2 Timothy 4:6-18
In the passage we heard today from Timothy, we hear the struggles and pain of a person abandoned by friends, by peers, by everyone. We hear the suffering of a person who is alone, trying desperately to connect and get what he needs in the midst of the pain he is feeling. He is alone, at the mercy of those who would and did attack him and imprison him. He is also human. And as a human, he feels the sting, the hurt, the deep pain of their betrayal and abandonment. But even in the midst of that, even in the midst of that, he returns again and again to a deeper understanding of who he is. And that deeper understanding is that he is a child of God, a God who loves him, who will stand by him, who will justify him, who will not abandon or betray him. That is what he returns to each time. Who is he? A child of God. Who are we? Children of God.
The Luke passage is, in a way, a set up for all of us. Do we find ourselves feeling like the tax collector or like the Pharisee? If we are the Pharisee, we are condemned by Jesus for judging the tax collectors and others. If we see ourselves like the tax collector and others, then we have put ourselves once again in the position of the judge – this time condemning the Pharisee. No, the only way to understand this parable is to see ourselves once again by different definitions. We cannot be defined by human definitions. Perhaps in some ways we are both tax collector and Pharisee, and several commentaries I read emphasized this – that we must recognize that we are both people who strive to be good, and people who fail to be completely good at all times. We are both people who at times recognize our failure and at other times people who are grateful that we haven’t fallen as far as others – and in that gratitude become people who judge and do the opposite of what Jesus calls us to do. But, again, I think the greater truth, the truth of both of these passages is slightly different. We are not “tax collector.” We are not “Pharisee”. We are not judge and judged. Who we are, at our deepest level is, once again, that which is sometimes hardest to feel and find. We are children of God.
I know and understand that all of us have had times of feeling hurt, devastated even, by betrayal or the rejection of others. That’s part of the human condition, all of us experience disloyalty, treachery, and dismissal from people we love, we all experience these kinds of losses in our lives. We all have, we all do. But if we can separate our identity from what other people think, or say, or do to us…if we can live instead in the hope and joy of being God’s children, then we can face anything. We can stand strong in the face of pain and loss, we can rest secure knowing we are loved and held no matter what. That doesn’t mean we won’t feel the pain. Does it still hurt to feel alone? To feel inadequate? To feel judged and/or to judge others? All these things still hurt. As we saw, the Pauline author of Timothy felt the pain, too. We know of his deep and abiding faith. And yet he still hurts and struggles. That is human. But he SURVIVES and has meaning and joy and life and love because of who he is at the deepest level – he is one who belongs to God. For us, too, in those times of loss and pain, rejection and betrayal, we don’t have to lose our sense of self, our sense of value, the joy and meaning we find in life – because we belong to God. And being God’s children gives us joy, gives us meaning, gives us love even when we are not getting it from other humans.
In the book The Life of Pi, Pi says, “Faith in God is an opening up, a letting go, a deep trust, a free act of love – but sometimes it was so hard to love. Sometimes my heart was sinking so fast with anger, desolation and weariness, I was afraid it would sink to the very bottom of the Pacific and I would not be able to lift it back up….Despair was a heavy blackness that let no light in or out. It was a hell beyond expression. I thank God it always passed…The blackness would stir and eventually go away, and God would remain, a shining point of light in my heart. I would go on loving.” (p209)
God offers us that. God offers that constantly and faithfully – connection, love, light, meaning, joy. But the challenge for us is to take the personal time to connect with it, even when it is hard, even when there are pressures not to, even when we feel despair.
Mitch Albom described it this way, “The (Rabbi) puttered from room to room in quiet contemplation. Having survived the Great Depression and two world wars, he was no longer thrown by headline events. He kept the outside world at bay by keeping the inside world at hand. He prayed. He chatted with God. He watched the snow out the window. And he cherished the simple rituals of his day: the prayers, the oatmeal with cereal, the grandkids, the car trips with (his wife), the phone call to old congregants."(p 223)
I'm reminded of the joke about the man who complained that he wasn't able to reach his pastor by phone one day; when the clergy replied that it was his/her day off, the man snarled: well, the Devil never takes a day off. To which the wise pastor smiled and said: true enough and if I don't take a day off I would be just like him.
And why would he be like him? I think the slope into evil starts with a feeling that we lack love. If we feel unloved, we stop caring enough to love in return, despite the rejection. My kids and I have been watching Star Trek the Next Generation episodes. And we saw an episode yesterday in which the crew encountered something that defined itself as a “skin of evil”. It quickly became clear that this “skin of evil” defined itself this way and fed off of others’ pain because of its own hurt and feeling of being abandoned. It self-defined as something that got joy out of others’ suffering because of its rage at having been left, rejected, abandoned. Humans need love to live. They need love to survive. We know this from studies. And when they don’t have enough of it, or when they are damaged by rejection and abandonment, that is when they can turn to evil. But the truth is that no one is ever without it, not really. Because God offers it constantly. And if we can remember that we are loved, if we can turn to that love even when human love fails us (and it will because none of us is perfect – we all make mistakes and we all suffer from them and from the mistakes of others), then we do not have to sink, we do not have to give up, we do not have to become bitter or jaded or revengeful or torn apart by rage.
Paul’s faith continued with him to the end and so even at the end, his life had meaning and grace. When we recognize, in reading stories like the one we heard about the Pharisees and tax collectors, that none of what we do or feel – for good or for bad defines us, we, too, can hold on to that meaning. Who are we? We are God’s children. That is your identity. That is what gives you value, worth, and the blessings of this day. That is what defines who you are. You are God's and ultimately, nothing else matters. Amen.