Sunday, October 21, 2007

What We've Always Known

2 Timothy 3:14 - 4:5
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 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.
In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.

It came as quite a shock…these things always do. Sure, Timothy had always known the day would come. He even vaguely recalled having heard that the old man had been ill, but he had been so busy, the news just sort of slipped by without registering.

It had been so long since he had seen him…How long had it been? And now this. The old man’s wife had called and said that there was something she needed to give him – something personal. Well, curiosity finally got the better of him and he decided to make the trip to meet with her.

It was a beautiful fall day. Just like a postcard, only windier. The hotel was just on the edge of town, and the day was so gorgeous, it seemed just as easy to walk over to her house. As he walked along, Timothy remembered the days when he had run down these streets. Days that seemed without end. Summers of baseball and wandering in the woods. Fishing in the creek down alongside the tracks. Riding his bike up the hill as far as the cemetery, then freewheeling all the way back down into town and almost out the other side.

Goodness knows that was a long time ago. But this was a place he’d always known. Somehow, coming back in the fall seemed right. Those days of childhood were long gone, fall had begun to settle in on him, too.

As he walked, his thoughts turned to the old man. Well, he seemed old back then, maybe he really wasn’t THAT old. He remembered how their odd friendship began. Timmy had been up the hill – he was Timmy back then - and was freewheeling down on his bike, just like he always did, when suddenly, some stray dog ran right out in front of him right there in front of the old guy’s house. As he swerved to miss the dog, he crashed through the front fence and flew off the bike landing right in the middle of the flower bed. The old man came running out of his house asking if he was hurt…only his ego was bruised, but the man told him what a spectacular stunt he had just witnessed. There was just something about the guy that made Timmy feel special, Like he’s known him all his life, and it wasn’t long before they became friends. The old guy said to call him Paul.

About that time, Timothy arrived at the house. The fence had long since been repaired, but the house was just as he remembered it, fence flowerbeds and all. Just like he’d always known. As he walked to the door, Paul’s wife noticed him coming and stepped up to the screen door and opened it wide. She invited him in, and deciding he had probably long since outgrown milk, offered him cookies and coffee. He accepted, thanked her, and sat down.

After the conventional small talk and formalities, Paul’s widow stood up and said, “Excuse me a moment…I have something for you.”

She returned shortly, carrying a box. From the box, she removed a sealed envelope with “Timmy” written on the front. She handed him the letter, and as he turned it over in his hands, she explained that Paul had asked her to give it to Timmy if she ever saw him again. Well that simply wasn’t good enough for her, and that is why she had tracked him down to ask him to come.

She poured more coffee, then excused herself from the room once again and left him alone to read Paul’s final epistle to his young friend Timothy.

The letter was long. Paul was always pretty long-winded. It said nice things about Timothy’s mom and grandmother, and talked about how much he had missed Timmy in the later years.

But then it took a turn. Paul spoke of those people who had lost track of what scripture taught. He told Timothy to hold fast to what he had learned and believed, knowing from whom he had learned it and how from childhood Timothy had known the scriptures that had instructed him about salvation through faith in Christ.

My, how those memories came rushing back. Timmy had never even been to church, but after his crash landing in Paul’s yard, and Paul saying how it had been a miracle and all that he hadn’t even been hurt, Timmy started going to church with Paul and his wife. He loved going there with them, and it made him feel good when all the grown-ups there would ask him about baseball and fishing and other stuff that he liked doing.

He would go to Sunday School with the other kids his age, and over the years he learned a lot about God and Jesus, and stories that sometimes didn’t make a lot of sense but were fun to listen to anyway. True, he really didn’t enjoy the memory verses, but even now, he found it funny how sometimes they would just pop into his head without warning. Could that be what Paul was talking about; knowing the scriptures that had instructed him about faith?

Paul used to talk to Timmy a lot about faith. It was all part of the way that Paul had mentored him through those years until he left town. Paul would tell him how the scriptures were inspired by God. He explained that the word “Inspired” had the same root as the word respiration, and that meant that the words of scripture had been breathed by God. Just like God breathed life into people when they were created, God had breathed life into the scriptures. He went on to say that the Greek work for Spirit, like in “holy Spirit” was from the same word, too! That had been a lot for a ten-year-old boy to take in, but now it was starting to make sense.

Timothy continued to read, “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.”

Again, Timothy’s mind wandered. He sure had run into a few of those folks who thought it was their duty to reproach and correct. If only they would concentrate more on the training and teaching part. Even though it had been a long time since Timothy had read any scripture, he did remember that there was a lot in there about God’s love, especially in the stories of Jesus that Paul had talked to him about. He told him that the love of God could be found in the love of the people around him who cared for him. Sure, sometimes it was important for those who love us to correct us, or at least our behavior, but the overriding message of scripture is that God is always with us and will never leave us stranded. What was that verse? “God’s steadfast love endures forever.” Hadn’t he always known that?!?

Paul’s letter went on to urge Timothy to proclaim the message, to be persistent in good or bad times, to convince people with reason, to correct them when necessary, and to encourage and build people up with patience. He wanted him to understand above all that there was a need for people to hear the message that he had tried to teach him, that there was a time coming when people would become impatient with the gospel, that they would have what he called “itching ears” and would jump from teacher to teacher to hear what suited them instead of the truth.

Timothy thought about this some more. What was it that he had read? Amazon has in its listings more than 140,000 books on various self-help topics. And over 38,000 of those are in the areas of religion and spirituality. The self-improvement market including infomercials, mail-order catalogs, holistic institutes, books, audio cassettes, motivational speaker seminars, personal coaching, weight-loss and stress-management programs was worth over $8.5 billion in 2003, and is expected to top out over $11 Billion in 2008. Seems like a lot of itching ears there. What is it that all these people are looking for? Don’t they know they can find the answers from the sources they’ve always known? Why do they have to spend so much money looking for new and exciting answers? Aren’t the old answers enough? Can’t people see that all these programs and over hyped techniques are just ways to enrich the people who come up with them and they really do nothing for the purchasers and readers?

As he neared the end of the letter, Timothy read, “As for you, keep your head together, put up with whatever you have to, even if it means suffering, tell the story of the good news in doing the work of an evangelist, and carry out your ministry fully.”

This last part confused him a little. Where did Paul ever get the idea that Timothy was an evangelist? What is this about carrying out ministry? Timothy was appalled by the thought! Him? An Evangelist? No way! What in the world could Paul be talking about? Sure, he had tried to live the way he’d been taught, he’d always had a good sense of right and wrong, but how could he tell people about it. After all, he was just a regular guy. Evangelist, indeed!

Feeling somewhat threatened by the implication he quickly folded the letter and stuffed it into his pocket.

Just then, Paul’s wife returned to the room. She asked, “What did he have to say?”

Timothy collected himself and calmly responded, “He rambled quite a bit. Talked about scripture and my ‘ministry’. He obviously knew nothing about how I turned out. I’m afraid he was sadly mistaken about me.”

She replied, “No, you’re mistaken. Paul was lucid until the end and throughout his life he had a gift for reading people and knowing just how to see their potential. He saw it in you that first time you crashed your bike in the yard. Every one of us has a story to tell, and if you don’t tell it, it will haunt you until you do. You have always known what it is to be loved and mentored by someone who cares. Just as he taught you the story of the gospel, you have those words and God’s love written on your heart and you know it to be true. Whatever he said to you, it’s because he knew it to be true. It’s now up to you. You can share the message you’ve always known or forget it. It’s up to you.

Timothy, thanked her for her hospitality and for Paul’s letter, and then silently walked toward the door. As he stepped off the porch and looked at the flower bed where he had landed all those years ago, he heard her say through the screen, “That’s the way it is with the things we’ve always known. They’re easier to remember than they are to forget. And they are remembered in the telling. Paul’s gone. If he meant anything to you at all, you’ll tell the story, not just yours, not just Paul’s, God’s story. You’ve always known it. Don’t be afraid to share it.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Thank you???

"Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, 'Come here at once and take your place at the table'? 8 Would you not rather say to him, 'Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink'? 9 Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, 'We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'" Luke 17:7-10

It’s a thankless job, being a mother…Get up early, get the kids ready and off to school, a quick shower and then out the door to face the day. Nine hours at the office, all day long being told to do this and told to do that. Make some coffee, make some copies, get the mail, deliver the proposal, answer the phone, order supplies. Lunch was from the vending machine. Was it a nice day today? No way to know. It’s already dark, fighting the traffic back home. Walk in the door and before she even sets her purse down, the kids begin to ask, “What’s for supper?” Forty five minutes later the dinner is prepared and consumed, and it’s time to go to scouts and to piano lessons, and “Oh, yeah, mom, I forgot to tell you, I need some poster board for a school project tomorrow and two dozen brownies – in baggies for the bake sale.” Is the homework all done? “Come on, children; brush your teeth; get ready for bed; you say you want a story?”

Oh, for a minute to herself. Just a chance to put her feet up, maybe take a bubble bath, read a magazine – nothing heavy, nothing too deep. Too tired to think or even move, she collapses in a chair and thinks, “Sure would be nice if somebody would’ve at least said thanks.”

It’s a thankless job on the line. Nineteen years on the job. Smoke and dust in the air, a little space, a lot of noise, too hot, always the same – boredom and monotony day in, day out, day in, day out.

“What’s that? The boss wants to talk to me? Right away, boss. What’s up?”

“Laid off? How can that be? I’m never sick, never late. Always accept overtime when asked. I’ve been here nearly twenty years. One more month and I’ll have enough points in to retire. But you say I’ve been laid off. How can that be?”

It’s a thankless job, going to school. When she got home from school, she called her mom to tell her about her grades. Four A’s, two B’s, and a C. It really is a report card to be proud of! Afterward, she calls her best friend. “Can you believe it?!? All mom cared about was the C! And one of those A’s used to be a B! I guess that’ll teach me to get good grades!”

Thankless jobs. We all know them. Maybe some of us have had them. We work hard and we expect something in return. We see those who don’t work hard, and they seem to get the same as the rest of us.

But I guess that is how it’s always been. Even in Jesus’ day, there were thankless jobs. In our text, Jesus begins by asking the disciples a series of questions. The first he asks is about common household practices: “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’?”

A simple enough question. We know the answer to this one- “Well, nobody, of course,” we answer with the disciples.

Jesus asks, “Would you not rather say to him, “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink.” It’s not in the scripture, but I’m sure the disciples are nodding their heads up and down, murmuring, “Of course, that is exactly what we would do.” That was really just restating and reasserting the first question, right?

“Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?”

We’re on a roll, now! “Of course not!”


I once had a boss, one of the smartest men I’ve ever known, and he had a habit of asking questions of his employees. Often, he already knew the answer, and it was like going through oral exams every time he stopped to talk to you or called you into his office. It really made one doubt his or her own expertise. George would ask a question, and the brain would go into panic – “Does he want to know what I think or is he testing me to see if I really know this small aspect of my job?”

Asking questions has long been an established instructional method. It’s the method popularized by Socrates. Luke, the writer of this text was no doubt aware of the method. Jesus probably was, too. Or maybe Jesus was playing a game with the disciples – getting them in the habit of agreeing so that he could turn them around. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time!

Quite a fisherman, that Jesus! Just throw out a little bait – you know, get them to agree with you, …jiggle the hook a little, - oh, yeah, they’re starting to come along.…feel the nibble – almost there… and set the hook – “Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?”… and reel ‘em on in.

But we’re on to Jesus’ game! We have the luxury of time and distance and the whole story to help us respond. The disciples cry out, “Of course not!” and we see it coming. We now know slavery to be a bad thing, and we want them to know it , too. We know how tricky Jesus can be at times, and we don’t want the disciples getting caught. They’re really just like us. We want to call back to them across time and space that of course you do thank people who serve you. Since we first learned to talk, we’ve been taught to say thank you. I imagine even now if I were to observe someone handing something to another person and I would ask, “What do you say?” the automatic response of the receiver would be, “Thank you.” Those scripts of our mothers’ teachings are just way too ingrained in us.

Not only that, when we go to a performance in an eating or drinking establishment, the announcer always reminds us, “Be sure to tip your waiters and waitresses.” In other words, “Remember to say thank you.”

And haven’t we all had those thankless jobs; those jobs where we did all the work and someone else got all the credit? We know how important it is to hear, “Thank you.”

But then, Jesus hits us with “Well then you don’t get it either!”

Now, wait just a minute, Jesus, are you talking to us or to the disciples?

Jesus didn’t actually say, “Well then you don’t get it either!”, at least not in the NRSV. That’s my paraphrase of what Jesus said. What this translation says is that Jesus said to them: “So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’” The disciples had been looking for glory for themselves, and Jesus made it clear they weren’t going to get it.

And then, we remember the older brother a few chapters back who used similar words in speaking to his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.” But we never really liked him. Sure, at times, we sort of identify with him, but he didn’t get it, and we do so want to be among those who understand. So we go the other way. We think, “Oh, poor baby.” While he was standing on the porch feeling sorry for himself, looking for the thanks he thought he deserved, the rest of the family was already inside the house partying it up. He seemed to forget that everything his father had was also his.

Jesus has done a really good job of dragging the disciples along to make his point, but let’s look at it another way. What if Jesus really had intended that last question, “Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?” to be answered, “Yes”?

It’s the ‘what-if’s that really mess with our minds when we look at the things that Jesus taught. There are so many ways we can dissect this and rearrange it.

We’re told to be kind to others. Isn’t it appropriate to thank people who help us out? Isn’t that part of being kind? Isn’t that what Jesus would do?

Maybe Jesus is the master in this text. When we do the work that is commanded to us on behalf Jesus, the Christ, do we do so expecting to be thanked? Maybe not, but as servants of the kingdom do we expect, or at least hope to be rewarded in the kingdom?

Do we find ourselves asking of Jesus, the master, “Do you thank the slave for doing what is commanded?”, hoping that maybe, just this once, he will?

But what if Jesus is the servant? We know from Philippians 2:5-8 that Jesus Christ, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Christ made the ultimate sacrifice of his very life to obey the command of his master, God, but at the same time to serve and save all of humanity. That was certainly a thankless job!

So do we thank the servant or don’t we? It’s hard to know. Jesus closes his discourse by saying, “So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’” The word translated “worthless” means those to whom nothing is owed. Perhaps a better reading would be, “You don’t owe us anything, we have only done what we ought to have done.”

The disciples are directed by Jesus to say that they are not owed anything because they have done only what they were commanded to do. As disciples, are we to infer from this that we should just do that which is commanded without expectation of recognition or reward? Maybe. But does the example of Jesus as servant also suggest that perhaps we should do even more?

As we wind up our stewardship campaign, we look to Christ’s example, ask those same questions, and ponder the implications. What if Jesus really wanted the disciples, and through them, us, to respond differently to all of his questions?

"Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, 'Come here at once and take your place at the table'?” If Jesus is our Lord and we are the servants, does not the master regularly invite us to come to the table and eat alongside him whenever and wherever open communion is served. We are called to be present.

“Would you not rather say to him, “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink.”

And we are called to respond, “No, Lord. What you have done for us is already too much. Let us honor you with our gifts and our service.”

“Do you thank the servant for doing what was commanded?” Do we honor God for all that has been given to us? Do we adequately acknowledge the gift of Jesus’ life being given in suffering and death for the sake of our salvation? After all, he was just doing what was commanded. Are we truly thankful?

Truth forces our response, “Not nearly enough, Lord, not nearly enough.”

When Jesus asks the questions, we, as Christians are called to respond. Do we do what we’ve always done because it was what was commanded? Or do we do more so that we do not have to respond, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’?”

Is it about us? Or is it about God?