Column by Mary Lee Talbot
“As children in Sunday school, we learned that God is big and mighty. God protected us and healed us and was able to do great things,” said the Rev. Neal D. Presa. God sounded almost like a superhero.
Presa preached at the 9:15 a.m. Thursday morning worship service in the Amphitheater. His sermon title was “God is Able,” and the scripture reading was Ephesians 3:14-21.
“I have a friend who asks this blessing before a meal: ‘God, you are able to do anything. Please remove the calories from this food,’ ” Presa said. “I am not sure God functions as a dietician, but I do believe in the awesomeness of God. Think about the creation of the heavens, the Earth and light. The verses in Ephesians are a reminder of God’s awesomeness through God’s exceeding love rather than raw power.”
The apostle Paul wrote that he hoped the full height, breadth, length and depth of God’s love would take root in the Ephesian church and remain in their hearts to hold that awesome love in the deepest recesses of their soul.
Presa asked ChatGPT for a summary of Ephesians 3:14-21. It noted that the passage talks about a deep spiritual experience and a deep relationship with God and Jesus Christ. Love transformed the believers to live in alignment with God’s purposes.
“That is pretty good, and yet — God ‘is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine,’ ” Presa said. “God is in it for the long game. I have congregants who tell me how a sermon I gave five years ago blessed them. Another preacher told me about an Easter sermon that I gave 10 years ago, and he refers to it every Easter.”
Presa and his wife, Grace, had a conversation about a friend who had a painful biopsy. One tumor was benign but the other needed more tests. “We asked ourselves if prayer could really change the status of the tumor; it is what it is, and God won’t swoop in and change it.”
He continued, “But prayer changes us and gives us peace. We can pray for the radiologist to remember their training, that the surgeon will have a steady hand, the surgical staff will not be distracted, the billing department will not overcharge them, that the insurance company will honor the contract, the pharmacy will dispense the right medication, the family can take care of her. You get my point.”
When we desire to bless others, we can do so because God has our back, Presa told the congregation. “God is able to do far more than we can imagine. Ephesians 3 is an assertive blessing that infiltrates our lives. It is comprehensive and very specific,” he said.
God’s glory and character should be reflected in God’s church by all people of all ages, without an expiration date. There is a deficit of belief that God is able to accomplish more than we can imagine, he told the congregation.
“We think true, lasting good news is wishful thinking, a utopia,” Presa told the congregation. “We look at the world through Good Friday eyes when we need to be Easter people. We think that miracles only happened in Jesus’ time. We believe that reality will overwhelm our hope. But God is able to accomplish more than we can imagine.”
The Rev. Thomas Gillespie, former president of Princeton Theological Seminary, had a piece of art over the coffee pot in his office. The caption on the piece of art said, “No matter how hard you work, how right you are, sometimes the dragons win.” On early maps of the world, toward the edge of the map, map makers would put “beyond this point, there be dragons.”
Presa quoted Gillespie, who described some of the dragons. “Pastorates are terminated. Marriages fail. Professorships flounder. Children disappoint. Wars continue. Injustice prevails. Poverty persists. Racism endures. The point is sometimes the dragon wins.”
Gillespie then shared a story told by theologian James S. Stewart. Stewart was looking at a painting of Faust in which Faust’s face is despondent. He was playing chess with the devil and Faust believed he had lost. He only had a knight and his king on the board. The name of the painting was “Checkmate.”
A group of chess masters came by, contemplated the painting and almost all agreed that Faust had lost the game. One man stayed behind and stared at the painting for a long time. A startled look came upon his face and he shouted, “It’s a lie. He has another move.” Gillespie said, “Sometimes the dragon wins — but only sometimes.”
Presa said, “Our faith tells us that God is able to accomplish far more than we can imagine. All glory to God and Jesus Christ, now and in all generations.”
The Rev. Natalie Hanson, co-pastor of Hurlbut Memorial Community United Methodist Church, presided. Nancy Ackley, a member of the Motet Choir and former host at the Mayflower and Reformed UCC Houses, read the scripture. For the prelude, the Motet Consort played “Pour la danseuse aux crotales” and “Pour invoquer Pan, dieu du vent d’été,” from Six Épigraphes Antiques by Claude Debussy, arranged by Sharon Davis. The consort included Barbara Hois, flute, Debbie Grohman, clarinet, and Willie La Favor, piano. Joshua Stafford, director of sacred music and Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist, directed the Motet Choir in singing “If Ye Love Me,” music by Philip Wilby and text from John 14:15-18. The choir was accompanied by Nicholas Stigall on the Massey Memorial Organ. The postlude was “Toccata in G,” by Théodore Dubois, played by Stafford. Support for this week’s chaplaincy and preaching is provided by the Edmond E. Robb-Walter C. Shaw Fund and the Randell-Hall Memorial Chaplaincy.