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A Servant of the Circumcised

  • September 28, 2014
  • 08:00 AM

Sermon for September 28, 2014 (Proper 21, Year A)
Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary

Texts: Romans 15:1-13; Psalm 78:1-4,12-16; Matthew 21:23-32
Know what: we are adopted Jews, outsiders adopted by grace
So what: know your history, never forget it
Now what: embrace God’s welcome and share it with other outsiders
Title: A Servant of the Circumcised

“Welcome one another just as Christ has welcomed you. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God.”

Do you know what it feels like to be an outsider? To feel like you do not belong?

Gregory Brewer is the fourth Bishop of the Diocese of Central Florida. He tells a story of going to visit a ministry in Orlando on the wrong side of town.
You know what I mean. In a neighborhood which everyone knows is dangerous. The neighborhood is called Parramore. And the ministry is called IDignity.

IDignity provides photo IDs free of charge for those who do not have them.
Most of their clients are homeless. And if you do not have a home address, then you cannot get a photo ID. And if you do not have a valid ID, then getting state and federal aid is extremely difficult.

IDignity opens its doors at 10 AM, but folks start lining up outside the building by 4 in the morning. The demand for help is more than this ministry can handle.

Bishop Brewer is there to visit and to get a tour. Now, when the Bishop goes anywhere for a visit in his purple clergy shirt with his big pectoral cross hanging around his neck, it’s pretty typical for people to take notice, to recognize the Bishop’s presence and what his visit signifies.

But on this morning’s visit to the IDignity center, the hundreds of people lined up behind the yellow caution tape barely give him a second glance.
What help does he have to offer them? He doesn’t belong there.
In their world, in their neighborhood of Parramore in Orlando, the Bishop is an outsider. (When Two or Three Are Gathered, p.30-33).

“Welcome one another just as the Messiah (Christ) has welcomed you.”

Perhaps you’ve forgotten this, but you and I don’t really belong here.

Historically speaking, you and I are not natives to the land of the covenant.
This is not our spiritual hometown neighborhood.
We are but honorary Jews, adopted by the sheer grace of God into the family of Abraham.

To forget or neglect this fundamental fact is to separate ourselves from our deepest and truest spiritual roots.

At sunset on Wednesday, the celebration of Rosh Hashanah began. That marked the beginning of the “Days of Awe”, the 10 Days of Repentance that run from the start of Rosh Hashanah until the fast of Yom Kippur, the biblical Day of Atonement.

Do you know what functions as the central symbolic practice of Rosh Hashanah?
It is the sounding of the shofar – the blowing of the ram’s horn.
I sure wish that I had one to blow this morning to demonstrate, but – alas – I do not.

The cry of the shofar is a call to repentance.
The Rabbis explain that God weighs the actions of humankind at the start of each new year. And repentance is the proper attitude when having your life evaluated by the living God.

The other theme of Rosh Hashanah is the people’s coronation of God as king over all, and, indeed, ruler over their own lives. This is explained by the Hebrew phrase “kabalat ol” – which means the acceptance of the yoke, the submission of the human will to the governing providence of God.

The call to repentance and submission to the will of God. Remember these two emphases, please, because by now I bet you are all wondering:
this is very interesting, but why are we learning about the details of Jewish tradition in our church’s Sunday sermon? Right?

Well, what was it that Paul said in his letter to the Romans?

Welcome one another just as the Messiah has welcomed you.
Why? Because this Messiah was a servant of the Jewish people for the sake of God’s truth.
And why? So that the promises made to Abraham and his children might be confirmed AND so that the Gentiles (you and me) might be welcomed in to join the Jews in giving praise to God.

This is vitally important: if ever we forget the context in which these New Testament texts were written, then we will be doomed to misunderstand their meaning –as, in fact, has happened throughout much of the church’s history.

Biblical scholars tell us that Matthew’s Gospel came out of a Jewish community of disciples who were experiencing harsh and painful conflict with the leaders of the synagogues.

The members of this community had been brought up in the synagogue and they understood their history through the lens of the patriarchs and the kings of Israel.

These followers of the Way were convinced, of course, that this Jesus of Nazareth – Yeshua is how they would have pronounced his name – is the long-promised prophet to come after Moses, the promised King of David’s line who is to sit on the throne of Israel forever.

To their surprise AND dismay, the majority of the synagogue leaders, the chief priests and the elders rejected this view. In fact, these leaders viewed the Way as simply one more dangerous faction which would only do further damage to the unity and stability of their nation.

This parable from Matthew addresses this conflict head-on.

“A man had two sons…which of the two did the will of his father?”

This parable is itself a call to repentance and a call to submit to the surprising will of God.

The first son finally “changed his mind”. This is the word for repentance. And it is this that was seen to be lacking among the chief priests and elders in Jerusalem. They “did not change [their] minds” and believe John’s message and listen to the words of Jesus.

So who is truly on the inside? And who is actually on the outside?

Do you remember where this discussion is taking place in the text?
In the Second Temple, where the hierarchy of holiness was enshrined in the very construction itself.

Gentiles were not allowed to enter the Temple.
Only those who were circumcised were allowed to enter.
AND that means only men, of course.

Surrounding the temple was the Court of Gentiles. That’s as close as un-circumcised men could go. They were always outsiders.

Immediately inside the temple walls was the Court of Women. Jewish women were allowed in, but only into the first area.

After this was the Court of Israel, where circumcised men were allowed.

And there was one further step.
The Court of Priests, the Levites, in which was located the Holy of Holies.

This was the hierarchy of holiness that was challenged and crushed by the radical welcome of Jesus the Messiah.

The Master is in the Temple, speaking with the chief priests, the Levites who alone are allowed inside the one place which all Jews considered to be the holiest place on earth, the center and very seat of God’s presence in the world, and he says to them:
“Tax collectors and prostitutes are entering into the kingdom of God – into true life with God – ahead of you.”

This is highly charged rhetoric!

Jesus is reaching for the lowest and most despised groups of people – for those whose moral depravity would have been most offensive to the chief priests and the elders of the people.

And he declares with sovereign authority that these are outsiders no longer, for God is making all things new.

What happens then to the hierarchy of holiness? It is entirely dismantled by this Messiah. It is disarmed. It is deleted from human history.

“Welcome one another just as the Messiah has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” Some translations say, INTO the glory of God.

INTO the glory of God you have been welcomed – where the playing field is made perfectly level for every single human being.

How do we embody this radical welcome for everyone into the glory of God?
How do we change our minds about hierarchies of holiness – whether explicit or implicit, and how do we submit to the will of God who opens the door to anyone who will enter?

Do you remember Bishop Brewer who came as an outsider to the ministry of IDignity in the Parramore neighborhood of Orlando?

His special shirt and special collar and his fancy cross and his big title meant nothing to those folks. And he knew it.

He stood as an outsider, until one woman asked him to pray for her friend.
Her friend who was standing there quite ill, standing there with her child, having stood in line for hours already – simply to get a photo ID, and some help.

Bishop Brewer ducked quickly under the line of yellow caution tape and moved to their side. And he prayed. And they prayed. And a real connection was made. And God was present.

Welcome one another, and everyone, O adopted daughters and sons, just as our Lord has so graciously welcomed you into the glory of God. Amen.

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