basic adjustment made by Christianity in light of the crucifixion of Jesus.
In the third reading in the dialog between Peter and Jesus, this attitude adjustment is central. Peter does not think that a suffering God is a good idea. We probably would all agree with him. The idea of a suffering god is something we don’t really emphasize. But Jesus speaks of what has become known as the way of the cross. The god who is the companion of all who suffer and die, knows our sorrow. This God walks with us and all people through the injustices, big and small of life, until all things pass, and we are in a new reality with God.
There is an irony here. Suffering is bad. Yet in, with, and under it, we find new solidarity with others who suffer and with God who knows human pain. The happiness we seek, what we preoccupy ourselves with, the amusements that pass for happiness, anesthetize us against the real feelings of being alive. And what we wish to avoid and hope would go away, we discover deepens our lives and our compassion.
For me, at least, I need to make this attitude adjustment almost every day. I want to have things go well and to feel blessed. I want to avoid suffering like Jeremiah and Peter. Almost daily I need to open myself to the suffering in this neighborhood and community, and in opening myself to that, I am able to envision what God might want.  Almost daily I need to open myself to the limitations, sorrows, and burdens of my own life, instead of trying to cover them up, so that I am able to envision and embrace the vision of God for all people.  This attitude adjustment is never easy. And it is a daily process for me.
A second attitude adjustment comes with the reading from Romans. By this 12th chapter, we are into the ethics section of Paul’s long essay. What does it mean to be a Christian? How shall we live?
It may be hard for us to realize just how difficult the answers to such questions were for first Christian communities composed of both Jews and Gentiles.  Two different traditions regarding morality struggled with each other and then were blended together in these congregations. The result is a sort of combination of Roman stoic philosophy published sometimes on posters in public spaces and the Jewish Torah recorded on scrolls read in synagogues. Ethical adjustments were made by both groups as moral thoughts were combined in congregational life as people from different backgrounds worked out their common Christian life. Out of that combination or blending a new and practical way to be Christian emerges. In this case, in chapter twelve today, Frank Matera says in his commentary (Romans, 2010, Baker, Grand Rapids, Michigan), Paul frames twelve maxims for living: sort of like the Ten Commandments, but not quite: sort of like a stoic poster in a Roman market place on how to live the good life, but not quite that either. Here are the 12 maxims, sayings or guidelines:
1. Do small things out of great love. (9)
2. Stop talking about love and do it. (10)
3. Serve God with at least some enthusiasm. (11)
4. Hang in there. (12)
5. Help those in need. (13)
6. Don’t hoard your grudges, give them away to God. (14)
7. Empathize with those who weep and those who are happy. (15)
8. The world does not revolve around you. (16)
9. Do not retaliate. (17)
10. Live peacefully with your neighbors and yourself. (18)
11. Pray especially for your enemies. (19-20)
12. Overcome evil with good. (21)
Now these twelve maxims, sayings, guidelines or commandments seem to be worth living. I think they are. They feel sort of like the great Commandments of Hebrew Covenant and sort of how a good Roman citizen should live. They lack the grandeur of the Ten Commandments. Further, there is nothing here about economic justice, the way to worship, telling the truth, purity in sexuality, and how the people of God relate to government. So these maxims or guidelines are not really a complete ethical system. There are four more chapters of Romans after this one.
But these twelve sayings of Romans do focus on relationships and the importance of love, care and respect in our dealings with others: dropping jealousy, vengeance, resentment, and grudges. They indicate how the first Christians might have emphasized caring for others, those in need, the neighbors, and those who were giving them a hard time. And in the area of human relationships, this list of guidelines does call us to daily adjust our behavior so that we treat our neighbors, friends, strangers, enemies, and those in need with dignity, respect, and genuine affection. They call us to adjust and then readjust how we relate to others each day as we strive to be Christian.
Adjustments. We all need to make them. We adjust our lives as we live them. Of course we have plans and projections. We set goals, and we work to accomplish them. We often do. But all along the way, we are making adjustments, changes, adapting, and re-purposing as we face suffering: our own and others, and the suffering of God. Today, we are called to adjust or vision of God to see God in Jesus as one who walks with us through suffering. And we are called to adjust our behavior so that tomorrow and this week; we treat those around us with affection and support.

Reflection for August 24, 2014

Isaiah 51:1-6, Romans 12:1-8, Matthew 16:13-20

I think we all hit hard times in life: times when things are difficult and we are discouraged. Often in illness or grief we encounter a rough patch so to speak. Sometimes it is difficult at work or school. Sometimes we hit hard financial times. And even when things are going well, a hard winter, hot summer, cold or drought can suddenly cause us to wonder about life.
And then there are all those anxieties and fears raised by the events of these times: tensions in the Ukraine, crisis on our southern border, fighting in Palestine, downed airliners, Ebola outbreaks in Africa and civil unrest in Missouri all cause us to wonder where things are headed. We all hit hard places in life.
If you are find yourself discouraged, up against the wall, or between a rock and a hard place, the three readings today provide the framework for addressing the difficulty and getting through it. And all three readings work together in this three step approach to making it through.
In a program of re-forming life and faith the first step is remembrance, re-grounding and reconnecting. Let’s look at the first reading from Isaiah. This call to recovery advises us to get grounded again. Find our rock, our roots. All of us have that foundation upon which we construct life.
In hard times, recall your foundation, heritage, roots, and initial vision. Remember where you’ve come from and what you have been through. Sense how our rock, our foundation continues to give us the basis to re-build as we re-member ourselves to the past. That is Step One.
Step Two is found in Romans. We then need to reshape our actions around our gifts. Step one is recalling. Step Two is renewing, reshaping, and refining how we act and what we do. Paul in Romans calls us to act in new ways based on an honest assessment of who we are, dropping all the inflated self-understandings, illusions, expectations and thoughts that we are too good for this struggle. As we do that our own real and true gifts come to the surface so we can act on them. Step Two requires honest assessment, an action plan and resolve. We won’t get through our rough patch by just remembering our past. Something needs to be done. And that something is realistic and focused on our honest strengths.
Step Three is found in the reading from Matthew. And it involves re-thinking, finding a new vision, putting in place a new understanding. Notice that this reading is a listing of the different ways first Christians tried to think about Jesus. Who is this Jesus, anyway? Seven different titles or definitions of Jesus are given:
The Son of Man: an end of the age’s mediator in the book of Daniel, who negotiates between God and humans,
The ghost of John the Baptist: who had just been killed by King Herod,
A reincarnated Elijah: a prophet of mighty deeds and words who was supposed to one day return to restore God’s reign,
Jeremiah: a deeply poetic prophet, who in suffering moved the people to greater things,
Another prophet like perhaps Hosea or Isaiah whose messages were similar to the message of Jesus
The Messiah: or one who was to come to redeem and restore the people,
And Son of God:  a Roman title used by emperors to show their connection to the divine.
You can see that there were many different ways Jesus was being understood. Some of these we might not use today, others we might, but the point is that people had many different visions of Jesus.
But in the conversation between Jesus and Peter there is a new vision, a new way of thinking about Jesus, and a fresh understanding that emerges. And this fresh understanding is what made the church possible in a very practical way.  Peter says that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Now we can focus on the titles, and the faith of Peter. But I think the unique thing here is that one, Messiah, comes from the Jewish way of looking at things, the other, Son of God, is a Roman pagan title used by emperors. It is the combining of the two, the blending together of Jew and Gentile that becomes the new way of looking at things, the re-thinking of Jesus, the thing that makes the church possible. For without Jew and Gentile coming together, first century Christianity would have ripped itself apart with interracial conflict. This capacity to unite two very different groups becomes the foundational new vision of Jesus for all people. This primitive catholic (small c) unity is the rock upon which the church is built and upon which it can spread.
And so it is with us. Step Three involves rethinking things, sorting things through, and combining things so that new things are possible. After we’ve re-grounded ourselves, and have begun to get active again, based on our gifts, then the new ideas will come together and we will begin to make new sense of things. There may be many ways of looking at our problem. There usually are. But eventually two or three of them coalesce or gel so that we are ready to move on. As in the story of Peter and Jesus, it is not necessary to tell everybody about this new way of looking at things. It is sufficient for us to simply use our new visions to guide our new actions based on our deepest connections to the great love undergirding the universe.
Re-member, get going, and re-think. These are the steps one goes through in pastoral care, in therapy, in personal transformation, in recovery from addiction, in building or organizing community, in healing our bodies or souls, in getting life back after loss and grief, in calling a state, a nation, or church to shape its future and take its place in the grand design of the loving God who created us all. Isaiah calls us to remember. Paul calls us to act on our strengths while recognizing our limitations. And Peter reminds us to connect the dots so that new ways of thinking come together.

Reflection for August 17, 2014

Isaiah 56:1, 6-8, Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32, Matthew 15:21-28

Today we have another strong female character in the gospels: the Canaanite woman who debates Jesus and has the last word. She is one of several strong women in the stories of the life of Jesus. There is the woman with the flow of blood who elbows through the crowd. There is the woman by the well in the gospel of John. There are Mary and Martha, sisters with distinctly different personalities who are followers of Jesus. There is Mary Magdalene. There is Mary the mother of Jesus. There is another mother who does what she can to get Jesus to heal her daughter. There is the woman who anoints Jesus for the burial with costly oil on his feet. There are many strong female characters in these stories of Jesus.
Why is that? It is probably the case that Jesus did interact with women that this was unusual and so probably remembered, and that women were among the first followers of Jesus in his movement in Palestine.
And yet, these well developed female characters speak to something else, something about the early church which preserved and told and then retold these stories of Jesus. The stories of these women may tell us as much if not more about the earliest church in the urban centers of the Roman Empire as they do about the life of Jesus in rural Palestine.
What we are realizing more and more is that the early church was not founded as much by the apostles as it was by and through the efforts of women: strong women. These women recalled and renewed their identity in these various stories of women and Jesus.
Some of the earliest Christian communities trace their beginnings to synagogues. That is true. But we have learned that the synagogue was only one setting for the Christian faith. And in the synagogue setting, often as soon as it started; the Christians moved to another location.
That other setting was usually a house or home. There were no church buildings for the first Christians, and they were not builders. The first groups of Christians gathered in homes, in households that were extended and sometimes large. Groups would gather in homes for worship often on Sunday evenings and for common meals throughout the week. These places would become centers of distribution to the poor, caring for the sick, and work with the growing number of especially female orphans in the urban centers of the first century empire.
Roman households were not run by men, but by women, and in the letters of Paul and Acts we see women taking substantial roles of leadership in the emerging first century church which would be a natural extension of their leadership positions in household affairs.
More recently we are learning that Roman women formed funerary societies to honor and remember their beloved dead. These gatherings of women were in cemeteries, and archeologists have found their meeting places. Often the meetings of a funerary society involved the telling of the stories of the deceased, the sharing of a communal meal in which it was felt the deceased was really present, and the commitment of the group to continue to meet to sustain the memory of the beloved. Much of our early Christian heritage and worship tradition may have come from these funerary societies. Our earliest Christian ritual may have taken its shape as women met in the community kitchen and banquet hall of cemeteries to share stories of the life of Jesus and to share a communal meal in which it was felt he was really present. Again this witnesses to and explains why there are so many women involved in the church.
Something sociological was happening as well. Roman society sometimes abandoned female infants. They were not wanted. Women leading early Christian gatherings would take in these orphans. And as they grew, they too, gave early Christianity a growing feminine voice. This is probably the background for all of that adoption language that Paul uses in his letters to describe how we all are adopted children of God.
Later on, of course, the church became patriarchal as men began to take things over, and the history was reshaped to give the men the credit for the founding of the church.
But from the beginning, women were telling and hearing these stories in households and cemeteries as they lifted up the memories of Jesus and used those memories to develop mission, ministry, and lives of service to those in need in the urban centers of the Roman Empire.
So what would these first women of faith have seen in this particular woman when her story was first shared, then told and retold, until it was finally written? What would she mean to them?
I think several things. First she is a Canaanite. That means she is a Gentile, an outsider, one who is on the edge of things, rather than part of the inner circle. She reminded first Christian women and the men as well that even Canaanites are welcomed by Jesus and that all are welcomed in the church regardless of their backgrounds or tradition. There certainly may have been tensions between Jewish Christians and Roman Gentile Christians. The story speaks to inter-racial tension. But regardless of one’s ethnicity, culture, or heritage, this woman reminds us Jesus encountered and is actually instructed by this Canaanite woman.
Then there would be the quiet affirmation by the women in the group of the importance of women for the well being of the faith. For first Christians, female leadership, involvement, teaching, and service were essential. This woman would join the other strong women of the gospels in reminding the women that the church is at its best when women are not only involved, but also teaching, challenging, and leading. And frankly, we also know from our contemporary experience that a male-dominated religious system really doesn’t work all that well.
Third, her story would lift up the importance of healing as a primary focus of the congregation’s life. Hers is one of countless stories which portray Jesus as healer. Healing must have been an important part of the first Christian communities. Unlike most other groups, Christians in the empire actually cared for the sick. Most of the time when one was sick, one was shunned out of fear of contamination. The caring ministry of healing was an essential part of what a household of the Christian faith would do.
Fourth, these women of faith would have perhaps chuckled as the Canaanite woman puts Jesus in his place. Women do not only serve, they also lead, challenge, teach, and speak. And their voice is important.
And finally these women would have heard about the importance of faith: that faith is the foundation of healing, that faith is the basic thing needed to make it through, and that it is faith really, not our nationality, not our heritage, not our gender, not our race, nor any of those things that makes us part of the Christian community. In this story, faith makes us whole, and faith unites us with the whole people of God.
A faith open to all, even Canaanites, the memories of women in the church, healing, the wisdom of women, and the foundation of faith. These are the things those first mothers of the gospel would have heard and felt. And we still do.

Reflection for August 10, 2014

1 Kings 19:9-18, Romans 10:5-15, Matthew 14:22-33

This story of Jesus walking on the water and the rescue of Peter is perhaps one of the most beloved stories of Jesus for the people of St. Johns. It is the story portrayed in the mural to the front left. The image has been part of our heritage at St. Johns since this building was built, during World War I. The painting reminds us that God is with us through the storms of life, pulling us from the depths, and bringing us safely home.  The mural has nurtured me in times of struggle. And I suspect that it has meant something to many of you here over the years.
Actually walking itself even on dry land is a miracle. We creatures have the capacity to move from one place to another. We can walk. And we can walk with God. Sometimes to high mountains. Sometimes through dark valleys of shadows. Sometimes through storms. Sometimes even over water. Jesus walks in this story.
And I think today in each of these readings someone is walking: moving along.
Walking involves putting first one foot forward, planting that foot, and then moving the foot on the other side of the body.  So we propel ourselves forward. The miracle of walking is bilateral symmetry.  As creatures have evolved since the beginning of our planet, most animals, including humans, have developed bilateral symmetry: a basic body plan in which the left and right sides of the organism can be divided into approximate mirror images of each other along the midline. This arrangement, with two eyes, two ears, two arms and legs, provides us and many creatures with the capacity to move, to have depth perception and peripheral vision, to hold things, to use tools, and to walk along.
Our brains, even, are built to work with a two sided body, to coordinate what is happening between the left and the right so that we can move along. Even the brain itself has two sides, as do our lungs and kidneys.
This bilateral physical arrangement also shapes the way we think about things and how we make mental as well as physical progress along the way.  We think in binary operations, in opposites, parallels, and pairings. We have two sides of the same coin. And we know what something is by what it is not. Our brains bifurcate as we think about raw and cooked, big and little, friend and enemy, old and young, high and low, in and out, up and down, known and strange. This two sidedness is basic to who we are as human creatures.
Hebrew poetry is some of the oldest human poetry we know of. It basically involves the pairing of ideas sometimes similar, but not quite, so that the first foot starts the idea and the second line or foot moves it along, as the Hebrew poem walks in our hearts.
An example is Psalm 18:4-6, a psalm that fits our Jesus story and painting
. This ancient poem has eight feet or lines, divided into four parallels.
The cords of death encompassed me;
the torrents of perdition assailed me;
the cords of Sheol entangled me;
the snares of death confronted me.

In my distress I called upon the Lord;
to my God I cried for help.
From his temple he heard my voice,
and my cry to him reached his ears.

One step at a time,  with symmetrically mirrored feet the ancient poem moves or walks from despair into hope using one foot and then the other to move ahead. That is how we are constructed. And this bilateral miracle of movement is how we get where we need to be.  To make up our minds we compare and contrast. We project our weaknesses onto others so that we can see them more clearly as if in a mirror. We think in thesis and antithesis. Even our Lord’s Prayer is a series of couplets: The deeply familiar and intimate phrase “our father” is balanced by the call for God to be respected. The kingdom coming is coupled with the will of God being done. Forgiveness and daily bread are the two essentials of life. And we plead to be delivered from the evils around us and those lurking in our hearts.
I know all this talk of bilateral movement is abstract. But it is really very important. For we humans have a tendency to get stuck. We find ourselves in situations that can overwhelm us. Or sometimes we become uncoordinated, so it seems like we take one step in one direction and the next step in another direction, get nowhere, and start to sink.
I could say a lot today about God’s rescue of us as we find ourselves sinking and the importance of faith. But how does God rescue us? How does God get us going? The miracle of walking on land, water or whatever, getting from here to there involves bilateral symmetry in our lives of faith. Usually we need two things working together to move forward. First one foot is planted, and then the other. Then that is repeated until we get moving again.
A decision to change one’s job involves not only financial reality but also the gifts of the person: the two working together. A recovery from grief involves not only the letting go of the past but also embracing the future: the two working together.  A recovery from illness involves not only nursing the body and protecting it, but also pushing it a bit in therapy: the two of them together. A nation needs not only its conservatives, but also its liberals: the two of them walking in a coordinated fashion into a new vision of the public good. The old need the young, and the young need the old in order to give us the common wisdom we need to construct the common good. Our sense of self is constructed by what we hear others tell us and also by what we know to be true in our hearts.
So in pastoral care and conversation about matters of faith and life there are always two themes, two issues, two sides, two thoughts on the matter. Sometimes the focus is on a choice between two things, a dilemma. Sometimes it is more about the friction that comes when two things rub together causing soreness in the soul.  Sometimes it is using both sides of the mind and heart to move to a new place with God: sometimes to new highs, sometimes through new lows.
Now look closely at the first reading this morning.  Elijah is in the cave of despair. Everything has fallen apart, he is being hunted down by his enemies, and he has fled to this cave of deep depression. And look at the bilateral pairings that God uses to pull him out of the cave and get him walking again. The first steps seem simple enough. He goes outside and he faces the Lord. (1, 2) Then come the four next steps: wind, earthquake, fire, then silence. (1,2,3,4) In this fourth step Elijah encounters a new quiet voice calling him to another four steps: go to Damascus, anoint, anoint, anoint (1,2,3,4) until he Elijah is moving again, walking again back into a hopeful community.
Or look at how the second reading from Romans walks along into a new vision of the life of faith. In Romans there are two kinds of righteousness: righteousness from the law, righteousness from the gospel (1, 2). And then we consider heaven and hell. Some things are of the lips and others of the heart, external and internal. (1, 2). And in Romans, God first steps forward with the Jews. Then the Gentiles are the next step in God’s plan of adopting all humanity.
And in Romans all of this movement of all creation back to God is accomplished with a four step plan of action.  The four movements or steps are calling out about God, hearing, telling, and sending. (1,2,3,4)
Now finally look at that story of the calming the storm: the story of walking, one step at a time, even over rough waters, into a new future.
The first pairing is between the disciples and crowd. Then come wind and waves. Then come sinking and lifting. Faith and doubt. Belief and fear. As both sides of the body of faith move the human spirit, (1,2,1,2,1,2) with the hope that gives our hearts new buoyancy.
You know, it may be time for you to take some steps. If so, remember this painting reminding us that God is with us through the storms of life, pulling us from the depths, and bringing us safely home, first planting one foot and then the other.

Reflection for August 3, 2014

Romans 9:1-5

If you have been coming to church here or elsewhere this summer, you may have noticed that the second readings have been coming from Romans, Paul’s major letter in the New Testament, written to the church in Rome. We have been reading sequentially from Paul’s letter to the Romans for several Sundays now.
You may also have noticed that I have not focused on Romans. The third readings from Matthew on the teachings of Jesus and the readings from the Hebrew Scriptures have been interesting.
But today, let’s get into Romans. The letter is an extended essay outlining the basics of Paul’s faith. It comes at the end of his career. It has the depth and dignity which come with a mature faith. It is an eloquent and spirited summary of his approach to Jesus.
We are in chapter nine. By this point of the long essay, Paul has finished the opening section outlining basic principles. We are restored to life with God through the faithfulness of Jesus. We are made whole by the faithful Christ. We therefore have hope. Nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God.  After those first eight chapters, at the end of the book, we have chapters twelve through sixteen, five chapters altogether, that apply these principles to daily living and caring for each other and God’s world.
But today in chapter nine, we don’t have a passage from the first eight chapters on principles. We also don’t have a passage from the last five chapters on practice. We have something from chapter nine: something about the Jews. And indeed these verses this morning are the first verses of three chapters in the center of Romans on God’s relationship with the Jewish people, how Christians and Jews relate to each other, and whether or not the coming of Jesus means God rejects the Jews.  That’s the theme of this passage, chapter, and section. Romans is like a sandwich. The principles are one piece of bread at the beginning and the practical application of those principles is the second slice of bread at the end. And these chapters on the Jewish covenant and relationships are in the center.
So it must be the case that for first Christians Judaism was an important thing. That makes sense since Paul himself was a Jew, and many very first Christians were Jewish in background. Jesus and the disciples were Jews. And the church started as a sect of Judaism. We still read from the Hebrew Scriptures every Sunday for our first reading.  And as the church grew, Jewish Gentile relationships seemed difficult.
But before I go further, I would like to say that the Jewish question was probably not the most important theme in Romans, precisely because it comes in the center. This sandwich of Paul is a classical rhetorical sandwich. That means that he would put his most important point last. Then he would lead with his second most important point. And the least of the three would be in the middle. So yes, this Jewish Christian thing is important, but for Paul, living the faith and sharing the foundation of Jesus are more important.
So how does God feel about those people of the covenant that do not follow the faith of Jesus? For us this may not be the most important question in our minds this morning, but every once in awhile, especially in light of this week’s headlines we do have questions about how we relate to the Jewish faith. When violence flairs in the Middle East, we reflect on how we relate to what Palestinians see as vicious, eternal, and immoral oppression and Israeli’s see as legitimate self defense.
As we ponder these things there are probably three cautions here for chapters nine through eleven. First, the Jewish-Christian section of the letter bounces around a bit. So that if you take just one or two verses of it and make a case out of those verses; you may miss the point. Over the centuries some of these verses have been combined with other verses from the books of John and then used to condemn Jews and justify Jewish persecution. But by and large the section indicates that Christianity is God’s Plan B for non-Jews. Paul seems to say that God’s covenant with the Jewish faith is still valid, still in play, and still an expression of God’s love for humanity. And yet one would probably not want to say that Paul thinks Judaism is fine just the way it is. For Paul, the Jewish faith is to be the expression of God’s love for humanity. And there is a prophetic hope for change in these verses this morning. So the first caution is to not take one slice of this section and say that is what Paul thinks about this matter. He’s ambivalent on this ancient issue, as we often still are.
The second caution is that centuries separate us from Paul. We need to recall centuries of Jewish persecution at the hands of Christians and what that has meant to both of us. It’s time to make sure we don’t interpret Paul so that we continue such prejudice, while at the same time calling all people to live lives of justice, peace, and compassion, reminding all people of the special responsibilities for justice and peace called for by the great prophets of the Hebrew Bible.
The third caution is this: the reading this morning does not really begin to powerfully speak to us until we decide that for us this may not be a passage about Jews and Christians. No, I think Paul speaks of any and all people of spiritual privilege and heritage and what we do with the amazing gifts we have been given.
For the underlying structure and movement of the passage is this: Paul wishes that people who have had every spiritual advantage, a great heritage, and a wonderful tradition would get with it and try something new, joining with others of different backgrounds in God’s plan for renewing all people.  Look at how the reading flows: I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.
Paul deeply wishes that his own people graced with the privilege of heritage and tradition would embrace this new broader vision of Jesus and lift up God’s hope for compassion for everyone regardless of their background.
What are the privileges, the heritage, and the tradition he refers to?  Adoption as the children of Abraham and God, the glory or presence of God in the temple, the covenants or visions of God’s love, the giving of the law and insight into right living, deep worship and ritual in temple, synagogue and home, and the promises that there will be a future, the memories of the patriarchs, and the hope of a Messiah.
All of that is wonderful. It is the rich heritage of a profound tradition. But Paul is now beginning the very delicate task of challenging this people of spiritual privilege and heritage to try something new, to build on this heritage without destroying it, to embrace this broader vision of God’s love made possible only because they are standing on the shoulders of giants.
How do people who have a rich and full tradition and heritage embrace the new and different, whether they are Jew, Gentile, Muslim, or Lutheran? That is the basic question in these verses of chapter nine. Oh, Paul says, I’d give anything if my people would embrace this broad vision of God’s loving compassion for everyone. How do people who have a rich and full tradition and heritage embrace the new and different?
This is our theme this morning from Romans. So many times a Christian congregation nourished and sustained by its rich heritage will fail to grasp when it is time to make a shift because God is calling it to go in a new direction, using the resources available because of that rich tradition to construct something different for a new time, and a new generation.
So many times a political party sustained by its rich heritage will fail to grasp when it is time to make a shift because what is now needed is a new direction, using the resources available because of that rich tradition to construct something different for a new time and different circumstances.
So many times a city or a school or a place of business or nation nourished and sustained by its rich heritage will fail to grasp when it is time to make a shift because what is now needed is a new direction, using the resources available because of that rich tradition to construct something different for a new time and different circumstances.
So many times a family nourished and sustained by its resources and tradition will fail to grasp when it is time to make a shift because what is now needed is a new direction, using the resources available to construct something different for a new time and different circumstances.
And many times, each one of us as individuals, blessed with the deep and rich traditions of our lives and faith are called by these times of change to make a shift, adopt and adapt, open a new door, find a different way into the as yet unknown future God has prepared for us. And whenever we are finding ourselves reshaping our own lives, or witness ongoing violence wherever it occurs, we sense the importance of this chapter nine of Romans, whether we are Jew or Christian or whatever. What is God calling us to do?