FIRST LESSON: Genesis 45:4-8
SECOND LESSON I Corinthians 1:26-31
SERMON: “It’s about What God Does”
Two weeks ago after worship I had to hurry out of here to go to Kalamazoo for the Committee on Preparation for Ministry annual consultation retreat with the people who are under care of this presbytery as they work towards ordination to ministry. Keep in mind that pastors, now called Teaching Elders since the newest Book of Order, are not members of local churches, but of the presbytery.
And we are highly encouraged to participate in the life of the presbytery through involvement in committees and taskforces. Some pastors choose to serve on a variety of committees during their career. I have consistently served on CPM for about 15 of the 19 years I’ve been in ministry in Lake Michigan Presbytery. I am happy to leave to others the concerns of Budget and Finance, of Administration, and even Camp Greenwood. I find supervising the training of those called to ordained ministry to be some of the most vital work in the church, rivaled perhaps only by the critical work of those who serve on nominating committees in the local church.
The retreat two weeks ago was the last such retreat in which I will participate, as my current term ends at the end of this year. While I will always be a member of presbytery, I am ready to hand over this task to others, encouraged by the outstanding gifts of the current membership of that committee. But since it was my final retreat with them, I volunteered to lead the closing worship. For that worship I chose the same scripture passages we just heard this morning. And because it was my final retreat in that context I decided to share with the group some of my observations and learnings over the years. Most of the people on the committee didn’t know that I play piano, and that was necessary for one of the illustrations I wanted to use, so I started worship by playing a prelude, and then after the opening did Mark Hayes’ arrangement of “Majesty.”
When it was time to give my message, I told them about the time I severely injured the ring finger on my right hand. It happened about 35 years go. We had gone to Chicago to visit my parents, and because there was no place to park a car on the street near their house we parked in the alley behind their back yard. I was at the back of our station wagon, letting our two rather excited dogs out of the car; somehow they tripped me; I started to go down, reached for the fence to keep from falling. My ring caught on the fence, and fortunately snapped – or I would have lost the finger.
Mom and Dad lived just two blocks from the University of Chicago Hospitals, so we headed to the emergency room. There’s a sign on the wall there that says that the average wait to see a doctor is five hours. In this case who you know helped, because my dad as a professor of physiology and pharmacology at the U of C knew whom to call, and I didn’t wait long before someone came down from the hand clinic to fetch me. They checked me out and sent me home with the finger splinted so that traumatized ligaments and blood vessels could heal.
A few weeks after that, why – I don’t recall, I decided to hang around and play the piano at our church for a while. I had hardly touched a piano since high school. But I realized that evening that my still stiff, sore finger felt better. So I started going over to the church to play the piano as often as I could. For the next ten years I could tell the difference between a day I had played and one when I had not. Eventually we bought the piano that now sits in my living room. God did not cause me fall, but I am convinced that God redeemed the injury through my practice and occasional performance.
Why did I tell the committee members and Candidates/Inquirers that story? Because over the last eighteen years I have seen a lot of people come seeking to answer a call to ministry. Some of those people are pretty broken when the first come to CPM, and I have watched them heal and I have seen God work in their lives. A few people come before the committee have it all together, but most have wounds. I was one of the people who was, if not broken, at least seriously wounded when I started seminary. None of us are perfected, but God seems to delight in taking human brokenness and turning it to good.
Consider Joseph, whose brothers were so jealous of him that they sold him into slavery. He made good and became one of the most powerful people in Egypt. When his brothers came to Egypt looking for relief from famine, Joseph understood that what they had intended for harm, God used for good. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph your brother whom you sold into Egypt. But don’t feel bad, don’t blame yourselves for selling me. God was behind it. God sent me here ahead of you to save lives. There has been a famine in the land now for two years; the famine will continue for five more years—neither plowing nor harvesting. God sent me on ahead to pave the way and make sure there was a remnant in the land, to save your lives in an amazing act of deliverance. So you see, it wasn’t you who sent me here but God.
Consider Moses, set adrift as a baby, raised by Pharaoh’s daughter, angered to the point of committing a murder, and yet chosen by God to lead the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt and given the honor of presenting to the people God’s Ten Commandments.
Consider David, guilty of adultery and of having Bathsheba’s husband killed in battle. Yet God took over and David became probably the greatest king ancient Israel ever had.
I don’t know of even one of Jesus’ disciples who was perfect. Consider Matthew the tax collector-made-disciple and Peter the impetuous fisherman who denied even knowing Christ. Think of the people Jesus touched in his ministry: Zacchaeus tax-swindler become honest, Mary Magdalene prostitute become devoted supporter of Jesus’ ministry and after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, Saul, persecutor of first century Christians become Apostle to the Gentiles. And those are just a few of the many. Clearly God is able to take human brokenness and bring healing and restoration.
For years one of the guiding principles in my life has been what my grandfather wrote to me while I was recovering from cancer the first time. Grandpa was proud of how I handled all that at the age of 21 and wrote, “Remember, it’s not so much what happens to you in life that matters. It’s what you do with what happens to you that counts.” There’s a great deal of truth in that. But it’s not the end of the story.
Paul wrote to the folks in Corinth:
Take a good look, friends, at who you were when you got called into this life. I don’t see many of “the brightest and the best” among you, not many influential, not many from high-society families. Isn’t it obvious that God deliberately chose men and women that the culture overlooks and exploits and abuses, chose these “nobodies” to expose the hollow pretensions of the “somebodies”? That makes it quite clear that none of you can get by with blowing your own horn before God. Everything that we have—right thinking and right living, a clean slate and a fresh start—comes from God by way of Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 1:26-30, The Message)
So it’s not just about what we do with what happens to us, it’s about what God does with what happens to us. It’s about what God does in us and with us and through us.
Now take what Paul wrote, and apply it not just to yourself, but to the church. I paraphrase:
Take a good look, friends, at who you were when you got called into this ministry. I don’t see many of “the brightest and the best” among you, not the most influential, not many from high-society families. Isn’t it obvious that God deliberately chooses churches that the culture overlooks and exploits and abuses, chooses these small congregations to expose the hollow pretensions of tall steeples”? That makes it quite clear that no church can get by with blowing its own horn before God. Every day we have a clean slate and a fresh start—comes from God by way of Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 1:26-30, The Message)
We have been saddened this past week by the death of Robin Williams. He was younger than I am! He battled major depression and its frequent companion of substance abuse. I grieve for the pain he and his loved ones endured. But when I look at the body of his life’s work I see amazing accomplishments and tremendous delight brought to many by his talent and humor. Whether he was a man of faith or not, God has worked through him to bring joy to others. And through his death God will move us forward in our understanding of depression, suicide and mental illness.
My brother-in-law has taken to calling me “shorty” because of the short time I have left as your pastor. Some of you don’t want to think about that and will be sad for this phase of North Kent’s ministry to come to an end. Others in the congregation are more than ready to see me go. None of you know what will happen with this ministry as it transitions to new leadership. But I tell you that God will do what God will do with and for and through this congregation. God can heal whatever wounds there are. God can redeem any brokenness that remains. God can build upon the spiritual growth that is here because it’s not about what you do. It’s about what God did in Jesus Christ for the salvation of human kind. It’s about what God is doing in and for and through you.