Saturday, 2 October 2010

Harvest Festival - Doing what we ought to do

2 Timothy 1:1-14

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, for the sake of the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus,
To Timothy, my beloved child:
Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.
I am grateful to God—whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did—when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Saviour Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. For this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher and for this reason I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him. Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.

Luke 17:5-10
The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ The Lord replied, ‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea”, and it would obey you.

‘Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from ploughing or tending sheep in the field, “Come here at once and take your place at the table”? Would you not rather say to him, “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink”? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!” ’

Today is our harvest thanksgiving, but as well as giving thanks to God for the physical harvest, we are also bringing forward that which we have earned by using our gifts in the Lent challenge. I want us to think a little about this personal harvest in the context of servanthood by beginning with the reading from the second letter of Paul to Timothy before applying that back to the Gospel reading.

In order to understand what’s going on in the second letter to Timothy, it’s helpful to understand some of the events surrounding it and the people involved. Who was this Timothy that St. Paul refers to as his beloved child? And what was the situation that St. Paul was in that prompted him to write to Timothy?

Let me first tell you about St. Paul’s situation. We’re now very late in his ministry and beyond the scope of the story told in Acts. At the end of that book St. Paul was under house arrest in his own lodgings in Rome and people were free to come and go to visit him, and for two years he proclaimed the gospel to all who visited. But although that was the end of Luke’s story, it wasn’t the end of St. Paul’s life.

It seems likely that after this period he was released and continued his missionary journeys for another period of time before being arrested once more and imprisoned again in Rome. However this imprisonment was very different from his house arrest. If we were to read on a few verses Paul tells Timothy about how one of his friends, Onesiphorus, had to search all Rome to find where he had been incarcerated, and this time Paul was in chains.

The reason this letter seems to be so full of emotion is that this time St. Paul knew that his time was up, and I expect that many of us have experienced those times where we are at the end of our tether, and so often that is the occasion where our emotions run freely and we tell people how much they mean to us and how we’re really feeling.

You know how it is when we say to people, ‘How are you?’ and they answer, ‘Oh I’m fine’, even though you know they have a few struggles. But once things get really bad and someone asks how we are, then we may find ourselves in tears because it’s finally all become too much. That seems to be the emotional point that St. Paul is at.

There are some heart-rending moments in the letter, such as when he urges Timothy to come soon, which he does twice in the last few sentences. In those last few lines he asks Timothy to get the cloak he left with Carpus at Troas, and to please come before winter. Basically Paul is saying, ‘I am alone, I may not have much longer, and in this dungeon I am cold and fear what the winter will bring.’ It’s deeply personal.

Two early historians, Jerome and Eusebius, date Paul’s beheading by Nero to AD67 or 68 so this letter was probably written about AD66 . And yet even in the midst of this suffering Paul manages to try and encourage Timothy with words that suggest that maybe Timothy was a quiet and slightly timid man who needed to be more courageous in difficult situations.

So who was Timothy? Well despite St. Paul’s greeting, Timothy was not literally his son. We know this because at the beginning of Acts 16 St. Luke tells us of the first occasion of St. Paul meeting Timothy whose mother was a Jewish Christian and whose father, it says, was a Greek. Their relationship was probably more one where St. Paul began as a mentor but went on to become a deep friend.

When I was in Bedford as a curate a significant proportion of my time was spent with the older teens in the church. One of the joys for us, through the work Ali has continued with them through nChant, has been to watch them grow into adults. With the passing of time the shape of the relationship changed so that there have been occasions when some of them have offered us great support rather than the other way around.

My suspicion is that this was exactly the kind of relationship Paul and Timothy had, of one that began as one thing, with Paul acting as mentor to begin with, but deepened and developed into a friendship on a very profound level over the course of two decades so that Paul depended on Timothy.

And I suspect that Paul and Timothy probably didn’t see each other terribly often, but when they did it was as if no time had passed; I’m sure you know the kind of friendship.

Timothy was, if you like, a third generation Christian. St. Paul refers to his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice as having been believers, so Timothy was someone who had been brought up with faith in the household, and I find it interesting that St. Paul mentions two women, but not their husbands which makes me wonder whether we’re seeing a story oft repeated in our lives now, where it is the mother who brings her children to faith.

And so, as Timothy’s mentor, Paul took him as a companion on his missionary journeys. They were the first Christians into Europe. As trust grew he would leave Timothy in charge of a church whilst he went on to the next missionary project. Timothy was perhaps his closest friend because he was always dependable.

Now let’s link all of this back story to harvest and the Gospel reading. You see when we talk about harvest thanksgiving we’re doing two things here. Firstly, and rightly, we’re thanking God for the crops which we have to sustain us through another year, and we give thanks for the farmers and their workers who choose a sometimes difficult life to provide food for the nation.

But we also think about a spiritual harvest and about the use of the gifts God has given us, and this is where the readings we’ve had today can help us to get a proper context on these things. I think the issue is how we deal with the use of gifts. Let me firstly say that I am personally very grateful to everyone who gives of their time and their gifts to the church in this place.

Without you there would be no music, no flowers, no young people, no refreshments or coffee shop, the church would be a tip and the sound system would never work. I could go on. But those of you who organise your own teams of volunteers will know that sometimes it takes a lot of work actually to convince people they should use their gifts and get involved.

And sometimes, even after someone is persuaded to help, it’s very easy to lose them if something doesn’t go quite according to plan. I know that some of you really struggle to keep enough people to run the work that you’re doing, and yes, by the way, that is a warning that some of you should expect to be asked to help in the near future!

And once you have people on side and they’re helping then there is the perennial need to keep thanking them for what they’ve done. So I’d like you to ask yourself how important it is that someone regularly acknowledges your contribution. There is a need in human nature for a sense of reward.

I think that this is perhaps more prevalent now than it used to be since there is less of a sense of duty in the national consciousness, but perhaps some of the older members amongst us can shed some light on that. But I know how important it is to me that someone thanks me when I’ve done something well.

Now compare that to St. Paul. The situation he finds himself in is pretty awful. He’s given up the lion’s share of his life to travel and preach the gospel right across the Mediterranean. He’s been beaten up, stoned, whipped, imprisoned, and now he’s back in prison and this time he’s in chains and cold and it looks like the end is near.

You can sense his loneliness that so many appear to have deserted him for their own ends - in other words they wanted some return for their hard work. All St. Paul wants is a little company and some warmth. Near the end of the letter he tells Timothy, ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.’

He’s not looking for anything more, he’s simply pleased that he has managed to fulfil his ministry. He has used his gifts and the Lord has reaped a harvest through the work he has done. And what do we find when he addresses Timothy? Do we get a long list of thank you’s for doing this, and doing that. Does Paul thank Timothy for the harvest he’s reaping? No. Actually it’s far from it.

In fact it’s quite the reverse. St. Paul actually gently chides him, presumably for being too timid, by saying, ‘I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands.’ It’s all quite matter-of-fact. Paul doesn’t thank him simply because he expects Timothy to use his gifts because if you’re a Christian then that’s what you do!

Let’s reflect that back to the Gospel reading because it’s all there for us in absolute black and white. We often make a lot of the passages where we here nice phrases like, ‘Well done good and faithful servant - enter into my rest.’ But what we have in this Gospel passage is a very clear teaching about the gifts that we have been given and it simply this:

It is expected that we will use the gifts God has given us in his service in the church. When we do that, when we use our gifts, and when God is able to reap a harvest through us, that is quite simply how it should be. And whilst we find ourselves saying thank you to each other a lot, and I know how much it means to me to be thanked, but the spiritual reality is that we have been given gifts to be used in reaping a spiritual harvest for the Lord and it is our duty to do so.

When we do, and when we see good things happen, what we should actually be saying to ourselves what we find at the end of the parable: ‘We have just done what we ought to have done’.

Now I expect that some of us might find these words hard. I know I did as I wrote them since, like most of my sermons, I’m preaching it to myself first. But unless we realise this truth, that we all have a duty to serve God in the church, then the current situation will persist.

What I mean by that is that some people will be stretched so thinly that they are on the verge of snapping because we are not prioritising our servanthood as we should.

What then can we take from this at harvest? I believe it is this. We should thank God for the good gifts he has given us. And we should thank God for the physical and spiritual harvest he is giving us. And yes we should thank each other for the hard work that is being put in because it is right and gracious to recognise another’s hard work on our behalf. But that thanking of each other should not be a part of cajoling to get us to use our gifts.

We should be using our gifts and reaping a harvest simply because we are servants of God and servants are meant to work. So we should each be asking ourselves, ‘What is my role? What are my gifts? And what do I need to be giving up in order to serve God in this way?’

So thank you all for using your gifts in the Lent challenge. Thank you to the person whose idea it was. Thank you for using your gifts in the service of Christ and his church for a financial harvest to continue what we’re doing here. But may the work that we have done now be a constant reminder that this is not something special; that reaping a harvest from the gifts we have been given is our duty. As Jesus put it, ‘We have done only what we ought to have done.’ Amen.

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