We all have friends, family, neighbors and co-workers who do not share our Christian faith. What about them? It’s a loaded question, but we will explore it this week.
10th Sunday after Pentecost – Sunday, August 17, 2014
St. Jacob’s-Spaders Lutheran Church – Pastor Evan Davis
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
10th Sunday after Pentecost (Year A) – Sunday, August 17, 2014
St. Jacob’s-Spaders Lutheran Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia
“What About My…Who Doesn’t Believe?” – Pastor Evan Davis
If you want to meet people from other countries, go work in a hotel or a restaurant – I worked in the business for several years. You will meet people from all around the world. In DC, well Arlington actually, where I worked, we had people from El Salvador and Mexico, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Morocco. It’s funny, though, how in a work environment all those different people could blend together as we laughed at the things our crazy rich guests did. One of the funniest, most rambunctious servers there was named Abdullah. He was this huge guy from Morocco with a huge personality to match. He was pretty standoffish toward newbies like me and generally fairly rough around the edges, but when he learned that I was in preparation for seminary, he started treating me differently, like some kind of holy man. He started to tell me stories about his infant son and how much he loved him. On more than one occasion, he came to tears speaking about him. It’s fair to say that Abdullah worked his way right into my heart.
Of course, Abdullah is a Muslim. And caring about him and so many of my friends and family members who are Jews, Hindus, agnostics, atheists, and plenty of other things, today’s question has been on my mind. What about Abdullah? What about your friend, your co-worker, your child or grandchild who does not believe as you do? as we do? Last week I suggested that this is not our question to answer, that we should leave it be.
But I haven’t taken my own advice, and I suspect that advice is hard for you to take…you wonder, you want to know. Well, in seminary there is this class called “Lutheran Confessions” in which we learn basically all the beliefs and perspectives of Lutheran Christianity that we’re supposed to be teaching and preaching. And I wanted to know how I was supposed to answer this question – what about Abdullah? I wanted to know so I could teach you, my future parishioners, but even more because I wanted to KNOW how God felt about my friend Abdullah. So I asked Dr. Wengert, my professor, this roundabout series of questions about how if free grace is really for everyone, what are the limits to that? And, you see, Dr. Wengert has a wonderful way of getting to the heart of the matter that has become quite famous among his students – he answered my questions with one of his own – he said, “why do you ask that question?”
Because I wanted to know about Abdullah and so many others. So I told him about my friend. Dr. Wengert stared at me with this professorial look he gives everyone, and said “Evan, you’ve asked Question 9-11.” Question 9-11, what was that? You see, Dr. Wengert knows there are standard questions that people ask once they really start to get Lutheran theology. For example, once you really get that we’re saved by free grace and there’s nothing we have to do to make God love us, you generally ask what he calls Question 6 – well, shouldn’t we all just sin all the time and do whatever we want if God will just forgive us? It’s called Question 6 because Paul asks and answers it in Romans ch. 6, “should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means!” Well, I asked Question 9-11, what about Abdullah? Paul put it like this, what about “my own people, my kindred according to the flesh?” Paul had “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” in his heart. Maybe you do too.
There are bookshelves full of approaches to this question. And those possible explanations are worth exploring. Two of the least helpful responses are the extremes in either direction. One popular, black-and-white solution is to say that unless you come to accept the major beliefs of Christianity (as I preach them, right), you’ll be acquiring some lakefront property in hell. That solution means that most of humanity is out of luck and leads to unending religious-based conflict and often war. On the other hand, an increasingly popular approach is to say, well, all religions are the same, so it doesn’t matter. And that kind of relativism is simply not true. Despite many, many similarities, a common ancestry, and the same God, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have real differences. Just as Hinduism, Buddhism, Shinto, and many other belief systems are all really, truly different.
In this letter Paul ventures some explanations of his own – he proposes that God has hardened the hearts of Israel for a set period of time. He says that Gentiles like us have been included so that the Jews will become jealous. A great interpreter of the Bible, Matt Skinner, compared these attempts by Paul to a preacher’s attempt to explain the death of a child or a terrible natural disaster.1 We want an answer, and we may even find answers that have some truth to them or make sense, but we’re on shaky ground when we try to explain the mind of God. Religion can be a stressful business, you know, if it’s all up to us to figure out “God’s master plan.”2 You might call it standing on “sinking sand.”
Back in that classroom, Dr. Wengert, could have given me a quick answer. But instead, he pointed me to the solid rock. He stared right into my eyes, and responded to my question with one more – “who died and put you in charge?” And right there’s the only real response I have to this question, what about Abdullah? what about your friend or loved one? I have no idea what God will do in the end. It’s not up to me. I don’t believe it’s up to him. But I do know that God is merciful.
After slogging through the sinking sand of his own thoughts, Paul lands on the solid rock of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. At the end of chapter 10, he lists a number of understandable reasons why God might revoke his previous promises to Israel – he says they have misunderstood the gospel and that they’ve been “disobedient” despite God’s many attempts to reach them (10:18-21). So at the beginning of ch. 11, he asks, “has God rejected his people?” Then comes his usual exclamation, “by no means!” Why? Paul believes, “for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” Irrevocable. God is faithful because God is. “God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.” All of us who have been disobedient – Jews, Christians, Muslims, everyone else – are in God’s hands alone. If any of us stand, we stand not on the sinking sand of our own explanations, thoughts, feelings, or actions, but on the solid rock of the grace of God which we know in Jesus Christ.
Although we want them so badly, we have no answers as to why God has thrown together so many different people of so many different faiths, and so many who reject religious faith at all, on his good earth. In a world where the answer is a Google search away, we want explanations, reasons, causes. But it is a holy mystery. As Paul brings this section of his letter to a close in v. 33-36, he can no longer explain, he can only wonder:
“O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?’ ‘Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return?’ For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen.”
Our feeble attempts to explain the mind of God should give way to worship, wonder, and praise.
And so what if we lived that way as the church? I think our society is very tired of religious people on their soapboxes declaring who’s saved and who’s damned, what God definitely is or is not going to do. That’s one of the reasons why folks have been turned off to church. I believe what the world needs is a church not on its soapbox but on its knees in prayer, asking “Lord, forgive us our sins as we forgive.” The world needs a church with its sleeves rolled up, getting to work to preach the gospel with acts of love and mercy. And yes, the world also needs a church that speaks with a delicate mixture of confidence and humility that we do not know the mind of God, but we do know what God has done in Jesus Christ. In the end, what we know about God is that he went to the cross for our sake – for your neighbors and mine, your family and mine, your friends and mine – and that he lives, now and forever. Amen.
1Matt Skinner, Commentary on Romans 11:1-2a,29-32, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=960 (accessed August 16, 2014).