Investing In The Future: August 2, 2020

Good morning,

Today is our final Sunday in our sermon series on transitions. We have looked at many of the ins and outs of how Christian communities can faithfully walk the journey of transition. Today we will be concluding this series by speaking about Paul’s letter to Timothy. This letter is one of Paul’s final acts in ministry as he prepares Timothy to take over the work that he has begun. Paul describes this as finishing his race. He has accomplished his goals and believes that there is nothing more that he can accomplish in the work that God had blessed him with. He has resigned to moving on from this world to be with Christ again.

Steph and I love the great outdoors. Our favorite place to be together is on some trail off in the middle of the woods. We love to breathe the fresh air, listen to the birds in the trees, and simply enjoy being one with each other and our natural surroundings. There is something special that we experience, a kind of freedom, to be on the journey of walking whatever path we find ourselves on together. We like to push ourselves and see what kind of challenges we can face together. The same is true in our everyday life. We face the challenging winds that come our way together and help one another take each step forward. I think that is why scripture describes the relationship between God and the church as a marriage. Like Steph and I, God is the church’s partner. When we face struggles and burdens in varying degrees, God is present to help us take each small step forward.

I imagine that Paul felt satisfied with what he had accomplished along the way, otherwise he would not be talking about his life and work in this manner. He had lived through so much hardship, and yet he remained faithful that God would see the church and him through whatever they might face. Paul had the best interest in heart for all of those students that followed him and would ultimately take the early church into the promising future that lie ahead.

When we come to the end of a journey and have accomplished the goal that we set out to do, I hope and pray that we feel a sense of satisfaction that our work and life meant something. Reading a passage like the one from today, I ask, “How would Paul look back on his life?” Perhaps these are his words. At least they are how one of his keen admirers imagined it. Paul has been faithful. We know from the lists late in 2 Corinthians that Paul went through great stress and adversity, but refused to give away the central truths and concerns of his gospel. This was not stubbornness, but an insistence that faith should not be surrendered to those who wanted to turn it into a competition for spiritual power and influence.

It is clear from the context of Scripture that Paul suffers isolation, even from those whom he might have expected to support him. Such pressures can be devastating. And yet, he clearly is happy with the way that the ministry went. Paul is glad that he remained faithful to God’s call on his heart and was able to complete the job that God had given him.

In our passage, there is a calm in the surrender to hope, not an unrealistic hope, but one which dares to believe that ultimately there is God and no one should fear. Not everything has to be sorted out. The world still is burdened with heavy troubles at the time of Paul’s death. Paul has done the work that he believed he could do, and the time has come to hand that off to another.

It is okay to say we have run our race. It is something about acknowledging our human limitations - even about forgiveness. It is certainly about grace. Heading to the finish line at the end of a marathon, exhausted, or at least reaching the end of his ministry, this Paul has a sense of peace. The words inspire a kind of letting go.

The author may well know that Paul faced his end in Rome. Could one imagine what it was like? Paul would not escape the lions. The horrific cruelty of Nero's Rome awaits him. Paul’s treatment in prison was probably all very callous, like the execution of Jesus, and just as uninformed and prejudiced. We are dealing with totalitarian regimes who are not going to take time to listen to the heart of the matter. There is no interest in engagement, nor even in discerning the true nature of the threat, but rather an impatient drive for tidiness, "cleaning up" all potential trouble with a wild stroke of the hand.

Here is a picture of Paul still grasping hopefully at opportunities to spread the word of goodness and grace among the Gentiles. It reads tragically. Did the author know that Paul's hopes would last but a short time and soon he would be crushed like the rest of them? Under pressure, the Christian community around Paul has collapsed. His strange peace floats alongside hurt and anger and disappointment. This experience repeats itself. Perhaps it is just the kind of thing which Timothy and his colleagues are experiencing from the many who seem to be undermining their work.

Paul is an inspiration, a mirror in which to see one's own experience and a challenge to stay on course to the end. In Paul we see a man who somehow was able to find peace by pouring himself out without being burdened by the self-expectation that he had to do it all on his own. While pouring out could be an image of resignation, it also suggests a flexibility, indeed, a flowing, where one does not feel one has to run out and pick up all the pieces. Let it flow. Allow yourself to become lost in God’s grace, as ambitious hikers often get lost off trails, and do not worry about what happens next. Be grateful for each and every moment that comes, even the times of change. And allow for yourself to sit in the moment and appreciate all God has given and the presence of God in your midst. What a wonderful way to begin and also to end. Amen.