Old Testament: Lamentations (1:1-6)
How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal. She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies. Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude; she lives now among the nations, and finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress. The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals; all her gates are desolate, her priests groan; her young girls grieve, and her lot is bitter. Her foes have become the masters, her enemies prosper, because the Lord has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions; her children have gone away, captives before the foe. From daughter Zion has departed all her majesty. Her princes have become like stags that find no pasture; they fled without strength before the pursuer.
The Response: Lamentations (3:19-26)
The thought of my trouble
and my homelessness *
is as bitter as wormwood and gall.
My mind dwells on it continually; *
my soul is weighed down within me.
When I remember this I have hope: *
by God’s kindness, we are not destroyed;
For God’s mercies are never-ending *
and are new every morning.
How great is your faithful, O God! *
“You are my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I hope in you.”
You are good with those
who wait with patience, *
to every soul that seeks you.
It is good to wait, even in silence, *
for the salvation of the Lord.
The New Testament: 2 Timothy (6:6-19)
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, for the sake of the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus, To Timothy, my beloved child: Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. I am grateful to God—whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did—when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. For this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher, and for this reason I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him. Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.
The Gospel: Luke (17:5-10)
The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”
by the Rev. Mike Kreutzer
In the cycle of Sunday scripture readings, we are currently in the middle of a series of seven passages from what are known as the First and Second Letters of Paul to Timothy. Those who participate in our Adult Forum know that these letters were not actually written by Paul himself, nor were they sent to the Timothy who appears in the pages of Acts. They were written late in the first century or early in the second century by one or more authors who considered themselves to be spiritual descendants of Paul, trying to address the needs of the church in their time.
Writing in the name of one’s respected teacher was an accepted and common literary practice at that time. Today’s selection, in fact, identifies the letters’ original audience as the third generation of Christians. The author writes (1:5) of “a faith that first lived in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.” The central question that the letters address is how to live a life of Christian faith in a new generation, when times and circumstances and needs have changed. That’s obviously an important topic for every age, including our own.
I mentioned a few weeks ago the way that the authors of the four canonical gospels reshaped and reinterpreted the oral tradition about what Jesus had said and done to meet the needs of their contemporary audiences. In a similar way, the writers who gave us these two letters have reshaped Paul’s message – from our perspective, both for good and for ill.
Paul’s authentic writings, for example, reflect a sense that church organization really did not matter since, from his point of view, Jesus would be returning any day now. There were many different ministries active in the earliest years of the church, but not what we would recognize as any real church structure.
But by the time that the Letters to Timothy and the Letter to Titus were written, the decades had gone by, Paul himself had died, and Jesus obviously had not returned. The early church realized that they were going to be around here for a while, so they better begin thinking about the long-term and about how they were going to organize themselves for the work that God had given them to do. An early church structure began to emerge. Leadership within the early church had morphed into a form with which we are more familiar: a single bishop leading a local church – what we today call “a diocese.”
With the passing of time, the church as a whole came to accept this new form of ministry. It discerned that the Spirit was leading the church in a new direction: a direction that neither the gospels nor Paul nor any of the first generation of believers had envisioned. This was just one of multiple occasions in the early church — and of many more that would arise throughout the ages — when the church, the community of believers, was faced with distinguishing between what was essential to their life in the risen Christ and what, on the other hand, was culturally conditioned and therefore changeable. Such determinations are not always easy, and they have often engendered great controversy and strong differences of opinion within the church.
The past few decades, churches of various denominations, including our own, have struggled with issues of human sexuality, and specifically with the full acceptance of people who are in loving, committed, same-sex relationships. Not too many years before that, the church struggled in a similar way with the acceptance of women into equal roles with men in the leadership of the church. (Incidentally, one of the arguments from the bible that was used by those opposing the inclusion of women in these roles came from the first of these two letters. In a passage that we don’t hear on Sundays, it explicitly declares (2:11-12): “Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.” Husbands: please don’t try invoking that as a “clear-teaching of scripture” — at least if you value your marriage and even your personal safety!) Then there is the teaching later in that same letter (6:1), commanding slaves to submit to their masters and to “regard their masters as worthy of all honor.”
From the very beginning, the church has had to struggle with questions of what is essential and what is changeable. One of the first instances of that occurs in the New Testament itself, specifically in the Acts of the Apostles (15:1-29). The clear-teaching of scripture seemed to be that anyone who wanted to live as part of the people of God had to follow all the precepts of Torah. It was clearly God’s Law. Even prominent leaders of the early church in Jerusalem, like James the brother of Jesus, firmly upheld that requirement. But Barnabas and Paul insisted that they had witnessed the Holy Spirit working in the lives of those who had not been circumcised and who did not obey the precepts of the Jewish Law. And the community of believers was forced to conclude that the Spirit was doing something new and that it was their responsibility to change and to follow the Spirit’s lead.
Methodist bishop and New Testament scholar, William WiIlimon, has observed (Acts, pp. 98-99): “This is the way it sometimes is in the church. If Jesus Christ is Lord, then the church has the adventurous task of penetrating new areas of his Lordship, expecting surprises and new implications of the gospel which cannot be explained on any basis other than our Lord has shown us something we could not have seen on our own, even if we were looking only at Scripture. This does not mean an undisciplined flight of fancy into our own new bold ideas or the pitiful effort to catch the wind of the latest trend in the culture under the guise of seeking new revelation. Rather, it means that we are continuing to penetrate the significance of the scriptural witness that Jesus Christ is Lord and to be faithful to divine prodding. Faith, when it comes down to it, is our own often breathless attempt to keep up with the redemptive activity of God, to keep asking ourselves, ‘What is God doing, where on earth is God going now?’”
That is the basic question that you, the people of St. Mark’s, need to ask as you prepare for the upcoming transition. And that is the basic question that the church in every age needs to ask over and over again, as the Spirit leads us in the ongoing journey into God’s future, into the fullness of God’s kingdom.