2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Once upon a time, a young couple got the news that they were expecting their first child. They welcomed this news with enthusiasm and open hearts. Then, they set about doing all the things new parents do, getting the house ready, thinking about names, wondering what the child would be like, and all the rest.
After the appropriate time, they told their families, who were equally joyous. The expectant grandparents were beaming with joy. They told their friends about the coming child and all the ways they would spoil this, their first. They, too, set about doing all the things one does to prepare for the birth of a child. They put child safety locks on their cabinets, moved all the junk out of the spare room to make way for a crib, and prepared themselves mentally and spiritually for what was ahead.
The day finally came, and the baby was born. The baby was healthy, and all was right with the world. The new parents brought their baby home and began to care for the child. All the everyday anxieties started. Am I doing this right and the rest? 3 am feedings, numerous diaper changes. 6 am feeding and more diaper changes. It was a somewhat normal life situation.
After several months, the parents and grandparents started to talk about having the child baptized. But, unfortunately, the young couple was not much for attending church like most young folx these days. Finally, however, the parents decided that they would baptize the child and decided to approach the church where the child’s mother was baptized.
The church was not far from where they lived, and the child’s mother had fond memories of growing up there and the love she felt from the community. So, they started to attend worship on Sundays. As anyone with a newborn knows, their lives are unpredictable, so regular attendance at anything can be challenging. Their attendance was sporadic at best. But they came when they could.
They decided to approach the minister about the baptism. They called the church and made an appointment. They arranged for a sitter to avoid being distracted during their meeting. They came to the minister’s office at the appointed time and began discussing the process of having their child baptized and formally welcomed into the family of God.
The minister shared what baptism is all about and asked questions to get to know the couple, as he was unfamiliar with them. After about an hour, the minister said that, unfortunately, he would not be able to baptize the child.
The minister told them that since they were not married and living together, they were sinners in the eyes of God. He said that if they got married, everything would be ok, and they could arrange to have the child baptized, but if they remained unmarried, there would be no baptism.
As one would imagine, the young couple was devastated. They had talked about getting married, but when they found out the child was coming, they turned all their attention to preparing for the birth. All their desires and wants took a back seat as their focus shifted away from themselves and onto this child coming into their lives. They had done everything right, but this minister told them that because they did not have a “piece of paper,” their child was not welcome into the family of God.
In the letter of Paul to Timothy that we heard read this morning, Paul warns Timothy to beware of distractions and to hold on to what you were taught. A distraction is a thing that prevents someone from giving full attention to something else, and we encounter them every day in our lives.
Paul tells Timothy that “all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” The key word in that sentence is “inspired.”
As I have said before, I believe, like Paul, God inspires all scripture, but God leaves the interpretation to humans. Sure, we pray for dive insight, but often, scripture is interpreted to suit a particular point of view. Some hold to the teaching in Leviticus on specific topics and believe there is no gray area. Still, when it comes to the words of Jesus about loving everyone, they claim there is nuance and that everyone does not mean everyone.
Some would instead focus on the wrathful, smiting God rather than the God that sent his only Son to show us a different way and path to follow. Instead, they would focus on some kingdom that will supposedly come rather than bringing that kingdom here and helping those who have less. Yes, God-inspired scripture, but man has screwed it up.
For Christians and United Methodists, in particular, scripture is the core of what we believe. When in doubt, check it out. All the doctrines, those fundamental truths of our belief, have a basis in scripture. Much of the Reformation was about getting back to the basics of scripture. The fight to publish the Bible in the people’s language was so that people could read for themselves and, with assistance, understand those things written there. I would venture to say that the Bible is the most studied and least understood book ever published, but there it is.
But John Wesley knew there was more.
Wesley was trained as a priest in the Anglican Church and, as such, grounded in the Anglican Theological Tradition. That tradition was based on the idea that scripture, tradition, and reason were what helped the stool of theological understanding stay upright.
Scripture was the basis; when interpreting scripture, one needs to look back through the lens of time and ask what the church thought about this and how it has been applied. But one cannot leave it there; one needs to use one’s mind and knowledge and learn to understand what is being said. Yes, there are some concrete, irrefutable beliefs of Christianity, but what do they mean?
Wesley believed that although a three-legged stool was solid and stable, a four-legged one was better, so to scripture, tradition, and reason, Wesley added experience the lived experience of the individual and the lived experience of the church. It is that experience that makes the difference. We know what it means and what the church has thought and taught about, but how do we experience it?
The challenge facing the church today has nothing to do with old buildings and fewer people in the seats; the challenge is how do we take something more than 2,000 years old and make it relevant in a world constantly telling us to find the answers somewhere else. We have those itchy ears Paul was warning about, and we are looking for a way to scratch that itch.
But none of this is possible without grace.
I am often asked where my inspiration comes from when writing sermons. Of course, inspiration comes from the Holy Spirit, but it usually comes most unusually. Sometimes I am driving, walking, or going about the everyday tasks of life. Sometimes they are subtle, and other times it’s as if I have been hit over the head.
As you know, Nicky and I are renovating a cottage we bought last spring. If you like, you can follow our progress on our YouTube channel. Anyway, I digress. The cottage was built in the 1870s and is starting to show its age. Yesterday, my father-in-law and I were trimming out the windows on the outside of the house. There is no straight line anywhere to be found on this house, so we threw the level out long ago. We primarily sight by eye, but this can leave little gaps and whatnot.
The final step is to run a bead of caulking along the joints. This accomplishes two things; 1. It seals the joint and keeps the moisture out, thus preserving the wood longer, and 2. It covers all those gaps and other imperfections.
It hit me yesterday; that is precisely what grace does. We have no straight lines, and let’s face it, some of us are showing our age, but grace comes along, fills in all those gaps and holes, preserves us, and saves us, if you will. But unlike the caulking I had to purchase, grace is a gift freely given by God to all creation.
Wherever God is present, there is grace! Grace brought creation into existence. Grace birthed human beings, bestowed on us the divine image, redeemed us in Jesus Christ, and is ever-transforming the whole creation into the realm of God’s reign of compassion, justice, generosity, and peace.
Our only job is to remind people of that grace and show that grace through how we live as individuals and treat others as a community.
The minister I spoke of earlier, a United Methodist minister, by the way, did the exact opposite. He removed grace and told this young couple there was no room in the inn for them. He pulled the leg of the stool known as reason and, in so doing, sent this young couple away empty-handed.
The good news is you cannot stop grace. Grace goes where grace wants, and not long after this story became known, ministers, including me, were lining up to baptize the child and welcome the child and its parents into the arms of love through community.
Siblings, the world, and some parts of the church want us to believe God is not about love. The world makes our ears itch with its message that we must follow other ways. Paul is telling Timothy and us that God provides that way through grace that is freely given to all.
We have the option to show grace every day. Let us be the reason someone believes God loves them rather than the reason they feel God does not.