Sunday, October 6, 2019
Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 22)
The Heirloom of Faith
Wholeness of the sick and Home of the exile, give us grace to seek the well-being of those among whom we live, so that all people may come to know the healing of your love and new voices join to give you thanks in Jesus Christ. Amen.
2 Timothy 1:1-14
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, for the sake of the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus,
To Timothy, my beloved child:
Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.
I am grateful to God — whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did — when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.
Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. For this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher, and for this reason I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him. Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.
All readings for this Sunday:
Lamentations 1:1-6 with Lamentations 3:19-26 or Psalm 137 or
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4 with Psalm 37:1-9 and
2 Timothy 1:1-14 and
1. How would you define (or describe) "faith"?
2. What spiritual gifts have you "inherited" from others?
3. How does faith grow?
4. How does faith relate to fear?
5. Why do you think so many people today suffer from anxiety?
by Kate Matthews
If First Timothy reads like by-laws of a church, Second Timothy almost makes us feel as if we're reading someone else's mail or intruding on a private conversation. Of course, all the epistles could be called "someone else's mail," but they function well on two levels, the personal and the communal, and that includes this deeply felt letter from a teacher to his student.
The message is from and to "real" people, individuals in the early church: the author writes in the name of Paul (there may actually be authentic fragments from Paul within the text), and Timothy was known elsewhere in the New Testament. The message, however, is for all of us.
Reminding us of who we are
By the time this letter was written, probably the first part of the second century, at least one generation of early Christians has passed from the scene, and the church is struggling with issues of right teaching and perhaps a bit of discouragement.
The author exhorts Timothy (this is one of those cases where "exhorts" is definitely the right word; "encourages" or "asks" just don't say it strongly enough), in a sense, to "remember where he came from."
Remember your mother and grandmother
Or we might say, "who" he came from: his mother and grandmother were the ones who helped to make him who he is, a follower of Jesus. If Simba, in The Lion King, was exhorted to remember who he was, Timothy is reminded of who his mother and grandmother were, and how important that is to his faith.
How ironic it is that women have often been the ones to pass down the faith to other people's children as well as their own, even though the letter preceding this one (First Timothy) instructs women to "learn in silence with full submission" and says they shouldn't "be permitted to teach."
Words of strength and inspiration
This is one of my favorite passages in the lectionary, and there are several lines in it that are familiar and particularly inspiring, including verse 7, "for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline." Sometimes the beauty of the New King James Version of a passage seems to stick in our minds, and since this is one of my favorite verses in all of Scripture, I "hear" it that way in my head: "For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind."
I think there are few more powerful verses from the Bible for people who are struggling with anxiety and depression. It reassures us that we need not be afraid of anything or anyone, and pastors and friends may find it helpful when walking with someone struggling with fear and discouragement.
Faith, deep in the heart
The later verse (12a) is even more powerful as a source of reassurance and provides a reason for this fearlessness: "But I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him."
Marcus Borg wrote beautifully in The Heart of Christianity about faith as trust rather than as right belief, up in our heads. Faith is really a deep-in-the-heart thing, and Paul's whole letter here seems to be a heart thing, too. If he's portrayed as writing at the end of his life, then his ministry will end soon in execution. He has plenty of reason to be afraid.
No glory here
We might think such a thing--execution--had a kind of glory attached to it that made Paul and the other apostles heroes, much as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, has been in our own time. But there was no public funeral and no honor bestowed on these martyrs in those days. That would come later.
At the time Timothy read this letter, all this dying and being executed (including and especially Jesus' crucifixion) are an embarrassment for many potential converts. Perhaps they want a more "respectable" religion, a more pleasant and comforting one. They really wish the Christian life weren't so messy, with all that suffering and struggle.
Rekindle the gift!
Timothy himself must wrestle with such issues and might be showing signs of wear and tear in his ministry. He might be tempted to listen to voices that lead him in other directions, or to conform to the culture around him in ways that would let the precious gift of his faith, handed down from his mother and grandmother, be extinguished.
No, Paul says, instead, Timothy (and the church) should "rekindle the gift," another beautiful line from this passage and one that is especially significant to us today in the United Church of Christ. We lift up our historic firsts, which is good, but doing so serves to remind us of our own call, in this new day, to speak the truth and to live lives faithful to the gospel we have received, even if it causes us discomfort and even embarrassment.
Has our understanding of religion dwindled into only a source of comfort and feeling good, or is God "the one in whom we have placed our trust," even in the midst of loss and despair?
No easy, sentimental faith
At first, the "family values" feel of the reading from Timothy may seem to portray a more peaceful, even easier, faith, the "sentimental" faith of our mothers and grandmothers, until we read of joining Paul in his suffering for the gospel, and remember the challenges faced by first-century Christians. How can we know what Lois and Eunice may have faced and endured?
And then, in our Gospel reading, in response to what sounds like a spontaneous outburst from the apostles ("Increase our faith!"), who seem daunted by Jesus' instructions about forgiveness and protecting the faith of "the little ones," Jesus tells them, "You don't need more faith. There is no 'more' or 'less' in faith" (as Eugene Peterson renders it in The Message).
Faith, or no faith
A good friend used to say that there is no such thing as "good" or "bad" taste--there is simply taste or no taste; perhaps the same can be said of faith! If we have it, then we will experience the power of God in us, able to do "abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine" (Ephesians 3:20), even commanding a tree to uproot and fling itself into a lake.
Perhaps that includes bringing a church back from the brink of closing to being a thriving community, reaching the goals of a capital campaign, or responding effectively to the needs of our neighborhood, despite whatever obstacles we encounter on the way.
The facets of faith
Mustard seeds and flying mulberry trees are images that vividly depict the power of faith, as are the suffering and endurance of Paul. But, as we turn the diamond of faith around and around, what facets more do we see?
Do we see the faith that is handed down from generation to generation as a lockbox of doctrines and statements, or do we see it as a living thing, or as a fire that is re-kindled in each one of us by necessity (how else do we make it our own)?
Is this faith best described as trust, trust in the steadfast love and mercies of God, "new every morning" (Lamentations), "God's own purpose and grace" (2 Timothy), or the vision that "will surely come" (Habakkuk)? If this faith is experienced as trust, perhaps we can more readily feel the spirit of power and love and self-discipline that God has granted us.
God's mercies in every generation
We might consider how the reading from Timothy is heard by those in our congregation who suffer with anxiety: if God truly has not given us a spirit of fear and cowardice, then there is hope for those who struggle with fear that often paralyzes and debilitates, those who need to know that there is a power available to them in God's love and care.
Again, the translation (NKJV) of "self-discipline" as "a sound mind" may be especially helpful to someone who suffers from anxiety disorder. It is a poignant and powerful statement on the human condition that depression and anxiety are so prevalent today, even in a society of relative security, especially compared to the days of Timothy and his mother and grandmother. How do we in the church respond to the needs of people who are struggling with these illnesses?
Remembering desolate times
As individuals, what are times in our lives that felt like devastation and loss that could never heal? When have members of your church needed to sit by the river and refuse to sing (Psalm 137)? And yet, when has the power of God enabled them to rise up in hope to a new day, to the promises of God that greet them?
As a nation, we have known devastation and anxiety in dramatic ways, not just in our generation but also in our mothers' and our grandmothers' generations. How have we experienced God's mercies in every generation? When and how have we thirsted for revenge? How has our faith risen to the occasion?
The exiles today
God is still speaking today, as God spoke to and through Lois, Paul, Timothy, Eunice, and the people of ancient Judah, carried off to exile. What are the exiles, the persecutions, the cost of discipleship in this new day?
In every age, God calls us out of our desolation and anger to new heights of joy, empowered not by a spirit of fear--or revenge, or despair--but a spirit of power and love and self-discipline. In what ways are we being called as individuals and as communities of faith and as the United Church of Christ, to "re-kindle the gift" of faith, the trust that lives and breathes and empowers us to walk in hope in this new day? What would that look like, to those who are watching us?
Several commentaries mention the importance of family in this text, as Timothy's mother and grandmother were the ones who taught him the gospel. Today, in many United Church of Christ congregations, if you had a show of hands, the majority of folks would have come from another denomination. (It's true that most of them were already Christian, but perhaps in a very different way.)
Many of us don't belong to the same church our parents--let alone our grandparents--attended, and some of us come from very different traditions but have found a home, a welcome, and a place to grow here.
Singing those old family hymns
However, there is much to be said for what we have received from our family of faith and the fire it can kindle, or re-kindle, within us. Sometimes this gift comes in unexpected and unusual ways.
One member of the United Church of Christ who left her childhood church and spent years without a church home, remembers as a child having watched a movie in which a trainload of soldiers bound for war sang "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms." Even though the hymn was not part of her tradition, she found it moved her deeply in inexplicable ways. Today, it is her favorite hymn and she sings it often in her new church home.
Where do we find unity?
Another UCC member, who came from the Catholic tradition, feels that way about "Abide with Me," and is deeply moved each time it's sung in her "new" church family home. We can inherit and nurture a deep and abiding faith that is experienced as a relationship of trust, but it must be re-kindled, whether by hymn or letter or personal presence, in every generation.
Perhaps, each time we gather around the table as one family, despite many differences, we will experience unity in the gift that we have received from those who have gone before us.
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (firstname.lastname@example.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the 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:
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 21st century
"Youth can not know how age thinks and feels. But old men are guilty if they forget what it was to be young."
Alex Haley, 20th century
"In every conceivable manner, the family is link to our past, bridge to our future."
Abraham Lincoln, 19th century
"All that I am or ever hope to be, I owe to my angel mother."
Helen Oyeyemi, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, 21st century
"I remember Mum repeatedly telling us we had good hearts and good brains. When she said that we'd say 'thanks' and it might have sounded as if we were thanking her for seeing us that way but actually we were thanking her for giving us whatever goodness was in us."
Maya Angelou, 21st century
"Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage, you can't practice any other virtue consistently."
Marilynne Robinson, Gilead, 21st century
"I have decided the two choices open to me are (1) to torment myself or (2) to trust the Lord. There is no earthly solution to the problems that confront me. But I can add to my problems, as I believe I have done, by dwelling on them. So, no more of that."
Madeleine L'Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, 20th century
"Faith is what makes life bearable, with all its tragedies and ambiguities and sudden, startling joys."
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The Heirloom of Faith
Sunday, October 6, 2019