Sunday, May 18, 2014

Once You Were Not a People

I Peter 2:9-10

It is the middle of May, that time of year when graduates from schools all over the country put on their robes and walk across a stage to receive their diplomas. Graduate schools, Colleges, High Schools, even pre-schools are in the process of setting the stage for this prestigious event. On more than one occasion I have been given the honor of presenting the graduation address. On each occasion I was probably selected because the first ten choices had declined, but I was happy to be there. How often does someone the other side of middle age get to speak to a captive audience of folks under 20?
Is there anyone here who has not sat through the obligatory graduation address? Can you remember anything worthwhile being said? I remember a few years ago Generation X was reintroduced to Kurt Vonnegut when he suggested the most important thing he had learned in life was to wear sunscreen. The phrase went viral as the speech lit up the internet. Vonnegut later remarked he didn’t even remember making the remark.
My favorite speech of late was given by David McCullough Jr. who dared to stand before a group of high school seniors and suggest they were not all that special. He courageously said, “Your planet is not the center of its solar system, your solar system is not the center of its galaxy, your galaxy is not the center of the universe. In fact, astrophysicists assure us the universe has no center, therefore you cannot be it.” The parents, many who had bought homes inside the Wellesley district, were stunned.
There is a gift in knowing how to say the right word to the right people at the right time. The writer of the letter we know as I Peter was writing to a group of Jewish Christians who were living outside the land of Israel. Most of the folks to whom Paul wrote were raised in a culture heavily influenced by Greek and Roman culture. But this community still had its Jewish roots. This gave the writer an incredible advantage. He could draw from the Old Testament.
It has always been a concern of mine that we do not spend enough time in the Old Testament. Too many folks believe the Old Testament to be background music played while we wait for the feature film to start. Nothing could be further from the truth. The essentials of the Gospel message are first revealed in the Old Testament. Like its successor, the Old Testament reveals the grace and mercy of God in the midst of the human endeavor. Christ does not make sense when experienced without the voices of the Old Testament text.  It is like singing a song and beginning with the third verse. The critical cohesion is missing.
The writer of I Peter, much like the writers of the letters of The Hebrews, James, and Jude, had an incredible advantage over the letters written by Paul and his disciples.  The folks receiving these letters know the first two verses of the song. They had known the stories of Abraham, Moses, David, and Elijah from birth. When the writer of I Peter addresses the graduating class of this small Jewish/Christian congregation, he is speaking to folks who are well versed in covenant language. 
He writes, “God is laying a stone in Zion, a cornerstone chosen and precious.” This image is straight out of the writings of Isaiah. He continues, “The very stone the builders rejected has become the corner stone.” This is taken from Psalm 118, a Psalm that praises the steadfast love and mercy of God.  Then from Isaiah 8 he wrote, “The stone you have chosen will make you stumble, it will make you fall.” In other words, it is human nature to walk away from the goodness of God and choose another path. But the consequence of that choice might lead to exile from God.
Much like Kurt Vonnegut telling the victims of too many spring breaks to use suntan lotion, or David McCullough Jr. reminding high schools seniors there is more to life than collecting a box full of trophies for just showing up, the words of the writer of I Peter rang true with this dispersed community of Jewish refugees. Using the words of their ancient text they heard this promise, “Despite who you are, God’s covenant remains the same. You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, God’s own people. Proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into God’s marvelous light.” 
I can imagine crowd went crazy when they heard those words. The graduates had heard everything they had hoped to hear. They were ready to hand out the diplomas so the party could begin. But then one last phrase was added. “Once you were not my people, but now you are God’s people. Once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” The crowd sat in silence, stunned, as the story of Hosea reentered their collective consciousness. They remembered, and they wept, for their hearts were overcome with joy.
Anyone who mistakenly believes the God of the Old Testament lacks love, compassion and mercy has never read the Book of Hosea. It is twelve pages long and can easily be read in a couple of minutes. But it can never be read just once. To suggest Hosea is just another book of the Old Testament is like suggesting John 3:16 is just another verse. The audience hearing I Peter’s letter knew the story and the writer was fully aware of it. It is the only reason he would have used the phrase, “Loammi”, “Not my people”. 
As many of you know, the story of Hosea is a parable representing the relationship between God and Israel. In the story, Hosea/God, marries a prostitute, Gomer/Israel. They have three children. They first is named Loammi. The marriage ends in tragedy with Gomer returning to her former life. This represents Israel’s propensity of always turning from Yahweh and seeking different gods. But Hosea will not be deterred by Gomer’s sinfulness. He seeks her out and buys her back from the men who now own her. In the later part of the book a question is raised as to why those who chose not be be God’s people are showered with mercy. Allow me to bless you with this reading from Hosea 11. “When Israel was a child I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called the more they went from me. They turned to offering sacrifices to idols. Yet it was I who taught Israel how to walk. I took them up in my arms, but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness. Like a mother I lifted them up and fed them. How can I give you up? How can I hand you over? My heart recoils within me. My compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger, for I am not a mortal, I am God, and I will not be overcome by my wrath.”    (Pause)
The recipients of that graduation address heard and remembered the creedal statement that abounds throughout the Old Testament. “God is gracious, God is merciful, God is slow to anger, and God is abounding with steadfast love.”
How quickly we forget that creedal statement. How quickly we elevate ourselves to a God-like status.  To the glory of God, children are kidnapped in Nigeria.  In the memory of Valdamir the Great, the Czar who Christianized Russia, Putkin threatens the Ukraine. In the name of God people, wrap themselves in their national flag and call for the expulsion of anyone who dares to disagree.  But why we should be surprised? When one becomes the center of their world, there is never room for grace, or mercy or restraint or steadfast love.
Might I suggest, when we are outraged by radically offensive behavior in the name of God, we remember two things. First, no matter how much those folks celebrate their inflated status, they are not the center of anyone’s universe.
And secondly, neither are we.
To God and God alone be the glory. Amen.

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