I am back to preaching on the second letter to Timothy today. I'm sure you remember from a couple sermons ago that the letters to Timothy probably didn't really come from Paul. We don't know who wrote them, but as the New Testament took shape over the first 400 years of the church, the letters to Timothy were accepted, despite their unknown authorship.
I remember, when I was a seminarian, talking about this with a group of people and at a certain point one man in the group became very anxious. He thought I was saying that because we don't know who wrote these letters that they were less valid, or shouldn't be in the Bible. Of course, that was the furthest thing from my mind. The reason why the Church has kept these letters is because—no matter who wrote them—they are obviously inspired by the Holy Spirit and the truth they contain has stood the test of time.
It is likely that the portion we read from today is etiological. Etiology is a description of why or how something came to be. Quite often you will find this genre of writing in the Bible. People didn't keep exact histories. The Church loves etiology.
I know of a church where the Altar Guild would set out—next to the wine and bread—a drinking straw made of sterling silver. Every Sunday it was put on the credence table next to the Altar, and every Sunday it was lovingly put away. No one ever touched it. The priest didn't use it for anything. No one talked about it because everyone knew why it was there. Time passed, and priests cycled through, and ladies came off the Altar Guild, and no one wrote down what the silver straw was for, because, well…everyone knew, even though they didn't. Eventually it was believed that the straw was for stirring the water and wine. That was the etiology. It was the description of why the straw came to be, based on the information available and the best guess.
Well, one day a new rector was celebrating the Eucharist and noticed the straw and asked what it was for. The etiology made no sense, because water and wine don't need to be stirred. After consulting with some long standing members it was discovered that years ago there was a very wealthy parishioner who had commissioned the silver straw because she suffered with lock jaw and still wanted to receive from the chalice. She had died years ago, but the Altar Guild continued to put the straw out.
There is so much about the life of Paul we do not know, but we know that he was such a formative person in the early church that people wanted to know more about him. In second Timothy, the author has given us a faithful idea of what Paul might have wanted to say from prison towards the end of his life. So this is our text:
I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.
It is clear that the author wishes to take us into Paul's mind in the last days of his life—"the time of my departure has come"—he writes, so these words are meant to sound like Paul's last words.
Last words—especially the last words of a notable person—are always meant to be received with great reverence. They have the weight of the person's life behind them. Deuteronomy 33 gives us the last words of Moses—that he would not be entering the Promised Land with the Hebrew people. The author of 2 Samuel (chapter 23) gives us the last words of David. Last words are serious words.
Any celebration of the Holy Eucharist is a re-enactment of some of Jesus' last words. "On the night he was handed over to suffering and death"…he took bread and wine and said, "this is my body," "this is my blood." Last words. Powerful.
So Paul says, "I am already being poured out as a libation." It was an old custom—dating back to the religions of antiquity—that a drink offering would be poured out for a deity. You see this metaphor come through Abraham's sharing of wine with Melchizedeck, and the suffering servant in Isaiah, who is poured out. When Jesus says that the wine is his blood and that we are to drink it, he turns that custom on it's ear a little bit, and says—I'm poured out for you, as well as for the Father.
The author of second Timothy wants us to think of Paul considering himself "poured out," but what he doesn't say is that the custom of pouring out libations is a community experience. What Paul is implying is—I am being poured out, so now it is your turn to pour yourself out. Paul is saying—This is it for me. I am on my way. It is your turn to lead the Church until Christ returns.
He continues, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing." (Pause.)
I don't know how you feel about these words. I am very comforted by that second sentence about God being a righteous judge who will approve of me one day along with all the other Christians who have longed for Christ's returning. But that other sentence—or perhaps set of sentences— bothers me a little bit: "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith."
At first I thought it was because of my age in life. You know, when you're my age you hope that life will continue to open out. You want to see your children grow; you want to serve the Gospel more effectively. When you're still on the front nine, you don't like to think about the back nine. And here is Paul—putting his clubs in the trunk and returning his cart to the clubhouse. I wondered if that was my problem. But no. It's not that.
And then I wondered if it was because Paul seemed so satisfied passing the cup to the next generation. Paul can say, "I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith." Because he has. He really has. If Paul's life is to be the standard by which Christians are measured, I'm afraid there aren't many people who will make it into heaven. Paul emerged from his Pharisee background to become arguably the most influential Christian ever. He founded churches, traveled extensively preaching the Gospel, got shipwrecked, got thrown in jail—all for the utter conviction that Jesus is the Messiah and that God loved everyone.
You look at the life of Paul, and here he is passing the torch, and who among us feels adequate to receive it? I don't. I would almost bet anything that Timothy didn't either. I'm not sure I will ever be able to say that I have fought the good fight. I might be able to say that I have kept the faith—but keep the faith as Paul kept the faith..?
You start to compare your life with others and it can become a very painful thing to do—especially when you pluck out those people who are unusually gifted. Musicians live in a kind of brooding admiration for Mozart. Poets idolize Shakespeare. You could fill in the blanks here.
Why do we do this? I don't know. (Pause.) I think we reach a tipping point at some point at which we no longer judge ourselves next to others. It's a happy day. I can't wait to get there. If you have arrived at that place, then perhaps you should be preaching right now, instead of me.
It's not a good thing to measure ourselves next to St. Paul, or Beethoven, or whoever. They weren't perfect. You hear the symphonies, but you don't see the dysfunction in their lives. You read the books, but you don't see the author's longing for greater gifts of imagination. (Pause.)
I want you to think for a moment about your life. But please, let's not be so critical. Sometimes people like me step into a pulpit and it seems like everything we say carries with it an implicit criticism. The preacher holds up virtue and the people consider their vice. Can we just suspend all of those churchy thoughts?
I'm on your side. I really am. I find that the more I live the Christian life, the less I am able to claim authority in the things of God. What I offer you is my very best guess at what I think God wants us to know.
So with that in mind, consider your life, knowing that you cannot change the past. You were born as you were born. You were a handful. You were loved enough that someone changed your diapers and fed you and held you. Without that love, you would not be here. None of us would.
You grew up. You made mistakes. You were disciplined by people who did not know how much to be strict, and how much to be permissive. Some of your parents were too strict. Some not enough. But you survived, and became an adult. Adulthood brought challenges you could never have foreseen—and thank goodness, because you would never have chosen them, if you had had a choice.
I'm asking you to consider what you have come through. All of it. Good and bad. Rich and poor. Sickness and health. All of the waters you have navigated and choices you have made. Some where good choices, some were not. As you look back, you wish that you had known then what you know now—but be careful, because there is so much that you did not know then, and do not know now.
You survived all of this. You woke up this morning and came to church after all of this. Everything you've been through is sitting right there beside you in that pew. And I want you to hear me say, on behalf of the Church, and on behalf—I hope—of Almighty God: "Congratulations." "Well done, thou good and faithful servant." (Pause.)
I don't believe that any of you would be here in church today if you weren't already trying to live the very best life you can. (Pause.) My guess is that every decision you make, you consider carefully. And your decisions carry the force of experience and the best of intentions.
You have survived the human experience up till now, and after this service, you will go back to lives that you have structured by your decisions and backgrounds, and you will continue to do your very best, as you probably always have.
No one has ever had it easy. Everyone is dealt their own cards. Every day there are choices and problems and frustrations. It's nothing short of a miracle that we have all made it to this point.
I am saying this, because I doubt very seriously that anyone else will. But you deserve to hear it, because it's the truth: You have fought the good fight. You have run the race. You have kept the faith. There is laid up for you—just as surely as was laid up for Paul—a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give you on that day.
You are just as worthy as Paul to receive the Gospel of Christ and pass it along, as best you can. The Gospel of Christ is not a condemnation of the lives we have been given, but a promise that those who have done their best to fulfill it will be redeemed of all their sins, and be welcome in God's presence for all eternity. "To him be the glory forever and ever." (2 Timothy 4:18)
And to you be the support and courage you need to live the remainder of your holy life.
If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.
The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.