Sermon of the Week
God’s Good Treasure: A Meaningful Life.
Keywords: No Shave November, Pastoral Epistles, Service for Christ, Meaningful Life.
It is a little bit surprising to me
that not shaving for a few days causes people to ask questions.
Maybe it’s because it’s not really my style to change things up too much
from time to time.
There may be a shirt or three from my college years still in my closet, for instance.
But here we are, and I’m giving all this a try.
People have asked if all is ok.
Yes, all is just fine. Thank you.
I haven’t quite decided if this is some kind of elaborate preparation
for a Halloween costume that I haven’t picked out yet,
or if I’m getting ready, priming the pump, so to speak,
for No-shave November,
which is a fundraiser for the fight against a host of men’s cancers.
Some of you may remember that I did something like this beard
back six years or so ago
and the fact that I’ve not done it since
probably tells all of us that I’m not all that fond of it.
It probably won’t last very long.
I have a few days before the beginning of November to decide whether
to go all in on No Shave November.
It can get itchy, and just feels weird.
And I think our dog Annie doesn’t quite know what’s going on.
But mainly I think I’ve avoided a beard
because it is too much like my father,
who has sported one my whole life,
except for that one time we begged him to shave
and then, after he did, immediately regretted it.
We all get used to things, it seems.
We were used to my father with a rather full beard,
and then, when it was gone, it didn’t seem right.
I have a lot in common with my father already,
and maybe my proclivity to go clean shaven
has been, in a way, my own effort to chart my own course,
lead my own way
do my own thing,
even as so many other things in my life are clearly within his shadow.
He is also a pastor, and pretty much any good instinct for ministry that I have
I first learned from him,
much like any instinct I have for teaching and compassion likely comes from my mom.
We’re all like this, wonderfully complicated mixtures of the people from our upbringing
sometimes adopting pieces here and there,
whether consciously or unconsciously,
of our childhood context,
and other times seeking to be different, stepping out in a different direction.
We’ll see how this beard thing will endure through such reflections,
or maybe it will just be too itchy that, by the first of December,
it will be gone without much fanfare or notice.
The Second letter of Timothy is kind of written in the shadow of the apostle Paul,
by which I mean it wasn’t written by him,
even though it claims to be,
but rather it was written by someone who followed Christ because of him
and the communities that he built along the way.
It is most likely the case that Second Timothy,
along with First Timothy and Titus,
were written maybe two generations after the Apostle
around the year 100 or maybe 120.
We believe this, in part, because of a few interesting aspects of the letter,
such as the themes and the vocabulary of these writings,
which don’t quite fit the other letters that Paul wrote.
These letters talk about a good treasure, a good fight,
none of which Paul actually wrote about in the letters we’re pretty sure he did write.
And while Paul was expecting the imminent return of Christ
these letters talk about building a lasting community
with bishops and churchy structure
not something you would do if you thought Jesus would be back any day now.
But these verses we read today highlight maybe the best reason
we think that Paul wasn’t the one who wrote these letters.
Paul is thought to have died in Rome,
rumored to be by decapitation or by death in a coliseum,
you know, at the hands of lions and fierce wild beasts,
the details are unclear.
And in our reading today you have not one but two allusions to Paul’s death.
“Poured out as a libation” is a reference to the funeral practices of that time
when participants would take a cup of wine and pour it on the ground
in honor of the one recently deceased.
And “rescued from the lion’s mouth” likewise is a nod to Paul’s death.
It would be too uncanny for Paul himself to have written so clearly
about how he was going to die, before his death.
It would be like Thelma and Louise
writing home about their exploits on the road together
and making an epic cliff dive part of their letter,
only to see it actually happen that way.
It is too ‘on the nose’ to be real.
It is more likely that these letters aren’t actually from the Apostle Paul,
but from someone who grew up in one of Paul’s communities,
someone who drew from Paul in important ways,
but also who,
consciously or unconsciously, departed from him as well.
Let’s say that Paul wore the beard
and that the author of 2nd Timothy decided to go clean shaven, for the most part,
even if, sometimes, he let it grow out to see what would happen.
We’ve been spending this time in the book of Second Timothy
exploring some really interesting themes
about sacred writing, divine inspiration,
the passing along of a faith from generation to generation.
That faith has had to adapt to changing times.
Sometimes that faith would lead to life-giving, faith-growing opportunities
such as efforts to take heart during moments of persecution,
leaning on one another for support and care and compassion,
collecting needed resources to share with the poor and the hurting and the suffering.
The church that was growing at this time
was one of the few places where the poor could get help,
where orphans and widows could find community,
where people of means could find a larger purpose
through a life of serving others.
This was a positive development.
There were also more challenging changes during this time,
which any reader of the other books could easily highlight,
particularly for the leadership of women in the community.
Not all changes were useful, or necessarily God-Breathed,
to use the phrase we explored last week,
and therefore have to be carefully examined today as we look back upon
the legacy and the direction of the church
that these letters suggest.
That’s another sermon for another time.
For today, though, I want us to reflect for a bit about
how the author looks back upon his mentor,
the one whom he lifts up not only in name
but as one to be emulated and nurtured.
According to Second Timothy,
Paul “fought the good fight”
“finished the race…kept the faith.”
Because of this, the author says,
God has granted him certain accolades,
a crown of righteousness…
which, the author says, evoking the voice and perspective of Paul
“not only to me but also to all who have longed for [Christ’s] appearing.”
This is the Author’s way of saying: Look at Paul!
Be like Paul.
This one who was so captivated by the life of Jesus
that he could not stop spreading the love of God around the world
that he could not fail to lean on God for strength
that he would be willing to give his life for it, if need be.
Be like Paul.
Ok. Sounds like a plan,
even if the Lion’s Den seems a bit harsh, don’t you think?
The point, it seems, is that these letters are meant to help guide a community
now 40 or 50 years after Paul has gone,
giving them ideas and plans for how to go about their business
cheerfully and faithfully and with conviction
in the midst of a difficult and challenging context.
And so, it seems to me, there’s something about that motivation
that can be relevant to us,
here as we’re seeking to be the church in the twenty-first century,
with our own challenges and changes and questions.
How do we build a meaningful life
focusing on the God-Breathed moments here among us
unchaining the Word of God so that we can discover
the gifts God has placed in each one of us for love, for compassion, for service?
The answer, I think, is that we do all that we can
to serve and to love
to serve and to love one another, here in the church
and to serve and to love the neighbor, the friend, the outcast, the enemy
the community around us,
whomever God puts in our path.
Everywhere you turn in scripture, you hear echoes of God
calling us to that sort of life,
the life of one who seeks righteousness, not self-righteousness
the life of people who seek not to trumpet their own success
like we hear in the first reading today,
but the life of those who seek to approach God in humility, and gratitude.
Today is our annual Be the Church Sunday.
Several years ago, our friends at Second Presbyterian Church
thought it would be cool to invite other churches
to join them on a special day
where they worshipped just a little bit shorter
and then spent the rest of their gathering doing all sorts of service projects.
We thought that was pretty cool too.
So we started by putting together disaster clean up buckets,
do you remember those,
so many that we needed to rent a van to get them down to Wichita for delivery.
And then another year we started writing cards and weaving mats for the homeless
out of paper bags.
Those two ideas stuck, like a well groomed beard
and we’re going to do them again this year,
along with ongoing work sorting donations for Amethyst Place
and a community Trunk or Treat.
A meaningful life is one that runs the race to the finish,
that keeps the faith,
that fights the struggle to not get so exhausted by the blahs of the world
and the enormity of the need of our neighbor
that we want to turn off and turn inward.
A meaningful life chooses to turn to Christ and say:
use me Lord, use even me, just as thou wilt and when and where.
Second Timothy says to people looking for a life like that: Look!
God is breathing even in your midst.
The Word of God cannot be chained.
You have the gift within you.
Go. Serve. Love. God will be with you, through thick and through thin.
So may we, my dear friends,
continue to celebrate the opportunities we have to love one another
and to serve with joy,
so that the hungry might be filled with good food,
those seeking to get on their feet might have a safe place to stay
those sleeping outside might be a little more warm and dry and comfortable
and all of God’s children might know that they are loved.
May we find good meaning in sharing that message with the world.
May it be so. Amen