"No Better (and Just as Good) - Pentecost 11A
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Delivered By
Pr. David Fleener
Delivered On
August 20, 2017 at 10:15 AM

Pr. David Fleener

Sermon: Pentecost 11A, August 20, 2017

Romans 11:1-6, 13-24, 28-32; Matthew 15:10-28


No Better (and Just as Good)


            A few weeks ago, I mentioned the metaphor of the olive tree that Paul uses in Romans. When I met with the “Joe and Jesus” group this Monday, we found that the metaphor had been entirely excised from the lectionary reading for this Sunday. So, I did my own “cut-and-paste” job on Romans 11 to make sure you heard it. Here is the metaphor again, from Eugene Peterson’s The Message:


Behind and underneath all this there is a holy, God-planted, God-tended root. If the primary root of the tree is holy, there's bound to be some holy fruit. Some of the tree's branches were pruned and you wild olive shoots were grafted in. Yet the fact that you are now fed by that rich and holy root gives you no cause to crow over the pruned branches. Remember, you aren't feeding the root; the root is feeding you.

It's certainly possible to say, "Other branches were pruned so that I could be grafted in!" Well and good. But they were pruned because they were deadwood, no longer connected by belief and commitment to the root. The only reason you're on the tree is because your graft "took" when you believed, and because you're connected to that belief-nurturing root. So don't get cocky and strut your branch. Be humbly mindful of the root that keeps you lithe and green.


            Paul, writing to a predominantly Gentile church, needs to make the nature of salvation and the nature of God absolutely clear. God chose a group of people to be carriers of salvation to the entire world. From and through them came God’s promises and gifts to humanity: the promise to Noah to never flood the entire earth; the gift of the law, which showed human beings how to live in relationship with God and with one another; the gift of fallible, identifiable heroes of faith; and, of course, the promise of the Messiah through the prophets, especially Isaiah and Jeremiah and the deliverance of that promise in a Jewish family that lived in a small town “on the wrong side of the railroad tracks”, so to speak. Salvation comes through the Jews, as Jesus himself makes clear in John 4.


            Paul is trying to nip nascent anti-Semitism in the bud. He wants his Gentile audience to understand that just because they have been grafted into the tree of faith and life, they shouldn’t think of themselves as better than those who have been separated from the tree. On the contrary, they should pray that God would perform a “miracle graft” and graft the broken branches back into their own tree.


            We can think of Paul’s metaphor in its own terms – as speaking to the relationship between Jews and Gentiles. But in Blackford County in the year 2017, it might be helpful to think of Paul’s metaphor in terms of those who are part of the Church, and those who have separated themselves from it, do not see much use for it, or are on the margins of it.


            We all know this is a difficult time for the church where we live. Not just our congregation, but throughout North America and Europe. While the church in South America, Africa, and Asia is growing rapidly, that isn’t something we notice easily. What we do notice are all the leaves that seem to have fallen off of our own branch. For all of the time, effort, and expense we put into bringing children up in the faith, having Sunday school, Luther League, and Confirmation classes, only a relatively small fraction of those people remained part of a faith community. In the ELCA alone, there were 5.2 million members at the time of the merger in 1988. Now that number is somewhere south of 3.7 million. In our congregation, average worship attendance was 117 per Sunday in 2000. Today it is 72 per Sunday. Where did all of those people go? Well, many of them went to heaven. Others have become part of other churches. But many seem to have dropped out of the faith altogether. Others have never been part of a church community. Most of these people believe in God, and usually view Jesus favorably. But they have little use for the organized church.


            There are all kinds of reasons why this is, which we don’t need to rehearse here. The last thing we need to do is to beat ourselves up and feel ashamed over where we are now. But we do want to be aware of one particular danger that can impair our relationship with God and destroy our relationships with other people whom God is trying to reach. It’s a danger that Paul warns the church at Rome about. It’s spiritual pride. It’s the sin of thinking that because we are members of a particular church, perhaps with a particular family pedigree, that we’re better than other people. Paul warns the Gentiles at Rome, and us, the Gentiles at Zion, that just because God has grafted us into the olive tree of faith and life, we aren’t any better than those who don’t seem to be part of the tree. After all, it’s not as if we sin any less than those folks. We certainly don’t have any more intrinsic holiness or merit in us than others do. And if we’re tempted to think that our family lineage provides us with a certain degree of worth over others, we’re not going to like a lot of the Bible which proclaims the exact opposite! John the Baptist, after all, says to the gathered Pharisees and Sadducees that “…from these stones God can raise up children of Abraham.”


            It’s a lesson that even Jesus, apparently, needs to learn. The scope of his mission, at first, is to “the lost sheep of the House of Israel”. Jesus is simply following the accepted order of salvation history that we find in the Old Testament – salvation comes to the Jews first, and then to the Gentiles. But an encounter with Canaanite woman in a Gentile city changes that. This woman challenges the scope of Jesus’ mission. She challenges the limitedness of it. Even after Jesus calls her a dog, she doesn’t flinch. She takes Jesus’ definition of her and turns it on its head. She reminds Jesus that “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table”. She, in her powerful, God-given faith, reminds Jesus that she, too, is worthy of the promises of salvation.


            This woman proves to be a child of Abraham by faith, if not by blood. So it is with the rest of us. We are no better, and just as good, as anyone else. By God’s grace alone, we have been grafted into God’s olive tree of faith and life, a tree with a Jewish root, to produce good fruit for the kingdom. Zion Lutheran Church is a twig on a larger branch of faith, which connects to even larger branches, down to the same root. And to extend the metaphor, each of us are leaves on that twig. God has given each of us a place in his kingdom and valuable work to do. God, in God’s grace, sees us as worthy, worthy of the reconciling work of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection which gives us the gift of eternal life. And each of us has a job to do in being part of that new reality in which God is reconciled to humanity. As to those who are separated from the tree, we can only pray that God will graft them in, or that God has grafted them in in a way we are not aware of. And who knows? Perhaps God can use humble leaves on a humble twig, like you and me, to be part of that graft.


            Let us pray.


            Jesus, we are grateful for your encounter with the Canaanite woman, who asserted that the gifts of salvation were for all. Thank you for grafting us into the tree of life. Remind us that we are no better and just as good as everyone else, and that you have important work for us to do. Amen.


© 2017, David M. Fleener. Permission granted to copy and adapt original material herein for non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given.