This is the text for the second week of my sermon series, preached at Foothills Christian Church on Feb. 24th, 2012. (Check out the audio here!) The first scripture, which I reference but do not read, comes from Deuteronomy 5:1-15. Leave a comment if you like!
The Road Less Traveled
What does it mean to be on the road less traveled? Probably that there are lots of roads. And that at least one of those roads is traveled by everyone. But there’s always another road, and in a way, that’s the road Israel has been called to travel on. But they, like everyone else, often wonder off onto more worn in paths.
In our first scripture, we heard what might be the most important line in all of scripture for those who come from the Judeo/Christian tradition. And it’s repeated constantly throughout Deuteronomy: “remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt.” It ends up being the opening line for the Sadr meal, which is the Jewish term for the Passover meal. The youngest person at the table asks: “why do we do this?” And the person officiating replies “once we were slaves in Egypt….”
And in the case of our reading today, this comes after we’ve heard the commandments. And it will come again after more commandments. It’s like God wants the people to remember something, like these commandments don’t just come out of nowhere. But over time, we get bogged down in “the way things are,” we forget about the original purpose. We loose sight of what it’s all about.
There’s a quote that goes around from time to time, that says “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” There’s something about tradition, about where our history comes from, that causes us to be blind at times to the original intent. In our scripture today, we hear Paul talking about the Law, specifically the Jewish Law, the 613 commandments given to Israel to follow as the chosen people. And up until Damascus, when Paul encounters the risen Christ, Paul was the most ardent of traditionalist.
As a Pharisee, Paul was all about the law for the sake of the law, so much so that when the early followers of Christ started preaching salvation apart from the law, he traveled around persecuting them. Paul viewed upholding the law as the highest priority. But as we heard in Deuteronomy, every commandment comes with the same purpose: “Remember, once you were slaves in the house of Egypt.”
Listen to our scripture for today from the 2nd chapter of Romans:
All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.
Something is different here, something has changed in this one time Pharisee, who viewed upholding the law as the highest priority. Here, we hear Paul saying that there is sin apart from the law and there is sin within the law; and we see that those outside of the law, those known as gentiles, are able to fulfill the law even though they do not know it. This is different. What is it that changes Paul, the Pharisee, from following the law as religious duty, to understanding God’s purposes beyond the Law? This is the big question. What opens Paul up to new realities?
Thinking about this reminded me of a story from This American Life, about urban legends, but more particularly, about urban legends among refugees coming to the U.S. According to the host, refugees have to wait a long time, sometimes month, often years to get clearance for resettlement in the U.S. In the meantime, they may know someone, a family member or friend, who moves to the U.S. This, along with Hollywood movies and t.v. shows interpreted over long distances and across cultures, leads to some crazy rumors and legends…but what is most fascinating are the things which these refugees think can’t be true, but actually are.
The story covers one that comes from folks watching the Chevy Chase movie “Christmas Vacations.” In it, the lead character decorates his house with lights, and inflatable snowmen, and all kinds of fanfare. And, in interviews with refugees, almost all of them can’t believe that actually happens in the U.S. And then they get here, and they realize that it does actually happen.
There’s one interview in particular that stands out, however, and the host tells us that this is the most common, the most widespread myth that people coming here as refugees can’t understand.
She interviews a man from Iraq who tells the story of walking through central park one night, and finding a woman laying on a bench asking for help. He worries, calls the police, and asks what to do, since he’s never really lived in the U.S. before. The operator asks if the women is any danger, asks if she’s naked, and the man answers No to each question. Then the operator asks: “Is she homeless?” And the man walks over and asks the woman if she’s homeless, and she immediately answers “of course I’m homeless!”
You see, the biggest thing that refugees coming to the U.S. can’t believe is that when people don’t have a place to stay, they have to sleep out on the streets. They don’t have families that will take them in.
And refugees, folks from around the world coming here, can’t believe it!
I want to ask, and this is something to take with us: were you shocked by this story? Not that there are homeless people on the streets, because we all know that is true. But that there are places in the world where people are always given a home, no matter what, by family. This story stood out to me today because of that, because homelessness is such an obvious part of city life that it becomes just part of the background. But when you listen to this story, of people who can’t believe it exist, it opens me up to the possibility that a world might exist, somewhere, where people have an absolute responsibility to all people.
There a sense that God exists in this story of outsiders coming into our world.
Sometimes we know God through scripture. We read about Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, and we know things about who God is. For instance, in our first scripture today, we know that God gives the law to the Israelites. We know a lot about Jesus, and we can explain this to people.
But sometimes, even what we know about God in scripture is shaken up by what we know about God through experience. What we know about God by being in the world and having encounters with the Holy Spirit in creation. We all know that feeling, when you’re going about your day and something shakes you up, something calls into question what you’re doing. Maybe it’s a conversation with someone you don’t usually talk to that makes you realize that you’re not as different as you thought. Maybe it’s at night, looking up at the stars and realizing that we really are small compared to all of creation. And yet knowing that we are loved by a gracious God.
This happens over and over again in the history of Israel. The people who were in slavery have been set free. We see through the scripture that the people, once they are free, establish their own kingdom, and eventually it leads to its own versions of slavery. And the prophets come and warn the people, and they don’t listen, until they are conquered. And then more prophets show up, and promise that Liberation will come. And it does, because God is faithful.
And so, when Paul writes about the law in Romans, he’s writing about a religion that has become bogged down by traditionalism, that has failed to see its purpose as a people set apart, as a beacon to the world. And Paul was just like that. Until he encountered the risen Christ, until his eyes were opened (after they were shown to be closed) and realized that behind the traditionalism, behind the law, behind the practice, there was a larger purpose to creation. And so he writes today of those inside the law and those outside, of sin inside the law and outside, and how Christ will judge all equally.
As we make our way through Roman’s, we must remember that Paul’s work is not completely new, that he is an actor in a play that goes back to the beginning of creation. From time to time, God calls on the most unlikely people, those who are unworthy, those who are sinners and murderers and adulterers. And God makes of them instruments of a coming kingdom, which is here but is not yet. It’s breaking into the world, and its changing things. And today, in this place, we are all called to be a part of it. We are called to join in the narrative, remembering that once we were slaves in the house of Egypt.
Today, as we listen to this story of those inside and outside, of an equaling of the playing field, of a breaking down of boundaries, the question we have to ask is “where are we seeking God outside of this building?” What relationships do we have that open us up to new possibilities, to new understandings of the world. God shakes things up. But never for no reason. Indeed, the Israelites were once slaves in Egypt, and this is now something we must all remember. That the work of creation is not done, but that God, who has worked for the salvation of God’s people over and over again, will continue to rescue those in need.