Sunday, September 26, 2010

Sermon for Sunday, September 26, 2010: Luke 16_19-31 “Only a Tramp”

Today we hear the story of Dives and Lazarus, the first a man of great wealth and success, the second a man of poverty and illness.

You can picture Dives, the rich man, in the story, can’t you? A little overweight, self-satisfied, a self-made man. A successful man. Big house, lots of livestock, maybe a couple of wives – the Donald Trump of his era. Maybe even the same bad comb-over!

And you can picture Lazarus. Smelly, dirty, probably skinny and missing a couple of teeth…looks a lot like the guys we see at the street corners with their little cardboard signs, begging for money.

You know how the story goes well enough. Dives the rich fellow, doesn’t help out the poor beggar Lazarus. The beggar dies and is promptly taken through the heavenly gates. Shortly thereafter, Dives dies.

Where does he go? Not to heaven, but to Hell, where he suffers from the eternal flames of those who are punished. Not what he expected, I’d bet.

I wonder what went through his mind when he arrived down there where the usual temperature is hotter than Richmond in August.

“Gee, this isn’t right. Why am I down here? Don’t they know that I’m an important guy? Don’t they know that I was a hard-working good fellow whom everybody loved? Well, maybe not everybody…my employees didn’t always think I was so great, but that’s because they were lazy sons-of-guns who didn’t do all I expected of them. Maybe if they had been hard-working like me, if they had built their business like I had, they would have been successful, but they were just uneducated fools who didn’t know how to work. I made sure that the managers of the fields put the whip to them when they didn’t do what I expected! That’s how I got to be as successful as I am.

“So this must be some sort of mistake, this relocation to Hades. Boy, I expect that when St Peter discovers I’m down here, somebody’s going to pay for that mistake! Don’t they know how important I am?”

And he looks up, and way far away in the distance above him, he sees that smelly beggar, Lazarus, sitting with Father Abraham up in heaven. Lazarus looks different now. Clean and healthy, and glowing with the joy of sitting right next to Father Abraham.

Dives thinks, “Now I KNOW something is wrong here! That stinky beggar Lazarus is up there. That’s not right. He’s in my place. I should be up there where all the good people, all the successful people, should be. The nice place, not down here where it smells like rotten eggs and sweaty people and the food is miserable – and they don’t even have room service here.”

“It’s all a mistake. People like him shouldn’t be up there…only people like me who deserve the best! I’ll fix this…but I’d better be careful. I don’t know how father Abraham will feel about being told he’s made a mistake!”

So Dives carefully arranges himself in a proper posture of supplication, and called up there to the cool blue place so far above him:

“Father Abraham, oh, Father Abraham! Your humble servant Dives here…you know, the wonderful warm human being who employed so many workers and did so much for the community on earth? Remember me? I was the toast of the town back there, but now I’m down here (cough, cough) and I’m sure you understand that I’m just dying of thirst. It’s a wee bit warm here, you know (a nervous little titter here). Could you, would you, send my old pal Lazarus down here with a little ice water – yoohoo, Lazarus, remember me? You always liked to hang around my front door? You weren’t hanging around, you were begging for a crumb of food, you say? Silly Lazarus, you were just FINE, weren’t you!”

And Lazarus looks down now and sees Dives in that hot, hot place. Dives doesn’t look quite as plump as he used to. Perhaps the heat has melted some of that body fat. He’s got blisters, and is tongue is swollen from lack of water.

“Ummm, no, actually. I wasn’t. I was pretty miserable. I was sick and homeless and hungry and thirsty. I kept asking you for just a little something. You alternated between ignoring me and being cruel to me. You said ‘if you were a real man, you’d get a job, make something of yourself, you lazy clod.’ And now you want me to bring you a cool drink?” even though he’s in the cool place, Lazarus is getting a little bit, well, steamed.

But before he can say anything more, Father Abraham steps in.

“Is that you, Lazarus? You who were so well-fed and oiled and groomed on earth? I can hardly recognize you! It’s warm down there, isn’t it? You’re a little sweaty…did you know that? Very unpleasant! Very different indeed! But that’s the way it works. You had your pleasure when you were on earth, as a living human being. Lots of money, lots of success, food water, servants, all the marks of earthly wealth. It was fun…but now it is over. Now you are in a different place. You used up all the pleasure in your earthly life. Now you have none. But Lazarus here, his life on earth was hard. No pleasure, no servants. Only scorn and hunger and illness. No wealth. And you, who had so much, wouldn’t share the least little bit of it with him. You called him names, said he was lazy. But he wasn’t lazy – he was ill with hunger. And his father didn’t have great property to leave him, as yours did to you. And he didn’t have tutors to educate him, as you did. No pleasure or success or wealth for him! And now, his earthly suffering is over, and he is given the reward for that suffering – a place here, where the pleasure and comfort and joy are eternal. Sorry, Dives. You made your choice. Perhaps if you had been more kind, more generous, things would have been different.”

Dives sees all too clearly what is happening here. His heart sinks. He knows that Lazarus isn’t going to bring him that cold drink. He knows Father Abraham isn’t going to send down the angels to rescue Dives and bring him up to heaven. He is stuck here, for all eternity.

And he grieves his foolishness. How could he think that his wealth on earth was all his doing? It was God’s, of course. Yes, he worked, but he also had so much given to him that made it possible…and now it is all gone.

But, even if he cannot change his own situation, he can do something for his family, for his brothers, who are living just as Dives had lived, enjoying the lush life with little attention to those who are less fortunate. So he – now timidly – calls up again:

“Please dear Father Abraham, if you wouldn’t mind – could you send Lazarus to tell my brothers about what happened to me? I would hate to see them suffer as I am now suffering.”

Abraham sighs. “You do not understand, do you? They, like you, heard the words in the temple, the words telling them to live differently. And still they do not do it.”

“But if Lazarus, this beggar who died, went to tell them, they would be frightened, and they would repent!”

“Too late! If they didn’t listen to the words of the prophets before, they don’t get a second chance!”

And Dives sits down on a hot coal. He would weep if he had any moisture left in his body to produce tears, but it is not so.

Dives, who had so quickly assessed Lazarus on earth as someone who was less than him, someone useless, someone not deserving of care and comfort. Dives, who thought he was important because of the money in his treasury, the livestock grazing his fields, and the grain in his silos. Dives, the self-made man who thought that his success was entirely of his own making, and disdained those who were less fortunate.

He measured himself in earthly terms, didn’t he? And by earthly terms, he looked pretty successful. But for all his wealth, he was poor…poor in spirit. He was poor in his understanding of what God expected of him. He was poor in his generosity to those who had not had his advantages. He was quick to judge, whether he was judging the beggar Lazarus, or his workers, or his neighbors. Would that he had been as quick to be kind!

The country singer Hank Williams wrote a beautiful song about this story:

Only a tramp was Lazarus’ sad fate
He who lay down at the rich man's gate
He begged for the crumbs from the rich man to eat
He was only a tramp found dead on the street.
He was some mother's darlin', he was some mother's son
Once he was fair and once he was young
Some mother rocked him, her darlin' to sleep
But they left him to die like a tramp on the street.

Williams, himself a troubled man, knew about living the Lazarus life. He knew the Dives life, too – he had enjoyed great success in the music business. So he knew what Jesus was talking about in this story:

Jesus, He died on Calvary's tree
Shed His life's blood for you and for me
They pierced His side, His hands and His feet
And they left Him to die like a tramp on the street.
He was Mary's own darlin', he was God's chosen Son
Once He was fair and once He was young
Mary, she rocked Him, her darlin' to sleep
But they left Him to die like a tramp on the street.

And he also knew the cost, if we don’t pay attention:

If Jesus should come and knock on your door
For a place to come in, or bread from your store
Would you welcome Him in, or turn Him away
Then God would deny you on the Great Judgement Day.

Our middle-schoolers are about to start work on their Sunday school program for the year, and the focus of their lessons this year will be the corporal works of mercy. Feeding the hungry, providing water to the thirsty, clothing the naked, shelter for the homeless…you know these things that Jesus told us all to do. They will be learning different ways to ac directly opposite to the way that Dives acted. They will learn the great gift of sharing and caring and loving those whom others might see as weak, or stupid, or lazy, or troubled. They will learn what I hope you already know: that all you have is a gift from God’s bounteous love for you.

You know that God watches how you use the gifts given to you. Do you share them? Do you use them to spread the Good News? Or do you think they are simply for your own personal use? The tramp on the street, the one who smells bad, who looks drunk…who is he? What does Jesus want you to do for the tramp, and for Jesus? As our middle-schoolers will do this year, let’s live each day as though that tramp is Jesus. Let’s make decisions in our actions as though the Judgment Day is tomorrow. We can step away from that behavior that we saw in Dives, the rich man. We can live those corporal works of mercy, in gratitude for all God has given us. The prophets among us – and they may be middle-schoolers – will remind us!


Sunday, September 19, 2010

Sermon for Sunday, September 19, 2010 Jer 8:18-9:1 “What Balm?”

In the beautiful hymn we’ve just sung, “There is a Balm in Gilead,” we hear words of comfort and encouragement. It is an odd counterpoint to the origin of that phrase “Balm in Gilead” heard in today’s passage from the prophet Jeremiah. In the Old Testament reading, there is no comfort or encouragement. Jeremiah is crying out in pain “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?”

Jeremiah had reason to cry out. God’s people had, once again, gone astray.

The story of Jeremiah begins when Josiah was king of Israel and the Assyrians were not actively harassing the Israelites. In the early days of Jeremiah’s work, because the Assyrians were not really paying attention to what was going on in Israel, King Josiah and the prophet worked on restoring the temple and the old laws of Moses. The Assyrian gods and pagan worship were ended, and the Israelites once again began to focus their worship on the one true God.

This was a good thing, of course, but like most human endeavors, it didn’t take long before the people started to do bad things, to not be true to the law in honoring God through worship and sacrifice. The priests of the local temples got sloppy or decided that they wanted to change things a bit so that they would get more offerings of meat or flour or coins. The people took their relationship with God for granted. Some even began to worship the pagan gods again, a way of hedging their bets if the one true God wasn’t who he said he was. And in the midst of this, the good king Josiah died and a weak king, Jehoiakim, took the throne. Jehoiakim didn’t advocate for the reforms Jeremiah had been implementing. Things went from bad to worse and the Israelites fell further and further away from the right way of worship to the one true God.

So Jeremiah, being a prophet, did what all prophets do: he warned the Israelites that if they didn’t change their ways, they would be punished. The verses that precede this reading are full of predictions of the horrible things that will happen if the people don’t get their act together.

Now the irony of this, and of that phrase “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?” is that the very people to whom the people would normally go for healing in that world were the priests in the temple. In the ancient world, it was the priests who were the healers…and the priests in the temple in Jeremiah’s time were not guiding the Israelites properly in their relationship with God. They were as false to the covenant with God as the people were. And the balm, a famous one that was reputed to close wounds and prevent infection, seemed missing in this place. The people who were intended to be the healers of people’s broken relationship with God were the ones who kept that wound open, infected, not healing. Jeremiah was crying out in pain for God’s people, because they wouldn’t listen to God’s words, and because the people who were supposed to be helping them were making matters worse.

Is there no balm in Gilead to heal these people? Is there no one – other than Jeremiah – who can help them in their brokenness, in their sinfulness?

What will end this illness of the soul? What will bring God’s people back into a loving and faithful relationship with him?

I was visiting a parishioner in the hospital the other day. One of the medical problems that had caused her to be admitted was a wound on her leg that would not heal. So she was given medications to fight infection and the wound was cleaned and freshly dressed every day. And with diligent and faithful care, the wound was slowly healing. Had the physicians and nurses who attended her not followed the treatment plan so strictly and faithfully, the wound would not have healed. Had the doctors said, “well, we’ll give her some medicine sometimes, but not the full dose every four hours,” the wound would not have healed. If the nurses said, “I’m too busy to change the dressing today. I’ll get around to it tomorrow,” the wound would not have healed.

That is the gospel of good medicine: you use the right medication and other therapies in the right doses, you take care to watch for symptoms of bad reactions, you do these things on schedule, and you listen to what the patient tells you to see if the treatment is doing what it is supposed to be doing.

And there is, of course, a gospel that tells us about our relationship with our God. Jesus talks about it in today’s parable: the one whom you should love is God, not the things of earth. For us, the illness that requires a balm may be our obsession with the things of earth, with material wealth or success. That’s certainly Jesus’ point in today’s gospel.

And the linking of these two readings from Jeremiah and from Luke cause me to think of some of the preachers I’ve heard every now and again, on the radio and on television.

They preach a “prosperity gospel,” saying that if you are the right kind of Christian, and if you send in money in support of their ministry, God will shower you with wealth.

It’s not a new phenomenon. There was a radio pastor named Reverend Ike when I was a child who preached this way. “Close your eyes and see green! Money up to your armpits, a roomful of money and there you are, just tossing around in it like a swimming pool.” He said “You deserve the best!” His obituary in the New York Times said:

“In return for spiritual inspiration, he requested cash donations from his parishioners, from his television and radio audiences, and from the recipients of his extensive mailings — preferably in paper currency, not coins. (“Change makes your minister nervous in the service,” he would tell his congregation.) [1]

What would his contributors get in return for their donation? A prayer cloth. With his picture on it.

Not for him the words of Jesus in today’s gospel: “You cannot serve God and wealth.” In recent years, it has been put forth by televangelists like Oral Roberts, Joel Osteen, Pat Robertson, Benny Hinn and the unfortunately but perhaps accurately named Creflo Dollar. Send in your money, all these preachers have said! Buy my book. Support my ministry (and me) and God will reward you. They will quote John 10: 10 - "I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly,” saying that this proves their theological point. And they say it from their multimillion dollar megachurches as their Gulfstream private jet awaits them to take them to the next book tour, as they wear their thousand dollar suits.

They live an abundant life, but not the abundant life that Jesus promised us. Like the priests in Jeremiah’s time, they have been corrupted, turned to a way that is not of the one true God. They have turned to a way that serves themselves,

What is the abundant life that is promised to believers? It’s not about money. Jesus talks extensively about money in the gospels, more than just about any other topic. And every time he does so, he says that material wealth is not what he is about, not what the kingdom is about. For Christians, money is a tool. It is an appropriate tool to provide oneself and one’s family food and shelter. It is an appropriate tool to help the work of God’s church, to share the gospel and to care for those in need. It is not about power or status. It is not about having more than the next guy. It is not about proving anything, not even to yourself. It is a tool, and like many tools, it is dangerous if it is misused.

And these false priests, these folks who prey on people and tell them to send in their money to get on a prayer chain or to purchase a book that will give them the ten easy steps to Christian prosperity, cause us to cry out as Jeremiah did, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician here?”

But there is a balm. There is a physician. It is Christ the Lord. His message is very clear and unambiguous. “Don’t listen to the false priests. Don’t think that I am about you getting all the money you want here on earth. Follow the commandment I set out for you – love God and worship him, love your neighbor and care for her. Know that when you are broken in body, mind or spirit, I will be your balm in Gilead. You don’t get that from the false priests. You get that from me. Be faithful, and don’t be distracted. You will be healed, if you believe in me.”

In a few weeks, we will begin our stewardship drive here at Epiphany. As we approach this drive, I would ask you to pray that you take a look at how you look at money in your life. Has it become an end unto itself, an idol in your life, a distraction? Is an appropriate portion of it being put to the good use of the church, to help others know Christ and to help those in need? If you have little money, has the lack of it made you angry or bitter? Or have you thanked God for what you have, even though it may not be enough?

Money is not a god. It can be a tool for God, if used carefully. I urge you to pray about your relationship with money and think about whether it is helping your relationship with God or getting in the way of it. Money is not the balm we seek to heal our souls. Only Jesus is.



Sunday, September 12, 2010

Today's Sermon Luke 15: 1-10 “Stay Put”

It is part of our family lore that every time we went on a family trip, my son Sam would get lost. The County fair, the beach, Disney World, the supermarket. Every time we went on a trip, Sam got lost. It wasn’t that I was a bad mom…it was just that I had five kids who all went in different directions, and Sam was particularly adept at going off in a different direction than the rest. So there would be a moment of “…wait, where’s Sam?” then the panic, the mad search, and finally the finding and the tears and the “don’t you ever do that again.” Of course, he did do that again – he’s a curious adventurous soul, and he just can’t help himself, or at least that’s what he tells us. Thank goodness he’s a grown man now and I don’t have to worry…much.

Now, in contrast, consider the story of my nephew Peter. A few summers ago, the extended family went down to Millennium Park in Chicago to wander around and enjoy a picnic. Millennium Park is a sprawling complex, including a huge band shell designed by Frank Gehry, a great big sculpture called the Cloud Gate, but more familiarly known as “The Bean,” and a gigantic fountain, beloved of all small children, who run through it with glee. On the day our family went down to Millennium Park, it was packed with lots of folks enjoying the sun and warmth and beauty of the day. We had several children with us, ranging in age from 2 to pre-teen. It’s a challenge to herd a group of kids in the best of circumstances, and having this disparate group of children in a crowded park was an almost impossible task. Everyone had their particular thing they wanted to look at, and our little group began to split into mini-groups as kids went to look at the Bean or the fountain or the mime on the street. We weren’t worried – we knew we would all rendezvous in a particular spot to eat the picnic lunch in a bit.

“Where’s Peter?” My sister-in-law Christine’s voice had just a bit of an edge to it as she asked the question. We weren’t all gathered together for the picnic yet – Laurie and Jim and little Trevor were still at the fountain – but it was clear that Peter had gotten separated from his parents and his sister.

“Where did you see him last?” one of us asked. “I don’t know.” It was clear she was starting to get very worried. This park is in the heart of the city. Not everyone there is a warm and safe family-type person. A pre-teen boy lost in the park was probably safe, but still…

“Peter knows what to do.” The calm voice of Joel, Peter’s dad, cut through the tension. “We’ve trained the children for when we go camping. They know if they can’t see us, to just sit down wherever they are and to wait for us to find them. They are not to move. They are to wait. They know that.”

What a difference from the hysteria whenever Sam got lost! Sam, who would dart from place to place frantically looking for us! And a search that would take twice as long because we were going in one direction and he was going in another. Imagine…a lost child staying put, so that the parent could work back to where he or she last saw the child, searching systematically. What a concept!

When Peter got lost, his parents and aunts and uncles fanned out from where we last saw him, and within minutes found him sitting calmly under “The Bean,” waiting for us to find him.

He didn’t move when he realized he was lost.

He didn’t run around in mad circles.

He simply waited to be found.

He trusted his parents, and he trusted their plan for him.

He didn’t doubt the efficacy of the plan.

He waited to be found…and he was found. And afterwards, after we breathed a silent prayer of thanks, we celebrated with ice cream.

This story bears more than a passing resemblance to the story that Jesus tells in today’s gospel. Jesus is defending himself against the accusation of the Pharisees – there go those Pharisees again! – saying that he is eating with sinners. He reminds his listeners, including the Pharisees, that the sinners are precisely those with whom he should eat, precisely those who are in need of him. They are lost. He is there to find them and teach them the way.

They may not even realize that this is what Jesus is doing, but it doesn’t matter. Jesus has a plan. He will find these people, these ones who might be sinners, these ones who are lost sheep, and he will bring them back to the safety of relationship with the God who loves them. And when they are found, and brought back into that relationship, all of heaven will rejoice.

Now, I’d like to direct your attention to something very important in this story. The “lost sheep” doesn’t go looking for the Shepherd. The Shepherd goes looking for the sheep. That’s the Shepherd’s job. The lost sheep doesn’t search high and low for the rest of the flock. He simply hangs out in whatever pasture he has wandered to and waits.

Rather like my nephew Peter.

The sheep knows that the Shepherd will come for him. The sheep trusts that, in the way of sheep and shepherds since the beginning of time, the plan is for the sheep to stay put and the shepherd to do the finding…and the shepherd will usually go looking first in the place he last saw the sheep.

Rather like the plan my sister and brother in law instituted with their children if the children got lost.

Now, you and I, we get lost on a regular basis. We forget what’s important and wander off to look at something that catches our fancy. We stop talking to God because we think he’s not answering us quickly enough, or we stop going to church because we don’t like the sermons or the music or something. We feel spiritually dry or empty, and we automatically assume that it’s our sole responsibility to fix that. And like a sheep, we wander away from the rest of the flock.

And then we get nervous. We start looking around in all sorts of places for what we’re missing. We go to other churches, we try a new exercise plan, we go sit on the beach, we decide to sign up for…we know we’re missing something. Somewhere in the midst of this, we start saying things like “I’m not much into organized religion – I’m just sort of a spiritual kind of person,” as if we can be in relationship with God all by ourselves, without the community that is the Body of Christ. We run around in circles, frantically hoping to find the thing that will bring us a sense of peace, of wholeness, of being found.

Meanwhile, the Shepherd is looking for us.

But we’re off running around in circles.

The late Cistercian monk and spiritual writer Thomas Merton talked about this manic search for the I-Don’t –Know-What:

You can’t just immerse yourself in the world and get carried away with it. That is no salvation. If you want to pull a drowning man out of the water, you have to have some support yourself. Suppose somebody is drowning and you are standing on a rock, you can do it; or supposing you can support yourself by swimming, you can do it. There is nothing to be gained by simply jumping in the water and drowning with him. (The Asian Journals, 341)

What does that immersion give us? Merton diagnosed it:

Everyone of is us shadowed by a false self. This is the [person] I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about him. And to be unknown to God is altogether too much privacy. My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love…[a]nd such a self cannot help but be an illusion. (New Seeds of Contemplation, 33)

His recipe was the same one that Jesus offers in today’s Gospel:

The message of hope … is not that you need to find your way through the jungle of language and problems that today surround God: but that whether you understand or not, God loves you, is present in you, lives in you, [abides with] you, calls you, saves you, and offers you an understanding and light. (The Hidden Ground of Love, 157-158)

When we are feeling lost or confused, when we feel that we are not connecting with God, if we are willing to risk staying put, trusting the plan, trusting the Shepherd, this is the Good News: the Shepherd will come and find us.

So, what if, when we felt lost and out of touch with od, we simply sat down where we were and waited for the Shepherd to find us wherever our souls had wandered to? What if we stayed put in the place where we had last encountered the Shepherd and trusted that the plan would work, that he would find us and we would be found, and all heaven would rejoice? What if we finally understood that he will always come looking for us, so why not wait at the last place we spent time with him?

This is the place.

This is the place where we can sit down and rest and wait. We may not get all the answers, but if we sit and wait and pray and hope, the Shepherd will be there, loving us, rejoicing in our presence, giving us what we need to heal, to hope, to believe.

Merton was right, just like Peter’s parents were, just like Jesus was.

Stay put.

Trust the plan.

The Shepherd is here, looking for us. The Shepherd loves us and will never abandon us.

Thanks be to God.


Picture above is "The Bean" or more properly, "Cloud Gate" at Millennium Park.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Today's Sermon: Jeremiah 11:1-10 and Psalm 139 “Something the Lord Made”

Everybody needs God.

Sounds pretty obvious, doesn’t it?

Everybody needs the one who created us and who walks with us each step of our lives.

We tend to call on him when we are in trouble – please, God, let the test come back negative. Please God, let me get that promotion. Please God, let my child get a good teacher this year. Please, God, let me pass my calculus test. God knows that we do that because we are frightened or hopeful, and we need God’s reassurance.

Because we remember to talk to God when we are in trouble, we sometimes view him as the Great Rescuer, riding in to save us like some divine knight in shining armor. What we don’t realize is that God is always with us, always gently guiding us, reshaping us. God is always there, and God reworks us in mysterious ways, in ways that we do not expect, and that we cannot comprehend.

Many years ago, just up the road in Baltimore, at Johns Hopkins Hospital, a surgeon and his assistant worked to come up with a way of doing open heart surgery on little babies who had been born with defective heart valves. These defects, known as Tetralogy of Fallot, cause the babies to start to fail a few days after birth. They turn blue because the heart is unable to properly pump the blood. Without treatment, such babies would die. In the 1930s, a cardiologist named Alfred Blalock, a brilliant and arrogant man, decided he wanted to tackle the problem of this defect. He had a lab assistant named Viven Thomas. Thomas an African-American man. He was not college-educated, but he was brilliant in his own right, a tool-maker with extraordinary hands and a gift for science. When Blalock, a white man, first hired Thomas, a black man, he thought Thomas would simply be his janitor. But as he realized Thomas’ skills, he involved him more and more in the development of a device, a shunt, that would make it possible to save these blue babies. Thomas’ work in the experimental surgeries with lab animals so impressed Blalock, that Blalock insisted that Thomas come into the operating room when the first operation was performed on a human subject. At Johns Hopkins in 1944, the thought of an African-American man going into the operating theater was unheard of, but Blalock felt that he could not do the surgery without Thomas there to help coach him through the procedure.

An extraordinary thing, this arrogant cardiologist asking his African-American assistant into the operating theater. We might say at that moment that God was working in a new and wonderful way in Blalock, and that it would generate something good in the hospital. But when the surgery succeeded, and the news media began to flock around Blalock, did he share the glory of the moment with Thomas?


His human imperfection, his ego, his pride, got in the way. Although the surgery could not have succeeded with Thomas, Blalock said nothing about this gifted partner. Only later, many years later, did Blalock acknowledge Thomas’ contribution, remarking that Thomas’ skill was “something that the Lord made.”

God worked through Blalock, in his tenacity in seeking a surgical cure for tetralogy of Fallot, God worked through Thomas, giving this man the extraordinary gifts that would make the cure possible, despite the fact that white society still looked down upon him as something less. God remolded the clay that was Blalock, finally overcoming his own arrogance to acknowledge the fact that he could not have done what he did without his gifted assistant. God made Thomas strong enough to suffer the indignity of life as a man of color in the days of segregation, when he wasn’t able to come through the front door of the hospital in which he worked, because he understand that his vocation in this work made it necessary…and God made the rest of the world change in so that separate entrances for black and white were gone and opportunities for gifted young people of color began to happen. All of it was something the Lord made.

Several years ago, I had the privilege of serving as a chaplain at Children’s Hospital in Washington. I worked in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit. Most of the children in the unit had tetralogy of Fallot, or similar cardiac birth defects. Before Blalock and Thomas’ pioneering work in the 30s and 40s, these babies would have died. I stood in the operating room one morning in surgical scrubs and watched a surgeon perform the third of three surgeries that would mean that a little girl would be able to live to adulthood, would be able to run and play. The child was brown-skinned, from the Middle East. The lead surgeon was white, from Australia, a world-renowned specialist in this surgery. His assisting surgeon was an African-American surgical resident whose hands were almost as skilled as the lead surgeon’s were. The nurses were black, white, Asian. I thought as I watched them reach into her chest and sew in the final patch that would cause her blood to flow properly and her heart valves to pump efficiently, “yes, indeed, these gifts, these skills, these possibilities are something the Lord has made.”

God, who has known us inside and out from our very beginnings, as we heard in today’s Psalm, continues the divine work in us. God, sitting at the potter’s wheel, just as we heard in the reading from Jeremiah, taking misshapen clay, the sort of work that a human potter would throw away, re-forms us into something useful and beautiful. God takes our work, as imperfect as it is, as imperfect as we are, and turns it and us into something amazing.

And so, on this day before a new school year and a new program year here at church begins, we acknowledge that God continues that work in us. And we, in turn, offer ourselves and our work to God. It will never be perfect, but it can be beautiful, as God sees us as forever precious and beautiful in his sight. We are something the Lord made. Our work is not simply the work of our own hands, but is something the Lord made.

We offer it all to God, whether it is in an office or a kitchen or a building site or a school…or in a church. We offer it to you, O Lord, as the Psalmist said:

“I will thank you because I am marvelously made; *
your works are wonderful, and I know it well.”


For further information on the story of Alfred Blalock and Viven Thomas, see the 2004 movie "Something the Lord Made" or the original magazine article that inspired the movie, found here.