Miracles Within

Rita Gardner Langworthysermon for August 16, 2015, in gratitude for the life of Rita Gardner Langworthy

 

In today’s gospel text from the sixth chapter of John, we hear unpleasant dissonance between the call of Christ and the response of his people. Jesus has been teaching them about a new kingdom with a new way of thinking, but they want to make him leader of a kingdom that operates according to the same old rules. They follow him because he seems the best hope for a reversal of fortune, a potential political leader who will fill the silos with wheat, and feed them bread. Then Jesus proves to be less a politician and more a prophet, pointing them toward a source of spiritual food that will strengthen them for a life of purpose. But the crowd feels so tired, so hungry, so oppressed by circumstances that it has forgotten that life should have a deeper purpose. In short, Jesus wants to change the people in this crowd for the world. But the crowd expects Jesus to change the world for them.

Commentator William Barclay paraphrases Jesus’ response to the crowd’s expectation in the following way: “You have seen wonderful things. You have seen how God’s grace enables a crowd to be fed. Your thoughts ought to have been turned to the God who did these things; but instead all that you are thinking about is bread. You cannot think about your souls for thinking of your stomachs.”[1]

“Your thoughts ought to have been turned to the God who did these things …” Turning to our Hebrew Testament reading, those same words might be used to summarize God’s judgment upon King Nebuchadnezzar, as recorded in the fourth chapter of Daniel. In the sixth century B.C.E., the empire of Babylon was a dominant world power, and Nebuchadnezzar its greatest king, a man of great wisdom and wealth. Nebuchadnezzar was focused on expanding borders, controlling populations, accumulating resources, caught in the trap of changing the world to feed his appetites. Then God put up a stop sign. Nebuchadnezzar fell into a seven-year period of insanity. Some scholars say the cause is unknown, but Daniel said it was God’s way of getting his attention. Later, Nebuchadnezzar regained his mental health. In the final verse Joy read, we hear his profound realization: “Now I … praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, for all his works are truth, and his ways are justice, and he is able to bring low those who walk in pride.”[2] No longer would Nebuchadnezzar expect God to be at his beck and call, changing the world to suit the king’s personal agenda. He had experienced a miracle within; he was changed for the world.

At first glance, it may seem difficult to compare ourselves to ancient people living in pre-democratic, pre-industrial societies. But, when you think about our common human nature, you realize that we are as prone as Nebuchadnezzar to undisciplined appetites for food and drink, accumulating resources, controlling people around us. Like the Galilean crowd, we have our dark days when we feel so tired, so hungry, and so oppressed by circumstances that we forget life should have a higher purpose. We expect Jesus to change the world for us.

This week, as I’ve listened for the word of Christ within the words in scripture, I’ve often heard the voice of Rita Langworthy. Our respective life journeys were intertwined in a unique way. Long ago, in Findlay, Ohio, Rita’s parents and grandparents were my mother’s Sunday school teachers. Decades later, after my family and hers moved to Flint, Michigan, Rita was my Sunday school teacher. I remember visits to her parents’ home, and visits to her home, when her daughter Lin was still quite young. She was a teacher, a school principal, and a talented organist. I remember her playing the hymn that will follow this sermon (“Fill My Cup Lord”). Later, Rita and I took different paths to the Presbyterian Church. For all the years that I’ve been pastor of First Presbyterian, Edwardsville, Rita has been a faithful member of First Presbyterian Flint. We rarely communicated, but I was one of Rita’s 101 Facebook friends. Just this past weekend we exchanged messages.

On Monday morning, I received a call from my mother with tragic news. Rita was dead, the victim of gun violence. For reasons still not clear, her home was targeted while she was caring for several children. A one-year-old child died with her.

This Sunday, many people are talking about Rita Langworthy, and I imagine many are sharing the words she wrote about a miracle within, a story that appears on the website of First Presbyterian, Flint:

As I retired after 40+ years in elementary education, I had a few plans, but none of them involved becoming granny/nanny. But here I am – part of a household with 3 adults – a granny/nanny (me), a father and a young mother. Three adults from 3 different generations, 3 different races, 3 different cultures; there are always at least 6 children…usually 7 or 8, and even more on the weekends; top it off with a poodle, a chihuahua and a bull mastiff and we have a very busy, interesting household. It happened so gradually, I never saw it coming.

Quite some time ago I went to the Lord to discuss these unexpected life circumstances. I said, “Sir, are we having communication problems? I said I’d like a cruise, not a crew. An Alaskan cruise. And for 35 years I hinted that when I retired I’d like a shiny, deep purple Jaguar. Lord, I’m sure you’ve noticed I’m driving a mini-van that says “Wash me!” and has nuggets and fries under every seat.” We were interrupted by the cry of a child and I never finished the conversation. But He heard my complaint and answered it. He took away those desires of my heart. He instead gave me a most wonderful, unexpected, unique gift…a family to love and nurture.

Most days my cup runneth over with joy and satisfaction. Hugs, laughter, and small successes keep me going. But I am human, and even though I don’t feel it, AARP and now the Scooter Store remind me regularly that I am supposed to be old. I am ashamed to admit there are days when my cup runs dry…bone dry. I can do nothing but again complain, “Lord, I have nothing more to give. My strength is gone, what wisdom I had leaked out through a crack in my cup, and my last drop of patience is drizzling down the side. All I have to offer is this empty, cracked cup.” Someday He may take the cup and bless someone else with its opportunities, but so far He fixes it and fills it. His Spirit fills it with resolve and energy to get up and keep going. He fills it with help from the church: childcare so I can recharge at a women’s Bible study, a young person to help with homework, valet service to help load and unload, or those who go out of their way to offer support and encouragement. Sometimes I look in my cup and find…more kids!

Several of our weekend guests come from homes that practice a world religion very different from ours. Yet the children beg to come to church here. I know it is partly because of the outstanding Children’s Ministry. Thank you for supporting it and welcoming all children to it, but I can’t help but believe their desire to be here is also the response of a child’s heart to the God-given longing for Jesus. How could I do less than present, as an offering, my dusty van and my time to be sure these children get to church to hear the stories of Jesus and His love and experience the community of faith?

For a time I thought that was what God honored as my offering: my dusty van, most of my money, my time, and my midnight trips to Walmart to buy a shirt and tie for a guest who came without church clothes. But now I know it is more than that. He wants the gift He gave to me. He wants His precious children. He wants them cared for each day for His honor and glory. Make no mistake…this is not about me! I am not a hero. I am not a Mother Theresa. This is His story and these are His children. I am but a servant who has been given a ‘talent’ – a unique gift – for which I am responsible. When my Master comes for an accounting, I want to present college graduates, ministers, missionaries, loving mothers and fathers; grown-up, Christian, children of God… proof that through the mighty power of God, generational curses can be broken. [3]

Generational curses were not broken in time to avoid a violent death for Rita and her young friend Genesis, or to prevent scarring other children in her home who heard the gunshots, ducked for cover, and witnessed the results. For their families, friends, and fellow church members, the wounds are raw. No words are adequate to express the depth of our collective grief about these deaths, or any of the senseless deaths that plague so many communities.

Still, what I choose to remember most about Rita is the way lived. She was like any one of us, imperfect, feeling like she came to Jesus with a cracked cup, asking to be filled, asking that the world be changed for her. Then the gentle but firm voice of Christ replied that He would like to change her for the world. A miracle within took place, and Rita’s life became a powerful testimony to God’s love and grace.

In light of her witness and the word of Christ, I place before you the challenge of the lyrics to which I imagine her testimony alludes, a hymn I learned as a child: “If the things this world gave you leave hungers that won’t pass away, my blessed Lord will come and save you, if you kneel to Him, and humbly pray: Fill my cup, Lord ….”[4]

Fill all our cups, Lord! Continue to perform miracles of transformation until the time when, in the words of Isaiah, “No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime,” and together we live in your promised future of justice, freedom, and peace.

In gratitude for the life of Rita Gardner Langworthy, and in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.

[1] William Barclay, The Gospel of John, Volume 1, Revised Edition (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975), p. 211.

[2] Daniel 4:37, NRSV.

[3] Rita Gardner Langworthy, “God’s Unique Gifts,” Stewardship Story 2012, http://www.fpcf.org/stewardship-story-2012/ accessed 11 Aug. 2015.

[4] “Fill My Cup Lord,” words and music by Richard Blanchard, assigned 1964 Word Music, LLC.

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~ by JohnH1962 on August 16, 2015.

2 Responses to “Miracles Within”

  1. Thank you, John, for sharing your sermon and a bit of your friend’s life. She was, indeed, God’s child — even as she taught others how to be God’s children.

  2. Dale, thank for taking time to read, and for your reply.

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