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11.17.19 All Places are New Isaiah 65.17-25 Sermon Summary

The Bible is a book about God, about us, and about all creation. It says some unique things about each, and sometimes all three come together.

One of the things unique about God the Bible says has to do with creation. “I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth,” God says in Isaiah. The word in the Bible here translated “create” is used only with God as the subject. God goes on to say, “I am about to create a new Jerusalem,” which is good news for Isaiah’s audience, because Jerusalem was nearly out of hope.

For seventy years the people of Israel had experienced exile. Their temple was destroyed, and their religion permanently altered. Now they have returned, but the restoration of their society had stalled. Isaiah recounts how corruption remains, that there is wickedness and bloodshed. He reports miscarriages of justice and syncretistic worship. He notices oppression and the profaning of the Sabbath. He accuses the leaders of being blind, greedy, and drunk.

The people of Isaiah’s time had become disillusioned and cynical. God is their only hope, only God could create—or recreate—a new Jerusalem.

The first creation included a garden. It was created “out of nothing” according to Christian theology. But this creation is a new heaven, a new earth, and a new Jerusalem. It is created out of what already exists. The new Jerusalem represents a familiar place, but new. Old battles give way to something new. Traditional religion remains, but it is somehow new.

God, as only God can, is creating something new. But the symbol of it as new version of something old shows us that God includes us. God wants to create with humanity, work with humanity, not destroy and start over. God does this because God is a redeemer. We’ve seen it before most famously in the great flood when God works with Noah in a sort of recreation.

Here again in Isaiah we see it: “I am about to create a new Jerusalem, a new heaven and earth.” It is among the most beloved, compelling, and enduring visions of Scripture—finding expression again all the way in the final book of Revelation.

Do prophets see the future? They do, only as their visions are self-fulfilling. Yes, there will be a new Jerusalem in the future, but we don’t have to wait for God to do it in a distant future. Because God doesn’t do it alone; God wants to do it with us. St. Augustine is famous for describing the redemption of the world: Without God, we cannot; without us, God will not.

This is why Isaiah’s message had hope in his time. He reminded the people of his time that God must do the recreating. He saw a new Jerusalem, a concrete vision, and so did the people of his time. “I am about to create something new,” God says, “out of something old.”

What is old in your life? What is something you need to let go of? Something that needs to be redeemed? Perhaps you have some old grudges you carry around? Or old habits that are not serving you well. You might suffer under old ways of thinking, or live under the clouds of old disappointments?

It’s an important question to ask, because God is always “about to create something new,” and this Advent you may see it in your own life. Isaiah saw it. The people of his time saw it. And you can see it, too.

Jesus saw it. Jesus saw God’s new creation. He called it the Kingdom and he saw and lived it because God was alive in him. And this can be true of us also. How can we, like Jesus, live into Isaiah’s vision? It might be simpler than you think. Consider the words of Mary Eleanor Johns:

We are able to give one drink of cold water at a time. We are able to bring comfort to the poor and the wretched, one act of mercy or change at a time. One book given, one friendship claimed, one covenant of love, one can of beans, one moment of commendation, one confession of God’s presence but for the asking, one moment in which another person is humanized rather than objectified, one challenge to the set order that maintains injustice, one declaration of the evil that is hiding in plain sight, one declaration that every person is a child of God: these acts accumulate within God’s grace.

“I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth,” God promised through Isaiah. God has shown us how in Jesus, and every time we come to this Table we remember and see it again.

11.10.19 Faith in the Dark Job 19:23-27a Sermon Summary

When I was a new Christian, I avoided reading the book of Job. I’d heard of “the patience of Job,” and was told if I read it, it would necessarily cause a test of faith. But the real danger for new Christians reading Job is their inability to discern true faith from false. Job’s faith sounds shaky and his friends’ faith sounds strong. But that is wrong, and it takes some maturity to realize that.

Throughout the book, the main character Job describes his “months of emptiness” and “nights of misery.” He likens himself to a slave laboring in the sun wishing for shade, to workers who must keep waiting for payday. He speaks of long nights of tossing to and fro with no sleep. He says that worms and dirt inhabit his skin, and that just as his sores harden he breaks out again.

With all this going on, three friends show up, and after a week in silence, they begin to speak. Job curses the day he was born and wishes he had died at birth. “I am not at ease, nor am I quiet; I have no rest; but trouble comes.” (4:26)

The first friend to speak is Eliphaz the Temanite. He reminds everyone that Job had offered words of consolation in the past for others who had suffered, but chides Job for not taking his own advice. He says, “Those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same.” (4:8) And besides, he reminds everyone, it is impossible for humans to be righteous. (4:17)

But Job is compelled to speak because of three factors: The extremity of his suffering, that it is unjustified, and in light of the brevity of life. He laments to God, “What are human beings, that you make so much of them, that you set your mind on them, visit them every morning, test them every moment? Will you not look away from me for a while, let me alone so I can swallow my spit in peace?” (7:17-19)

His second friend is Bildad the Shuhite. He tells Job that God will take care of him, but only if he repents. (8:5-6) Job responds that both the just and the wicked suffer. He accuses God of being just plain mean and whispers, “I could say more but I’m afraid to.” (See chapter 9) “Yes, God has fashioned me with delight,” Job says, “but now he destroys me.” (Chapter 10)

The third friend is Zophar the Naamathite. His philosophy is like that of smoke and fire: Where there is affliction there is sin. He reminds Job that God knows him better than he knows himself, and that basically what God sees when he looks at us is that really we’re nothing but losers. When asked how he is, a popular radio host responds, “Better than I deserve.” He believes like Zophar, and knows little of the God of Jesus Christ and Job. With Zophar, he would say to Job, “Know that God exacts of you less than your guilt deserves.” (11:6) Zophar argues further that even Job’s despair proves his guilt: “The hope of the guilty is to breath their last.” (11:20)

Job understands that God is sovereign. He sees God’s sovereignty in nature and in politics. But he also sees God’s arbitrariness. “If God withholds the waters, they dry up; if he sends them out, they overwhelm the land.” (12:15) “God makes nations great, then destroys them; he enlarges nations, then leads them away.” (12:23)

Eliphaz jumps back in to warn Job that he is abandoning religion and tradition. “You are doing away with the fear of God and hindering meditation . . . The gray-haired and aged are on our side, those older than your father.” (15:4, 10)

Job responds, “I suffer whether I speak or whether I remain silent. I may as well speak.” And he goes further, “God is already against me, while you, my ‘friends,’ should be with me.” He concludes, “Why do you, like God, pursue me, never satisfied with my flesh?” (19:22)

It turns out the best comfort the three friends offered was in the first week, when they were silent. We would do well to remember this. Job says, “If you would only keep silent, that would show your smarts! I have heard your advice many times; terrible comforters are you all!” (Job 13:5; 16:2) As he is maturing, Job realizes that his friends say these things because they are afraid. (6:21) Suffering makes us afraid because we don’t have an answer for it. In the face of severe suffering, silence is preferred to pat answers. At the least and at the most, we can simply offer, “I don’t know what to say, but I am with you.”

Have you ever been in Job’s place? Maybe not to the extreme of his suffering, but many of us have felt that life is conspiring against us. Your friends or family aren’t helpful and when they try, it’s obvious they don’t understand.

Your suffering makes people uncomfortable. Some people don’t know what to say. Others simply avoid you. It’s just you and God and you’re not even sure God is on your side. It can be a pretty dark place. You rack your brain to identify the problem causing your suffering only to conclude there is no cause. Your suffering is a mystery to you.

Yet you believe God is loving and powerful and redemptive. But you’re running out of hope and it’s only a matter of time before you run out of faith. What would you do?

Here’s what Job did. “If only my words were written down,” he says, “inscribed in a book, carved on a stone. For I can protest only so long. I can cry only so many tears. I can scream only so loudly.

“But I have to register my complaint because I know truth and justice must prevail. Even if it takes longer than my faith or my life can last. Then someday, a redeemer will come, my vindicator, and take up my case and defend me, and win my acquittal, and stand upon the earth.

“After all my accusers have returned to dust my redeemer will stand upon that dust and bear witness to my innocence. And though my suffering might not be justified, my protest will be.

“And as sure as my flesh is afflicted now, so my life will be vindicated then.”

Through the centuries since Jesus, Christian readers have seen Christ as that Redeemer who comes. And when will Job see his vindication? They answer in the resurrection of the dead. This is a true and hopeful message indeed.

But Job did not think in those terms. Those terms reflect a theology found later in the Bible. So maybe Job was envisioning a future friend, one better than Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. A true friend one who would actually listen to his complaint and help him reconcile his experience with his belief. Because that is what faithful friends do. For that is how faith matures: Reconciling experience with belief.

Or maybe Job is envisioning a principle. That principle might be the triumph of God when truth, justice, and innocence will prevail. “The glory of the Lord will be revealed,” says the prophet Isaiah, “and all flesh will see it together.” All creation will rejoice. Keeping this principle in view, Job can have faith in the dark.

Job was hoping for a redeemer, for a future vindication of his suffering. Those who suffer today also hope for a redeemer. They suffer under the anxiety of poverty. They suffer in the midst of conflict. They suffer at the borderline of desperation. They suffer in the confusion of non-binary identity.

Those who so suffer have faith that their redeemer lives. Maybe you can be their redeemer. Maybe you can alleviate their suffering. Maybe you can be Jesus to them.

Job hoped and said, “in my flesh I shall see God.” Jesus came and responded,” you shall see God in my flesh.” We remember that promise as we come to the Lord’s Table and receive the Body of Christ. And we depart from his Table equipped to be the Body of Christ in the suffering world. Let us not fear suffering this week, whether our own or another’s. May we embrace suffering with faith. And may we see our redeemer, and show the redeemer’s presence to others.

10.26.19 The Witness of Weddings John 2:1-11

In the story of the wedding in Cana, Jesus is central but only by accident. At the beginning, Mary is at center stage. She is the primary invited guest. John tells us after noting her presence that “Jesus and his disciples had also been invited.”

As the celebration wears on, the host family runs out of wine. This places the celebration in jeopardy and is an extreme embarrassment to the family. It is not an auspicious way to begin a marriage.

Still in center stage, Mary tells Jesus about the deficit of wine. Jesus, not wanting to assume center stage, reminds her, “My hour has not come.” In John’s code, this is a reference to his crucifixion and resurrection.

Still, Mary thinks Jesus may be valuable beyond his crucifixion and resurrection (something the church often forgets) so she opens a window of possibility. She tells the servants to do whatever Jesus tells them to do, and she leaves center stage and watches for what Jesus will do.

What Mary does is something we all can do. Naturally each of occupies the center stage of our lives. And God is also always present. Like Mary, we can vacate the center, invite Jesus in, and watch for what he will do.

Jesus has the servants fill the water jars and begin serving the contents. All this is behind the scene. Only the servants, and we the readers, know that the water has been turned to wine. The crisis is averted. The party can go on. The embarrassment is avoided. And that could have happened with ordinary wine; but Jesus provided extra-ordinary wine.

The guests didn’t know it. The hosts didn’t know it. Only a few know that Jesus did this. But everyone received the gift Jesus provided.

And this is the nature of grace, of God’s loving disposition towards us. Whether or not we vacate the center of our lives, whether or not God is only a marginal presence, whether or not we see Jesus at work, whether or not we know God has saved us—God has provided for the party to go on.

Whenever we celebrate a wedding today God is present. But the Spirit is a polite guest, always eager but eternally patient, waiting for the invitation to take center stage and to work, even behind the scenes, to sustain what is begun in response to enthusiastic love. Throughout our covenant relationship with God, begun in baptism and sacramentally represented in marriage, we may remember God’s presence and call upon the Spirit for help.

10.27.19 Judging Not Luke 18.9-14 Sermon Summary

On this Reformation Sunday we remember that the Reformers asked key questions, or answered them, differently. One of those questions had to do with righteousness. “Does my righteousness count for anything?” The Reformation answer was, Not as merit for God’s saving grace.

Grace is grace because God gives it as a gift, not as a reward. And grace is what leads to our “justification,” which has a theologically particular definition of “being acquitted” or “not found guilty.” God graciously justifies us, declares us not guilty, not because of our righteousness but because of his free gift of grace.

While the Reformation exposed one distortion about righteousness, grace, and justification, namely “I can earn grace and be justified because I am righteous;” it also led some to another distortion: “My righteousness has no value whatsoever. Rather, I am only ‘a wretch’” (as the most beloved hymn says).

Pastoral work often falls into these two distortions. Sometimes I’m trying to convince people they are not as righteous as they think. Sometimes I’m trying to convince people they’re not as wretched as they think.

The Pharisee needs to be taught Reformation doctrine on righteousness, grace, and justification. Righteousness is good and attainable. Grace is a gift of God. Justification is God’s judgement of our lives.

The Tax-Collector doesn’t say he’s a wretch, just that he’s a sinner and that he needs God to be merciful. This is where pastoral work ends up many times. “Yes we’re sinners; but God is merciful.” That’s the gospel truth in one sentence: Yes we’re sinners; but God is merciful.

The Pharisee certainly was righteous. Paul, once a Pharisee, who understood more about God’s grace than anyone, even said “as to righteousness under the law” he was “blameless.” The Pharisee was not a thief, a rogue, an adulterer, a political collaborator, or a cheat. He fasted twice a week. He gave a tenth of his income to the church. I wish I was this righteous. Pastors would love to have more parishioners like this Pharisee!

The Pharisee was righteous. Something the Tax-Collector certainly was not. But the Pharisee was also presumptuous. He presumed that others could not be justified. And worse, he was contemptuous. Especially towards the Tax-Collector. And that is why he did not go home justified.

Justification results from grace—the free gift of God—and not from righteousness—the way we live our lives. And the Pharisee did not understand that.

What Jesus is teaching is that you can be righteous, but you can’t be contemptuous.

So how can we avoid becoming the Pharisee and be more like the Tax-Collector? How can we go home justified after prayer? The answer is whom we have in view when we pray.

Here’s the scene. Both men are at the Temple, but they are contrasted with one another. The Tax Collector is standing far off; the Pharisee is as close to the center as he can be. The Tax Collector won’t look to heaven; the Pharisee has his face lifted upward. The Tax Collector is beating his breast; the Pharisee has his arms spread wide.

Both men, it seems, are taking an interior view. The Tax Collector sees himself; the Pharisee sees himself. But the Tax Collector also sees God. The Pharisee sees not God but others. And that is the difference. The Tax Collector has God in view; the Pharisee does not.

With God in view the Tax Collector sees himself a sinner and God as a merciful judge. Without God in view the Pharisee sees himself as more righteous than thieves, rogues, adulterers and, looking around, even this Tax Collector.

Prayer that starts with ourselves and doesn’t have God in view leads to self-congratulation, to self-adulation, and to contempt towards others. You can be righteous, but you can’t be contemptuous.

You can also be sinful. The Tax Collector’s prayer also started with himself. He sees that he is a sinner. But he also has God in view. He sees a merciful God, and that’s important. Because you can have God in view, but if it is a distortion of God it also leads to some unhealthy places.

If you have in view a judgmental God, it leads to fear. If a disapproving God, then it leads to shame. If a permissive God is in view, it leads to nonchalance. But having a merciful God in view as we pray leads to the gospel: “You are a sinner; but God is merciful.”

Such a prayer is the beginning of reformation. And it sends us home justified. How do we know that God is merciful? Just because Jesus said so? No, but because God showed us. As Jesus went to the Cross he said, “No one has greater love than this, that one lay down one’s life for his friends.” At the Table of the Lord we remember God’s love, a love that is merciful, judging sin on the Cross, but restoring life in the resurrection.

Let us pursue righteousness without contempt, keeping the merciful God in view through all our prayers. And may we love others as God has loved us, judging not, as we have been shown not judgment, but grace.

10.20.19 Ego and Faith Genesis 32.22-31 Sermon Outline

The first name of the early church according to the book of Acts was “the people of the way.” This was probably because Jesus once said “I am the Way,” which we might best understand to mean “mine is the way”: Jesus’ life demonstrates the way of the Kingdom of God.

Jesus offered three summary statements as to what this way looks like. The first was, “Whoever wants to be first, must be last and the servant of all.” (Mark 9:35) The second was, “The greatest among you will be your servant.” (Matthew 23:11)

Jesus’ calls all people to follow him on the way, on his way, on the way of service. But there is something in the way, every step of the way. And until it is dealt with we won’t follow Jesus. That something is our ego. What is ego? Basically it is what we think about ourselves when we leave God out of the picture.

Egos come in different shapes and sizes, and Jacob’s was a big one. He hardly had the attitude of a servant. He was not a giver but rather a taker. And it started with his birth.

His mother Rebekah was pregnant with twins. Esau was born first, but Jacob followed grasping Esau’s heel. His name “Jacob” means something like “he takes by the heel.” Another way of translating his name is “one who supplants.”

One time Esau came in from hunting and he was famished. Jacob “sold” him some food. The price? Esau’s birthright as firstborn. Much later when their father Isaac was old and blind, he wanted to bless his children. Isaac preferred Esau but Rebekah preferred Jacob. Rebekah and Jacob conspired to disguise Jacob as Esau to receive Esau’s blessing. When Esau discovered what had happened, he vowed to kill Jacob.

Jacob got into a pissing contest (a battle of egos is what I said from the pulpit) with his father-in-law Laban, but you get the picture. This is a man committed to winning with no consideration of cost, especially to others.

But things have a way of catching up with us. If you live long enough, life catches up with you. In Jacob’s life, Laban caught up with him. And then Esau caught up with him. And today we join Jacob on the shores of the river Jabbok.

Jacob had divided his considerable possessions into two parts to preserve one if Esau should destroy the other. Then he sent three caravans of gifts to Esau, one after the other, with the hope that they would mollify his offended brother. Finally Jacob sends his families across the river and we are told he is completely alone.

And then someone else catches up with Jacob. A mysterious man appears and wrestles with Jacob all night. Neither can prevail over the other. Then as dawn is breaking the mysterious man pulls a dirty trick and dislocates Jacob’s hip.

But Jacob, still with his strong grip, doesn’t let go. He demands a blessing and his name is changed from Jacob, “one who supplants,” to Israel, “one who contends with God.” The encounter ends with a scene fit for Hollywood: Jacob walks away toward the sunrise, limping as he goes.

Jacob is a diminished man, but he is more whole. His ego has moved a little out of the way so he could follow God.

Think about your own life. When was your last all night wrestling match? Maybe a big decision. Perhaps concern over an illness. It could be anxiety over an unknown future, or regret for an action that can’t be undone.

Maybe life, or God, has played a dirty trick on you. Made an unfair move you have to live with for the rest of your life. These are tests and trials, calling us to trust a larger plan. They may diminish us, but they make us more whole.

It took Jacob a long time to move his ego: Or maybe it took God a long time. There is a faster path, however. It was revealed through John the Baptist. Long before hearing Jesus’ preaching about the first being last and greatest being a servant, John heard about Jesus also baptizing in another part of the river. His response? “Jesus must increase; I must decrease.” (John 3:30) John checked his own ego, and so can we.

There are two paths to following the Way: The long path of Jacob which may be more costly; and the short path of John the Baptist. Both require our egos to get out of the way.

What was that third summary of Jesus’ way? Jesus told his would be disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” The way of Jesus leads to death and resurrection, and Jesus wants us never to forget that.

This is why he gave us his Table, where we remember that he gave his life—through his serving and dying—to show us the way to live in God’s Kingdom. This is how we are to live also. Perhaps Paul said it best: “Ego has been crucified with Christ, so Ego no longer lives, but Christ lives in me.” (Galatians 2:19-20)

Let us follow Christ on the way, joining Jacob, John, and Paul, as our egos decrease and Christ increases in us; as we experience diminishment in order to become more whole.

10.06.19 A Telling Faith, 2 Timothy 1.1-14 Sermon Summary

It’s World Communion Sunday. We share worldwide faith and communion because ours is a telling faith. One person tells another, one traveler tells another, one generation tells another. A telling faith is always one conversation away from extinction. Ours is one generation away from vanishing. Are you telling anyone about your faith?

It’s a heartwarming picture: Lois raising Eunice in the faith; Eunice raising Timothy in the faith; Timothy planting, consulting, and pastoring churches. But ideal pictures can make us envious. Not everyone has a family like Timothy’s. Some parents and grandparents raise children in the faith and the children choose another path. Others of us wonder how our lives would be different if our parents had raised us in the faith.

No matter how different our families may be from Timothy’s, one thing we have in common: We are here today because someone told us.

Second Timothy is important for all of us, even though few of us are in the situation of the letter. We aren’t church leaders threatened by persecution. Few of us refer to ourselves as “apostles, heralds, or teachers.” This is a letter between pastors, but within it is wisdom for the whole church. Part of that wisdom is how we can have a living faith—the kind of faith Timothy is commended for having.

How can we have a living faith? This passage offers us three parts to an answer. First, Timothy was part of a community. He became a pastor through the laying on of hands. Hand-laying is a symbol of continuity, like getting a diploma at commencement. It says you’ve been given a tradition—tradition being a Latin word meaning “handing on” or “handing over.”

Faith isn’t something we invent. It isn’t a me-and-God, God-and-me thing. Faith is something created through community. The first community is the authors of scripture. The second community is the generations of people who keep scripture—those saints of the tradition who were guided by the words preserved by the first community. Next is the worshiping church in its prayer and ritual. Lois and Eunice are examples of the community Timothy had. He had a living faith because he was part of a community.

Second, Timothy had the Holy Spirit. He is reminded that God gave him a spirit not of cowardice, but of power, love, and self-discipline. He’s told to guard the good treasure of his living faith with the help of the spirit living in him.

If a living faith needs the community that stretches back through time and around the world, it also needs the Holy Spirit which can be more individual and here and now. Timothy had a living faith because he was part of a community relating him to the past; and he had the Holy Spirit relating to him in the present.

Third, in order for Timothy to have a living faith he had to be personally involved. He was told to rekindle the faith living in him. Now Timothy was co-sender with Paul for six letters in the Bible. He was Paul’s loyal disciple and church delegate, and he came from generations of faithful people. And still he needs to “rekindle” the faith.

We rekindle fires when the flames burn low, when they are at risk of being extinguished. There’s more to burn but kindling is needed. Fires burn down—and faith begins to wane—out of neglect, when we stop paying attention. It can happen when the logs are too big—we have too many ambitious projects going. Fires burn down if the logs are too far apart—when we have a lack of fellowship with others. Or when there isn’t enough air—our lives lack the Spirit blowing through our prayers.

Whether you’re a pastor or not, whether you’re a Timothy or a Paul or not, three things help us to keep a living faith: A community, the Holy Spirit, and being personally involved. When we have a living faith, we can have a telling faith, and a telling faith will live—a telling faith will even outlive us.

The bread and cup of communion are a form of kindling. When Jesus took and broke the bread, giving it to the disciples after walking to Emmaus, their eyes were opened and they declared, “Were not our hearts burning within us as he talked to us on the road?!” If your faith needs rekindling this week, then come to the Table of the Lord. Listen again as Jesus tells you the faith. Then you can tell the faith to someone else.

09.29.19 1 Tim 6.3-13 Heavenly Treasure Sermon Summary

As many conservative evangelicals do, I used to read the Bible as if it were God’s words to me personally. Later I discovered that wasn’t actually the case, and I was glad to be let off the hook in some passages. But then I became a pastor and realized that letters like 1 Timothy actually were written to me.

First Timothy is a letter to a pastor. When we read it, we’re reading someone else’s mail. But while some topics are specific to pastors, there is wisdom here for the whole church also. The foundational concerns of the letter include Timothy’s faithfulness to “sound teaching.” “Good conscience” also shows up throughout the text. The goal, we’re told in 1:5 is, “love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith.” The author warns Timothy that failure in these matters leads to a shipwrecked faith, (1:19) excommunication, (1:20) and the loss of salvation for the shepherd and the flock. (4:16)

Today’s passage is the conclusion of the letter, and immediately follows a criticism of those who pursue “godliness as a means to gain.” The reference is to financial gain. Do some preach to get rich? Do some practice the good life to get ahead? Is churchiness a means to prosperity?

The answer is no, according to the author. Several years ago a young couple moved to Colorado Springs and visited my congregation. They were the kinds of visitors every pastor covets. They jumped quickly into the life of the church beyond worship. After about a month, they asked me if they could make a pitch for their new business to members of the congregation. Wary of their motives, I encouraged them to continue settling into our communal life before doing so. They didn’t return.

Timothy and pastors in general are warned that ambition for riches leads to divisiveness. In the book of James we’re told that conflicts and disputes arise because of financial ambition. (4:1-3) In 1 Timothy, financial ambition leads to, “morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words, envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions, and wrangling.” (6:4-5) But, the letter continues, “godliness with contentment is great gain.” Is this sarcasm? Maybe a redirection? What is “godliness”? And what is “contentment”?

Godliness in 1 Timothy is a concern chiefly related to pastors, and it appears to be focused around the matter of doctrines (that is, official church teachings) and behaviors. Godliness is defined not in positive terms (“this is what it is”) but by how it is transgressed (“this is what it is NOT”). Some examples of ungodliness include those who are disobedient and profane, murderers, slave traders, and liars, ministers who are preoccupied with celibacy and myths and arguments over words.  (1:9-10; 4:3, 7; 6:4)

Then there are longer discourses regarding how men should pray, how women should dress, characteristics of church leaders, which widows should receive help or not, and how slaves should relate to owners.

As a pastor myself, I like some of this teaching, like “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double compensation, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” (5:17) Other characteristics I don’t: “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.” (2:12)

As Presbyterians, we’ve come to understand that “godliness” changes depending on context. What constituted godliness in Timothy’s congregation doesn’t necessarily translate to ours. So today men can have long hair, pastors may experience divorced, and women can have authority. Godliness in the pastorate is important; what it means evolves with the context. Whatever the context is of your life, may you find within it the path of godliness.

What about “contentment”? Here is universal wisdom for the whole church, not just for preachers. First, contentment begins with a mindset of “brought nothing in, take nothing out.” We come to life with nothing, and leave life with nothing. In the words of fabled Job: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb; naked shall I go to the dead.” (1:21) Or of the Preacher: “As the rich came from their mother’s womb, so shall they go again, naked as they came; they shall take nothing for their toil.” (Ecclesiastes 5:15) The first step towards contentment is accepting the impermanence of not only wealth, but of our very lives.

Second, contentment is nurtured by a grateful satisfaction. Timothy and the church are urged to be satisfied “with food and clothing.” Why not shelter, too, I wonder? I think shelter is not included on the short list because shelter suggests too much permanence. Food and clothing are immediate, present tense needs. There are no guarantees that we’ll survive the storms, even if we have shelter.

So when Timothy is told to, “Fight the good fight of the faith”—this faith refers to the present. It has an immediate sense. It is always active now, not depending on the future, living in the present, dealing with present concerns. And not just our concerns, but the concerns of others in accordance with our means.

And some people have a lot of means. The letter closes with advice to those who are rich. Don’t be haughty. Don’t rely on your riches, but rely instead on God. Do good, be generous, and ready to share. This advice is wasted on the poor. They are not haughty. They relate to everyone. They don’t rely on riches. That temptation isn’t an option. They have to rely on God. Because they are familiar with the desperation of need, they do already what all of us are called to: They do good, are generous, and are ready to share.

This is the key to “the life that really is life.” Real life is lived in faith, in the now. Real life is lived in relationship, with God and with others. Real life is lived in generosity, in doing good, and in being ready to share.

And it is for this reason Jesus gave us the Table. Here we receive God’s presence in faith, right now. Here we renew our relationship with God and one another. Here we receive God’s generosity in order to share generously with others. So come to this table to receive the life that truly is life, for our lives are hidden with God in Christ.