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October 3, 2010
2 Timothy 1:1-14
This week’s readings present a challenge to the preacher. Should he or she disregard the readings from Psalm 137 and Lamentations as too theologically problematic and thus avoid reading them in church, or attempt to challenge their theology and use the texts as opportunity to present alternative visions of God’s relationship with the world. One caution: if they are read in church, you must address them. Too often, morally and spiritually challenging passages are read with no commentary. Congregants are left with the feeling that they have no choice but to accept the wisdom of these passages simply because they’re in the bible, or to critique them often with inadequate theological insight or guidance.
Lamentations speaks of the end of the empire and the grief of a fallen nation. The once proud nation is ruined and little hope is in sight. The infrastructure is destroyed and the nation no longer can claim to be unique in God’s eyes. In fact, God is the source of the nation’s suffering. In words reminiscent of Jerry Fallwell and Pat Robertson following 9/11, the author asserts that God has withdrawn protection and let the nation’s enemies overrun its borders and destroy its sacred places.
Psalm 137 also speaks of exile and destruction, but here grief turns to rage and vengeance. The Psalmist imagines Babylon experiencing the same fate as Jerusalem and suggests that the people launch a holy war against their captors. “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” There is no mercy for the innocent children of the oppressors. No preacher dare allow such language in worship without comment!
As I write these words, I am currently staying in Washington DC in the wake of the birth of my first grandchild. This morning as I visited him at the hospital, I saw hundreds of people emerging from the Metro station, waving flags and wearing red, white, and blue shirts, as they made their pilgrimage to the Glenn Beck (September 28, 2010) Rally, “Restoring Honor.” I pondered the message they received today from Beck and his colleagues – one that I believe implicitly mocks the “I Have a Dream” speech of Martin Luther King, made on this same day over four decades ago. I spoke with a few of the participants and heard their feelings of fear and pain. They believe American has slipped away from them. Deep down, however, I suspect they know that the American Empire is on the wane, and that other nations will compete with us for supremacy. Deep down, they know that their side, despite possible victories in November 2010 elections, is on the losing arc of history. America is no longer a white-dominated society; but is achieving the dream of pluralism not only envisioned by King, but imagined by our founding parents. As I read the news reports, I wonder what Beck means when he says, “America today begins to turn back to God.” I wonder if we worship two different Gods or have two different visions of God.
I must admit that I am tempted to scorn Beck and his followers’ politics and vision of America, but that also would an act of violence and condescension on my part. I wonder as I reflect on World Communion Sunday whether we US Americans – or even we Christians – can find some common dream or vision to inspire us and transcend our political and theological differences. How can I be a passionate progressive and yet have a place in my heart for those for whom Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh speak the truth? Yes, we need to “turn back to God,” but for me this means to “move forward” toward King’s vision of a pluralistic beloved community, with stature sufficient to provide a home for all people and resources for the well-being of each and every child, regardless of her or his parents’ nation of origin or sexual identity.
Paul’s words to Timothy are a type of theological love letter. Without love you can’t be a teacher or mentor, and Paul truly loves young Timothy and desires that he grow in relationship with God. Paul realizes that it takes a village of faithful people to nurture faithfulness, and so he lifts up the fidelity of grandmother Eunice and mother Lois. Paul may be Timothy’s spiritual father, but these two women are his spiritual mothers.
Paul proclaims the heart of his faith – a faith that enables him to face suffering and imprisonment – the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is not a past event but a living reality for the apostle. Paul counsels Timothy that in light of God’s grace, he should “hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me….and guard the good treasure entrusted to you.” These are interesting and unusual words for moderate and progressive Christians, but they challenge us to ponder the nature of “sound teaching.” As I reflect on the contrast between my beliefs and those who are rallying with Glenn Beck, I realize that one person’s sound teaching is another’s heresy; that my vision of Christian faith as evolving and expanding is a far cry from Beck’s belief that America is God’s chosen nation and that we need to restore a previous national honor as a reflection of our faith.
I think moderate and progressive Christians need to affirm our own “sound teaching” and honor our own “good treasure,” involving beliefs such as: the global grace of God; Jesus’ hospitality to persons at the margins of society and religion; a recognition of pluralism as a gift rather than a problem; a comfort with the best achievements of science, medicine, and literature; and a vision of faith in terms of hopeful adventure toward the future, not a return to bygone days. Growing churches are theologically passionate, and while this takes a good deal of spiritual maturity, we can be passionate about our beliefs without dismissing the faith of others. Still, “rekindling” the faith comes as a gift of joining solid theological reflection and spiritual practice.
The gospel of Luke presents two very contrasting theological visions in the short space of six verses. Luke 17:5-6 focuses on the power of faith to transform our lives and the world. Just a little faith can open up a world of wonders and life-changing possibilities. Luke 17:7-10 seems to take a scarcity, rather than abundance, view of faithful discipleship. When we serve God, we “worthless servants” are just doing what we’re supposed to. Unless you want to explore this contrast, I suggest that you drop vs. 7-10 from the readings and focus on Jesus’ affirmative gospel of possibility.
As I read Luke 17:5-10, I see a contrast between a forward looking, open source faith in which grace abounds, and a rule-oriented, scarcity religion, in which judgment defines our relationship with God. As the father of an adult child and the grandfather of a newborn, I believe that my son and grandson are worthy of love, regardless of what they’ve achieved. They are welcome at the table; they are also welcome to become their own persons, and not follow an abstract theological or ethical agenda. Luke 17:5-6 invites us to think big, and not small, to make mistakes and not worry about failure; God will supply us with possibilities, insights, and synchronous encounters. We just need to have enough faith: to open our eyes to a deeper, more energetic reality than we can imagine. God is luring us by a future vision in which all God’s children, human and non-human, share in abundance alongside one another.
On World Communion Sunday, we are called to imagine alternatives to the present state of affairs, whether in our lives, the church, or the world. We are called to move from limitation to possibility and competition to partnership. As the meal of possibility, communion calls us to embody “sound teaching” in the sharing of bread and wine. We are invited to imagine a diverse, possibility-filled, open-source faith emerging from a mustard seed to transform our world.
Let us rekindle the gift of God in our lives and congregations for the healing of ourselves and the world.
Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God, written with Kate Epperly, and selected as the 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. He can be contacted for conversation, lectures, seminars, workshops, and preaching engagements by clicking on his name which will go straight to his email.