From Fear to Faith

A Sermon by the Rev. Brian D. Ellison

Rocky Mountain Regional Conference of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians
Central Presbyterian Church, Denver, Colorado, January 27, 2013

Text:   2 Timothy 1:1-14

I looked it up. The first time I preached on this text from Second Timothy, back when I was pastor Brianof the church in Parkville, Missouri, was more than 11 years ago. You may not believe this, but I actually don’t remember every sermon I’ve ever preached, but I do remember preaching during that time.

This was the lectionary reading for that Somethingth Sunday in Ordinary Time … but this was no ordinary time. This was October of 2001—less than a month after September 11, 2001. And those were days of fear.

Different people feared different things, I suppose, but we all shared our fears in some way together. Some feared another attack on our country. Some feared a shadowy group whose name they could barely pronounce precisely because they were so unknown. Some could hear the drumbeats of war and remembered being down that road before, and they too were afraid.

And though I remember that time—in all its fearfulness–very clearly, I almost hesitate to mention those fears. Because you see, that kind of fear is the kind that is easy to identify, easy to explain—a community experiences something all together and then wrestles together with what it means and what to do next. It is real fear but it is the kind of fear that drowns out all the other fears—the kind we don’t talk about and don’t like to. The kind of fear we forget but which looms nevertheless. And unseen fear that devastates and devours.

You see, I know that on that day in October of 2001, there was a woman there in the seventh pew on the lectern side, who was going to die from breast cancer. In fact on 9/11 at the moment one of the towers fell, she and I were in the hospital waiting room praying before the surgery she had hoped would save her life. That day in worship, she had received a lot of well wishes; she was positive and upbeat, but she was afraid.

I know that there near the back where he had come in a little late was a soldier, an officer in a training program at Fort Leavenworth, not too far away, there with his young family. There were others there, too—civilian employees on the base who knew well hundreds of soldiers who would soon be called up or sent off. And they were quietly afraid.

And I know there was someone in church that day whose own realization had little to do with 9/11. But who on that day in October of 2001 was in the midst of accepting that his being gay—something he had known for a long time, prayed about, thought might change, tried to ignore—was going to come into tension with the rest of his life, and relationships, and work, and identity and ministry. On that Sunday he was in the midst of sorting out, mostly by himself, what it meant to be faithful to self and God and church … in a denomination that was still a decade away then from saying it could affirm who he was and what he was doing in faith. And that man was the preacher. And he was afraid, too.

How does any person of faith go on in the face of fear?
When the world seems threatening, because it’s changing too fast, or not changing fast enough?
When the church is maddening, or unwelcoming, or hurtful, saying and doing too much, or saying and doing too little?
When one’s own gifts and abilities and words and ideas refuse to rise to the occasion?
When our faith itself is lagging, our energy for action stuck on low…
What do we do?

***

6For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; 7for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

Today’s reading comes to us as a letter. It is a letter from the pastor emeritus to the young new upstart. The Paul of this letter is advanced in years, maybe imprisoned, and far away from the little flock that this Timothy is now pastoring. Timothy seems to be both protégé and friend, the student intern who has become the trusted colleague, but there’s still some of that old mentor/disciple feel to it.

It’s a conversation between two names we know, two with the word “Saint” in front of them when we say them now, but I hope that doesn’t keep us from missing that it isn’t really a letter about how to become a saint, or how to found a church, or even how to pastor or preach. This is a letter about how to live—that is, everyday ministry, every-person ministry. It is a letter about the experience of every person who dares to call himself or herself a follower of Jesus Christ. “How am I supposed to do this?” is the question that the letter is answering, whether it was being asked or not. In other words, it’s a letter to each of us, to you and to me. Letters from a loved one like this can comfort, but they can also challenge.

We can see how a church like ours might get this kind of letter:
a church where generation after generation has handed down to us a faith that has given us life, just like it had to Timothy;
a church where baptism is the source of that life week in and week out, nourished by the community coming together to feast;
a church where ordination of deacons and ruling elders and teaching elders year after year, generation after generation, celebrates the gifts that God has given to people, so that whether ordained or not, God’s initiative of healing and wholeness, of raising and making new through Christ, might come to be realized in our midst each new day.

Those gifts of God we celebrate are always sufficient. But when you’re having trouble accessing them – anyone here ever feel that way? – when fear and inadequacy and anxiety turn our bold souls timid, then sometimes what you need is some rekindling.

The coals need to be stirred.
Someone else whose candle hasn’t gone out needs to step in and help.
The fire must be lit again.

***

If I have a favorite part about this passage–maybe you have one, too–it’s when Paul reminds Timothy where he got his faith. Not just invisibly through the mysterious movement of God’s Spirit. No: He got it from Mom. And Grandma, as well. It reminds me of my own grandmother, teaching me Bible verses, shaping me into the Christian, the pastor, who I became. “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.” Paul, who so often has been used to keep women from places of leadership, here tells his star pupil that his faith is a gift from the women who came before him, women without whom he would have neither faith nor life.

Paul mentions his own ancestors, too. He mentions the laying on of his own hands and the relationship he has with Timothy—what we would call his ordination of Timothy. All of these little vignettes Paul drops along the way are not just sweet memories but reminders of the same idea—that none of us gets to be people of deep faith on our own. The fire came from a community. Those who have gone before and those who may well be with us now. It’s not just about you or me. And neither is it just about God. It is about God and all of us … together.

Why has the Covenant Network focused so exclusively on including some of God’s children in the life and leadership of the church over the years, rather than on some broader mission of justice and evangelism in the world?  Why would it be important to make sure that the opportunity to profess one’s faith, to use one’s gifts, to teach one’s wisdom, or make one’s vows is provided when there is so much work that will be done, people who will be touched, mission that will be accomplished, with or without that one person? Why?

Because we don’t know who might be the next Lois, whose grandson inherits the faith and preaches the gospel. We don’t know who might be the next Eunice, or Paul or Timothy. What we know is that Christ is found, God’s Word is proclaimed, the Spirit is kindled when the people of God are together and when they are whole. That is the testimony of scripture. And that is the experience of the saints today. And it is why the laying on of hands at ordination, why the surrounding of two people making covenant vows in the presence of God and these witnesses, why the warm hospitality of absolute welcome in Jesus’ name – must never be kept from anyone in the community just because of who they are.

So how then, can fear be overcome? How then in the face of a broken world and a hurting church do we live not with a spirit of cowardice, as this translation says, a spirit of fear, a timid spirit? Where do we claim the spirit of power and love and disciplined practice of the faith? We claim it when we come together as God’s whole people. We claim it … here. Here, when our practice of unity, matches our language of it. Here when we struggle and suffer as Paul warned we might for the sake of each other and the gospel. Here when the Holy Spirit living in us helps us present the sacred treasure God has entrusted.

And this is how we move from fear to faith, by taking our place in the community.

And if we find ourselves to be the ones who already have a place in the community, we move forward in faith by extending that place to others—the homeless on the street, the unlovely or difficult, the sexually different from ourselves, the political opponent (yes, even that!)—by extending to them the same community we have found. We will slowly but surely allay their fear, and maybe even make progress on our own fears.

This kind of community doesn’t just happen. It is the result of effort. The gift can be rekindled. What appeared to have been snuffed out, can rage forth to life. It’s worth the work.

**

More than one soldier who passed through that congregation over the years would go to Iraq or Afghanistan. They all came back, thankfully. One of them, grateful nor merely for  the church’s support of his service but for its nurture of his faith, sent back a flag that flew over a base in Iraq, and it’s in a case now in the church library, a visible sign of God’s community that stretches across the globe.

The preacher found in the sustaining work of the broader community the strength he needed to persist in both ministry and his own being. Today I approach ten years of loving life shared with a partner, and also find enormous honor in getting to serve alongside the saints of the Covenant Network who for so long, unknown to them, were fanning the flame of faith in me.

And Sue there, in the seventh pew on the lectern side, she would see her condition improve. She actually got married after that, a late-in-life love. She would have much joy and laughter. And four years later, at her memorial service, I would read again from 2 Timothy, toward the end of the book: “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.”

May all of us – in this congregation, and in this presbytery, and in this whole church—be for each other, a source, an example, a vessel of faith.  Let us welcome all to the fullness of life together, and may we live in such a way, that none are left in fear. May it be so. Amen.

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