Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Faith in a Time of Triviality
2 Tim 1:1-14; Lk. 17:5-10[1]
Christian faith can be incredibly discouraging. That may sound like the ultimate oxymoron to you, but I think it’s true. If you find that surprising, you may be shocked by this: the fact of the matter is that we’re not the first Christians to experience this discouragement. Our Scripture lesson for today conveys St. Paul’s response to the fact that Timothy and the believers in his care were discouraged. It would seem that they found themselves in a setting where it was getting increasingly difficult to live the Christian life. It’s hard to understand all that may have gone into the situation, but for some reason, they were struggling with a sense of being ashamed of their faith (2 Tim. 1:8).[2] I don’t know about you, but that surprises me. I wouldn’t have expected Christians in the First Century to feel ashamed of the faith. It makes me wonder what made them feel ashamed.
I wonder if they felt ashamed because they found themselves feeling discouraged from going against the grain all the time. Taking up a counter-cultural lifestyle can be energizing, especially at first. But after months and years of swimming up stream, it can get exhausting. I wonder if Timothy and the believers in Ephesus were feeling the pressure of the sacrifices and ostracism and opposition that can be a part of what it means to be a Christian.
It would also seem that Timothy and the band of struggling believers he was serving were feeling ashamed because they were losing out to some competitors preaching a different gospel.[3] We don’t know all that these “impostors” stood for, but what we do know is that they imposed harsh demands on those who bought into their spiel, while indulging their own pleasures to their hearts delight. They wormed their way into congregations by creating conflict with the established leaders, and then used the influence they gained to milk the people for money (Some things never change!). It would seem Timothy and his flock felt ashamed of the gospel because these “impostors” were so successful at gaining converts, while they were struggling to survive.
I don’t know about you, but part of what discourages me about the Christian faith these days is the way so many people seem to make it something trivial. It seems like there are so many who approach the faith in terms of gimmicks and cheap clichés. They do whatever it takes to “succeed” at church—even if it means stripping the guts out of the gospel. You may think I’m exaggerating, but one group in Corpus Christi actually gave away an estimated $2 million worth of prizes on Easter Sunday to get people to come to church.[4] Prizes included bikes, furniture, flat screen TVs, and 16 cars! On Easter Sunday! As appalling as that is, in my opinion it is just the most blatant example of what happens every Sunday—selling people a Jesus who will make all their dreams come true. When it seems like the whole world is running to those who take such a “consumer-friendly approach,” it makes it hard for those of us who try to stay true to the path of the cross to continue to put that message out there, week in and week out.[5]
But I think something St. Paul told Timothy might help us here. He reminded Timothy that “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline” (2 Tim. 1:7). In a very real sense, St. Paul reminds discouraged believers of all times and places that we are not called to “succeed,” but rather to keep the faith. And God’s powerful and loving presence is always there to inspire us as we strive to present a compelling alternative to all the cheap tricks and silly slogans.[6]
It would seem that from time to time we can all get discouraged about our faith. When that happens, I think we need to remember the lesson Jesus tried to teach his disciples. They came to him asking for “more faith” to be able to live up to the challenging demands of Christian discipleship, and he answered that they didn’t need more faith but rather an sense of what faith is all about.[7] Faith is not a matter of performing spectacular feats; rather it is about continuing to speak the Gospel and live it out every day, regardless of the outcome. When we struggle with discouragement in our day and time, we can remember that it is not our “success” but rather our perseverance that demonstrates God’s powerful and loving presence among us.

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/3/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. J. D. G. Dunn, “The First and Second Letters to Timothy and the Letter to Titus,” New Interpreter’s Bible XI:839.
[3] Cf. Alyce M. McKenzie, “2 Timothy 1:3-7,” Interpretation 60 (July 2006):319.
[4] “Easter eggs and more than $1M in prizes at S. Texas megachurch,” Corpus Christi Caller-Times March 27, 2010; accessed at http://www.caller.com/news/2010/mar/27/the-million-dollar-giveaway/?print=1. Cf. also “23,500 attend church's Easter services featuring 16 free cars, millions in prizes,” Corpus Christi Caller-Times April 4, 2010; accessed at http://www.caller.com/news/2010/apr/04/churchs-giveaway-attracts-thousands/ .
[5] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 99: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
[6] See Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, 84-86, where he speaks of the Spirit of God as the “the life-force of the resurrection” which is being poured out on all living beings to enhance “vitality,” which he further defines as “love of life” which is “nothing other than true humanity.” Cf. also ibid, 97, where he says, “In this world, with its modern ‘sickness unto death’, true spirituality will be the restoration of the love for life—that is to say, vitality. The full and unreserved ‘yes’ to life, and the full and unreserved love for the living are the first experiences of God’s Spirit.” It seems to me that this “love of life” can go a long way toward empowering us to persevere in our faith.
[7] Cf. R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” New Interpreter’s Bible IX:322: “They assumed that they had faith but would need a greater faith in order to measure up to Jesus’ challenge to confront and forgive those who have sinned. Jesus shatters their illusions about faith; they don’t even have faith comparable to a tiny mustard seed. … The point is not that they need more faith; rather, they need to understand that faith enables God to work in a person’s life in ways that defy ordinary human experience. The saying is not about being able to do miraculous works or spectacular tricks. On the contrary, Jesus assures the disciples that with even a little faith they can live by his teachings on discipleship.”

Send Lazarus!

1 Tim. 6:6-19; Lk. 16:19-31[1]

I think most of what the Bible has to say about money falls on deaf ears with us. Money is so much a part of our existence, it seems impossible not to place at least some degree of trust in it. For me, I began learning to trust in money when I was a boy. My parents and grandparents went through the great depression, so they had a lot to say about money. Mainly, money is what keeps you from going destitute. They kept gold coins and jewelry in their safety deposit boxes as security against another catastrophic deflation of currency. My Aunt Ruth gave me a $2 to keep in my wallet at all times so that I would never be “broke.” My grandfather taught me about compound interest and about the importance of putting your money to work before I became a teenager. In a wide variety of ways they reinforced the notion that money is what keeps you from going destitute. They taught me to trust in money.

But I suspect I’m not the only one who has a hard time with our Scripture lessons for today. I think St. Paul’s advice that we who have this world’s goods not set our hopes on “money, which is here today and gone tomorrow” (1 Tim. 6:17, MSG) comes across to us like a Latin mass. We hear the words, and we understand that they’re supposed to be important, but we don’t have a clue what they mean.[2] Our whole way of life is oriented around setting your hopes on money. Which one of us can say that we are not setting our hopes on money—at the very least when it comes to retirement? To some extent, that may not be a bad thing. It’s simply a feature of what it means to live in an economy where currency is the primary means of exchange.

But from another perspective, that can be disastrous.[3] St. Paul said it most plainly (though he is mostly misquoted!): “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim. 6:10). Of course, this opens the door to recognizing that it is we who are the problem. Money is just one among many means of exchange in the various economic systems that have come and gone in the world. As such, it can be neutral. But it is our desire for money, and what it represents to us, that is the problem. We look to money as if it were a genie who can make all our wishes come true. In a very real sense, St. Paul wants to warn us that having money is not what gives us true life; rather it is “godliness with contentment” (1 Tim. 6:6). Trusting in God who supplies our needs and being satisfied with what we have is what leads us to the life that is truly worth living.

That’s all well and good, but we still live in this culture where “money makes the world go around!” How can we learn to be satisfied, to be truly content with what we have, given the fact that we live in a world that is so completely oriented around buying and getting more? Perhaps St. Paul gives us a clue here when he instructs those of us who have this world’s goods to “do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share” (1 Tim. 6:18). Sharing generously is a means of learning to be content with what we have. I’m not talking about the token charity that we use to salve our guilty conscience—I’m talking about real generosity. It is a matter of solidarity: letting ourselves “be affected by the suffering of other human beings”; it is a matter of “sharing their pain and tragedy.”[4]

You may be thinking that we’ve gone from the frying pan into the fire, so to speak: How can we have the confidence, the courage, and the faith to do as Paul says—to share what we have generously? Father Abraham tells the rich man that his brothers should listen to Moses and the prophets. We still have Moses and the prophets, but I’m not sure we do any better job hearing them than the rich man or his brothers.[5] We also have Jesus, the apostles, and the saints through the ages, but I think it’s all too easy for us to “bracket” them out of our reality. So what do we have, or perhaps better, whom do we have who can teach us to share what we have generously? Who do we have who can be prophets to us, who can convict us and rebuke us and instruct us and point us toward the life that is truly worth living?

We do have Lazarus. In fact, we have many Lazaruses all around us: the poor, the oppressed and the disenfranchised. But I guess the question we have to ask ourselves is whether they can help us. In the parable from our Gospel lesson, in spite of the fact that the rich man begged for Abraham to “send Lazarus” to help him, Abraham explained that he could not help. We might say that the rich man already had his chance to learn from Lazarus, and he refused. But we still have a chance to learn from the Lazaruses of our world.

So how can the poor, those who suffer injustice and oppression, and those who have been cast out in our world teach us how to share ourselves generously? Well, it seems to me that if we take Jesus seriously when he says, “I was hungry,” then we have to reckon seriously with the possibility that the Lazaruses of our day are the very ones in whom Jesus, the crucified Lord is present.[6] In a very real sense, they become our prophets and apostles, because they bear witness to us about the good news of a God who is present with us in our suffering.[7] They are our prophets and apostles because they teach us that the life that is truly worth living always has been and always will be characterized by compassion and generosity.[8] Although Lazarus could not help the rich man who ignored his plight, I think perhaps he might help us. I think he can point us to the Lazaruses all around us, poor and oppressed and outcast people who represent the God who shares our suffering. And when we take to heart this good news that the “crucified people” around us proclaim, we have the chance to be converted to a life of sharing the suffering of others. When that happens, we have the chance to live the life that is truly worth living.

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/26/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Cf. Wade P. Huie, Jr., “The Poverty of Abundance,” Interpretation 22 (Oct 1968): 403, where he observes, “the biblical word about the poor and the rich can pass by me, for I am not poor and do not feel rich.”

[3] Ralph Wood, “A Passion for Lesser Things (1 Timothy 6:6-19),” The Christian Century (Sept 13-20,1995), 843: “few desires corrupt our hearts more than the desire for financial security.” Cf. also J. D. G. Dunn, “The First and Second Letters to Timothy and the Letter to Titus,” New Interpreter’s Bible XI:828

[4] Jon Sobrino, Where is God?, 19.

[5] Cf. Fred Craddock, Luke, 192-98, where he explains the theological framework that the Pharisees used to justify a “gospel of wealth.” It illustrates the ease with which any of us can turn Scripture into a justification for whatever we want.

[6] Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 127, 129.

[7] Sobrino, Where is God?, 23.

[8] Cf. The Study Catechism: Full Version with Biblical References Approved by the 210th General Assembly (1998), question 16, , which puts this into the framework of the reason for our creation: “God created us to live together in love and freedom” and “to be loving companions of others so that something of God’s goodness may be reflected in our lives.” Cf. also Cf. Huie, “Poverty of Abundance,” 409, where he points out that while Lazarus needed the rich man to provide food and clothing and medicine, the rich man needed Lazarus to teach him “what it means to be human.”