Our Christian Heritage

Scripture: Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32 ; Luke 24:13-27

Preached on October 14, 2018 at Wolcott Congregational Church.  Sorry for the poor audio quality!

One day in middle school, someone asked the math teacher if she did math problems for fun. As a child, it was one of those, “well, what did she say” moments, that I’ve found more and more humorous as I’ve gotten older.

Her answer, by the way, was No.

As a pastor, sometimes people assume the same sort of things about me, that I spend my non-work time reading theology or praying, and while I do try to a little of both, I do have a social life that extends beyond those activities.

I tell you this to also let you know that many of my non-pastor friends are not even Christian. In Boston, where many of my friends still are, being Christian is actually pretty weird. 

Other than my Christian friends, I have friends who are Jewish, Muslim, Pagan, or Unitarian Universalist, but most of them aren’t anything in particular.

This is the case for my people in my generation, and even more so in the generation younger than mine, who are either in middle or high school now. A couple of days ago, I did an informal survey of my facebook friends about what first came to mind when they thought of Christianity. 

These folks were under forty.  Most between twenty and thirty, and what they had to say should trouble us. The shortest answer was “step 1: vote for Donald Trump.”

Another said, “I always associated Christianity with threats about the afterlife shrouded in a facade of caring, followed by feeling like I was being judged as lost or misguided.”

The most heartbreaking was the story of a close friend who is LGBTQ, who grew up bullied and harassed for it, said “I was harassed most by people who were out Christians.”

If this is how people interact with Christians on a daily basis, well, it won’t matter how good our worship is, how fancy our churches are, how compelling our bible studies are.

If these are the fruits of Christianity that are being shown today, what are we doing?

And I’m not saying that they are the only fruits, but it is the only side of us that some folks, maybe even many folks, see.

It’s as though we’ve gotten so used to being on top of the world, that we don’t remember what its like to be different, to be scared to be who you are, that we have a right to bully and judge others for being who they are.

We’ve forgotten what its like to not have the law on our side, to not have leaders who believe the same thing as us. We’ve forgotten what its like to not be the only game in town.

Now, luckily, the Bible does have some good insight for us for times such as these.

Paul’s letter to the Romans is such a book.  It’s incredibly rewarding, to read, although it is quite complicated.

Part of this is because the letter to the Romans is Paul’s theological masterpiece, where he writes extensively about the nature of grace and faith in relationship to the Jewish law (The Torah).

It’s a relationship that’s more complicated that sometimes we give credit to on a surface read, and sometimes the church hasn’t followed it very well.

Unfortunately, Romans has been used as part of anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish talk in the Christian church, which I think Paul would have found abhorrent.

But there is another reason that the letter is so complex, and that’s because Rome was the most diverse and complex city in Europe at the time, maybe even the world.

Christianity and Judaism haven’t split at this point, although tensions were quickly rising. Folks who were ethnically and religiously Jewish worshipped alongside Jewish followers of Jesus, (many of whom still followed Judaic law, Gentile followers of Jesus, and folks who are not ethnically Jewish, but followed Judaic law.

What our passage today says, and it’s a good reminder for us, is that even though they aren’t following Jesus, they are still a part of God’s plan for the salvation of the world.

Paul says there unequivocally that even though some Jewish folks were enemies in their eyes, those people were still beloved by God.

When Jesus talks about loving your enemies in the abstract, it becomes easy to say, but we don’t really have many examples of what that looks like for the rest of us. This is what it looks like on the ground.  And it’s hard.

I know that when I’m deep in fighting on a political post on facebook, even with people who make me really angry, who I think are wrong about everything, even people who might bully or harass me, there are few things harder than understanding that they are still beloved children of God.

This doesn’t mean their actions are acceptable, or that we should allow abuse, harassment, intimidation or exploitation to occur in any form, but it does force me to accept their full god given humanity, and that is hard.

I do this somewhat reluctantly, and usually not for any selfless reason, but because the moment I begin to strip the dignity of God-Given humanity away from someone else, the possibility opens up that I might be able to strip that humanity from myself.

That is really terrifying.

So then, with that in mind, I ask us, what would a letter of Paul to the People of New York City, or Boston, or Wolcott, Connecticut look like?

What would Paul tell us of in our time, a time of rising anxiety and tension between Christians and non-Christians, and all those folks who live in a hazy in between place.

Because for many people, Christian is just one of many identities that we can make meaning and organize our identities around, seen as equally valid as being a Parrothead (a Jimmy Buffet fan), part of the Beyhive- fans of Beyonce, Red Sox Fans, a gamer, or on a more serious note, a Democrat, a Republican, or being Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender or Queer.

This is not to say anything bad around those identities, but rather that Christianity, and religion as a whole in the United States, is increasingly becoming another consumer choice.

If Paul reminds us that Jewish folks- non Christians are a part of God’s plan for the world, how then are we called to interact with non-Christians while being faithful to what we know to be true about the Gospel?

I think the Road to Emmaus story has a lot of good practical and some metaphorical suggestions in it for us.

The first is to note that the disciples were walking along that road with no intention to evangelize to the stranger. 

Travel in ancient times was a dirty and dangerous business.  Bandits and thieves were common, and people were absurdly vulnerable when they were on the road. There were no police patrols, and for Jewish folks, a roman soldier was as likely to rob you or force you to work for him as he was to stop the bandits himself.

The disciples were simply glad for the company.

Shouldn’t we also be glad for the company on our roads of life? I don’t know about you, but for me, life is too hard, too dangerous, and too short to not accept good company when we can find it.

Secondly, the disciples were vulnerable and authentic with the stranger.  They told him that the life of faith was difficult, that it wasn’t all hashtag blessings, and that they struggled. The disciples acknowledged that things were not going as they expected, that they had some doubt and some courage and faithfulness, and that it was hard.

Moving away from a manufactured and Instagram worthy life of faith lets us connect with others who are struggling.  It moves our faith from this thing only for the unworthy to something that’s for really for all of us, which Jesus wanted.

Thirdly, and this might be the most important, the disciples listened. They listened to this man who told them things they weren’t expecting to hear.  He told them things that went against their traditional religious understandings, and they didn’t dismiss out of hand, didn’t reject, them, but were amazed by them.

Now of course, this stranger was Jesus Christ, and he told them about how they could interpret the Hebrew Bible to find him in there, but I think the lessons remain.

What if we showed up and journeyed with people, no matter who they were?

What if we were then vulnerable and authentic with them?

And what if we listened to them?

None of these things require that you abandon your faith, or what you believe.  I think doing them might help your faith out a bit.  It’s strengthened my faith.

And I know this sounds hard, and it is. It’s a task we can’t do alone, nor are we expected to.  But to give you a little bit of hope, I’ll finish out the quotes of what two of those folks from my facebook wall had to say about Christianity.  I do this not to inflate my own ego, but because of the power and difference that one person can make:

From the person who called Christians out as having a façade of caring, “I hadn’t been able to think of Christians as good people until I met you (and it’s not for lack of encounters).”

And from the person who was bullied most by people who were Christians? They finished the sentence, with, “so nothing good, until I met you.”

And I am but one kind of socially awkward, weird guy who’s a decent listener.  What could you do when you meet a traveler on the road?