As we saw last Sunday, in his weighty introduction to his letter to the Romans, Paul mimics the style of official decrees from the Roman empire, replacing in the process the gods of the Roman pantheon with the world-changing news revealed through Jesus Christ. Then Paul launches into a withering attack on the corruption of the world, rooted in the elevation of the “creature over the Creator”, as Paul puts it, resulting in a long list of sins including everything from gossip to murder.
It is one of the great misfortunes of Christianity that misguided Christian preachers have latched onto particular items in that list, especially Paul’s culturally conditioned but horribly inaccurate view of homosexuality, to turn the gospel of love and grace into pronouncements of judgment and hate, and in total disregard for Paul’s own conclusion with which our text for this morning begins. So take note, after his long list of human failures, wrongful deeds and spiritual shortcomings, Paul writes in chapter 2, v . 1: Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.
I could stop right there and do a whole sermon just on that verse. If only it were taken to heart by every Christian, it would correct a multitude of sins committed by otherwise godly people. If you ever wondered how to respond when someone uses the Bible to condemn good people to eternal damnation, the answer is Romans 2:1: When you judge others, you condemn yourself. In other words, don’t do it! Pretty much says it all.
Paul continues to drive this point home and concludes with an all critical theological perspective that is central to his theology and I believe is one of the most basic tenets of Christian faith needed for our world today. Reading now the rest of the text, v. 2-11:
You say, “We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.
A candidate for President of the U.S. questions the impartiality of a federal judge because of his Mexican heritage and is denounced by the Speaker of the House for “textbook racism”.
Meanwhile, for the first time in the history of the U.S. a woman secures sufficient delegates to be nominated by a major political party for the same office while the supporters of her opponent protest against a rigged, biased system.
And while we wait for the final votes to be counted in the California primary, a judged in that state sentences a rapist who offered no remorse for his attack on an unconscious victim, to just 6 months in prison causing a social media storm against the judge for showing more sympathy for the perpetrator than the victim.
Gosh, if only there were something in the news this past week which I could use to illustrate the need for divine impartiality and the judgment of God on human sin.
The bulletins were already printing on Friday with my sermon title on “An Impartial God in a Tribal World” when I went to the City Club of Eugene in which three local Native American leaders spoke on the importance of changing Columbus Day, the second Monday of October, to Indigenous Peoples Day in order to better honor the traditions and rich heritage of Native people and the grave injustices they have suffered beginning in 1492.
For those who have lived in this land for thousands of years, the notion that Columbus “discovered” the Americas is terribly offensive. Celebrating his exploits, which included mass killings of the first residents of this land, to claim their homeland for white settlers in reality is not about discovery, but the colonization and dispossession of indigenous people, which is more than an ancient artifact of history, it is an on-going reality with enormous consequences to this day.
Thus for most Native Americans, celebrating Columbus Day is akin to celebrating the birthday of Adolf Hitler. Though our federal government has recognized less than a fourth of the more than 500 tribes that once ruled this land, that most of those tribes still exist is a powerful testament to the resiliency, courage and beauty of those cultures and the gifts they have given to our nation. As such they expose the lie of the melting pot ideology that we are or even should be a monolithic culture where all heritages and identities are merged into one grand ideal with a single language and one national story of manifest destiny from sea to sea.
This is the reality to be celebrated as the strength and beauty of this nation, that we are a people of many heritages and traditions, languages and histories, races and religions, united not by the color of our skin, the nation of our birth or even the God of our ancestors, but by our commitment to the ideal on which our country was founded of justice and liberty for all.
For us as people of faith, followers of Jesus Christ, that ideal is rooted in our understanding of the impartiality of God as expressed here by Paul, which is not only relevant to the realities of a world where our identities are closely linked to our tribal origins, be it Mexican or Missourian, Cherokee or Chinese, Irish or Iroquois, I would argue that it is essential for our deeply conflicted world today. For it is precisely this notion of a God who transcends those human divisions that separate us, that not only allows us, it even commands us to strive for unity within our diversity, wholeness within our uniqueness, collaboration and cooperation over conflict and competition.
This vision of a God who shows no partiality, who judges us, as Martin Luther King famously said, not on the color of our skin but on the strength of our character, or as Paul says, who will bring glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good, was a most remarkable proclamation for a Jew of the first century and remains a powerful, unifying force for all people today.
Such a vision of God’s justice and fairness is not only the basis of our concept of blind justice, it is the basis for a just and peaceful world where the rights of every individual and all peoples are respected and honored.
Just how such a vision is manifested in human affairs was most powerfully illustrated this week in a most unusual place, or at least for me, most unexpected, in the eulogies given for a man who made his fame in the boxing ring as Cassius Clay, stripped of his title as a draft resister in protest against the war in Vietnam, and then regained it as Mohammed Ali, an outspoken advocate as a black Muslim for civil rights and a universal symbol for black pride who energized and empowered a whole generation of African-Americans and who would then go one to become a global ambassador for peace even as he fought the Parkinson’s brought on by his career in the ring.
I was at first surprised to discover as I was running errands on Friday afternoon that NPR was devoting nearly three house of radio time to cover the memorial service, not for some leading politician or world leader, but a boxer, a sport I have not particularly liked. But then I was most pleased and moved to hear speaker after speaker list the many incredible attributes and accomplishments of this man I had known mostly as a sports hero and less as a humanitarian or a civil rights leader. It was striking to hear so many people, not just his family and friends, but preachers and sports casters, a college scholar and a former President, and many more, talk about the impact that Ali had not just on their lives, but on our society.
His widow noted, “In the diversity of people and their faiths, Mohammed saw the presence of God. He was captivated by the work of the Dalai Lama, by Mother Teresa and church workers who gave their lives to protect the poor. When his mother died, he arranged for multiple faiths to be represented at her funeral and he wanted the same for himself.” And so the service on Friday was a diverse, interfaith celebration of life.
The most inspiring eulogy, however, came not from a religious leaders, a politician or a fellow athlete, but from a comedian, a Jewish kid from the Bronx who Ali came to love as his little brother, Billy Crystal. So what better way to capture the impartiality of God than with a Jewish comedian’s reflection on the life of a black, Muslim boxer? So I give you a glimpse into God’s impartiality from, like Paul, this Jewish perspective:
Every one of his fights was an aura of a Super Bowl. He did things nobody would do. He predicted the round he would knock somebody out in, and the he would do it! He was funny, he was beautiful, the most perfect athlete you ever saw — and those were his own words.
But he was so much more than a fighter as time went on, with Bobby Kennedy gone, Martin Luther King gone, Malcolm X gone, who was there to relate to when Vietnam exploded in our face?
There were millions of young men my age eligible for the draft for a war we didn’t believe in, all of us huddled on the conveyor belt that was rapidly feeding the war machine. But it was Ali who stood up for us by standing up for himself.
And after he was stripped of the title, and the right to fight anywhere in the world, he gave speeches at colleges and on television that totally reached me. He seemed as comfortable talking to kings and queens as the lost and unrequited. He never lost his sense of humor even as he lost everything else. He was always himself: willing to give up everything for what he believed in. And he used amazing rhetoric about the life and plight of black people in our country that resonated strongly in my house. …
He was an honorary chairman for a dinner at a very important event where I was being honored by the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He did all of this promotion for it. He came to the dinner. He sat with my family the entire evening. He took photographs with everybody; the most famous Muslim man in the world honoring his Jewish friend.
Because he was there, we raised a great deal of money, and I was able to use it to endow the university in Jerusalem with something that I told him about. And it was something he loved the theory of and it thrives to this day. It’s called Peace Through the Performing Arts. It’s a theater group where Israeli, Arab and Palestinian actors, writers and directors all work together in peace, creating original works of art. And that doesn’t happen without him.
I had so many, so many funny unusual moments with him. I sat next to him at Howard Cosell’s funeral, a very somber day to be sure. Closed casket was on the stage; Muhammad and I were sitting somewhere over there next to each other, and he quietly whispered to me, “Little brother, do you think he’s wearing his hairpiece?”
So I said, “Uh — I don’t think so.”
[As Ali] “Well then how will God recognize him?” So I said, “Champ, once he opens his mouth, God’ll know.” So he started laughing; it was a muffled laugh at first, but then we couldn’t contain ourselves. There we were at a funeral, me and Muhammad Ali, laughing like two little kids who heard something dirty in church, you know? We’re just laughing and laughing.
And then he looked at me and he whispered, “Howard was a good man.”…
But didn’t he make all of our lives a little bit better than they were?
That, my friends, is my history with a man and I have labored to come up with a way to describe the legend. He was a tremendous bolt of lightning created by Mother Nature out of thin air, a fantastic combination of power and beauty. We’ve seen still photographs of lightning bolts, the moment of impact, ferocious in its strength, magnificent in its elegance. And at the moment of impact it lights up everything around it so you can see everything clearly. Muhammad Ali struck us in the middle of America’s darkest night, in the heart of its most threatening gathering storm. His power toppled the mighty foes and his intense light shined on America and we were able to see clearly: injustice, inequality, poverty, pride, self-realization, courage, laughter, love, joy and religious freedom for all. Ali forced us to take a look at ourselves, this brash young man who thrilled us, angered us, confused and challenged us, ultimately became a silent messenger of peace, who taught us that life is best when you build bridges between people, not walls.
… at his heart, he was still a kid from Louisville who ran with the gods and walked with the crippled and smiled at the foolishness of it all. He is gone, but he will never die.
He was my big brother.
Yes, God’s impartiality is just like that. May we be so bold in our convictions of God’s love and justice for all humanity, all creation.