The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 6/12/05
Text: Matthew 10:29-31; Jeremiah 1:4-8
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

I saw in the paper last week that TIME magazine, on their web site, had complied a list of the top 100 movies ever made as selected by their resident film critics, Richard Shickel and Richard Corliss. I decided to check it out to see if they were right. Corliss posted an explanatory column writing,
You like us, you really like us. You also hate us. Anyway, you click on us, which is the surest way a website has of measuring interest in its content. The All-TIME 100 Movies feature...attracted a record-busting 7.8 million page views in its first week, including 3.5 million on May 23rd, its opening day. Thousands of readers have written in to cheer or challenge our selections, and thousands more have voted for their own favorites. The response simply underscores Richard's and my long-held belief that everybody has two jobs: his own and movie critic.(1)
Well, I never thought of myself as a movie critic, but I guess he is right, because they flat MISSED the very BEST movie of all time, Forrest Gump. It won the Academy Award for best picture the year it came out (1994, I think), and was SO good that I actually paid money and bought the movie on video tape, the first movie video I ever bought. It was GOOD! So good I went down to the basement to dig it out and watch it again last week (Christie was out of town). I could not find it!!! Nuts.

No matter. I remember most of it anyway. As you probably recall, the hero of the piece is a slightly slow-witted young man whose life we follow from boyhood through about age 40. We learn that he got his first name from a distant relative, Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate General who, once the War between the States was over, used to dress up in bed sheets and tear around the country with his similarly-dressed friends in their club called the Ku Klux Klan. The name Forrest was to be a reminder that even normal people sometimes do inexplicable things.

According to the story, young Forrest Gump with an IQ of only 75 was not just as good as other young men, but better. He had to learn to run fast to escape the local bullies; he learned so well that he became an All-America running back for the University of Alabama, and was invited to the White House to meet President Kennedy. More fast running helped him save the lives of his comrades in Vietnam; he was a genuine hero and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor after another invitation to the White House to meet President Johnson. Advice to "keep your eye on the ball" taught him a new game...Ping Pong...and he became so proficient that he was made a member of the American team that helped open the US relationship with Red China, invited to the White House again, this time to meet President Nixon. After all that, Gump fulfills his deceased best Army buddy's dream of buying a shrimp boat in Alabama - when Hurricane Camille reduces every other boat to rubble, the business takes off. Finally, Forrest becomes, in his word, a "go-zillionaire" after investing in what he thought was a little fruit company...Apple Computer. Along the way he teaches an unknown named Elvis a new way to move his hips, becomes the inspiration for the "Have-A-Nice-Day" Smiley face, gives John Lennon the lyrics to the hit song, "Imagine" and, while an overnight guest at the Watergate Hotel in June, 1972, alerts security to a problem in a neighboring suite where folks are wandering about with flash lights apparently looking for a fuse box. As I say, incredible...not to mention, regularly hilarious.

The recurring theme in the film is DESTINY. One of the characters whose life Forrest saves in the jungles of Vietnam is his Army Lieutenant Dan Taylor who was introduced as having had relatives who had died in every war America ever fought - a great tradition to live up to (or DIE up to, as the case may be). Forrest carries Lt. Dan to safety despite his protests. Both end up in an army hospital, Forrest there due to a bullet wound in, as he says, the ButTOCKS, the Lieutenant with legs so damaged that they required amputation, and with psyche so scarred that he eventually screams at this young man who saved his life, "We all have a destiny. Everything's part of a plan. I had a destiny. I was supposed to die in the field with my men...with HONOR. I had a destiny. I was Lt. Dan Taylor."

"I had a destiny." What about that? Did he? Do I? Do you? Perhaps an unusual question from the pulpit of a Presbyterian church, the folks uniquely known for a belief in PREdestination (more about that in a few minutes).

The prophet Jeremiah believed he was not here accidentally. He reports a conversation with Yahweh: God says, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations." Jeremiah believed he had a destiny, and despite some reluctance, he was ready to follow it.

Is there some inexorable fate or some divine plan that charts our lives, that says where we will be born, which school to attend, what we will do, who we will marry, who will win the World Series or the US Open, when we will die? Some folks believe so.

Lots of folks are closet fatalists. They believe that when it is your time, it is your time - no avoiding it. Soldiers head into battle with the conviction that, if there is a bullet "with my name on it," that's it. I heard of a fellow who was afraid of flying. A friend said, "Hey, why worry? When your number's up, you're gonna go, no matter where." To which the `fraidy flyer replied, "Yeah, but I don't want to go when the number of the guy sitting NEXT to me is up." Hmmm.

I realize that many people find comfort in believing that our lives are carefully mapped out according to divine plan. I used to feel that way, but no longer. If I believed that I would have to say then that it was God's plan that Hannah and Emma die in a fire before they ever really had the chance to live. I would have to say that it was God's plan for more beloved saints than I care to recall to spend the last years of their lives in and out of hospitals, in fairly constant pain as they battle horrors like cancer. I would have to say that it is God's plan for millions to die in history's regular demonstrations of man's inhumanity to man - the holocaust, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur. How could I avoid saying that if I insisted that things happen only according to God's plan?

One more scenario, a situation of what is called "special providence." How many times have we read or heard of someone who had to miss a certain airplane flight that happened to crash? Wow! God's hand was in that - God caused that traffic jam just so this favored friend would be spared for some eventual worthy service. But what about the 100 who DID die, plus all the rest who were injured. Did God care less for them than for this one? And what about all those others through the years who have missed the vacation on the Titanic or were sick on September 11th and could not get in to work at the World Trade Center that day? Were their lives spared because they were people of unique promise who would leave an indelible mark on human society? I have trouble with that.

No. Forrest Gump's mother was right: "Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you're gonna get."

In years past, that would have upset me. I grew up convinced that NOTHING happened by chance - it was not by chance that I was born into a Christian home, it was not by chance that I married Christie, it was not by chance that we are the parents of David and Erin, it is not by chance that we are in Warren. I would have happily argued that a sovereign God, the God of all the universe, the God who hung the sun, the moon and stars, the God who built the mountains and carved out the oceans, is surely powerful enough to arrange the events of my piddly life. No question. But I have come to realize that that great God loves me more than that. Like a loving Father, God trusts me, gives me freedom, allows me choices, gives me the chance to work things out for myself. I have tried to raise my own children the same way - teach them, offer them guidance, then trust them to make proper decisions. And when they DON'T, be there for them to help them up when they need a hand...just as God is there for me when I need a hand.

What does the Bible say? Any thoughtful reading would note that God allows humanity incredible freedom, from the Garden of Eden, through the lives of the patriarchs and the prophets, on to the time of Jesus and the early church. Rather than mapping out every individual's destiny or plan of life which must be followed, instead God allows circumstances to occur, choices to be made, and then makes a way for those circumstances and choices to be used for good for his children - Romans 8:28: "ALL things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to God's purpose."

Why? Our brief lesson from Matthew's gospel notes that sparrows are not worth very much as the world views worth - you could buy two for a penny and, according to the parallel passage in Luke's gospel,(2) you could buy FIVE for TWO pennies (buy four, get one free). But God cares enough about even the sparrows, that not one lights on the ground, EVEN THE FREE ONE - the one with seemingly no value at all - without divine notice. Jesus says, "you are of more value than many sparrows...even the hairs of your head are all counted" (and for some of us that requires a daily inventory). Wow. God must really care. God does not need to plan my life to prove love for me; all I ask is that God be WITH me and offer guidance for the choices offered me.

Now, about that Presbyterian doctrine of predestination. Properly understood, it has nothing whatsoever to do with some divinely-ordained plan for the day-to-day events of your life. Predestination has to do with salvation. It was the term chosen by John Calvin and other reformers to explain that our salvation is not simply the result of our choice - God acts first in extending the invitation and providing us an opportunity to respond. For Calvin, this doctrine was a source of comfort in that "salvation does not depend upon our faltering human efforts but upon the mercy and power of God."(3)

To go one step further, listen to Dr. John Leith, long-time professor of theology at Union Seminary in Richmond: "Calvin located the doctrine of predestination in the ordering of his theology after his discussion of the Christian life. This suggests that predestination can best be understood not at the beginning but at the conclusion of the life of faith. It is the testimony of the believer that what has happened in the life of faith has not been the result of one's own efforts about which one can boast but of the grace of God."(4) In other words, predestination, from a human point of view, is simply 20/20 hindsight about how you and I came to Christ.

Back to that wonderful movie that INEXPLICABLY was left off TIME magazine's list of the 100 all-time best. Do you remember that screaming scene I described with Lt. Dan bitterly complaining, "I had a destiny. I was supposed to die in the field with my men...with HONOR. I had a destiny. I was Lt. Dan Taylor." The scene did not end there. You see Forrest Gump had a reply. With far more wisdom than he realized, Forrest answered, "You're STILL Lt. Dan Taylor."

Forrest believed that, yes, your identity is handed to you, but there is more to a person than that. On her deathbed he heard his mother say, "I was destined to be your Mama. I hope I did a good job." Forrest replies, "What's my destiny, Mama?" and she responds, "I happen to believe you make your own destiny. Do the best with what God gave you."

Others through the years have said the same. William Jennings Bryan, one of America's best-known politicians of a century ago said, "Destiny is no matter of chance. It is a matter of choice: it is not a thing to be waited for; it is a thing to be achieved."

Forrest Gump came to that conclusion. Here was a slow-witted young man from whom, under normal circumstances, we might have expected a life of little or no accomplishment, lived on the periphery of polite society, probably at the edges of poverty. Ha! As the film draws to a close, Forrest stands at the grave of his childhood sweetheart whom he had just recently been able to marry and with tears streaming down his cheeks said, "Mama always said dyin' was a part of life. I wish it wasn't." (I agree, Forrest.) Then he says, "I don't know if we each have a destiny or if we're all just floatin' around, accidental like, like on a breeze. Maybe its both."

Maybe it is. To tell you the truth, even though I might have wanted to believe in God's moment-to-moment control at one point, I no longer need that. Instead, I am content to affirm with the writers of the Heidelberg Catechism in our Presbyterian Book of Confessions question and answer #1 drawn from our New Testament lesson: "What is your only comfort in life and in death?" The answer:
That I belong - body and soul, in life and in death - not to myself, but to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ who, at the cost of His own blood has fully paid for all my sins...that he protects me so well that, without the will of my Father in heaven, not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that everything must fit His purpose for my salvation. Therefore, by His Holy Spirit He assures me of eternal life, and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for Him.
Do I have a destiny? I guess. I belong to Jesus.



2. Luke 12:6

3. John Leith, An Introduction to the Reformed Tradition, (Atlanta: John Knox, 1981), p. 105

4. ibid., pp. 105-106

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