17 Pentecost C 10 6 19
Looking at our faith we sometimes wonder where it came from and how we can build it up. Sometimes we realize we have plenty of faith. Like when the Sunday School teacher asked, "Now, Johnny, tell me frankly: do you say prayers before eating?" Little Johnny replied, "No, I don't have to. My Mom is a good cook."
As that joke reveals, faith is sometimes looked at as a kind of an insurance policy. Faith, and grace before meals, might help a person avoid food poisoning, for example. Grace before meals also might empower a person to live into God's purpose for them, loving God and one's neighbors. Faith helps us recognize our calling and reminds us to ask for God's help to fulfill it.
This is most completely laid out in the early verses of our reading from Paul's second letter to Timothy this morning. Paul discussed how Timothy was given the promise of his life in faith, how it became known to Paul and how Timothy should endeavor to rekindle his faith. Paul goes on to assert that Timothy's faith is within him, implying it is available for rekindling, and how Timothy's faith is one of power and of love and of self-discipline.
The elements of Paul's advice to Timothy are worth looking at for obvious reasons. One obvious reason is that looking at them might be useful to us. Another obvious reason is that it might enable us to be useful to another person.
Would you like to explore how Paul's ideas might help you deepen and broaden your faith? Can you see yourself helping another person make these same discoveries?
Even though we belong to a church founded in his name, you and I don't have ready access to St. Paul to inform and enlighten us. But we do have his writings! We can look at how Paul communicated with his protégé Timothy and imagine the same treatment being given to us by our church's namesake.
Paul defined himself as an apostle of Christ by the will of God "for the sake of the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus." One glance at the stained glass window over our choir loft resolves any doubts we might have about Paul being called. His conversion is, of course, one of the most dramatic in the entire Christian Bible. But in those moments portrayed in the panels of our stained glass window we observe Saul converted to Paul, blind and with a halo. It doesn't take much imagination to perceive this as a fulfillment of God's will.
As Paul explains later in the Acts of the Apostles, he acquired his knowledge of Jesus along with his faith in our Savior without consulting the established Christian leaders. Because he had been one of the head officials persecuting Christians, Paul (then Saul) likely knew more about Jesus than was comfortable for him. So by that time he began his Christian ministry he knew what the promise of life in Christ meant.
What it meant for him was a 180 degree turn in his life, a belief in a savior, a Messiah, that would be with him always and never let him down, and the confidence that his carrying the Gospel far and wide was his calling, to bring others to the knowledge and love of Jesus.
Timothy, on the other hand, came by his faith by way of the faithful women in his family. Paul has met them and admired their faith as well as the evident spiritual capacity of their young pupil. Paul tells Timothy that he has observed the sincerity of his faith just like we can tell others of our recognition of their sincere faith. In my own experience I can remember being surprised to hear that from others. We should not be bashful about passing on such information.
When Paul recommends that Timothy rekindle his faith he does so by invoking the memory of Paul's laying hands on Timothy. This was likely Timothy's baptism, an event which Paul obviously remembers. The way he refers to it suggests Timothy was old enough to remember it himself. For us in this era, it would be the equivalent of confirmation, when a bishop lays hands on confirmands.
But this is only one experience of resonating faith that we share. Each of us has individual experiences and memories that come to mind when we take the time to recall them from the depths of memory. For example, moments when prayer seemed especially effective, times in church when we thrilled to a phrase or a tune or some hymn lyrics, interactions with other people in our faith community, or perhaps volunteering or just lending a hand.
We also rekindle our own faith when we share it with others and encourage their own journey down this path. Keeping track isn't as important in faith as being present and realizing what is happening to us as we live mindful lives in the spirit.
The result of fully living into our faith, according to Paul, is that we inherit not "
a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.
He goes on to tell Timothy, and us, "Do not
be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace."
This is really important: Paul tells us, in case we didn't know, or in case we have forgotten, we are called by God's grace, not by our works. We do not have to measure up to anyone in terms of spiritual experiences or achievements. We have to remember how great the grace of God has been in our lives and share that with those who might be after something resembling the peace that passes all understanding.
Now here's the part that is really fun, I think. This lengthy reading from the Second Letter to Timothy is followed by one of the most beloved parables in the Bible, the mustard seed. Jesus uses the mustard seed to characterize the power of God and God's grace to make much out of next to nothing and greatness out of insignificance. This is in response to the disciples asking him to increase their faith.
Jesus, like Paul, is asserting that the ingredients of faith and the capability for increasing faith reside within us. Go back over what Paul wrote to Timothy and you can see how it is that Paul encourages his protégé to advance in faith with the understandings and experiences he has had.
Clearly both these lessons encourage us to seek the path of deeper faith, the conscious return to those moments when we were endowed with the understanding of God's presence and role in our lives. This awareness grows in depth and intensity as we nurture our faith and share it.
Thanks be to God! Amen
A sermon preached on the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, October 6, 2019, at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Poughkeepsie NY, by The Rev. Tyler Jones, Rector