Monday, September 17, 2007

Nothing Changes

1 Timothy 1: 12-17

Preached on Sept. 16, 2007 at Center Moreland and Dymond Hollow UMC's.

I do a lot of reading. I have two stacks of books on my bedside table. One is a stack of two or three books that are theological, church, God, Jesus or Bible oriented. The other stack is what I call brain candy.

Many of the books that I have been reading lately out of the first stack have as a common theme the sentiment “what are we to do with the times that are ours?” We live in interesting times. The church that we have inherited is not the church that was successful in the 50’s and 60’s. The old labels of liberal and conservative seem to fit badly, if at all, when applied to modern theological thinking. We have evolved beyond the old labels, and it makes for some anxiety among members as well as clergy. We no longer recognize the land we live in, and we feel lost, sometimes.

This sentiment of “being lost in the wilderness” seems to hit clergy pretty hard. My Lectionary study group has an age range of some 40 years, and this feeling lost is prevalent often. We spend a fair amount of time talking about the challenges of the church as it moves into a new world. This seems to be a world that is much more distrustful of institutions, quick to identify and discredit figures of authority, where the lines between countries, churches, political parties, even the roles of men and women are constantly changing. Sometimes it seems as if the only talent necessary anymore is the talent of flexibility, the ability to be able to recognize and adjust, to adapt to each new situation. Adaptability is certainly a hallmark of some of the younger generations that come to worship God in our churches.

The question we almost always ask is: How then can we be faithful? What is God calling us to do in this uncharted situation? How can we live in a foreign land?

The old rules no longer seem to apply. The old lines that separate us, that help us understand the world, are being broken up, fading, collapsing under their own weight, becoming irrelevant.

But you know, this is not the first time this has happened. Our Bibles tell us of lots of these kinds of stories, where the world seems to end, everything that was true is now false. Judah fell to the Babylonian Empire, and a nation ceases to exist. The Israelites walk out of slavery, and rather than have the world they know in Egypt, they are no longer slaves, but have to become survivalists in the desert. Jesus is raised from the dead, and Roman soldiers are convinced of his divinity before some Jews.

Paul persecutes these heretic people of the way, and becomes one of these heretics himself. And not just a follower either, but a leader.

That’s what’s being written here in our passage from Timothy today. When it says “even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence,” the author is talking about Paul’s previous career, a career that included holding folks’ coats as they stoned the deacon Stephen to death for preaching the word about Christ.

The world changes all the time. The Roman Empire dies amid wars with Romanized pagan tribes. The United States fights two wars against Great Britain, and they are now our strongest friend. The Red Sox win the World Series.

What is constant? What is the thing that never changes, that never disappears, that is always with us, even in uncharted waters?

It is that we are sinners, and we are forgiven. Timothy, as he received this letter, lived in a community that was searching, asking questions and trying things, seeking God. It was not orderly, it was not always pretty, it was indeed messy. Sound like any congregation you know? It sounds like EVERY congregation I’ve ever known.

Every congregation has good points about it. But every congregation falls short. Congregations, in that sense, are no different than the people who come to them. We are all combinations of saint and sinner, answered call and stubborn resistance. But this passage from Timothy, which sounds like a congregational prayer or affirmation of faith, reassures us that, no matter how much of a sinner we are, God still loves us, God still accepts that there is part of him in us, we are still created in his image. Yes, we are still sinners, but it is in our sinning, the author is saying, that God is displayed at his most loving, his most forgiving.

So, while each congregation has its own character, its own flaws, it is in those flaws that we remember God’s love for us. It is how each congregation responds to that love that gives it its character.

How do we respond? There are many ways. Diana Butler Bass, a religion scholar, has recently written a book called Christianity for the Rest of Us, about churches that survive without becoming conservative, evangelical mega-churches. (She’s clear in saying that there is nothing wrong with being a church like that, or going to one, but she is equally clear in saying that that is just one way to be faithful, and other congregations are called to be faithful in other, equally valid, but quieter, ways.) And the churches she studied were faithful to God’s call by being in mission, in prayer, by having deep and meaningful worship that is true to each congregation’s character and personality. They stay alive and sometimes even grow not because of their nifty evangelism and slick advertising, but rather the neighborhood notices that something true and authentic is happening.

They are churches who have remembered that the saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Or, as Eugene Peterson writes it in his Bible paraphrase The Message,

Here’s a word you can take to heart and depend on: Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. I’m proof—Public Sinner Number One—of someone who could never have made it apart from sheer mercy. And now he shows me off—evidence of his endless patience—to those who are right on the edge of trusting him forever.

You and I are that proof. Yes, we fall short. Yes, we are not always good examples of what Christians should be like. When we congregate, our failures are magnified, which makes our congregations seem very different from the ideal that we profess. So it was then, in Timothy’s time, so it is now in our own churches, and so it shall always be, until the Kingdom comes. Nothing changes. We always fall short, we are always poor witnesses, we always keep trying, and God’s grace and love are shown in his always forgiving us.

Forever and ever, Amen.

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