Growing in God's Love

Growing in God's Love

Sunday, September 11
Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Focus Theme
Growing in God's Love

Weekly Prayer
When joy is gone and hearts are sick, O God,you give us Christ as our healing balm. He came in human flesh  that he might give himself as a ransom for our salvation and anoint us with the Spirit of consolation and joy. Hear the cry of your people, that we may rejoice in the richness of your love and be faithful stewards of your many gifts. Amen.

Focus Scripture
1 Timothy 1:12-17

I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners--of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.

All Readings For This Sunday
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28 with Psalm 14 or
Exodus 32:7-14 with Psalm 51:1-10 and
1 Timothy 1:12-17 and
Luke 15:1-10

Focus Questions

1. Whose story has helped to nurture and inspire you in your own life of faith?

2. Is there a character from literature who illustrates God's mercy at work in their life?

3. How do you think Timothy was feeling back in Ephesus after Paul moved on?

4. How do you respond to the word "testify" or "witness" in a faith setting?

5. As you look back on your life, what are moments of grace?

Reflection by Kate Matthews

It would be a good idea to read the Gospel text for this Sunday, Luke 15:1-10, along with this passage written in the voice of Paul, the great apostle, to his young protÈgÈ, Timothy. This short text from the beginning of Paul's letter goes well with the stories of Jesus about lost sheep, and lost coins, and the One who goes looking for them. (It's also helpful to read Eugene Peterson's beautiful translation of the entire letter in The Message: "I, Paul, am an apostle on special assignment for Christ, our living hope.")

It's also important to have a little background on the whole letter and the two that go with it, 2 Timothy and Titus, to form what are called the Pastoral Epistles. A careful reader will notice that there are subtle but important differences between these letters and the ones that, according to most scholars, were written by Paul himself. The HarperCollins Study Bible provides several clues that help scholars draw conclusions about the authorship of the letter: "Key Pauline concepts such as faith, law, and righteousness are treated quite differently, while a new emphasis on godliness, sound teaching, church order, and good works appears."

Paul, keeping in touch

In the ancient world, it was accepted practice to write in the voice and name of a great and respected teacher, and that appears to be what is happening here, with "Paul" writing in the name of the great Paul the Apostle, but with a somewhat different set of priorities pressing on him. The Apostle Paul traveled around the Roman Empire, teaching and gathering people into communities of those who wanted to follow Jesus not just on their own but in community, the kind of community we call a church. Even after he left a church behind, he still cared about it and wrote letters back to it, offering advice and encouragement, and today our churches hear these letters as if they were written to us as well.

This particular letter is addressed to Timothy, working hard in his new-church-start pastorate in Ephesus. Now that the churches have been planted and the people have joined them with great enthusiasm, there's a lot of work to be done to help them thrive, to grow in God's love, and besides, you know how people are: every time we come together, whether we form a book club or start a religious order, organize a softball league or get married--dare we say, "establish an institution"--there are going to be matters to be handled, questions, challenges, and of course a few rough spots along the way.

Establishing his credibility

Paul is writing back to his young friend to encourage and guide him, and he begins his letter of instruction by establishing his credentials, or at least his credibility, that is, by reminding Timothy that he, Paul, was "the foremost" of sinners, and yet one whose life was transformed by the power of God's mercy and grace. Everyone knows his story, when he--a man of deep and sincere faith--was so sure of himself and the rightness of his cause, back when he was persecuting Christians, before God knocked him off his horse and blinded him until his heart and mind were opened to the grace of Jesus Christ in his life.

That call on the road to Damascus, the experience of life-changing grace and his response to it, gives Paul authority to write the things he is about to tell Timothy. Surely, his own story would inspire and encourage sinners of somewhat lesser magnitude.

Potluck, Prayer and Praise

There are several ways to approach this text, in addition to reading it with the Gospel text. We might consider the power of personal testimony, even though mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics alike tend to get a little uncomfortable when people start "testifying" to what God has done in their lives. I remember years ago when our church had a monthly "Potluck, Prayer, and Praise" gathering where folks came together to eat a light supper and then hear the story of one member's spiritual journey.

These accounts--testimonies--were heartfelt and amazingly effective in connecting us one to the other, that is, in building the community and nurturing our spiritual growth--helping us to love God more. We didn't draw together simply to "swap stories": those experiences were framed by the greater picture of God's all-encompassing love, compassion, and faithfulness. Our gatherings were an opportunity to shine the light of the gospel on our lives, and they were undergirded by God's great mercy and grace. Like Paul, that's what folks talked about: God's grace at work in their lives.

Are we jaded about stories?

In his thought-provoking reflection on this text, William P. "Matt" Matthews acknowledges our discomfort with personal testimony, and even our jadedness: "Perhaps we are a bit dulled to the before/after lives of the John Newtons," he writes. Perhaps we're a little "standoffish like the prodigal son's elder brother," or "suspicious and polluted with more than a tinge of envy. Whatever the reason, our neighbor's news that he has seen the light elicits more queasy stomach than glad heart." While Matthews, like other writers, observes that young people--Generation X, Millennials, and whoever is coming after them--are better reached by personal stories of the experience of grace, I think everyone, including the oft-maligned Boomers, responds to honest, open sharing.

As the remarkable effectiveness of Twelve-Step programs (and really great churches as well, including the example above) illustrates, the right setting for such sharing is crucial. We're not just listening to the stories of others until we get a chance to pour out our own. There is something underneath the sharing and the hearing, something that helps us to make sense of it, to seek and find meaning in our mistakes and the grace that has set us free from them.

Matthews, like many scholars, finds this foundation and framework in the words and deeds of God in Christ, in Scripture ("the larger communal story of God's people"), and in the community of faith of which we are a part. Perhaps this explains why we need the church, in order to preserve the core tradition, some kind of "institution" to nurture our growth in God's love, in every generation.

Telling that old, old story in a "frantic post-9/11 world"

In the church, in our preaching, teaching, and Bible study; in our trustees meetings, our youth group gatherings, our church school classes; in our works of mercy and compassion and justice; at our potlucks, our small-group gatherings, our mission days; in our stewardship witnesses and our signs out front and even in our messages in the media, we're telling the old, old story again, and we're telling our own stories in light of that ancient one. This story is not just up in our heads, although it's enriched and informed by the teachings of those who have gone before us, and the contributions of learned scholars in every age whose wisdom helps us to open up the mysteries of life lived in the light of the gospel.

The current interest in generational differences helps to illuminate this text, and our life of faith at the same time. Jane Anne Ferguson provides excellent material for reflection that might go on in every one of our church gatherings at this beginning of a new program year, as she asks, "Who are the Pauls and Timothys of the twenty-first-century church?" Her description of the youth and young adults raised in the church actually sounds a lot like the generation that raised them, who taught them to "question and discern what they believe for themselves," to "believe in the inclusion and acceptance of all people," to be "passionate about changing their world." Like every generation before them, they have inherited a world full of problems, but still, a most beautiful and promising world nevertheless.

The world we live in

Ferguson's description of a "frantic post-9/11 world".a pluralistic religious world where claims of exclusive paths to God cause strife or oppression at the very least and terrorism at the extreme," is particularly timely (and painful) in light of our current election rhetoric about Muslims, refugees, immigrants, and all "the others" we have chosen to fear first and get to know later, if at all. Her reflection reminds me of Stephen Sondheim's observation in his musical, "Into the Woods," that our children are listening to everything we say, and how we say it. (They can certainly hear and see what our campaign ads and speeches are saying.)

She also challenges "the Pauls of our time" to "share intimately with the Timothys their confessions of faith, their personal relationships with God, their questions and doubts, as well as affirmations and celebrations," for younger people in every generation "want to know if there is substance behind the ancient language of the church. The Pauls of the twenty-first century are being invited to reexamine the language of Christian faith, not to dispose of it, but revitalize it, to reframe it for twenty-first ears." What an awesome responsibility for the Boomers today and in the decades to come!

The least likely are chosen

We also read in this short passage another example of that puzzling but enduring theme that Lisa Davison finds in Scripture from the very beginning: that God chooses the most unlikely candidates to carry out God's mission. "No matter how unworthy we might feel, God can still use us for making the world a better place," she writes. God does not see us through human eyes, or measure us with human measurements: "The good news is that God does not use the same criteria; all God requires is that we say 'yes' when we are called."

Perhaps we feel even more than inadequate; we may feel that we are unworthy, or too marked by sin and failings. Consider sin and failing undone, Paul writes. Robert Wall remarks on Paul's sense of the power of God actively at work in our lives to transform even the weakest of us: "Paul's idea of God's mercy is active: mercy is a verb of God's activity that is conjugated in Paul's own experience." It's interesting to think of mercy as a verb rather than a noun, which suggests a thing that can be measured or held back. A verb suggests change, movement, vitality, and perhaps even unpredictability. How does that sound to you?

So many stories, so many lessons

Two illustrations from literature (where there is an abundance of such illustrations, of course) come to mind. The writing of Anne Lamott is one great song of unconventional praise to God's grace; in fact, her best-known book, "Traveling Mercies," tells one story after another about that "verb" in motion in her own life. "I don't know why life isn't constructed to be seamless and safe," she writes, "why we make such glaring mistakes, things fall so short of our expectations and our hearts get broken."

Still, like Paul, Lamott knows that grace is always there, underneath it all, that it's "unearned love--the love that goes before, that greets us on the way....Grace is the light or electricity or juice or breeze that takes you from that isolated place and puts you with others who are as startled and embarrassed and eventually grateful as you are to be there." This is a good description of our most life-filled churches, and her images provide creative ways to think of the Holy Spirit, as "light or electricity or juice or breeze"; in any case, Lamott's story is testimony at its best, and it goes right to our hearts. [One of her other books focuses on this subject, Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith.]

"A new experience"

Speaking of going right to our hearts: so does the story of Celie, told in letters, in Alice Walker's classic book, The Color Purple, but the novel's character who may best illustrate God's mercy and grace inexorably at work in his life is Mister, or Albert, Celie's abusive husband. His transformation is slow and almost imperceptible, until the end of the book, when he reflects back on his life and the terrible things he has done, and articulates a simple but clear new perspective on things, a kind of theology of wonder: "I think us here to wonder, myself. To wonder. To ast. The more I wonder, he say, the more I love."

This painful process (painful not just for him but for those he has hurt) has eventually led to transformation, as Celie recounts to her sister: "when you talk to him now he really listen, and one time, out of nowhere in the conversation us was having, he said Celie, I'm satisfied this the first time I ever lived on Earth as a natural man. It feel like a new experience." A "new experience" made possible by grace, the promise that hope is not lost, that no one is beyond the reach of God's grace, not Paul, not Mister, not any of us.

Wonder and love and grace

Wonder, and love. Again, Peterson's translation in The Message is clear and lovely: "The whole point of what we're urging is simply love--love uncontaminated by self-interest and counterfeit faith, a life open to God...Grace mixed with faith and love poured over me and into me." Just as Celie, in The Color Purple, sings her own kind of doxology to "Dear God. Dear stars, dear trees, dear sky, dear peoples. Dear Everything. Dear God," so Peterson translates Paul's praise and thanksgiving in elegant terms: "Deep honor and bright glory to the King of All Time--One God, Immortal, Invisible, ever and always. Oh, yes!" And our response to all of this beauty? Perhaps W.H. Auden provides the best, and simplest, guidance: "I know nothing, except what everyone knows--if there when Grace dances, I should dance."

A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) retired in July from serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.  

For further reflection

Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, 20th century
"Grace is the light or electricity or juice or breeze that takes you from that isolated place and puts you with others who are as startled and embarrassed and eventually grateful as you are to be there."

Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint, 21st century
"Grace isn't about God creating humans and flawed beings and then acting all hurt when we inevitably fail and then stepping in like the hero to grant us grace--like saying, 'Oh, it's OK, I'll be the good guy and forgive you.' It's God saying, 'I love the world too much to let your sin define you and be the final word. I am a God who makes all things new.'"

Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest, 20th century
"You will never cease to be the most amazed person on earth at what God has done for you on the inside."

Simone Weil, 20th century
"Grace fills empty spaces, but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it, and it is grace itself, which makes this void."

Frederick Buechner, 20th century
"Life is grace. Sleep is forgiveness. The night absolves. Darkness wipes the slate clean, not spotless to be sure, but clean enough for another day's chalking."
and
"The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn't have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It's for you I created the universe. I love you. There's only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you'll reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too."

Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality, 21st century
"When one of my friends becomes a Christian, which happens about every 10 years because I am a sheep about sharing my faith, the experience is euphoric. I see in their eyes the trueness of the story."

Thomas Merton, 20th century
"Grace is not a strange, magic substance which is subtly filtered into our souls to act as a kind of spiritual penicillin. Grace is unity, oneness within ourselves, oneness with God."

Martin Luther, 16th century
"Grace is given to heal the spiritually sick, not to decorate spiritual heroes."

Thomas Aquinas, 13th century
"Grace is nothing else but a certain beginning of glory in us."

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