RCL-19C I Timothy 1: 12-17; Luke 15: 1-10
Again, grace to you and peace this morning—feeling something like the First Sunday of Fall, with these crisp mornings in the past week, and of course with Church School and Choir and all the rest gathering today and with such great enthusiasm. The liturgical calendar begins on Advent Sunday and I guess what we would call the secular calendar begins of course on New Year’s Day, January first. But in so many ways with the academic cycle beginning again and summer vacations more and more a distant memory, this Sunday after Labor Day marks a New Year also.
“Round Up Sunday,” and I do hope you’ll be able to stay and enjoy some good food and fun out in the Churchyard after the service.
As a beginning note, every Sunday the lectionary gives us three readings—an Old Testament lesson, a lesson from a part of the New Testament other than the four gospels (most often from one of St. Paul’s letters), and a reading from one of the gospels, and then, also, a reading from the Psalms. On Sundays when Morning Prayer is the order of service our usual pattern is “Psalm, Old Testament Lesson, Gospel Lesson.” But this Sunday morning I’ve exercised the “preacher’s prerogative” and had the pattern adjusted slightly so that instead of the Old Testament reading from Jeremiah we have instead at this service the Epistle reading appointed for today, from St. Paul’s First Letter to Timothy.
I think you might just say that as I read through these passages from scripture during the week, something in First Timothy began to sing to me, and then washing over into the reading from Luke’s gospel. And I hope we can simply on this morning, as our Choir has sung so beautifully on this first Sunday after their summer break, all join in, in the spirit of the day, with this song on our lips and in our hearts.
So this book First Timothy—a part of the New Testament traditionally called the Pastoral Epistles, dating from the early days of the life of the Church. A good deal about the particulars of composition and context lost to us in the mists of those ancient times. But what we do know and can tell from reading not just this letter but also from other letters of St. Paul and from the Acts of the Apostles and from the opening section of the Revelation to St. John and from the gospels themselves—what we do know is that from the very beginning the life of the church has struggled with what I guess we can call the “human problem.” That is, the problem of having human beings as members. Teachers sometimes say that their profession would be very rewarding, if it weren’t for all the time they had to spend with students, and perhaps sometimes we think this way about the Church as well. Christ’s Mystical Body is one thing, in all its glory. But add people, and you’ve got just a whole lot of trouble happening.
From the very beginning, from the days of Peter and James and John walking along a few footsteps behind the Master, until this morning, and all the days in between, a community called together in love and with a vocation to witness to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, and yet shaken constantly with differences and disagreements and jealousies and arguments and division. And so, even in those early days.
And in this letter we have the older, experienced, spiritually mature pastor, nearing the end of his ministry, sharing a word of guidance and encouragement to a younger leader of the Church, about the challenges and opportunities ahead for him, and about the spiritual and moral and personal character that he will need to find within himself to be able to do the work he is called to do in the days and years ahead.
And so we begin, in this first chapter, Paul to Timothy, at the point of the foundation, spiritual, moral, personal, not with recipe book instruction, “you should do this, you should do that,” but with the witness of a personal testimony. And where Paul begins—and forgive me for saying this, not my line but somebody else’s—is with an “attitude of gratitude.” An attitude of gratitude. Not an abstract theological exposition, not an affirmation of formal doctrine, but with a personal testimony. “I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord.” That expression just wells up and overflows in abundance.
“I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord.” Not just because he “came into the world to save sinners,” but because he has saved me. Not just because he has revealed God’s mercy, but because he has been merciful to me. I, who needed that mercy as much as anyone, even though I didn’t even know it. For his grace, for his mercy, for his patience, “I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord,” who has lifted me up and transformed my life and brought me healing and forgiveness and the wonderful hope of now being part of God’s plan for the world.
Know that first in your heart, Paul. Know that first in your heart, Timothy. Know that first in your heart, Bruce. Know that first in your heart, Christian man, Christian woman. All of us this morning, St. Andreans on Round Up Sunday. Let it be the song we sing, to the praise and honor of God, immortal, invisible, only-wise, in whom we live and move and have our being.
Let that song shape us day by day, in our work, our care for one another, and as we wrestle with all the difficulties and challenges of life together, even as we struggle with conflict and threat of division. Begin at the beginning, morning by morning, and this morning: “I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me.”
That all frames for me the two Parables at the beginning of Luke 15. Just to set them here this morning. The Shepherd and the Lost Sheep. The Woman and the Lost Coin. Two stories that are about “rejoicing.” Rejoicing on earth, and rejoicing in heaven. \
This week, and I think this is a public story now, our good friends Val and Dan Sweeney were in something of distress, because the Teddy Bear of their son James had gone missing. I understand he has the wonderful name “Jack Skywalker.” Some of you heard this story as it unfolded. Was Jack in the car? No. Was he left up at the playground? No. Hunting with seriousness, then almost desperation. Val even began advertising the loss on Facebook and the Highland Park E-mail list. And I think, after two days, hope had begun to fade.
And perhaps you know what that feels like. When something that was important to you. Something, or someone, that you loved, has fallen from view. It might be a Teddy Bear. Or something more. Or someone. Or even an aspect of ourselves. Who we were. Who we hoped we might be. Health. Friendship. Mother, father, brother, sister, wife, husband, son, daughter, friend; career, life goal; treasured possession. Someone said, growing old is about learning to live with loss.
But it’s not just when we’re growing old. The story of our lives. Nonetheless, nonetheless—and I know Jesus could have made a great sermon of this, a great story, the news is that after two days, James’s Teddy Bear was found! Sometimes that does happen, even in this world of ours, where most lost things stay lost. Jack Skywalker was found, miracle of miracles, and what rejoicing I know there was all through the Sweeney home. I can hear young James now, “Rejoice with me, for I have found Jack Skywalker, who was lost!” And it’s a good story, says Jesus, because “just so, there is join in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
A hint and foreshadowing and anticipation of the Kingdom. God’s future for us. Over one life healed, one glimpse of forgiveness, charity, hope, any one of us, to be transformed as we encounter that love of Jesus Christ, who is the Good Shepherd who has left everything to come and find us, and to bring us home.
Gratitude and Joy. Gratitude and Joy. All that singing at the Cross, and at the Empty Tomb. That’s the context this morning. A song to sing. Round Up Sunday. A day for a new beginning.
I’m not so sure what the world makes of us Christian people these days. I guess when we aren’t burning Korans or yelling at each other, trying to find as many ways as we can to model in our lives not healing and reconciliation and forgiveness, but division and polarization and fierce hostility. The great line from the Roman historian Tertullian. “These Christians, how they love one another.” So often for us and throughout history only something to be read dripping with irony. More and more often the word seems to be, fellow Christian, “see you in court.”
But all that said, perhaps the old Pastor’s words to Timothy could find its way into our hearts this morning. As the Psalmist in Psalm 84, my favorite Psalm, the text of our Choir’s anthem this morning: Blessed are they that dwell in thy house: they will always be praising thee. And with a prayer that something might happen and begin to happen in our hearts and in our lives, a real renewal and new beginning, and that this song of gratitude and praise would overflow, and ascend, and blend into the great rejoicing choir of the angels in heaven. And what a great place to start that would be. Happy Round Up, and Happy New Year!
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.