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.
FIRST LESSON: Psalm 85:8-13
SECOND LESSON Romans 10:5-15
SERMON: “Bible-mail Mis-scription”
My Internet/cable/phone provider does something really cool. If you leave a message on my Comcast voicemail, it attempts a written transcription of your message and sends it to me in an e-mail. It’s a great service because if someone calls meat home while I’m at work with my e-mail open, I know I have a phone message and if necessary I can respond right away. I use the word “attempts” because rarely does the transcription come through without errors. Most often it fails to get my name right: “Hey Alan, this is . . .” A friend called a while back and the service transcribed Hesperia as Asberry. A-s-b-e-r-r-y isn’t even a word. There is a name, Asbury, which is spelled A-s-b-u-r-y. A couple of weeks ago I got a message from “reese-with-at Social (?) Security ministration.” That was actually Latrese Whittaker from the Social Security Administration. My personal favorite, I will never forget happened when our beloved choir director called around Christmas time last year and sang the opening sentence of his message. I don’t remember what they did with the song, but Xfinity transcribed his next sentence as, “I sound like a holly dog.” I had to listen to find out what he actually said: “howling dog” - And no, he didn’t sound like a howling dog, but it still gives me the giggles to think of him as a “holly dog.”
There are all kinds of things this automated transcription service has difficulty understanding. An article by Bob Kaylor in this month’s Homiletics notes a similar problem with the ‘auto-correct’ feature meant to correct texting mistakes on tiny cell phone keyboards. One mother’s text, reacting to a picture of her daughter, came through as “You look affordable.” She meant “You look adorable,” but then maybe the kid shopped at a thrift store. Another mother wrote to ask her son, “Where are you?” His text came back, “I’m having a little seizure.” Mom quickly texted back, “Oh no! I’m calling 911 for you right now!” “No, mom! I meant I’m having a Little Caesar’s -- I’m eating pizza!”
Various techy forms of communications sometimes make people say something completely different that what they mean. The same thing can happen in Christian life when we misapply, misunderstand, mistranslate, and misquote scripture.
How many times have you heard someone say, “God helps those who help themselves” ?
Sorry, this is not in the Bible, nor is it biblical. It is actually a quote by Benjamin Franklin, who is not exactly a great theologian. This quote is really quite opposite of what the Bible teaches. Take for example the following Scriptures: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct your path.” Proverbs 3:5-6
How many times have you heard someone say, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.”
Another proverb-ish sounding verse, but not in the Bible. Strangely, it is from the mouth of John Wesley, the great 18th century evangelist. Whether he meant physical cleanliness, or heart cleanliness, we don’t know.
“To thine own self be true.” Buzzer sounds again. Not in the Word of God, but from Shakespeare’s pen in his famous play Hamlet. And again, it is not even a biblical concept. The Bible says to be true to God our Father, not ourselves. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” Deuteronomy 6:5
“Spare the rod, spoil the child.” is not even there. While the concept may be correct, the Scriptures do not word it this way. The verse this quote is likely to be attributed to is:
“He who withholds his rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him diligently.” Proverbs 13:24
“Money is the root of all evil.”
This is a misquote of I Timothy 6:10, which actually says, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.”
Then there are some non-biblical assumptions that get made. People say, “Eve ate the apple in the garden.”
There is no mention of a specific fruit in the story of Eve’s sin. It is simply called “fruit.”
There are several words that we use when we talk about God and Christ, words that never appear in the Bible: Trinity –– incarnation –– valid theological concepts, but not found in the text. We talk about God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but the word “trinity” is not there. We talk about God coming to us at Christmas, born in the flesh, but the birth narratives don’t use the word incarnation.
The terms “altar call,” “rapture” and “slain in the Spirit” never appear in the Bible.
Apparently some Sunday school teachers need to exercise more care when teaching Bible stories to children. Some amusing misunderstandings from kids include the ideas that:
Lot’s wife was a pillar of salt during the day, but a ball of fire during the night.
Moses led the Jews to the red sea where they made unleavened bread which is bread without any ingredients.
Moses died before he ever reached Canada . Then Joshua led the Hebrews in the battle of Geritol, and . . .
Jesus was born because Mary had an immaculate contraption.
I’ve shared some humorous examples of biblical misquotes and mistranscriptions, but it’s not so funny when people take the core of Christian faith and alter it in ways that distort the gospel, add unnecessary burdens to people’s lives or cause people to turn away from Christ in disappointment and disdain. Whenever someone says, if you take such and such a position on this or that issue, you’re not really a Christian, they pour contempt on what Jesus did for us all on the cross. When someone says if you are not this denomination or that one, you’re not really a Christian, they limit the effectiveness of what God has already accomplished. When someone says if you have committed this particular sin, you are not saved, they deny that sin is sin and that Christ died once and for all. When people are led to believe that good works and following strict rules will get them into heaven, grace becomes twisted into law.
God sent the Son into the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
From today’s lesson: If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
First, “Confess with your lips that Jesus Christ is Lord.” The implications of that confession would have been startling to those Roman Christians. For them to say that Jesus is Lord means that Caesar is not Lord, and to say that meant they were committing treason against the empire (which was, in fact, the charge that sent many of them to their deaths). Confessing Jesus as Lord meant then, and it means now, that we’re giving our allegiance to a new world order, with Christ as the ruler of all. To speak of Jesus as Lord is to say that we’re his subjects and that we will order our lives according to his lordship.
Second, “Believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead.” Death is the curse that results from human sin. The law told us what sin was and reminded us of its consequences. Jesus, however, has reversed that curse. In Jesus, God has defeated death, and those who believe in him with their whole hearts will share in his resurrection. And because death has been ultimately defeated for us means that we can live as people who are free from fear. “Salvation” isn’t just some future hope, it’s a present reality!
Faith, in other words, isn’t a set of rules, it’s a way of life. Paul doesn’t want us to be auto-corrected; he calls us to be Christ-corrected. “No one who believes in [Jesus] will be put to shame” says Paul (v. 11). It doesn’t matter if you’re a Jew or a Greek, or if you’re affordable or adorable; when you are in Christ, you will always be made right!
Finally, it’s not just about getting ourselves Christ-corrected, it’s about sharing him with the rest of the world that’s been constantly getting the wrong message. “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed?” says Paul, “And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?” (v. 14). Sharing and living out faith in Christ are the ways in which God uses us to bring his Christ-correcting grace into the world. It’s not about badgering people into it, but about sharing the grace and love of Christ. After all, we above all people know that we are poor auto-correctors, but we also know that, in Christ, God is making the whole world right, including us.
FIRST LESSON: Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21 (p. 979)
SECOND LESSON Matthew 14:13-21 (p. 1520)
SERMON: “You Bring the Bread. God Will Bring the Miracle”
Many years ago, there was a woman who lived in a small village in France. Trained as a nurse, she devoted her life to caring for the sick and needy. After many years of kind and selfless service to the village’s families, the woman died. She had no family of her own, so the townsfolk planned a beautiful funeral for her, a fitting tribute to the woman to whom so many owed their lives.
The parish priest, however, pointed out that, because she was a Protestant, she could not be buried in the town’s Catholic cemetery. The villagers protested, but the priest held firm. It was not easy for the priest either, because he too had been cared for by the woman during a serious illness. But the canons of the Church were very clear; she would have to buried outside the fence of the cemetery.
The day of the funeral arrived, and the whole village accompanied the woman’s casket to the cemetery, where she was buried outside the fence. But that night, a group of villagers, armed with shovels, sneaked into the cemetery. They then quietly set to work moving the fence.
More astounding than Jesus’ feeding of the crowds with a few pieces of bread and fish is Jesus’ transforming the crowd into a community, a community united in their need for one another, in the bread they share, in the love of Christ who has brought them together. Christ empowers each one of us to perform our own miracles of creating community when we “move the fences” to include outsiders, when we welcome the rejected and forgotten to our tables, when we give of what little we have, joyfully and gratefully, for the sake of others, when we welcome one another as we would welcome Jesus.
What worries you about the world in which we live? Maybe you worry about poverty and the truth of the old saw that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. A little over a billion of the world’s richest people consume some 80 percent of the earth’s resources. The other six billion make do on the other 20 percent. The world has 842 million chronically malnourished people, about 60% of them are women. Every 10 seconds, a child dies from hunger-related diseases.5 The Department of Agriculture in our own country, estimates there are 3.8 million families who experience hunger and up to 12 million families concerned about having enough food to feed their families. Hunger is real.
Jesus’ disciples realized that the people who had flocked to hear him teach and preach were getting hungry. They went to Jesus and said, “Send them away, so that they can go and buy something to eat.” One of the best features of this congregation is your generosity in helping people who are hungry through organizations like North Kent Community Services and Kids Food Basket. Too many people follow the example of the disciples that day, offering similar suggestions: Let the government feed them; let social services take care of them; let the homeless shelters take them in. At the same time, the government looks to faith-based communities and asks, “When are you going to help?” And Jesus, in the only account all four gospel-writers found important enough to include in their narrative, Jesus surprises the disciples, who think they are being practical and reasonable. He says, “Do not send them away. Give them something to eat.”
17 ”We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered.
18 ”Bring them here to me,” he said.
The disciples know they can’t feed a crowd of 5,000 men, plus women and children with five loaves of bread. The best thing we can ever do when facing any overwhelming trouble, whether trying to feed a humongous crowd or facing a life-threatening illness, economic disaster, relationship failure, social ruin, a natural catastrophe or any adversity, is start by taking it to the Lord. You bring the bread. God will take care of the solution.
19 And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. 20 They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. 21 The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.
Hilary, bishop of Poitiers during the mid-fourth century, wrote that Jesus was fully aware of the significance of feeding the crowd. Number held great significance for the Hebrew people. It was no coincidence that there were five loaves: up to then the people had depended on the five books of the Law; the two fish were reminders of the preaching of the prophets and of John to restore hope to human life by virtue of water (baptism); and 5,000 heard the message of two fishermen in Acts 4. And naturally, the 12 baskets were the baskets of each of the disciples – including even Judas . Jesus knew the significance: he was to become their bread and their hope.1
I have heard many people try to explain the “ miracle “ of the loaves and the fishes. Modern people suggest that it was Jesus’ inspirational preaching that moved the crowd to reach into their pockets to share with those around them who had little or no food. Perhaps. In some circumstances that would indeed be quite miraculous.
Another theory says that the story is not really talking about physical hunger but spiritual hunger. When the small amount of food was passed around everyone tore off a minuscule symbolic fragment. In this Jesus is said to have satisfied the hunger of the soul not the stomach.
These questions probably say more about us than they do about Jesus. If Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, as we proclaim in our creeds and confessions, then why would he not be able to perform miracles, and on a regular basis.
Since the Age of Enlightenment began in the late 17th century, an educated humanity has been less inclined to acknowledge a miracle, and to rely on reason and scientific inquiry. The chief objection that modernists have with this story of the Feeding of the 5,000 was answered by St. Augustine over 1500 years ago, long before the Enlightenment era. Augustine said, “Miracles are not contrary to nature, but only contrary to what we know about nature.” The miracle here was that a weary but compassionate Jesus understood the true power of the Creator God - the Father of the universe. And He acted in accordance with that knowledge: with miraculous results.
This is the Good News we proclaim: You and I are not responsible for the miracle – we are responsible for bringing the need . . . and the bread to Jesus. God will provide the miracle . . . God will meet the need.
1Rev. Gary D. Cecil, Grace Presbyterian Church, Panama City, Florida.