First Congregational Church
October 10, 2013
22nd Sunday after Pentecost
"The Persistence Parable"
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Doing my homework this week brought me to one of my favorite preachers: Rev. Dr. Tom Long. He brought up a point made by another Dr. of humanity: Bill Cosby. Dr. Cosby said, "When children come to their parents with things like, "Billy took my teddy bear. I want you to make him give it back.," what children naively assume is that parents are interested in justice. "Parents," said Cosby, "are not interested in justice. They are interested in quiet."
Over the past weeks, we've been spending time in the book of Luke: with the healing of ten lepers, mustard seed faith, the shrewd manager, lost sheep, coins and kids. This morning's passage continues in the parable-telling mode, with a person also interested in quiet.
Luke 18:1-8 (NIV)
18 Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. 2 He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. 3 And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’
4 “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”
6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? 8 I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”
Thank you, Pam. This is not one of the top ten best loved Bible stories. There are more than a couple ways that "experts" have unraveled it. It has stumbling blocks. As a widow, the plaintiff should have been able to garner the court's attention more easily than most. There was a law in the Old Testament that only an orphan could be considered a more urgent case than a widow. Instead, the widow, being so close to the bottom of the social scale in Jesus' day, probably wouldn't get justice in a descent courtroom, but she ends up in the courtroom of the worst judge in the county. Against a narcissistic judge, she doesn't have a chance, except that she has a weapon: her capacity to annoy. And when you only have one weapon, you use it. In verse 5, where it says she "bothered" him, in the ancient Greek, it means to literally give someone a black eye. She was stalking him and his reputation in ways that would make a Law and Order episode boring - or laughable.
If we look to the judge for meaning, if God is being compared to the judge, does God put us off sometimes - in answering our prayers? How could God be compared to one - the judge - who had so little regard for anyone or anything else? In the end, I don't know what any of you might be thinking, but I'm guessing that such an obvious comparison of God to the judge is not only too blatant, it is also not helpful.
I absolutely love it when someone flips the possibilities - especially in regards to scripture passages. The Rev. Dr. Janet Hunt was chatting to her preaching students, and one of them asked, "Oh, but is God the judge or the pleading widow in the story?" Ooo. What a delightful role reversal! Except that it worked in the Old Testament days. In the lectionary passage from Jeremiah assigned for today, God pleads and pleads with the people to turn around and come back to God's self. If the people weren't listening to God some 600 years before Jesus came, why would they do any different with him standing in front of them?
So if the passage isn't about the widow or the judge, then it has to be something else. And Jesus gives us a big clue in the opening sentence. "Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up." So back to my buddy, Tom Long.
He once preached on this passage and talked about Leonard Bernstein on writing his great rock, blues and jazz Mass: "I think that the most troubling and disheartening language for contemporary people in the liturgy is not the credo - the I believe in God, I mean there is a sense in which even people in a skeptical age can say, in a gaseous and vague way, "I believe in God." No, the most troubling part of the Mass was "Let us pray." Because when the words are uttered, "Let us pray," that vague and gaseous God must come into focus, and bets cannot be hedged. We enter into communion and communication with this God and no other, and it raises all the questions: Is there a God? Is there a God who hears? Is there a God who answers?
Although as of today, I might not agree with Tom Long's eventual point, that this parable is about justice, I think his illustration about prayer has some wider application - for all of us. As much as we'd like it not to be, there are issues with prayer.
There are practical issues: (Yes, I'd like to pray more, but I just don't have the time. It gets crowded out.) I agree. If we are to be about doing good things in Christian love, and maintaining our own realms as good Christians, we don't have all the time for prayer we'd like. That's why I think Brother Andrew's idea of Practicing the Presence of God in all our daily moments makes far more sense - when we can't pray all the time. Then our lives are not only more open to seeing the miracles and goodness with that which God blesses us, but we are able to be the prayer that so many people need - in its purest sense.
"Eileen was one of her first patients, a person who was totally helpless. 'A cerebral aneurysm (broken blood vessels in the brain) had left her with no conscious control over her body,' the nurse writes. As near as the doctors could tell Eileen was totally unconscious, unable to feel pain and unaware of anything going on around her. It was the job of the hospital staff to turn her and give her a tube feeding twice a day. Caring for her was a thankless task. 'When it's this bad,' an older student nurse told the young nurse, 'you have to detach yourself emotionally from the whole situation...' As a result, more and more she came to be treated as a thing, a vegetable...
"But the young student nurse decided that she could not treat this person like the others had treated her. She talked to Eileen, sang to her, encouraged her, and even brought her little gifts. One day when things were especially difficult and it would have been easy for the young nurse to take out her frustrations on the patient, she was especially kind. (Good point - if we take nothing else away today.) It was Thanksgiving Day and the nurse said to the patient, 'I was in a cruddy mood this morning, Eileen, because it was supposed to be my day off. But now that I'm here, I'm glad. I wouldn't have wanted to miss seeing you on Thanksgiving. Do you know this is Thanksgiving?'
"Just then the telephone rang, and as the nurse turned to answer it, she looked quickly back at Eileen. 'Suddenly,' she writes, Eileen was 'looking at me... crying. Big damp circles stained her pillow, and she was shaking all over.
"That was the only human emotion that Eileen ever showed any of them, but it was enough to change the whole attitude of the hospital staff toward her. Not long afterward, Eileen died. The young nurse closes her story, saying, 'I keep thinking about her... It occurred to me that I owe her an awful lot. Except for Eileen, I might never have known what it's like to give myself to someone who can't give back'"
(Incidentally, this scenario is why we should never assume people who appear "out of it" are "out of it." In the nursing world, the training is now to always consider that a person is "with it," and to treat them that way.)
There are theological issues with prayer. If I pray for my sick child and my child dies, does it mean that God didn't hear my prayer? If I pray for my sick child and he gets well, does it mean that God wouldn't have healed my child if I hadn't prayed? Does it mean that I changed God's mind? Does it mean that God can be manipulated? Since when do we have to badger God to get what we need?
All those "problems" can be sorted with some study - perhaps more by the head than the heart. But perhaps the writer of this parable was going for what lies underneath all the other problems: we lose heart. We just lose heart.
We pray for health, but there is still a spot on the x-ray. We pray for peace, but the troops still are "over there" and not here. In the Lord’s Prayer we pray for our daily bread, yet some so very close around us starve daily. If we really thought our prayers for (name the place - or person) would bring peace, you couldn't keep us out of the prayer closet. But we just lose heart. It is, I think, because we are so very human. And should we be so honest as to admit losing heart, then the temptation to feel guilty seems to loom over everything else, too.
But here's the thing: we may pray and lose heart. God - as we meet God in Jesus - was willing to go up against all kinds of disrespectful, unjust powers for God's beloved people. In fact, Jesus did it to the point of suffering and death - and he still kept praying. We are human, and therefore imperfect. Christ, who is divine, is perfect. Even more perfect than Emmitt Smith.
A gentleman named David Dykes said, "He isn’t as flashy as Walter Payton or Barry Sanders, and he never possessed true break-away speed. But his strength lies in his ability to persist–he just kept on running.
He has run for 16,743 yards. That’s 9.5 miles! It has taken him 13 years to run only 9.5 miles. What’s the big deal about that?, asked Mr. Dykes. "I ran more miles than that on the Rose Rudman trail this past week! The big difference is, I didn’t have 11 huge defensive players trying to take my head off when I ran! Emmitt’s average run over those 9.5 miles was 4.3 yards at a time. That means he has been tackled and knocked down 3,983 times. And do you know what he did after every tackle? He got back up and ran the ball again. Sure, he was injured a few times, but he always returned. I’m impressed that someone would be knocked down almost 4,000 times and still they get up and run again. Let us pray.
God of strength and courage and persistence, we thank you for fortifying us, encouraging us, and cheering us on in our faith and earthly journeys. We confess that sometimes we don't give you our best, and sometimes we lose heart. BUt we are grateful that you never leave us or leave us behind. You know, Jesus, how hard this life can be sometimes. And how good it can be. So help us be persistent in following you, listening to you, loving you, as you return all those things in multiplied measure to us. For the sheer grace of calling us your children, we all say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
October 13, 2013
21st Sunday after Pentecost
"Traveling thru the Land Between"
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
A delightful book was shared at last Wednesday's Lectionary Study Group called, "10,000 Things To Praise God For." Part of the delight of the book is the randomness and another part is the simplicity. And what a cure-all for what seeks to suck us into darkness - to praise God for seedless grapes, finding a parking space, porch lights, and street lights and candle lights. When was the last time you thanked or praised God for those who know what to do in a power failure, for sailing lessons, for feeling up after feeling down, and honest automobile mechanics? I so can't wait to see how such a book will undoubtedly change - at least my focus and demeanor.
Our scripture passage for this morning sort of deals with thankfulness, as in "giving God praise" for this, that or the other. Prior to this morning's passage, Jesus had been teaching, according to Luke, on various topics from lost sheep and coins and sons to shrewd managers and the raising up of a dead man from death. This morning's passage finds Jesus taking a little trip to Jerusalem. We don't know if the disciples were with him at that moment in time, but the action really has nothing to do with them, and everything to do with us.
Luke 17:11-19 (NIV)
11 Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance 13 and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”
14 When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.
15 One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. 16 He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.
17 Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? 18 Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”
Thank you, Signe. As we chatted about this passage at the Study Group, it seemed that there was/is appreciation that this is one of those reminders to be like the one, rather than like the nine. (I do wonder, however, if any came back after that immediate incident.) But there are some other things in this passage that should be highlighted, too.
All the men were lepers. In Jesus' day, that meant being an outcast in the literal sense of the word. Leper colonies or gatherings were common enough, and they mostly lived in the more unforgiving places. People with the affliction were allowed to travel through towns or groups of people if they announced themselves first. Maybe thats why there was a lot of "loud" and raised voices in this passage. Regardless of all the noise, the ten were all definitely marginalized, alienated, discriminated against, and sidelined.
The one who came back, tho, was doubly marginalized. He was also a Samaritan. At one time, there was a group that broke off from the Jewish people, around 600 BC. This break-off group claimed that they were the true worshipers of the ancient Israelite religion. The Samaritans and Israelites were so much alike, yet considered themselves so very different from each other - sort of like fans of Michigan State and the University of Michigan. (Now I'm not saying one is better than the other - you can duke it out on the street. But I think you are beginning to get the drift of animosity that was greatly jacked up, because it had to do with religion, ya know.)
Besides the healing of a doubly marginalized man, there are some other points that have high degrees of relevance - like the "go" and "trust" of the ten, when they were sent - while still plagued - to present themselves to the priests for a pronouncement of being cleansed. There's a sort of "build it and they will come" goofiness about Jesus' direction here. But goofier yet is that the ten went. They literally had to step out in faith, one step at a time, not knowing what the end result would be.
Perhaps some of our greatest prayers may be for those who need to or have to step out in such faith - even if it doesn't feel like faith to them. I've been thinking about those whose spouses or significant persons have died, and there is the need for stepping out in faith - into the lake of grief - that maybe, just maybe, there might be a lessening of the pain - if nothing else. And I've been thinking about those who step out into a particular plan or program of dealing with a disease. These days there are a lot of options in treating various maladies. How to know which one to chose?
Ironically, it was a sermon by a pastor named Rev. Dr. Janet Hunt that got me thinking about this stepping out idea. Except that she latched onto the idea way back at the beginning of the passage. "Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee." She pointed out that it is that land between Samaria and Galilee where we find Jesus today.
Rev. Hunt said, "For the land between Samaria and Galilee is neither one or the other. By its very existence, it is a place where it is impossible to forget that the two had once been one. It is a location which causes one to remember how things were before long before the experience of exile left its mark on both kingdoms. It is a place where one might find oneself unsure of who belonged and who didn't, where one might be uncertain, un-trusting, even a little fearful. It is a place where the accustomed rules might not apply - where one would not fully know one's place. It is the place where Jesus travels today. It is a place where, it seems to me, if we are where we are called to be, you and I are traveling every day." I didn't look at the date of her writing, but I can't help but wonder if it was about our country she was writing.
Rev. Hunt went on to tell about meeting with a family at a funeral home, to pray with them before the visitation, and two young men leaning against a car in the funeral home parking lot. She said that she nearly nodded and walked by, but for some reason, stopped to ask them how they were. She knew that their world was not one she knew at all, a world foreign to the anger and despair that really took the life of their young friend. It was pausing, to recognize these friends who had been asked to speak at the funeral of their lifelong friend the next day, it was then that she saw beyond their nonchalance - to their grief and fear - to their place in the land between.
It was Rev. Hunt's thoughts that got me to thinking about people any of us might know - that are traveling thru the land between. (pause) Maybe some of those people you know in that place are in this very room. And aren't there are a lot of "between places?" Disease and ease, illness and health, grief and peace, seen and unseen.
There is a novel by Anne Tyler called "Ladder of Years," that tells the story of Delia Grinstead. Delia is one of the lovely, lovable, utterly giving wives and mothers who give their level best to keep the household running smoothly. But as her children grow up, they become "great, galumphing, unmannerly, and supercilious creatures" who ignore Delia and who flinch from her hugs. What's more, they expect that their favorite foods will always be in the pantry or the fridge, but they never thank Delia for purchasing these sundries (though they will complain loudly should she forget one day).
Meanwhile Delia's husband is so wrapped up in his medical practice that he, too, brushes past Delia day in and day out, regularly failing to notice the spic-n-span house, the clean laundry, the warm food set before his distracted face each evening.
After years of this neglect, Delia begins to feel like "a tiny gnat, whirring around her family's edges." Their ongoing lack of gratitude has killed something in Delia--not all at once, mind you, but day by day Delia dies a little, wilting like a flower that receives too little moisture. She doesn't even realize how dead she has become until one day she meets someone who is kind, who thanks Delia for a little something. This stranger's kind gratitude is like a few precious drops of water applied to her soul - a few little thankful droplets that reveal just how dry, cracked, and barren the landscape of her soul had become.
Finally the day comes when Delia just walks away from her family. She's taking a stroll on a beach and just keeps on going. Once her family realizes she is missing, they have a curiously difficult time describing Delia to the police. They just can't seem to recall the color of her eyes, her height or weight, what she was wearing when they last saw her. Of course, they'd never really seen her to begin with. They had been blinded by ingratitude.
There are people that travel thru the land between, and for whatever reason, they get stuck there. Sometimes people get stuck in the land of fear or anger or cynicism or ingratitude, or wherever it is that promises something better, or at the very least, something different. Sometimes we can walk with people through those between places, but for whatever reasons, our humanness can get in the way, and the traveler can find themselves alone again. Except that they aren't alone. We aren't alone.
Jesus has been there, in that place where the goofiest thing seems to be taking a step - in any direction. Jesus is there, to heal and give us promise of healing, even before we can do anything. And if it doesn't seem crazy, taking a step toward healing and promise, then it probably feels scary or uncertain or even ridiculous.
And yet, ours is the Lord of healing, and guiding, even when the way seems foreign. Perhaps there was more to Jesus' proclamation - to the grateful Samaritan - and to us. "Rise and go; your faith has made you well." Seems like good prayer material to me.
Great God of all knowledge and understanding, we are grateful for leading us thru foreign places, and for giving us the courage and strength to take another step forward. We are well aware that there are many in our world that have to look up to find bottom, and may not see your healing and leading so easily. So for those hearts, we pray for your blessing - to give them enough fortitude and moxie to take just one more step. Help us - and others - to "understand and see" those who are in these between places, that we may pray for them, and should you so inspire us, encourage them. Grant that the pains of our journey may not obscure the presence of Christ among us, and may we be reminded often - constantly - of the goodness of praising you - for all your mighty and gracious acts. For these prayers and all your answered prayers, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
October 6, 2013
20th Sunday after Pentecost
"Perception and Faith"
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Last week I mentioned the story about a couple of guys and a talking dog. The short version is that the owner of the dog was willing to sell it for $10 because everything that the dog said was a lie. After church, another story was shared that fits perfectly with this morning's message.
Ole took his new dog out duck hunting. They were in the boat, waiting for the ducks to fly in, and finally they arrived. As they came into the pond, Ole took a shot and got one. The new dog jumped out of the boat, but instead of swimming over to the duck, he walked on top of the water, got the duck, brought it back, and dropped it at Ole's feet. Ole can't believe it. So when the ducks came in again, he shot another one. The dog did the same thing - over the water and back. Ole couldn't wait to show off his new hound to Sven.
So the next week, Ole took Sven duck hunting, they waited, and the ducks flew in. Ole took his shot and got one. The dog did just as he did the previous week: got out of the boat, walked across the top of the water, retrieved the duck and dropped it at Ole's feet. Ole said to Sven, "So, vat do ya tink?" Sven says, "Can't swim, huh?"
I was really glad when the Lectionary Study Group gathered this past Wednesday to talk about the passages that were assigned to this day. It was good to appreciate the three other passages that are prescribed for this day. It was also good to have the reinforcement - that the idea of fitting four very different Bible passages together into a short amount of time is not only tough, but not very considerate when there's not enough time to talk about the backgrounds and contexts.
So before we get to the passage for this morning, first we should realize that there are really two stories or points in these six verses. One commentator suggested that maybe the writer Luke put these two little pieces together because they didn't fit any place else - like some of our junk drawers. That idea may make even more sense if you consider the prior four verses that talk about forgiving those who sin against us - and our job to forgive them when they ask for it - even if it happens seven times in a day.
The first part mentions the idea of faith as small as a mustard seed, but we shouldn't confuse this passage with the parable of the mustard seed, which is really about the kingdom of God. Today's mustard seed is more about faith than God's kingdom.
The second part of the passage uses the word servant, although the better word is the word "slave". Our culture is so different from Jesus' day, not to mention what we miss in the language nuances. Back in Jesus' culture, a "slave" was not only a socioeconomic entity but also one wholly devoted to another. In that sense, Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert - from the story of Anne of Green Gables - might be considered slaves to Anne. Sandra Bullock's character was wholly devoted to Michael Oher in the movie, "The Blind Side." Many a spouse or friend might be considered a slave with the ancient understanding of the word
Luke 17:5-10 (NIV)
5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”
6 He replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.
7 “Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? 8 Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? 9 Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do?10 So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’”
Thank you, Myra. One of the delights from last Wednesday was the "revelation" of understanding in the mustard seed. On one hand, it's almost as if Jesus is chastising the apostles for having such little faith; it was smaller than a mustard seed. But on the other hand, perhaps Jesus was using hyperbole to say that they already had faith, that even if it was as big as a mustard seed, good things could come of it.
That point is made so much clearer in The Message. Jesus says, “You don’t need more faith. There is no ‘more’ or ‘less’ in faith. If you have a bare kernel of faith, say the size of a poppy seed, you could say to this sycamore tree, ‘Go jump in the lake,’ and it would do it.' I think sometimes we think there is some sort of faith measuring stick. It's not a stick or tape or any other sort of measuring device: faith is God - and what God can do through us.
Truthfully, I don't know that the second part of this morning's passage is so crystal clear, either. I wonder if sometimes the translators get so focused on their jobs that they forget that the readers of God's holy word are just mere mortals. So here was how Eugene Peterson put it.
“Suppose one of you has a servant who comes in from plowing the field or tending the sheep. Would you take his coat, set the table, and say, ‘Sit down and eat’? Wouldn’t you be more likely to say, ‘Prepare dinner; change your clothes and wait table for me until I’ve finished my coffee; then go to the kitchen and have your supper’? Does the servant get special thanks for doing what’s expected of him? It’s the same with you. When you’ve done everything expected of you, be matter-of-fact and say, ‘The work is done. What we were told to do, we did.’”
Barry Robinson or Lion's Head, Ontario brought out the essence of these two micro passages so perfectly. "What you (we) need is not more faith, but fewer excuses." His next paragraph struck such a chord with me, I have to share it with you.
"To hammer home Jesus’ actual point a bit more, Jesus then tells a story that as much as says, “Oh and by the way, WHEN you have forgiven someone seven times with the faith you already have, don’t come trotting back to me like some dancing dog and expect a pat on the head for being such a super disciple. You’ll be doing no more than what you’ve seen me do, and what I do is what I’ve seen my Father do. It’s the family way in the kingdom of God and when you act in accordance with who you are by grace, that’s wonderful but you’ll just have to pardon me if we don’t crank up the angel choir with the Hallelujah Chorus each time you forgive your mother-in-law for telling you for the umpteenth time that you may not be good enough for her daughter. This is just how it goes in life. Deal with it and let’s move on.”
I confess that there is a part of me that has played with the idea of sending this sermon on to our nations senators and house representatives, but then I "got" Jesus' point. It is, however, World Communion Sunday, so I am glad that there is this reminder to faith.
To faith - it is a verb as well as a noun - means having our whole way of perceiving and responding to life transformed by God's unbidden, unearned and unstoppable love. Whether we have brown skin, or light skin, we are young or old, at ease or dis-ease, the reality is that all of us have all the faith we need to allow God to do great things in, with and through us.
As we join the millions that will celebrate our Lord's Supper this day, let us take a few moments to prepare our hearts and our willingness to be used by God.
Let us pray. Today, God, we are reminded again that faith is not about us, but you - through us. Jesus prayed that we might be one: in spirit and mission and communion with each other and you. Help us do that by giving us eyes to recognize your reflection in the eyes of those you give us - whether they be friend or stranger or foe. Give us a mind to accept and celebrate our differences. Give us a heart big enough to love your children everywhere. We thank you for setting a table with space enough for us all! For all the blessings and perceptions you give, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
September 29, 2013
19th Sunday after Pentecost
1 Timothy 6:6-19
"The High Road"
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
A guy is driving around Oklahoma and he sees a sign in front of a house: "Talking Dog for Sale." He rings the bell and the owner tells him the dog is in the backyard. The guy goes into the backyard and sees a Labrador Retriever sitting there. "You talk?" he asks. "Yep," the Lab replies. "So, what's your story?"
The Lab looks up and says, "Well, I discovered that I could talk when I was pretty young. I wanted to help the government, so I told the CIA about my gift, and in no time at all they had me jetting from country to country, sitting in rooms with spies and world leaders, because no one figured a dog would be eavesdropping. I was one of their most valuable spies for eight years running.
"But the jetting around really tired me out, and I knew I wasn't getting any younger so I decided to settle down. I signed up for a job at the airport to do some undercover security wandering near suspicious characters and listening in.
"I uncovered some incredible dealings and was awarded a batch of medals. I got married, had a mess of pups, and now I'm just retired."
The guy is amazed. He goes back in and asks the owner what he wants for the dog. "Ten dollars," the guy says. "Ten dollars? This dog is amazing. Why on earth are you selling him so cheap?" "Because he's a liar. He never did any of that stuff."
I recently presided over a wedding where there were a number of chairs beautifully ordered over the front yard. A great many of my 157 weddings thus far have been outside, and I'm good with using my teacher voice to include those in the back. But on that day, the acoustics were not doing me any favor, and despite my attempts, I found out later that not everyone heard me as well as they could have. Here's the funny thing. There were several empty seats between where it always seems "safe" to sit in the back, and closer up to where the action was taking place. I am guessing it was not wanting to look foolish or whatever else people might have been thinking, but whatever they were thinking, kept them from enjoying every cleverly written word and every poignant phrase that was uttered. As in life, I wonder how many times we are "cheated" of living life to the fullest because we are afraid of one thing or another, failure of one sort or another. Interestingly enough, the writer of 1 Timothy had some good ideas of how to live life to the fullest.
For those who haven't had time to brush up on your New Testament studies, a little background. 1 and 2 Timothy and the book of Titus were written to the great Paul's minister-in-training, Timothy. They were like online seminary courses of the day, but without the internet and without classes and without books. The rolls of papyrus included instructions for pastors and ministers on the organization of the church, leadership responsibilities along with encouragements to faithfulness and maintaining truth. Because of the setting being in the Middle East, I'm guessing that the ministerial instructions did not include how to shovel the walk or snow blow the sidewalks. But, what's so good about this morning's passage is that it applies to all of us!
1 Timothy 6:6-19 The Message
6-8 A devout life does bring wealth, but it’s the rich simplicity of being yourself before God. Since we entered the world penniless and will leave it penniless, if we have bread on the table and shoes on our feet, that’s enough. 9-10 But if it’s only money these leaders are after, they’ll self-destruct in no time. Lust for money brings trouble and nothing but trouble. Going down that path, some lose their footing in the faith completely and live to regret it bitterly ever after.
11-12 But you, Timothy, man of God: Run for your life from all this. Pursue a righteous life—a life of wonder, faith, love, steadiness, courtesy. Run hard and fast in the faith. Seize the eternal life, the life you were called to, the life you so fervently embraced in the presence of so many witnesses.
13-16 I’m charging you before the life-giving God and before Christ, who took his stand before Pontius Pilate and didn’t give an inch: Keep this command to the letter, and don’t slack off. Our Master, Jesus Christ, is on his way. He’ll show up right on time, his arrival guaranteed by the Blessed and Undisputed Ruler, High King, High God. He’s the only one death can’t touch, his light so bright no one can get close. He’s never been seen by human eyes—human eyes can’t take him in! Honor to him, and eternal rule! Oh, yes.
17-19 Tell those rich in this world’s wealth to quit being so full of themselves and so obsessed with money, which is here today and gone tomorrow. Tell them to go after God, who piles on all the riches we could ever manage—to do good, to be rich in helping others, to be extravagantly generous. If they do that, they’ll build a treasury that will last, gaining life that is truly life.
Thank you, Al. Right off the get-go, it is tempting for some folks to use this passage as a proof-text, as they call it, for what is called the Prosperity Gospel, or the health and wealth gospel. "A devout life does bring wealth." It's the idea that financial blessing is the will of God for Christians, and that faith, positive speech, and donations to Christian ministries will always increase one's material wealth. But Eugene Peterson's version of the Bible, called The Message, makes it so much clearer, that the "wealth" is not about shekels or dollars, but "the rich simplicity of being yourself before God."
I wonder how many people get the wrong impression of money - that more means better and better means more. We need money to live, and Paul reminds us - so plainly - that "if we have bread on the table and shoes on our feet, that's enough." Way back in the 4th century, St. John Chrysostom said, "Wealth is by its very nature ad extra (a Latin term) - it is meant to go out from you, like a light that dispels the darkness."
That's the beauty of how God inspired the individuals that set up the gift we received, that for lack of a wonderful name, is referred to as the investment fund. Before we got the gift and invested it, we struggled to meet our bills, just like any other church. But the inspiration was that while we have an innate need to give - back to God some of that with which God has blessed us - we could use some of the investment interest to do good things for other people - in a giving fashion.
So we get to use some of that money to send people to places where they can receive more and different sorts of religious education. The second area we get to bless others is in the mission area, not to displace the mission basket in our offering plates, but to be able to do more in reaching out to others in God's name. The third area of blessing comes in being able to use some monies for things around our spiritual home, primarily because it is such a beacon in-and-of itself, especially at night, when we can get all the lightbulbs working at the same time! But we're working on that.
Just like at home, we still have heat and water and electricity bills to pay. But those are our responsibilities. And I try very hard not to forget that it is because of your generosity that I get to stay here as pastor of this herd - I mean fold. So it's fascinating - and telling - that Paul should say so much about money in a personal letter that aims to instruct a young pastor in effective ministry.
In the passage, Paul talks about "pursuing a righteous life," and "going after God." If you think about it, he's telling young Timothy about spiritual maturity. A good many of us - myself included - may do things like going to church, putting something in the plate, and sometimes, if it's an especially good day, the Holy Spirit may deeply touch us. But Paul is talking about a deeper sort of faith, one that can sustain us when the purse strings get tight, the days seem dark, when we get lost, when uncertainty wafts into our lives, when we get frustrated at the things we cannot change. And I wonder if there is a point in life when we lose fascination with the surface stuff, that we actually long for a deeper connection - and faith walk - with God. I wonder if this is the place where Billy Graham can put in his two cents, so-to-speak. He once said, "A checkbook is a theological document. It will tell you who and what you worship."
Paul tells Timothy, and so all of us, to pursue "a life of wonder, faith, love, steadiness, courtesy." Near the end of today's passage, he tells us "to do good, to be rich in helping others, to be extravagantly generous."
Sr. Joan Chittister is a Benedictine nun, with a few years to her credit, and she makes a great statement about taking the high road in life. "Fight the good fight," Paul says, "where it's not the fight to overcome the best of the competition ... but the fight to overcome the worst in ourselves."
Comic writer Erma Bombeck lost her battle with breast cancer in 1996. Before succumbing to the disease she wrote this: 1.5 million women are living today after bouts with breast cancer. Every time I forget to feel grateful to be among them, I hear the voice of an eight-year-old named Christina who has cancer of the nervous system. When asked what she wanted for her birthday she pondered and said, ‘Well, I have two sticker books and a cabbage patch doll. I guess I have everything!’ “The kid,” said Erma, “is right!”....That being said, can you stop today and thank God for whatever your two sticker books and cabbage patch doll might be?" It seems appropriate to do just what Ms. Bombeck suggested. So let us pray.
Gracious God of wonder, faith, love, steadiness and even courtesy, we are grateful for the blessings that you bestow on us. We sometimes forget just how rich we are, some rich of pocketbook, yes, but all of us rich in the ability to help others, to being able to do good and to even be extravagantly generous - with money or not. As often as we reach for our billfolds and pocketbooks this week, God, remind us of our richness in the simplicity of being ourselves before you. We are, every last one of us, grateful for the bread on the table and the shoes on our feet that is called "enough." Help us to bless others with our riches and to remember that you care more about our spiritual maturity than the balance in our checkbooks. For the sheer gratitude of being your children, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.