Columbus Day Musings

Jeremiah 29:1,4-7; 2 Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19

Have you noticed an odd thing about prophets? Their message seems often out of sync with the outer appearance of things. For instance, when life appears to be going well as far as superficial measurements are concerned – as in the job rate is up, GDP is growing, the stock and housing markets are buoyant, the prophet is likely to sound a message of warning and foreboding. When it appears that the weave of the society around us is unravelling, it’s then that the prophet offers a message of hope and consolation.

As far as I can discern, the distinction between prophecy and other kinds of social analysis or commentary lies in the way prophecy connects the past and the future in order to arrive at an accurate understanding of present time events. Present-time action uninformed by memory and careless of future consequences spells trouble for any individual, group, or society.

A prophet’s commentary on events weaves the lessons learned from the past together with a prediction of future consequences from present time actions.

Remembrance of things past is the most accurate guide to predicting the shape of the future. This does not mean that the future is an inevitable repetition of the past. What it means is that if we want a future different from our past, then we need to understand how to act differently in the present.

We often note a wise individual as someone who clearly learns well from their experience. Yet many of us learning from experience – something so obvious, is the last thing we are likely to do. You remember the definition of madness -repeating the same mistakes expecting different results.

The prophet Jeremiah around the year 587 is writing a letter to the exiles who had recently been taken into captivity in Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar following his destruction of Jerusalem. Jeremiah had been prophesying doom and gloom – a thorn in the side of the Court and Temple authorities since around the first signs of international crisis in 798. But all he got for pains was an accusation of treason.

Yet, Jeremiah, true to his calling, had persisted in the face of attempts to silence him. There is that memorable scene in Chapter 36 where his prophecy is being read out to King Jehoiakim, who is so incensed by what he is hearing he grabs the scroll and cuts off the offending lines, throwing them into the fire – believing evidently that out of sight, is out of mind. Well we all know how that normally turns out. Doesn’t this kind of leadership response feel uncannily familiar to us in 2019?

Eventually, the king has Jeremiah imprisoned, which is where we find him as he composes his letter to the exiles.

Having accurately foreseen the destruction which had now arrived, Jeremiah might have reminded the exiles that they had nobody to blame but themselves. Instead, the Lord instructs him to write words of encouragement, urging them to build new lives in the place where they have been taken:

Build houses, take wives and have sons and daughters; multiply there and not decrease – seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

This is a piece of really good advice and the exiles heeded it. It’s the advice that waves of immigrants to America have followed to find success. It continues to be the dream of those who seek to build more secure and prosperous lives for themselves and their families despite currently being the target of unprecedented official persecution.

Over the next 70 years the exiled Jewish Community not only prospered in Babylon, but they undertook a root and branch religious reform that led to a complete reshaping of Judaism into a new kind of religion. In this new kind of Judaism, God communicated not through temple sacrifices or even prophetic utterance, but through the interpretation of a sacred text. For the first time the Jews become truly the people of the book.

By revisiting the past and relearning forgotten lessons, the Jews in Babylon began to chart a new trajectory into the future that would be different from their past.

It was during the Babylonian captivity Judaism developed structures that would equip them for a new kind of future. A future marked out from their past by a renewal of hearts and minds, and a purification of their covenant relationship with God.

As is usually the case however, this was a process of two steps forward and one step back. For when the 70 years were up, and Cyrus freed them to return home many, though not all of those taken into exile would return and try to pick up where they had left off with the rebuilding of a new Temple and a futile attempt to restore the Kingdom of David. Yet, when their rebuilt Temple was finally destroyed once and for all during the cataclysmic rebellion against Rome from 65 -70 A.D., the Jewish people found that the reformation begun in Babylon after 587 had equipped them to at times prosper, but always to survive during the next 2000 years of permanent exile.

Contemporary America seems to have lost the art of learning from the experience of its, albeit short history. To learn from our history would be to remember the countless times when the false narratives of otherness have stoked fear and justified violence. Narratives that for a short time thrive on drawing sharp distinctions between us and them repeatedly rise from the depths of our fear of the other as if we have never trod this road and learned this lesson before.

Yet these periods when the false narratives of fear and division have erupted must be viewed within the overarching trajectory of the building of a different and new kind of nation; one nation forged from the confluence of many nations; a nation in which we are all at the same time both us and them, familiar and other.

Like the Jews of the Babylonian captivity our Founders chartered a new trajectory into the future forged from, and protected by, a foundational text.

The Constitution, like the Bible is a foundational text that invites each generation into an often tense encounter with it. This act of encounter is, by its nature, an act of interpretation arising out of the dynamic tension between text and the specificity of context (time and place). This is a dynamic tension that breathes new life into the dead letters on the page.  

In his letter to Timothy, known to us as the 2nd Timothy (refer back to last week) Paul echoes the central discovery learned from experience:

If we are faithless, God remains faithful – for God cannot deny God’s own nature.

Mounting evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors in the highest echelons of our government; the draconian separation of families at the Southern Border; the capricious lurches in foreign policy that lead to the abandonment of faithful allies and the greenlighting of strongman governments around the world reveal the depths of our need for a renewed soul searching. Unlike God, it seems it’s all too easy for us to deny our own (better) nature.

Columbus Day is a celebration that highlights the complexity of the past. Just which lesson from our history are we celebrating? The lessons of our history should remind us we have been in bad and even more shameful places before. Yet this cannot be used as a justification for finding ourselves in a bad place yet again. Like the Jews exiled to Babylon, we need to ask how have we come to this state? However, more importantly, like them it’s time to act in the present-time to ensure that the trajectory of our future is something greater than an endless repetition of our past sins.

Can we do it? I know we can!

Make Love Our Aim

Image courtesy of Sharefaith.com

Text: 2nd Timothy 1:1-14

Luke reports that Timothy joined Paul and Silas at Lystra while on the journey from Antioch to Corinth, dated somewhere around 49-51. After Timothy joined them, Tom Wright notes that the three of them move on, but without any real sense of direction (pg.174 Paul). Lystra was where Paul had healed a crippled man and thus, been mistaken for a Greek god. Lystra was Timothy’s hometown.

Timothy was probably in his late teens – early twenties and must have seemed like a son to Paul.

Certainly a bond of understanding and mutual trust developed between them of a sort that happened with few others

(Tom Wright in Paul, pg. 175)

Timothy had a Jewish mother, but a Greek father. Paul takes the unprecedented step of circumcising him. This is puzzling because in all other instances Paul vehemently refuses to allow gentiles to be circumcised. Here, the only explanation might be that as Timothy was to accompany Paul as he continually visited synagogue after synagogue, Paul, ever the realist, was giving in to the least line of resistance. Among the Jews, Timothy’s Jewish credentials must also be beyond challenge, as were those of Paul, himself.

For the last two weeks we have been reading from the 1st Letter to Timothy, a text smattered with soundbite phrases like –

We brought nothing into the world and we can take nothing out of it; for the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.

1st Timothy 6

Today we hear the opening of the 2nd Letter to Timothy. Among more liberal NT scholars, the Timothy and Titus letters are grouped within a larger set of writings known as the Pastoral Epistles. Although tradition ascribes both Timothy and Titus letters to Paul’s own hand, today most scholars agree that these are much later than Paul’s time as evidenced by the kinds of concerns and theology they address. These letters are concerned with good order, and how people should behave – a theology of larger and more established and respectable Christian communities in contrast to the concerns of the small and edgy house churches to which Paul wrote directly.

Tom Wright, who tends to swim against the prevailing tide of liberal NT scholarship, on this matter tends to agree with them. However, he makes a case for separating 2nd Timothy out as not belonging among these later Pastoral Letters. So, we need to hear these opening verses of 2nd Timothy not as a sequel to 1st Timothy, but actually an earlier expression from Paul, himself, writing at Rome during the period when he was appearing before a number of legal hearings. Paul, lonely and bereft, appears to be pining for Timothy. Where Timothy is, we don’t know. Wright sums up the difficulty as like searching to piece together the small fragments of a jigsaw with far too few pieces to form a coherent picture.

The opening to 2nd Timothy is a loving and intimate expression revealing the depth of feeling when Paul opens his heart.

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, for the sake of the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus, to Timothy, my beloved child: Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. …I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy.

2nd Timothy 1

2nd Timothy stands out for the quality of Paul’s openness of heart. We cannot escape being moved by his words; words that encourage me to open my heart similarly to you this morning.

I trust that you have all read my e-message to the parish this last week in which I described the preparation process needed to lead us to a successful capital campaign in 2020. If you have not read my E-message you can find it probably still in your inbox, or failing that, you will find it on the website under Visit us/Rector’s Musings, Contact us/Newsletter, or under the newly created Capital Campaign tab and on the St Martin’s Facebook page.

Within days we will launch the discernment phase – a series of facilitated gatherings inviting us to share our hopes and expectations for shaping the priorities for our community direction around a central question: what is God empowering us to achieve at this point in our community life? In the New Year, we will launch a feasibility study – involving a parish wide survey and targeted one-to-one conversations. The information we gather in the feasibility study will be analyzed by the Episcopal Church Foundation to provide us with an accurate assessment of our community’s capacity to meet our fundraising and community development goals.

Prayer is the radical starting point of fundraising because in prayer we slowly experience a reorientation of all our thoughts and feelings about ourselves and others.

Henri Nouwen (pg 56 A Spirituality of Fundraising)

Earlier I mentioned that I was encouraged by Paul’s example in 2nd Timothy to open my heart to you this morning in sharing two concerns I have.

  1. That we will ask too little of our faith. As middleclass Episcopal Christians we have not been taught to expect much from the fruits of living a spiritual life. As middleclass Episcopal Christians we have too strong an impression of our own self-sufficiency. The result is that we often feel we have little need of God. That instead of turning courageously to prayer – for the very act of prayer requires real courage to risk hoping in things yet still unseen -we will slink away from the challenge finding refuge in a self-protected shell of I’m all right Jack – as New Zealanders like to say.
  2. We are a community of highly motivated individuals – who do marvelous things in the wider city and state communities and in doing so lend crucial support to many worthy causes. But if this results in our not having enough time or energy to support our parish community, then we will continue to struggle under the increasing burden of many and conflicting demands.

Our love of God is the source for all our loves in life. Following in the way of love provides the very necessary compass setting, around which the multiple demands that threaten to tear us in a hundred different directions at once, become ordered.

Our love of God is the source for all our loves in life. Following in the way of love that Jesus demonstrated is not another set of demands, it provides the very necessary compass setting, around which everything else – the multiple  demands that threaten to tear us in a hundred different directions at once, then become ordered.

Can we come to see our Christian journey not simply as one more set of demands on us? Can we come to see our membership of this community as an expression of our longing for that indefinable something more in our lives? That indefinable something more is not only an expression of our unrequited longing in life but of God’s targeted longing for us. Can we allow God’s longing for us to flow into our cautious and risk averse lives? That is the question.

Paul reminds Timothy that the faith that first lived in his grandmother Lois, and his mother Eunice, now lives in him. The faith that lived in our spiritual forbears that moved them to sacrifices and service that sustained their common spiritual lives together within these walls and under this roof – that faith now lives in us!

Paul reminds Timothy of the need to rekindle the gift of God that is within him; a spirit not of cowardice but of power, love, and self-control. The challenge and the opportunity we face together is the nudge or push we need to propel us into the next stage of our journey of becoming individually, and communally, more fit for God’s purpose.

Paul instructs Timothy to guard the good treasure entrusted to him, empowered by the Holy Spirit’s presence within the community. We will realize our dreams and achieve our goals not by our own efforts, but through our empowerment by God’s Spirit to become so much more than left to the fearfulness of our own imaginations, we could ever dream of becoming.

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