Roots and Routes

August 14, 2005

Tim Espar, Lay Speaker

Christ United Methodist Church

Piscataway, New Jersey

 

 

Good morning.

 

Several years ago my wife and I were blessed to win a weekend in New York which included two nights at the Plaza and orchestra seats at the world premiere of a new opera at the Metropolitan. I still recall sitting in those marvelous seats, just feet from the stage, gazing at the rich and famous all around us, and thinking ďWhat in the world am I doing here

 

My feelings at this moment are much the same. What in the world am I doing here? I expect all of you have been Christians far longer than I. You know more about the faith than I ever will. If someone had told me ten years ago that one day I would be sharing my Christian testimony with a congregation made up mostly of people I donít even know...Wow! Who says our Lord no longer performs miracles on this earth?!

 

As we know from Scripture God has always put some of the most unlikely people in surprising places and situations to serve Him.

 

The apostle Paul was certainly one of these. We hear him tell the church at Rome in todayís reading: ďI am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham from the tribe of BenjaminĒ. Well, I can say much the same Ė the only difference being that I am from the tribe of Levi rather than Benjamin. The Levites, as you remember, took care of the Temple and in turn God took good care of them. But, unlike the other tribes, they were given no land of their own. I sometimes wonder if something got mixed up in my familyís genealogy. I just donít see myself as descending from priests. But the no-land part still rings true.

 

Now I do not presume to put myself in Paulís league. He is in a class by himself. But, like Paul, I was born into a Jewish family. I was instructed in the Torah at an early age and was introduced to many of the customs and traditions of the faith. At 13 I dutifully became a Bar Mitzvah, a son of the Covenant. Unlike Paul I had no Damascus Road experience. Instead, like my Hebrew forbears, God had me wander aimlessly in the wilderness for 40 years. Literally 40 years. In that time I gladly helped myself to His manna and quail while worshipping every Golden Calf I could find. If there was a wrong road, I took it; a bright neon light, I followed it. I tried many vocations in many locations Ė never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

 

But even in the wilderness God did not leave me nor forsake me. He sent some wonderful Christian witnesses across my path: a close relative, a professional colleague and several pastors including Pastor Tony. He also sent me a precious wife whoís been praying for me for 26 years and a daughter who I treasure.

 

Seeds were surely planted and tended. Then I came to the Promised Land Ė not Canaan, not the fame and fortune I had sought but something far more valuable and eternal: the love and grace of Jesus Christ. My life has been transformed in so many ways. But I was also beginning to feeling pretty smug. After all, wasnít I one of those that Christ came to save first? Paul says in Romans chapter one the gospel is for the salvation of first the Jews, then the Gentiles. But Paul also says there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him, "whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved."

 

Maybe I was descended from the natural olive tree Paul speaks of in Romans 11 but those grafted in are just as connected to the root as I. The same root, Godís covenant with Abraham, the heart of the Hebrew Scriptures, supports us all. As Paul tells in his letter to the Galatians: There is neither Jew nor Greek nor slave nor free, male nor female for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ then you are Abrahamís seed. Abrahamís seed.

 

I sure wish Paul had copied my family on that letter!

 

I was maybe five or six years old when my mother gave me an Old Testament children's Bible in comic book format. I donít recall the version of the text but I think itís safe to say it was not the King James. I read it cover to cover many times over, fascinated by the wonderful stories and vivid illustrations. On the back was an ad for part two of the series, the New Testament. I showed it to my mother feeling sure she would happily buy it for me. But the look on her face when I asked was positively chilling. It was as if I had requested pork chops for Sabbath dinner. We donít read that, she said. Itís not for us.

 

How sad that for many Jews the Bible ends with Malachi or even Deuteronomy. And for a lot of Christians the Scriptures begin with Matthew. But, as you know, Matthew begins with the genealogy of Jesus, who he calls the son of Abraham. Matthew, formerly the Jewish tax collector Levi, is telling us that the two faiths are inseparable Ė joined at the root.

 

One thing three years of Disciple Bible Study has taught me is only when we look at Godís word in full can we even begin to appreciate its sweep and majesty; its continuity and its simple, unmistakable message for all of us: God loves us so much that He created us in His own image; He gave us dominion over His creation; He made an irrevocable Covenant with us, delivering us from flood, bondage and exile. Finally He sent His only son to die for us Ė all of us.  And Jesus Christ continues to save all who will turn to Him with sincere hearts. This isnít two stories, it is one.  Itís one book! And it is the book of life for all who God calls His children.

 

When I became a Christian about five years ago I did not give up my Jewish heritage. I am more proud and aware of it than ever before. Jesus and His disciples were, after all, practicing Jews. Christians and Jews have so much more in common than that which divides them. We owe so much to each other. It hurts me deeply when the divisions seem to get all the attention. But I also know in the Gospels Jesus tells us He has come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law Ė a manís enemies will be the members of his own household.

 

I expect many of us have had some experience with this. My paternal grandfather was born a Jew but became a Christian as an adult. His family ridiculed and shunned him. They thought he was crazy. But it didnít seem to bother him. He knew the Bible Ė the old and new testaments. He often quoted Paul: ďI am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.Ē He was probably the happiest, most serene man I ever met. Because he knew something the rest of the family did not Ė how the Bible ends! And that attracted me. We often studied Scripture together and he introduced me to other believers. He is with the Lord now, of course. I like to think heís very pleased today.

 

My grandfather also liked to watch Billy Graham on TV. Sometimes I would sneak away to watch with him. So I felt a real connection when Becky and I joined some 80,000 of our closest friends at the Billy Graham Crusade in Queens a few weeks back. He has reached out to all Christians-plus Jews- and all people who would listen to the simple message of Godís love and salvation through His son.

 

He has stayed away from politics and controversy because he says it would divide his audience and distract from the message. And heís right. There is certainly enough division in our society as it is. We need to concentrate on that which unites us and serve our Lord together. There is so much to learn from each other. And it takes so little.

 

In recent years at my home church in Piscataway weíve observed Maundy Thursday with a traditional Passover dinner, the Seder, followed by a solemn Holy Communion service. We eat the prescribed foods, as Jesus and the disciples did, read the story of the Exodus from the Haggadah and engage in the time-honored rituals of the celebration of Godís deliverance of His people from slavery. We then take candles from the dining tables and process into the sanctuary for the service honoring the last night our Lord spent on earth before He delivered us from the bondage of sin.

 

Now that may sound a bit strange to some but it makes perfect sense. We cannot help but feel the presence of God as we mark not the separation of two worlds but their undeniable unity. For me the short walk from the Seder into the sanctuary feels like the march of history and perfectly symbolizes my faith journey. It brings me to tears and words fail me.

 

So to close, I turn to the words of the hymnist Eliza E. Hewitt who says it far better than I can:

 

My faith has found a resting place,
Not in device or creed;
I trust the ever living One,
His wounds for me shall plead.

 

I need no other argument,
I need no other plea,
It is enough that Jesus died,
And that He died for me.