David A. Davis
August 9, 2020
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The Presbyterian Church (USA) lost an important voice last week. Steve Montgomery, the recently retired pastor of the Idlewild Presbyterian Church in Memphis, Tennessee died in a bicycle accident. He went to serve Idlewild the same year I came to Nassau. I didn’t know him but certainly knew of him and the importance of his witness. He was also an important voice in Memphis. He was still writing his column in the local paper there in the city. His last article just a few weeks ago was tribute to the civil rights icon C.T. Vivian who died on the same day as Congressmen John Lewis. When he retired, the paper asked him to write a column reflecting on his years of ministry in the church. He wrote about the 12 things he had learned in ministry over the years. The first lesson was that Jesus never used the word tolerate. It was love your neighbor, not tolerate. One of the twelve was a reminder that doctrines and creeds can be bad religion if you deify them. They are meant to be signposts, the pastor wrote, not hitching posts. As he put it, “Doctrines, you member, supported slavery and apartheid and some still support the marginalization of women and members of the LGTBQ community”.
My favorite was the lesson he shared about Jesus getting a bad reputation. Not from atheists or the media, but from what he called ‘the fundamentalist wing of Christianity whose faith in Jesus leads to a rigid exclusivism.” Jesus, Steve Montgomery suggested, is both a mirror to our humanity and a window to divinity. Over the years he had come to believe that what was most important to him was “not that Christ is God-like, but that God is Christ-like”. “Sit with that for a while” is how he concluded. God is Christ-like. He was referring to the ministry of Jesus empowering the weak, healing the wounded, caring for the poor, and taking on the powers and principalities of this world. God is Christ-like.
Which brings be to the Apostle Paul in the book of Romans and the generosity of God. As in “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek: the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on the Lord.” (v.12) Generous. In Romans 9-11, the apostle makes his argument that God’s salvation is for both Jews and Gentiles alike. It is a complex theological argument with some tough verses to understand or wrap your head around. That would include the verses I just read to you. Moses and the righteousness that comes from the law, who will ascend, who will descend, confess with your lips, believe in your heart, everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. The complexity here in the middle of Romans 10 is not like the rhetorical flourish at the end of Romans 8 that concludes with “nothing shall separate us from the love of God” echoing like the last notes of an orchestra hanging in the air inside the symphony hall. It’s not like Paul’s lists of the gifts of the Spirit and the fruit of the Spirit that when you read them or hear them, you sort of just sort wrap yourself in them like an old, comfortable sweater. No, the reader has to work a bit harder here in Romans 10.
I found Professor Matt Skinner’s take on this part of Paul helpful. Dr. Skinner teaches New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN. Former colleague of Eric Barreto, he points out that Paul is quoting or alluding to several verses from the Old Testament. That contributes to the choppiness of the flow. But more importantly, Skinner argues “as a skilled midrashic deejay, Paul remixes a scriptural conversation for the Roman churches to hear, a conversation in which—in Paul’s arrangement—Christ sits at the center of the voices. All the words gravitate around him, thus acquiring new meaning as they express God’s work through Chris”. A skilled midrashic deejay. I love that. Like the ancient scripture commentaries called “midrash”, Paul drops some of that same ancient scripture into the context of his argument. Not simply reading Jesus into the Old Testament which preachers can so often and easily do with an unchecked cavalier zeal. Rather, engaging the church then and now in a scriptural conversation shaped by Paul’s understanding of God’s salvation. Salvation in and through the work of Christ, it is a conversation with the church then and the church now that turns toward the generosity of God. Turns toward the Christ-like nature of God.
A few of the verses here sound familiar: “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved….everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Familiar maybe because your grandmother taught one to you, or you heard a preacher say one many times, or maybe they were in some list of bible verses about salvation. You and your salvation. The familiarity makes sense because the tendency for Christians is to read scripture with an eye to what it says about us, what resonates with us, what helps us in our relationship to God. But what if you flip it and read Romans 10 with an eye toward what it says about God? Shift the focus from salvation, my salvation, your salvation to the one who is the author of salvation.
Consider Paul’s language; the choice of words when it comes to the character of God. “No one who believes in God will be put to shame.” Paul, drawing on the prophet Isaiah. No shaming coming from God. “No distinction between Jew and Greek.” No distinctions in the eyes of God. “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Everyone. Everyone. Or as Paul puts it “The Lord of all”. And this, “The Lord of all is generous to all who call on the Lord.” God is generous. The generosity of God.
It is surprising to find out that the word being translated in “generous” here is not the Greek word for “generous”. It is a word more accurately translated “rich”. As in “the same Lord of all is rich to all who call upon the Lord.” The Lord of all is rich to all who call. The Common English Bible translates “the Lord of all, who gives richly gives to all who call.” It is as if the word “generous” isn’t even close to being strong enough. Perhaps it should be more like God’s lavish, extravagant, abundant, shocking, breathtaking generosity to all who call. “The Lord of all is rich to all who call upon the Lord.” God’s lavish, extravagant, abundant, shocking, breathtaking generosity to all.
Years and years ago, I sat with a non-church family preparing a funeral for their husband/father/grandfather. They told me he was not a church goer, he wasn’t religious, and never talked about faith. But they said at every Thanksgiving dinner he would offer the prayer before the family feast. It was short, they said. And the mom and two adult children recited it to me in unison. “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” That was it. They didn’t know where he learned it or who told him. I am pretty sure they didn’t realize it was a bible verse. In my young, just out of seminary pastoral, theological arrogance, I remember feeling judgmental about poaching a simple memory verse and have it serve as the only taste of a relationship with God for an entire family. Maybe a better description would be that I drove away from that funeral home after the service with my self-righteous, pious, nose up in the air. But now, more than 30 years later, now in the year 2020, as I remember that conversation, it brings a different reaction. They labeled it a prayer because he said it right before the sat down to the Thanksgiving table. Maybe it was a prayer. Maybe it was a plea. Maybe it was a statement about God. Maybe it was simply one man’s craving for the generosity of God. And if a family has only one tidbit about the God to carry them, that’s not a bad one. What I missed back then was a glimpse of the lavish, extravagant, abundant, shocking, breathtaking generosity of God. I missed the opportunity to affirm for them and for me, the generosity of God. The Christ-like generosity of God.
In this summer of shaming and distinctions, I find myself craving the generosity of God. Frankly, if I am honest, it is far too easy for my theologically arrogant, self-righteous, pious nose up in the air self to rise up. I can share my list of reasons, occasions, video clips, interviews, pictures, quotes but it would take to long. Probably better to ponder you own list. You know we all have them. Our own Pharisee and Tax collector list. “Thank God I am not like….them” In this summer of shaming and distinctions, this summer of insults, name calling, and threats, this summer of suffering and death, this summer of racial protest and reckoning with racial injustice, but also in this summer of selfless life-threatening heroics, this summer of amazing acts of kindness, this summer of redefining what it means to live for and work for good of all, this summer of gifted time of reflection and tending relationship, I find myself craving the generosity of God. Hoping, praying, pleading that as I crave it, some of God’s lavish generosity might rub of on me, on you, on the nation, on the world. That with just a whiff of that Christ-like generosity, I might be able to see others and see the world, a bit more like God does. Because God’s promise of salvation is not just for me, for you, it’s for the world’s brokenness too. It is for all.
And remember this promise about God’s generosity tucked into the I Epistle of John. God is greater than our hearts. God is greater than our hearts. God is greater than our hearts.