What Did I Sign Up For?

2nd Sunday in Lent March 4, 2012
for Wellesley Mennonite Church
Romans 4:13-25
Mark 8:31-38

 What did I sign up for?

I think we can all admit that it wasn’t too awfully long ago that it would be unheard of for a Lutheran to be preaching in a Mennonite Church, and the opposite is true as well.  What brings me here today beyond good ecumenical growth and understanding is a friendship that started four years ago with four first year seminary students answering individual calls to ministry.  Waterloo Lutheran Seminary despite its name is not primarily Lutheran as you might suspect.  The students, and now even the professors come from a diverse variety of faith backgrounds.  Geography is a big factor for those of us choosing a seminary, especially now that most of us enter parish ministry as a second career.  Beyond our own personal educational needs, we come with established families of our own to consider and care for.  For your Pastor, Kara, packing up and moving to Elkhart Indiana for 3 years just wasn’t a reasonable option, and explains how she came to represent the Mennonite tradition in our class.

For us Lutherans we have two seminaries in Canada to pick from, Waterloo and Saskatoon.  Lutheran ministry candidates not close to one of the two schools in the last number of years were allowed to attend other schools as long as they spent one year at a “Lutheran” Seminary to form a Lutheran identity.  The conversation lately has been that the formation year will no longer be necessary as they have found that student’s who study at seminaries of a different denomination already have a better understanding of their own tradition because they are continuously examining and comparing it to the other faiths that surround them.  It is not surprising then that Kara identifies better with her Mennonite tradition because she studied at a Lutheran seminary.  Also having her as a classmate has enabled us Lutherans to have not only a better understanding of your tradition but also of our own.  Lent is a time to reflect on our denominational identities; but more importantly, it is a time to reflect on how we identify ourselves as Disciples of Christ.

This week as I was reflecting on the readings and what it means to be a Disciple of Christ I stumbled upon this story by Robert Fulghum.  As a content disclaimer, I must warn you that the story may seem a little crass, but he tells the story this way to get a point across.  It goes like this,

“Jesus was a Jew.”  This is my father’s voice.  He’s acting as a theological matador to my mother while she charged around the arena of our living room getting ready for the Christmas competition.

“Jesus was a Jew, dear.

He wasn’t a Christian dear.

And he wasn’t born on December twenty-fifth, dear.

Jesus is dead, dear.

And he isn’t coming back, dear.

So calm down and shut up, dear.”

My mother would retreat from the room crying, and my father would go back to reading his newspaper in peace, which is all he wanted in the first place.  Peace on earth—beginning in our living room this evening.

He once asked me, “Son do you know why God didn’t have Jesus get married?”

“No, why?”

“Because having him crucified once was enough.”

My father was a born-once-and-once-is-enough heathen.

My mother was a born-again-and-again-and-again supplicant of the Southern Baptist Chruch.  There was a brick wall between them on the subject of religion—built and buttressed with bitterness over the years.

Every December I heard my father exclaim, “Jesus was a Jew, dear,” and lay out his theological land mines.  My mother would sob, “You’re going to burn in Hell,” and flee the room.

That’s how I knew Christmas was coming.

Ding-a-ling ding ding, Ding-a-ling ding ding

In the late afternoon of a windy, cold December day—in front of the Woolworth’s five-and-dime store in Waco, Texas, a middle aged man in suit, tie, overcoat, and Stetson hat stands by a red steel tripod from which hangs a black iron soup kettle.

An eight-year-old kid, bundled up against the cold, stands beside the man.  The kid is working up a little rhythm with a small brass bell.  This is the first year the kid has been allowed to ring the bell.  Warned by the man not to do anything silly, he is trying to mix joy with the necessary reverence required of one who has been entrusted with a serious job.

Ding-a-ling ding ding.  Ding-a-ling ding ding

I am that kid.  The man is my father.

For a couple of hours we are the Salvation Army.

My father was not a Christian.  At least not by the standards of the Salvation Army, the Southern Baptist Church, or my mother.  He was a heathen in their eyes and proud of it.  So it was puzzling to me that the Great Heathen would work for the Salvation Army year after year as long as he lived.  I never asked why.  He never explained.  But every year he was there.

Now I know the explanation lay in something he often said to me: “It doesn’t matter what you say you believe—it only matters what you do.”

After my father died his sister told me that their family home had burned down when they were children, leaving them destitute.  The Salvation Army came to the rescue.  My aunt said their family was so humiliated about their poverty and plight that they never talked about it.  If it had not been for the Salvation Army, the family could not have stayed together.  The Salvos practiced what they preached.

Now I understand why my father and I were there at the kettle every year.

Simple.  We owed the pot.  Do unto others . . .

The Great Heathen said I didn’t have to be a Christian or a Jew to do right.

Ding-dang-ding-dang-ding-dang-dong.[1]

After I read this story it occurred to me than anyone passing by this father, working this salvation army kettle would have assumed he was a Christian.    We read in Matthew 7:20, “. . . you will know them by their fruits”.  Anyone on that street on a cold December night would have know him as, labelled him as a Christian, but to the boy, his mother, the Southern Baptist Church, and [if we dare admit to judging him ourselves] to most of us, the father in this story falls short.  By our standards, the father in the story is not exactly righteous.

In today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans, Paul is constructing an argument to affirm who is righteous.  Scholars believe that Paul’s letter was written in the year 57 or 58 while he wintered in Corinth.   This date is important as it gives us some context.  Slightly earlier, before the beginning of the decade the emperor, Claudius had expelled the Jews from Rome, and during this time the Gentile Christians in Rome had become more prominent.    Now with the ban lifted and with the Jews back in Rome the church finds itself in a racial friction.   It is a major theme of Paul’s letter to put each group in their place, a place of equality.

Now I am going to admit something here.  Until recently, I have had some trouble warming up to Paul.  Now please keep this to yourselves, I don’t need this getting back to my church.  My denominations entire theological bent was greatly influenced by this very letter of Paul to the church in Rome.   From it comes the very core of our doctrine.  But this is not why I struggle with Paul.  You see I am a “cut to the chase” kind of guy.  If you need to tell me something, just tell me!  Don’t beat around the bush.  It may be because I lack in the patience department, or it may be because I like to be able to get a lot done and so I seek efficiencies in all areas of my life.  But for goodness sake Paul, if you have something to say, just get to the point and say it!  But he doesn’t.  Paul careful constructs his theological arguments and slowly adds to them layer by layer.

Today’s text is no exception and we actually have entered the argument somewhere in the middle.  So far he has been able to prove two main points.  The first being that everyone [including the Gentiles] possesses the law.  And the Second that no one [including the Jews] follows the law.  He wants the church in Rome to understand the truth that no one is righteous.  This truth should be embarrassing to an observant Jew like Paul, yet he is quite proud of this conclusion and further drives it home with a series of excerpts from scripture.  To point out just a few,

Ecclesiastes 7:20: There is no one who is righteous not even one;

Psalm 14: There is no one who has understanding; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, there is not even one.

Psalm 36: There is no fear of God before their eyes.

Paul’s argument has come to a peak and now he cracks open the next layer of his argument.  He starts building a case proving that righteousness comes not from following the law, but from faith.  Now we should pause here and reflect on Paul the theologian.  Paul’s theology contains major themes of grace, faith, freedom, and Christ crucified.  However as I admitted, his theology remains thick and tedious to many of us.  Also, mistranslations influenced by [theology that was developed in the later church] also make it hard for us to understand Paul’s original meaning.  When Paul says that righteousness comes from faith, we need to look at his concept of faith.

Translators, often influenced by theological developments in the later church, are also restricted by the limits of language.  The English word translated as “faith” is pistis in Greek.  For Paul, pistis was less something to “possess” than it was a concept that included a whole way of living.  “Having” faith in the way it is spoken of today would have been foreign to Paul.  However, no English word exists to translate the breadth of meaning suggested by Paul.  Professor J. Paul Sampley has suggested “faithing” as a better translation of pistis while others have suggested “faithfulness” as a better word . . . In the grammatically confusing context of Romans 3:22, pistis can be translated in two very different ways.  Overall, Paul was interested in the “faithfulness (or faithing) of Jesus” and his obedience to death.  However, instead of being translated as the faith “of” Jesus.  Romans 3:22 is translated as faith “in” Jesus, essentially requiring “right belief” as the priority.  Believing “in” Jesus and “faithing” the way Jesus did are amazingly different translations of the same passage.  Such choices in translation can and have contributed to Christianity’s emphasizing an aspect of discipleship Paul may never have intended.[2]

All of this forces us to ask, “What is it that Paul intended?”  Just, before moving into today’s text, Paul adds another layer to his argument by using Abraham as an example.  He begins by stating, “If Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.”  Paul says, when one works, wages come not as a gift but as something due to them.  His point—righteousness comes as a gift to even those who do not follow the law.

Lately I have been studying Paul more intentionally.  I started because he is understood to be the single person most responsible for Christianity, as we know it today.  He was the first theologian, and more than a quarter of the New Testament is written in his name. My study has me warming up to this itinerant preacher from Tarsus.  Not because I find his writing clearer or easier to understand than before, but because of the radical theology that can be discovered.  Paul has a real passion for Christ and he is willing to risk his own life in interpreting Christ’s message and purpose.

In today’s text, Paul identifies God’s amazing power to do the impossible.  He points out that Abraham “would be the father of many nations” at “about a hundred years old”.  Setting our mind on human things this is impossible.  Yet Abraham was the father of many nations and the father of the three major monotheistic faiths, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.    By setting our minds on human things, it seems impossible to us—us sinners, that we can freely receive God’s gift of “righteousness”.  There must be some stipulations, clauses; or at least right beliefs or practices that we must follow.  Paul’s theology identifies that there is not.  Righteousness is pure gift.  A radical grace available to all.  Grace breaks through barriers.  Grace is a gift freely given, equally to Jews and Gentiles.  Freely given to us—Lutherans and Mennonites.  Grace is bigger than individual faith.  All our attempts to save our own lives are futile.  All our attempts to make and follow human ways to righteousness are a denial of the one who showed us the way, the way of the cross.   When we are finally willing to accept Jesus for who he is, the suffering one who lays down his life for others, then we can understand who we are to be, what true discipleship is, denying self we can take up the cross and follow.

This season of Lent, is a gift from the church to remember and reflect upon the journey of Jesus to the cross.  It is also the perfect time to reflect on the call of Jesus to Discipleship.  Our “righteousness” is pure gift from God. May our Lenten journeys encourage us to contemplate that gift and give us the strength to respond with faithfulness, leaving our selves behind, hoisting the cross, and following in the loving footsteps of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Let us pray,

God of faith and faithfulness, you alone grants us righteousness.  It is not what we do, but what you do.  Help us to respond with our whole lives, leaving ourselves to live and grow in you.  In Jesus name, we pray.  Amen


[1] Fulghum, Robert (1986) The Great Heathen in All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten, Ballantine Books, New York, pp 165-167.

[2] 2007 livingthequestions.com, LLC

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