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Keeping Faith

Sermon - 11/04/07
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

2 Timothy 4:1-8

The text this morning comes from the 2nd letter to Timothy, chapter 4.  But before I read it, just one word of background.  There's one strange word or term in here that you may not be familiar with, and that is 'libation'.  Libation was an offering that was given at the end.  It was the final offering, an offering of an animal's blood that was poured out at the alter.  So that might help your understanding of this text:

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: 2proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. 3For 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, 4and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. 5As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.

6 As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. 7I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

 

Many of you know that I take time out at the beginning of the year to look at all the lectionary passages in the coming year and to pick a theme for each Sunday of the year.  That's how our choir is so able to have music that fits the theme, Nancy does a great job of selecting music to go along with that theme.  So it was back in January that I picked the theme for this morning.  

Now, there are those who believe that coincidences are just a word for acts of God for which we have no other explanation.  I, on the other hand, tend to rebel against such notions as trivializing the acts of God, while wars go unchecked and poverty unabated.

And yet, there are those times when I have to stop and say, "Huh?".

And this week I had one of those occurrences, when I had just returned from the hospital visiting Gilbert Kistler, obviously in the last days of his life.  And I came back to the office, pulled out my file for this Sunday to look to see what text I had picked to preach on, and here I read this text:

"I have fought the good fight.
 I have finished the race.
 I have kept the faith".

I know not everyone here knew Gilbert, who passed on Thursday evening.  But those of you who knew him and were touched by his life, know that there is no other person for whom this text is more appropriate.  

Huh.

We'll have time tomorrow to remember and to celebrate Gilbert's life and I hope many of you can be here for that.  It's going to be a hymn-fest, in part, because that was so much of his life, a ministry of music.  Those that knew Gilbert know that he spent his entire life in service to Christ, and who, as a result, through much of his career, especially in those early years (as his children here with us can attest to) had to put in a lot of extra hours.

Had to work on weekends, preaching on weekends at other churches around the area, even work in the summer at the cannery to augment his meager income from teaching at Northwest Christian College.  He had picked the only career, back in those days, that possibly paid less than pastoral ministry -- teaching at a Christian College.

Gilbert never wavered in his devotion, never complained about his calling.  And as I said in my E-mail to the Elders Thursday night announcing his death, he truly was one of the saints of the church.

Well, the second letter to Timothy is often called the last will and testament of the apostle Paul.  Whether or not it was actually written by Paul, it accurately reflects his life and is a testimony to his faith in Christ.  And in this text this morning, we see the passing of the baton, as it were, to a younger generation represented by Timothy.  And with this baton, Paul relays to the next generation his final, parting words of admonition:  "Stay true to your calling.  Keep the faith as I have done".  And then continuing in this athletic image, Paul alludes to the crown of laurel bestowed upon those winning athletes in the Roman games, and says that ". . a crown of righteousness" awaits him.

Hardly the image of humility that we assume that we are supposed to have in Christ.  Seems a bit presumptuous, even for an apostle to make such a claim.  But if, on the other hand, this letter is written as a reflection on Paul's life by a later disciple, then it is a strong affirmation of the importance of Paul's example to later generations.  It is their testimony, the witness of that generation after Paul, that says 'here was a man who truly lived the faith in every way, and he serves as a model for us'.

So then, I think, the message, in part, that we take from this text, is to identify those models of faith that have come before us.  Those that we are called to pattern our lives after.  The Kistler's, and the Hyland's, and the Osborne's, and the Conner's, and many others of this congregation.  That generation that Tom Brokaw calls The Greatest Generation.  Who gave so selflessly to build a better, safer world.  And hence, our consultant Dick Hamm calls this generation "The Builders".  Those who experienced the hard realities of the Great Depression and world war, and thereafter sought to build a different reality for their children and our future.  They are the ones of whom we can say 'they fought the good fight, they finished the race, kept the faith'.

And so I ask, as we reflect on the contributions of that generation to our world and to our faith and to our church, what is it that we admire most?  That we want to replicate in our own lives?

Or to put it differently, if we were writing this letter to Timothy today, about a Gilbert Kistler or a Ronald Osborn or an Orace Wolfe, or our own parents or grandparents, what would we say that their last words to us would be?

My guess is it would not be much different than Paul, or what the author of this letter thought Paul's would be:  'I solemnly urge you, to proclaim the message that I passed on to you.  To be persistent, whether the time is favorable or unfavorable to that message.  To do that work of an evangelist.  Carry out your faith fully.  For this is your time.  My time is over.  I fought the good fight, I finished the race.  I beat the Devils (or Arizona [Ducks won again on Saturday] J).  I kept the faith.  May you do the same'.

With the reassertion of Eugene as 'Track Town USA', the coming of the Olympic Trials once again to our city, it's a very timely image for us, this image of the athlete who has finished the race, fought the fight.  But note that Paul does not say that he WON the hard fight, that he finished the race in world record time -- only that he was IN the game and gave it his best.  Which of course are the words of consolation that we always give to the losing team -- you know, Arizona State fought their best, they gave it their all.  And it wasn't enough J.  So maybe that's not a good image for us to use J.

To put it differently:  keeping the faith is really not about our destination, or at least it's not solely about the destination, it's also about the journey.  It is about how we play the game.  How we get to the end is often as important, sometimes more important, than the end itself.  

And that's why doping of athletes, for instance, is just not OK.  We can not tolerate that.  It's why peace through justice is always preferred over peace through victory, which is often very shallow.

That's why pre-emptive war produces post-emptive peace.  That's why killing people is not the best way to show that killing people is wrong!  Something that the rest of the industrial world realizes, and hence capital punishment has been banned in every Western nation except our own.

Do you spank a child in order to show that child that hitting children is wrong?  Somewhere the message is going to backfire.

Or to use an example from this week on campus at the University of Oregon, the best way to honor free speech when a Holocaust denier comes to town is not to forbid that person from speaking, but rather it is to counter with more speech that uncovers the deception and the half-truths. 

For us as Christians, to value the journey as much as the destination means to see our faith as a way of life, not just as a set of beliefs.  Faith in Christ is not about believing the right things about Jesus, it is about living the way of Jesus.  As Paul wrote in his great epistle on faith, the letter to the Romans, in the first chapter:  "For I'm not ashamed of the gospel.  It is of God, for salvation to everyone who has faith.  For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith, as it is written 'The one who is righteous will live by faith'".

And we see plenty of examples of people who believe Jesus is the son of God, who believe he died for our sins.  And yet who do not live the way he taught.  Who show no love for their enemies.  Who make war instead of peace.  Who ignore the cries of the hungry, the ill, and the oppressed, to accumulate wealth for themselves while they ignore the plight of the poor.  Who serve mammon instead of God.  Who serve themselves instead of others.

To live the way Jesus taught us to live, we have to do more than believe the right things, we have to do the right things. 

Keeping the faith, therefore, has little to do with our beliefs and has everything to do with our actions.

And that's precisely why the example of athletes is so appropriate in this text.  You don't get to be a top athlete, or even a mediocre one, by believing the right things about how to play the game, about how to be competitive, about how to be in shape, otherwise, I would be a Heisman Trophy candidate too!  Check out my moves . . . .oooh, that hurt J.

You have to eat right, you have to train, you have to practice what you believe.

Friday night, there was a free-speech rally to counter the appearance of Mark Weber, that Holocaust denier.  Turns out his flight was canceled -- he didn't make it to Eugene.  And that spawned all kinds of jokes about conspiracy theories -- 'must have had a Jewish pilot' that knew he was coming, etc.  

At any rate, Peter Straton, a member of our church in the first service, opened the rally with an excellent speech that he made, right after Rabbi Yitzhak Husbands-Hankin.  And I closed it.  And I told the group that I didn't prepare any comments as I typically do for those types of occasions, because I wanted to be in the spirit.  I wanted to speak from the heart.  

And what came to me as I listened to the other speakers that night at the rally, is that it was not about free speech.  It was about human decency.

In the article that appeared this week, written by Jeff Wright of the Register Guard, Mr. Weber was quoted as saying that because the death of Anne Frank in the concentration camp was from a disease -- Typhus -- rather than in a gas chamber, he questioned whether or not she could be counted as a Holocaust victim.

I said:  'What more evidence do you need of a Holocaust denier?'  He does not have the basic, common human decency to recognize that she was a victim.  The decency to recognize the impact that statement has upon all the survivors of the Holocaust.  Upon all the Jews.  Indeed, upon all those who are victims of tyranny and oppression.  It's about common human decency.  And I said -- the response that we have to have is not to respond with indecency toward indecency, but precisely decency to those who are indecent.  

To respond in a different way, with our actions and our words, to show our decency.  For it does no good if we believe the right things about history but then we don't learn the lessons and apply them in our lives.  

We are called to learn from the history of Christ and the generations of Christians who followed that the faith we keep is the faith we live, everyday.

So may we fight the good fight.  May we finish the race.  May we keep the faith with the way that we live our lives.

 


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