September 11, 2016

The story we tell

Proper 19CSeptember 11, 2016


I should begin with a disclaimer of brutal honesty: I don't really like using the letters of the Apostle Paul in my sermons. One, it can get kind of confusing to talk about someone with the same name as you, and two, I find the non-Pauline epistles (Hebrews, James, 1st, 2nd, 3rd John) to have a more timeless and practical message since so much of Paul's writings were to a specific congregation facing specific issues. That being said, Paul's letters to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon (which we heard last week), all called the "Pastoral Epistles," sort of redeem the rest of his writing for me. And today, they give us a really good jumping in point for a deeper understanding of who we are as people go God, as spiritual beings on an earthly journey.

I should say, too, that I will refer to the author of this letter as Paul, though most leading scholars for the past 200 years do not think that the same person who wrote Romans and 1st Corinthians wrote this letter, but someone writing under Paul's name. It was a very common practice in that period to write in the style of and publish under the name of a more well-known person.

Paul presents himself in this letter as a wise and learned teacher who has important things to teach his young protege Timothy, who has traveled a number of places with Paul. Paul left Timothy in Ephesus to tend the flock there.  Paul's letters to him are messages about how best to help others no only know Jesus, but to grow into the full-stature of Christ. Timothy is often referred to as "my child," which is not to be taken literally, but a reference to Paul being of "more riper years" than Timothy. 

Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ, knowing he will not walk this earth forever and knowing he can't be everywhere at once, is conveying some wisdom without saying, "My way is the only way to do it." And the way Paul leads into this teaching here in 1st Timothy is to praise God for calling him to this ministry, despite his ignoble shortcomings. Paul doesn't shower Timothy with platitudes or un-earned praise. He gives some raw details about who he is and how he got where he is. None of it would have happened without the grace of God, that inexplicable mystery that goes with us wherever we go.

Paul accomplishes this task by telling his own story, which he often does in his writings. This wasn't new information to people. Telling a story should resonate with each of us. Americans love a good story! We calim that we love hearing from those who went down the path before us. And despite what our grandparents may have said, no one really went to school UP HILL both ways, but every generation longs to tell its story to the next. IT's not for entertainment or even pity. As children of God, we pass along who we are through the stories we tell.

Most of us over the age of 19 or 20 can tell with vivid detail where we were 15 years ago today, on a Tuesday morning that would alter our history and the lives of everyone born after that tragic day. We all have stories of where we were when we first heard, or when we turned on the TV or the radio. I hope you can tell stories of how we as Americans of all faiths reached out to each other in love, were a little nicer to people or spoke to those whom we haven't spoken in far too long. I hope you can talk about a renewed sense of overcoming adversity and a new definition of heroism and selflessness. Yes, there were moments when American, and Christians to be sure, behaved poorly, harassing Muslims (or those they assumed were Muslim), blaming the whole religion for what happened that day. It was a behavior quickly denounced by Jewish and Christian leaders and by President Bush.

God's presence if found in the love and compassion we show each other, both friend and stranger, in the wake of such horrendous moments. As our Presiding Bishop says, "If it's not about love, then it's not about God." 

On Friday, the Washington Post highlighted one of those communities that exuded God's love in the midst of tragedy 15 years ago. Gander is a small town of about 10,000 people in Newfoundland in Canada. They found that their international airport suddenly had 38 wide bodied jets, bound for US airports but were turned away or told not to proceed when the US closed our airspace. The town didn't have the infrastructure to suddenly accommodate nearly 7,000 stranded travelers, "Plane People" as they came to be known. So the people of Gander opened their homes, and took in these stranded passengers. They didn't see a potential terror attack. They saw themselves, their own parents and children; they saw the face of God and they responded by welcoming, by receiving them with a love that flowed from their hearts. Bus drivers in the town ended their strike so they could provide transportation. Cots appeared in churches, schools, and community centers. Residents even let passengers use their cars to run errands if they needed. 

One plane load of people got bused to an even smaller nearby town called Lewisporte. Even the mayor had people in her home and was cooking huge meals for people. None of the people of Gander and Lewisporte would take a single dollar for what they had done. Something that would have made Jesus and the Apostle Paul smile, I'm sure.
One of the passengers in Lewisporte had an idea on her way home a few days later. She had been a professional fund raiser at the Ohio State University. She took pledges from her fellow passengers, and when they landed, she had $15,000 towards a scholarship fund for the high school in Lewisporte. But she wan't done (she was a professional, remember!). In a short amount of time, she had a fund of nearly $2 million, and to date, this fund has helped 228 graduates, including one who went on to be come the town's doctor. 

This anniversary provides us with a chance for reflection on the stories we will tell our children and grandchildren. Yes, it was scary. No, we didn't now what was going to happen next. But where did we see God at work in the uncertainty? Where did we see the Holy Spirit moving people to be servants to each other the way Jesus called us to be? 

The Apostle Paul's lesson for Timothy is similar for us today. We show who Jesus is, not through violent rhetoric and actions, but through acts of selflessness and caring. Love and compassion are what will win the day. What we hear from Paul next week will go a little more into that. 

Until then, how is the story you are telling through your life going to be heard by the next generation? What will they learn about their faith from yours?