10/19/2014 sermon: “No-account righteousness”

Location: Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, Virginia
Text: Isaiah 45:1-7
19Pentecost, Proper 24, Year A

No-account righteousness

I am wondering: Did you ever see the movie, Schindler’s List? The movie’s leading character, Oskar Schindler, was a German manufacturer who saved over 1,000 Jews during the Holocaust by employing them in his factories. Oskar used all of the fortune he had amassed to bribe Nazi officials and protect “his people.”

Two things have always struck me odd about Oskar’s story. First, Oskar began employing Jews because he made a lot of money doing so. But, before long, he unaccountably became obsessed with saving Jews. This was a morally correct choice, a righteous choice that all too few people in central Europe made during the Nazi era. What impelled Oskar to act righteously?

Second, Oskar was a very successful profiteer and businessman before and during the war. Afterwards, though, he never was able—try as he might—to succeed in business. Eventually he lived on the gratitude and generosity of the people he had saved. How had Oskar gotten the financial means to act righteously toward the Jews in his factories?

Oskar had acted righteously, but his was a “no-account righteousness” because we cannot rationalize his actions.

Right about now, if you know about Oskar Schindler, you might say, “Wait a minute, Jo. We can account for Oskar’s righteousness; Oskar was a Roman Catholic.” To which I reply, “Yes, he was baptized and raised in that faith. But Oskar has been described ‘an indifferent Catholic, at best,’ which is to say he was of ‘no-account righteousness.’” We can have our theories, but we cannot account for how it was that Oskar was righteous.

In 1963, by the way, the Israeli government named Oskar Schindler “Righteous of the Nations.” This is an honorary title given to non-Jews who risked their own lives to save Jews from the Nazi Holocaust. The idea behind “Righteous of the Nations” is that people who do not know God can be God’s instruments in doing God’s work; righteousness is not confined to God’s people. There is no accounting for righteousness, no rationalizing righteousness.

Our own Presiding Bishop was assailed by other Christians a few years back when they asked her to defend her belief that people who have not consciously accepted Christ as their savior might end up in heaven. She said, in effect, that there are people who show us what seem to be fruits of the Spirit without seeming to know God.

I don’t know what you think about this concept, about “no-account righteousness,” that people who don’t appear to be God’s people can be God’s agents in our world.

Our Old Testament lesson for today raises this very subject. The people of Israel experienced God working through Cyrus the Great. Cyrus was not Jewish; he didn’t even know God’s name. And yet Cyrus—king of the Persians—had conquered Babylon and was allowing the Israelites, who had been exiled in Babylon for 70 years, to go home and rebuild their Temple in Jerusalem.

If such an event were to happen today, we might call this a coincidence. Geopolitical analysts might trace the factors that led Cyrus to be the world’s first humanitarian conqueror, the first conqueror to become a world superpower. If such an event were to happen today, historians might show us how one historical factor or choice inevitably led to another to account for this unfathomable stroke of fortune for the Israelites.

Well, the Israelites were not fooled about how this had happened. They knew that God is at work in our world. Cyrus’ act was unprecedented, although his act was very like God’s work of freeing his people from slavery in Egypt. Another Exodus had occurred. And who was God’s agent? Not a Jew (like Moses). Not an unrighteous ruler (like Pharaoh). God’s agent this time was Cyrus, who didn’t know God but who acted righteously.

Burning Love, 2013

The most remarkable thing about this event in the mid-sixth century BCE is that, for ever after, Jews have called Cyrus “messiah,” a title that means “anointed by God.” Cyrus is the only non-Jew in Hebrew scripture who is called messiah.

Isaiah explains how this had happened. God, he insisted, had given Cyrus the powers and might needed to conquer enough of his world that God’s people might go home and again worship God. God, Isaiah explained, had “surnamed” Cyrus. God had adopted Cyrus and had given him gifts and talents and treasures to use to accomplish God’s purpose. Somehow, God had turned “no-account righteousness” into God’s righteousness. Just like Oskar Schindler in modern times, God had placed Cyrus in a position to restore God’s chosen people to his promise.

What Cyrus’ story (and Oskar’s story, for that matter) teaches us today is that we cannot account for who God makes righteous. There can be something akin to an “anonymous Christian,” as the 20th century Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner worked out. Rahner said, “God’s grace, with its power to save the world, works for the most part anonymously.”

Tuna_Altar_smallToday, at the end or our [10 am] service, we are going to bless some tuna. We hope that our offering will make a very real difference this month in the community around us. We hope that, in some small way, this tuna will feed some hungry people.

But maybe we just needed to be generous. Maybe in God’s accounting, his people here at Resurrection (who each have their own needs) just needed to do SOMETHING to help others. Maybe the people we help the most by being generous is ourselves.

For whatever reason, we are here. And God is making us righteous. We think we are righteous because we asked God to work in our lives. Or perhaps we think we are righteous because we choose moral acts over amoral ones. In the end, though, God is a more active agent in our lives than we often credit. In a very real way, God has chosen us.

Cyrus teaches us that, when all is said and done, God’s righteousness is a “no-account righteousness.” Because we are not God, we cannot direct righteousness, we cannot reckon righteousness, and we cannot account for righteousness. All we can do is seek righteousness and participate in righteousness when God gives us the opportunity.

How is God working in and through your life? Do you know, or is God working anonymously?

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Ancillary thought to ponder:
Genesis 15:6 (NIV) says,
“Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.”
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