Morning Worship: God puts people in your future to move you where you should be

Photographs by BRIA GRANVILLE | Staff Photographer

On a cold, rainy morning, the sound of the Chautauqua congregation singing “Holy Holy, Holy” warmed the hearts and souls of those gathered to begin the 142nd season of Chautauqua at the 10:45 a.m. morning worship service and sermon. The Rev. Joel C. Gregory preached on the theme “It’s About Time: Six Degrees of Separation.” His scripture was Genesis 37.

Six Degrees of Separation was a play and a movie with Stockard Channing and Will Smith about 20 years ago. But before that, it was an experiment run by Stanley Milgram while he was at Harvard,” Gregory said. Milgram found that an average person is only six people away from anyone else.

“Then enter Facebook,” he continued. “There are nearly a billion people using it and we are now only four people from knowing someone well. I don’t know President Obama but I know two people who are in and out of his office. So I am only one degree away from him. And Obama knows Queen Elizabeth so I am only two degrees away from Buckingham Palace. We find that we are often only six degrees from where God may be taking us.”

Gregory used the story of Joseph to illustrate his point. In what he called the “CliffsNotes version” of the story, Gregory showed that Joseph moved one step closer to where God wanted him to be even when things did not turn out well. When Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, he moved one degree closer to to where God wanted him to be.

Joseph was one degree closer to where God wanted him to be when Potiphar bought him.

“And when Joseph ran into the original desperate housewife, Mrs. Potiphar, even though he did the right thing, it turned out wrong,” Gregory said. “But it took him one degree closer to where he was supposed to be.”

In prison, Joseph interpreted the dreams of the butler and the baker who served Pharaoh. The baker died, but the butler returned to Pharoah’s service and forgot about Joseph until Pharaoh had a dream. The butler remembered the prisoner and Joseph came before Pharaoh and became the chief operating officer of Egypt.

“On this Sunday, is that the kind of story, of what God used to do, we have a memorial service for, or does God still move us one degree closer to what God has in mind for us?” Gregory said. “Some of us have Ph.D.s in messes but sometimes we are thrown into situations that are not of our own making.”

Joseph inherited his family situation: a father, four mothers and 12 siblings. He was thrown into being his father’s favorite. Jacob had not learned from his own family situation and put Joseph in a bad place. On the other hand, Joseph was a snitch who told people about his dreams despite their lack of preparation to hear what he had to say.

“It can be hard to untangle who did what to whom, but the good word is that grace means God can use any situation to get us one degree closer to where he wants us to be,” Gregory said. “Joseph did the right thing in Potiphar’s house by running away, but it turned out wrong. I know there is someone here who can say ‘that speaks to my life right now.’ It happened to some distinguished people: Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. They did the right thing, and it turned out wrong.”

Yet God puts people in others’ futures who they did not expect to encounter, like the butler and the baker for Joseph.

“Karl Jung called this synchronicity, being with time,” Gregory said. “Life is full of events with no causal relationship. People come together in ‘God moments’ that have ultimate meaning in life. Joseph interpreted the dreams of the butler and baker and came one degree closer to where God wanted him to be.”

Gregory told a story about arriving in Newark, New Jersey, for meetings in New York City when he was a publisher. He arrived very late at night and went to the first hotel he could find. He went to get something to eat and, while he was there, a young African-American man came over and said, “Dr. Gregory, I am surprised to see you here.” The man was The Rev. Joe Carter, a pastor in Newark who had just finished Gregory’s autobiography. Carter told him how much it had helped him and today Carter sits on the board of Joel Gregory Ministries.

“Our lives were thrown together in meaningful ways because God put them in the way of each other,” Gregory said. “Some people think this is just the odds catching up with you. If you think that then you must think that when a printing plant blows up, unabridged dictionaries fall out of the sky. God is putting people in your future that he will use.”

Sometimes people forget those who help them when they are down. Pharoah’s butler forgot about Joseph until Pharaoh needed a dream interpreter. Joseph became the “Czar of Famine and Plenty” in Egypt.

“God uses evolutionary and developmental processes but will surprise us with suddenness,” Gregory said. “By one degree you are suddenly where God wishes you to be. Jung said that the more you look for synchronicity, the more you see.

“Joseph had to make every stop along the way for God to get him where God intended him to be,” he added. “A beginning chess player can see three moves ahead; a chess master can see 30 moves ahead to check mate. How many moves ahead can God think?”

Before the service began, Thomas M. Becker, president of Chautauqua Institution, stood to tap the gavel three times to open the season. The congregation gave him prolonged applause and a standing ovation. Becker recognized Marty Merkley, vice president for programming of the Institution, who also received a standing ovation.

The Rev. Robert M. Franklin, Jr. presided at the service. Franklin welcomed those attending the New Clergy Conference, the APYA coordinators, first time visitors to Chautauqua and recognized the leaders of the denominational houses. The Rev. Becky Spanos read the scripture. Jared Jacobsen, organist and director of sacred music, directed the Chautauqua Choir. The organ prelude was “Vision of the Eternal Church” by Olivier Messiaen. The hymn-anthem, sung by the Chautauqua Choir and the congregation, was “Beautiful River” by Robert Lowry, festal arrangement by John Rutter. The anthem was “We Shall Walk Through the Valley in Peace,” an African-American spiritual arranged by Moses Hogan. The offertory anthem was “How Excellent Thy Name” by Howard Hanson, based on Psalm 8. The organ postlude was “Toccata” by Charles-Marie Widor. James Paterniti played “Taps” during the Chautauqua Family Milestones, remembering deceased Chautauquans.

The Geraldine M. and Frank E. McElree Jr. Chaplaincy Fund provides support for this week’s services.