Monday, October 25, 2010

Testimony of Truth: Stewardship Sermon on 2 Timothy 4:6-18

We’ve had some fun doing this before, so why not do it again? Famous last words. Silent screen actor Douglas Fairbanks said, “I’ve never felt better.” Lady Astor, when she opened her eyes to see her entire family gathered around her bed said, “Am I dying or is this my birthday?” Thomas Edison, speaking to his wife, assured her he was not in pain, and then said, “It is very beautiful over there.” And Union General John Sedgwick scoffed at Confederate sharpshooters, saying, “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist—.”

There’s something compelling about the last words we utter. Ideally, I think each of us would like to say something that wraps things up in a neat package—our life, the short version. The things that matter to us. The way we would like to be remembered. Vital information for everyday living for those we love.

All of these are present in the Second letter to Timothy, a letter written as Paul’s farewell valediction to one of his closest companions and co-workers. Often, reading a New Testament epistle feels like what it is: a visit to some middle section of a theological treatise. But the passage we read today really feels like a letter, like a last letter, like the last words written (as they may well be) by this man who is at least as responsible for Christianity as Jesus.

Just a quick recap. Paul has been traveling around Asia Minor and Europe on his self-imposed mission to bring the message of Jesus to the Gentiles. Christianity began, of course, as the offspring of Judaism—Jesus was an observant, faithful Jew every day of his life—and the early church debated whether those outside that covenant community could be brought in. But eventually Jesus’ own words and actions guided the early church into opening up the table and offering the good news to all people, regardless of their religion or country of origin. This is the background for the situation in which Paul finds himself when writing this letter to Timothy.

The opening words of our passage say it plainly—“As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come.” This sentence is a mixture of so many emotions—wistful and proud, matter-of-fact and defiant. Now, Paul is in jail. Now, Paul has been tried and found guilty. Now, Paul faces the death penalty for his crime. Though there are no existing New Testament writings that detail Paul’s trial and its outcome, it’s safe to assume he was convicted of roughly the same crime as Jesus—most likely, sedition. In a country where the emperor is regarded as a god, no other loyalties are permitted, even the worship of an unseen, transcendent deity. Paul, by his unwavering witness, has sealed his own death warrant.

And yet, his words show not only acceptance, but even a kind of satisfaction. “I am being poured out as a libation.” A libation is a drink offering, usually wine, poured out in honor of a divine being. Paul’s life is being poured out for Christ, for the gospel message that has formed the cornerstone of his life. To be a libation is to be a part of a celebration, to be part of a worship service. Paul’s death will be his final act of worship in this life. And Paul betrays no anxiety about facing death here. Paul shows absolute trust that God is pleased with his offering, the gift of his life for the spread the gospel.

The next section of our passage takes on a slightly different tone. Here, perhaps, the bravado of the first paragraph falters a bit. Yes, Paul is confident of God’s approval of him. Yes, he is joyful to be poured out as a libation. But here the painful reality of his situation breaks through. It’s not that he is going to die that bothers him. It’s that he’s going to die alone. His friends are, for the most part, nowhere to be found. He ticks off a list of where his co-workers have gone, and it sounds a little like the stereotypical mother joke—insert your preferred ethnicity here, in my family it would be the Polish or Irish mother—moaning “They never call, they never write.” He is particularly bitter about those he feels have deserted him. Paul makes requests, and they sound urgent—bring this, bring that, but mostly, bring yourself. Don’t leave me alone.

And in a moment, he is himself again—his friends may have fallen away, but God never deserted him. “…The Lord stood by me,” Paul writes, “and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth.” This is a remarkable statement. Of course, we know that for many Christians their punishment was to be thrown into the ring with hungry animals who would tear them apart. Paul is spared this because he is a Roman citizen, so will undergo the more dignified punishment of being beheaded. Still, I don’t think he is speaking literally when he boasts of avoiding the lions. I think he is giving thanks for having been able to be faithful to the gospel message—for not succumbing to the temptation to recant, to back off, but rather, staying true, even in the face of death. This is Paul’s testimony of truth. He has remained true, and God has remained true to him. In these last words Paul shares his gratitude for the privilege of sharing the gospel, no matter where it has brought him.

Paul’s life in a nutshell: Jesus showed himself to Paul, and Paul spent the rest of his life showing Jesus to the whole world. Even in his last words to his friend Timothy, Paul takes pains to show God’s faithfulness to him throughout his trials. God has saved me, Paul declares. God is faithful. God will remain so. This is the great reality of Paul’s life.

So how to capture the great reality of our lives here at our church? Well, one way is by virtue of a mission statement. And ours has something in common with Paul’s:

“As members of St. Sociable, we live to serve our Lord, our congregation, our community, and our world. We unite our spirits in faithful, loving commitment to this calling in Jesus Christ and, as a church family, we celebrate the Kingdom of God.”

Like Paul, we celebrate God’s love and faithfulness. Like Paul, we seek to bring this love to others—to go beyond ourselves, and our little neck of the woods. In fact, we seek to bring it to the whole world. And—like Paul, this necessitates footwork on our part, and taking risks, and pouring ourselves out, in many different ways. One way we pour ourselves out is by our financial support of the church. Whether we tithe—and there are those among us who do—or whether we determine what we offer by other means, the financial gifts we make are tremendously important to the work we are able to do here.

Many of you are aware that St. Sociable has been most generously blessed with the gifts of benefactors who came before us. Our endowment funds bear names like Name1 and Name2 and Name3, and each fund reminds us of some individual or family who believed the work of our church was good work, and the task of sharing the gospel with the whole world merited a generous gift on their part to make it possible. Sometimes I imagine church members might wonder—if we have endowments, then why is my gift needed? It’s a fair question. I suppose we could depend even more heavily on our endowments than we do. When I arrived at St. S. just 35% of our annual budget came from what I think of as “living gifts”—annual pledges of our members and friends, while 55% of our annual budget came from income from our endowments—the gifts of our ancestors. It was and is my strong opinion that we need to flip those numbers—that a vital, thriving ministry is only possible if the members and friends of St. Sociable are giving more than those who came before. And we are making progress.

I recognize that this is an ambitious goal. I recognize that this means our church members and friends giving at a greater level. But I also recognize that this is a church with a tremendously generous heart. And I believe that the giving I have witnessed here—the giving of people’s time to visit one another, to bring communion to the homebound, or to throw a wonderful coffee hour; the giving of people’s talent to make our worship service beautiful or to ensure that our physical plant is running well—all that giving sets a tone. All that giving sings a message loud and clear: we believe in St. Sociable. We believe in our mission to serve God and one another and the entire hurting world. We believe that this work is worthwhile.

On his deathbed, another great silent film star Charlie Chaplin was speaking with a priest who had come to administer last rites. The priest concluded, “May God have mercy on your soul.” Chaplin replied, “Why not? It’s His, after all.” This is the very heart of the message Paul shared, whether it was with his friend Timothy or the thousands who heard him preach or worked with him to found faith communities. We belong to God, heart and soul, mind and body. Paul knew that in his last moments on earth. Let us know that, too, every day. We belong to God, completely. That is the greatest good news we can hear. And it doesn’t depend on our goodness or our intelligence or our talent or our imagination or our prayer life or our financial contributions to this church or to public radio. It depends only on the endless, bottomless, grace-filled love of God. God, who is faithful and true, will remain with us, and stand by us. We belong to God. Thanks be. Amen.

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