Sermon – April 10, 2016

Categories: Church,Sermons

Rev. Joe ConnollyThe Gentiles

by Rev. Joseph Connolly

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“…Christ said to Ananias, ‘Go anyway. Saul is the instrument I have chosen to bring my Name to the Gentiles, to rulers and before the people of Israel.’” — Acts 9:15.

You have heard me say time and time again I grew up in New York City. What many people do not realize or understand about New York is it’s not just one big city. It is, in fact, a series of tiny towns, small villages, each with its own distinct atmosphere.

Why would I say that? How does that play out, perhaps is a more important question? There are people who, for instance, live in Queens but have never been outside of Queens, never even been outside of their own small neighborhood, never taken the short trip to Manhattan.

Why have they not gone the couple of miles into Manhattan, which would bring them into the center of what many claim to be the greatest city in the country and perhaps the world? To be blunt, the big city frightens them. So they refuse to go.

I was reminded that New York is a series of tiny towns and villages because of an article in the New York Times this week. The story was about the neighborhood known as Bay Ridge, in Brooklyn.

This is a quote from the article. “Barbara Noone, who was born in Bay Ridge 75 years ago and has lived there for all but her grammar school days, said the three-square-mile community overlooking New York Harbor provides both the convenience of the city and the feel of a village.” (Slight pause.)

Later in the writing another resident, Andrew Gounardes, likened Bay Ridge to a modern-day Mayberry— Mayberry inside of New York City? It’s a place, said Gounardes, which has old-school charm even while it continues to reinvent itself. [1]

Please don’t mis-understand. Bay Ridge clearly is in the middle of a very large city. The argument being made is it can feel intimate.

This brings me back to the idea the article stated— New York— a series of tiny towns, small villages. Hence, when one is ensconced in a neighborhood, it becomes easy to forget the larger aspects of city life which are quite expansive, cosmopolitan, broad.

And yet, being too aware of the enormity of the city can make it way too easy to forget about these little areas where you are in a tiny town, a small village. In short, these two— the city and the towns inside the city— need to be held in tension.

I would, therefore, maintain these two aspects, the large and the small, need to be seen as a whole in order to paint a picture of the reality of city life. You may try to forget one of these aspects but the other will still, hauntingly, be there. (Slight pause.)

To place a slightly different perspective on this, here’s something the late playwright and librettist Peter Stone once said. (Quote:) “The writing of Broadway shows is a cottage industry. The cottages happen to be on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and on the West End in London. But Broadway is still a cottage industry, no mater where the cottages are located.”

My point is simple: we may want to ignore some of where we come from. But the entirely of one’s background matters. So for me, personally, to say where I grew up— New York City— gave me an opportunity to be immersed in the arts and theater and that has had an enormous influence on my life— that statement is totally accurate.

But for me to deny that I grew up in a New York City neighborhood known as Bushwick— a neighborhood which when I was young housed a relatively impoverished population, a neighborhood with a significant amount of crime, a neighborhood where a reasonable goal was to escape— for me to deny that section of truth— is for me to cleanse a particular element of my heritage to a place beyond recognition. Indeed, if I do not recognize these two pieces, recognize the reality of both, recognize there is both a tension and a unity there, is for me to deny a truth of my heritage. (Slight pause.)

We find these words in Luke/Acts: “…Christ said to Ananias, ‘Go anyway. Saul is the instrument I have chosen to bring my Name to the Gentiles, to rulers and before the people of Israel.’” (Slight pause.)

In the meditation I offered last week I said this (quote:) “There is a great American heresy.” Then I said there are probably a number of great American heresies and that I wanted to point out just one.

So, I’d like to offer yet another great American heresy today. Here we go. (Slight pause.) Only the so called New Testament counts. The Hebrew Scriptures do not matter. The God of the so called Old Testament was an angry God, a God of violence. The God of the Christian Scriptures, the God of the New Testament, is a God of love, a non-violent God. Therefore, only Jesus counts. Only Jesus matters. (Slight pause.)

If everyone here has not heard this or similar rhetoric, I would be very, very surprised. What makes these sentiments heretical is they are simply untrue. Further, they are untrue in a number of ways.

For starters, in case you haven’t heard this— Jesus was a Jew. All the disciples were Jews. Paul was a Jew. For them there was only one set of Scriptures. That is what we today call the Old Testament.

What we today call the New Testament did not even exist. And those who wrote what became the New Testament did not know and did not even think they were writing Scripture when they recorded it.

On top of that, for these Jews there was only the God of the Hebrew Scriptures. And the God they found in the Hebrew Scriptures was not an angry God, not a God of violence. The God they found in the Hebrew Scriptures was a God of love.

So, what we are really privy to in this passage and in the New Testament is the Jewish people coming to grips with a new understanding of what God is doing. And central to that new understanding of what God is doing is they recognize God has raised Jesus.

In this passage Ananias is told that Paul will bring the message of Christ, who has been raised, to a new group of people on behalf of the Jews. And that new group of people are the gentiles. Gentiles— people who are not Jews— gentiles— that would be, mostly, us.

And the fact that the Word will be brought to gentiles is a part of this new understanding of what God is doing. That gentiles might hear about this Jewish God or might care about how this Jewish God interacts with humanity is a new understanding for Jewish people.

So, I think what many of us miss here is the continuity of all of this. The mission given to Paul is to spread the Word about Jesus who has been raised by the God of the Jewish Scriptures, the Hebrew Scriptures. And what the followers of Jesus understand is that the God of love found in the Hebrew Scriptures has been and is working through Jesus. (Slight pause.)

This brings me back to the idea that there is a unity and a tension to be found in many aspects of life. And unless we see and understand the unity and the tension between the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures, unless we embrace both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures, we deny a truth about our own heritage. (Slight pause.)

Having referred to heresies, I need to say the very existence of heresy of not this holding onto both sections in the Bible and seeing and understanding the unity and the tension therein. This particular heresy has many explanations. But let me point to one explanation.

We humans like simple, easy answers. Let me tell you, if you want simple, easy answers you will not find those in Scripture. Don’t go there looking for simple and easy answers.

What you do find in Scripture is something about the character of God. What you do find in Scripture is something about the living God. And the living God knows something about the real world, something about life. And, the last time I looked, the real world is a messy place. Life is not neat.

Paradoxically, the living God, who knows the real world, who knows life, does have a relatively simply message to offer. It’s the message called love— loving the real world.

The last time I looked there is nothing about loving in the real world which is simple or easy. But if I understand what Scripture says, our calling as Christians is that we need to love the real world, the real world in all its tensions and with all its flaws and with all its messy-ness. A calling— love the real world. Amen.

United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York

ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “I’ve used, as I noted, the word ‘heresy’ these last two weeks, but perhaps that’s too harsh a word. Looked at in another way these are not heresies. They are merely cultural fantasies— fictions like George Washington cutting down the cheery tree— cute but not true when looked at it in a serious way. So it is with cultural fantasies about Scripture— they may be cute but not true when looked at in a serious way. And when we do so, when we look at Scripture in a serious way, at least we have a chance of having the scales of those cultural fantasies removed from our eyes. Or as I sometimes say, I don’t take Scripture literally. I take Scripture seriously.”

BENEDICTION: Let us go where God leads us, for surely God leads us to embrace our neighbor with love. Let us follow where Christ has gone, and see the great commandment of loving God and loving neighbor as a watchword. And may the steadfast love of God and the peace of Christ, which surpasses understanding, keep our minds and hearts in the knowledge, companionship and will of the Holy Spirit, this day and forever more. Amen.

[1] The NY Times article:

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