(A sermon for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, 1 Timothy 6:16-19)
On a June afternoon, warm and beautiful, I stood at the pulpit in the chapel of Large Church in front of a gathering of ministers and lay people who would decide whether I ought to be ordained. First I read my ordination paper, and from the expressions on their faces it seemed to go well. Then it was time for their questions. I had no idea what people might ask. At some Ecclesiastical Councils—because what we call them, a Council of Churches, ecclesia, gathered together—at some the questions are tough, while others seem to be fairly easy, and I’m not always sure why. I came prepared for the worst, or the hardest, because I took seriously the work of our time together. As hard as I had worked, I only wanted to be approved for ordained ministry if they really believed God wanted me to be doing it.
The questions came, and they were really quite friendly. The atmosphere remained genial. Someone asked me, “You’ve been active in the local church for a long time as a lay person. How will it be different being in ordained ministry?”
I think maybe they expected an answer about the sacraments, my sense of being called to baptize or to consecrate the bread and the cup.
But I answered this way:
“I feel like I’ve been going steady with the church for the last fifteen years, and now we are getting married.”
They all laughed. They all knew I *was* getting married soon after, and I imagine they thought the comparison was a little precious.
But I didn’t mean it to be cutesy. I meant it deeply. In the same sense that I would soon give myself to Pure Luck in marriage, in asking to be ordained, I promised to give myself to the church, for God’s purposes in ordained ministry. I loved both, and I meant both sets of promises I made that fall, one set in September on a mountain top and the other a few weeks later in the sanctuary of the local church that nurtured me for those fifteen years.
I gave my life in two ways at the same time, and while I am glad I did it, I probably would not advise you try it in such a short time span.
But I am a person inclined to take on a lot of things, both practical and spiritual, and I understood myself to be doing what God wanted me to do.
If my own health began to decline a bit, if my overall condition worsened, did that really matter compared to maintaining all my commitments and taking on more? After all, wasn’t I being faithful to God both at home and at church? If I had to go 100 miles an hour, 24 hours a day, wasn’t that to be expected?
But listen to this: “If we have bread on the table and shoes on our feet, that’s enough.” (1 Timothy 6:8, The Message)
Our passage from Timothy takes the form of advice from a mentor to a
newer Christian trying very hard to be faithful in the face of the
world’s temptations. Run from them! Don’t be deluded by them!
Apparently the temptation to care more about riches in this world than
being faithful created a conflict. It’s good to know that people who
lived so soon after Jesus struggled with following him, too, isn’t it?
My pursuits have not been material, but perhaps there has been a little desire for other kinds of glory. And when we start down that road, it’s easy to forget the simplicity of authentic faith.
“If we have bread on the table and shoes on our feet, that’s enough.”
A new little brother in faith began the journey officially today, and it’s my hope that the promises made to and for him by his parents and this church will fortify him along the path that lies ahead. I hope his mom and dad will tell him about Jesus, that storyteller and traveler, that teacher and friend, who walked among us and connects us more deeply to God through his life and his death and his resurrection. In him, God’s love became part of human life, and in him our human experience became part of God.
If I could teach Lucas one important lesson about being a faithful person, it would be this:
There is a difference between consecrating yourself and sacrificing yourself.
We may all want to bear this in mind, renewing our own promises to God as Fred and Kelly did in affirming their baptismal vows when they joined the church this morning.
My pursuits have not been material, you heard me say it, and although I like a new pair of shoes as much as the next girl, it’s largely true. But I am tempted by some of the siren calls of 21st century life, and one of the most prominent of them is overwork. Like many pastors, I am a bit of a workaholic. And I am trying to learn the difference between consecrating myself and sacrificing myself.
Consecrating, you seem means dedicating something or someone to a sacred purpose, while sacrificing means destruction or surrender of something for the sake of something else.
“If we have bread on the table and shoes on our feet, that’s enough.”
A few months ago I received a wake-up call in the form of my annual physical, and please don’t laugh when I say “annual,” because that wouldn’t be nice. Let’s just say it had been more than a year, but that won’t happen again. Some unattractive blood pressure numbers and a talking-to from my doctor led to some major changes over the summer in the way I spend my time and the way I take care of myself.
The next time someone asks you, “What would Jesus do,” I hope you will remind them that we are not Jesus, and that there are few among us actually called to martyrdom or ultimate sacrifice.
What we are called to do instead is give our lives, generously and purposefully, dedicating ourselves to God. We must remember that our lives are sustainable resources, but not exactly renewable in a material sense.
A devout life does bring wealth, but it’s the rich simplicity of being yourself before God. (1 Timothy 6:6, The Message)
We have made vows together, too, promises that remind us we are more than a collection of individuals who coincidentally turned up in the same place at the same time. We are the church, a gathered body of the faithful, joined by and in our common promises to God. Many faithful people have gone before us, some not so far away as Timothy. In a talk at the Annual Meeting, we heard this historic pledge made among members of one of Maine’s early congregations:
We desire & intend & (with Dependance on his promisd & powerful Grace) we engage to walk together as a Church of the Lord Jesus Christ in the Faith and Order of ye Gospel, so far as we shall have the same reveald unto us: conscienciously attending the public Worship of God, the Sacraments of the New Testament, the Discipline of his Kingdom, & all his holy Institutions, in Communion with one another, & watchfully avoiding all sinfull stumbling Blocks & Contentions, as becomes a People whom ye Lord hath bound up together in a Bundle of Life.
Bound up together in a bundle of life—it’s such a beautiful expression for community. When we bring our personal lives of faith together into one community, we are indeed bound up together in a bundle. Sometimes we live together as quietly as sticks in a bundle, while other times we writhe against each other like a bagful of unfriendly cats! We’ve had to learn how to do it, since many more years have gone by than the author of the epistle anticipated. He believed Jesus would be right back, and he also believed some very simple advice would be enough to keep Timothy on the road of faith.
He may have been wrong about the timing of Jesus, but he gave good advice about living an intentionally generous life of faith.
Lucas, I hope you will learn this lesson. You are precious, and you have particular gifts that will become apparent as you grow. Your parents may even help you understand what they are! When you know, spend them on behalf of God. Be Lucas, as fully as you can be, dedicating your life to reaching your fullest potential. Don’t sacrifice yourself; give your life, generously. Keith and Shannon, watch Lucas for those signs of God’s grace that animate him, leading him toward the path that will help him, in his own unique way, make this world as much as it can be like God’s kingdom, the ultimate better place.