30th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Joel 2:23-29 • Psalm 65 • 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18 • Luke 18:9-14
You may have noticed that we had initially intended, following the guidance of the lectionary, to not include the middle verses of the second Timothy reading. But I was so charmed by the detail that it enshrines, that I thought it was worth the extra time.
The book is attributed to the Apostle Paul. He is writing from prison. He has been sentenced to die for his faith. So that image of his life being poured out, like a drink offering is all the more poignant. Since his dramatic conversion, he has given himself in good times and bad to this downward way of Christian faith, this way of humility, this way that navigates with eyes wide open to an interdependent ecosystem of life that is holy and fragile and worth giving yourself for. He knows this as the way to fullness of life—salvation. He has poured out his life in service to God. He has kept the faith. And in the process he has been supported and disappointed. Encouraged and double-crossed. And this letter is his last. It is his last will and testament, his encouragement to a young leader to be persistent, to follow Paul’s example, to continue in a way that blesses the future.
For me, and maybe for you too, the power of this is especially tangible. I suppose that’s because we’ve seen so many destructive examples of late and we are beginning to find our voice as a reaction to it. But I also think of these shining examples in our midst. I think of Doc Thuline, I think of Ernie Scott. I think of you. I think of those women and men who have made it to the end of their lives intact, with a story that is consistent and powerful and compelling. They have shown us the way through their kindness, their persistent engagement, with a consistency of character, with a life-long story of action and engagement that is an opus to what is within—to an inner light, a level of humility and strength and service and moral clarity that is recognizable throughout the arc of their lives, through good times and bad, deep disappointments and astonishing achievements, love poured out, like an offering. They have fought the good fight, finished the race, kept the faith.[i]
Remembering these people, these saints among we saints, makes that middle section of the Second Timothy reading all the more compelling to me. I think it’s the detail that does it: “bring the cloak that I left with Carpus” and the books too. Oh, and don’t forget the parchments. I need those papers! And then there’s this: “Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm.”[ii] Watch out for him.
It is such a jarring line—almost Donald J. Trumpian in its dissonance: Such a nasty man. We just don’t expect to see something like that here, from saints who are supposed to rise above it all, effortlessly. And then we remember, of course, that this is not the way it works. Our lives are filled with missteps and disappointment and failure, and even with some people who are horrible to us.
It is too bad we don’t know any more of the story. Was this coppersmith really that bad, or did it just not work out between Paul, who before his conversion was himself a terror? —and maybe even a bit afterwards. Of course, we don’t get to know that. And it doesn’t really matter. It ultimately isn’t about Paul’s story or Timothy’s or Timothy’s mother and grandmother whose lives are the faithful foundation on which Timothy and that little church stands.
It is about us, and about a way of persistence and faithfulness that the gospel and all the scriptures speak to as a life-giving, durable way in which we learn to find the holy in others, in all of life, and even in ourselves. It is about living lives of gratitude because we are aware of the gift that each day is. It is about all that we cannot see and all that we cannot know for certain—that ground of being, that holy presence, that Life in which our own lives and all of life rests.
There is nowhere we can go and measure its dimensions or document its qualities. It is only discovered; it is only known in the living out of our days and only fully known in those precious moments when God’s Spirit is so clearly poured out in flesh and blood, when our sons and daughters prophecy to us truths that we’ve known but forgotten, when our old dream dreams and our young see visions and suddenly we can see them too, when even those we’ve dismissed, maybe even Alexander the coppersmith speaks a word of truth.
You see, the living is always in the in-between. We don’t get the luxury of certainty, of making our way effortlessly. That’s why it is such a gift to take stock every now and then, to notice the there there.
I was sitting with Ernie Scott on Wednesday, and we were talking about his early days as a kid, growing up during the depression on Beacon Hill. Things were different then. He told me of times when he and his friends would go camping for a couple of weeks, by themselves. Ernie figures he was about 11 at the time. They’d hop onto one of the trains that left Seattle about every 15 minutes back then, and headed up the pass toward North Bend. They’d hop off just above there and go camping on the South Fork of the Snoqualmie river in the shadow of Mount Washington—by themselves!
There was a point on Wednesday, near the end of the telling, that Ernie stopped. Tears welling up in his eyes. A lump in his throat. For just a moment. Before he paused, swallowed, collected himself and finished. His next words explained the emotion for me. “I’m the last one.”
He suddenly realized he is the last of these friends he knew and loved, even though that wasn’t a word they used, for 80 years—these boys who went on to live long lives as imperfect people. He is the last one living, the last one on this side of the grave who holds first-hand these memories and stories of riding the rails. That’s how everyone did it back in those days. Anyone that needed to get from here to there. Struggling families who were looking for any kind of work, living in homeless camps much like today.
Ernie was the last one living who remembered those days along the Snoqualmie river, making their way on God’s good earth, eating the trout they caught and the small birds they shot with their 22s. I suppose he was wondering what would happen to these stories of his, these memories and their lessons that are more valuable than any treasure or financial portfolio we could collect in a lifetime.
It sounds idyllic, but of course it wasn’t. It was an in-between way of navigation—finding faith and fullness of life in the midst of hardship and uncertainty, failure and astonishing and unexpected success. And grace. Some things never change.
You see, that’s what Jesus’ story is about. It is a tricky story that traps us in-between these two characters—the tax collector and the pharisee. He is setting up his hearers and he is setting us up, almost as if he is older than his years, passing on the wisdom and humility of a lifetime.
We are drawn, of course, to the tax collector and his humility, his earnest prayer, his owning what is his to own. We may forget that no one in that day would have had an ounce of sympathy for a deplorable like the tax collector. And then there’s that Pharisee, proud and judgmental. A nasty man. And as soon as we begin to judge him, we commit the very same sin—the sin of the pharisee. And we must learn again the power of humility for making our way through life on God’s good earth.
The thing is this life that we live is an in-between, uncertain life that requires persistence and a commitment to what is durable. And in the end it is a holy thing because it is God who makes up the difference, it is God who sees us far off and draws us near. It is God’s Spirit in us that pulls us close in the midst of all the clutter and uncertainty. It is no different today than it ever was, and it is what holds us no matter the uncertainty that lies ahead. A life well lived. It is a gift of God for the people of God.
[i] 2 Timothy 4:7.
[ii] 2 Timothy 4:12ff.
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