A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on September 25, 2011.
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
O Lord, you did make us all. We honor you today as creator of the world and all that we see. We pray that you would teach us your heart, for though you made and are above the world, above the galaxies, above the universe, you come to us as one humble and lowly of heart. We honor you today because we know that you are the only all-wise and all- knowing one. You are the only fitting judge of the living and the death. Yet you stoop to call us by your grace. Teach us your ways today. Teach us to take what is great about you and pour these things into our sinful hearts that we might demonstrate them as we can. In moments when we disagree, may we be gracious and kind. Should we correct, may we always be gentle. Make us gracious in our judgments and gentle in our speech and gracious in all of our actions. May we always know ourselves as sinners saved by grace, and in knowing this, may we extend to others the same gift of grace that we have received from you. We pray that our hearts would be like the heart of your son, Jesus Christ. We pray this so that we might be fitting help in his work of the kingdom. May the weary feel rest in our presence. May the poor find help and hope from our hand. May those who are lost and uncertain of their way find correction, but always mixed with grace at every turn. If our hearts are not in tune with your heart, if our wills are not ready to serve, then make us your disciples and make us your disciples by teaching us to pray that which your son taught his first disciples to pray: Our Father, who art in heaven hallowed be thy Name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.
On a point of land as though projecting into a domain beyond us, I found the star thrower…. Silently I sought and picked up a still living star, spinning it far out into the waves. I spoke once briefly. ‘I understand,’ I said, ‘Call me another thrower.’ Only then did I allow myself to think. He is no longer alone, after us there will be others…. I flung and flung again, while all about us roared the insatiable waters of death…. I could have thrown in a frenzy of joy, but I set my shoulders and cast, as the thrower in the rainbow cast, slowly, deliberately, and well. The task was not to be assumed lightly, for it was men as well as starfish we sought to save.”
–Loren Eisley in The Star Thrower
Have you ever been separated from someone that you cared about deeply? We send the last child, or only child, off to school and experience empty nest. The house seems rather vacant and empty. You are not sure whether to leave the room just as it is, almost as a shrine, or whether to go in there and give it a good cleaning while they are gone. The house sure is quiet and you really feel the distance. The child may only be in Birmingham, Athens, or Kennesaw, but the distance seems almost insurmountable. The silence is deafening and you feel the separation in everything you do.
Perhaps you talk to your sister every day of your life. She lives just across town, but for some reason, she moves to Idaho or Oklahoma. You can still talk, but all of a sudden, you miss her so much.
Perhaps someone in your family is in the military and assigned overseas. Perhaps your parents retire and decide that the climate of Phoenix would be great for them, and they up and move. All of a sudden, it feels like everybody is away and you have that sense of separation and loneliness.
The geographic ones are the easiest ones to talk about. The more painful ones are the ones that can happen right at home, but we still feel just as far away.
Perhaps you have a sister who has not cared for your aging parents as much as you think she should. Something is said and a heated comment is returned, and all of a sudden, there is a barrier that you cannot feel how to climb over. You just live down the street from one another, but there is that separation.
Perhaps as an adult child, you could take some of the things that your parents said as a kid, but now that you are an adult, you get tired of it so you decide you are not going to have any of that any more, and there is separation. On the opposite side, as a parent, when your child was unthankful and impolite at 13, you could make excuses for him, but now when they are in their 30’s or 40’s, it hurts deeply and you think, How am I ever going to get back to where it was?
When we use the word separation in relationships, we often think about marriages that are in the never, never land—somewhere between still married and might get divorced—and who knows which way it will fall. There is just the distance that we don’t know how to reach.
The Bible reminds us that sin separates us from God. We have heard that since we were children. We go to Sunday school and the teacher asks us, “Children, what is sin?” You learn the right answer so you don’t have to go into all the things that might be sin. We just say, “Anything that separates us from God.”
If someone were to ask us today, perhaps many of us give that basic theological answer, but in experience, it feels a whole lot worse than a simple answer. In experience, it is that heavy sense of guilt that we carry around with us, that sense of unworthiness, wondering why God would ever listen to a prayer of someone like us. It is a sense of separation. We know who we are, we know what we have done, and we think, Why on earth would God want to pay any attention to anything I would ask of him now? I know that barrier of sin is there.
Someone asks you to take a position in the church, and how many times do we hear, I’m not worthy. I could not do that. Please don’t ask me to do that. That might reveal who I really am. I don’t want people to know.
Then there is the old standby of someone who has not been in church in a while. They are feeling rather un-nerved by the experience. If they don’t say it, one of their good friends will usually say it for them, Oh, the ceiling might fall in because you came in here today. That is always guaranteed to make a person feel welcome, but many people will say it for themselves. It is their way of saying, I have not been here. I don’t know why I should be in this place. Why should I be welcome here? All of these things are expressions of that sense of distance, that sense that there has been a gulf that has opened up. There is a gap that needs to be bridged. Paul tells us in his Second Letter to the Church at Corinth, 2 Corinthians, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.
You might have thought reconcile was a word in Quicken or in your checkbook software at home, but it really is a word that finds its home in scripture in the Christian experience. There is the Christmas carol that has the words, God and sinners reconciled. It is the idea that things are brought back together in the right place. Things are brought back together in harmony. Paul says the whole work of Christ was to make it so that we can feel forgiven, so that we can know God’s grace, so that we might be able to pray to God and think that God really will listen, not because I am a righteous person in myself but because Christ stands in between us.
It is not enough just to know that. He goes on and says, “and he gave to us the ministry of reconciliation.” Here we are, the very people who already feel separated ourselves. I am not a good person. Don’t ask me to do that. Why would anybody think I could help? We find out that to those of us who would receive the message of Christ, to those of us who have accepted it, we have also received the charge to participate in this ministry and to share it with other people. That starts to get heavy. That starts to sound like witnessing. O my goodness, please don’t ask me to witness. A preacher might say, “We need to have a burden for souls.”
For many years, I felt guilty that I did not talk like that. I just did not seem very pastoral to me. I kept trying to understand my sense of obligation in the world and why I did not express my concern for the world that way. I found out that is just was not my vocabulary, but I do have that experience and I think you do, too. You may not have ever said that to someone, but I think as a part of this church family and knowing your heart for the work of the kingdom, that each and every one of us would say that we have a burden for souls.
The story that really taught me that this is what I have but just expressed differently is an old story, and you will be familiar with at least part of the story. It is the story of the Star Thrower. I have heard this preached. I have heard it used in motivational talks, and almost always, the story is only half told. You may be surprised to know that it is actually a true story. If you look at the meditation text, it is written by a man named Loren Eisley. He is now deceased, but he actually has a book called The Star Thrower. It is the title essay in the book.
The story takes place in the Galapagos Islands. Eisley was a naturalist who studied animals and plant life. Everybody knows you go to Galapagos to study that. One day after a storm, he goes out and encounters all of these people who are collecting shells and animals along the shoreline to sell them as souvenirs. They pick them up in their buckets, boil them, kill them, and do whatever is necessary to preserve them so that they can sell them. Eisley finds it a rather unpleasant scene.
He goes on out beyond where everybody is collecting, and he runs into the man that the story is famous for. The man is out there on the edge of the surf saying one starfish at a time. We have all heard this.
“You can’t save them all.”
“No, but I can save this one.”
He picks them up and throws them back into the sea.
Here is the part of the story that most of us have not heard. Eisley stands there and he is dumbfounded by this man’s unselfish act. As a naturalist, he is fairly much in the scientific, non-theistic, evolution school. He believes that every action is selfish. People, animals, and plants all select themselves. There just are no unselfish acts in the universe. Eisley watches this man and he is struck by it. He leaves, goes back to his hotel, and spends the night where he is examined by what he calls this unseen eye—this spiritual experience of examining him and asking him, Does he believe in helping the weak?
Eisley wrestles all night, and cannot wait for dawn. When the morning comes, he goes back out to the point where he saw the Star Thrower. In what truly has to be an expression of God’s grace, as he comes around the point, the man is there, and not only is he standing and throwing starfish, but it just so happens that a rainbow has come up from the coast, and the man is standing at the base of the rainbow, throwing starfish.
From the meditation text, we read this: “I found the star thrower…. Silently I sought and picked up a still living star, spinning it far out into the waves. I spoke once briefly. ‘I understand,’ I said, ‘Call me another thrower.’ Only then did I allow myself to think, ‘He is no longer alone, after us there will be others…. ‘I flung and flung again, while all about us roared the insatiable waters of death…. I could have thrown in a frenzy of joy, but I set my shoulders and cast, as the thrower in the rainbow cast, slowly, deliberately, and well. The task was not to be assumed lightly, for it was men as well as starfish we sought to save.”
When people tell the story, they never tell you that the man came back and said, “Call me another thrower.” He was so convicted by the act of unselfishness and of saving life that he had to come back and save life, too.
Has Eisley not given to us a graphic parable of God’s love and God’s work in this world? God, the star thrower, saving each one of us as if there were no other one to save. God, the star thrower, who by his example and his love and by showing what he can do, draws other people in to say, “I must do that, too.”
There is a place where Eisley says, “I love the small ones, the bird that flies and falls never to fly again, and the small things that strangle in the surf. I love these things.” He will not stop until he can do whatever he can do to save them—to save the small, the lost, and the struggling—to participate in this ministry. He says, “It is not starfish we seek to save, but human life, people who need the reconciling work of Jesus Christ.”
Sixteen years ago on September 26, I became your pastor. Some of you with excellent memories may remember that my first sermon was a sermon about the Star Thrower. I guess I could have pulled this out on my 5th, 10th, or 15th anniversary, but my commitment as a Christian, not just as a pastor, is to be serious about the work of God in the world, to participate with God in doing whatever is necessary so that others who are separated might be drawn back and be close. This is my burden for souls. If a person is poor, how will they recognize the bread of life unless they are fed? If a person is homeless and uses a curb as a pillow, how will they recognize that they are welcomed home, like the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son welcomes the son home, unless there is some place else to lay their head.
If their health is in question, how will they know that Christ is the great physician unless someone offers care? If they are beaten down, if they question, how will they know that a gracious God exists unless they hear about God from a gracious and kind voice? How do we help people who are confused and want to find their way back to God if we don’t give them kind, shared directions that come as our witness?
If we are really serious about loving God, how do we love God unless we accept our role in the mission? As we have been reconciled, to us is given the ministry of reconciliation. That’s why I say, Call me another thrower. I want to be another one to join the Star Thrower, to save whatever life, whatever person I can, and I want to communicate the Gospel to whomever would listen. As Eisley says after us there will come others.
What about you? Will you be an agent of God’s reconciliation in the world, to draw back those people who have been separated? Whatever the task, whatever the barrier might be to help take it down, we would all stand on a seashore and throw starfish back in if we could save them. Would we not do the same thing for those who are lost, for those who are cut off from the forgiven knowledge of Jesus Christ? Call each of us another thrower.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.