An intense few weeks of lecturing, preaching, and giving presentations peaked with yesterday’s sermon at St Mary’s. I won’t have another extracurricular commitment until the weekend after next, at the Christian New Media conference (I’m appearing in one of the Theology sections, “Homo Connectivus,” but they astutely reckon that my name might scare registrants away, so I’ll be a surprise to the delegates). That’s Saturday and Monday, and then I’ll have another lull until November.
Last week being exceptionally busy, I was experiencing a degree of frustration with sermon-writing. Eventually I decided that since this was one of the Sundays for which I’d written a lectionary help over at Working Preacher, I would take my own advice and work from the interpretive points in my essay. (I’ll paste the sermon into the “More” part of the post.) I think it worked out pretty well. In a more leisurely week, there are texts I’d have wanted to weave into the exposition, and I’d have liked to give it a thorough once-over, the kind that comes between the early service and the later service — but since we only have one main service at the cathedral, the first go-round was all we got.
3 October, 2010
St Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow
2 Tim 1:1-14/Lk 17:5-10
Guard the good treasure entrusted to you,
with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
If you can’t count on coming up with great last words on your deathbed, you have two options. Well, three options: you could always simply rely on being remembered for your love and charity, and just pass up the “last words” option. If you do feel the urgency of a literary legacy, though, two options yet remain unto you. On one hand, you can write out your own nearly-last words, and make sure they get into the hands of someone you trust to preserve them, perhaps pass them around among your friends; or you can count on somebody else to come up with some great last words that you should have said, words that you’d be proud to have said, and let them pass around their version of your last words.
Scholars argue over whether St Paul himself wrote the letter we heard this morning, or whether someone else helped St Paul out by supplying the last words he might have written — but either way, these stand in the Bible as St Paul’s legacy, his last advice to Timothy. The letter depicts Paul as chained like a criminal for the sake of the Gospel, anticipating his own death (“I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come”). Unsure of whether he’ll have another chance to communicate with his protégé, the Paul of our epistle lesson has an urgent reminder for Timothy: the God of grace entrusted us with the treasure of the assurance that we have been called into a life stronger than death, a faith and love that have already torn through the boundary of mortality itself and opened a way for all God’s people to share the joy of life in Jesus. “You have to remember this, Timothy, and make sure everyone understands. Don’t let anything keep you from spreading this word — not embarrassment, not suffering, not hostility.” In this morning’s epistle, the New Testament closes the story of the Apostle Paul’s career and leaves his last instructions to Timothy and, by extension, to us. We can even read this letter as a clever example of what Paul tells Timothy to do; although Paul died two thousand years ago (give or take), this letter has never stopped proclaiming the blessed assurance that no matter how much or how little we seem to have accomplished on behalf of God, God embraces us and includes us among Paul and Timothy and all the saints and scoundrels in an imperishable communion.
In the reading of the epistle this morning, Paul speaks to us in Robyn’s voice. She addresses us this morning, reminding us that we, like Paul, have ancestors who worshipped God with a clear conscience. We, like Timothy, have forebears who handed this faith down to us. Timothy owes his upbringing to his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice (whom we can see in the window yonder); we owe our ancestry in faith, distant centuries ago, to Paul and Timothy and Mary Magdalene, to Basil the Great and his brilliant sister Macrina, to Thomas Aquinas and Catherine of Siena, to Margaret of Scotland and Thomas Cranmer, and more recently to kind souls such as Mrs Sharpe (who donated the “Eunice and Timothy” window to the cathedral), to the very teachers and counsellors who helped us to find our own way nearer to God. They may be close to our hearts, as my Nanny Harkness (who, a half-century ago, taught me the Lord’s Prayer and gave me this very Bible), or they may have written a book, composed a song, painted a canvas, designed a building that struck sparks in the kindling of our spirit. We many know their names, or we may have forgotten, or may never have known. We are their children; we are their heirs; we are a gift they prepared for God.
Paul unwraps that gift for us. The gift we accept from Eunice and Lois and Timothy, from Paul and Catherine and Mrs Clarke, contains all joy, all freedom, and all grace. Brilliant in the joyous colours of stained glass, luminous as the understanding of God’s grace, liberating us with the unshakeable certainty that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
That gift, unlike any earthly gift, comes with absolutely no strings. God does not accompany that gift with a voluminous End User License Agreement in fifty-seven pages of fine print that you can’t possibly read, that you couldn’t live up to even if you read it, that stupefies you into agreeing to terms that mean nothing whatever to you. This pure gift comes unreservedly to those who yearn for it; the only way to forfeit the gift is utterly, resolutely, to refuse it — and even that is harder to do than it sounds. When we accept God’s grace, that grace comes into our hearts and sticks; and when we receive that gift, we guard it best by sharing it with others. We can’t help it; grace imprisoned as a private possession is no longer grace but a curse, a curse we invoke on ourselves. We can no more hold onto grace for ourselves than we can retain love only for ourselves. Grace shared, love given, joy kindled in the hearts around us, these are the treasure; giving away, sharing, passing along, these guard the treasure of grace.
The church inherits grace and passes grace along; that means us, us all, from choir to greeters to donors to pew-sitters to curious visitors. Even the clergy! We have come into the presence of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of power and love poured out inexhaustibly from the communion that vivifies and strengthens us. We pass that grace along in the laying-on of hands, when we clasp one another and say, “The peace of Christ be with you.” We share that grace when we hold the arm of a grief-haunted friend and say nothing at all. We give away grace when we make a sign of the cross on the forehead of one of God’s loved ones and say, “The blessing of God Almighty, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be with you now and always.” We set grace ablaze in the touch of lovers; in these and innumerable other ways, we rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of our hands.
No strings at all — I said it before, and it must be true, or this whole vast procession of gold and marble and harmony and reverence amounts to nothing, nothing at all but a hollow self-deception perpetrated by cozy congregations to shore up their desperate insecurities. If there subsists even the faintest shred of a quid pro quo between us and God, we are not dealing with the God who set Israel free, not with the God who raised Jesus from death, but from a domesticated idol whom we presume to call “God” just as we might name a budgie “Jehovah.” No strings, or no grace.
“No strings,” say I, but. . . . No strings, but nonetheless grace imprints us with an inescapable sense that all the joy, the peace, the strength, the truth that we have received smoulders, seethes in our hearts until we find some way to hand it down. The fires that warm each soul within these walls were kindled hundreds, thousands of years ago. When an ageing nomadic Chaldean and his wife and their household left home and set out for a land that God would show them; when a foster child from the Pharaoh’s house took off his sandals before a bush that burned but was not consumed; when the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion and returned the people of Judah, rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem, and kept the sacred candelabra alight; when a young bride-to-be received the daunting news that she was already with child, and she said Yes!; when we offer to friend or stranger the grace that has overtaken, enfolded, sustained and raised us to imperishable life — that is our treasure, that is the gospel, that is the greatest of all possible great last words, that is the fire that glows from John o’ Groats to Whithorn, from the Royal Mile to the Iona’s Isle, a holy fire that we have inherited from generations before us, and that we keep alive by sharing it. Guard that good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us — guard the good treasure, but by all means pass it on, in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.