A dream, rich with promise

Grace to you, and peace from God our Creator and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Several months ago I did a sermon series on the book of Galatians, and a few weeks back we explored the book of Philemon. Today we have a reading from a different letter, so I just want to take a minute to talk about two big differences.

First of all, very few people think Paul actually wrote this letter. It was probably written by one of his followers, since we think it was written a few generations after Paul’s death. The beginning of the letter states that Paul is the author, but it was a common practice to write something pseudepigraphically – that is, to give a famous person credit for your own work.

The second difference is perhaps more helpful. Most of the letters in the bible are occasional – they’re written in response to a specific event with advice for how to proceed. You may remember that the Galatians were being oppressed by Rome, and Philemon was encouraged to receive his slave back as a free man.

But a few of them, First Timothy, Second Timothy, and the letter to Titus, aren’t occasional epistles, but pastoral epistles. That means they don’t address a certain event or situation. Instead, they give general pastoral advice to a community of faith. They show what everyday life should look like as a child of God.

“Okay, Pastor Mark, that’s great, but what does that have to do with anything?” You asked that at just the right time! If we read between the lines a bit, we notice that, really, nothing is going on. And that’s important to recognize. Except for a few mass-persecutions, which the people would have still remembered, Rome has calmed down a bit since Galatians. This is a pastoral epistle because, a few generations later, things are finally looking up for the people of God.

See, First Timothy is not about acquiring peace, but about maintaining peace. “First of all,” the writer says, “most importantly, we should be praying and giving thanks for everyone – including our political rulers! – because we are able to live quietly and peaceably.”

In other words, the writer is calling us to pray for ongoing peace and harmony. And the reason we are free to do this is because “there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and humankind: Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all.”

That sounds like pretty good news.

In fact, what the writer of First Timothy is describing is the very reign of God. A quiet and peaceable time where all humankind is cared for; where the health of the poor has been restored; where our past sins are forgotten; where all people are wrapped in God’s compassion and grace.

And deep in my heart, I do believe that the reign of God is breaking into our world right now. Even as the days shorten and creation begins its yearly slumber, there are signs of new life sprouting up all over the place. That, too, sounds like pretty good news.

And yet, I still wish I was able to get in the pulpit each Sunday and preach a pastoral sermon. It would be a weight off my shoulders if, for the first time in a few generations, things would finally be looking up for the people of God.

But after the several shootings in the past few days, after last weekend which was particularly violent, after the past nine months which have seen twenty murders in the city of Trenton….

With Jeremiah, I weep over God’s people this morning. And I don’t think we are called to keep silent.

And so, I have questions for this pseudepigraphical writer of First Timothy. How are we supposed to lead quiet and peaceable lives when our brothers and sisters are being murdered around us? How can we be children of light when the world around us is darkness? How are we to have hope when our hearts are full of fear?

Well, many of you were here on Thursday evening as over fifty people gathered in this room to ask those very questions: what can we do about the gun violence which plagues our city. Many of you witnessed the tears, the anger, and yes, the hope of this community. For those of you who couldn’t attend, I’ll offer a bit of a recap.

We began the evening with what has become tradition at St Michael’s: we read the names of those who have died by the hands of violence this year in our city. Twenty names were proclaimed, and a moment of silence followed.

There were some initial conversations and ground-rules, and then we broke up into small groups and shared our own experiences with gun violence. I had the pleasure of floating between the groups; and I call that a pleasure because each time I passed a group, I noticed that the initial hopelessness was giving way to hopefulness. People began to dream of a city without gun violence, and these dreams were rich with promise.

Once we gathered back together in a large group to share some insights, there was a new energy in the room. There were ideas – concrete, tangible actions – to which we will commit ourselves. This energy was buzzing through the room as people offered suggestions of next steps to take.

I don’t think I’m only speaking for myself when I say this: God was working through us Thursday night. But having said that, let me add: God’s got her work cut out for her.

Several times on Thursday, I reminded those fifty-something people that our discussion was not the last step, but indeed the first. We are committed to ending gun violence in Trenton; and although this is not easy work, it is God’s work.

I think that exact point is hidden there in the middle of our second reading today. I think we can find a glimmer of hope in that early creed that’s quoted: “There is one God and one mediator between God and humanity, Christ Jesus, fully human, who gave himself as a payment to set all people free.”

Dear people of God, we are free. We are free from our sins, free from the broken systems of society, free from debts and trespasses, yes, free from violence and death – we are free to live as children of God.

But that’s not all. We aren’t just set free. We are also made new. We are transformed into the risen body of Christ. As we are fed and nourished by Christ’s body at this holy meal, we become Christ’s body: bread for the hungry, love for the unloved, an embrace for the outcast, listening ears for the voiceless.

See, I believe that God uses each and every one of us to bring about justice and peace. And I believe that the good news of Christ’s victory over sin and death is a message not just for us, but for all humankind. We are not called to be silent, but to share this story with the world.

Just as the writer of First Timothy is appointed as a herald and an apostle, so are we called out into the world: proclaiming that God is at work, bringing the light of Christ into those dark places of this world, teaching others in faith – “I am telling the truth, I am not lying!” – that Christ is alive.

That sounds like pretty good news.

Now, I don’t usually end sermons with prayer, but a verse from our sequence hymn has stuck with me this week, so I want to repeat it now. Please pray with me.

“As each far horizon beckons, may it challenge us anew,
children of creative purpose, serving others, honoring you.
May our dreams prove rich with promise, each endeavor well begun:
Great Creator, give us guidance till our goals and yours are one.”

Amen.


This sermon was preached at St Michael’s Episcopal Church, Trenton NJ, on September 18, 2016.

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