Sermon: “Honest Spirit”

October 2, 2016: Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Lamentations 3:19-26
2 Timothy 1:1-14

We tend to think of faith in the New Testament as something that springs up new for most of the people in it, as if everyone was like the Ethiopian who was baptized by the apostle Philip, or the centurion Cornelius who was baptized by Peter. Timothy’s faith, however, came to him from previous generations, and not from his friend and mentor, the apostle Paul. His grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice had a deep faith. It was, of course, the faith of Israel, the one in which they’d been raised, and they passed it on to Timothy. When the good news of Jesus’ teaching, death, and resurrection came, it was Eunice who adopted it, and she gave that gift, too, to her son, Timothy (I assume that she gave it to her mother, Lois, as well).

Faith, for Timothy, came as a gift. A gift from his grandmother. A renewed gift from his mother. A strengthened gift from Paul, and from the Christian church that raised Timothy to leadership. Faith came as a gift from all of these, and more: faith came as a gift from God.

Faith changed Timothy, as Paul urged him here to remember: It gave him a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. Each of us, in accepting the faith of Jesus, accepts change. Faith reshapes us, and we also reshape faith within us. Each one of us makes the Christian faith our own. Lois did. Eunice did. Timothy did. Paul certainly did. I do. You do.

Making the faith our own is to make the relationship with God our own. Lively, or quiet. Filled with argument, or with calm acceptance. Thirsty for knowledge, or thirsty for love. Demanding, or refreshing. For each one of us, our faith is unique.

Yet there are parallels. Paul urged Timothy to courage when he told him not to be ashamed of the gospel. “Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities,” said Winston Churchill, “because it is the quality which guarantees all others.” While I’m reluctant to debate with Winston Churchill (partially because even though he’s passed away I suspect he’s still better at it than I am), I’m not sure that courage guarantees other virtues. I’ve seen courage do some pretty horrible things.

Without courage, however, other virtues rarely find expression when times are difficult; when the chips are down.

I’m more interested, however, in Paul’s willingness to summon Timothy to join with him in suffering for the gospel, not because of the suffering itself, but because of the honesty. Writing from prison, Paul doesn’t put on a show for his friend and protégé. He could have done so. He could have said, “I’m in prison, but I’m fine. Everything is going well. Don’t worry about me.”

But he doesn’t do that. He tells him that it hurts. He tells him that he, Paul, has to endure what’s happening. He tells him that the course he, Timothy, is on is one that could easily lead to suffering.

“You’ve been given this faith,” says Paul. “It’s a precious gift. But you need to know that it comes with a price. I’m paying it now. You may find yourself paying it later.”

He summoned Timothy to a courageous spirit, but he brought him an honest spirit.

The United Church of Christ has been making signs. I mean, literal signs, that people can look at and read and think about and come to terms with. Sue has been showing you some of them before service begins. They tend to be on the theme of the one outside our door, “E como mai,” “You are welcome.” And that’s true.

But with an honest spirit, I need to tell you that you’re welcome, but it isn’t free. It’s not about your money, mostly. It’s about your soul.

I want your soul.

Well, not really.

I want it to be fully your soul, and fully your soul, I believe, means a soul open to the love of God. A soul with a growing faith. A soul that gives time to work and play, to study and learning, to prayer and renewal, to giving and sharing, to worship and service. Here’s the thing: I don’t want your soul for an hour on Sunday morning. I want it – I want you to have it full to overflowing – every day of the week.

Now that should scare you. Just look where his faith brought Paul.

Mary Luti, whose honest spirit is a lamp for my feet, wrote recently that “Suffering kills faith as often as it strengthens it.”

“Some suffering people feel uplifted by God,” she said. “Others succumb under the weight of God. For some, faith confirms. For others, it defrauds.”

My own faith was given to me by many people. It was substantially re-formed and tested by my mother’s death from cancer over 30 years ago. I was in my sophomore year of college, and that spring I made two abrupt trips home from school. The first was to see her in the hospital, after the cancer struck her brain one night, and left her bedridden and struggling to communicate. The second trip came just a few weeks later, when it was time to weep at her funeral.

At that time, my faith held me and carried me. As friends and family gathered around to support me, and to support each other, I had a sure sense of the presence of God. I suffered, but in my faith I endured.

But then there was another circumstance: my divorce not quite ten years ago. I don’t talk about it much, partially because it’s still painful, and partially because it’s not just my story to tell. That story belongs to others as well.

Here’s one piece that is mine: My faith did not sustain me through the divorce. I felt very alone through that experience, as alone as I’ve ever felt. Instead, I sustained my faith. As I had to shed many hopes and plans and assumptions – plenty of assumptions – I decided that I’d keep my faith.

In a world filled with change, the most precious thing we can offer one another, the precious gift that Paul extended to Timothy, is an honest spirit. To say, “I don’t understand” when you don’t understand. To say, “This is how I feel,” especially when how you feel is not what somebody else expects you to feel. To say, “This is what hurts,” especially when you’ve been told not to show it.

To say, “This is hard,” even when you’re making it look easy.

World Communion Sunday is an honest moment on the Christian calendar. It comes from one Presbyterian Church in 1930. Let there be one Sunday a year, said the Rev. Hugh Thomson Kerr of Shadyside Presbyterian Church, when all Christians share in the Lord’s Supper.

The fact that we designate one Sunday a year to share communion together is a witness to the division of the Church, an honest statement that we are separated where we should be united. Yet it is also an honest witness to the future we envision, the church we hope and pray for.

So let us come to this honest table with our honest spirits, in our sorrows and our joys, and with our visions of a better day, and of better ways. We’re not there yet: but we’re moving. Let this honest table give our honest spirits honest strength for our honest journeys.


The illustration of Eunice and Timothy is “The Early Days of Timothy” by English artist Henry Lejeune, painted between 1870 and 1880.

Categories Sermons | Tags: , | Posted on October 2, 2016

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  1. by Timothy Cross

    On November 12, 2016

    Any idea where I can get a copy of the painting of the original Timothy? Do you know where the painting is located. Many thanks and best wishes, Timothy C.

  2. by holycrosshilo

    On November 20, 2016

    Hi! That painting is here on Wikimedia Commons. The listing there doesn’t indicate where the original painting can be found.

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