July 30, 2023 Sermon: Can’t Buy Me Love

Rev. Steve Nofel
First & Franklin Street Presbyterian Church
July 30, 2023
Romans 8:31-35; 37-39
Matthew 13:44-46

I can’t read Jesus’ Parable of the Pearl without thinking about one of my first attempts at a sermon.  It was in Preaching 101.  The professor assigned me the Gospel passage we just read. I preached, what I thought, was a swell sermon based on John Steinbeck’s great novel, The Pearl.  Do you remember it?  If you don’t – sorry.  You will have to look it up.  You won’t be hearing about it today. Anyway, after I preached The Pearl Sermon, during the peer evaluation process my classmates just hammered me about being snooty, using obscure illustrations, too complicated…I got hammered – and rightfully so.

The next year in Preaching 201, we were assigned the textbook named Preaching by the great, great preacher/professor Fred Craddock. In the book Craddock wrote that we should not be afraid to use literature in our sermons. For instance, he said, why not use Steinbeck’s The Pearl when preaching from Matthew 13? I whooped when we read that aloud in class.  I pointed it out, and pointed it out, and, did I mention I pointed it out to my classmates.

All of that was before I found my preaching voice – and it isn’t paraphrasing great writers.  One of the gifts the Lord has given me is to take everyday events in my screwy life and apply them to my faith in Christ and Scripture. People ask me how I remember these stories and applications, for decades now. I can’t depend on my memory, so I regularly jot down daily life events of and affix a Scripture reference, and file it on disc. I call it “Finding God – Out of the Ordinary.”

The Pearl of Great Value Parable reminds me more about two scenes from now 24-year-old Matthew’s pre-school days. In Jesus Christ we have in our possession the greatest, most valuable, most beautiful gift in the history of the universe. What then can we say about these things? Nothing, no how, no body, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ that we GRASP here and now and forever more. Try as even we ourselves might – Nothing can bury or separate us from Jesus Christ. And the Good News that Christ is right here and the Kingdom of God is at hand!

This morning I would like to take you back to the early winter of 2004.  I was serving the Hickman Presbyterian Church about 20 miles south of Lincoln, NE.  It was a church of about 250-300 members in a town about 1,000 people.  I was their interim pastor.  At work one day, I received an e-mail from the Executive Presbyter of my presbytery. He was announcing that he would be leading a conference for interim pastors in a few weeks.  Being an interim pastor, I thought it polite to respond.  I quickly fired off an email back to him (Using the Hickman Presbyterian Church account) saying sorry I couldn’t make the conference. I had a conflict.  And I signed it simply “Steve.”

A day later, he replied, “Sorry you can’t make it, but who are you?  Steve who?” Let me tell you why that response really upset me.  In fact, as I tell you about it years later, I can still feel my blood pressure rise.  The Executive Presbyter is the pastor to our churches and the pastors in their presbytery. So he should have known the names of each of the pastors in that presbytery.  I had also known that man for nearly 10 years before he became Executive.  Also, how many Steve’s were there pastoring the Hickman Presbyterian Church in the winter of 2004?

I was grumbling under my breath two days later as I was dropping Matt off at pre-school.  As we walked into the classroom, his teacher, Miss Kristine, looked at me strangely for second and then said, “I have been thinking about you all morning.” Before I could stammer out some respond, she added, “You shaved, didn’t you?” With some embarrassment and much stammering, I did manage to tell her that yes I had shaved off my beard the week before.

Driving to church that morning, all by myself, I laughed out loud.  I thought, “Who would I rather have remembering me, some middle-aged dude with a pot belly or a nice attractive young pre-school teacher?” Later when I told Kim all about it, she winked at me and said, “I’ll always know you.”

Psalm 139 tells us that the Lord God knew us even before we were a twinkle in our parent’s eyes.  The Lord God always knew and knows us.  God knit me in my mother’s womb.  The Lord God knows and loves me and calls us by name.  God forever knows us:  inside-out, upside-down and in all ways and all times. God, in Jesus Christ, will never ask who you are.  God has always known you, saved you and was and will be forever in your heart.  This is the treasure each of us has in our hearts. It is as one of the very first praise songs ever written, boldly proclaimed way back in the 1960s, paraphrasing the Apostles words from the 1st century and 2Cor. 4:7

We hold a treasure
Not made of gold
In earthen vessels, wealth untold
One treasure only, the Lord, the Christ

Let’s fast forward a month. It was a cold December 2004 weekday morning.  That damp, humid wet Nebraska cold that runs right though you!  Matty Boy (and I was allowed to call our pre-schooler – Matty) had a fever and upset stomach.  Kim was pretty sick too – she had the same thing Matt had.

I called the Hickman Presbyterian Church and left a message for our adminstrator, “I guess I better stay home today.” I got Chuck washed, brushed, dressed, fed and on the school bus.  I was still in my usual heavy winter sweat pants and long sleeved T-shirt, that I wore as PJs. I threw on my ratty old winter coat and headed over to the pre-school.  I promised Matty I would pick up any activities the other kids might be doing that day.

At this point I still didn’t have a beard, well actually, not much of a beard that morning. Driving over to the pre-school, I realized that I had totally forgotten to wash, brush, shave or generally clean-up.  It had been hectic with two sickies and getting Chucker going. As I walked into Matt’s classroom, Miss Kristine was talking to the superintendent of the school, Miss Laura.  We had known Laura for years.  She was the wife of the pastor Reformed Church in America church where the pre-school was housed.  Laura was a friend and usually attended the monthly area pastor’s lunch.  She had also been Chuck’s pre-school teacher for a year and a half.

As I approached them, both turned to face me.  Laura said, quite cheerfully, “Well, Reverend Nofel, good morning!” Once again for a few seconds I was struck dumb.  I hadn’t been thinking about God, Jesus, church, ministry or my identity as a pastor at all.  I was simply a somewhat frazzled, dirty husband and father there to pick up homework.  I certainly didn’t look like any “Reverend” I had ever seen before and didn’t feel very reverent wondering what I would face when I got back home. I finally recovered my voice, chuckle at my lack of reverent appearance and picked up Matty’s stuff.

I do a lot of reflecting, praying, and meditating while I am driving.  Maybe that is why I am not such a hot driver. Anyway, driving the four miles home that day, I reflected on being “The Reverend Stephen Charles Nofel.”  It just isn’t when preaching on Sunday or in the hospital, or at presbytery gatherings.  It just isn’t when I remember to shave and look presentable. Being a Christian is an all the time thing, even when we aren’t specifically thinking about God in Jesus Christ.  Being a Christian is showing the great pearl – the great treasure we have in Jesus Christ – even when it seems buried in our appearance or even in some of our thoughtless or crummy actions and attitudes. We carry Jesus around wherever we go and whenever we go.  We carry Jesus into the world when we do big things – world changing ministries. We carry and show Jesus in personal encounters, when we live into the Golden Rule. Especially when we live into the great commission to Love God and Love each other when we are one-on-one, in a small groups, and living our daily lives.

Let us pray that we live into that perfect unfailing love of God in all times and places and represent Jesus well all the time. Show off His Treasure even if we carry it around in sometimes dirty, smelly, and cracked Earthen Vessels. It all brings to mind of the charge from Colossians 3:17, we give to newly baptized, new members, and the newly ordained, and so I charge you, and me…Whatever (any earthshaking thing / any small, tiny thing) whatever you do in word or deed, do it all in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ giving thanks to God.”

ABOUT REV. STEVE NOFEL: Steve was originally ordained in another denomination 32 years ago. He has been a PCUSA pastor for 28 plus years. His wife, Kim, is also a PCUSA pastor. Right after they were married, they moved to her first call in southeast Nebraska. Steve fell into interim / transitional ministry and found his calling. He served as an interim minister for 11 years. Then Kim and Steve became co-pastors for 12 years in Cortez, Colorado. After leaving Cortez, he once again found his niche in transitional ministry. Steve has been serving congregations in Baltimore Presbytery as “Staff Interim” for the last year.