I’d like to talk about the scripture reading today from Mark 6:30-44 or Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000. There are many stories of Jesus doing miraculous things that seem impossible to us now, raising the dead, walking on water, changing water into wine, etc. and we could certainly look at this story as another example of just that. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that interpretation but when asked to preach I specifically chose the version found in Mark because there’s a certain theme to that Gospel that I think can help us with interpreting what we can take away from this passage. This story does appear in all 3 of the synoptic Gospels, Mark, Matthew, and Luke, but Mark is considered the oldest of the 3 and the versions in Matthew and Luke were likely copied and edited out of the account that was first shared in Mark. You see, each Gospel writer had their own idea of the nature of Jesus and what message about him they wanted to communicate out. For Mark there’s a frequent theme that the Disciples and people around Jesus just don’t quite get it. He keeps trying to tell them what they should do and the meaning behind things and they keep failing to carry out his wishes or doubting his explanations. In fact, many scholars believe the Gospel originally ended when Jesus appears to the women at the tomb in verse 16:8, “so they went out and fled from the tomb, for the terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” The End. The women don’t tell anyone that Jesus is raised, Jesus doesn’t appear to anyone else, the mission is left incomplete. It’s believed that once the Gospels of Matthew and Luke became more widely known and there were efforts to combine them all into a common book was when the rest of the ending was tacked on. The original version would certainly make for quite an abrupt ending, so I think it is worth asking what the implications are of ending the story that way. I think when looking at the broader theme of the Disciples not quite getting it, and the abrupt ending, the implication is that YOU the reader are supposed to be the ones the “get it”. We all are the ones being called to carry out Jesus’ mission. To pick up where that incomplete ending left off.
So, what does this mean for how we make sense of this story? For me, I turn to the part where the Disciples tell Jesus to send the people away so they can get something to eat and Jesus said, “YOU feed them.” He doesn’t say “I will feed them” He says, “YOU feed them.” But of course, the Disciples don’t get it and it falls to Jesus to bless the meal and give away what he has. In light of the broader theme of the Gospel, that initial “YOU feed them” though is kind of a command for us. We’re the ones who are supposed to pick up where the Disciples of the story fall short. So, what do we do in that situation? We aren’t Jesus. We can’t create something from nothing. How do we feed multitudes like Jesus did when as individuals we don’t have enough for everyone?...
Not to get too sidetracked but if you’ll indulge a bit of a tangent, I’d like to say that I’m really not much of an actor. Sorry Maple Grove Players, I know you’re always looking for new talent but that probably isn’t me. However, when I was a child, I did rack up a few acting credits. I was one of the 3 wise men at the church Christmas pageant. I think I played some background scenery in my first-grade play called “The Last Litterbug”. Probably the funnies performance was when I was supposed to be a bunny in the background of one play and I decided to wear the wolfman costume my mother had made for me the previous Halloween but replacing the wolf mask for bunny ears. I was definitely the furriest bunny on that stage, but my greatest role, in that I actually had a couple lines, was as one of the soldiers in the story of Stone Soup.
Maybe some of you are familiar with the story Stone Soup. It’s been a while for me but for those that aren’t, the story is about 3 soldiers returning from war who have nothing to eat and are hungry and enter a town and start asking people if anyone can spare some food. At each house they come to the people turn them away. Why should we give what little we have when we can barely feed ourselves, they think? Eventually the soldiers get an idea and they set up a big pot in the town square and fill it with water and start boiling it. They then throw in a few stones. The townspeople see them do this and start to gather around and ask what they’re doing. Well, they say, in the army we got used to foraging for food and making do with what little is available so we’re making stone soup. It’s really good and we’d be happy to share it with all of you. That’s great, the people say, but is it really any good? Oh yeah! Although, it would be a little better if we just had some carrots. Oh well. Hey! I have some carrots says one of the towns people, and they go and get their carrots and chop them up and add them to the soup. Oh, this is great. Too bad we don’t have onions though. That would really make it good. Sure enough, another one of the townspeople says they have onions and adds them to the pot. This continues on and on until nearly everyone in the town has added something more to the soup. In the end they all have a great big feast together that feeds all of them, including the soldiers, and offers better nutrition from their combined ingredients than any one of them would have had with the lone ingredient they possessed. You see, the people of the town were afraid of scarcity and so they all hoarded what they had for fear of not having enough for everyone and being left without enough for themselves if they gave away any what they had. In the end though, there was enough for everyone. There was more than enough because they were able to feed the soldiers too. If they had asked themselves, how can I best help people during these times of scarcity rather than why should I help them, they would have all feasted together much sooner and been able to provide for others as well.
So, let’s go back to the feeding of the 5,000. Perhaps Jesus created food from thin air, and it was enough to feed everyone. I’ve seen it portrayed as Jesus holding up his basket to the air and bringing it down suddenly filled. That isn’t exactly what the scripture says he did. It says he looked up to heaven, blessed the meal broke the bread, but that is certainly a valid understanding of this scripture. God provides for us just as God provided for that crowd through Jesus. But again, I’m brought back to the fact that Jesus initially told the disciples, “YOU feed them” and the theme of Mark is often that we the reader are supposed to pick up where the disciples fall short, so perhaps there is another understanding that speaks to our own behavior. Perhaps Jesus is displaying more of an example to follow rather than another miracle to be an awe of.
Jesus and the disciples did not have enough food for everyone, but he gave all that he had. Perhaps there were others in that crowd that had some food with them too. After all, travel took a long time in those days. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to bring a little something with you if you’re out of the house. Surely most people wouldn’t have had a lot of food with them but perhaps something at least. I don’t know what kind of packer you are when you travel but I know I tend to throw a whole bunch of stuff in a suitcase and end up with more than I need. Others maybe pack more lightly and trust that if they forgot something they can pick up a replacement along the way. That was probably true with the people of that crowd. Some headed out to follow Jesus with extra food because they weren’t sure when they’d get back. Others maybe only brought a little, and still others might have brought nothing. Seeing such a large crowd, most people probably would have been hesitant to offer up what they had because surely no one person brought enough for everyone and if they offered up what they had they’d end up with nothing for themselves. After all, it would barely make a difference in feeding everyone else anyway. Why should they take that chance? Well, Jesus did. He didn’t have enough, and he gave it all. Others seeing that example perhaps decided to share what little they had, and then more shared what they had. Soon they ended up with a classic potluck situation where everyone gets fed and there are more leftovers than you know what to do with. An experience I’m sure we’ve all had at church potlucks, and I hope we can get back to more often again. But the point is, when everyone chipped in and thought about how they can help rather than why should they help, there turned out to be more than anyone ever expected.
So what does this mean of us, for our community, for society as a whole? I am a believer that the primary message of the Bible is not about waiting for God to magically change the world and all we have to do is stand by and believe. I believe the primary message of the Bible is that we are called upon the create the kingdom of God here on Earth. The responsibility is on us to do “On Earth as it is in heaven.” So, when we look to the message of the Gospels, we look to find the plan Jesus lays out for how we can better create that kingdom on Earth. I remember theologian John Dominick Crossen once said, “Heaven’s in great shape. It’s this world that needs fixing.” But is the problem that there isn’t enough or that it’s just not getting to the people who need it? An interesting fact of nature is that a population cannot increase without there being enough food for the existing population. It’s physically impossible. Our bodies must be made of something for there to be more of us and so it’s made from the food we eat. That means for every year that human population increased on this earth there wasn’t just enough food for everyone, but more than enough. Enough to sustain the even larger population to allow it to continue to grow. So why are there people who go hungry? Not just throughout the world but here in our community. The problem isn’t a lack of resources. It’s a lack of equitable distribution of those resources.
Now I don’t claim that these problems have easy solutions. I called this sermon “How can we rather than why should we?” because asking ourselves “how can we help” is a legitimate question without an easy answer. This is a question all churches and this very congregation often struggles with. For example, we have a covered porch with benches and a blessing box as a constant source of some food and other necessities. It is not at all uncommon for the occasional homeless person to choose our porch as a place to rest. Having such facilities is practically a magnet to bring in people who have nowhere else to go, but this church has also come a long way in embracing the opportunities the Holy Spirit puts before us even though we may struggle with how best to meet those opportunities. I was in a committee meeting not too long ago and we were talking about some of our early experiences with this church when we first joined. One person who had been here longer than I mentioned how when they first joined there was talk about how to get rid of some homeless people that had been hanging around. There was very much a mentality of “why should we help” rather than asking “how can we help?” If this congregation was the same now as it was then the answer would be to get rid of the blessing box, change the benches to those kinds that don’t offer enough room to lay down like I’ve seen so many cities using as a draconian method for further displacing the homeless. Doing whatever we could to make the church less hospitable to anyone who would come here for shelter. In more recent times though, a ministry group has been gathering to figure out how we can use the opportunity to help the homeless rather than try to get rid of them. It’s an ongoing process and COVID certainly makes it more difficult to do any number of ministries, but I am certain that far more good will be accomplished from that “how can we help” approach rather than the “why should we help” approach.
What about society as a whole? I mean when you think about it, if we’re supposed to be creating the Kingdom of God on Earth than that goes beyond what we do as individuals. We have to actually change what we prioritize as a society. Now of course there is the classic argument, teach a man to fish rather than give him a fish, but honestly how often is the argument genuinely used to propose a better way to do something rather than just thrown out there to justify not doing something? We live in fear of the scarcity of resources in this world, but they aren’t as scarce as we often act like they are. Instead, we hoard what we have and at best perform little acts of charity to assuage our guilt rather than truly changing the circumstances that create the imbalance. Like I pointed out before, there is and continues to be more than enough or else there wouldn’t continue to be more people. These are difficult problems. Finding solutions that work logistically, fairly, and sustainably are complicated. It is not my intention to seem like I’m promoting any particular policy choices or a specific approach. However, what I do think is that if as a society we approached the problems of the world with a more of a mindset of “how can we help” we would find more solutions than avoiding the problems with a mindset of “why should we help.” In some ways, the easiest thing we can do in so far as it requires the least individual effort, is to use our voices and influence to at least push our society to lean more toward that “how can we help” mentality. With enough of us pushing in that direction it could make a difference in addressing some of those global and national problems that can often seem so far outside our individual capacity to solve. Remember the people in the crowd with Jesus and the townspeople in stone soup knew they didn’t individually have enough to solve the problem. It took all of them collectively to solve the problem and to do that it took having faith that their limited individual contribution would still be enough as part of the greater whole. We as Christians must have faith that God did provide everything we would need, assuming we didn’t hoard it and create an imbalance of distribution. I’m reminded of Matthew 6:26, “Look at the birds of the air; they neither so nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” What we need has been provided as matter of our very existence and we’ve proven that by continuing to multiply on this Earth. We may not be able to multiply as we have been indefinitely but so far we’ve managed to have enough and so we know we have enough at least for right now and yet people still starve, people are still not provided for.
Let us look to Jesus not simply as a miracle worker in the sense of bending the laws of physics to create something from nothing. Let us look to him as an example to follow. Doing things that actually are within our power to do. “YOU feed them,” he said. That means YOU here now, and me, and all of us. It won’t be easy. Our world is complicated, and it can be hard to know what the best solutions are. What’s important though, is that we have faith the solutions are possible, that the resources do exist, and that we approach all these problems with a mentality of “how can I” rather than “why should I.” The first step is always making the effort rather than making excuses. The church is a great place to start because we’re already part of a community that’s making the effort but let it just be the beginning rather than the end of those efforts. Let us do on Earth as it is in heaven. Let us ask of ourselves, “How can I best feed them.”
Let us go to God in prayer:
Gracious God, we thank you for all you have provided. We know that this earth was made with all that all of us could need. We ask your forgiveness for not always letting everyone have access to what they need. We ask for strength to overcome our fears that cause us to hesitate to provide, that cause us to hoard what we have, that cause us to fall short of building your kingdom. We know that through you all things are possible and that all our problems do have solutions. We seek your guidance in finding those solutions and walking with you. In Jesus name we pray. Amen.
SCRIPTURE: James 3:1-10 (The Message)
1-2 Don’t be in any rush to become a teacher, my friends. Teaching is highly responsible work. Teachers are held to the strictest standards. And none of us is perfectly qualified. We get it wrong nearly every time we open our mouths. If you could find someone whose speech was perfectly true, you’d have a perfect person, in perfect control of life. 3-5 A bit in the mouth of a horse controls the whole horse. A small rudder on a huge ship in the hands of a skilled captain sets a course in the face of the strongest winds. A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything—or destroy it! 5-6 It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell. 7-9 This is scary: You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue—it’s never been done. The tongue runs wild, a wanton killer. With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women he made in his image. Curses and blessings out of the same mouth! 10 My friends, this can’t go on.
When I chose this lectionary passage a few weeks ago, I first thought I would entitle the message, “Words Have Meaning.”
I don’t know how many of you are like me, but I can’t ever remember experiencing such hate-filled rhetoric like that which has gripped our country. Such denigrating of one another, often shouting at one another, sometimes even threatening one another. Over race, immigration, gun control, abortion, gay marriage, climate change, mask wearing, COVID vaccinations. You know the hot-button issues.
It has split families, friend groups, work settings, and church communities. We’re reading about nurses quitting. School boards members quitting. School bus drivers quitting. Teachers leaving early.
We refuse to watch TV news that doesn’t line up with our own views. Gone are the Walter Cronkites. Remember how he was "the most trusted man in America,” as the CBS Evening News anchorman for 19 years. Now we call journalists “the enemy of the people.”
And some of the worst rhetoric is coming out of the church, even from our pastors! I have no idea why a longtime friend of mine would think I would like a YouTube video he recently sent me. It was of a Greg Locke, pastor of the Global Vision Bible Church in Mt Julie, TN. Pastor Locke was ranting while on a plane heading for Florida where he was going to be preaching at a youth retreat.
Among other things he said, “The Delta variant is nonsense! They’re going for Round Two of the Liberal Lockdown.” He went on to scream, “If you show up at our tent with a bunch of masks, I’m going to ask you to leave. I don’t care how mad you get.”
There’s a sign in front of his church that reads: “Our campus is a mask free church. Either kindly remove them or sit in your car.”
There was a letter to the editor this week bemoaning the state of the church where the person wrote: “I have evangelical friends and atheist friends…and I’m starting to like the atheists more.”
As we try to wrap our hearts and minds around 9-11 this weekend after 20 years, we are painfully aware of how words have had real consequences. Initially our feelings of patriotism and unity with one another were unlike anything I’ve experienced in my lifetime. I had never seen so many people fly American flags. The Pew Report said that as many as 79% of Americans did.
I had a young mother and her two teenage sons who lived directly across the street from my Lewisburg parsonage knock on our door right after 9/11 to talk frighteningly about whether we were coming to the end of the world. The three of them started coming to church for the first time in their lives. Remember how church attendance spiked?
But that spirit of solidarity and unity didn’t last. For it wasn’t long before the rhetoric of fear and revenge and this thing called Islamophobia took over. It led us into two wars at an estimated cost $6.4 trillion and over 800,000 lives lost. Anti-Muslim hate crimes increased 1,600% in the first year after 9/11, even though people from 93 countries were represented among the almost 3,000 who died that day.
You started hearing stories like the frightened little 10-year-old girl and her younger sister wearing their hijabs and running home in Brooklyn scared to death. A car had pulled up and a man spit at them and screamed, “Terrorists!”
Fourteen years after 9/11, in early September 2015, a Muslim man, Ayhan Kaklik, who lived in apartments across the road from my Bethel International UMC walked into my office. His wife was in one of our ELS classes. He wanted to ask if I might come to his Turkish mosque to talk to a group of men in their 20’s about something confusing to all of them. That it seemed like Christianity worshipped three Gods. Of course, he was talking about the Trinity, a concept not easy to fully comprehend by any of us.
When my devoted and protective secretary heard about it, she pleaded with me not to go. “You could be seriously hurt, Pastor Mike. You can’t take that chance!”
But a retired attorney who was in my Wednesday morning small group came to the rescue. When he heard I was going, because of his interest in world religions, he asked if he could join me. Now I was “safe” since Denny would act as my bodyguard.
So, on a Thursday early evening, Denny and I went over to TASO (Turkish American Society of Ohio) and first enjoyed a pizza supper. Then we went into a prayer room with Ayhan and about 15 young men and spent close to two hours together discussing the Trinity and some troubling issues on our part about radical Islam.
When our time came to an end, I asked if we might all pray together, not knowing exactly how to do it. I suggested that one of them pray for all of us. But they insisted I should pray, as their “honored” guest.
I don’t remember exactly what I prayed, but I do remember closing with a passionate plea for our children. With my amen, I realized that I could hardly see through the tears that were pouring from my eyes.
One by one each of those fellows came up and gave me a hug. They then walked Denny and me to our car, saying that we “must do this again.”
That led to a group of our church’s women and some young women from TASO to begin meeting regularly as “Sisters in Faith.” I preached about our coming together not long after our visit, and to my surprise the sermon went viral within the Muslim community, with feedback from as far as Chicago.
In early December of that year, Ayhan asked if he could offer what he called “Noah’s Pudding,” or Ashure, as a thank-you gift to our congregation. He said that he loves to give it in large quantities, to at least 200 people.
I said, “Maybe we could do that, but what in the world is Noah’s Pudding?” He then told me how tradition has it that after Noah’s ark came to rest on Mt. Ararat, Noah gathered anything that was available—dried fruit, nuts, grains, and the like—and cooked them to form a sweet-tasting porridge or pudding. It was given to his surviving neighbors as an offering of peace and love.
As I thought about it, I said that we have a special cantata Christmas Sunday coming up where our various worshipping communities come together, including our Korean congregation, maybe as many as 400. He said, “That would be great!”
So, on 12/20/15 at least twenty Muslim folks joined with us for Christmas music and celebration. I asked one of their men to play the Ney Flute, an ancient Turkish woodwind, dating back as far as 4500 years. I also asked one of their women, an OSU professor, to join with me in giving the benediction. Then several of them lined a table and passed out Noah’s Pudding to the worshippers as they left.
Because it was Christmastime, several guests were on hand. Some of them came up to me after the service and said, “If this is the kind of church you have, I think I want to come back for more.” I also had a few of my own members tell me, “Pastor, you have drunk the Muslim Kool-Aid.”
Since then, I have never missed a Ramadan without being in Ayhan’s home for an after-sunset, Iftar meal with other friends of his. They have joined with my wife, Diane, and me at our own home for dinner. I have prostrated myself with them at prayer time, praying my own prayer, but to the same God.
The experience is always the same. Kindness within a warm embrace exuded—the language of love. No one is trying to change the other person. Just trying to celebrate those things we hold in common and understand with appreciation that which is different. It’s become God’s greatest surprise gift to me in this late stage of my ministry. It has shattered many of my stereotypes.
I share these things to remind us that the volatile, tense, factional setting in which James was writing wasn’t a whole lot different than ours today. There were economic problems in the Roman world of that time and there was intense in-fighting among different factions.
A few years after James wrote these words, a powder keg would be lit when the Jewish Zealots revolted against Rome in 66 AD. It was a disaster, resulting in the total collapse of Jerusalem and the destruction of Herod’s temple within 4 years. Is it any wonder that one of James’ primary themes of his letter was that words DO matter?
Remember verse 6 from today’s reading? “By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos…send the whole world up in smoke, and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell.”
James then goes on to say: “With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women he made in his image. Curses and blessings out of the same mouth.”
There's an old adage that goes: “If you really want to know about a person's character, watch how that person treats the waiter at a restaurant.”
Does he treat the waiter as a person, or merely as a servant? Kind words aren't meant only for friends. We're to offer them to everyone because they, like us, are made in God's image. You can't bless God and curse his image at the same time.
Knowing how words do matter, we look to Jesus as our model. Let’s go for a moment to Jesus’ first sermon. We know it as The Sermon on the Mount.
He starts with eight Beatitudes or beautiful attitudes, filled with beautiful words. Let’s take the first couple of them. Hear the Lord’s words and their tone.
From Matthew 5:3 --“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
What does “poor in spirit” exactly mean? Listen to a different translation, the New Living Translation. God blesses those who realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is given to them.”
Or how about God’s Word Translation? “Blessed are those who recognize they are spiritually helpless. The kingdom of heaven belongs to them.”
The word “blessed” in Greek can also be translated as “happy” or even “congratulations.” So, here’s my favorite: Congratulations to those who now feel empty at the very core of their being because of their need for God. They are already citizens of God’s Kingdom.”
Beautiful attitudes. Beautiful words. Jesus’ words. They not only draw us into the heart of God, but they bind us all together. Jesus’ words are sweeter than honey.
Let’s look at Matthew 5:4 --“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
The word for “mourn” here means the kind of grief and agony you feel from having lost the most important person in your life. You’re blessed because this kind of mourning shows the depth of your love.
The JB Phillips NT Translation puts it this way: “Happy are those who know what sorrow means, for they will be given courage and comfort!”
And here’s Eugene Peterson’s The Message: “You're blessed when you feel you've lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.”
Looking at different translations is a way the bible can speak fresh words to us, even when we’ve read the same passage a hundred times before.
Words do matter and Proverbs 16:24 tells us that “Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweet to the taste and healing for the body.” We really need to believe that and practice that as Christians. The whole world is watching.
In retirement, I’ve stepped up my game in working with a faith-based prison ministry out of Marysville and Marion called Kindway. I didn’t fully appreciate the name Kindway until preparing for this sermon.
It is a powerful, faith-based program that involves inmates 18 months prior to parole and follows them through a mentoring and halfway house component for a year after release. I’ve taught Bible classes at the prison primarily for lifers and have been a Navigator for a few on parole. After ten years of operation and dealing with close to150 men and women, their success rate stands at an unheard of 98.5% (only two have returned to prison).
After they have surrendered completely to Jesus Christ, I wish you could hear their choice of words. They are filled with kindness and compassion and love, the kingdom of heaven kind of words Jesus spoke of in the Beatitudes. Never do the guys that I mentor fail to say “I love you” when we part company.
Within the last year, Stan Stever was released after almost 33 years and has already become a staff member of Kindway. In his early prison days, he was a leader among the Arian Brotherhood. I can only imagine the vile, hate-filled speech that spewed from his mouth for the better part of his lifetime. But Jesus Christ has so transformed him that some of his dearest friends are now African American.
Sam Webb, who I continue to mentor after two years away from prison where he spent close to 40 years incarcerated, is one of the gentlest souls you want ever want to meet. Sam was a boxing champion in his early days in Ohio prisons. His words, like so many of the others, are like heavenly music to the ears, sweeter than honey, always a very taste of this kingdom of heaven.
James wrote for us today that a word out of your mouth can be like a spark which sets off a forest fire. I would say that the converse is also true. A kind word takes but a second to say but can last a lifetime.
My goodness, if speaking kindly to plants helps them grow, imagine what speaking kindly to one another would do…with Jesus as our model.
GOD’S PLAN FOR YOU AND ME
REV. MICHELLE BAKER
MAPLE GROVE UNITED METHODIST CHURCH
SEPTEMBER 5, 2021
I am so glad to be with you today to be offering the message and serving at the table for communion. Both are near and dear to my heart as is this congregation. Patty asked me to offer a message of my personal life and faith. There was no question which scripture I would use for today but Jeremiah 29:11. This is my life verse. Listen to it again.
For I know the plans I have for you declares the Lord. Plans to prosper and not to harm, to give you a hope and a future.
There is a joke that says: Do you know how to make God laugh .... Tell God your plans. This seems to be so true in my life. I say often, that before I die, I want to learn the difference between my time and God’s time. I’m getting better, but I still have a way to go.
As we begin, Let’s look at the setting in which this scripture is placed. This is part of a letter that God had the prophet Jeremiah write around the year 600BC to a group of Jews who are living in Babylon approximately 400 miles from Jerusalem. They were exiled because of their sins and idolatry. God was giving the land rest for the centuries the Israelites had not kept the Sabbath. They had acquired the values of those around them, not living a life of faith. Living here was not their choice. They were exiles.
The Babylonians had come and literally taken them away from their families and friends, and forced them to leave their jobs and their homes, and to live in a place and culture which was totally foreign to them. This was nothing they wanted, nothing they planned and certainly in their foreign culture, nothing they understood.
Previous to this passage God tells them to get comfortable in their new surroundings. Because they were to be there for the next 70 years, if you ask me, that was a very long time out. BUT God assures them that he had a plan for them ... not to hurt or harm them. A plan with a purpose. What was the purpose.? The Lord planned to prosper them, to provide them with hope ... to provide them with a future.
I think we can understand theoretically that God has a plan but when we are in the midst of trial and difficult times that consumes us, it is hard to see to the other side. Sometimes I feel like that is the world we are living in right now. A virus that just does not seem to stop, fires - earthquakes -hurricanes - global warming, hatred and division even within those who are profess to follow Jesus. I don’t know about you but there are days I absolutely feel like those Jews in Babylon ... I know God has a plan but I would sure like to be brought into the loop and to how this will all work itself out.
To help us make this verse a little closer to our heart, I would like to substitute two words from what we have read. 1. Let’s put dreams in place of plans ... 2. and the original Greek meaning of hope is confidence. Let’s listen again. For I know the dreams I have for you declares the Lord, to give you confidence and a future. I don’t know about you but that lets me see this in a whole different way.
God's dreams for me? Really? The creator of the universe has dreams for me? Yes, God does have dreams for me and for you. If God created me in God’s image and calls me his daughter, why wouldn’t he have dreams for me. Think about parents. All parents have dreams for their children. Why would it be any different with our creator? And it is the same for you. God created you and calls you son or daughter and has dreams for you. It doesn’t depend on you believing it, feeling it or even understanding it. God has dreams for each of us.
Now the other word we substituted was confidence for hope. To give us confidence and a future. I know when I have confidence in achieving something, it becomes easier for me. I believe in my ability. And to think that God gives us that confidence makes it all the more attainable.
God has dreams for you, and instills confidence in you to see the future that God plans.
I’m quite sure I didn’t understand this for many decades of my life. I want to take you on a short trip to places in my life that now, I can see where God's plans helped to form me into the person that stands here today.
Let’s start in the early 1960’s at Worthington Methodist Church. There was a little girl that cried because she was too young to join the children’s choir and when she was old enough stood up in the choir loft and sang to the depths of her soul. (Infant Holy, Infant Lowly was the first song I sang in church, so Quinton if you could put that on out list every Christmas that would make me happy).
Fast forward to the mid 70’s. I went on a mission trip with another church to Broken Bow Oklahoma to work with the Choctaw Chickasaw Indians. I planned and ran a VBS for the children on the reservation. In our evening vespers I remember crying every night. The leaders passed it off as being homesick, but I look back and realize it was the first time I felt the Holy Spirit washing through me and I had no clue what to do with it.
Also during this same time frame I had just completed confirmation and finally I Was allowed to teach Sunday School. One year in the 3’s class, one year in the Kindergarten class and my senior year was lead teacher of the Kindergarten. That was God's training for a future in Christian Education.
Fast forward to 1992 on the steps right here. I was 9mo pregnant with Connor and friends ... there was no better time to play Mary during a children’s sermon than that moment. I told the children about this amazing gift and a very young Kate Morgan looked up with those beautiful blue eyes and said, Oh Miss Michelle ... You mean God loves me that much. I literally thought I would melt into a puddle and slide down the steps. Friends little did I know it then, but God had a plan ... that was my call to ministry. All I knew was I had a story of God's love that I needed to share with others.
7 weeks into life with our newborn, and he was desperately sick and in the hospital, not knowing if he was going to live or die. This was the first time I was able to cling to this verse when in the wee hours of the night I was rocking my baby and praying hard. God calmed my soul and allowed my faith to grow exponentially. I was able to come to a place that if he wasn’t going to make it, somehow I would figure out a way to move on, with God's help, how to be ok. We made it home and it was a rough couple years but 4 months in, his pediatrician said someone needed to stay home and manage him medically. I needed to give up my professional career as an epidemiologist and data analyst. But when I did that, I now had the time to concentrate on my part time job here at MG as DCE and found that ministry fulfilled me like nothing ever had. I now had a path to follow that call to ministry. If you don’t know, that little baby boy is a happy and healthy 28yo married man now.
I want to make a caution here, I in no way believe that God caused Connor to be sick in order to fulfill his dream of me being a minister. My theology simply does not allow for that. But he did give me the ability to see through an unimaginable time and find good within it.
I started a full time position at Hilliard UMC as minister of education, graduated from seminary and was zooming toward ordination when it felt like every support I had fell out from under me. I was denied ordination the first time I interviewed. I had to take a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education. I picked Children’s Hospital because my ministry experience had been with children, youth and families. One late night on call I had to pray a 4month old into heaven as we discontinued life support. Friends I cannot describe what it felt like but I literally felt heaven and earth touch in that moment. I knew without a shadow of a doubt chaplaincy was my next step in ministry.
God said it wasn’t time yet, because the wheels were coming off my marriage and I needed to heal. The church (not a west Ohio church) where I was serving told me because of that to go find another job elsewhere. I needed time to heal. And so I did. During this time, working a non ministry job, I had our verse for today taped to my computer monitor. I read it literally hundreds of times every week. I didn’t understand it, but I believed it. And now I have completed my advanced training, became board certified and have been a hospice chaplain now for 10 years. People ask me how I do this difficult work and I can safely and confidently, It’s where God calls me today, where God calls me tomorrow, I’ll just wait and see.
This is only just the highlights in my life, and dare I say does not even begin to tell the story of how many times I made a plan, tried to change the major or minor events of my life, because ... surely I know better what direction my life should’ve. What plan are you on, B, C, T, or maybe Z? How often do we wonder? “What's next”, “Where is God in all this?” or maybe “God, what is your plan?”
If this sounds familiar, you are not alone. The Jewish people of Jeremiah’s day had to feel like this. The prophet Jeremiah spoke for God and told them to hold tight, hang on ... God had a plan and it's to give you hope and give you a future. Have you felt like this last year and a half has had us in exile? I would venture the answer would be yes. How many of our plans have been derailed. How many of our dreams have been derailed. We don’t know where this will all end, but I pray it isn’t what the Jewish people were told, 70 years. We have been separated from loved ones, activities that nurture our soul, loss of work and so much loss of life, and then not always being able to even celebrate our loved ones lives when they die. But I assure you, God tells you today to tell you that God has a plan for your life, and God offers you a future.
Sometimes in our lives, bad stuff happens. I almost lost my first born, I didn’t plan on being a single mom, I certainly didn’t expect a church to let me go because I was no longer married, and my career goal was clear -- I was going to find the cure for cancer, not be a pastor for heaven sakes. All things I didn’t plan, but I can see how my faith grew, my personal strength grew, and my relationship with God grew out of the difficulties in my life.
There were many times when I cried out wondering where God was in the mess.
But in times like this, I think God is calling to us to look to God for our security and strength. The Psalmist tells us in Psalm 121 [my favorite Psalm] “I lift my eyes to the hills, where does my help come from. My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” Sometimes in difficulty it is not where is God, but Where are we, What have we been going? Like those in exiles, we too often realize that we also are trying to blend in with society instead of being a light in the darkness. That isn’t always the case, but I think it bears giving ourselves a reality check as to where we are in relation to where God’s word tells us to be.
God often uses our mistakes or our heartaches, if we allow it to fulfill the bigger plan for our lives. God has a plan for this world, even if we cannot figure it out in these days, and God tell you and me that there is a plan ... and God wants to be sure that that plan includes you.
I asked my coworkers this week in our team meeting what this scripture meant to them. Here are a few of their responses. There are things in life to look forward to and life will be happier. God is in control, especially now. I hear emotional fulfillment. God loves me more than I know and wants the best for me.
But it was my friend and coworker Kari that I think hit on the ultimate meaning of this passage, God does give us a hope for a future ... its not just our life on this earth, because this life is temporary. God wants us to focus on the eternal - the life to come. I love the beginning of the Gospel of John chapter 14... and I take this from the Rev. Michelle paraphrase version of the Bible. “In my Fathers house there are many rooms, and if it was so, I would have told you. And because it so, I will come and take you to be with me, because where I am you will be also.”
That’s God’s ultimate promise for you, Jesus tells us that we have a place in heaven. God’s ultimate plan is to spend eternity with you in heaven.
Jesus died on the cross for you and me and the world. The creator of the world wants to spend eternity with you. In the grand scheme of things, the bumps in the road of life begin to pale. God tells us to be secure in the plan, whether we can see the outcome or not.
You probably are saying, thats all well and good, but how do we put this into action? I was thinking hard on this when I felt pulled to my momma’s well used and worn Bible. We have talked about verse 11 this morning, but mother has V12-13 marked and highlighted.
“When you call upon me and come to pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart.”
Prayer ... connection to God ... looking for God in the crazy events of life. Seek God with all your heart. That's what God wants. All of us, to put God first in our lives. To do all the good we can with our time on earth, and look to the future of eternity.
We prepare now to join at God’s table through the sacrament of Holy Communion. We remember the sacrifice Jesus made for us, his death on the cross for which he paid the price for our sins, and so that we will spend eternity in heaven. Have confidence in this dream of God, to have a relationship with you throughout your life on earth, as well as eternity.