A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on October 2, 2022 (Proper 22, Year C)
There’s a perhaps apocryphal story about an old priest who used to take the time to hand write the epistles — those letters to the early Christian communities — and address them to specific people in his congregation. I assume he chose the ones that were particularly pastoral in nature. No one wants to get a letter in the mail railing against fornication and licentiousness and idolatry.
But there’s something beautiful about taking the time to copy one of Paul’s letters and send it to someone as if it was addressed directly to that person. For within these letters we find words of hope and encouragement, support during times of crisis, words that help to strengthen our faith when we’re feeling particularly vulnerable or forsaken. And I love the idea of opening a letter of such encouragement simply out of the blue. One that arrives along with the usual array of bills and catalogs.
I think about receiving the opening lines we just heard in this second letter to Timothy, and not just because this one is literally addressed to Timothy. Imagine that it is addressed specifically to you. Instead of it being addressed to Paul’s young companion in building up the early church, imagine receiving it in handwritten form and reading and instead of Timothy, “To Helen, my beloved child.” Or whatever your name is. “To you, my beloved child.” Followed by, “Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.” Even those opening lines are worth sitting with for a few moments. To be greeted in Jesus’ name with grace, mercy, and peace is a powerful and quite moving thing.
No longer is the letter an abstract concept dealing with a seemingly irrelevant set of circumstances sent to a long dead person or an ancient community. Suddenly it becomes a living breathing document that addresses your own situation, your own struggles, your own most heartfelt hopes and dreams. And we remember that when we engage Scripture, when we truly wrestle with it, it becomes alive in our hearing. It is personal, rather than abstract or remote.
Now just for some context, this is Paul writing to his young protege as he knows the end of his life is near. He is in prison, bound in chains, awaiting his final judgment. And he is encouraging Timothy not to lose heart, to hold fast to a steadfast faith, despite the difficulties that he will surely encounter on behalf of the gospel. There is a cost to discipleship, to following Jesus, but it’s also what gives our lives meaning and hope. And we can never hear that message often enough.
But still, I encourage you to hear the early lines of this letter addressed specifically to you. “I am reminded of your sincere faith…that I am sure lives in you.” This doesn’t mean that we don’t struggle with our faith or have intense doubts at times. But, as Paul says, he is sure that a sincere faith lives in you. In you! Even when you have trouble accessing it or feeling it, faith lives in you. And it is sufficient.
Which is why the disciples’ demand at the start of our gospel passage is both understandable and absurd. “Increase our faith!” they plead with Jesus. And it makes sense, given the preceding chapters. Jesus has told them to forgive people who cause them harm, he has told them to sell their possessions, he has told them to pick up their cross and follow him. This all seems so overwhelming, who wouldn’t cry out in desperation, “Increase our faith!” How else could we even think about doing these things?
But, again, in that letter with our name on it, we’ve been told that a sincere faith, a sufficient faith lives within us. And anyway, faith isn’t some commodity that you need to hoard in order to be more faithful. It’s not like a candy jar that you fill to the brim and suddenly all your problems are solved. Faith is not magic. We already have that tiny mustard seed of faith within us. And it is enough!
So it’s not about amassing more and more faith until you have a specific stockpile to get you through life. We’re not squirrels collecting acorns to get us through a tough winter. The spiritual life isn’t a video game where you earn more and more points until you’re fully protected from whatever onslaught comes your way. It’s all about how we use that mustard seed of faith that resides within each one of us.
We don’t need to increase our faith in order to be compassionate to those around us, to be empathetic, to love and care for both friend and stranger. Thanks be to God that we have that faith embedded in our souls, a faith sufficient to change the world and transform the lives of those around us. That is the good news that Jesus brings and that Paul’s words use to encourage us. So the real question is not about the amount of faith we have, but how we embody our faith in the world.
Fortunately, today coincides with our Ministry Fair at coffee hour. There are all sorts of ways to put your faith into action, to embody your faith through St. John’s to make a difference in the life of this community. Some of the opportunities are more inwardly focused on parish life and others are more outward looking. But I encourage you to embrace the faith that resides deep within your soul and match it to a ministry in this place. Be bold, try something new. Or share the gifts you already have. Either way, your faith will be embodied in new ways and that’s really what adds hope and meaning to life, especially when the ground we stand upon seems to be moving beneath our feet.
Maybe like that old priest I should have sent everyone a personal, handwritten letter encouraging you in your faith and inviting you to put your faith into action through this special community. I’m convinced that another word for the phrase ‘embodied faith’ is simply faith. When we follow Jesus in heart, mind and body, ministry happens. The mustard seed grows exponentially.
And while I know I couldn’t have possibly sent everyone a personal letter of encouragement, I guess I’ve been I’ve been thinking about these pastoral letters more than usual these days. Or at least the sentiments expressed within them. As I prepare to take my leave of St. John’s in a couple weeks, there are just so many things I want to say. Encouraging things, loving things, hopeful things. You are all on my heart and always will be.
For now, I just want to echo the words written to Timothy and send them to all of you. “I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you…for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and love and of self-discipline…Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the hope of the Holy Spirit living within us.”