When in Romans: Merciful to All
First Baptist Richmond, August 20, 2023
The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means!
I got email on Monday.
That happens sometimes when I say something on Sunday that sounds controversial. I wasn’t trying to be controversial. I was talking about believing that God raised Jesus from the dead, and saying that there are some people who have trouble doing that, and the next day I got email from someone who asked, “Are you saying you don’t have to believe in the Resurrection? Because that seems pretty central to the whole Christian enterprise.”
So, let me say to you what I said to him. I said, “First of all, let me reassure you that I believe God raised Jesus from the dead, physically, bodily. I’ve never had any trouble believing that. My mother used to say that I had the gift of faith. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s a good reminder that faith is a gift, not a choice. I know people who don’t believe that God raised Jesus from the dead physically, bodily, but it’s not because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t. They have tried and failed. It’s as if there’s this ‘rational filter’ between them and the Bible and that filter won’t let the Resurrection through. So, when Paul says, ‘If you believe in your heart that God raised Jesus from the dead you will be saved,’ they begin to worry that they won’t be saved, and I begin to look a little more closely at Romans 10:9.”
I notice that this verse is in the middle of a chapter where Paul is talking about the futility of trying to save yourself by what you do. His fellow Israelites won’t be saved by keeping the law, he says, and you, likewise, won’t be saved by what you do. It’s not a matter of works; it’s a matter of faith. And for Paul faith doesn’t mean trying to believe things that, for you, are impossible to believe; it means giving up the impossible task of trying to save yourself; it means turning that job over to Jesus, and trusting that what he has done for you is enough. If you are one of those people who has a hard time believing in the physical, bodily resurrection I want you to hear that, because I want you to know that you still have a place in the church.
At the end of last week’s service I talked about what it would be like if I asked my three-year-old grandson to lift a hundred pounds over his head. He would try, and he would try hard, but he wouldn’t be able to do it. There may come a time when he can, but at three years old it’s impossible. Now imagine that I divided the congregation into those who could lift a hundred pounds over their head and those who couldn’t, and began to say that only those people in the hundred-pound club could serve in leadership positions, or teach Sunday school, or take communion. You would say, “That’s not fair! It leaves out children and old people!” And in the church we don’t want to leave out children and old people. We don’t want to leave out anyone, do we? I find that’s one of my constant concerns as a pastor. Even though I am a straight, white, cisgendered, American man, who has rarely been excluded from anything, I want to make sure we don’t exclude anyone else. I want to make sure that everyone has a place at the Lord’s Table. And that’s what today’s reading from Romans is all about.
Paul is wondering what will become of his fellow Israelites, those who have not accepted Jesus. At the beginning of chapter 9 he has “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” in his heart, but by the time he gets to chapter 11 he is beginning to feel a little more hopeful, a little more confident. He asks: “Has God rejected his people?” And then he answers his own question: “Absolutely not!” Paul cannot accept the idea that God’s chosen people will somehow now be accursed and cut off. “They are Israelites,” he says in chapter 9, “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 them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever” (Rom. 9:4-5).
And so he begins to look for reasons to include rather than exclude, just as I was looking for reasons to include those who have a hard time believing in the physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus.
- He begins with the argument that he himself is an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. If Israelites are not part of God’s family then Paul is not part of God’s family, and that seems unlikely, doesn’t it?
- He moves on to a story from 1 Kings, where Elijah thought he was the only Israelite left who hadn’t worshiped Baal, the god of the Canaanites. But God told him, “I have kept for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal” (I Kings 19:18). “So, too, at the present time, there is a remnant,” Paul says, Israelites who have received the gift of God’s grace, and we have no idea how many that might be.
- As for the rest, he says, “They have been given a sluggish spirit.” They haven’t embraced the new thing God is doing. They have rejected his Messiah. But all of this, Paul insists, is so that the Gentiles can be brought into the family, and once they are there the Israelites will become jealous, and will want to come back into the full embrace of the Heavenly Father.
I’ve got to say that, for me, this is where Paul’s argument begins to break down. Trying to make people jealous doesn’t sound like something God would do, but it does sound like something my mother might do.
When I was about thirteen years old she decided to take in some foster children. There were lots of reasons she might have done such a thing. With six boys of her own she might have thought two or three more wouldn’t make a difference. It’s likely that she appreciated the extra income she earned by being a foster parent. But on some level I wouldn’t be surprised if she were trying to teach her own sons a lesson about gratitude. She was waiting for those foster children to say, “Wow, you guys really have it good!” But that’s not what those foster children said. In many ways they were just as ungrateful as we were. Still, their presence made an impact; it made us wonder about our own place in the family.
It was around that time I read a book called The Walkabout, the story of an indigenous Australian boy about my age who spent several weeks on his own in the outback as a test of his manhood. I admired the way he lived off the land in that story. I admired his independence and self-sufficiency. And, because I was a Boy Scout, I thought I could do it, too.
So, one Friday afternoon that fall I made a loincloth out of a long, wide strip of fabric, tucking it into a leather belt around my waist. Like the boy in the book I decorated my face with tribal markings, using my mother’s red lipstick to make two big circles around my eyes. When I came down to the kitchen she was cutting up the ingredients for a stew she was making for supper—potatoes, carrots, beef. She looked up from the cutting board and saw me standing there in a loincloth, big red circles around my eyes, but to her credit she showed no surprise.
“Going somewhere?” she asked.
“Yes,” I answered. “I’m going on my walkabout. I’m going to spend the night in the woods and live off the land. So, whatever I do, no matter how hard I knock, don’t let me in that door tonight.”
“All right,” she said. “Have a good time.”
And with that I was off, moving stealthily up the path toward the woods, past our neighbor’s house where I stopped long enough to glean a couple of gourds left over from their summer garden. I made my way to the top of the mountain behind our house, stepping over old strands of barbed wire in my bare feet, trying to avoid briars, roots, rocks, and stinging nettles. But when I got to the top it was wonderful. I stepped out onto a ledge and watched the sun sink toward the horizon.
I was king of the hill.
I found a big, flat rock that was covered in thick, springy moss, and when I lay down on it I knew I had found my bed for the night. To stay warm I gathered up a big pile of dry leaves and put them next to the rock thinking that when I was ready to go to bed I would just pile them up on top of me. And then I squatted down on that ledge, looking out over the valley, to crack open those gourds and scoop out the pulpy flesh. I felt like the boy in the book up there on that mountain, hunkered down in my loincloth, the fading light of day on my face, a big handful of gourd pulp in my mouth. But it tasted awful. I spit it out and decided I wasn’t quite that hungry. I thought about that big pot of stew simmering on the stovetop at home. I thought about how good it would be to sit down with my family and eat it, but then I chased the thought from my mind. I had told my mother I would be out all night and that’s just what I intended to do. And then, because it was getting dark, I bedded down for the night.
That moss was incredibly comfortable, and the rock under it was so smooth and flat it felt almost like being in my bed at home. I piled those dry leaves up and over me and breathed out a sigh of contentment. I closed my eyes and waited to drift off to sleep as the moon began to come up over the horizon, and that’s when I felt the first bite.
It was a hard, fiery bite, like someone had poked me with a burning stick. And then there was another, and then another. Apparently that moss was not only a comfortable bed, but home to a million or more small, biting bugs. All they needed was the smell of my warm flesh to draw them out of the depths and into a feeding frenzy. I leaped up off my bed and tried to brush any remaining bugs off my back and legs. But it was too late. I must have been bitten a hundred times.
I stood there in the moonlight wondering what to do next. I couldn’t really lie back down; those bug bites were itching like crazy. I finally decided to go down to the river, scoop some cool, black mud from the riverbank, and smear it on those bites. It took a long time to make my way down the mountain in the moonlight, trying to avoid roots and rocks, old strands of barbed wire and stinging nettle. I wasn’t entirely successful. I limped past the house bruised and bleeding, and when I looked in through the windows I could see my family sitting around the table, talking and laughing, and those foster brothers eating big bowls of beef stew and thick slices of homemade bread, spread with freshly churned butter. Was I jealous? Yes, I was. But I made my way down to the river and slathered myself from head to toe with cool, black mud. It felt wonderful.
Can you see that picture in your mind? A thirteen-year-old boy sitting on the riverbank in the dark, covered in mud? That’s when the thrill of the adventure began to wear off. That’s when I began to think about how good it would feel to just go home. But I had told my mother I would be out all night and not to let me in. What if she didn’t? I thought maybe I could sleep in the barn, or in the back seat of the car, but I didn’t want to. I was itchy and achy, bruised and bleeding. I wanted to go home. I sat there until the cool air began to drift in off the water and make me shiver, and then I waded out into the river, washed the mud off my body, and started back up the hill toward home.
When I got to the back yard I could see that supper was over—the table had been cleared and Mom was in the kitchen washing up. I swallowed hard and climbed the back steps, knocked on the door, and waited to see what would happen.
“Who is it?” Mom called.
“It’s me,” I said, in a small voice.
And then the door swung open, light and warmth came pouring out, the smell of fresh-baked bread and homemade stew came rushing toward me, and my mom stood there in her apron, looking at this skinny, shivering, bug-bitten boy in a loincloth, a little bit of mud still smeared behind one ear.
“Would you care for some supper?” she asked.
“Well, yes, but . . . I told you not to let me in.”
“Aw, that’s all right. I think I’ve got enough stew for you.”
And then she pulled me into the house, and into her warm embrace, and the love flowed all around me, and the tears welled up in my eyes. I stayed right there for a long time. And then Mom pushed me down the hall toward the bathroom where I washed up and put on some warm, dry clothes. When I got back to the table there was a steaming bowl of stew, and a thick slice of buttered bread, and a tall glass of milk waiting for me, and Mom sitting there ready to hear about my adventures. I don’t think anything had ever tasted so good to me as that stew, and I don’t think anything had ever sounded so sweet to me as my mother saying,
Paul reminds us that in the heart of the Heavenly Father there is a deep desire to have all his children at home, sitting down together around the same table. He knows not all of them will come. Not all of them will want to. They still have freedom of choice. But for his part, like a loving mother, God intends to be merciful to all.
—Jim Somerville © 2023
Just one more thing: The last verse in today’s reading says that “God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.” All that really means is that people are people. They’re going to go their own way and do their own thing. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God. And yet God can’t stop loving those sinners. He feels his heart breaking, the tears trickling down his cheeks. If they knock on his door he’s going to let them in.