The beginning of the text…
“What then are we to say? Gentiles, who did not strive for righteousness, have attained it, that is, righteousness through faith; but Israel, who did strive for the righteousness that is based on the law did not succeed in fulfilling the law. Why not? Because they did not strive for it on the basis of faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone…” (9:30-32)
A stumbling stone. For the Paul the stumbling stone (for him and his people) was the law. This idea that, if we follow the law God will be happy with us. In fact there was this idea that if only everyone could follow the law for one day the Messiah would come. When Paul wrote, “do not say in your heart ‘who will ascend to heaven’ (that is to bring Christ down),’” he was alluding to idea that you could bring the Messiah by following the law. He was talking about that law being a stumbling stone.
I’ve mentioned many times about my experience various weeks of living the sermon. This week Scott and Megan and I went to a little running camp at Mammoth Lakes. On Monday morning, 8am we did our first run…the easiest trail run of the whole week (probably planned that way). Even with an easy trail there were challenging parts… with big exposed rocks that you have to go around so that you don’t trip and fall. Paradoxically the hard parts can be seem easier because you can see the hazards.
I made it through a challenging part… and when I arrived at a nice dirt path, I breathed a sigh of relief, “ok, this is an easy part.” Then I proceeded to trip over a hidden rock and fell flat on my face. That’s the stumbling stone that is most dangerous. The one that you cannot see. The one you encounter when you think you are safe. So for some it was the law. And for some Christians today it is the law because sometimes we get it in our heads, “if you do this, this, and this, God will love and accept you.”
I like how Paul personifies the idea of righteousness by faith. It is the righteousness by faith that says, “the word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.” As in, you don’t have to do anything to have Jesus come to you because Jesus is already here, on our lips and in our hearts…
I was prepared to talk about the crisis that we have in our country of social isolation…of the need for community. I read articles this week about the growing opioid epidemic and a growing problem of alcoholism and the health dangers of isolation. The American Psychology Association released a paper titled, “I’m so lonely I could die.”
I thought about these topics along with the decline of churches across America. I see a correlation. That people are losing community but they don’t think they can get it here. And I think of the beautiful feet bringing the good news of God’s love to people. And I had a whole lot to say on that. But then Charlottesville happened.
I think about our stumbling stone that we have as a church…and for the ELCA, a largely white church…and as a nation. A stumbling stone of racism. It seems easy to look back in history and think, “it was obvious then, they could see it.” It’s like being on the path and seeing the obvious stones to trip over.
But in reality if I was living in those times maybe its not so obvious. We as Christians have a choice. Are we going to close our eyes to racism? Or are we going to stand up and say “NO, it’s not ok”? It’s never ok.
A challenge with the stumbling stone of racism is that there are so many hidden stones that we have tripped over so many times that our legs and our bodies are all bloodied, but we don’t recognize it. We just know something is wrong.
We trip over the stone of our fear of other people.
We trip over the stone that leads us to believe the negative stereotypes of other people rather than getting to know them.
We draw conclusions on groups because of the actions of a few. And related how many times have our African American brothers and sisters had to speak for the group. Or respond to the demands made by white people for an explanation.
The systemic racism that has benefited white people throughout the history of our nation is a stone that is hidden. It causes many of us to be defensive and angry when it’s brought to our attention.
It’s a stumbling stone when we see people killed because they’re driving while black. Or a man holding a toy gun in Walmart is killed for holding a “gun.” Or a 12-year-old boy is holding a toy gun in a public park and he’s killed for that. But white men, many many white men can put on all their expensive guns and their militia clothes and they can go stand out in the streets in Charlottesville with no repercussions. That’s called privilege and racism. It’s a huge stumbling stone for us as a nation and for us a Christians.
I’ve been a pastor for 7 years and I naively never thought that this would be such a topic to have to preach on… to talk about…to address over and over again. This is not the first time and sadly it won’t be the last. Our call as Christians is to say “No. This is not ok.”
God loves everyone. We believe that. God even loves the racists, but that doesn’t mean we condone racism. It’s an act of love to your neighbor to tell your neighbor, “No. Your racism is not ok. It’s not acceptable and I won’t stand for it.”
That’s our call.
This morning I re-read a sermon I wrote after Ferguson (My Post-Ferguson Sermon, 2014). In it I had said, “God loves Michael Brown.” He’s the young man who was murdered in Ferguson. “God loves Tamir Rice.” He’s the 12-year-old boy killed while playing with a toy gun. And then I said, “God love Darren Wilson.” He’s the one who killed Michael Brown. And I was so tempted to take that sentence out of my sermon.
That reminded me of a year ago when we made all the crosses after the Pulse Nightclub massacre. When we put 49 crosses on the lawn, Mike (a church member) asked, “what about the 50th cross for the person who killed everyone?” I couldn’t put that cross up, until the following Sunday when we talked about it as a congregation and we decided that, that cross had to go up. One of our members put the 50th cross up after worship that day.
That’s important for us to remember because if God’s grace isn’t for everyone, and if that doesn’t offend us, then God’s grace isn’t for us either. It’s not an easy time. But as we look at the struggle of the church in America, I think it is so clear what God is calling us to do. Each of us. Each of us has an area of influence. Each of us has people we talk to and we are being called to say, “no, racism is not ok.”
We need to look at our own racism because all of us are part of a racist system. All of us need to learn about our own complicity. Knowing that as we struggle with that, we struggle with a God who loves us. Knowing that it isn’t easy.
The disciples in the gospel lesson today were struggling out on the sea (Matthew 14:22-33). In another story of struggle on the sea, Jesus was asleep on the boat with the disciples and a big storm came up. They woke him up and said, “Lord, don’t you care that we are perishing?” Jesus cares. And he is inviting us to ask ourselves, “do we care?”
Do we care about our brothers and sisters of all color and religion? Because God loves them. Those storms, as we choose to combat racism, aren’t just going to go away. They might get bigger. They might get scarier. But whatever we face, we face it with Jesus. He loves us unconditionally and pushes us to go.
I hope we as a congregation can do that.