By Chris Marlin-Warfield
Most of you probably know that I’m a Member in Discernment. I’m going through the long process of seeking ordination in the United Church of Christ. Like everything else in our denomination, this means that there are a lot of committee meetings.
There’s a small group from here at Church of Pease and from Back Bay Mission that met for a while to talk about what ordination means and why I’m seeking it and whether I’m a good candidate. Last month I met with the Western Association’s Committee on Church and Ministry to talk about what ordination means and why I’m seeking it and whether I’m a good candidate. Next month I should be having my Ecclesiastical Council, whether we’ll talk about what ordination means and why I’m seeking it and whether I’m a good candidate.
I’m hoping that sometime this spring we’ll be having an ordination service. And I’m sure we’ll talk about what ordination means and why I’m seeking it and whether I’m a good candidate.
What strikes me about these conversations is that there aren’t nice clean answers. There isn’t a set of checkboxes and a minimum grade and getting on with life. It’s the messy work of figuring out someone’s calling – my calling – and how that fits into the United Church of Christ and the church universal.
And it goes the other way too: it’s the messy work of figuring out the church’s calling and how that fits my ministry.
That’s not just what the ordination process is. That’s a big part of what being the church is.
A lot of being the church is taken up with trying to figure out what it means to be the church. A lot of being the church is asking that pesky little question: what does Jesus want the community of his followers to be?
It’s probably been a while since you’ve read the whole book of Timothy, so let me summarize.
This is – supposedly, but we’ll get to that in a minute – a letter from Paul to Timothy. Now we all know Paul: he’s the apostle to the gentiles, and a founder of churches, and the author of a lot of the New Testament. Timothy may have slipped your mind, but he’s a big deal in his own right: he’s Paul’s friend and disciples, and a pastor and teacher, and the coauthor of several of Paul’s letters.
And here’s a letter from Paul to Timothy, full of advice and instruction that doesn’t seem to address any particular problem that Timothy might be having.
“Timothy,” writes Paul, “Here’s what needs to happen:”
You should pray for those in high positions. Don’t let any woman teach or have authority over men. Make sure bishops are above reproach and have obedient children. Make sure deacons are serious and blameless. Have nothing to do with old wives’ tales. Read scripture. Honor older men as fathers, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters. Honor the widows who are real widows. Make sure slaves honor their masters. Pursue righteousness. Fight the good fight. Be generous.
It’s a mixed bag.
But here’s the thing. This letter almost certainly wasn’t written by Paul. The language isn’t Paul’s style. The ideas don’t line up with Paul’s thoughts. The references are to things that Paul didn’t know.
Somebody wrote a book in the style of a letter from Paul (the apostle to the gentiles) to Timothy (kind of a big deal himself) full of the advice and instructions that Paul would have given. Somebody wanted to say, “Here’s what Paul thought the church should be like.”
We’ve all been a part of that conversation.
Sometimes we’re on the receiving end. Sometimes someone is telling us, “Here’s what needs to happen. Here’s how things should be. Here’s what Jesus would do. Here are the rules.” And sometimes they know. And sometimes they don’t. It’s a mixed bag.
Sometimes we’re on the giving end. Sometimes we’re telling someone else, “Here’s what needs to happen. Here’s how things should be. Here’s what Jesus would do. Here are the rules.” And sometimes we know. And sometimes we don’t. It’s a mixed bag.
Sometimes we’re on both ends at the same time. Sometimes it’s a cacophony of need-to-happens and should-bes and what-Jesus-would-dos and here-are-the-rules. And some of us are probably right. And some of us are probably wrong. And a whole lot of us are probably not-exactly-right in a way that’s not-exactly wrong. It’s a mixed bag.
We’ve all been a part of that conversation. We’ve all wanted the safety and security of knowing what needs to happen and how things should be done and what Jesus would do and what the rules are.
And I think that’s a bit of what’s going on in this letter from not-Paul to not-Timothy.
I don’t know why the author wrote this letter. But I know that a lot of his advice and instructions would help the church fit in well.
Pray for those in high positions; then we can live a quiet and peaceable life. Keep women quiet; then people will know they are reverent. Make sure the right people are bishops and deacons; then they’ll be thought well of by outsiders. Honor only the widows who are real widows; then we won’t be burdened. Make sure slaves honor their masters; then people won’t blaspheme the name of God and this teaching.
This is advice for fitting in. These are instructions on how to not rock the boat. These are need-to-happens and how-to-bes for being safe and secure and respectable.
We’ve all been a part of that conversation. We’re part of a big version of that conversation right not.
Right now, half a world away, there’s a war.
There’s torture. There are chemical weapons. There are massacres. There are calls for genocide.
There are millions of people who have been internally displaced. There are millions more who have fled their country. There are hundreds of thousands who have been killed, including more than 10,000 civilians. There are millions more who face food shortages and water shortages and the constant threat of death from violence and disease.
Syrian has been hell for four years. And a little more than a week ago that hell made its way to Paris. And now we have a whole lot of need-to-happens and should-bes and what-Jesus-would-dos and here-are-the-rules. We have people calling to refuse refugees. We have people demanding that we close mosques. We have people suggesting that we adopt national databases and special ID cards. We have people telling us that more bombs and guns and drones are the answer.
We are seeking safety and security and respect.
And in the middle of all of this – in the middle of my ordination process, in the middle of this letter from not-Paul to not-Timothy, in the middle of this time of tension and terror, in the middle of this stewardship season – there’s a little bit of gospel. You can tell it’s a little bit of gospel because it troubles the need-to-happens and the should-bes. You can tell it’s a little bit of gospel because it tosses aside the advice and instructions.
The author of Timothy writes: “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by God’s word and by prayer.”
The author of Timothy is worried about people who forbid marriage and preach abstinence from food, because those things were created by God “to be received with thanksgiving.”
But if marriage and food are created by God to be received with thanksgiving… so are the women who teach and have authority over men; and the bishops who aren’t above reproach and whose children are troublemakers; and the deacons who are unserious and blamable; and the tellers of old wives’ tales; and the widows who aren’t real widows; and the slaves who throw off the chains of their masters.
And if they are created by God to be received with thanksgiving… so are refugees and immigrants and everyone who feels like they don’t have a home. Even when it doesn’t mean safety or security or respectability.
And if they are created by God to be received with thanksgiving… so are we. Even when we’re afraid or when we’re insecure or when people don’t respect us.
There’s half a quote from G.K. Chesterton. He’s one of those people who gets credited with saying a lot of good things he didn’t actually say.
“The worst moment for the atheist is when he is really thankful, and has nobody to thank.” Chesterton didn’t say that, he quoted it. But he added something to it: “The converse of this proposition is also true…. All goods look better when they look like gifts.”
I don’t think he means that everything looks better just because it’s given to you. I know that isn’t true. But things look better when we accept them as gifts, when we accept them with thanksgiving. They are sanctified by God’s word and by prayer. They are made sacred. They are made holy.
And if that’s true of things, then it’s true of people.
We can be thankful for each other: for the people in this congregation and this neighborhood and this city; for our friends and our families and the strangers outside our doors. We can be thankful for everyone who helps us and everyone who comes to us for help. We can be thankful for everyone, even when it isn’t easy, even when it’s scary, even when it puts us on the outside.
And by doing that we can make these people, and ourselves, and this whole great big world sacred. We can make these people, and ourselves, and this whole great big world holy.