Faith and Anguish Will Meet

19th Sunday Ordinary time, 8-13-17; 1 Kings 19:9a-13a; Ps 85; Rom 9:1-5; Matt 14:22-33.

As I read these scriptures this week, a single word stood out: “Anguish.” This week is a counterpoint to last week’s glorious Transfiguration.  Paul uses the word “Anguish” in our reading from his Letter to the Romans.  As you probably know, Paul was a Jewish Pharisee before he converted to “The Way” of Jesus and became an evangelist of the Good News.  Paul is thinking about “the great sorrow and constant anguish” in his heart for the Jews, his people.  Their rejection of Jesus as Messiah and Savior was tragic.  It was the Jews who had watchfully awaited the Messiah, who had passed the expectation from generation to generation.  It was the Jews who had been given the law and commandments; the Jews who had made the covenant with God, and it was from the line of David that Jesus was born.  While Paul offers praise to God for this marvelous gift of the Messiah, he does it with a heavy heart.

Elijah’s heart was more anguished than Paul’s. Elijah had the kind of stress that can kill people.  When Ahab had become King of Israel, “he did more to anger God than any of the other kings of Israel before him” (1Kings 16:33).  He worshiped idols and he built altars to them. His wife, Jezebel, focused killing all the prophets of God, particularly Elijah.  Finally, Elijah went to King Ahab and demanded a showdown.  It was Elijah for God vs. 450 prophets for the idols.  Each side built an altar and called for fire to come down and consume a sacrifice.  The prophets of the idols called out, danced, and cut themselves with knifes for hours to no effect.  Elijah flooded his altar with water, said a short prayer, and fire came down and consumed the sacrifice, the water, the wood, even the stones.  Then he ran.

For a full day, Elijah fled from Jezebel’s wrath, until he collapsed in fear, exhaustion, and anguish over the entire situation. He prayed for death to take him.  Instead, an angel provided food for him until he was able to continue to the mountains.  God asked him why he was in hiding.  Elijah responded, “I have given everything I had, and more, for you, God.  But the people have turned away from you, your places of worship have been destroyed, and all your prophets are dead.  I am alone and there is nothing else I can do.”  That is the voice of anguish.  God arrives with a “tiny whispering sound”, the gentleness we need when we are in such emotional pain.  God protects Elijah, has him anoint a new king and a new prophet, and then brings Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind on a flaming chariot.

Even our Psalm today is a lament. The people are in anguish, feeling abandoned by God and afraid God will be angry with them forever.  They want God’s love and glory to return.  They imagine kindness and truth meeting.  When someone asks if their new clothes make them look fat, we find that kindness and truth do not always meet.  Truth does not always spring from us on earth, and we would often prefer mercy rather than justice from heaven.  Being holy people is difficult.

So, we move to the Gospel, and things aren’t going very well there, either.   Jesus has just heard the news that his dear cousin John the Baptist has been beheaded by Herod as part of an obscene power-play at an outlandish party!  It was just too revolting and horrendous, and Jesus withdrew to a quiet place by himself in grief.  But people continued to seek him out, and a crowd of some 5,000 people gathered, begging for healing and needing food.  Setting aside his own anguish over John, he attended to their needs.  Afterward, still needing time to himself, he sends the disciples ahead in the boat, and Jesus goes up the mountain to pray.

Jesus walking on water is one of the beloved stories of the faith, and I’m sure you know it. A heavy storm broke over the lake.  Jesus, knowing, that the disciples’ faith was still as little as a new-born baby, goes to them.  They are so panicked, so anguished, that they react even to Jesus with fear and doubt.  There it is again, “Do not be afraid.”  If I ever get a tattoo, that’s what it should be.  As Jesus calmed the storm and got into the boat, the disciples worship him as The Divine One he is.

What did we learn?

1. We all have to rely on God, especially when it seems that evil or tragedy has the upper hand. Elijah shows us that trust is not just a sheer act of the will, not simply a blind decision, but a quiet emergence of God’s faithful love. Faith works best when we don’t confuse it with our own powers or efforts.

2. Like Paul, every Christian experiences anguish because our failures and our experiences can seem so hard to reconcile with the promises of God. Yet those promises are eternal. Our faith has its ups and downs and it is often very difficult to see our life in the big picture.

3. “Lord, let us see your kindness”, our Psalmist said. Let us see God’s kindness in all the people who follow God, carrying their crosses of daily sacrifice and suffering.

4. Knowing that Jesus experienced loss and grief, we know he will not abandon us. We too can be healed by time spent with God in prayer and meditation. After getting back into the boat, Peter would have told us that sometimes Jesus will calm the storm, and sometimes Jesus will calm you in the storm. But we are never beyond God’s reach and never have too little faith to call out to him, for God is with us.

 

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Ending the Fear of Futility, Failure & Finality

Easter Sunday 4-16-17, Acts 10:34,37-43, Psalm 118, Colossians 3:1-4, John 20: 1-9

Ending the Fear of Futility, Failure and Finality

He is risen! He is risen indeed!  This is it -the highpoint- indeed the reason for the Christian faith.  After all, those who opposed Jesus’ message long ago saw the crucifixion and death of Jesus as a way to stop the growth of this strange renewal of the Jewish faith.  But his death was followed by resurrection, and everything changed.  It is a day of celebration, amazement, of remembering and claiming promises of life after death and a close, personal unity with God.

American Christians today struggle not against an oppressive Roman Empire, but against the promises and the amazement growing stale and feeling irrelevant; and this struggle occurs against a background of a chicks-and-bunnies-focused society – symbols of fertility borrowed, interestingly enough, from that same oppressive Roman Empire.

So, we must ask, “How do these readings apply to the world that awaits us as we leave here today? “How can our faith be faithfully and accurately interpreted into a hip-hop world?  It’s not always easy.  But for today, we can find 3 points of the Easter story that truly do make direct contact with our lives:  the fight against Futility, Failure, and Finality.

Futility is a widespread problem today. Research says close to 40% of Americans say they don’t think there is a God.  Instead people put their “faith” into clothes and cars and jobs and houses and social status – and substance abuse.  This approach to life is pretty futile.  According to the Center for Disease Control, the US suicide rate increased 24% during the last 15 years, with the rate of yearly increase doubling since 2006. Suicide is now the leading cause of death in teens and young adults. Heroin overdose deaths have increased 45% in 4 years.  It is called, “Death by Despair”- lives based in futility.

The Easter story is about a risen Jesus, who lives. But it is also about the personal decisions of people like Mary Magdalene and the disciples of Jesus who saw the truth of God, who witnessed healing and resurrection, who chose to believe, who learned their efforts were not futile, and who found value in their lives and their actions – beyond stuff & society.  They created a new cultural importance in the actions of individuals. This has opened a way of life that is filled with joy and certainty, even in the midst of hardship and suffering.  Life has become victorious over death.  We must live and share this truth!  Easter people show their joy, the goodness of life shines thru them. Even in difficult times, they can show love to the unlovable.

Then there is Failure. We, for the most part, live in a world where people don’t just fail, but they crash and burn, drowning in a sea of negativity on Facebook; they are crushed in the media.

Forgiveness and new beginnings are what the Easter story brings; Peter is not only reinstated as a disciple but in the Book of Acts he becomes a fearless and powerful preacher of the Word. The women at the tomb were broken and grieving; they had put their money, their reputation, and their lives into supporting Jesus, and thought it was all a failure.  Jesus and angels came to tell them otherwise. Jesus came to the scene of the disciples’ lackluster attempt to return to fishing and put the Spirit’s fire back into their hearts. Jesus picks them up, dusts them off and, by his presence, gives them new certainty and determination.

Easter people go way beyond the lukewarm, “Don’t worry about it,” and offer real forgiveness. They see pureness in the jumbled brokenness in people. The Easter church needs to be the place where failure can be embraced with forgiveness and love, where doubt and fear can accept truth, where our presence and support are available for those oppressed by failure.

Then there is finality. Jesus always left the door open for people.  He offered choices.  He did not reject people, but probed their motivations and offered alternatives.  Even after his resurrection and Ascension, he said he would return.  He did not leave us without the Holy Spirit to guide and comfort.  There is no end to God’s love.

Finality is one of the main reasons I am in ministry. To know that our lives are important to the One who created us – makes a difference.  Knowing that the transience of the material world is not to be feared, frees me to put my time and effort into people, not product.  I can find value in how life really is, without the glitter.  I find significance in the ritual of a holy, shared meal because time and finality do not exist in the realm of an Easter faith.  I don’t need my name engraved on a brass plaque, for my eternity will be found in union with God and in the love of God I share with God’s people.

The Easter church thinks in terms of eternity, so personality differences and petty disagreements shrink in importance. When we can keep in touch with Jesus’ humility, it becomes natural to treat others as more important than ourselves.  When we can operate out of that humility, our lives move people to want the faith we have and we get to share our joy with them.

In the weeks ahead, each of us will have opportunities to silence the fears of futility, failure and finality. May the Spirit of the Risen Christ lead you to bring hope, joy and love to all you meet.

Final Score: Faithfulness 72,000; Abandonment 0

Isaiah 50:4-7; Ps: 22:8-9, 17-20, 23-24; Phil 2:6-11; Matthew26:14 – 27:66

Final Score: Faithfulness 72,000; Abandonment 0

Shortly before Christ died, He uttered those famous words which have been preserved in Aramaic: “ Ele, Ele, Lama Sabachthane”, or in English, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Those words are the opening words of Psalm 22, but unfortunately not one of the verses we read today from that Psalm.  At the crucifixion, they are a quotation, not a question or a statement.  Why does Jesus quote the 22nd Psalm?

Now we are all familiar with the 23rd Psalm.  Both Psalm 22 and Psalm 23 are poetic songs, written about the Messiah, the Savior, who was to come.  In Jesus’ day, everyone who worshiped the God of Israel had learned the 22nd Psalm by heart.  So anyone listening to Jesus while he was on the cross knew exactly the verses that followed.  Let’s look at them.

Verse 6 of Ps 22: “To you they cried out and they escaped, in you they trusted and were not disappointed.” God has always hears our cries.

Verse 7: “But I am a worm, hardly human.” Think about the physical condition of Christ at this point.  Matthew 27: 26 “…after having Jesus scourged, Pilot delivered Him to be crucified.”  What does scourged mean?  The Romans used whips with pieces of sharp metal at the ends.  It cut and tore the flesh, leaving the body cut to the bone, bleeding profusely.  A person rarely survived this.  The soldiers who scourged him took no pity on him.  He would have looked hardly human after being scourged.  He would have been soaked in scarlet blood, and looked like the worms that were crushed to make scarlet dye for fabric.

Verse 8: “All who see me mock me… they curl their lips and jeer.” We read Matthew 27:29, “(The soldiers) mocked him…and they spat on him, and beat him on the head.”

Verse 9: “You relied on the Lord- let him deliver you.” In Matt 27:43: “(The chief priests say) He trusts in God, let him deliver him.”   Remember what Jesus told Peter in the Garden, Matt 26: 53 “Do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?”  (That would be 72,000 angles.)

Verse 12: “There is no one to help.” In Mark 14:50, in the Garden, when Jesus was arrested, Mark tells us that all the disciples left him and fled.

Verse 14: “Like water my life drains away; all my bones grow soft.” Jesus was dying from loss of blood, and he could no longer lift him self up to breathe, as if his bones were no longer hard.

Verse 15: “My strength has dried up…” Even as Jesus carried his cross to the crucifixion site, he lost his strength and Simon of Cyrene had to carry it. (Matt 27:32)

Verse 16: “They pierced my hands and my feet.” In Luke (24: 39), The Risen Christ shows his pierced hands and feet to the disciples.

Verse 17: “They divide my garments among them; for my clothing they cast lots.” The soldiers do this in John’s Gospel (19:24)

But then, we come to verse 20, the Psalmist says, “Lord, do not stay far off, come quickly to help me.” Gone is the idea of abandonment!  Instead there is a firm certainty in the faithfulness of God. This continues in verse 25: “For God has not spurned or disdained the misery of this poor wretch; did not turn away, but heard me when I cried out.  Verse 27: “…those who seek the Lord will offer praise.  May your hearts enjoy life forever!”  Not only is God faithful, but eternally faithful.  And finally, the last verse, verse 32: “The generation to come will be told of the Lord, that they may proclaim to a people yet unborn  (us), his righteousness; ‘He (The Lord) has done it’.”  By the way, the Psalm’s Hebrew phrase “He has done it” is best translated into the Aramaic idiom of “It is finished.”

It makes no difference if you see this Psalm as the prophecy of King David and his description of the Messiah coming true down to the smallest detail, or if you see the Gospel writers, convinced without a doubt that Jesus was the Messiah, telling the events of the Passion in the familiar words of the prophecy. Either way, the Gospels have accomplished their goal: to proclaim the Good News of Jesus.

Well, we’re back to the first verse of the Psalm, then. Did Jesus mean that God had turned his back on him, abandoned him?  No.  Jesus was teaching the faithfulness of God from the Cross! Jesus was saying, “Look at me!  You know the Psalm.  Believe this promise of God’s faithfulness; God is near to you always.  God never turns his back on us, no matter what was done or how long the list of sin.  To say otherwise denies the love of God.”

St. Paul said it so well: “Who shall separate us from this love? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine or nakedness or peril or sword?  But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers; not height nor depth, nor any created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  (Romans 8: 35-39)

 

 

 

Dry Bones or Live Bones?

5th Sunday Lent A, 4-2-17; Ezekiel 37:12-14; Ps 130:1-8; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45

Dry Bones or Live Bones??

Our readings today are very complex. It’s easy to be left wondering exactly what the writers are trying to tell us.  Let’s start with Ezekiel.  As I hope you remember, one of the pivotal events in the ancient nation of Israel’s history was being overrun by the military giant, Babylon. Babylon exiled the leaders of defeated nations to another country and then brought in other exiles to populate that nation; the goal was to break down the social structure and the culture.  So the upper-class Israelites were taken to Babylon and people from neighboring countries occupied Israel.  The peasants were left, abandoned.

Ezekiel was the first prophet of Israel who became a prophet while outside the Holy Land.  He received his call in Babylon, and one of his first duties was to tell the exiles that their Temple had been completely destroyed, for many of them had believed it could never happen.  Then his job was to encourage the exiles by giving them a Utopian vision of the Israel of the future.  He gave the exiles a vision of restoration to prepare them to return home and begin the job of rebuilding.  But the vision is more than just restoration.  It is a vision of resurrection of the dead – the totally and finally dead; a vision which begins with piles of dried out bones.  I’m sure you’ve heard the story.  Ezekiel says, “Dry bones: hear the Word of the Lord.  Thus says the Lord, ‘I will bring spirit into you, that you will come to life.’”  And the bones came together with sinews and flesh and skin, and God gave them breathe, and spirit came into them and they came alive.

Then God explained to Ezekiel, “These bones are Israel. The people say, ‘Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost, and we are cut off.’” The imagery is used to describe the restoration of the people that will come about they return from exile. The imagery of resurrection describes God’s revival of his covenant people and the renewal of their relationship with him. What had died is now alive. This vision proclaimed that the fullness of their life, as a people, was this: knowing the saving power of God in that covenant relationship.

From the Christian prospective, the nation of Israel was indeed rebuilt, but the war dead did not come to life again.  The people who returned were given the strength and desire to restore their nation, and there was an extended time of peace in the land.  But resurrection did not come until the Messiah, Jesus, appeared.

It is exactly that resurrection that is the confusion in our reading from the Gospel of John.   At the start of the story of Lazarus, Jesus is aware of Lazarus’ illness.  Jesus’ response to the disciples’ concern is that Lazarus will not die, but the illness was for the glory of God, and that the Son of God may be glorified through it.   There is confusion for the disciples between spiritual death and physical death.  Yet Jesus deliberately waits, even though he was only two miles away.

John’s community also felt that somehow, Jesus was deliberately waiting, delaying his return to earth. They were tired of hoping he was might arrive at any time.  At first it was believed that the 2nd coming of Christ would occur shortly after Jesus’ resurrection.  Christians expected to live to see him return.  But people in the early church, specifically John’s community, were dying. There was a growing scandal and disappointment of the people, leading to doubts and loss of faith/ spiritual death.

Then the disciples are confused again; they misunderstand the word “sleep”. Finally Jesus tells them clearly: Lazarus has died.  For the 3rd time, the disciples are confused.  They think they all will die if they return to Judea, where there had been threats of stoning Jesus.

John’s community was feeling threatened by persecution.

When Jesus arrives, Martha, like John’s community, clearly wants to ask, “Why weren’t you here?  Why didn’t you come sooner?”  But she only gently says, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus responds, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”  Martha understands and makes her confession of faith, as we do even to this day at Christian funerals.

Mary greets Jesus boldly: “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died!” Then she burst into tears, along with the others around her.  Jesus himself began to weep, but likely in frustration more than sorrow, because there were those there who were openly critical. “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?”

John might have taken this angry and frustrated quote from members of his community as they gathered for the burial of a beloved believer.

Martha protests at the opening of the tomb, and Jesus must remind her: “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” As He calls Lazarus out of the tomb, John writes, “Now many who had seen what he had done began to believe in him.”

No doubt John was also praying that hearing the story of Lazarus will increase and solidify the belief and faith of his community some 60 years or so later.

This event is in the Gospel of John as the last of the miracles that Jesus did. It was the crowning glory of the many “signs” recorded by John.  It is the miracle that must be remembered and reread every time death seems to still be in charge.  Mature faith enables a believer to face physical death knowing that eternal life is not just a promise of resurrection, but is also a present and continuing participation in the life of the ever-living Jesus.

When Lazarus emerged from the tomb, the last Passover was near, as was the crucifixion. What better time to be reminded of the power and glory of God than when we face a major trial, a time of crisis and suffering?  Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, and I hope you will be able to participate in the Holy Week services.  These days are a time to acknowledge the suffering that is a part of life and the cruelty that is part of people.  But acknowledging those things also make us better able to believe the truth of God’s love and majesty and power, and the joy of the resurrection enables us to hold strong in the faith.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

3rd Sunday Lent, 3-19-17

Exodus 17:3-7; Ps 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9; Romans 5:1-2, 5-8; John 4:5-42

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Our first reading – is so much like the society we live in; I read it and I think about shopping malls and huge department stores full of children demanding every thing that catches their eye. Just two chapters before, God had opened the Red Sea so the Israelites could walk thru on dry land and the Egyptian army, which was pursuing them, was destroyed.  The Israelites had their freedom after generations in slavery.  Then in the next chapter, the people had become discouraged in the desert and feared they would be without food.  God provided them with quail for meat and manna for bread, as much as they needed.  Now there is an uprising because of the scarcity of water; the people are full of anger and rebellion, and Moses fears they will kill him by stoning, the death reserved for someone who has sinned against the community.

But I don’t find it amazing the people were full of blame and empty of faith in the face of all their blessings. What I find amazing is that God doesn’t sweep them all into a garbage bag and start over with a new nation.  Sorry, I know that was a Grinch-like, heart-two-sizes-too-small thing to say.

But Moses nearly worked himself into a nervous breakdown over freeing these people, and there is no hint that the faintest idea of thanking him ever crossed the people’s minds. We would say he was “between a rock and a hard place”, and a miracle of God was the only thing that saved him.  No wonder we see deserts as places of trial, temptation, hardship – and we see water as life-giving, cleansing, refreshing, freeing, forgiveness.

By the time our Psalm was written, someone had figured this out. Our Psalmist says, “For he is our God, and we are the people he shepherds, the flock he guides; let us come into his presence with thanksgiving.” But notice that the Psalmist uses the image of a “rock.”  Moses had feared that rocks would be hurled at him by an unruly mob and he would be killed.  Then rock had been a geo-physical thing in the desert, used by God for the miracle of water, almost an image of grace.  Now the Psalmist speaks of God as the “Rock” – an image of steadiness, reliability, permanence, dependability, an instrument of safety, certainty, and protection.  Being between a rock and a hard place is all right – if God is your rock.

St Paul backs up the image of the Psalmist. He says, that “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  Paul had been a “Grinch” of a guy before he encountered the Risen Christ on his way to Damascus.  Now, he deeply believed, even as he waited on death row to be martyred, that God’s love, the rock of his salvation, would bring him to eternal life regardless of the most difficult “hard place” one can imagine.

And then we read John’s account of “the woman at the well.” I have a confession to make about this woman.  At first, when I read about her, I liked her even less than the rebellious Israelites in the desert.  She comes alone to the well, not with the other women, as she should have; she spoke to Jesus, as she shouldn’t have.  She’s pretty bold, even hard in her responses, saying, “Are you greater than our father Jacob?” She’s not ashamed of immoral behavior, but blunt and in-his-face about where the Samaritan’s place of worship.  Given a little attitude in her voice when she says, “I know that the Messiah is coming…he will tell us everything”, her response is rock-hard, rude.  No wonder she was alone and shunned by the community.  No wonder the women had decided this woman was beyond their help, a lost cause, evil.  She seems to have chosen the hard place she’s in, determined to deflect any attempt to help her with stony bitterness.

Then a miracle happens that makes Moses and his staff hitting the rock look simple. All Jesus says to this woman is, “I am he, the one speaking with you.”  These few words accomplish in seconds what it took 40 years to accomplish with the Israelites.  She not only took to heart what he said, but she was quick to abandon her water jug, having accepted the living water.  She told the others with such intensity and certainty that they believed her and come to Jesus themselves, saying, “We know that this is the savior of the world!!”

Perhaps the woman would have done well in our society, been a great corporate CEO with her edgy repartee, blunt questions, and boldness in sorting out a situation. Perhaps the rigid limits on women in that society, reflected in my own negative initial assessment of her, contributed to her outcast status.

Maybe the love that Jesus felt for all God’s lost children was enough to dissolve the stony fortress this woman had constructed around herself.  Maybe it was a miracle healing; the living water of the Spirit broke open her rocky heart and that water power-cleaned her soul.  I don’t know what happened.  She was like a forgotten potted plan, wilted and dying, suddenly transplanted near a running stream of water, becoming a strong, food-yielding tree.

I do think some conclusions to these readings are warranted. I have 4 to offer:

  1. God loves us, despite how badly we behave. God gives us freedom from oppression long before we learn how to live freely. We need to look to God for ways to get out of our hard places.  Love can provide enormous freedom.   Status quo and expectations can be jails.
  2. God is the faithful one. Us – not so much. But God is good and provides for us.  God created a world that gives us water and food and shelter and all we need, if we look.  God gives us good people to pray for us, who lead us in God’s ways, if we listen.
  3. The Psalms are full of wisdom. We need to give thanks, we need to worship, and we need to recognize we are God’s people. We need to make sure our hearts don’t get rocky.
  4. People are not always what they appear to be. Society is not always just. Outcasts are loved by God and sometimes used to wake the rest of us up.  All of us need a brain-flush on occasion with some living water of repentance and renewal.  Lent can happen at any time.

 

 

Just Two Sentences

Paul’s death row letter to Timothy tells us how to face hard times for the sake of the Gospel.

2nd Sunday Lent A, 3-12-17, Genesis 12:1-4a; Ps: 33:4-5, 18-20, 22;  2 Timothy 1:8b-10; Matthew 17:1-9

We have a pivotal turning point in our first reading. It is the beginning of the story of Abraham.  It is the point in Genesis where the creation story ends and the history of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity all start.  It is the birthplace of so much – a place where a scholar could do their life’s work.  But today we’ll pass it by.  Our Gospel reading is a high point of Matthew’s revelation of the divinity of Christ, just after Peter proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.  It is a mountain-top experience in every sense.  But today we’ll pass it by.  I love the 33rd Psalm, but today we’ll pass it by.  For what?  For two sentences from a short letter to Timothy, which we only read once every three years, and often ignore.

So, are you thinking, “Did they nick her brain during the eye surgery?” Or hopefully, “Who was Timothy, why did St. Paul send him a letter, what’s it got to do with Lent?”

All good questions! Timothy was a young man, the product of a mixed marriage.  His grandmother, Lois, and his mother, Eunice, were Christians.  His father, who goes unnamed, apparently was not.  Timothy was steeped in the Good News since birth.   He traveled for some 15 years as Paul’s traveling companion throughout Asia and Greece, the entire distance of Paul’s 2nd and 3rd missionary journeys, as well as special trips to Jerusalem.   He was with Paul in Rome when Paul was first in prison.  Then he had been “ordained” by Paul and left in charge of the church in the Greek city of Ephesus.  In short, Timothy, like Paul, had given his life, his time, his money, his efforts, and even his safety to spread the Good News of the Risen Christ – as Paul’s helper.

Paul suggests that Timothy was sometimes dismissed as just a young kid who didn’t know much (Paul writes him, “Let no one look down on your youthfulness”); and that Timothy was a little overwhelmed sometimes ( Paul tells him to “use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments”).   I will never forget the first time I really studied the journeys of Paul and Timothy, as described in the Book of Acts and Paul’s Epistles.  Without exaggeration, I can tell you it was truly amazing, thrilling, scary, and at times I cried.  You might decide to study it yourself. I can help.

Well, let’s take a look at those two sentences we have today. I have to tell you that Paul would have failed any English class writing assignment I’ve ever encountered.  His sentences stretch to the moon and back, and frankly, that’s one of the reasons you seldom hear homilies from the 2nd readings.  What your missal has as two sentences really is one big train-wreck of a sentence.  I made 10 complex-enough sentences out of it in attempt to make it understandable.

First sentence –Paul is saying to Timothy: “Don’t despair in the hard times and don’t give up. Continue to share with me, to join me in the suffering we have done for the sake of spreading the gospel. We do it all through the power of God.”  Paul continues with second sentence, “Remember, it is God who has saved us. God called us to proclaim the gospel.  God called us with a Holy Calling.  It was not because we did such great works, but it was according to God’s own purpose, God’s plan for the world.  God lavishly gave us the grace to do it…grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus since before the beginning of time.  God’s grace now is personified in Jesus, who destroyed death.  Jesus brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel.”  Two amazing sentences.

Scholars pretty much agree that this letter was the product of time Paul spent waiting in prison, waiting to be put to death in Rome.   The end of his letter tells us Paul knows his end is very near.  This is a death-row letter, looking back at his life as the big picture, the final summary.  And his life had been interwoven with Timothy for many important years.  And with the oppression of Christianity probably near its height, Paul is wondering what will happen to those Christian communities he established and nurtured and prayed for.  Will anything he worked for, literally would give his life for, survive?  It is a letter that could have wilted into self-pity and despair, except for the faith behind it.  Paul tells Timothy “God has not given us a spirit of being timid, but of power and love and discipline.”  He writes, “I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that Christ is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him.”  Finally, Paul advises, “Guard, through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you…be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.”

This is beginning to sound like Lent, ah? When you give your all and it all seems to be going down the drain.  When you are discouraged, and your friends and family are no where to be found.  When you have to decide to speak up or shut up.  When you are certain of your values, and feel alone.  When you look into the future and you see the end.

Paul wrote, “Know the strength to bear the hardship comes from God.” God didn’t choose us because we could win our battles single-handedly, but we were called to do what was right and true and just, to be holy and part of God’s kingdom.  Christ Jesus has already won the battle – abolished death, opened the way to eternity, shined the light to show the way home.  Guard the truth in your soul, like Abraham and King David and Paul and Timothy, and our Lord Jesus.  Lent is a time to settle firmly into the unshakeable rock of faith.