Need to Know

Columbia Chapel Service, Monday August 15, 2005


Texts: Mark 12:28-44 and Isaiah 45:1-8 

            I have been preaching for about five years now, first as a lay pastor in my presbytery and then in seminary, I’ve preached in several of different churches as supply, I’ve preached in class, I’ve preached in the Columbia chapel and I’ve preached in the Grady Hospital chapel in downtown Atlanta.

            I make no claim that all that makes me any kind of an expert on preaching, but I have learned a few things. One of those things is that sometimes when I look at the texts the sermon jumps right out and grabs me, I know right from the start what it is that I need to say and the sermon just flows right out onto the paper. This is not one of those sermons.

            Then there are the sermons that are more of a struggle: maybe the thing that I saw at first doesn’t really work when I start putting it together, and I have to change the principal idea a couple of times until I find the one that works. These sermons are a little more work than the first kind, but often they are more fulfilling. This is not one of those sermons.

            This sermon was a third kind; this sermon was a fight all the way. This sermon was torture. This sermon wouldn’t settle down and play nice. I tried everything I could to not write this sermon, to not go where it wanted to take me, but it wouldn’t let me go. This sermon haunted me; pieces of it stuck out in all directions, but I couldn’t get them to connect to each other. I tried to tame it, to make it into something easy for me to say, easy for me to write, but it would have none of that.

            Did you hear that Mark text? It’s huge, and every part of it is crammed with great sermons just begging to be preached. There’s the story of the great commandments and sermons about the sovereignty of God, sermons about how we treat our neighbors. But this sermon isn’t one of those. Then there’s Jesus' warning about the scribes who like to show off how smart they are, how important they are; there’s certainly plenty of things to be preached in there, especially at a seminary. Then there’s the Widow’s Mite, I mean after the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son what story could be better to preach? But this is not any of those sermons. No, this sermon had to be from Isaiah. It had to be this story of the anointing of Cyrus.

            Now we run into call stories and anointings through the entire Bible: Samuel, David, Isaiah, Amos, and even Paul on the road to Damascus. Here we have the anointing of Cyrus. But there’s something different about Cyrus’ story.

            Cyrus the Great, the Persian king who in October of 539 BCE conquered the Babylonian Empire and soon after allowed the Hebrew people to return from their exile to the holy land.

            God has chosen Cyrus to be the instrument that returns God’s people from exile. God will go before him and break down all resistance, giving victory to Cyrus over all his foes.

            The thing is, the thing that makes this story different from the other call stories and annointings in the Bible is that Cyrus has no idea that he is being called. Not only does Cyrus not know that God is going to do these things for him, he has no idea that God is God.


4 For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me. 5 I am the LORD, and there is no other; besides me there is no God. I arm you, though you do not know me


            It’s that idea of God working, even when we don’t know it, that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. It kept coming back to a question that I have never been able to answer, a question that I really had a hard time even facing.

            I had a year between the time I left my old career and when I started at Columbia. I spent much of that time traveling around Alabama and Mississippi doing construction work, installing acoustical panels primarily. It was both a change for me and yet not all that great a change. The work was not all that different from what I had been doing before, I had built scenery in the theater for 17 years, so the physical part of what we were doing was not all that different, but the people were different and the conversation was very different. Theater people tend to be overeducated for the jobs they're doing, and we all have a rather large disrespect for authority of any kind. When I talked to theater people about how I was going to go to school to be a minister, the responses would be about doctrine, or about the evils of organized religion, or how they had been driven away from the church by intolerance or prejudice. When I talked to construction workers, though, I got a completely different conversation that always came back to one question:

            Why do you need to go to school to be a minister?

            Why do you need to go to school to be a minister?

            I was dumbfounded. Not only did I not know the answer, I had never thought to ask the question.

            I’m a third or fourth generation Presbyterian: of course you have to go to school to be a minister.

            You have to learn Greek, Hebrew, theology, all those things. Plus, I’m somebody who thinks that no matter what you want to do, you should go to school, just because I love going to school, and could happily spend the rest of my life studying everything from theology to quantum physics to cooking.

            When they asked me why I needed to go to school to be a minister, I would explain to them about how my tradition required it, and how there were all these things that I needed to learn. Then I would kind of laugh to myself about how they just didn’t get it and I would put it out of my mind and I wouldn’t think about it at all. But, deep inside me, the truth was that I didn’t get it either.

            I think I assumed that there would be some point during my time at Columbia when it all would become clear and I would see what it was that separates a seminary trained minister from anyone else.

            But when I actually came to seminary I didn’t think about it at all. It’s not a question that gets asked here much. It’s just kind of assumed that we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t know the answer.

            Then came Cyrus, and the question came back. I mean if Cyrus could deliver God’s chosen people from bondage and exile without ever even hearing of God, why do I think I need three years of graduate school in order to minister to them?


4 For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me. 5 I am the LORD, and there is no other; besides me there is no God. I arm you, though you do not know me


            I spent last summer doing Clinical Pastoral Education at Grady Memorial Hospital here in Atlanta. For those of you who don’t know, Grady is the public hospital for Fulton and DeKalb counties. Grady serves the poor, the homeless and the uninsured. Grady also provides services that exist at no other hospital in the area. Grady is the Level 1 Trauma center for the region; it has the only 24-hour sickle cell clinic in the nation, it has large HIV and Cancer clinics, and it has one of the two burn centers in the state of Georgia. Grady does everything but organ transplants.

            As a chaplain intern I was responsible for visiting people in a couple of wards; one was general medical and the other Neuro-ICU. Once every six days I also had to work an overnight call shift. When I was on call, I was the only chaplain in the hospital, responsible for answering any chaplain requests that came in. Chaplain requests ranged from a nurse on 6A calling to say that a patient had requested a Bible to being asked by a doctor to go with her as she told a mother that they had not been able to resuscitate her five month old baby.

            It was on the second kind of call that I found my answer. When I went into those waiting rooms and sat with those families who were just learning of the death of a loved one, whether it was a child or a parent, whether it was a sudden death or the death of a loved one who had lingered on for weeks, I went in there with nothing. That I knew the difference between a Qal perfect waw consecutive and a Hiphil imperfect or that I had read Cur Deo Homo really didn’t matter. The fact that I have passed the Bible Content Exam or that I know the Book of Order backward and forward, gave me nothing when it came to helping these families in the throes of deepest grief.

            I knew as little about how to minister to these broken people as Cyrus knew about the Torah. All I could do was sit with them, be there with them. Sometimes I would read some scripture, but not always. Sometimes we would pray, but not always. Mostly we would just sit.

             But somehow ministry happened in those rooms. Somehow, the simple fact of my presence, as clumsy and awkward as I was, somehow that helped them. Over and over again as we parted, people would thank me for all I had done for them, when I knew I had not done anything. God had moved in that place, through me, to help those people, just as God had moved through Cyrus to free the Israelites, and we were both equally clueless.

            I had my Cyrus moment, just as God worked through Cyrus, God worked through me completely without my knowledge. God was doing great things for these families through my presence with them, but I had no clue.

            But that’s where the similarity between Cyrus and me ends. Cyrus never knew that God had worked through him. It’s that difference that answers my question.

            Why did I need to go to school to be a minister? What is it that I needed to know?

            As is so often the case, once I had found the answer I went back to the text again and found that the answer had been there all along.

            Why did God act through Cyrus? What was God’s purpose? It was not, primarily, the redemption of Israel. Rather, the redemption of Israel was just a side effect. God’s real purpose is explicit starting with the sixth verse:

6 so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me; I am the LORD, and there is no other. 7 I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the LORD do all these things. 8 Shower, O heavens, from above, and let the skies rain down righteousness; let the earth open, that salvation may spring up, and let it cause righteousness to sprout up also; I the LORD have created it.


            God acted through Cyrus so that God’s people would know and remember God’s amazing power. God acted through Cyrus so that we could know that the one and only Creator of all that is will bring righteousness to our lives; righteousness will fall from heaven and it will rise up from the ground. With or without our knowledge or help.

            As important as all the things that I have learned here will be to me in my ministry, in the writing of sermons, in the teaching of Sunday School, and in the administration of a church, they are not what I needed to learn when I came here. What I needed to learn was how to see God’s action in people’s lives, to see that it happens even when we don’t know it, even when we can’t imagine it.

            That's not a very satisfying answer, is it? That’s what made this sermon such a struggle for me. I wanted to be able to give you a nice, solid, definitive answer: This, this is what you need to know. But I can’t. All I can tell you is that we need to know that God is working, God is working when we know it and when we don’t, God is working when we can see it and when we can’t even imagine that it is possible.

            See it when you can. Imagine it when you can’t. And let others know when they can’t.