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.

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