By Rev. Robin Bartlett
Preached on October 2, 2016
World Communion Sunday
at the First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are meant to be heard, not read. Listen here.
READING FROM THE EPISTLES (2 Timothy 1: 1-14)
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, for the sake of the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus, To Timothy, my beloved child: Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. I am grateful to God—whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did—when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. 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.
For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. For this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher, and for this reason I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him. Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.
SERMON “Guarding the Treasure of Faith”
I can’t tell you how many people I talk to from this church who are distressed when their teenagers tell them they “don’t believe” in God anymore. This is a developmentally appropriate sentiment, and never a cause of concern for me as their pastor. They are still held in an infinite web of love that will never let them go. But it is something that we parents panic about for many reasons. We panic about everything from the salvation of their souls, to the strong desire for our children to be in a community of people who love and protect them. Some of us give up and stop making them go to church, as if the only reason to go to church is unwavering belief in God. Anna Keating says she needs to go to church because she needs to bow down before a mystery and say thank you. I think we all need that.
We also sometimes beat ourselves up when our teenagers say this to us because it must be our fault. We wonder if it is because we have failed, or the church has failed, to properly convince them of God’s existence. Maybe we didn’t read enough of the Bible as a family. Maybe we read so much of it that we bored the faith right out of them. Maybe it’s because we didn’t have rock bands in our church, or maybe it’s because we didn’t convince them that our faith was serious enough.
Look, God is as close as our breathing whether we believe in God or not, so I don’t know why we worry so much about belief, as if whether or not we believe makes a difference to God. It’s not up to us to convince children of the existence of God, but to nurture their faith in what’s true. I care more that they know that God believes in them than I care about whether they believe in God.
But I think this is an age-old concern, that our children will grow to guard the treasure of faith passed down to them. I don’t think this began with the advent of soccer practice on Sunday. That is why I love Paul’s letter to Timothy that we heard today.
Our reading from Paul’s epistles is a letter that he wrote to Timothy, a young mentee who is like a son to him. Paul wrote this not long before his death, and during his final imprisonment. He was being thrown in jail all the time for being a dissident; a Christian. Paul wrote this letter at a time of extreme political unrest and persecution of Christians. It seems that the Roman leadership at the time believed that the Christianity Paul taught had turned the world upside down. And so Paul was kept alone in prison without visitors, and made to suffer immensely. So much so, that he knew his death would be soon. This letter was his attempt to sing the Lord’s song as his tormentors mock him, as the psalmist writes.
This budding early Christianity Paul was advocating was a radical ideology with serious political ramifications. It was an ideology that suggested that the last should go first, the hungry should be fed, the meek would inherit the earth, the rich would be brought down from their thrones, and the poor would inherit the kingdom of God. No wonder it was a threat to those in power.
So, on death’s door, alone in prison, Paul writes this letter to this young man, Timothy, who he loves. In the letter, he reminds Timothy why this faith matters. He implores him to guard the good treasure of faith entrusted to him by his grandmother and mother. He makes the argument that keeping the faith of your parents alive is part of your job as a human.
Treat this faith like a treasure passed down to you, no matter how dangerous it is, he says. No matter how many people believe you will turn the world upside down with its power. He says “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of love and self-discipline.” He implores Timothy to guard it, hold to it, suffer for it. It is his birthright.
Man, this is not what happens today, is it? And meanwhile the world is being torn down to its foundations, like Jerusalem in our reading from the psalms.
I read an article this week called “They’re Not Coming Back: The Religiously Unaffiliated in the Post Religious Era.” Which reminds me of the book title from the ‘90s all young single women read called “He’s Just Not that Into You.” They’re not coming back. The article was all about how the millennials, the biggest baby boom in American history who are now well into adulthood at age 18-38, and famously unaffiliated with faith traditions, are never coming back to church. 66 percent in the survey cited in this article claim that “religion causes more problems in society than it solves.” The article said, in a nutshell, to give up trying to woo these millennials, you out of touch old people. He’s just not that into you.
I read these articles every day and it’s so demoralizing for a pastor. My husband is a millennial, and I got him to come to church this morning! Who else is a millennial in the congregation today? Ha. Take that, mean articles.
St. Paul says to Timothy: “I am reminded of the sincerity of your faith; a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and now, I’m sure, lives in you.”
According to the latest pew studies, almost half of our adult children are no longer affiliated with the faith of their parents. Of adults who leave the church altogether, reasons cited are rarely a lack of belief, or atheism. Instead, reasons cited include: too many Christians doing unchristian things, the harm done by the Christian church to the gay community, religion being a source of divisiveness instead of unity. In other words, Christianity is no longer turning the world upside down—it has become the religion of the establishment used to oppress and harm. And after years of being the dominant culture, Christianity got rich, hypocritical, and boring. Leonard Ravenhill said, “If Jesus preached the same message ministers preach today, he would have never been crucified.”
Ouch. And yes.
So I think about all of us parents and grandparents and great grandparents who are trying hard to figure out if passing down this faith is really worth it. And I think to myself, “man, if we don’t think this treasure of faith is going to turn the world upside down; if we don’t feel like it’s worth suffering for, no wonder we aren’t skipping soccer practice to go to church.”
So why am I stubbornly still here, even though so many of my peers in my age group are not? Why do I desire to pass this faith down to my children?
My answer is BECAUSE THE TREASURE IS STILL THERE, and still worthy of being guarded.
The other day, I sat down and wrote my daughter an epistle of my own about why this old faith still matters and is worth handing down. I wrote this for all of you who sometimes wonder if this faith is true enough to guard, or still has any wisdom for any of us. I wrote this for all of you who wonder if this faith is still capable of turning the world upside down, or if it should.
I’m sure that you think it is strange that I am raising you in a rather old fashioned tradition here in 2016, as a preacher’s kid no less. I’m sure you wonder sometimes why it is important that you come to this place with its hard seats, and its old music, its words from a text that are hard to understand, and its sometimes boring preacher, as you are quick to remind me.
I know that not all of your friends have to do this on Sunday. And I know that you believe as I do that there isn’t just one truth about God. I know that you aren’t always sure that there is a God at all. You always tell me that you have no proof for God’s existence, but you know that Santa Claus must be real because your parents would definitely never give you an American Girl doll.
But here’s my proof of God’s existence, and all the proof I need: you were born. You are here. And I am here, and we are here together. And we need each other and God because this world we live in has no end to its majesty. And it has no end to its suffering.
Christianity is one way that I have found to excavate beauty from brokenness, as Marlon Hall says. And this is one of the most important tasks of living on this earth.
So I am raising you in this faith tradition of your ancestors, this sincere faith that lived in your parents and grand parents and great grandparents simply because it is one way that I have found to understand a truth about God in the small amount of time I have on this earth.
The treasure of this faith is simply and not so simply this:
God loves all people, even that kid who teased you for all of third grade until you cried.
God loves all people, even you, and your mother and father and sister and brother and step mother and step father, despite all the mistakes they have made and have yet to make.
God loves all people. This is the hardest truth of the Gospel, and the thing that will save you. It’s the treasure that I want you to guard because this treasure is better than your weekly allowance or any American Girl doll.
This treasure of faith rekindles the gift you have to help the kid on the playground who is being teased for being different. Your faith should wake this up inside of you.
This treasure of faith rekindles the gift you have to know you are not the only person in the world who matters. Those over 100 children that were killed in Aleppo this weekend in bombings and live in a daily nightmare matter just as much as you do. And your faith should wake this up inside of you.
This treasure rekindles the gift you have to know that black children who are shot down in the street for holding a bee bee gun or “looking suspicious” matter just as much as you do. And your faith should wake this up inside of you.
And I bring you here to this old church because you deserve to be in a place where you are told about the love of God every day, and shown it. I bring you here because you deserve better than what the consumer culture has to offer you. You deserve to be awakened out of your media-fed self-absorption. You deserve a sacramental theology. You deserve to sing the songs of the saints. You deserve to learn and tell this Christian story as your own, because it is, whether you reject it or not.
At its best, this place can help to rekindle the light of God inside of you. The Church is the only place I know where a billionaire drinks from the same cup as a homeless man. That’s what the love of God affords us, and that’s the deepest treasure there is.
It’s world communion today, the day that Christians around the world, whether they live in great comfort or great poverty, whether they are young or old, whether they believe a little or a lot, will belly up to the same table to be reminded of God’s love for the whole world. The words of institution are recited in thousands of different languages, and songs of praise are sung, or played on the organ, or whispered so that the powers that seek to oppress their faith cannot arrest them. But the word carry the same reminder.
This meal is our reminder that God has room for all of us—that the treasure of our faith is worth guarding. In this sacrament we are guarding together, in worldwide communion, a faith that can still turn the world upside down, a faith still worth dying for. A faith that reminds us that God has love for all of us. May it be so.
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.