Amazing Grace

September 12, 2010               I Timothy 1:12-17

I’ve shared probably more often than you care to hear, that I went to Peru after high school with the YES program—the same organization that Zach Hazlett went to Africa with earlier this year.
As part of that experience, I did something called “language study”.
My teammates and I met every day in a house that had been converted into a school.
We had homework to do, group classes to attend as well as one-on-one time with the teachers, conversing as best we could.
It was a fantastic, intense way to learn Spanish.
And for some reason, I remember one lesson more than all the others.
Maybe it’s because I got the right answer for once, and nobody else did!
The teacher described going to the kitchen sink, getting a cup out of the cupboard, and filling it with water.
Then he asked us where the water was (his hands were empty).
The first guy answered that the water was still in the kitchen.
He said “no” and moved on to the next person.
She said the water was in the cup.
He shook his head and said ‘no’ and moved on.
The next person said the water was in his stomach, thinking he already drank it.
He laughed and shook his head no, and then finally came to me.
He repeated his description, talking about going to the sink and getting a cup of water, and then he asked me with a twinkle in his eyes, where the water was.

The passage we’re looking at this morning comes from I Timothy.
I Timothy, II Timothy, and Titus are what are called “pastoral Epistles”, because they’re written to individuals rather than general communities of faith.
We can think of Timothy and Titus as something like pastors, or overseers of these early communities of faith that Paul was organizing.
That’s why these are called the ‘pastoral epistles’.
There’s some disagreement among biblical scholars as to whether Paul really wrote these, or if someone else wrote them using Paul’s name to give them authenticity.
After all, that was common practice in ancient times.
One of the reasons for the disagreement is in the style of writing.  For example, in the passage for today, verse 12, the author writes “I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.”
So people with maybe a little too much time on their hands look at that, and they compare it to Paul’s other letters, and they notice that there’s a difference.
It’s the difference between “Giving Thanks for the church” and “Being Grateful for the transformation Christ has worked in me”.
Paul was once a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.
Now he isn’t.
You might say he once was lost but now is found.
Well, to tell you the truth, I don’t get real excited about the stylistic differences between these Pastoral Epistles and the other Pauline literature.
I’m not real interested in picking apart the grammar, and I don’t think you are either.
What’s more interesting to me is the difference between the old Paul and the new Paul.
You could say the “lost” Paul and the “found” Paul.
What’s the difference?
Where’s the water?

The simple answer to the question my Spanish teacher gave us was that the water was just an idea.  The only place it existed was in his head.  His action of going to the sink and filling a cup–it was a reality that hadn’t happened yet, and maybe never would happen.
He was trying to teach us a different tense—how to talk about ideas, possibilities, things that might or might not happen.
I’d like to suggest that in the same way, the difference between being lost and found is in our head.
I don’t mean it’s an imaginary distinction, and I’m not making the distinction between the head and the heart.
I’m talking more about an attitude, a way of being than I’m talking about a concrete reality.
What I mean is that unless and until you’re lost, you can never be found!
Or maybe, unless and until you can ADMIT you’re lost, you can never be found.
Here in Timothy, Paul admitted he was acting in ignorance and unbelief.
We know from Acts that Paul was confronted by the Holy Spirit on his way to Damascus.  We know he was struck blind, that he was questioned as to why he was doing the things he was doing–why he was persecuting the church.
Maybe it’s a question he had never really thought about.
So often we go through our routine with no real reflection, you know?
There are lots of educators here this morning.  Isn’t it true that students learn better when they can make a mistake and reflect on it, rather than making the same unchecked mistake time after time after time?
Paul was a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.
But he was confronted on the road to Damascus, and he changed his ways.
Yesterday I was surprised to learn that Terry Jones, a pastor in Florida, had changed his mind about publicly burning a bunch of Q’uran’s on the anniversary of September 11th.
I’m glad, but I’m also surprised, because it’s so rare that you see adults–especially religious adults–who are willing to change their behavior in the face of public outcry.
More often the norm seems to be to ‘stay the course’ no matter what, insisting we’re ‘right’, denying that possibility that just maybe we’re wrong–just maybe we ARE lost.

Well, it’s easy to talk about Paul’s conversion, and it’s easy to talk about a guy in Florida who changed his mind.
The truth is, each one of us needs finding every day.  It’s not a once-and-done kind of thing.
Sure, Paul had his Damascus road moment, and certainly Reverend Jones in Florida showed a kind of conversion moment yesterday when he announced they wouldn’t be proceeding with the burning.
But unless the rest of their lives unfold in relation to that moment, it doesn’t really make any difference!

It’s kind of like this–Christine and I share a lot of responsibilities in our house, but there are still a few things I feel like are my responsibility as the man.
Things like car maintenance fall under that category.
Well, we recently took a road trip to New York to be with part of Christine’s extended family.
While we were there, her dad pointed out that our tires looked pretty chewed up and bald on our car.
I hated to admit it, but he was right.
I hadn’t really been paying much attention.  My attitude towards tires has typically been that as long as there’s air in them, they’re fine!  I know you’re supposed to rotate them and check the pressure now and then, but I was still getting where I needed to go, so I didn’t worry too much about it.
In my opinion, as a man who supposedly knew a thing or two about maintaining a vehicle, my tires were fine.
So it was kind of a blow to my pride to have someone else point out the flaw in my thinking—the shortcoming in my attitude.
So when we got back I took it to Millersburg Tire.
I had to buy four new tires, since all of them were pretty much shot.
Christine was with me when the guy looked at my tires and asked me how often I rotate them.
I was hemming and hawing, trying to act like I was a responsible car-owner, trying to act like I wasn’t a complete idiot, when she interjected the truth.
She laughed and blurted out “how about NEVER” as soon as he asked the question.
I had never rotated my tires.  And since my car was out of alignment, three of the four tires were worn thin and probably a little unsafe.
They weren’t really fit to drive on.
That’s what it’s like to be ‘lost’.  You might know exactly where you want to go, but the vehicle you’re in will eventually let you down or get you killed.
I talked about my car because that’s the safest thing I can share in public.
For Paul, his car was Judaism–and that meant persecuting the church, it meant putting heretics to death, it meant acting ignorantly and in unbelief.
He knew exactly where he was, and he knew where he was going.
But the vehicle he was in needed some serious work.

That’s how sin is.  Sin wants to keep you on the road, wearing those tires down bit by bit, so slowly that you might not even notice it.
It’s a lot easier to keep moving, and in our culture, the faster you go, the less ‘finding’ you supposedly need, you know?
But Jesus calls us to swallow our pride, admit our ignorance, pull the car over and make those expensive repairs.

My negligence cost me a couple of hundred bucks and a lot of pride—but you know, when we do the same thing in life, it’s much more costly.
The price tag often includes relationships, lives, and reputations rather than dollars and cents.

There’s a series of stories that Jesus told, where he was trying to teach people about this lost and found dynamic.
He starts by talking about someone who has a hundred sheep and loses one.  He teaches that the shepherd will leave the 99 behind to go look for the one that was lost, and that the guy will then rejoice with his friends when he finds that sheep.
Then he talks about a woman who loses one of ten silver coins, how she sweeps and cleans and goes over every inch of her house until she finds it, rejoicing with her friends when she finally does find it.
Finally he tells the story about two children and their father.  One stays home with his father and works faithfully and the other leaves home, and squanders his life and his inheritance by making really bad decisions.
Again, the father rejoices with his friends when that son returns home, when he goes from being ‘lost’ to being ‘found’.
Like Alcoholics Anonymous, like car maintenance, like choosing Jesus—becoming found begins by admitting you’re lost.  It involves searching, finding, and rejoicing when it’s done.

Paul’s whole life was turned inside out when Jesus found him.
The old Paul was claimed by the world—the world that seduced him to claim a false identity.  The world told Paul “you are what other people say you are.  You are what you accomplish.  You are how you perform”.
This is the illusion that powers the world, and it’s the illusion that Paul had accepted as truth…until he met Jesus.
After that meeting, we read most of the New Testament as a long account of Paul losing himself to that world, being found in Christ, and encouraging others to do the same!
You and I, like the old Paul, we are also seduced to believe the illusion that we are what we do, we are what we have, we are what accomplish.
But in the words of Henri Nouwen, “The great conversion …is finding the courage to say “I don’t have to ask permission from the world to live.  I am not what other people say I am.  I am not what I produce.  I am not what I own.  What I truly am is the chosen, beloved child of God.”

 

 

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