Friday, September 26, 2008

Random Kindness?

Rom. 11:1-6, 11-12, 25-32[1]

Thirty-five years ago, Karl Menninger, the man whose very name was once synonymous with Psychiatry, wrote a book with a strange title: “Whatever Became of Sin?” In it, Dr. Menninger outlined his thesis that we have gradually eliminated what was once known as “sin”—first by redefining it as a “crime” for which the state was responsible, and then redefining it again as an “illness” for which nobody is responsible![2]

And yet, with all due respect to Dr. Menninger, we do have some notion of sin.[3] We see giant corporations reaping huge profits while the buying power of the average consumer goes down the drain, and we call that “sin.” We see governments forcibly imposing their will on other nations and we call it “sin.” We see people indiscriminately pursuing sexual satisfaction to the destruction of others and even themselves and we call it “sin.” “Sin” is what other people do—whether it’s financial or political or sexual, “sin” inevitably concerns “them.”

I think one reason why we don’t like St. Paul telling us that we’ve all sinned is that we’d much rather focus on someone else’s sin. But there’s that pesky Apostle, telling us yet again that we’ve all sinned. He does it in our lesson from Romans this week right in the middle of making the point that all those who are now seemingly “excluded” God will include in the benefits of salvation! Paul says, “God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” (Rom. 11:32). That language offends us. What kind of a God “imprisons” people in disobedience? But once again it’s easy to miss the point Paul is trying to make: the reality is that we’ve all imprisoned ourselves in our own disobedience, and God works to include us all in mercy!

Again, I like the way Gene Peterson puts it in The Message: “In one way or another, God makes sure that we all experience what it means to be outside so that he can personally open the door and welcome us back in.” When you read Paul’s statement in that light, you can see that the emphasis is on all. Yes, Paul wants to remind us that we’ve all fallen into the trap of sin, we’ve all wandered into the prison of disobedience. But we have to understand what Paul means by “disobedience.” “Disobedience” is first and foremost dis-belief, un-faith, the unwillingness to respond to God’s gift and claim with trust. Beyond that, “Disobedience” in this context doesn’t mean standing up for a different point of view (as in civil disobedience), it’s going our own way regardless of the consequences to ourselves or others. “Disobedience” here is not a courageous refusal to be coerced by the powerful, it is indulging in the satisfaction of our own desires at the expense of others. “Disobedience” is not simply accidentally failing to follow the rules, it’s willfully doing what is destructive to oneself and/or others. And Paul insists over and over again, that we have all fallen short, we have all given in to the temptation of indifference toward others, or to the opposite temptation of using others for some form of self-gratification.

But what he insists on with even more conviction is that in response to our disobedience, God works to extend mercy to us all, to include us all in the embrace of salvation. God’s plan is to see to it that we all may enjoy the free gift of new life. And Paul says that this happens because of God’s grace (Rom. 11:6). “Grace” is another word we need to understand.[4] In this context it means “undeserved kindness” (cf. Rom. 11:6, CEV). The fact that it’s undeserved means that God gives it to us as a gift that we have no claim to but God gives it any way because that’s how God relates to people!

God’s kindness may be undeserved—by us all—but it really isn’t a random in any way. In fact, God’s kindness is very intentional: God has determined from all eternity to be the God has mercy on us all! God deliberately chose to include everyone—especially those who seem to have been excluded. That’s what Isaiah the prophet had said long before Paul:

And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, … these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered (Isa. 56:6-8).

God’s purpose is about inclusion, not exclusion. That’s always been true. God called Abram and Sarah, not just to single out one family, but in order to “bless all the families of the earth” (Gen. 12:3). What God chooses—always has chosen and always will choose—is to extend kindness to us all![5]

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/17/08 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] That this continues to be an issue 35 years later can be seen in Norman L. Keltner, “Whatever became of Sin? Revisiting Menninger’s Question,” Perspectives in Psychiatric Care July-Sept 2005.

[3] Cf. David H. Kelsey, “Whatever Happened to the Doctrine of Sin?” Theology Today 50 (July, 1993): 169-78.

[4] Cf. D. Mark Davis, “The Centrality of Wonder in Paul's Soteriology” Interpretation 60 (October 2006): 415, “when Paul tries to communicate the mystery that, in Christ, God is fulfilling the covenant to both Jew and Gentile, Paul is pointing to a grace which lies beyond both comprehension and language.”

[5] cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.2: 232, “the end and aim of all God’s ways … is the act of His free mercy”; cf. also 2.2: 259.

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