Sunday, October 10, 2010

Enduring Everything

2 Timothy 2:8-19
Ordinary 28
October 10, 2010
William G. Carter

Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. The saying is sure: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him ... But God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this inscription: “The Lord knows those who are his.”

There was a picture in one of those real estate booklets that you can pick up at the supermarket. It was a beautiful home, like so many of the homes in this area. It had a generous amount of space, two fireplaces, and plenty of amenities. Given the zip code, it seemed competitively priced. But it was the realtor’s description that caught my eye: “Retreat here every evening,” it said, “in a stress-free, no hassle neighborhood.”

I had to look twice to see the address, only to confirm that no street was actually listed. I couldn’t imagine a stress-free, no-hassle neighborhood. In fact, I can’t imagine a stress-free, no-hassle home. Something is always perking in the place where I live, and I imagine that is probably the case for a good number of all of you. Yet that was somebody was trying to sell – a quiet retreat from the annoyances of everyday life, a peaceful spot where there was never any noise, never any troubles, never any hassles or stress. If somebody knows of such a place, perhaps they can share the address with the rest of us.

One thing we can say for sure: the realtor, the salesman, was not the apostle Paul. In the letter before us, Paul says he is in prison again. “I suffer hardship,” he says. “I am chained like a criminal.” It seemed like he was always running afoul of somebody or something. The New Testament accounts differ on the details, but all of them agree that Paul spent a lot of time behind bars. When he wasn’t in jail, he was often on the run. His life was met with one trouble after another.

Yet he made time to tell people that Jesus had come, to start congregations, to study and read and write letters. He preached constantly, taught the scriptures, raised money, stayed on his toes. As a direct consequence of what God commanded him to do, Paul was repeatedly getting into difficulty. He never had the luxury of a stress-free, no-hassle life. He rarely knew the blessing of a quiet retreat. Yet he kept going. He says in the text, “I am enduring everything.” How can we explain somebody like that?

Sometimes in his letters, he gets very specific. Like in his second letter to the Corinthians: “Here’s my list of woe,” he writes. “Afflictions, hardships, calamities, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger, and at least five different beatings.” It’s like he is singing the old spiritual, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.” I wonder if, in fact, Paul invented that old spiritual.

It’s enough to make a sane person say, “Paul, take it easy. Catch your breath. Take a vacation. There’s no reason to put yourself into the ground.” Certainly we go through tough patches – all of us do. But for the apostle Paul, it never seemed to let up.

I wonder if he was one of those people who always need to have some kind of crisis going on. Maybe you know the type. Some of them are adrenaline junkies. Some of them are so accustomed to crisis that if they don't have a current emergency, they don't know what to do. They might even stir something up in order to feel alive. I think of my friend Lindsey in New Jersey. Something was always going on. Cash was always running low. Her mother gave her grief. The landlord was a pain in the neck. Her boss gave her trouble.

One day she applied for a new job with more benefits, better hours, and a higher salary. To her complete surprise, she got the job. Her first response was, "I don't know what to do. I'm expecting the other shoe to drop." Well, the shoe never dropped. She started to worry it would. She gave herself an ulcer waiting for problems that never actually came. In time, she made a ruckus at work. They let her go and she said, “See? I told you it wasn’t going to work out.”

All through Paul’s letters, he talks about his troubles. And then, there’s Luke, the main historian of the New Testament. In book of Acts, Luke tells a lot of Paul’s troubles too. The stress-free, no-hassle American church doesn’t know what to do with this old jailbird. He’s not very successful. He doesn’t have a television ministry. He doesn’t have a sanctuary with 25,000 people in the pews. At best, he has a couple of shirts with wide stripes and a number of wounds.

It’s enough to wonder how a guy like that can endure. How does he keep going? How does he stay at it? How does he keep his hope going?

Maybe it’s a personality trait. There are some people who are weathered. They have been staying at it for so long, that’s all they know how to do. I was talking to my grandmother yesterday morning. She was asking about last Sunday’s party here at our church. She said, “I’m amazed those people have put up with you for so long.” I said, “Grandma, suffering produces character.”

“Besides,” I said, “you are 96 years old. You have been putting up with me a lot longer than they have.” She said, “Yes, I have; I guess I’m stubborn.” She paused and then she said, “It’s a family trait.” Indeed it is.

Sometimes you stay at it because that is what you have to do. If money is tight, you don’t spend it. If love is painful, you don’t waste it. If illness threatens, you fight it. Sheer stubbornness gets a lot of people through a lot of things. It’s one of those endearing traits I’ve learned to love in the natives of northeastern Pennsylvania. Many of the transplants come in late and leave early. But the people who have lived in this region all their lives have learned to endure. The soil is rocky. The sunlight is limited. The winters are long. But by gum, they are going to hang in there. (That’s one of the reasons I married a woman from Shickshinny.)

For some people, endurance is a matter of habit. It’s what they know. If the New Testament tells us half of what the apostle Paul had to endure, it is obvious that he had accumulated experience in simply getting through things.

He had plenty of opportunity to rate the beds in the various prisons where he stayed. He had one-star accommodations most of the time. The beds were hard in Philippi, but an earthquake came at an opportune time. In Caesarea, a governor wanted Paul to give him a bribe, but the centurion was kind-hearted. In Ephesus, there was a riot that almost got him killed, but he befriended a runaway slave and led him to confess Christ. In one troubled situation after another, he simply stayed at it. And he wanted Timothy to stay at it, too.

The brief letter we hear today gives us some insight into the troubles in Timothy’s church. There were some mouthy people who loved to dispute anything that Timothy said. They were “wrangling over words,” bickering over opinions, letting the sulphuric acid of their criticism eat away at one another’s love. Paul says a little later in the text, “Have nothing to do with stupid and senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels.”

In Timothy’s church, the primary way that people hurt one another was through their words. They said nasty things. They told lies. They made up heresies. And they gossiped. Paul said, “Timothy, avoid all of that! All that chatter is like gangrene, eating away at the Body of Christ. It will kill all of you, so cut it out!”

Paul even names two of the resident wise guys, Hymenaeus and Philetus. There they are, now permanently named in scripture as two of the fellows who lied about Jesus. I wonder how their great-grandchildren felt about that, to open their Bibles someday and see their forebears’ names permanently inscribed. But Paul had to take a stand, and he tells us why: “they are upsetting the faith of some people.”

You know, that’s why Paul was willing to put up with all of the nonsense. That’s what he wants to impart to young Timothy – that you “do your best to present yourself to God,” for God’s approval alone, and you work hard, no matter what comes, so that people might claim the gift of “salvation that is in Christ Jesus.” If it kills you, well, remember that it killed Jesus. This prompts Paul to remember what the church has said from the beginning: “If we have died with him, we will also live with him; and if we endure, we will also reign with him.”

Every day, there is so much that all of us have to endure. Some people among us today are carrying burdens that are really, really heavy. Some need support, others are still figuring out what they need. Some of them are just plain durable pack mules – load it on, and they will keep carrying it. Others simply want their privacy and their dignity to stay intact; they will not be helped by corrosive gossip behind their backs.

Whatever our need, today we take our inspiration from the apostle Paul. “I endure everything,” he confesses. “I endure everything for the sake of God’s chosen ones, so that they might know the glory of God shines in our crucified Savior.” In a single one-liner, Paul synthesizes all that can be said of God’s covenantal faith: “The Lord knows those who are his.” That is why we endure: so that the glory of a faithful God can shine its saving light on everything and everybody who belongs to God.

That reminds me of a wonderful lyric by Leonard Cohen:

Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything / That's how the light gets in. (“Anthem”)

There's a minister I know by the name of Tom. He served a church near Utica, NY, and got along with everybody, everybody except for a man named Howard. If Tom met Howard at the door and said, "Good morning,” Howard would say, "What's so good about it?" If Tom said, “Nice day,” Howard replied, “That’s what you think.” If Tom suggested something new, Howard would say, "We've never done it that way before," and the leaders would vote it down. Tom felt opposed at every point, bothered at every opportunity, annoyed by one petty complaint after another.

Tom had a terrible time with the man. His only relief came by taking his friends out to lunch, and telling them how badly Howard behaved. "Wow!" they said to him. "You're really strong to put up with him." It made Tom feel better. He wore his bruised pride like a badge.

One weekend Howard went into the hospital for surgery. Tom wanted to see him, but he didn't want to have to endure all the trouble of seeing him. He flipped a coin, called out "heads." It came up tails, so he pulled on his coat and went to see Howard. This day, however, the old cuss seemed rather pleasant. His speech was gentle and affectionate. He smiled at his visitor. Tom thought: "Wow! This guy must be really sick!"

At the end of that brief visit, Tom said, "Howard, let's pray." Howard nodded. It sounded like a good idea. Tom took Howard's hand, closed his eyes, and paused for a second. Later he confessed that he wanted to pray, "Lord, if this is how Howard acts when he is sick, don’t let him get better.” But the only words that formed on his lips were, "Lord, make Howard well."

Even then, just then, just as Tom started to say it, Howard spoke up. "Lord," he said, "Tom is trying to be a good Christian. He has a lot of work to do, and he has a long way to go..." (Tom groaned and thought, “Here it comes. He never gives me a break.”

But listen to what Howard prayed, “Lord, Tom is trying to be a good Christian. He has a lot of work to do, and he has a long way to go. But Lord, you keep working with both of us. Amen." Did you hear that? He prayed, “Lord, you keep working with both of us."

That's what we want, isn't it? We want God to keep working with all of us, among us, with us, in spite of us, within us, beyond us. The Lord knows those who are his, and the circle is probably bigger than we think.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

No comments:

Post a Comment