Death at the Movies: Hollywood’s Guide to the Hereafter
By Lyn and Tom Davis Genelli
I loved this book. In fact it inspired me to write another one like it. They say people are more afraid of public speaking than they are of dying, so I’d like to write about Hollywood movies that deal with that demon, anxiety, that gets in your head as you prepare for a major public address. I know, there aren’t many movies like that, but there should be, if for no other reason than so I can write that book. I’m onto something here.
Can you imagine a movie dealing with let’s say, Sarah Palin’s internal struggles in the run up to her Vice Presidential nominee acceptance speech. It would begin with the struggle she had to remain Sarah Palin. We’d see her trying to change just enough to “look vice-presidential,” (generally not a terribly high bar), while still appealing to her favorite guy, Joe Six-Pack, (a higher, or is it a lower, bar to reach).
There could be a dream sequence. Sarah and the ghost of Herbert Hoover, sitting on top of Mt. Rushmore, as he shows her the gaping cracks in the foundation of her speech. “No one expects us all to agree on everything,” she said. “But we are expected to govern with integrity, and good will, and clear convictions, and a servant’s heart. And I pledge to all Americans that I will carry myself in this spirit as Vice President of the United States.” You just know she’d wake up in a cold sweat. (The director could even have fun figuring out just how clingy and see-through the night-gown could be without drawing the dreaded “R” rating.)
Or how about a movie leading up to Michael Moore’s Oscar acceptance speech. We’d hear the pounding of drums on the way to war in Iraq.
There would be White House scenes, (using the West Wing set of course), that show Bush and his cadre of war mongers trying to figure out how to fool the American people, (not very difficult to do), and go to war.
Michael could give his famous speech, “I’ve invited my fellow documentary nominees on the stage with us, and we would like to — they are here — they are here in solidarity with me because we like non-fiction. We like nonfiction and we live in fictitious times. We live in the time where we have fictitious election results that elects a fictitious President.”
Then right when you think there is no internal struggle, Michael stepping off stage, is attacked, his life flashes before his eyes and we get to see the very day, the very moment, he figured out that you should never let facts get in the way of a good story.
But would any of them change? If so, it would be rare, because change is rare. We’d probbly need fictional characters to show us real transformation, just like in the movies about death. They are written first to entertain, and that’s just fine, but they also move us to consider what our life means. That’s what all these reflections on the after life are about, right? They are statements about what this life means, or at least could mean. From Topper, to Ghost, to Sixth Sense, they’re trying to open our eyes, just a bit, to a fresh context of meaning so we can change.
Death at the Movies does a good job of clarifying the context of meaning each film offers. But I keep wondering, “Can such imaginative explorations of life, death, fear and creation bring us to that elusive moment of growth, to the developmental change on which the future rides?” I don’t know, change is pretty rare; but if this doesn’t do it, we could always try some movies about public speaking. . . . no, that wouldn’t work either. The only thing that can change us, is us.
Death at the Movies: Hollywood’s Guide to the Hereafter
The following sermon was preached on June 30. It is about faith and healing. It is a sermon both for those who did not have the prayer “answered” and for those who do. In it I talk about my brother in law who was healed from Leukemia a year earlier. The next night he became quite sick. We have found out that the Leukemia has returned. Still, what I have to say about faith stands. The presence of the one who can only love us has been palpable al week long. We do not know the outcome, but we do know the love of God.
Alleluia – Opening and Closing Chant
Dance and Sing
Romans XII–Process and Trinity (Audio Right Click for Download) Text of scripture this morning is from Romans Chapter 13, verses 11-14. We’re nearing the end. There are only fifteen chapters in Romans, and the fifteenth chapter is sort of a name dropping thing. he just wants to send greetings to this person, that person and the other person and let them know he’s well connected. The translators placed the heading on this text “an urgent appeal.” Would you listen as the spirit of God brings a word to you.
You know what time it is. How it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep for salvation is nearer to us know than when we first became believers. The night is far gone and the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us live honorably in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ. Make no provision for the flesh to gratify its desires. Salvation is nearer now than when we first came to believe. The night is far gone. The day is coming near.
It’s been two thousand years since he wrote that. I think we can all admit right now, he was wrong. He expected the end of history to come within his generation. He expected God to bring everything to a perfect close. It’s been two thousand years. He was wrong. I think he was right about quite a few other things. But he was wrong about time, even his understanding of time, I suspect. He had a deep and profound intuition about the nature of salvation and its relationship to the way we act. But time?
Now this passage brings up some questions about time and they happen to be questions that are talked about quite a bit in the great debate or conversation that continues to go on regarding the doctrine of the Trinity. Today is Trinity Sunday, a day to reflect on this doctrine, this idea that we know God in three ways, as father, son, holy spirit, but that each one of those is the entirety of God. I recognize that it doesn’t make any sense. But any definition of God that made sense couldn’t possibly be true, because I think we can all agree throughout the centuries and millennia that God does remain a mystery. So this doctrine of the Trinity has been pointing at this mystery for two thousand years.
They had the same kind of experiences that we do in the present, the same sorts of things were impacting on them, though they lived in a world that asked entirely different sets of questions. I mean, if we don’t think there is a father up there who had a son, well then whether or not they were of the same substance matters little to us. And so the way this doctrine of the Trinity as it’s been formulated, isn’t all that important to us. And yet it seems to poke at a mystery that has always been within us. Because those ancients, just as we do, have a deep sense that we do relate to God in different ways, that there are different approaches, and yet it seems like the same God. And so it is that we scratch at it, move with it. And of late the questions about the Trinity seem to move towards this question of time, over whether or not the scriptures really understood time or whether it was just part of their world view.
Because what they understood about God, this classical Trinity, is this one God in three persons, all of which were co-equal and co-eternal, because of that, all existed in some perfect space or location, all on their own, without regard to creation at all. The immutable, permanent reflection of God, this God that cannot be touched, cannot be reached, cannot ever be understood because it stands unchanging outside creation. And this God created all things it is thought. Created all things, including time. The idea, this perfect God that is outside creation, always forever unchanging, is that this God would have created creation outside the realm of time, and if so then knows exactly what will happen because the future already exists.
It’s already been decided who will be saved and who will not, already been decided who suffers and who does not, already been decided, for the future has already been created. That’s the God that lives outside of time and the Trinity tells a story where this God is only tangentially related to the creation, as though this God kisses us at that very moment where this God becomes incarnate, enfleshed within us and then pours that spirit within us, so that this creation can become complete, that which already exists can become complete. But the truth is the universe is not made up of things. That is, if things are permanent, immutable things, it’s just not true.
We think of the mountains as things that will last forever, and yet we all know that mountains don’t last forever. Think of islands that live in isolated beauty and yet they’re not isolated at all. You go deep enough and they are connected to the whole world. You’re not a thing, at least not a permanent thing. The universe simply is not made up of things that last forever. Instead it is made up of relationships, interconnections among all the matter of the world, readjusting and shifting. The soul isn’t a thing, the heart isn’t a thing, they are relationships one to another. So what does God look like in a world like that. It’s as though God gets God’s own identity from God’s relationship to creation. It’s as though God exists because God is connected to and related within us.
The future does not exist, the future unfolds moment after moment after moment. It’s not been decided whether or not you suffer, there’s not a God out there that made it that way. Instead, this God would unfold within us, would almost evolve with us, because this God is related at the very core to us. How do we know this God of relationship? This God that swirls and understands itself as related in these three ways. We know God as the creator, the one. The I am is the way Jesus referred to it. The last few weeks I’ve been poking at or pointing to an experience of the one where if we sit and take one step back from ourselves and ask ourselves who’s having this experience, who’s sitting here, who’s hearing, who’s tasting. who is touching, there is that something, that true connection, that lays as an observer behind all that, all connected one to another, all living in relationship as one true self, the I Am, related out of connection one to another.
And this I Am expresses itself in unique ways. Each one of you is a unique expression of that I Am, each one of us has the opportunity to live out the love of the I Am, that connects all things and as we do that , we relate one to another, defining one another by our relationships, by our love, by our care, by our actions in the world around us we are relating in an I Thou relationship. This is the second person of the Trinity. I Am and I Thou, a father and a son who becomes incarnate within each and every one of us.
The point was never that Jesus was incarnate the only one, no. Jesus invited us into a union where we became the incarnate presence of the one as well. We look at the whole world, at everything that is unfolding, the whole creation evolves in all ways and what’s driving that? That presence, that one. The one that expresses itself in you and expresses itself in me, exists in all things, connecting all things. This is the spirit, the third person of the Trinity. We see it everywhere we look if we open our eyes wide enough and recognize the presence of God within all things. An I Am, an I Thou and an I It. A first person, a second person and a third person relationship to the divine, each of which in some sense grasps hold of the whole nature of God in a great big dance, a dance which unified us, to the presence of the God whose word brings things into being for it creates the relationships among us.
I know that’s a little heady. Sometimes I think about those things and I’ll preach about them in a sermon like this and some folks say “I don’t get it,” and that’s okay. I don’t either. We’re working with complex ideas. What happens then is over the next few weeks we have a conversation and some of these ideas will unfold over time and we’ll begin to get a sense of how it is they might change the way we live, change the way we love, change the way we know our God.
So what difference does the Trinity make, this God who we know in these ways, this God who has not from a far decided whether or not we suffer, but rather this God who is in the midst of our lives touching us at every moment, enabling us to carry forward and break free from suffering, what difference does it make that we see God that way? The Apostle Paul was pointing at it, that’s for sure. Paul understood the difference between darkness and light and the difference for him was between being connected to the presence of this intimately loving God and living in the darkness unconnected, dead as it were, unable to live in the wholeness and the care of God. All the things he pointed to, and I’m just sorry he didn’t bring up profligacy. That’s my favorite word in the Bible, but he brought up debauchery and licentiousness, you know, drunkenness. What are those things? Those are things we do instead of connecting. Those are the things we do to replace an empty sense and feeling that we do not have the love of one another, or the love of God.
It seems to be as though sex gets an awful lot of play in the Bible. You know, it seems that the Bible might be over-focused on sex, but I think there may be a reason for that. Because the way we use sex is often a replacement for connection, at least the licentiousness and debauchery that Paul is talking about is doing that. We expect our sexuality to fill all the voids and allow all connections to be made. Ask any married couple and they’ll tell you that you’ve got to work at sexuality. In order to have it be something that connects human beings together, you’ve got to work at sexuality. The debauchery, the licentiousness, the easy connections, those are instead, those are the things that break boundaries instead of engaging us in relationships so profoundly untied they have no boundary as we connect one to another. Sex throughout the scriptures is a model for the spiritual – a model or a reflection of what human life is in the darkness when we use sexuality to fill needs it is not there to fulfill.
But it is not always about sex. What do you do instead of connecting to the presence of God, when you feel that empty moment? What do you do instead? Some of us aren’t even aware of the empty moment? I was talking to a friend who said that is what fasting is for. If you fast, you notice, you’re spiritually aware and you notice when you are empty; and when you are empty, you reach for something. There is that moment of emptiness when you have a choice to move into darkness and fill it up with falseness and nothing or move into light by filling it up with the presence of God that is already as close to you as you are to yourself. That is the wonder and the beauty of life in the light; the tragedy of the darkness is we’re disconnected and therefore dead because creation is connection to the presence of God. And the wonder of the light is to wake up and realize that the presence of God is already as close as your very breath, the love of God cannot be escaped because it’s what brings you into being, always becoming, it’s what allows us to connect one to another as part of this enormous beautiful project called creation that becomes each and every day, always out of the heart and the love of God.
Romans XII–Process and Trinity (Audio Right Click for Download)
Text of scripture this morning is from Romans Chapter 13, verses 11-14. We’re nearing the end. There are only fifteen chapters in Romans, and the fifteenth chapter is sort of a name dropping thing. he just wants to send greetings to this person, that person and the other person and let them know he’s well connected. The translators placed the heading on this text “an urgent appeal.” Would you listen as the spirit of God brings a word to you.
Romans XI–Wish He Hadn’t Written This (Audio Right Click to Download)
Let every person–the word is actually soul–let every soul be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God. And those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, whoever resists authority, resists what God has appointed and those who resist will incur judgment, for rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of authority? Then do what is good and you will receive its approval. For it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain. It is the servant of God to execute wrath upon the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath, but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due to them. Taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. Romans 13:1-8
So this is on my list of passages I wish Paul had never written. I think we’d actually be better off if we didn’t have this passage. It’s right up there with that toss off remark he made at the end of chapter one about being turned over to unnatural lusts, man to man woman for woman. It wasn’t a treatise on homosexuality. My guess is if he’d looked hard enough in his culture, he could have found healthy, good relationships that were same gender couples. But, no, he tossed that thing off and I wish he hadn’t. It’s a little like in Corinthians where he tells the woman that they need to cover their heads in worship. Where are your hats ladies? Not only that, he tells them to keep quiet in worship. Then there is that horrible passage where he suggests that wives should submit of be subject to their husbands. It’s just a series of things that I think it would be better if he hadn’t written, it he hadn’t put them into holy writ.
Of course, at the time he had no idea he was writing holy writ. It’s done a lot of damage. Most of the reason for that is that people take things in scripture and they remove them out of context and they make a big deal about them. They use them for their own purposes. And so it is that rulers for century upon century upon century have been reading this passage. “Don’t you see? It says right here in the Bible. You’ve got to subject yourself to the governing authority because I’m appointed by God to do the things that I’m doing. Regardless of how horrifying and oppressive this ruling authority might be.” This was the kind of thing that was said. It was certainly used as a justification for masters to beat their slaves.
I read an article about that. About how the people in my seminary, professors in my seminary in Richmond, Virginia justified slavery on the basis of this passage. Ruling authorities. If you put it in context, it’s a load of hogwash. It’s just not the way Paul sees it. He sees that the primary authority is God and God alone. The primary authority is God who is unfolding God’s beautiful next purpose in every one of you. The spirit living within each one of us, animating each one of us, bringing about the next beautiful thing. This is what Paul was reaching for. It just happened in this point and time when Paul figured there might be just of a few decades left in human history, that it just seemed to make sense to him that we wouldn’t fight the unjust powers of Rome now. There were more important fish to fry. In the same way in 1st Corinthians he told them look, you would probably be better off if you didn’t marry. I mean there are more important things to do than to be married these days that are short you see. If you can’t avoid being lustful, well then I guess you’re going to have to get married in this period of time, but this is the kind of advice that Paul was giving. He had a context for himself.
But he didn’t lose sight of what God was about and neither should we. So it’s taken out of context and used to oppress other people. It’s always taken out of context – that women obey your husband thing. As Christ loved the church and gave his life for the church, is the way it ends. This is the context in which women are to be loved and to love in return, but it’s been justified to be used to say stay in an abusive marriage. Year after year after year . . . even still.
So Paul had the short view, we have the long view. We look at this passage and we wish it hadn’t been written because it just doesn’t work out in the long view. In the long view, if we are going to unfold the next, if we’re going to live out the spirit’s life as each of us is called to do, then we are going to fight against the injustice in governments surrounding this globe. We have the long view. Paul had the short view. So I wish he hadn’t written it. But he did . . . maybe.
Actually scholars argue about that. They think maybe it’s what is called an interpolation. So the scriptures were written and then copied and then copied again and copied again and copied again. We don’t have the parchment on which Paul wrote this letter. We have copy of copy of copy of copy of copy, we don’t even know how many generations of copies before it got to here. And there are scholars that spend all their waking hours trying to figure out what the original must have been. The way they do that is they dig up the oldest manuscripts they can find and they compare them and they try and figure out whether maybe something was added in one but then got picked up and was copied and copied over again. You can almost see families of manuscripts as you go. This one added this little piece, and it gets copied and copied and copied. But this one over here did not. It seems like maybe that’s the original, not this one over here. You see what I mean? It’s called textual criticism.
So scholars look at this passage and they say if we just lifted it out, if we just took it out, the whole thing would flow much better from the end of Chapter 12 to verse 8 in the thirteenth chapter of Romans, so maybe it was interpolation since we know the interpolations in Romans were done by more conservative folk who wanted to control the community. So maybe it’s an interpolation, maybe he didn’t write it and so I guess that means we can ignore it. At least, that’s how the thinking goes. We can ignore it. Of course, the trouble is there is actually no textual evidence to prove Paul didn’t write it and besides what different does it make. It’s still in our Bible. Whether Paul wrote it or not, it’s still in our Bible and there it is.
Maybe it’s an interpolation and so we figure we can do away with it. That’s something that we modern Christians do a lot. We do it with the historical Jesus. In all this talk about what the historical Jesus is about. You know, we doubt whether he said many of the things that have been put in his mouth in the Gospel accounts. We wonder about those things. We try and figure out what we think the historical Jesus is or was. And that allows us to decide what we’ll follow. “I’m not going to follow the Jesus that I hear about in the Bible. I’m going to follow the teachings of Jesus. I’m going to love my neighbor as myself. But when he says that thing about how you have to hate your mother, you father, your sister, your brother if you’re going to be Jesus’ disciple, well, I doubt whether he said that. I’m not going to follow that.” See how we do that?
We put ourselves over the text. We put ourselves in judgment over the text. The only reason that’s disturbing is that I’m not at all sure we’re qualified to decide what is right and what is wrong. We have a tendency to want to adjust things to fit our own particular drives, needs and desires. So that brings us right back to the question of this text which is authority and submission. What are we to do with texts that come before us with the points of view that we find distressing, that we think do not live up to what the spirit if God is about in the world. Do we just toss them?
I think Paul wrote the letter of Romans to give us a deep sense of what to do. Because Paul certainly wasn’t suggesting that you should simply give allegiance to Caesar; he’d spent half the letter telling you that what you needed to do was give allegiance to God and God alone. But Paul had a vision of what was happening in this world, a vision of the spirit of God, that spirit that lives in each and every one of us, that spirit that expresses itself through each of us in a unique and profound way. Paul had a vision that this spirit was unfolding creation in such a way as to make us more pure, more beautiful, more true and good. This is what the spirit is about for Paul. So fundamentally, what Paul would say to the question how do we know which way to turn as we decide which way to turn as we decide what is right and what is wrong within these texts of scripture or anywhere else? As we attend to that spirit’s voice, we are formed by that spirit’s voice and not by our own needs and desires. It’s tricky stuff. It’s a fine line.
I was driving along I think it was the day before yesterday and I saw this bumper sticker and it said, “I’m already against the next war.” That’s good. That’s good. I wonder whether he or she will be when the time comes. Because group think is a very powerful thing. So you can take a stand now, but later how will it look. We need to be detached enough to be able to hear what that spirit’s voice is saying, that quiet voice on the inside. The truth is for Paul, he realized we couldn’t do it alone. You can’t do it alone because it’s too easy to twist yourself in knots. It’s why we argue about these things in a church. Each and every one of us doing is the work of listening to the spirit of God and questioning whether or not we are giving in to base desires or living towards an unimaginably beautiful future. Because that’s what Paul wanted. He wanted us to imagine a beautiful future and to do everything and anything we could to bring that into being. He had confidence that the spirit of God would unfold within us and allow us to do so. There’s some comfort though in the anxiety of trying to figure it all out.
I think the way Martin Luther put it was this: “Sin boldly and depend upon the grace of God more boldly still.” We do the best we can. We spend the time we need to spend in the presence of the spirit of God to be formed in such a way that we can hear spirit’s next breath. But we recognize that it is entirely possible that when we step out and take an action, that we are wrong, that it is not helpful. It’s okay. The spirit of God will take whatever it is that we offer and make it beautiful. The spirit of God will get God’s way and we will find that each one of us will be woven together into a beautiful and perfect whole. It’s why we celebrate Pentecost because the spirit is alive today and always. Amen.
A supersessionist view of the Christian covenant might have made some little sense in a mythic worldview, but never made any moral sense. The time has long since come for Christians to drop such an arrogant claim. It has contributed to extraordinary suffering and eroded any moral authority we might think we have. In that sense, it never made any just sense of the work of God we’ve come to know in Jesus Christ.
Confessing Christianity’s Corporate Sin Against the Jewish People (Audio right-click to download)
“But if some of the branches were broken off and you, a wild olive shoot (meaning you the Gentile Christians) were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, then don’t boast over your branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you who supports the root, but the root who supports you. You will say branches were broken off, (that is to say the Jews who don’t believe in Christ), so that I may be grafted in. And that’s true enough. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand only through faith, so don’t become proud. Instead, stand in awe, for if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps God will not spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God. Severity toward those who have fallen away and God’s kindness toward you, provided you continue in God’s kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off and even those of Israel, if they do not persist in unbelief, will be grafted in for God has the power to graft them in again.”
You know, the old saying, “some of my best friends.” Well some of my best friends, four in particular, are Jewish. Barbara and I are helping to raise our surrogate Jewish grandson, very Jewish grandson. He’s not quite three years old. I spoke with his father a couple of weeks ago; we were talking about Zion’s future. I’m a preacher’s kid so I am perhaps a bit over-sensitive to Zion being free to choose his own way in the world. So his father, humoring me no doubt said, “I’m not trying to narrow the scope of Zion’s vocation at all. He can be any kind of rabbi he wants to be.”
When I talk to my Jewish friends I am sometimes stunned and astonished by the level of pain and suspicion that lies just underneath the surface of our relationships – Jews and Christian - and these are people I love, who love me, who know me. Maybe you know what I mean if you have close Jewish friends. I might say something about the politics of Israel, something that from where I sit, seems pretty balanced, then wham, the suspicion rises above the surface. Anything that might be misinterpreted is misinterpreted. That is not to suggest that I think I am right in all those moments; there are times when I’ve simply not understood the consequence of my “balanced” position. But this is about more than a position that can be debated. I can hear the pain, maybe even the fear, in the voices of my friends. This is not just one Jewish friend either.
I recently told a friend, “I think maybe I’m going to edit the series of sermons I did on the Gospel according to St. John, into a book.” The response I got was, “Well if you want to write about an anti-Semitic text which has inspired persecution for thousands of years, I suppose that’s up to you.” (When I preached this line, it got an unintended laugh. Not sure what to make of that. I looked and felt very uncomfortable.) Wow.
This is a sermon about Jewish-Christian relations because today’s text seems to demand it of me. I think about that moment, talking about the Gospel of John with my friend. On the one hand I can defend the Gospel of John. About half the references in that Gospel are indeed about Jews that have rejected the growing Jewish sect that eventually became Christianity. The text is not complementary about “the Jews” who are opposed to their faith.
The scholarly consensus is that John’s Gospel was written at a time when the local synagogue is splitting with this “Christian” sect. The Gospel is written from the point of view of those being thrown out of the synagogue.(1) So it’s really a gospel about one group of Jews splitting from another group of Jews and there are fairly equal references to each of those groups in the Gospel. I know; I counted them that night, so I can defend the Gospel of John but that is really not the point, is it? The point is that the Gospel of John has been used, over and over and over again, to justify persecution of the Jewish people.
This is a deep wound, the kind that travels from generation to generation. For Jews what is embedded in that text is a story of damage done when this “gospel story” is told. This is particularly true of the Gospel of John because of its language about what the author calls “the Jews.” It is bad enough when it is read, but it gets worse when it’s enacted. Throughout history, when the story of Jesus’ crucifixion is enacted, it is followed by acts of terrorism and persecution. When that movie, The Passion of the Christ, (and every time I mention that movie I have to also say that it is such a horrible movie in so many ways, I hardly know where to start), but when it was on the screen, there were synagogue burnings. Yes, synagogue burnings right here in the good ol’ US of A . . . just like history would teach us to expect.(2)
It’s not unreasonable, this suspicion, this frustration, this pain expressed in my direction – even though I’m talking about people who know me, and love me, and know that I love them. It’s the nature of the relationship between Christians and Jews. And I think we can actually understand why if we take even just a cursory glimpse at the history of our interaction.
(Attached to the end of the sermon is a Calendar of Jewish Persecution that reviews the best known atrocities. I read random phrases as I clicked through the six slides it took to show it all.) Just a little history of the major incidents when society, mostly Christian society persecuted Jews, starting in 70 AD, . . . moving through the second century . . . the fourth century, persecution in Spain, bloody persecutions in the first Crusade, driven out of Flanders until they repented the guilt of killing Jesus Christ. (See footnote 2) Renewed persecution of the Jews in Germany in the twelfth century, it keeps going, in England, Rome, Bavaria, Austria, France . . . would you look at this . . . This isn’t just last century, you understand, Christians have been persecuting Jews for thousands of years. Is it any wonder that suspicion and fear lie just below the surface of our relationships? Of course not.
I imagine that some might suggest that since we abhor what’s been done, since we abhor the attitude of past Christians towards the Jewish people, we’re not responsible. We might think we can distance ourselves from this history, but we can’t. We can’t because as long as the impact is felt generation to generation in the Jewish people, we carry the responsibility generation to generation in ours. I may not like it, in fact I don’t, but I’m part of that lineage. In the same way that my Jewish friends today carry the wounds of the past, I carry responsibility for that past.
This is a sermon about Jewish-Christian relations, but it’s also a sermon about forgiveness and reconciliation and what makes it possible. So right now, let me acknowledge our collective sin, the collective distortion of a lineage, my lineage, that has treated the Jews as enemies of God rather than the people who literally gave us our faith, our understanding of God.(3)
You see, it is not just secular governments that perpetrated the abuse of the Jews. No, it’s at the heart of the reformation. Martin Sassa a Lutheran bishop in the thirties, wrote up a pamphlet about Martin Luther’s writings concerning the Jews. My “second Dad,” Frank Thorne, found it in a garage sale and gave it to me. I think he wanted me to remember our history.
This pamphlet is said to have inspired the Kristallnacht attacks against the Jews. I won’t page through it, but I will tell a couple of things that Martin Luther said. “The Jewish people are liars and vampires . . . the synagogues are Satan’s lair . . . it’s a cursed, vile race.” That’s Martin Luther, the founder of the reformation.
It’s not just the Lutherans either. I come from the Calvinist, “reformed” branch of the reformation. Generally speaking the reformed theologians have more respect for the Hebrew scriptures than do our Lutheran friends. I thought for a while that maybe we were off the hook – comparatively – but then as I was preparing for my class on the Presbyterian Book of Confessions I read this from the Scots Confession dated 1560:
. . . Since Satan has labored from the beginning to adorn his pestilent synagogue with the title of the Kirk of God, and has incited cruel murderers to persecute, trouble, and molest the true Kirk and its members, as Cain did to Abel, Ishmael to Isaac, Esau to Jacob, and the whole priesthood of the Jews to Christ Jesus himself and his apostles after him. So it is essential that the true Kirk be distinguished from the filthy synagogues by clear and perfect notes lest we, being deceived, receive and embrace, to our own condemnation, the one for the other . . .
My God, what is that doing in our Book of Confessions? We can change it with a two thirds vote of Presbyteries you know; I’ve written it up; we ought to at least try to get it removed.(4)
We’re inextricably wound up in this identity. It’s a part of our past and if we’re going to heal the relationship between us and the Jews at both a personal and a corporate level, we’ll need to acknowledge our sin and repent of it. And we can begin by dismantling interpretations of texts, like the one we read this morning, that suggest the Jewish people are religiously inferior enemies of Christians. The text doesn’t say it, but the history of interpretation has. So let’s start by saying that any such interpretation is just plain wrong. It distorts the meaning of Paul’s thought; the man was a Rabbi. The whole point of this text is that Paul worries about the fate of his kinsman. Using his thought to hurt them is ludicrous. So, I thought I’d do a little Bible study here – walk through this passage and hear what it has to say on its own terms.
The Apostle Paul had a conundrum. He understood that God had promised to the Jewish people, the chosen ones, the ones who are to bring God’s covenant, God’s grace, God’s salvation to all the nation’s of the earth – he understood that God had promised those people that God would be faithful to them, draw them into God’s presence, that they would be made whole. Then the Apostle Paul met the risen Christ and, right or wrong, believed with every fiber of his being, that Christ was the way in which God was going to accomplish that. But most of Paul’s relatives, most of the Jews, right or wrong, had decided that Jesus was not the messiah, that Jesus was not the way God was revealing God’s work in the world.
So Paul had to figure out what to do about the fact that it appeared as though a whole segment of God’s people were being excised, rejected by God. That was his conundrum. Is God’s promise not to be trusted? Is God not to be gracious to God’s people? If God is not going to be gracious to the people of Israel, then can we trust God to be gracious to us? This is Paul’s problem. Are God’s promises reliable.
He imagines an olive tree, an olive tree with a strong trunk.(5) Let’s understand this tree as the covenant that God has with the people of Israel; it is a covenant of grace which is to say, it is a promise that God will unfold God’s creative power in them. It is not a covenant of works. It does not mean that you need to follow the rules in order to get God to love you and work in you. The Jewish people have – at their heart – a covenant of grace. I know you weren’t told that in Sunday school, but it’s true. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, you can tell they preach a covenant of grace because the ten commandments are in Exodus chapter twenty and not in Exodus chapter one.
God did not look down on God’s people, see them suffering at Pharaoh’s hand, and say to Himself, “Oh I know what I’ll do, I’ll give them ten rules. If they follow them, then I’ll save them.” No, God took them out of bondage and brought them into the wilderness. God gave them the ten commandments so that they would know how to live a life that was at peace with one another and at peace, complete with God. A covenant of grace. It is that faith they gave us.
So there it is, that one covenant of grace, growing up out of the ground. But it seems as though some Jews, and these are the Jews we keep reading about in the Christian scriptures, (often identified as the Pharisees), lost track of the idea that it was a covenant of grace and instead sought a system where, if they worked it just right, they would be able to claim for themselves the salvation of God; they would not have to rely on God’s grace. Whether or not that is true, that some Jews thought that is I suppose open to debate, but it is certainly true that the Christian sect of Judaism at the time, thought so.
And it is not to hard to believe since after all, it’s a human tendency. We’d rather be in control. In fact, you’d have to say that right now the majority of Christendom believes, at least in practice, that you earn your way into the presence of God. The majority of Christendom takes the Pharisaical approach, that God is not a God of grace, rather a God that will do you in if you don’t follow His rules.
But for Paul, those who reject this grace, many of his people are then necessarily cut off from God’s saving grace. Then we have a new covenant of grace that grows out of the same trunk, another branch, a predominantly Gentile branch. But all from that one trunk, you understand. If the trunk represents the covenant of God’s grace then the people grafted into this trunk are those who live lives of trust, lives oriented toward that gracious God, the God who seeks an opening from within us to express God’s love and God’s creative power into the world. And so for Paul, these early Christians in latching hold of that grace, are grafted into the trunk.
This was important to Paul because he recognized that the dignity of all people was at stake; that’s why he was insistent that the Gentiles be brought into the covenant of God’s grace. Whole groups of people simply cannot be set aside. The notion that whole groups of people can be set aside for God’s purpose is the dangerous idea that drove the final solution in the Third Reich. Any time you care more about the process, the “big picture” than you do an individual life, horrifying things happen. Paul couldn’t imagine that God was doing that to God’s people. He knew that God’s promise had to come to all people and so he was absolutely convinced that one day soon, the rest of his people, the rest of the Jews would be grafted back into the tree.
So here is what’s important about that. What is means is that the trunk of the tree is not Jewish, but it is equally clear that it is not Christian. It is not a Christian trunk – never has been. The trunk represents life given by God, a life filled with the near, expressive love of God – near to them, near to you, near to whoever is living a life trusting in the nature of God’s gracious, creative love – no matter the tradition. I would grant that Paul was not thinking in such terms when he wrote, but he also wrote from within a mythic worldview with its exclusive claims on truth. He thought that the end of was coming and that soon God’s chosen people would be grafted into the tree thus bringing shalom, peace, wholeness to the world. At this point I think it is safe to say he was wrong about that.
But he was pointing towards something true. His perception about the nature of God and God’s interaction with the world remains. For in a world that sees beyond the exclusive claims of mythic religions, we can see in Paul’s vision, branch upon branch upon branch, from whatever tradition, or whether you have none, grafted into this same tree. We can see that the grace of God knows no boundaries for as people live lives oriented towards the gracious, unfolding, creative power of God, they will know the love of God sourced from that tree.
It’s not a Christian trunk. It’s in God’s nature to draw everything together into perfect harmony, Jews and Christians certainly, but everyone else as well. The trouble comes because the Apostle Paul was writing with a mythic focus struggling to make sense of what he knew about God from within his exclusive, mythic frame. From that a horrifying misinterpretation of this chapter has come. It goes something like this: There was initially an old covenant, we call it the Old Testament, and then Jesus came along and superseded that old covenant. God then made a new covenant, a New Testament that is superior to the old one. That interpretation is wrong, just plain wrong.(6)
It is in God’s creative nature to bring about shalom in all creation, of that I am sure. The movement from the chaos and horror of our past to the beauty and hope of our future is and will be painful for it is always a move from death to new life.
Our Jewish friends are justifiably suspicious and afraid. The wounds run deep. It requires us not only to acknowledge, but to understand the depth of what we Christians have done. It requires us to sit ready to listen to the pain and the suspicion, even from our closest friends, to know it, even feel what we can. If we cover it over, we are covering the opening through which the Spirit of God expresses itself into the world. So we open our hearts to God and seek God’s healing because if Paul was sure of one thing in this entire confused and confusing chapter, he was sure that God would one day graft all people together into one glorious covenant sourced by the creative love of God. It is from that place, with that desire that we seek the gracious creative power of God to make something holy and beautiful of what we have wrought.
(1) For all I know they should have been thrown out. I am not discussing that one way or another right here.
(2) By the by, a great deal of this intense hatred is based on a fundamental misunderstanding. “The Jews,” no matter who they are identified with in the story, did not kill Jesus. Crucifixion is a Roman punishment; the Romans did it. In fact in my view a point of the story is that even the Jews were involved in this horror; it goes without saying the rest of us would be. We’ve made the Jews a scapegoat for our own behavior.
(3) Christianity is after all just a renewal movement. Did or does the religion of the Jews need renewal? Of course, but certainly no more so that the Christian religion. My God, look what we have done in the name of our faith!
(4) Really, it comes down to this: the Presbyterian church has absolutely no moral authority to speak on matters of justice as regards the Jewish people and their relations with the Palestinians, period. No Moral Authority Whatsoever. Until we show ourselves to be repentant we need to keep our filthy mouths shut.
(5) Picture can be found at http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-QdyXbhK13IQ/TaNTIt2ywdI/AAAAAAAAARQ/kNZfgQ-RfZ8/s1600/teaching+tree5.bmp
(6) Have you noticed over the last couple of years that I’ve tried to get out of the habit of referring to the “Old Testament” and the “New Testament,” and instead refer to the Hebrew scriptures and the Christian scriptures? That is because I do not believe in a supersessionist covenant. I can’t see it that way. Join me in the effort. It’s not an easy habit to break.
A Calendar of Jewish Persecution(7)
Destruction of Jerusalem 1,100,000 Jews were killed and 97,000 taken into slavery and captivity.
Rebellion of the Jews in Mesopotania, Egypt, Cyrene and Cyprus. Jews and Romans inflicted many barbaric atrocities on each other, causing the death of several hundreds of thousands of Romans and Jews.
The Bar Kochba rebellion (Bar Kochba was a false Messiah). Caused the death of 500,000 Jews; thousands were sold into slavery or taken into captivity.
Roman Emperor Hadrian commenced his persecution of the Jews. Jerusalem established as a pagan city. Erection of a Jupiter temple on the temple mountain (Moriah) and a temple to Venus on Golgotha. Jews were forbidden to practice circumcision, the reading of the Law, eating of unleavened bread at Passover or any Jewish festival. Infringement of this edict brought the death penalty.
Constantine the Great established "Christianity" as the State religion throughout the Roman Empire; issued many anti-Jewish laws.
Theodosius the Great expelled Jews from any official gate position or place of honor. Permitted the destruction of their synagogues if by so doing, it served a religious purpose.
Persecution of the Jews in Spain. All Jews who refused to be baptized had to leave the country. A few years later the remaining Jews were dispossessed, declared as slaves and given to pious "Christians" of position. All children 7 years or over were taken from their parents and given to receive a "Christian" education.
Bloody persecutions of the Jews at the beginning of the First Crusade, in Germany. Along the cities on the Rhine River alone, 12,000 Jews were killed. The Jews were branded second only to the Moslems as the enemies of Christendom.
Jews driven out of Flanders (now part of Belgium). They were not to return nor to be tolerated until they repented of the guilt of killing Jesus Christ.
The Jews of London had to pay compensation of 1 million marks for allegedly killing a sick man.
Renewed persecution of the Jews in Germany at the beginning of the Second Crusade. The French Monk, Rudolf, called for the destruction of the Jews as an introduction to the Second Crusade. It was only because of the intervention of Emperor Conrad who declared Nuerenberg and a small fortress as places of refuge for the Jews, and that of Abbot Bernard of Clairvaux, that the result was not quite as devastating as at the time of the First Crusade.
French King Philip banished the Jews from his domain. They were permitted to sell all movable possessions, but the immovable such as land and houses reverted to the king. Seven years later he called the Jews back.
At the coronation of Richard the Lionhearted, unexpected persecution of the Jews broke out in England. Most Jewish houses in London were burned, and many Jews killed. All possessions of the Jews were claimed by the Crown. Richard’s successor alone, relieved the Jews of more than 8 million marks.
At the IV Lateran Church Council, restrictions against the Jews by the church of Rome were issued.
Edward I banished the Jews from England. 16,000 Jews left the country.
Persecution of the Jews in Franconia, Bavaria and Austria. The Nobleman Kalbfleish alleged that he had received a divine order to destroy all the Jews. 140 Jewish communities were destroyed, and more than 100,000 Jews were mercilessly killed.
King Philip the Fair banished the Jews from France. 100,000 Jews left the country.
In France, 40,000 shepherds dedicated themselves for the Shepherd Crusade to free Palestine from the Moslems. Under the influence of criminals and land speculators, they destroyed 120 Jewish communities.
Jews were accused of having incited outlaws to poison wells and fountains in the district of Guienne, France. 5,000 Jews were burned at the stake.
Jews were blamed for the plague throughout Europe, especially in Germany. In Strausberg 2,000 Jews were burned. In Maintz 6,000 were killed in most gruesome fashion, and in Erfut 3,000; and in Worms 400 Jews burned themselves in their homes.
Jews were blamed for having defiled the "Host" (wafer used in the Mass) in Brabant. The accused were burned alive. Again, all Jews were banned from Flanders and until the year 1820, every 15 years a feast was kept to celebrate the event.
Persecutions in Spain. In Seville and 70 other Jewish communities, the Jews were cruelly massacred and their bodies dismembered.
Second banishment of Jews from France.
The Franciscan monk, Capistrano, persuaded the King of Poland to withdraw all citizens’ rights of the Jewish people.
The Spanish inquisition directed against the Jews.
The banishment of Jews from Spain. 300,000 Jews who refused to be "baptized" into the Church of Rome left Spain penniless. Many migrated to the Muslim country, Turkey, where they found tolerance and a welcome.
Banishment of the Jews from Portugal. King Manuel, generally friendly to the Jews, under pressure from Spain instigated forced baptism to keep the Jews. 20,000 Jews desired to leave the country. Many were ultimately declared slaves.
First Ghetto established in Venice.
Banishment of Jews from Naples and 10 years later, from Genoa and Venice.
Restriction of Jews in Russia, Jewish men were forced to serve 25 years in the Russian military. Many hundreds of thousands of Jews left Russia.
All former restriction, against the Jews in the Vatican State were re-inforced by Pope Pius IX.
Renewed restrictions of Jews in Russia. Frequent pogroms (massacres); general impoverishment of Russian Jewry.
Commencement of persecution of Jews in Hitler Germany. Inception of the systematic destruction of 6,000,000 Jews throughout Nazi-occupied Europe.