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Summer Musicals: Fiddler on the Roof

The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, 2 August 2020

A Sermon on Romans 9:1-13 by Samuel D. Zumwalt

Romans 9:1-13 English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles

I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen. But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” 10 And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 11 though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— 12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

SUMMER MUSICALS: FIDDLER ON THE ROOF

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

“Tradition is the living faith of the dead. Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” With these words, the late church historian, Jaroslav Pelikan, began his lengthy history of doctrine. This week’s summer musical Fiddler on the Roof wrestles with the struggle between tradition and traditionalism in Judaism. In Romans 9, Paul begins a three chapter focus on the God who calls all people, both Jews and Gentiles, to His love and mercy in Jesus Christ, His beloved Son.

Our Circles

Fiddler on the Roof is based upon Yiddish stories about Tevye the Dairyman written by Ukrainian-born Jewish playwright, Solomon Rabinovich, who wrote under the pen name Sholem Aleichem. If you were wondering, that is the Yiddish form of the traditional Jewish greeting “Shalom Aleichem” (“Peace be with you”). The musical, composed by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick who also wrote Fiorello, opened on Broadway on September 22, 1964 and ran for 3,242 performances. The set design was in the style of Marc Chagall’s fiddler paintings, the inspiration for the title of the musical. Reportedly, the Russian-French Jewish artist did not like the musical.

The film version directed by Norman Jewison, with Academy Award-winning orchestration by composer John Williams, opened in theaters on November 3, 1971. Set within the mythical Ukrainian village of Anatevka, the Jewish people live under the rule of the Russian tsar within what was called the Pale of Settlement, an area where most Jews were required to live.  In the opening scenes of the film, Tevye describes the Jews in Anatevka as a little circle while “the others,” the Russian Orthodox inhabitants, make up a much bigger circle. Tevye says: “We don’t bother them, and, so far, they don’t bother us.”

Tevye, the poor milkman, a husband and father of five daughters, describes his people as like a fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. This requires balance, he says, and so Tevye and the smaller circle sing “Tradition,” a song that describes how all the various roles of father, mother, son, and daughter in their little circle are set by God’s design. Introducing the song, Tevye says: “We cover our heads and always wear a little prayer shawl to show our constant devotion to God. You may ask, “How did this tradition get started?” I tell you: I don’t know.” He concludes the song with: “Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.”

Born into such a little circle in which tradition tells you how to sleep, how to eat, how to work, and how to wear clothes, Tevye, nevertheless, struggles with how things are. He sings, “If I Were A Rich Man,” and ponders what it would be like to have a big house surrounded by chicks and turkeys, geese and ducks, for Golde his wife to be happy as she orders about her servants, and how wonderful it would be to be respected by all in his shtetl and to spend more time in prayer and the study of God’s Word. He concludes: “Lord, who made the lion and the lamb. You decreed I should be what I am. Would it spoil some vast eternal plan? If I were a wealthy man.”

As his daughters are coming of age, Tevye is, according to tradition, supposed to pick husbands for them with the help of Yente, the matchmaker, but the daughters have other ideas. They want to go against tradition in the name of love, and it creates such havoc. Tevye asks Golde, “Do You Love Me,” and they come to the realization after twenty-five years of an arranged marriage, that it’s nice to know they do love each other. Perhaps there is something to tradition after all.

But the oldest daughter chooses love and a marriage to a poor tailor over marriage to an older, wealthy widower butcher. Their wedding is interrupted by the cruelty and destruction of a mob from the larger circle. The next daughter chooses love and marriage to a socialist who is banished to Siberia. The third daughter elopes and marries, outside the faith, an Orthodox Christian and that is, alas, too much for Papa. He disowns her. Finally, the anti-Semitic pogrom comes to Anatevka, and the Jews are forced to leave. As the movie ends, they have packed their worldly goods onto carts and are leaving the only home their little circle has known. The third daughter and her Christian husband leave too, and Papa tells Tzeitel, the oldest daughter, to say to them: “God be with you.”

The circles in which we live are shakier than any of us can imagine. Yes, no matter how pleasant our song, even tradition itself cannot keep us from falling. So, ashes, ashes, we all fall down!

The God Who Calls

Anti-Semitism, the hatred of the Jewish people, is a devilish abomination from the pit of hell. When Marcion, an early Christian (85-160), proposed disallowing the Old Testament, the early Church declared him and his ideas to be heretical. Today, Paul, a Jew trained by the famous rabbi, Gamaliel, tells us why: “…To them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen” (9:4-5).

In the Crossways Bible Study, we spend forty of sixty units on the Old Testament in order to understand who the Father is, who Jesus is, and who the Holy Spirit is before we ever get to the New Testament. Without reading and studying the Old Testament and all the topics Paul mentions in Romans 9:4-5, we cannot know who the God is who calls all people, Jews and Gentiles, to be His own by His grace and mercy in Jesus Christ. Without reading and studying the Old Testament, we cannot understand what God promises both to Jews and Gentiles and why His Son Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary, has to suffer and die. Without reading and studying the Old Testament, we cannot know what it means to call Jesus “the Christ” or “the Messiah” and cannot understand why He has to suffer and die for our sins and why He fulfills all of God’s promises.

Paul’s cry of the heart in 9:1-3 should sound familiar to everyone who has, like Tevye, mourned the loss of a dear one who has departed from the circle of God’s people to live in another circle outside, a circle that repudiates the tradition of the parents. We should pray like Paul for the lost.

Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down

Traditionalism, the dead faith of the living, is sterile and, thus, will neither plant nor bear children. Let us be clear, traditionalism is not simply defined by age. In fact, the apostolic tradition is very much alive both as we make disciples by baptizing in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and teach them to observe all Jesus’ commands (Matthew 28:19-20), and as we continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of the bread and the prayers (Acts 2:42).

Traditionalistic dead faith goes through the outward motions without fidelity to the Lord God and His Word. In other words, traditionalism is the faith dumbed down and made malleable to the desires of those who neither know nor love the tradition, the living faith of the dead. Dead faith comes from teachers, preachers, parents, and friends who love a God of their own making.

You may remember how Paul describes the origin of the Lord’s Supper, which according to Acts 2:46 the early Church in Jerusalem shared daily. Paul writes: “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me…” (1 Corinthians 11:23-24). And you may remember John’s vision in Revelation 3 in which the Lord Jesus says: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (3:20).

Traditionalistic faith can be found in dying churches with no desire to reach out and in busy, burgeoning churches that dumb down the faith. In truth, both are only a celebration of “us.” Today, Paul tells Jewish and Gentile Christians we stand within a living tradition given by a living Lord.

The future of St. Matthew’s is in the Lord’s hands, and He has entrusted to us the apostolic tradition: so that we will pass it along to those who are thirsty for the Water of Life and hungry for the Bread of Life. All of us go through times in a spiritual desert, times in which we are thirsting and hungering for the living God, yes, times when we discover traditionalistic faith is killing us. What is that, again? Traditionalistic faith prays, “My will be done.” That is dead faith, for sure.

Are you parched, weak, and weary? Are you grieving the loss of your dreams for your will to be done? Have you tried to make God in your image and pliable to your wishes? That’s a dead end.

To be God’s St. Matthew’s, dear ones, it’s like the instructions a flight attendant gives about the loss of cabin pressure: “When the oxygen masks drop down, first, put your mask on your own face and, then, assist the person next to you.”

To be God’s St. Matthew’s and not our St. Matthew’s: First, attend to your own thirst and hunger for the living God. Pray daily. Hasten regularly to hear the Lord’s Word and to eat and drink at His table. Don’t dabble in God’s Word. Study it. Whatever gifts God has given you, use them for your neighbor’s benefit by serving at and beyond St. Matthew’s. As you have been fed by the Lord, so feed others by inviting them to the services of God’s house, to the study of His Word, and to lively conversations about what it means to be His own dear people. As you have been blessed, so be generous with all that God has placed in your hands to be a blessing to others.

Dear ones, the living Lord God is calling us to a living faith within a living Church in the midst of a dying world. Pray to be useful for the Kingdom of God in whatever situation you find yourself. You are not dead. Don’t pretend you are. God has work for you here. Breathe in the very Breath of God that is right in front of your face, and, then, reach out to a dying neighbor.

In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

©Samuel David Zumwalt

szumwalt@bellsouth.net

St. Matthew’s Ev. Lutheran Church

Wilmington, North Carolina USA

Bulletin Insert      

Summer Musicals: Fiddler on the Roof

Praying

“Let your continual mercy, O Lord, cleanse and defend your Church and, because it cannot continue in safety without your help, protect and govern it always by your goodness; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.” (The Daily Prayer of the Church, 618).

Listening

Romans 9:1 “that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers….”

Origen [Late 2nd – early 3rd century Bible scholar in Alexandria, Egypt]: “Why be surprised that the apostle desires to be cursed for his brethren’s sake, when he who is in the form of God emptied himself and took on the form of a servant and was made a curse for us? Why be surprised if, when Christ became a curse for his servants, one of his servants should become a curse for his brethren?” (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Romans, 246).

Romans 9:5 “…and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed….”

Ambrosiaster [4th century commentator on Paul’s letters]: “Paul lists so many indications of the nobility and dignity of the Jewish people and of the promises they received in order to deepen his grief for all these things, because by not accepting the Savior they lost the privilege of their fathers and the merit of the promises, and they became worse than the Gentiles, whom they had previously detested when they were without God. For it is a worse evil to lose a dignity than never to have had it” (247).

Romans 9:8 “… but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.”
St. John Chrysostom [Late 4th – early 5th century Patriarch of Constantinople, Turkey]: “What Paul means is something like this: Whoever has been born in the way that Isaac was born is a son of God and of the seed of Abraham… For Isaac was born not according to the law of nature nor according to the power of the flesh but according to the power of the promise” (249).

Romans 9:10 “… but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac,”

Theodoret [5th century Bishop of Cyrrhus, Syria]: “… In case someone might think that the election depended on the mother….although Rebecca had twins, only one of them was chosen” (250).

Romans 9:11 “…that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works….”

St. Augustine [Late 4th – early 5th century Bishop of Hippo Regius, Algeria]: “Unless the mercy of God in calling precedes faith, no one can even believe and thus begin to be justified and to receive the power to do good works. So grace comes before all merit. Christ died for the ungodly. The younger received the promise that the elder should serve him from the God who called him and not from any meritorious works of his own” (251).

Reflecting

  1. Do I attribute my call to be God’s child through Holy Baptism to anything within me?

Learning

Christian Questions with Their Answers

After confession and instruction in the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the pastor may ask, or Christians may ask themselves these questions:

9. What has Christ done for you that you trust in Him?

He died for me and shed His blood for me on the cross for the forgiveness of sins.

10. Did the Father also die for you?

He did not. The Father is God only, as is the Holy Spirit; but the Son is both true God and true man. He died for me and shed His blood for me.

11. How do you know this?

From the Holy Gospel, from the words instituting the Sacrament, and by His body and blood given me as a pledge in the Sacrament.

Doing

  1. Pray for every unbaptized child you know and for the child’s parents, too.
  2. Pray for your unchurched loved ones and friends. Invite one or more of them to worship.
  3. Invite someone you know to attend the New Disciples Class on August 15 at 9 a.m.
  4. Discuss with your spouse, your family, or a friend the importance of and great need for self-examination before receiving the Sacrament of the Altar. If you have never considered making a private confession before a pastor, please do so… not for the pastor’s sake but for yours.
  5. Set aside time daily, preferably first thing, but when you are able to focus, to hear the Word of God, to reflect upon that Word, and to ask the Holy Spirit to grant you grace to be shaped by and conformed to that Word. Daily Bible readings may be found at www.stmatthewsch.org. If you haven’t previously done so, please ask for a new devotional booklet when you return to corporate worship or when you drive through to receive the Body and Blood of Christ this weekend. Daily lectionary readings are on p.190 in the front of the Lutheran Book of Worship (Year Two, Week of 9 Pentecost).

For Husbands and Wives

Repeat daily: “I (name) take you (name) to be my wedded wife (husband), to have and to hold from this day forward; for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; to love and to cherish until death do us part, according to God’s holy ordinance, and thereto I pledge you my faith.”