People can be different; they can break through limits, cliches and the status quo. If God is so broadminded, why can't we humans be broadminded? If we don't want to be constantly classified, some as failures and others as winners but are open, people can change, love and be very different, even if they are not as we would like.
The Riches, Wisdom and Knowledge of God
By Margot Kassmann
[Margot Kassmann is a Lutheran pastor in Hannover and former bishop and head of the Evangelical Church in Germany. Her sermon preached in Hannover May 30, 2010 is translated from the German on the Internet, http://www.ekd.de.]
Today's sermon is very special for you and for me. The Apostle Paul gives us instruction. How much I always prefer to preach about the gospels... Let us enter into Paul. In this text he is not so dogmatic. He is a man who can be astonished. Behold his astonishment about God's broadmindedness, God's unsearchability and our task, praising God.
When was the last time you were astonished? I don't mean a little surprise moment like "Oh, who could have imagined that?" I mean deep astonishment about what is possible in a life, astonishment , becoming silent and being surprised, astonishment like a child who sees the ocean for the first time or amazed how a butterfly comes out a caterpillar. Such astonishment is hard for us adults. We profile ourselves as hard-boiled and experienced in life; nothing can surprise us any more. Perhaps Jesus makes children our models against that paralysis. Capacity for astonishment and faith obviously belong together.
Paul writes: "O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!" (Romans 11,32)
Paul pondered this for a long while in three full chapters of the Romans letter. Our reading today is a rather challenging reading with very complex reflections reaching far back. Sometimes I think such reflection about faith seems lost to us today. Yes, Paul and Luther struggled. But what about us? We like faith explained clearly, convincingly, quickly and well. We have little time for meditation, thinking, brooding and being astonished.
The Latin American theologian Ernesto Cardenal once said: "It is hard for us modern persons to be alone. Soaring on the ground of one's own ego is almost impossible for the modern person. If he remains with himself in his silent little chamber and briefly experiences God's knowledge, he turns on the radio or the television."  But all of you have taken time to reflect this morning. Let us try to understand Paul.
We remember Jesus was a Jew. The first Christians emphasized this. Some were Jews who believed Jesus was the Messiah, the Savior for whom the people of Israel had waited so long. Others said: a crucified criminal is impossible! Thus there was a tension among the people of Jewish faith at that time, the tension that persons not of Jewish origin converted to Jesus. They found a way to the God of Israel through Jesus Christ. They were described by Paul as "Gentiles." We are the Gentiles! That is a good safeguard against arrogance. We are the Gentiles, not the others, some unbelievers on whom we can look down.
How surprising that God allows everyone to come to him apart from the law and rules. Years ago I experienced how mission history was related as a rescue history all over Australia. Then an aborigine stood up and said "Do you seriously think the Holy Spirit waited until Captain Cook set foot on Australian soil before he appeared to us?" That puzzled me. I had never thought about that. But the man was right. Who can say when God works where or what faith means for a person? We are Gentiles...
When God now promises salvation to Gentiles, persons from all nations and makes them his people, what does that mean for the salvation promises to the people of Israel? Are they not true any more? This haunted Paul. He was a Jew converted to Christ who missionized the Gentiles.
At the end of all his reflection Paul concluded these tensions seizing persons were long overcome by God. He understood: "For God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all" (11,32). This means there is no good and bad, no model Christians or faith washouts. This is a challenge particularly for those who think they have faith and possess truth and for those who think their faith is somehow not good enough and insufficient.
All persons are fallible and become saints by recognizing: Alone I cannot cope. I am totally dependent on God's grace! Martin Luther proclaimed this in a marvelous way time and again. When he said we are all pope because we are all transformed from baptism or when he declared life in the monastery is not more pious than life in the family. Freedom instead of claustrophobia and courage for creativity instead of anxious adherence to norms and rules are central.
This knowledge radiated for Paul at the end of all his reflections: God is one, the God of Jews and Gentiles. God loves persons and therefore opens a way for all. But God has a special love for the people Israel. This love is confirmed and not put in question by Jesus Christ. This sentence stands despite all Jewish hatred, all anti-Semitism and all anti-Judaism. Therefore there should be a special love of Christians for Jews because Jesus in whom we believe was and remains a Jew.
God is broadminded! Isn't that marvelous? Magnanimity, understanding and abundance appear with God where we persons are sometimes so narrow and excluding. Where we deduct, count, classify and scorn, there is love, affection and freedom with God. This astonishment over God's broadmindedness touched the strict Apostle Paul who worried when women spoke too much in the community. Did he long to be that broadminded himself?
We know of ourselves: "I am very different but that is so seldom!" I would have liked to pardon when I was insulted, look away when someone sickened me, be the generous wife who forgives everything, the most marvelous boss of all time, the incredible friend who always has an open ear, the super-tolerant athlete who looks away when one on the team constantly fails. These are pictures of what we would like to be: loving, tolerant and magnanimous.
But then our human nature breaks through. No one is a perfect being. I am jealous even though I despise that feeling. I am envious even if this is completely idiotic. I am calculating even if I regard this as a rotten attitude. I am stingy even if this is not sexy.
Perhaps Paul is astonished that God is very different than his own narrow boundaries. We are also astonished about people when they act differently than expected and when the marriage partner says: "I love you nevertheless!," when a friend softens her tone and says "Pardon me!," when the boss says "Don't worry, I will stand by you," when the teacher says, "I give you a second chance or Aung Suu Kyl who remained meek when the military regime locked her up for years. Very surprisingly Willy Brandt fell on his knees in Poland. People can be different; they can break through limits, clichés and the status quo or business as usual. This brings us to tears - because there is hope that everything could still take a turn for the better. If God is so broadminded, why then cannot we humans be broadminded? That would do us good on a small and large scale. If we humans don't want to be constantly classified, some as failures and others as winners, but are open, people can change, love and be very different, even if they are not as we would like.
Paul recognizes God loves Jews and Christians, Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians simply because God loves people - not because they are as they are but although they are as they are. This is truly an astonishing discovery!
Paul knows: "God's judgments are unsearchable and his ways are inscrutable" (11,33).
But astonishment over God cannot lead to holding to God according to our picture. God's ways remain unsearchable. Time and again it is hard for us people to see a meaning and fathom why so much suffering exists in the world. Why do some find faith and others do not believe and miss nothing in their lives without faith? Sometimes we are amazed afterwards when something happens in life that we cannot classify and understand and that seems to plunge everything into chaos. I have had several experiences simply not understanding how something could happen. You do not know where the journey will go in your life. Still we often look back in astonishment because there was a meaning. There were dramas and abysses but on the whole it was good. Yet the completely incomprehensible remains incomprehensible: suffering, violence, sickness and death - incomprehensible, wild, dispiriting and incapacitating.
Martin Luther tried to make clear that God's unsearchability must be part of our picture of God. If we understood everything, we could put God in a display case. But that is not God. We cannot arrange our life that way. We do not have our life "under control" and do not have God "under control." We can only entrust or confide ourselves in what we know of God. For us and for Paul, the only source of this knowledge is Jesus Christ. He shows us God as a loving Father, as one who will accompany us in suffering and distress. In his hands, we can commend our spirit in death. We know this God; we entrust ourselves to him. If we do not understand, we trust in his love. The Bible draws marvelous pictures, as when it says we find refuge under the shadow of his wings (Psalm 26,8). This does not mean narrowness, being squashed or squeezed but is a picture of safety - protection in a broad placed, with space for development, being and life.
God's wisdom and broadmindedness point the way to the future. God forgives guilt. Guilt can be forgiven. That is the deepest ground of Christian freedom. Therefore churches are passionately engaged against the death penalty. No guilt can be so heavy that others have the right to violate the fifth commandment You shall not kill! There can be a new beginning when culprits confess guilt, victims are heard and reconciliation is possible.
Life must not be taken from anyone because one bears guilt. But if someone does this, we will not despise him but entrust him to God's love. In the 2003 Luther film, this was beautifully clear when Luther against all rules buried a young suicide in a church cemetery with the words "God is mercy."
We should also practice mercy. This is often not easy for us, particularly when we are victims. When we are perpetrators, we can at least forgive our own mistakes and offenses sometimes. But the freedom that Paul discovered exists. When God forgives, how can we not forgive and share in his broadmindedness?
At the end, all astonishment and all knowledge pass into Paul's praise of God: "For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory for ever. Amen."
Astonishment over God's magnanimity and breadth and knowledge of God's unsearchability can only be brought together in a great praise of God. This intellectual who often thinks in a long-winded, complicated way, admonishes thoroughly and propounds many rules, knows he can never completely understand God but must simply open his own heart, entrust himself and praise God. Simply rejoicing in God's goodness and not becoming so tightened with all the regulations, rules and hierarchies is also freedom. "Praising God is our office," one hymn proclaims. We can do nothing but praise God. God can do everything but God cannot praise himself. Thus we praise God. Even in the darkest hours of our life, we sing "Command your ways... Air and wind give paths to the clouds. Ways on which your foot can go open up!" (EG 361). God's praise is greater than our little life because it surpasses our little life which can only be known in limits. God should be praised even when many things are incomprehensible. Entrusting ourselves to God is the attitude of faith that is astonished about God.
Such an attitude of faith leads to a standard of living. Because we know where we are safe, we can stand courageously in a world full of upheavals and fears. Then there is much to do to plead for justice and peace in the midst of our world. This can happen in small steps in our schools, jobs and with each other: looking instead of ignoring, paying attention instead of ducking away, a broad view instead of a narrow horizon!
We are held and therefore have support. Our world needs persons who radiate this. A joyful heart is vital, dear community. Grumpy Christians cannot praise God. Faith in God makes our life rich and joyful in good and hard times. Laugh, please! Look somewhat redeemed, liberated and broadminded! Be astonished like Paul! With grimaces, you cannot praise God! The poet Spitta spoke of the cheerfulness of faith. Rejoice in God's broadmindedness as in the hymns we sang at the beginning. Be broadminded, merciful, courageous, undaunted and joyful in faith. Radiate from within.
"For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory for ever. Amen."
1. Ernesto Cardenal, The Book of Love, Siebenstern, p.24
Margot Kassmann, "Believing without Seeing," sermon 2003
Margot Kassmann, "Lilies of the Field," sermon 2002
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