2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8
Good morning. I have to start by saying a big, huge thank-you to all of you for allowing me the space to slip away during the week, particularly the Session. Thank you all, for practicing such grace. The last two weeks of my life have been physically and emotionally exhausting. It was reassuring to know that you were all supporting me with your prayers and your patience. I am grateful beyond words.
And that’s saying something, because I’m rarely at a loss for words.
One of my running jokes, particularly in the context of mission trips is: “I don’t have any useful skills, I’m a pastor.” This isn’t a lack of self-esteem on my part; though I know some of you get a little uncomfortable when I make that joke. I can teach and explain, write and speak in public without a great deal of fear or anxiety. Those are useful skills. It turns out, those are particularly useful skills when someone dies.
As you may recall, last Sunday, after the baptism, I drove to Philadelphia to officiate a funeral for one of my fraternity brothers. It was one of the more difficult funerals that I’ve officiated. It was difficult for the obvious reasons: Mark was a good friend; I’ve known him for 30 years. He was 53; he died far too young. He left behind a husband and a son; they were devastated. I could feel the pain and loss in their house when I planned the funeral. It was overwhelming.
The funeral was difficult for another reason: Mark was agnostic; his family and closest friends didn’t want a religious funeral. My job, at a funeral, is to speak a word of grace into a room full of people who are mourning. I draw my words of grace from the Bible—usually the Gospel of John. But I was asked to leave scripture out of the service.
In our reading this morning from the Second Letter to Timothy, the Apostle Paul states: “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”
I volunteered to officiate Mark’s funeral because he was my friend. I wanted to honor his memory by using some of my useful skills in preparing a funeral service and speaking words of grace and peace in his honor—even if they weren’t rooted in the proclamation of the Scriptures.
After the funeral, I got one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever received. One of Mark’s relatives told me that I did a great job. She’s Catholic and she wore a big crucifix around her neck. She told me that even though I didn’t utter a word of Scripture, I still preached the Gospel.
I felt so gratified, that she heard the grace that I offered. The agnostics and the atheists also thanked me for my words. Though I wanted to preach reconciliation through Christ, I knew that some would have trouble hearing that message. That day, I was able to teach in a way that brought everyone together.
Our reading from Second Timothy is all about good teaching. The Apostle Paul uses the words “sound doctrine” but I think a more effective translation might be “good teaching.” But we live in a world that celebrates bad teaching. We live in a world that attaches a material value to every person. We live in a world that says that my skills as a pastor are less valuable than those of a doctor or a lawyer or a pharmaceutical sales rep. We live in a world that says the doctor is not as valuable as a stock broker or a hedge fund manager. We live in world that says that all of those people are more valuable than a person on welfare, a person who’s a “public charge.” We live in a world that values us for what we do and what we produce.
Some of you are probably thinking, “Pastor, that’s the way of the world; that’s the way things work.” And yes, you’re right. That is the way of the world. But we’re called to change that world. We’re called to remake the world as God would have it, to build the kingdom of heaven here on Earth. We’re not called to throw up our hands and say, “you can’t question the free market.”
I’m not offering a political solution, nor am I telling you how to use your money. I’m simply reminding you that we all participate in this culture. We all celebrate wealth and material possessions to a certain degree. This is the air we all breathe. And sometimes the ways of the world seem too strong for us to overcome.
Sometimes we feel we don’t have enough faith to do the work that Jesus set before us. Sometimes the task seems too big. Faith is hard to find. Jesus’ parable of the unjust judge is a reminder that we have to keep the faith, no matter how difficult the situation is or how long the odds are.
I read this parable with two basic assumptions: the widow’s cause is righteous, whatever it may be. The unjust judge doesn’t care about widow or her cause. He’s one of those people who believes in the way of the world, and he’s going to look out for himself, no matter what. He’s not interested in righteousness.
Yet in the face of all that, the widow continues to ask for justice. She persists. It’s a lesson for all of us: continue to pray for peace and justice, and then listen and watch for the movement of the Holy Spirit. God may not answer your prayers immediately or in the way you expect. Faith is persisting in prayer and in action, even when we don’t see the results we’re looking for. We find faith when we practice our faith.
When you have trouble finding and practicing faith—and we all have trouble with this from time to time—don’t give up. Reach out to your church family. Reach out to the people who have taught you in the faith. Reach out to the other people in this community who are practicing faith and let them know that you are struggling. Nobody gets this right all the time, not even me.
We have something unique here in this community. No other congregation has the unique blend of skills and talents, faith and love. Reach out when you are feeling low and reach out when you are feeling strong. This is the community that we all have. This is how we live into Christ’s call. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that God hears our prayers, even if we don’t always hear or see the answers to those prayers. Remember that we are sometimes called to answer the prayers of others. So, go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!