Preached at St. Martin of Tours Episcopal Church, Chattanooga, TN, on October 16, 2016.
Proper 24, Year C
Jer. 31:27-34 + Ps. 119:97-104 + II Tim. 3:14-4:5 + Lk. 18:1-8
In the Name of God, + Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Last Sunday, we observed a blessing of the animals, in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, whose feast the Church commemorates on Oct. 4. In my home growing up, there was a plaque, which had on it a quote attributed to St. Francis: "Preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words."
I must tell you that, as both an introvert and an Episcopalian, my gut response to that quote is: Whew! What a relief--I don't have to say anything!
And I'm tempted to hear part of our Jeremiah reading this morning along the same lines:
No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, 'Know the LORD,' for (already) they shall all know me--alright! God's got it taken care of, so I guess I don't really need to do anything.
Of course, if I'm honest, I know that this vision of a future in which everyone knows God intimately, is not our present reality.
I do believe that all life comes from God and is sustained by God, so that, as St. Paul put it when he preached in Athens, "indeed, God is not far from each one of us, for in him we live and move and have our being"--and yet Paul still preached, precisely because the Athenians, pious as they were, did not know God.
A state of knowing God apart from the teaching of others is also not true to our own experience: all of us came to faith through the teaching and witness of others--parents, friends, family.
No one comes to know God in isolation from other human beings. God chooses to be known, not only in the inner person, but in the lived witness of human relationships.
And that's really what our epistle this morning is about. For the past few Sundays, we've been hearing from the Second Letter to Timothy. This short letter presents itself as being written by the apostle Paul at the end of his life. He's imprisoned in Rome, and believes his execution to be imminent. In these circumstances, he writes "to Timothy, my beloved child."
In his opening, Paul says, I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and now, I am sure, lives in you. Timothy was a leader in the church, having been appointed by Paul with the laying on of hands, and Paul urges him throughout the letter to be bold and unashamed in proclaiming the gospel. He is concerned to remind Timothy to guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us. Paul has passed the teaching down to Timothy, and Timothy must also pass it on to others.
Which brings us to the passage we just heard. Reminding Timothy again of the trustworthiness of those who taught him, and of the power of the divine Scriptures to equip him, Paul issues a solemn charge in the presence of God: Proclaim the message.
With endurance, with patience, whatever the circumstances, proclaim the message.
It's a message Paul summarizes more than once in this letter, as we heard last week:
Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David--that is my gospel.
That's it, in essence: Jesus is the Messiah--the anointed one of God has come, and has defeated death by his resurrection. That's the good news. We can make it incredibly complicated (and, in fairness, I don't believe we will ever in this life fully plumb the depths of that gospel) but that's it in summary:
in Jesus Christ, God has come among us and has defeated death so that we might live.
Now I know that among us Episcopalians, to talk about proclaiming the message, to talk about evangelism,
is often to talk about nervousness, even anxiety.
Perhaps there is a way out? After all, if Timothy was an overseer in the early Church--in other words, what would eventually develop into the office of bishop--then perhaps "proclaiming the message" is really just the job of the ordained? Well, it's true that evangelism is explicitly part of the work of ordained leaders in the church, but it is not limited to them. Fundamentally, the solemn charge to proclaim the message is given to every disciple of Jesus.
Recall what we say together as a congregation in the baptismal rite when the celebrant bids the assembly to welcome the newly baptized:
"We receive you into the household of God. Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood."
To be welcomed into the church is to accept this solemn charge. We do so explicitly in our baptismal covenant when we affirm that, with God's help, we will proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.
By word and example--not one without the other.
Which brings me back to that quote attributed to St. Francis. I'll go ahead and apologize now for ruining this quote for some of you--but there is no record of Francis ever saying or writing that we should seek to preach the gospel without using words. Probably the closest confirmed source is in one of the monastic rules that Francis wrote for the brothers, wherein he tells them to "preach by their deeds"--which is to say, their way of life should align with what they preach. The context is important--the Franciscans are friars--essentially, monks who live among the people for the purpose of ministry and preaching.
As for Francis (who was never ordained), he preached constantly--he travelled throughout Europe and even to Egypt during the Crusades to preach to the Muslims. And, if we are listen to the popular traditions about him, his preaching did not stop with humans, but extended even to the birds and other animals. For Francis, as for St. Paul, to be a disciple of Jesus was to preach the gospel.
So, for us today, how are we to faithfully proclaim the message?
I think it is understandable that we feel, in some sense, nervous, when we contemplate the charge that is ours--to be ambassadors for God. That is an awesome responsibility. And yet God has not given us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power, and love, and self-discipline. So we should take heart and shoulder the work in confidence, for like Timothy, faith lives in us by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. God has, in fulfillment of Jeremiah, put the divine law within us and written it on our hearts. But not only is God's word within us by the power of the Holy Spirit, God's word is also written for our eyes to see and our ears to hear. It is the God-inspired Scriptures that train us in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
However one understands this often-quoted verse about the divine inspiration of Scripture, the message and very life of the Church has always been bound up in these sacred pages. To have an understanding of the Bible as God-inspired, literally, God-breathed, is to recognize the enthusiasm of the Psalmist who sings,
Oh, how I love your law!
all the day long it is in my mind. . . .
I do not shrink from your judgments,
because you--God--you yourself, have taught me.
Friends, we live in a society in which fewer and fewer of our neighbors know the Lord. Perhaps they have heard the message, and think it is not for them. Perhaps they have been deeply wounded by those who claimed to bring the gospel, but whose message was one of death rather than life. Or perhaps (and this will only become more true with time, I think), perhaps they simply have never heard the message faithfully proclaimed.
Do we believe that we have a gospel--good news--for them?
Pray for grace to heed the charge to proclaim the message,
to know the strength of the Holy Spirit within you,
to grow in learning the sacred writings that are able to instruct you in salvation,
so that you may carry out your ministry fully.
And so that when the Son of Man comes, he may find faith on the earth.