Sermon for Proper 19, Year C: Lord, I Believe; Help My Unbelief

Here are the readings for this Sunday.

The title is a cross reference, coming from Mark 9:23-25, but speaks to today’s Epistle. The author, speaking in the spirit of Paul, proclaims that the strength that he has been given because God judged him worthy is worth more than continuing in his unbelief because in it, he gets redemption and therefore freedom from what he has done wrong.

I hate confessional sermons, because I believe that they tend to focus on the author/speaker more than they focus on God or The Christ… and as I have said before, I choose to focus on the light of God instead of the light of me. But there is one paragraph in this letter that stands out as representative of the mission on this web site:

I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners– of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.

The author puts it out there that no one is a better sinner than he is… and whether it is true or not (it’s not, because everyone does things they’re not proud of… even me), he is willing to put himself out there and talk about the grace of God by showing his own flaws and failures first. I would like to think that if the light of Christ shines in me, it is because I am willing to put out my own flaws and failures on the page, and hope it resonates in others. I am not the classic evangelist, because I believe that true salvation comes with recognizing the things about yourself that need changing, and that doesn’t come exclusively to Christians who believe in eternal life. That peace comes exclusively to anyone who asks, no matter how. Maybe you receive it from talking to yourself, and I believe that’s how the spirit of God emerges, anyway……. whether you believe there’s “someone else up there we could talk to” or not.

Resurrection, grace, mercy, and peace are yours even if you’re an atheist… those ideas just come from different places than they do for me- but the function of them is the same. To one friend I’m thinking of, I said, “it worries me that you don’t pray. With as much as you’ve got on your plate, there has to be room for a still, small voice somewhere.” She told me that she runs as a form of meditation, and I said “ok, that’s perfect. I’m not worried about the faith, just the function.” Because when we focus on fear and doubt, that’s how we live our lives. When we ask for peace and redemption, we do likewise. Life imitates art and art imitates life and we live in the reflection of both.

For instance, if I am irritable and cranky, or up to my eyeballs in grief, so is my writing and preaching. If I am tied up in the promises that God has to offer, peace comes to me on the page. When I read over my own words, those moods return to me, often tenfold, and I am letting life imitate what I’m putting out into the world…. so my light and darkness is directed where I choose.

So if I want to live in light, I have to write it down to reinforce its efficacy.

I have to live like the author of Timothy, who chooses to direct his light toward giving others the same peace he has inside himself… to use the ways God has changed him so that he is living the example and not just preaching it.

When I was a kid, Lindsay was awed by one of my dad’s sermons. After church was over, she went up to my dad and said, “Daaad… was that really true or were you just preachin?'” Lindsay’s words come to me every time I sit down to write. What is “just preachin,” and what am I doing to really live my own words instead of just saying them? What am I doing to further the Christ’s light through me, rather than directing it around me, instead?

Directing light around us happens all the time when we give others grace and peace but won’t allow ourselves to drink from it. We are more apt, in the idea of the Gospel, to search for lost sheep than we are to exorcise the demons that reside inside…. because other people’s problems are so much easier to solve than our own. This is because with others’ problems, we don’t have an emotional attachment to them. We can see with more clarity the solution because we are not stuck inside it.

Light is directed around us, rather than through.

This is not a bad thing, because we all rejoice when lost sheep are found. We are happy to see friends getting the blessings they so richly deserve… but do not always think we are worthy of them, as well.

There is an old trope in medicine- “definition of major surgery… mine.” I am using this saying to illustrate that, like the author of Timothy, we are more apt to think that our own sins are so much worse than everyone else’s. Again, though, this is not a bad thing. It shows compassion for others and a willingness to see past our own egos. At the same time, though, what are we losing by giving blessings to everyone but us?

This is the 15th anniversary of the day when we poured out our emotions for the victims of the Sept. 11th attacks on New York City, Arlington, and Stonycreek Township. Their loved ones were our “lost sheep,” and our hearts went out to them.

I, like many others, had to get over the idea of “competitive suffering.” Surely I, having heard the attacks happen and living in the terror of the sights and sounds afterward, suffered more than the people living in the heart of the Midwest. Those moments were among my most selfish, angry, and bitter. However, I failed to take into account that nearly everyone I met had some deep connection to the story. Everyone in the US, including foreigners who just happened to be traveling in the US at the time, suffered a great loss. There were no winners and losers, only broken hearts as far as the eye could see.

Some Christians fall prey to this every Sunday by thinking that Jesus on the cross suffered more than the victims of Auschwitz-Birkenau…. or the countless people needlessly slaughtered by Pol Pot… Idi Amin… Saddam Hussein… Slobodan Milošević… Vladimir Putin…. or by thinking that people are suffering from the lack of Christ in their lives and trying to help them see that Christ is the only way to receive the blessings with which we’ve been endowed… that they have suffered more because of the lack of Christ in their lives than we have.

We see these people as our own lost sheep, and when we invite them to church and they are moved by it, take it as a personal victory because we’re the ones that got them there. In those moments, light is directed around us and not through us because we see ourselves as their saviors, and not the one who really is.

We also fill up on light at church, the moments where we are all vulnerable and open… but do not carry it with us because for whatever reason, it wanes as if a candle has been blown out. We see ourselves as one when we are all in the same room, but that does not translate to forgiveness of ourselves when we are alone in our own rooms… because in our quietest moments are when our sins start to show themselves as so much worse.

What would it look like if we could carry light past the door of the church, into the doors of our homes?

What would it look like if we didn’t see the church as the building, but the collective body of the people gathered there?

What would it look like if we continually examined the light as flowing through us, rather than directed around us?

What would it look like if we weathered the storm within us before trying to throw out life preservers into the storms around us so that the people enmeshed in distress knew we were strong enough to take it?

My guess is that it would look a lot like the spirit of Paul.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s