Hold On and Protect This Good Thing: Sermons for the Vermont Conference of the UCC’s Annual Meeting, 2017

II Timothy 1:3-14

3 I’m grateful to God, whom I serve with a good conscience as my ancestors did. I constantly remember you in my prayers day and night. 4 When I remember your tears, I long to see you so that I can be filled with happiness. 5 I’m reminded of your authentic faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice. I’m sure that this faith is also inside you. 6 Because of this, I’m reminding you to revive God’s gift that is in you through the laying on of my hands. 7 God didn’t give us a spirit that is timid but one that is powerful, loving, and self-controlled.
8 So don’t be ashamed of the testimony about the Lord or of me, his prisoner. Instead, share the suffering for the good news, depending on God’s power. 9 God is the one who saved and called us with a holy calling. This wasn’t based on what we have done, but it was based on his own purpose and grace that he gave us in Christ Jesus before time began. 10 Now his grace is revealed through the appearance of our savior, Christ Jesus. He destroyed death and brought life and immortality into clear focus through the good news. 11 I was appointed a messenger, apostle, and teacher of this good news. 12 This is also why I’m suffering the way I do, but I’m not ashamed. I know the one in whom I’ve placed my trust. I’m convinced that God is powerful enough to protect what he has placed in my trust until that day. 13 Hold on to the pattern of sound teaching that you heard from me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 14 Protect this good thing that has been placed in your trust through the Holy Spirit who lives in us.

Part One: Delivered Friday, April 28, 2017

I have to confess, I didn’t know much about hope chests.

When I was asked to speak and preach this weekend, I was told that annual meeting was going to be centered around this image of a hope chest. Now, I’d heard of hope chests before. I vaguely knew that they were this sort of idea from generations past and somehow the related to marriage.

Like we were told before, hope chests were given to young women to be essentially collection points for things that they might use in their married life. Linens, clothing, kitchen items…they all went in.

Hope chest is one name for them, but there were others. In some places, they were called “dowry closets”, because this was what the young woman was chipping in to the marriage. And, my favorite, in other places they were called “glory boxes” because what greater joy in life could a young woman aspire to than being married?

I mean no disrespect to marriage with that, as I’m happily married and it is the greatest joy of my life. And I get the idea of getting ready to start a home together. When Heidi and I married we went to Crate and Barrel and made our gift list just like a lot of other couples.

But that said, I think it’s important for us to name when things don’t seem quite right, and telling young women to put all their hope and joy into a box, and in the form of worldly goods, to somehow be opened later just feels a little sexist. And beyond that, in 2017, it feels really outdated. Hope chest was never in my vocabulary growing up, nor will it be in the vocabulary of most people around my age or younger.

And then I read that in more recent decades, as late as the 1990’s, they were recalling chests made in 1912 because they were a hazard. Hope chests have often been recalled because too many children have gotten stuck in them and have had a hard time getting out. And I thought, “oh my goodness, these things traumatize children…this is a horrifying image”.pexels-photo-221004

So I wondered what to do with hope chests this weekend. And I also wrestled with what to do with this Scripture.

The second letter to Timothy isn’t one of the most well known texts. We are told that it is a letter sent from Paul and addressed to Timothy, his protege. But these days scholars aren’t sure whether or not Paul really wrote it at all. They say it could have been written by a student of Paul’s in Paul’s style.

So, we have hope chests, a sexist, antique, public health hazard. And we have a letter that may or may not have been written by Paul.

Okay…challenge accepted.

As I got closer to this weekend, I kept thinking about this text, though. When I preach in the parish I can usually read a text on Tuesday morning and know pretty much the larger theme I’ll be preaching about on Sunday morning. But this one was a little more slippery.

First, the author is talking about the faith that Timothy has received from his mother, and his grandmother, Eunice and Lois, and about how that faith is not a timid faith, but is powerful and loving. It’s a strong faith, and it is rare in Scripture that we are explicitly told that any women have strong faith. I don’t know Eunice and Lois, but I don’t think they were the kind to box up their glory with the linens.

And then there’s this long section about not being ashamed of his faith, and of remembering what Paul taught him. And the author writes this:

I’m convinced that God is powerful enough to protect what he has placed in my trust until that day. 13 Hold on to the pattern of sound teaching that you heard from me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 14 Protect this good thing that has been placed in your trust through the Holy Spirit who lives in us.

And that was what really struck me. Let’s say that Paul did write this, and if not, let’s say that someone who knew Paul and Timothy really well and knew the love the two shared for one another wrote this. Paul had mentored Timothy in the faith. He had been in so many ways his spiritual father. He talks about Timothy crying when they last saw each other. It’s clear that this is a deep love, like that of father and son.

When this letter was written Paul was probably in prison, and he and Timothy couldn’t be face to face. They may never have seen one another again. So can you imagine Timothy getting this letter, and hearing Paul, or someone writing for Paul, saying “hold on…protect this good thing” that God gave to me to give to you?

I told you earlier about how I didn’t grow up in the church. So, when I became someone who decided to follow the Gospel, my parents weren’t the people I could turn to for guidance. Now, don’t get me wrong, they are good, moral people. But they’re not people of faith, and so we were in fundamental ways not speaking the same language.

But I needed those people. And so I had to find other spiritual mentors and guides along the way. And here’s where I remember the advice that Mary Luti gave that I talked about earlier: if you want to really learn how to be a Christian, the best way to do that is by studying the life of someone whose faith you admire.

In college, and in seminary, I had two people like that. The first was Sammy, who was my campus minister. Sammy was one of those people Luther would call a “little Christ” to so many others. He loved people, and he loved the Gospel. And his greatest sermons were preached not from the pulpit, but by the way he lived his life. At a time when I could have felt so disillusioned by this messy, frustrating, and exclusive place we called church, he taught me how to be a Christian. He taught me to, as Paul would say, “hold on” and “protect this good thing”.

Carol was the second. Carol was, like me, openly gay. And she was also an ordained minister who became my mentor. And where Sammy was the one who would just roll his eyes and tell me God still loved me when I got in trouble in college, Carol was the one who would let me know that God still loved me, but I made some really bad choices sometimes. But from her too, I learned to “hold on” and “protect this good thing”.

I needed both of them. I still do, truth be told, but at that point in my life, when I was still figuring out who I was as a person and as a Christian, I needed them more than ever.

Earlier I was talking about Erik Erikson and how he believes that before we ever great any kind of good works in the world, we first have to understand our identity – who we are. But there’s something else that he said, and that was that we also had to understand intimacy. We had to know “whose” we are, to use Bob Pazmino’s language.

Carol and Sammy loved me. They taught me that I was God’s. But they didn’t do that in an abstract way. They taught me that God loved me because I knew that they loved me too. It wasn’t an academic, intellectual exercise. It was a relationship that transformed me, and that taught me about God in the process. And I’m thoroughly convinced that if I hadn’t had them both in my life, my faith wouldn’t be half of what it is today.

Discipleship demands relationship. It needs authentic connection. It settled for nothing less than for people caring about one another, and pointing the way to the one who loves us beyond measure. And, most importantly, it demands a relationship with Christ. Not as “my own personal relationship with Jesus Christ” as an individual experience, but as a relationship with a community of believers who can be like little Christ’s to one another, helping each other to hold on, and to protect what is beautiful.

Sometimes in our churches, we hear those two commands differently than how they are intended: “hold on” and “protect”. We hear them and we take them to heart. And so we do hold on, and we do try to protect things.

We hold on to and try to protect the things that don’t matter. We hold on to our buildings until we’ve spent our last dollar. We protect old ideas that aren’t working for us believing we are somehow saving the faith. We hold on to what makes us comfortable. We protect our ideas of how church should look.

And sometimes those things are held so tightly that we can’t seem to loosen our grip on them. And sometimes we start to worship them more than God. And we take them, and we put them in something that we think will protect them. We lock them away in containers of our own making for safe keeping.
We take our hope, and our glory, and we lock it away. And eventually, we start to care more about the vessel, than what’s in it. And that’s when we know that we have lost our way.

It doesn’t have to be that way, though. Because sometimes the best way to hold on to something, sometimes the best way to protect it, is not by locking it up. Sometimes the best way is to take it out, and share it with others.

And in the case of our faith, that’s the only possible way to hold on and protect it. Unless we are daring to take it out, and love God and other people with it, we will lose it. And unless we are willing to let down our guard be broken open, to be loved beyond measure and to then love with than same ferocity, we will never be able to protect the beautiful gifts that we have been given.

So what’s in your hope chest? What’s in your church’s? What in this denominations? What has been looked away for too long? What needs to be let out of the box and into the world? What is suffocating our faith? Those are the questions we must answer.

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An illustration of the sermon produced on Friday evening by Kurt Shaffert.

About a year ago, almost to the week, I got a message that Sammy had slipped into a coma in Georgia and wasn’t expected to make it. I flew down to Atlanta for his funeral, and I sat in a church filled with generations of students. And I looked out at the congregation and thought about how the faith Sammy lived, even after he was gone, still thrived. I hold onto that faith, and I protect it.

And that same week down in Georgia, my mentor Carol and I met early nearly every morning to have breakfast. And each day, in between the eggs and grits, she kept teaching me the faith, just as she has for over 20 years now, and just as I hope she will for years. I hold onto that faith too, and I protect it.

And these days it’s my job to love other people into faith. It’s my work to give them something that they can hold on to and protect. It’s my job not because it’s the job of a pastor, but because it’s the job of a Christian. And that means it’s your job too.

The people who loved us into faith did not give us these things so that we could lock them away for safe keeping. They entrusted them to us because they wanted us to use them, and to create real hope and glory in the world. Our job is to do just that, and to teach one another, and those who will come, about the hope and glory that comes from Christ. If we do only that, the rest will take care of itself.

Part II: Delivered Saturday, April 29, 2017

Last night we were talking about this same Scripture and about this guy named Timothy, who was a beloved spiritual son of Paul, the great apostle. And we talked about this letter that Paul had sent him from prison, and this fatherly advice to “hold on” and to “protect this good thing” that we have been given.

And we were talking about hope chests, and about how too often we try to hold onto and protect our hope by boxing it up, rather than using it, and sharing it with others. We talked about how it was time to take everything out of the box, and use it, because it’s no good to us, and it’s no good to others, stuck in there.

And we were talking about these two concepts from Erik Erikson, identity and intimacy, and how you have to know who you are and whose you are, and about how before you can go out into the world and create any kind of real change, you yourself have to be transformed. Only then can you, and can we, do truly generative work in the world.

So I was thinking about Timothy, who was loved into the faith by Paul and others, and who now was being given these heavier responsibilities to carry. And I was thinking about how he was standing at a turning point. He had to figure out how to hold on and protect the good things he had been given.

As I was reading this Scripture again this line stuck out at me: “Because of this, I’m reminding you to revive God’s gift that is in you through the laying on of my hands. God didn’t give us a spirit that is timid but one that is powerful, loving, and self-controlled.”

It’s Paul’s reminder that “God didn’t give us a spirit that is timid” that I think he knew Timothy needed to hear. And to know why, you have to sort of follow Timothy throughout the New Testament. You have to know that Paul had once written to the church at Corinth ahead of Timothy and said, “When Timothy comes, see that you put him at ease among you, for he is doing the work of the Lord.” In other words, “Hey, Timothy can be a little shy, a little timid, so make him feel at home because he’s a good guy.”

In other places Paul talks about Timothy’s stomach aches and how he gets sick a lot, and he tries to help him to feel better. He even tells him to drink a little wine to help his stomach, which I think was probably more about quieting his nerves a little bit. The overall picture is of a young man who was sometimes a little reserved, and a little unsure.

But he was also the guy who Paul trusted with some big things, because Paul knew that Timothy was faithful, and that with the help of the Holy Spirit he could do them. And so with his mentor in jail, awaiting what they all knew would probably be his martyrdom, Timothy is standing on this turning point, and he is wrestling between courage and timidity.

To put it another way, he is holding on to the good things that he has been given to protect, and he is having to make a decision about whether to box them up for safekeeping, maybe for someone else to use, or whether to step up, and trust in the power of the Holy Spirit to give him the strength he needs.

I think about Timothy, and I think about the mainline church. We have been given such a good thing in our faith. And we have held on to it. But sometimes we have also had a spirit of timidity. We have been afraid of risk and been afraid of failure, just as he must have been. And so sometimes we’ve needed this kind of reminder that the faith that we have been entrusted with is not a retiring one, but is one that is as Paul says “powerful, loving, and self-controlled”.

And that means that it is also a faith that is going to demand something of us. Yesterday I talked about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the “cost of discipleship”. If we truly want to follow Christ, we can’t be complacent and timid. We have to sacrifice our comfort, and be willing to confess that there are worthy of sacrifice.

Yesterday one of you came up to me after the keynote and we were talking about the example I used from Gene Robinson yesterday, and you said that you thought I was going to tell another story, one I’d actually never heard before. And you told me that when Gene Robinson was about to be consecrated as a bishop, his daughters were scared to death of what might happen to him. With good reason.

And so he sat down with them, and he told them about all the precautions that had been taken to protect him. He told them that a lot of people were working together to make sure he was safe. And then he told them this. He said something to the effect of, “And I need you to know, I believe that are some things that are worse than death.”

For the church, and for Christians, if we really want to find our lives, we have to be willing to lose them. We can be afraid, but we cannot be too timid to act. And so we need to call on the power of the Holy Spirit, just as Paul told Timothy to do, and we need to take out everything that we have stored away in our hope chests, and we need to be ready to be the church. But before we can do that, we need to know who and whose we are, and we need to draw on that strength in all that we do.

I’m telling you this today because this world is not in a good place. War, poverty, fear-mongering, exclusion, hatred, and the willful neglect of one another reign supreme across the globe. And between this annual meeting and next I don’t know what will happen. I truly believe we are at a crossroads in history, a moral turning point where we are either going to respond successfully as the people of God, or we are going to become truly irrelevant.

Now more than ever, we need to remember who and whose we are. And now more than ever, maybe we need to hear the story of Timothy, a timid young man who was loved into a faith that made him strong.

When he got this letter, he was standing at his own crisis point. He was deciding what kind of Christian he was going to be. And I think Paul was writing this to him, praying that he would remember who he was and trust in the Holy Spirit enough to make the right choices, and to be bold in his faith.

There are stories about the rest of his life that tell us that Timothy did just that. Timothy lived to the age of about 80, a good long life back then, and he became a witness to God’s love and to the Gospel. He was the Bishop of Ephesus, and he took some unpopular stands against the pagan worship practices of the day.

1013016_614340468589772_307607125_nOne day he stood in front of a procession in honor of the goddess Diana. The crowd was carrying a large idol, and they were so angry with him for blocking their path that they beat him, dragged him through the streets, and killed him. He became a martyr for the faith.

We hear that with 21st century ears and we think, “just let them have their parade…don’t die for it.” But put that in 21st century terms. Think of the things that culture makes an idol: money, war, power. Think of the social ills those things create: greed, violence, hatred and xenophobia.

And now think of standing in front of them, and saying you are not going to rule this world anymore.

That’s the work of the church. It’s to face down everything that keeps this earth from being as it is in heaven. And it’s to be courageous, even when we want to be timid, because we know who and whose we are.

And so, hold on. Hold on to the good things, because this world needs them now. And protect them. Protect the fire that has been ignited in you. And let it burn in you, that we may be a light to the world.

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