This Week’s Sermon – Unfinished Business

SCRIPTURE – 2 Timothy 4:6-18 – For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness,which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

Do your best to come to me quickly, for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, and Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry. I sent Tychicus to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments. Alexander the metalworker did me a great deal of harm. The Lord will repay him for what he has done. You too should be on your guard against him, because he strongly opposed our message.

At my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them. But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. And I was delivered from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

SERMON
Unfinished Business
2 Timothy 4:6-18
Nov. 3, 2013

            At the first church I served after seminary, I had the honor of working with Nelson Irving. Nelson was the senior pastor and I was the associate. When I was hired, Nelson was close to retirement, so he took me under his wing and showed me all the ins and outs of ministry, placing me in leadership roles and graciously giving me a wealth of experience. He put up with all my crazy ideas, encouraged me when I got frustrated, and patiently sat through all of my sermons. Surprisingly, he’s still alive today.

            After three years of that, Nelson decided to retire and the congregation officially called me as their senior pastor. During worship on his last Sunday, Nelson called me forward to stand with him up front.  He took the stole from around his neck, placed it around mine, and said, “This belongs to you now.” That’s what we have happening in our passage today. Paul is taking the yoke of ministry he has worn so faithfully for so long, placing it around Timothy’s neck, and saying, “It’s your turn to lead.”

Paul is doing this because he knows his time is short. He wrote this letter to Timothy from a jail cell in Rome, where Paul had been arrested for preaching the gospel and was awaiting trial. Being in jail was nothing new for Paul; his tenacity in carrying out his mission landed him in prison many times. But this time is different. This time he was in Rome, the headquarters of the Empire, and he sensed that there’s no escaping this situation. Legend has it that not long after this, Paul was indeed executed by the Roman authorities. So 2 Timothy is in effect Paul’s last will and testament, and quite possibly the last words he will ever pen in his prolific career.

I wonder how long he thought about what he would say. What would you say, if you knew the letter you were about to write would be your last? That’s a great question to ask people who are nearing that situation, which is exactly the subject of an article I read recently. A survey asked people who were 95 years old or older what they’d do differently if they could live their lives over again. If they could do it all again, knowing what they know after 95 years, what would they change? What words of wisdom would they write in their last letter? Three things stood out.

First, they said they would reflect more. They’d spend less time in the daily grind and more time looking at the direction and meaning of their lives. And in doing so, they said they would make sure the majority of their time and energy was going to worthwhile causes. Second, they’d risk more. Given another chance, they said they’d be more courageous about stepping outside their comfort zones in order to raise their accomplishment levels and make life more interesting. Thirdly, and most importantly, the elderly people said they would do more things that would outlive them. They would leave a legacy, not of possessions and wealth, but a legacy of changed lives. As I think about the people represented by these candles, I think of the legacy they have left us and the lives they have changed.

That’s what Paul is seeking to do, not only by sharing his wisdom with Timothy, but by showing him what a life well-lived and a death well-received looked like. Poet Dylan Thomas wrote, “Do not go gentle into that good night; rage, rage, against the dying of the light.” But Paul takes a completely different approach, one that is grounded in his faith. For Paul, his impending death is not a negative thing. In his mind, he wasn’t going to be executed; he was giving his life to God. “I am already being poured out as a libation,” he says, drawing on the imagery of sacrificial meal, which including pouring out some of your drink as an offering to God. Paul often remarked that death wasn’t something to be feared. In Philippians he says, “For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” For Paul, his upcoming death is a win-win situation.

Before he goes, Paul has a few last words of testimony for Timothy. He has a legacy to leave. Leaving a legacy doesn’t mean we have to live perfect lives. Our saints sure didn’t; not even Paul did. I love this passage because it pulls back the curtain and shows us the real humanity of Paul. While we tend to lift Paul up as the epitome of a person of faith, in reality Paul slipped his sandals on one foot at a time, just the rest of us. He was prone to emotional outbursts, flip-flopping theology, and downright orneriness. In our passage today, he airs a bit of dirty laundry about Demas, who is in love with this present world, and Alexander the coppersmith, who did him great harm. Little did they know that Paul was going to write a letter that would end up on the best-selling book of all time. Talk about revenge!

Paul had his enemies, just as we all do. His friends deserted him during the first part of his trial. After all who wants to be around a wanted man? His friend Crescens is gone, his friend Titus is gone. Paul is in a difficult situation, alone in a jail cell, abandoned by his closest friends, waiting to be taken to trial, where he will be sentenced to death. He’s even without his cloak and favorite books! This may just be the most depressing passage in the whole Bible. You would expect Paul to conclude it with something like, “Thanks for nothing, Jesus! After all I did for you, where are you now? I give up!” Instead, Paul ends the passage with this, “To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” A doxology, tacked onto the end of note written from Death Row. What in the world does Paul have to be thankful for?

Everything or nothing, depending on how you look at it. Paul chose how to see his circumstances. What others might have viewed as an unfair, ignominious ending, Paul chose to see as the end of a race well run. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” Paul says the time of his departure has come. The word “departure” was used in other places to describe a ship leaving dock and heading for open seas. For Paul, his death is not a shipwreck, but a ship sailing to a new destination. Today, on this All Saints Sunday, we celebrate and remember the lives of those who have also finished their race, who have sailed off into God’s sunset.

And like Paul, they have left something behind for us. What Paul hoped to do was to pass on his legacy to Timothy, entrusting him with the charge of leading the church. As we remember those who have gone before us today, we do so as a way to keep their memories alive, living out what they have passed onto us. In a book chapter called “Dying Well,” Amy Plantinga Pauw wrote, “Death marks the end only of physical life; an individual’s presence, however, extends beyond death as one’s life is remembered and absorbed redemptively into the community that remains.” As Paul kept the faith, as these eleven and so many others have kept the faith, so we are called to keep the faith, absorbing their example into our lives.

Keeping the faith – that’s an interesting little phrase that can be taken many different ways. What does it mean for us to keep the faith, to continue the work of those who’ve gone before us? It doesn’t mean we have to do this faith thing perfectly. If that were the case, none of us would be here. Like Paul, we are human, and we gather together in this human institution called the church, and when you get a bunch of humans together, something is bound to go wrong. Keeping the faith doesn’t mean never faltering, never doubting, never stumbling.

What it does mean is honoring the commitment we made to God and God made to us. Paul use of this phrase draws on an athletic metaphor which would have been familiar to Timothy, along with the sports analogies of fighting and running. As the ancient Olympic games approached, all the athletes would gather and pledge an oath. In the oath they promised two things: (1) that they had been properly training for 10 months leading up to the games, and (2) that they wouldn’t cheat during the games. As they competed, they honored the pledge they had made.

So we are called to do the same. When God claimed us at our baptism, we promised to be faithful to God, to renounce evil, to follow Christ’s teachings. Those who’ve gone before us tried to do their best, no matter how imperfectly. They kept the faith, and like Paul, have inherited the crown of righteousness God had waiting for them. And now, the baton of faithfulness has been given to us. We stand on their shoulders, continuing the work they did, which was passed onto them by those who went before. All those people we remember today make up what the author of Hebrews calls our great cloud of witnesses, those who cheer us on as we run our race.

Some of us have been carrying the baton for a long time and are ready to pass it on. Some of us are in the middle of our race, not completely worn out but not as fresh-legged as when we started. And some of us are still lacing up our shoes, warming up to start running. Wherever we are in our race, we will do well to remember that we do not run it alone. To mix Paul’s metaphors, our race will be a fight. We think of fighting as something people do against death: she’s fighting heart disease or he’s battling cancer. But in reality, isn’t every day a fight? Every day we are confronted with challenges to our faith which seek to push us off the track. We fight, not just at the end of our lives, but throughout our lives.

We do not fight alone. Whatever you are fighting today, let these flickering flames remind you that you have a lot of people in your corner. Each flame, each memory, is a reminder of someone else who fought the good fight. We honor their legacy and carry on their work as we fight our own fight, persevering against the forces that seek to fill us with despair, cynicism, and hopelessness. There are plenty of things we experience that could cause us to lose our faith; may the witness of these saints help us to keep our faith.

Our lives don’t end with our deaths. Jesus took care of that on the cross, showing us the way into the tomb and then out of it. These eleven people and the others you are remembering only die if we let them die. Are we going to let them die? Or are we going to keep them alive by telling their stories, showing their pictures, and most of all, living the examples they set for us? Amy Pauw went on to write, “In its power to separate and alienate, death is part of the old order. Christians who hope for the coming of God’s new reign must nurture resistance to the powers of death in this world.” Just like Paul, we choose how to see our circumstances. We can choose to see separation, alienation, death, or we can choose to see hope, victory, new life. Every day, we choose. May our choices honor the living memory of our saints and honor our living God.

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