Watch Yourself.

Romans 11:13-24

“13 Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I glorify my ministry 14in order to make my own people jealous, and thus save some of them. 15For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead! 16If the part of the dough offered as first fruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; and if the root is holy, then the branches also are holy.

17 But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, 18do not vaunt yourselves over the branches. If you do vaunt yourselves, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you. 19You will say, ‘Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.’ 20That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. 21For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you. 22Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity towards those who have fallen, but God’s kindness towards you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off. 23And even those of Israel, if they do not persist in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. 24For if you have been cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these natural branches be grafted back into their own olive tree.”

There was an article in Foreign Policy magazine this week revealing the March Madness irony of Americans’ stubborn hatred of Duke basketball–you see, in the world of international affairs, the United States is Duke.  There’s a reason the U.S. is called a superpower, why we’ve got a bad reputation throughout the world, why Europeans are sometimes storied to turn up their noses at people with American accents.

Both Duke and United States have an attitude of Manifest Destiny, both have been rather successful despite their pride.  Like Duke, like the United States, so are 21st-century Christians, especially us in the West.

It’s as if Paul is standing before us today!  We are Gentiles.  We are wild olive shoots.  We’re wise to remember that none of us is here on our own merit or because of our own resourcefulness.  Listening to these words rubs me the wrong way a little bit–“the root supports you,” “perhaps he will not spare you,” and “do not become proud.” How can someone else, someone like the Apostle Paul, tell me that I’m not exceptional?  Like the United States, like Duke, I have an attitude that I’m somehow an exception to the wisdom of Scripture; I’m not under judgment because I’m a 21st century Christian.

Of course, the truth is that we are.  We are grafted into an olive tree that’s thousands of years older than we are, that’s weathered hundreds more storms than we can imagine, that’s survived droughts, floods, scorching sun, erosion, brutal pruning, and frigid frosts.  The root, Paul says, is what keeps the olive tree alive; the root of God’s people is Jesus.  We’re physically connected to the Almighty through Jesus–our brother in humanity, our true nourishment in the Eucharist, and our pure lamb of sacrifice, slain for our shortcomings, our sin.

What we do when we come to worship, when we pray, when we study Scripture and listen–it’s nothing new.  We’re imbibing the root’s nutrition, which God has been providing for us through the Holy Spirit for thousands of years.  Being grafted in, added on to an already-thriving, already-healthful tree, we’re fortunate to benefit from the “rich root” of the olive tree.  We’re receivers.  Part of the reason that we worship the way that we do, and that we care about and bother to remember people like Thomas Cranmer, whose feast we celebrate today, is because we recognize that the Church, God’s people, have been around for a long time before we came along, and Lord willing, will be around for a long time after we’re gone.  We are not the trunk of the tree.  We aren’t in charge; it’s not our job to change the course of history–God already has.

As master gardener, God has taken a great risk in allowing all these wild, scrappy, untested shoots onto his one precious olive tree.  Not only could the wild bits wreck havoc on the tree, but the wild bits themselves may die–grafting is a tricky business, uprooting and cutting off bits of a perfectly happy plant and sticking in onto another, after cutting into that plant, too.  We’re grateful that God is as masterful as a gardener can be; if anyone can keep those wild shoots alive and thriving, it’s Him.

As part of this cultivated, long-established olive tree, we wild shoots may feel uncomfortable at times; it’s not our show, it’s not our game, not our “natural” home.  Becoming part of this tree means that we aren’t wild anymore; we’re under the care of a gardener, being protected from wild elements, but also being pruned and trained to grow in a way that makes us better, even though it may feel uncomfortable, or even painful.

Therefore, let us “not become proud, but stand in awe” (v. 20) of the tree to which we’ve been added.  Because of God’s kindness, as Paul puts it, we’ve been made to belong as God’s people.  Let us not take that title as an opportunity to boast, but as an invitation to humble, holy living, full of listening, full of flexibility, full of awe.

(from Friday, March 21st, 2014 – preached at Seibels Chapel, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Columbia, SC)
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