“Talking Clay” Romans 9:14-26

“Talking Clay” Romans 9:14-26

Sermon Audio   Romans 9:16-24

Over the last month or so my family
has spent a whole lot of time together… in the car. 
I don’t even want to look at the floor
in my back seat right now!
And don’t get me wrong,
we did a lot of very fun and very cool
and very necessary things.
But that was A LOT of time in the car.

Factoring in bathroom and meal breaks
it takes around 10 hours to get from here
to my hometown in the U.P.
and somewhere in our travels
it became a running joke
to celebrate “the part with the trees.”

For instance,
if there was a big curve in the road ahead,
Bri or I would say,
“oh, kids, you want to pay attention,
to what’s ahead, it’s my favorite part”
and by the end we all knew the punch line:
“It’s the part with the… trees!”

The joke being,
pretty much once you get north of Saginaw,
every part is the part with the trees.
But we still celebrated and laughed
and enjoyed the beauty all around us.

At one point on our journey,
we stopped in at The Cross in the Woods.
It’s a Catholic shrine up near Wolverine, Michigan
just off of I-75.

After walking through some winding paths
– very much in “the part with the trees” –
you get to a large open space
with benches formed up like pews
and a 50 foot crucifix on top of a hill
at the front of it all.

I had seen the signs many times,
but this was the first time I stopped there,
and it was rather impressive.

While we were there, Michaela asked,
“Why do they call it The Cross in the Woods?”
I laughed a bit, and said,
“Do you see that giant cross there?”
She said “Yes.”
“Do you see the part with the trees all around us?” I asked.
She said “yes.”
“Well,” I said, “There you go.
It’s The Cross in the Woods.”

This may have been the first literal case
of not being able to see the forest for the trees,
at least for Michaela.

But that whole cliche
about not being able to see the forest for the trees
wouldn’t be a cliche if it wasn’t something
that happened often,
something we are all prone to from time to time.

We can get distracted by details
– by the little things –
so much so that we end up missing
the bigger picture.
It happens to Michaela.
It happens to me. It happens to us all.

Sometimes when we read a scripture like Romans 9,
it is easy to miss the forest,
to only see the individual trees,
especially if we do not have a good grasp
of the context in which this letter is written.

And I will be honest,
while we all can look at various writings of Paul
and say to ourselves
“What in the world was he thinking
when he wrote that?”

This is one of those passages.
Is Paul really saying that,
when God makes vessels,
God makes some for glory
and some for destruction?

Is he saying that God makes some people,
knowing that eventually
God is going to throw those people
into the fire – to throw them away?

Does Paul believe that God already knows,
when we’re being knit in our mother’s wombs,
which category we fall into:
whether we’re destined for glory
or destined to burn?

And is that really the kind of God
that Paul worshipped
– much less the kind of God
that any of us wants to trust and follow?

This particular passage is enough
to make me as a preacher
want to just do a facepalm.

That is, of course,
until you take a few other
very important pieces into account.

For one thing, Paul was a human being.
And if you’ve ever misspoken in your life,
if you’ve ever said something
that was completely misunderstood
– well, Paul’s allowed to do that, too.

And the second thing we need
to take into account is that Paul
didn’t know he was writing “The Bible.”

Paul was writing a letter to a specific church
in a specific moment in time…
and so as we read his words,
we need to take the bigger context
into account.

In Romans 8 Paul has laid out
a beautiful picture of what we gain
as followers of Christ.

No condemnation from God,
being adopted into the family of God
as co-heirs of Christ,
and the reality that nothing in all creation
can separate us from the love of God
in Jesus Christ.

Then, at the beginning of chapter 9,
Paul abruptly switches keys.
From the upbeat major chords of grace,
to a minor key, a key of worry over the soul
of the nation of Israel.

Grace is powerful. But grief is powerful, too.
And as Paul looks
at the state of the world around him,
the state of the people and nation
and faith he loves, he’s full of grief.
And it’s through the lens of that grief
that we need to hear his words today.

Grief is a part of the human experience.
It doesn’t really matter what the color our skin is
or what gender we are or where we are from.

Grief comes to us all.
Whether it is the first time
our hearts are broken as teenagers
or when we lose a loved one
or we receive a difficult diagnosis,
or a marriage ends
or any of the many other reasons to grieve,
it comes to us all.

We are told that there are 5 stages to grief:
denial, anger, bargaining,
depression, and acceptance.

Listing them out like that makes us think
that there is a nice, smooth, clean,
linear progression to these stages
but anyone who has grieved knows,
that simply isn’t true.
We often bounce around
from denial to bargaining to anger,
back to denial and depression,
and then we accept the reality of the loss
and wake up one morning to find ourselves
angry or bargaining all over again.

I remember when I was 16, bargaining with God
as my grandpa Desotell was in the ICU
just before he passed away.
I would go to the chapel every day
and make promises about going to church
and praying regularly if God
would only let my grandpa live a little longer.

I remember when our son Carl
was diagnosed with leukemia asking,
and at times angrily demanding,
that God give me the cancer instead.

Saying that I had had the chance to live
and experience love and find fulfillment
and I wanted that so badly for my son.
I could handle dying.
I could handle the pain of the cancer
and the treatment. My son shouldn’t have to.

I remember even throwing in God’s face
the fact that I had followed Jesus
and listened and responded
to God’s calling on my life.
If one of us had to suffer through cancer treatment
or die, then it should be me.

I think it is a safe assumption that many of you,
when faced with similar grief events,
have had many of the same kinds of thoughts
or conversations with God.
Being willing to take on the fate of your loved one
in order that they may live or be healed
or have just a little more time.

It’s natural for us to do that.
Grief only comes
because we have love for that individual
or idea or thing, whatever it is that we are grieving.

Without love there would be no grief,
no denial, no anger, no bargaining,
no depression, and no acceptance.
Grief is a difficult reminder of the love that we share,
and bargaining is our attempt to gain power
in a situation in which we feel utterly powerless.

Romans 9, in a very real sense,
is the apostle Paul giving us a glimpse
into his grieving process,
some small insight into how he is coping,
as a human being,
with the reality of life in Christ
and the fate of his kindred in that reality.

Remember,
Paul is a Jew –
he’s been a faithful Jew his whole life.
And the Christian Church is still very young here.

There is still debate
as to the role of Israel in all of this.

Can non-Jews be a part of the church?
Can Jews be Christians, too?
There are lots of questions about
whether Gentiles
need to be circumcised or keep kosher.

As Paul has waked through this letter
he has been skirting around
that proverbial elephant in the room,
poking at it a few times here are there.

Here he starts to answer the questions:
What does all this Jesus stuff mean for Israel?
Are they cut off?
Are they, literally, grandfathered in?
Does the law protect them?
Have they missed the boat altogether?

The first few verses of Chapter 9
show us Paul’s heart in the matter.

“I am speaking the truth in Christ;
I am not lying; my conscience confirms it
by the Holy Spirit –
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 own people,
my kindred according to the flesh.”

Do you hear the grief there, the bargaining?
“I could wish that I myself were cut off from Christ
for the sake of my own people.”

Paul is working out
that simply being a Hebrew is not enough.
That with all the advantage that Israel has had,
all the blessing they have had from God,
it’s just not enough. They still need Jesus.
They had the adoption and the glory,
the covenants, the giving of the law,
the worship, the promises, and the patriarchs,
and even the messiah’s birth came through Israel, but if they don’t have Jesus,
all of that means nothing.

And that idea breaks Paul’s heart.
Paul is struggling with this. He really is.
The rest of the chapter bears that out,
showing us through his own worldview
how Paul moves towards acceptance in his grief.

Paul is trying to reconcile
his faith in Christ
with the faith he’s always known.

He’s trying to figure out how it’s possible
that God’s chosen people
could be left behind.

So Paul does a deep dive
back into the Old Testament;
he recognizes the reality
that not all of Abraham’s children were heirs,
but rather only the descendants of Isaac
were heirs of the promise.

And then the reality
that God chose Jacob, the younger brother,
over Esau the elder,
to receive the blessing
and be the line through which
the 12 tribes of Israel would come.

Even in the chosen people,
there have always been some who’ve fallen away.

As I have read and re-read
this chapter of Romans
over the last couple of weeks,
it has brought back into my mind
some of the personal writing
I have done over the years.

It’s been my practice for many years
to keep a journal,
and while its not an every day occurrence,
I do always find myself there
when I am confused about my feelings
or trying to make important decisions.
Like my calling or getting married
and even processing my own grief.

I can envision Paul
putting his thoughts and feelings down
with ink and parchment,
trying to figure out what it all means.

His joy for the gospel,
which has opened hope
to a new family of people,
is all mixed up with his grief for the people
he’s worshiped with and lived alongside
who have refused that grace.

Paul is trying to work out
his own confusion and grief,
trying to figure out the fate of his kindred
given the new realities in Jesus Christ.

And this is where our scripture for today comes in.
As Paul is working through his feelings,
his grief over a people who by and large
are rejecting the messiah,
he relies on what he knows of God.

Paul uses familiar imagery
from the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah
likening God to a potter
choosing to make out of the same piece of clay
objects for honorable use and dishonorable use.

The clay doesn’t really have a say
in what it becomes or what it is used for.
The clay doesn’t get to ask questions of the potter. The clay simply gets to be molded
and used for its intended purpose.

And it is easy for us to get fixated
on all that our modern ears hear
as wrong in that analogy.

Especially as free-will people,
we struggle with the utter determinism
stacked against our understanding of free will
and the ability to choose our own path
or on being likened to lumps of lifeless clay.
Whether we are good or bad doesn’t matter
but that we are simply vessels to be used.

We don’t really like those ideas,
but I really don’t want us
to get hung up there today.

Suffice to say that Paul
lived in a time where determinism
was a regular and popular world view,
and so it makes sense
that it would find its way
into his understanding of God as potter,
no matter how progressive he was for his day.

And all analogies eventually fail,
especially when the finite and temporal
are trying to understand the infinite and eternal.

What is important here,
the point we do not want to miss,
is that Israel, the religious people,
were missing the point.
They couldn’t see the forest for the trees.
They had sacrificed all the power of their belief
for the form of it.

Their worship was no longer
about a relationship with God,
but about maintaining their buildings.
Making sure the temple was kept up
and that the synagogues were in good repair
and that the people attended services
and supported the institution.

Later on Paul writes to his young disciple Timothy:

“…distressing times will come.
For the people will be lovers of themselves,
lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, abusive,
disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy,
inhumane, implacable, slanderers, profligates, brutes, haters of good, treacherous, reckless,
swollen with conceit,
lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to the outward form of godliness
but denying its power.”

“holding to the outward form of godliness
but denying its power”.

Clinging to the form without the power
is seeing the tree
but missing the forest all around us.

One morning last week
I found myself in a rare position
for clergy family camp.

During breakfast I was at a table with myself
and three other pastors and zero children.
A miracle to be sure.

And our conversation came around
to Romans chapter 9 and Paul’s bargaining words:
“I could wish that I myself
were accursed and cut off from Christ
for the sake of my own people.”

And every pastor at that table
resonated with those words.
That desire for their people
to be able to see the forest,
to see and live the true life of a disciple.
And how on many occasions
they themselves had thought some version
of that bargain in their head.

Being willing to set aside
the love of Christ they know
so that their congregations
would come around and really experience it.

And these pastors could no more do it
than Paul could because, as we know,
nothing in all creation can separate us
from the love of God in Jesus Christ.

It is our nature
to be willing to lay down our lives
for those we love. And pastors are no different.

We love God and we love the Church
and we long for the day
when the Church will wake up.

When the Church will set aside
the form and return to the power.
When we will stop working
on getting new members
so that we can maintain the building
and start working on knowing Christ
and making him known
and in so doing truly honor those
whose life blood was poured
into the foundations of our buildings.

Because the people
who built our houses of worship,
either through financial gifts
or the sweat of their brows,
built them not so that future generations
could look forward to maintaining it
but so that the people of God
might have a place from which
to launch into mission.
A place to go and learn
and grow in our relationship with God together,
in community.

Friends, it is time to stop missing the point.
It’s time to wake up and remember
why we are here.

And we are not here to make sure
the doors of this building stay open.
If you are a follower of Jesus
then you have a mission and a calling
and it has little to do with the building
we are sitting in.

And that doesn’t mean
that we let things fall apart.

But it does mean
that we need to have our priorities straight.
That building the kingdom of God,
making disciples of Jesus Christ
for the transformation of the world,
making sure that everyone we meet
knows that
God loves them and there’s
nothing they can do about it,
is the top priority for us.

When we do that.
When we take seriously
our own relationships with God and are willing,
like Paul, to pour ourselves out as a sacrifice
if it means other of our kindred coming to Christ –
when we put Christ first,
when we put others before ourselves –
when that happens folks,
we won’t have any problems paying the bills.

We won’t have any problems
raising funds for new ministries or new roofs.
Our problems will be figuring out
how to add seating
or how to start a second service
or where to hold another Sunday School class.

If we expect great things from God,
we must attempt great things for God,
and that first step,
that first thing we must attempt,
is a vital and vibrant relationship with God.

We need to make a conscious,
concerted effort every day to know God,
to love others,
to see the forest and the trees
and everything else God
is longing for us to experience in our lives.

May we be lovers of God and lovers of people;
may we be witnesses to a faith
and a grace that really is big enough for us all. Amen? Amen.

Grace Cubed Podcast

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