Sunday, July 01, 2007

Labors of Love: a Sermon on 2 Timothy 4:6-18

“Labors of Love”
2 Timothy 4:6-18
July 1, 2007
Feast of Saints Peter and Paul

We Protestants are not too keen on “saints,” as in, “individuals whose lives are so exemplary that they are placed in a special category of holiness.” We believe that all of us are saints as members of the body of Christ, the church. But we mostly reject the idea that some should singled out as being special. We have a number of reasons for this. For one thing, we recognize that, historically, an awful lot of those who made it into the church’s official calendar of saints were actually local gods and goddesses whose cults were so ingrained, it was easier for the church to simply “canonize” them, bring them into the fold, rather than to endure the inevitable conflict that would go along with trying to eradicate their being worshipped by the locals. Brigid of Ireland is a good example of this. Though there appears to have been a Christian slave named Brigid (whose father was a Druid priest), the lines between her and the Celtic goddess are so blurry it is almost impossible to tell the one from the other with any historical accuracy. Reformation era Protestants, very reasonably, were of the mind that, we ought to be getting back to basics… the teachings of Jesus, the Word of God in scripture, that sort of thing.

So, we Protestants are not too keen on saints. Still, the three-year cycle of lectionary readings does offer us opportunities to take note of particular individuals, and this week we have an optional feast of Peter and Paul, two of the towering figures of the New Testament. Thinking about either of these men, and their response to the call of Jesus in their lives, gives us an opportunity to think about the call of Jesus in our lives. What is the nature of a disciple? What special characteristics and qualities do we need? I’m going to focus on Paul.

We have a poignant passage in our selection from 2 Timothy. Timothy, the addressee, is Paul’s most trusted traveling companion on his many missionary journeys. The entire letter—which appears to have been written from jail, very near the end of Paul’s life—has the feeling of a last will and testament about it. The way our passage opens is lovely and wrenching, the words of a man facing death with great wisdom and equanimity: “As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:6-7).

I wonder if you’ve ever had that sense of having given it all, that exhaustion of being entirely emptied… I can remember a 20-mile walk for charity I took in my younger days, at the end of which I knew that I had spent absolutely everything that was in me for the purpose of getting my feet over that finish line. I think this sense must be especially acute when the pouring out is at the end of life, when you know that, not only is there nothing left, there is also not going to be time to regenerate or renew. We are poured out until we are, truly, spent. And knowing what we do about Paul… his walking and sailing tours around the ancient middle and near east and Europe, in which he carried the gospel literally to the end sof the known world… How he took the message of Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, and brought it to those outside Judaism. How he convinced the rest of the Jewish followers of Jesus that this would be ok… How he planted and nourished churches and made disciples… How he pastured those churches, even from afar, even from prison…He is a towering figure, someone who gave it all away, poured himself out like the ancient drink-offerings in the Temple, and whose efforts bore almost unimaginable fruits.

Then, crash, we are down to earth. Instead of the towering saint, we have someone who appears to be dictating something like a grocery list—bring me this, bring me that, send so-and-so. And woven throughout these demands are little poisonous barbs… Demas is so in love with the world; he has deserted me. Crescens has left me for Galatia. Alexander that good-for-nothing coppersmith really did a number on me! Bring me my parchments! Bring me my cloak! There is bitterness in here… Paul is in prison, facing death, and the church has crumbled and fled around him. And he’s not reacting like some unreal ancient god, some otherworldly, untouchable figure. He is reacting to it… well, pretty much the way any of us would react.

That’s what I love about this passage. We have Paul, to whom we owe our thanks as the architect of the Christian faith that was handed on to us, our first great theologian, the author of between 10 and 13 letters that have become for us God’s holy word, a saint of the church! And we have this beautiful little gem of a letter, in which we have ample evidence that the saint is just like us. Angry. Let down. Demanding. Perhaps even petty! I love this part of the letter. I find this to be so reassuring.

I remember a time in the first church I served when I was surrounded—literally—at a coffee hour by about a dozen parents who were very upset with certain plans involving the Christmas pageant. It is hard for me to convey how very upset they were. Voices were raised. I believe fingers were actually pointed. And as they closed in on me, everything I ever learned about being pastoral, and being an active listener, and being a non-anxious presence in the face of terrible anxiety…well, it all pretty much went right out the window. I sputtered. I’m sure my face got red. I got angry. I got defensive! Thank goodness, the coffee hour was almost over, and I had the escape route of needing to prepare for the second service before I actually did any harm with my sputtering, red-faced, angry defensiveness.

And this is the kind of moment when we say to one another, “Welcome to this ministry!” And that is exactly right. If the life of Paul teaches us anything about being a follower of Jesus, it is that it is going to be tough going, much of the way. We sure don’t like to hear that. I know I don’t. But “a religion that gives nothing, costs nothing, and suffers nothing, is worth nothing.” I wish I could claim authorship of those words, but they were said by another towering figure of Christianity, Martin Luther. Following Jesus is hard, and sometimes thankless, work. There is a flip side to that, though. Following Jesus is the ultimate “come-as-you-are” party. Paul is not robbed of his cranky, irascible personality—it shines pretty vividly throughout all his letters, not just this one. And we are similarly encouraged—we are welcome!—to bring ourselves—our loving, defensive, generous, cranky, complex, completely human selves as we seek to follow Jesus. No one is expected to be perfect; that’s what we have God and a savior for. We are simply expected to try with all our hearts to pour out our lives in a loving return to the God who has so graciously loved us first.

And that is what Luther means. Our religion asks us to give much, it is costly, it does invite us to suffer—ever hear the phrase, “Pick up your cross and follow me”? And its worth is beyond precious. We began our morning together by celebrating Holy Communion. I was so struck by one part of your Communion liturgy.

We have been betrayed by people we love, and so has Christ. But we are called with Christ to use our brokenness to feed the church and the world… We are tired of being broken, tired of dealing with broken promises, smiles and kind words that are a lie. We want real love.

Real love. That is what following Jesus is about. Real love is costly. Real love gives much. Real love can lead to suffering… and our broken hearts are what enable us to reach out with genuine compassion to a hurting world. Real love pours itself out, because that is the nature of love, to want to give. And real love accepts us, foibles and all, real human characteristics notwithstanding. Real love takes a genuine human being like Paul and gives us his words as shimmering invitations to follow Jesus. Real love takes us, in all our human loveliness and brokenness, and says, yes, you too. You there, who think you aren’t up to it. You are invited. Come and join in this labor of love. Amen.

Image: "Apostle Paul" by Andrei Rublev


Cynthia said...

Mags, this was wonderful.

more cows than people said...

wow, nice. just finally got around to reading it. well done.

Mother Laura said...

Awesome, Mags.