Sermon for October 16th, 2022
The church, or at least the temporal, worldly institution that we think of when we talk about the church, always exists on the precipice, on the cliff’s edge, of extinction. It may be founded on the rock, but there are always existential dangers all around. It never feels completely secure. There are always powerful forces working against it. So much so, that since its very beginning people have been predicting the imminent demise of the church. Some people have longed for it, blaming the church or religion for every conceivable evil in the world, and trying to tear it down by any means necessary. Since the day Jesus died, people have been gleefully writing the obituary of the church he founded; proclaiming that his followers would soon fade into oblivion in the light of new knowledge. Always new knowledge. Maybe the intransigent old-timers will cling to their superstitions, but the next, more enlightened generation, is bound to see sense and abandon all this hocus pocus.
Paul reminds us this morning in his letter to Timothy, that since his time, in the earliest days of the church, people have been doing just that: abandoning the faith. Paul says: “For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.” Paul predicted that people would abandon scripture, tradition, and the gospel, in favor of teachers that suit their own desires, in favor of people that just tell them what they want to hear. I understand why. Faith in God has never been an easy thing. Following Jesus usually involves a degree of sacrifice and suffering. There are many things about God and God’s world that we simply do not understand, and some people just don’t want to live with that ambiguity. Some people just don’t have the humility to admit that there is a power in the world that is smarter than they are. Some people don’t have the patience or the capacity to just be still and let God be in control. And many people don’t want faith, they want certainty. Paul knew all of that and he shares his knowledge with Timothy so that he won’t get discouraged when he sees it happening. And it did happen. It does happen. In every generation people have drifted away from Christianity. Every generation. In the Eighteenth century, during the time of the enlightenment, there were many that predicted that Christianity would soon fade away in the light of reason and science, new knowledge. They said the same thing in the Nineteenth century, when modern biblical criticism met up with even more scientific theories like evolution, again more new knowledge. They said the same thing in the Twentieth Century. They are saying the same thing in the Twenty-First century. Frankly, I’m bored.
The people who predict the demise of the church always do so with a sense of originality and insight. They all seem to think that they are very clever in devising arguments against the existence of God, or against any Christian doctrine, as if they were the first ones to do so. Of course, they usually only prove how poorly read they are, or how little they actually understand Christian doctrine, because their arguments are never original and never insightful. New knowledge indeed! Here’s the thing: people in the modern age are not half as clever as we think we are, and people in the ancient world were not half as dumb as we think they were. Our ancestors may not have been right about everything, but they weren’t wrong about everything either. We still have a lot to learn from them.
That is why Paul encouraged Timothy to pay such close attention to scripture and the traditions he was taught. The sacred writings have something to teach you. There is a message there that can touch and change and effect your life right now. These are not just dead, dusty books filled with old disproven ideas. Scripture can teach you, it can correct you, it can challenge you, it can show you a better way to live. Most of all it can give you hope for something that a lot of people just don’t think they need, until they realize that they really do…salvation. It can give you hope for salvation. I wonder sometimes how many people drift away from church for no other reason than they just don’t think they need a savior. Faith in God isn’t always an easy thing. If you think it’s optional. If you think you really don’t need it, and don’t need a savior, then why bother?
It is sad, but in every generation people drift away from God. In every generation people leave the church and predict its immediate downfall. And yet, here we are. Here we are. We are still living on the cliff’s edge: worried about property and budgets; concerned about declining numbers and participation, and people that drift away. We are still worried about trying to pass this tradition which we treasure on to our children, just like Paul and Timothy were. But we are still here. You think scripture is a dead document? A dusty old book full of outdated ideas? Well guess what, here we are 2,000 years since Paul wrote his letter to Timothy…2,000 years or very close to it have passed and here we are dealing with the exact same struggles that Paul and Timothy were. And people think that scripture doesn’t have a word for us today? I don’t need to make scripture relevant to you; it IS relevant. It is relevant because, humans are still human, God is still God, and truth is still truth.
The Church is always one generation away from non-existence. By that, I mean the church here on earth. Christ’s mystical church is eternal, but if we want future generations to know about that mystical body of Christ, the eternal church, if we want our kids to have a share in it, if we want them to know and experience the grace of God, then we have to preach the gospel to every generation anew. Every new generation needs to hear Christ’s story and recognize that they are a part of that story, and that that story holds a promise for them. Every generation. Scripture instructs us; scripture informs and corrects us, and guides us, but it isn’t ink and paper that we worship it is the living relationship with God that those books point us to. That is what all of this is about: a living relationship.
We as believers, we are not responsible for saving the world and we are not going to bring about God’s kingdom. We also do not earn our salvation through an accumulation of good works, but we do have work to do. Part of that work is being stubbornly faithful. Holding onto the traditions that our ancestors gave us. Learning from them. Studying their works. Knowing the scriptures. Letting them speak to us today. Knowing the hope that we have in Jesus and being unafraid to proclaim that message to the world. The world needs to hear it. The world needs hope and the world needs grace. The world needs salvation. As Mother Frazier said in her wonderful sermon for Robbie’s baptism: there is no salvation by halves, and therefore there can be no proclamation by halves..
Ours should be a full-throated witness to God’s saving power that is available to anyone. People are always going to be tempted to turn away; people are always going to be distracted, they will find this too hard, they will find teachers who will tell them what they want to hear rather than challenging them to grow closer to God. We cannot let that reality discourage us. Because we are still here singing God’s praises, and preaching the gospel 2,000 years after people first turned away from Jesus. We are still at it. So I guess some people along the way remained stubbornly faithful. Some people still needed to hear the gospel, and some people were unafraid to share it. That’s why we are here today. Some people when they walk through those doors, will walk right back out and we will never see them again, and we may never know why. Others will come and stay here for a lifetime. And others still may be transformed by the gospel here and go out into the world sharing it with others. We can’t always tell who is who, and it doesn’t really matter. Our job, like Timothy’s is to do the work of an evangelist and carry out our ministry fully. To the best of our abilities. All of us.
You know it’s interesting. Paul was writing this letter to Timothy, his advice was to him, and yet someone else overheard these words and really took Paul’s advice to heart. Just because Paul was writing to Timothy doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a word there for you too. As many of you may know, Paul didn’t usually handwrite his letters himself. He had scribes; secretaries if you will, that he dictated his letters too. That is why his letters sometimes end with the rather odd: see what big letters I am writing with my own hand. Paul is basically just signing the letter at that point because the scribe had handwritten the rest of it. These scribes are often unknown to us, but not in the case of this letter. We know who is helping Paul write this, because Paul says he is the only person with him.
Clearly this scribe was moved by Paul’s words even though they weren’t directed at him. He was moved by the importance Paul gave to teaching the scripture. He was moved by the command to proclaim the message…to be an evangelist. Paul wasn’t talking to him, but the message hit home nonetheless. He would share the message. He would be an evangelist. And our faith today, would be so much poorer if he hadn’t. Some may drift away in every generation, but in every generation there will also be others who still faithfully carry out their ministry and proclaim the message. Thanks be to God for them, and may we be inspired to do the same.
Oh, and in case you were wondering who Paul’s scribe was, perhaps you have read him…his name was Luke.