On my first full day in Wittenberg (last March) our group went on a walking tour of the old city. This older area is actually pretty small, so maybe village or town would be a better description. I’m thankful for the guided tour because I would have missed some important history if I had been on my own. Knowledgeable guides are important in any endeavor!
This day, we saw the sights, we heard some wonderful stories of Martin Luther and Katerina Von Bora, we heard stories of the importance of Wittenberg to the Reformation. And we learned an important and difficult history… important and difficult Lutheran history.
Our guide, Pastor Hans, took us to the back of St. Mary’s Church (Roman Catholic pre-reformation, Lutheran now), now the Town Church. Here he pointed out a relief, or sculpture, that is on the outside of the church. It is small, and rather high off the ground, and thus many people probably never notice it. I doubt if I would have noticed it.
The sculpture is of “Jewish swine.” Anti-Semitic, disgusting, and attached to a church. This predates Luther…not to excuse his anti-Semitism, but as our guide commented, shows that the culture was anti-Semitic, the church catholic was anti-Semitic. Some of us wondered why the sculpture was still there. We were told that removing it has been a topic of conversation, even consternation over the years. The church, for now, has decided to leave it as a reminder of an ugly history.
This is our legacy as Christians. And as I read Paul’s letter to the Romans I have a terrible time understanding how anyone can read this letter and believe that anti-Semitism is ok or that hating any group of people is ok. This is an example of a cultural bias, along with a misunderstanding of history, affecting the way they read and understood scripture. It is a lesson to be aware of our own cultural bias when we read and interpret scripture.
So far, on our journey through Romans, we’ve been reminded that:
Jesus was killed under the law…it was legal but there was no justice.
That God’s grace is indeed a free gift that is offered to all people.Compassion – Sermon for 7/9)
That suffering is a condition of our world.
That the Holy Spirit intercedes for us…and that there is absolutely nothing that can separate us from God’s love. (“As we ought” – yesterday’s Sermon)
Paul will now devote a significant portion of this letter to his “own people,” Israelites, Jews. In the section we read today, he wrote of all that came through his own people: “the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.”
Paul is telling his readers, new Christians who’ve already been involved in disputes with Jews that if it weren’t for his own people, the Christians would have nothing. He cares immensely and would be willing to give his own life for the sake of his own people. He would have been horrified at the way Christians through the centuries have treated people who were the first recipients of God’s promise of grace.
Later, Paul will address us Gentiles in saying,
“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, do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you” (11:17-18).
All of this is a reminder to us that we are not the ones who decide for God, who is in and who is out. Today we live in the knowledge that we are the recipients of God’s grace and forgiveness. We also live in the knowledge that many of those who came before us, believed and did some atrocious things to their neighbors…not only to Jews, but to Muslims, to people of other religions, and even to other Christians.
If one were to take a cynical look at history, it would seem as if one certainty that we have is that as human beings, is that we are more capable of hating and fearing our neighbor than we are of loving and living alongside. Demagogues throughout history have been successful in stoking fear and resentment that leads to hate.
But that is not our only history and it need not dictate our future. God’s grace is a powerful force throughout all of history. We’ve experienced the movement towards acceptance… towards inclusion… towards respect for one another. We’ve also experienced the resistance to this. Jesus too experienced resistance to this… to the point of death.
Martin Luther King famously said:
“Evil may so shape events that Caesar will occupy a palace and Christ a cross, but that same Christ will rise up and split history into A.D. and B.C., so that even the life of Caesar must be dated by his name. Yes, ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’”
(Note: King has those words in quotes because he was actually citing 19th century clergyman Theodore Parker, who first coined the phrase.)
Justice is for all people. This section of Paul’s letter contains another great promise. He was actually repeating words attributed to Moses, who was quoting God.
“I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy,
and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” (9:15)
We are all in need of that mercy and of that compassion. We are always invited to offer mercy and compassion to our neighbors.
In 1988 the members of the Town Church, in Wittenberg, added another piece of art, a Holocaust Memorial. This one is on the ground, next to the wall that contains the anti-Semitic sculpture. This artistic expression comes with an explanation:
This memorial was unveiled on November 9th, 1988, fifty years after the start of the Jewish pogrom in the Third Reich. It is the response of the congregation of the town church to the medieval anti-Semitic ‘Judensou’ (Jewish swine).
The monument, which serves to warn against forgetting history, consists of four paving slabs with cracks between them. These slabs are trying to cover up the Cross, which is refusing to be suppressed and is welling up between them as a sign of guilt and atonement.
The surrounding text relates to the old inscription above the sculpture:
The true name of God,
the maligned Chem Ha Mphoras,
which Jews long before Christianity
regarded as almost unutterable holy,
this name died with six million Jews
under the sign of the Cross.
Then follows in Hebrew script Psalm 130:1:
Out of the depths have I cried to you, O Lord.
I wonder what lessons we can learn from this for today.