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Pentecost 21 Sermon 2010
Jim Campbell

Today’s readings give us a theme about persistence, both by God and by those who believe and follow God in faith.

We’ve been reading as the Gospel all of this Pentecost season these very difficult passages from the Book of Luke.  In our church calendar tomorrow is actually the Feast Day of St. Luke, the Evangelist. 

Today Luke gave us yet another confusing reading, another parable that could be titled, “The Persistent Widow and the Unjust Judge”.  I found a really interesting commentary on this parable from a book called, “Sundays into Silence, A Pathway to Life”, by Gerry Pierse.  My next comments are based on his commentary:

This parable tells about an unjust judge who had neither fear of God nor respect for people. In the same town there was a widow who kept on coming to him saying, “I want justice from you against my enemy!” For a long time he refused but at last he said to himself, “maybe I have neither fear of God nor respect for people, but since she keeps on pestering me I must give this widow her just rights, or she will persist in coming and worrying me to death.”  So he gives in to her demands.

The normal way this parable is looked at is this:  As the unjust judge finally heard and helped the widow because of her persistence, so too God will hear and help us if we persist in our requests.

It seems strangely like this statement is identifying God with the unjust judge, someone who had no concern for justice?  It also seems strange to promote an understanding that our prayers can be answered because we nag God into action, no matter what we ask for?  (Whenever I hear or see something that talks about many prayers to God, I cannot help but think of the movie “Bruce Almighty” and the scene where Bruce is sitting in for God with his e-mail account filling up with all the prayers from the world.)

Actually, I grew up to the teaching of an angry and stern God, so this view of a hard-hearted judge and God totally resonates with me.  As a kid I could totally believe God would finally let me finally have my way, only after getting real frustrated with me for bothering him so much asking for something.  However, looking at the many Bible stories we have read, we know that God identifies most frequently with the widow and the orphan.  So, maybe we should turn this parable upside-down and interpret it another way.

Maybe us people in the world are the unjust judges who neither fear God nor respect each other.  We are dominated by our egos and generally look for what is in it for us.  We are really stubborn as self seekers.  But God is persistent in His love for us.  It is God who wears us down, like the widow, by persistently pursuing us.  Eventually, we give in and let God enter our lives and guide us to do the right thing. In this view we see God as persistent in trying to break down our defenses.  We see prayer as allowing this pursuing God to enter our lives and challenge us to change our self destructive behavior.  To pray continually then and to never lose heart is just to be in an attitude of openness.  It is having no predetermined demands to make on God but to be continually ready, alert, and listening to the demands that God may be making on us.  

Now, on to another reading from today--the 2nd reading from the 2nd letter to Timothy.  We’ve actually had 5 weeks in a row of readings from these letters to Timothy, and we’ll have two more of these before we move on to other letters from Paul to other NT era churches.  The second readings for Lectionary Year C, which we’re doing this year, are semi-continuous selections, chosen mainly from Galatians, Colossians, 1st and 2nd Timothy, and 2nd Thessalonians.  Right now, we’re in the middle of these readings from 1st and 2nd Timothy.

Who was this Timothy, written to in these letters?  From reading the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 16, we find that Timothy was the son of a Jewish mother, who had become a Christian believer, and of a Greek father. Timothy's home was in Lystra in the Roman province of Galatia in what is now Turkey. He was well spoken of by the Christians in Lystra and the neighboring city of Iconium.  When Paul revisited the church in Lystra on his second missionary journey, he wanted this young man of sincere faith, Timothy, to accompany him on his mission travels as his co-worker.  In his letters Paul wrote of Timothy with love and respect.  

Paul said Timothy had a genuine spirit like his own. He said Timothy was a co-worker who was concerned about the welfare of the Christians and their churches, who sought the interests of Christ Jesus, and who was of proven worth in furthering the gospel like a child serving his father.  

Timothy was with Paul during much of Paul's second and third missionary journeys.  Six of Paul's letters bear Timothy's name with Paul's in the opening greeting--2 Corinthians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, and Philemon.

At the end of Paul's third missionary journey Timothy was there in Jerusalem when Paul was taken into Roman custody. Timothy was also with Paul during Paul's first imprisonment in Rome and when Paul wrote from there his prison epistles to the Colossians, Ephesians, Philippians, and to Philemon. After Paul was released from his imprisonment in Rome, Paul left Timothy in charge of the church of Ephesus.  It appears Paul wrote his First Letter to Timothy in Ephesus in the fall of A.D. 63.

The letters of 1st Timothy, 2nd Timothy and Titus are known as the Pastoral Epistles because they address the needs and responsibilities of the leaders of Christian communities.  2nd Timothy is the most personal of the Pastorals: most of it is directed specifically to Timothy, encouraging him in every way in his work in Ephesus.

In today’s letter, Timothy is urged to continue in what he has learned and firmly believes, knowing who taught him and how from childhood he has known of the sacred writings that instructed him.  Timothy is reminded 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.  For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.”

In the verses just before this reading, Timothy was acknowledged as a true follower of Paul, both in his teaching and conduct.  The commentaries I read over and over talked about other false Christian teachings at that time, and that Timothy was being told to stay true to the Holy Scriptures and not get mixed in with all the false teachers.  What Timothy would have available to him as “the sacred writings” at that time, would have been the Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible of the Jews), and the teachings and letters of Paul and others about the Gospel of Jesus, because the New Testament would not have been fully written and canonized yet (not for 3 more centuries!).

I think the message for us today is that we, like Timothy, are to focus our faith using the “scriptures” we have now.  What are these? The Bible--our Episcopal Church provides a list of authorized versions to use in our worship services, and this list covers all of those Bible versions you mostly have used.  All are reasonable translations that help you to understand what the Bible has to say.  There are also many good commentaries and other books written about the Bible and the Christian faith to help us.  Persistently, we are to read and interpret the Bible, using these other writings carefully, and stay true to the message of God’s grace and love, and the salvation message of Jesus Christ.  We are not to get swayed by other messages being put out there by so-called Christians—today’s “false teachers”:

  • those who preach a “Prosperity Gospel”—that God provides material prosperity for those he favors, or
  • that being Christian is a simple thing—just follow the Bible literally, or
  • that faith is based on just following the Ten Commandments, or by following someone’s seven steps to success in life, or
  • blindly following a Christian leader or their ministry (no matter what that leader says or does!), especially, one that relentlessly says it is all about giving—your money to their ministry!

Paul also mentioned the “sound doctrine” of the Church.  Is this talking about the traditions of the church, and does that mean upholding the church’s traditions to the point where, “We cannot change--we have always done it this way!”  I think not!  I think the actual message here is that it is not about being able to recite a catechism or the Creed by heart, or be able to explain the doctrine of the Trinity.  It’s not about being overly obsessed in how the church is prepared for worship, or that the service is conducted perfectly in form.  The “sound doctrine” to be continued, that which had continual influence on the life of Timothy and his community, is the salvation through faith in Jesus Christ and through the work of the Holy Spirit. This faith alone defines the “tradition” to uphold. This faith makes tradition into something carved not in stone, but something living, in our hearts, active today – a living word.

The proper use of Scripture and Tradition leads us to "every good work”.  We are to: "proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching."  The kingdom we are to strive for is not a culturally or politically "Christian" society, one which has all the laws of scripture and the traditions faithfully, evenly blindly, observed --while the poor, hungry and homeless are forgotten on the streets. 

This letter tells Timothy then, and us now, "But as for you, keep it simple, for yourself and for your people.  Announce the Word, whether the time is right or wrong.  Challenge, warn and urge your people.  Accept the hard times with the good.  Be a faithful persistent servant--don’t ever quit."  For God never abandons us in this ministry.  AMEN.