This coming Sunday, we have as the reading from the New Testament a selection from Paul's first letter to Timothy. These two epistles, regardless of origin (a debate continues as to Paul's actual authorship), are for me a pivotal experience of a young person in the faith being coached as a leader by one who has, proverbially speaking, been there and back. Paul is attempting to remind Timothy, to teach and to exhort him in what it means to be a leader in the church. It is not from a point of pride and power, but from humility and submission to God and neighbor.
As I sat in my study reading this passage from the first epistle (citation of the verse noted in the title of this posting), I heard echoing up from somewhere down deep in my soul a recitation of the old 1928 liturgy's "comfortable words" that the priest would intone after pronouncing absolution over the congregation. This was before the peace was announced and the offertory began. It served as a lynch pin in the Sunday morning Eucharistic experience...and in my memory was always that moment of relief, refreshment and tempo shift I needed as a child kneeling in the pew during the long, and seemingly interminable prayer of the people.
"This is a true saying, and worthy of all men [sic] to be received, That Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners...." We are all sinners being saved by Jesus, that I could and desired to accept as Good News...but as a priest now I find it odd that the last portion of the verse was left off by the framers of the BCP, "...---of whom I am the foremost." That is something, Paul admitting to his pupil that of all sinners, he is the one who stands first convicted before God. Verse sixteen does a quick follow up,
"But for the 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."This is a model of Christian leadership and it lays up a way of thinking about life here in the world today, in this collapsed consumer culture, that calls to account our way of doing business, both in the world and in the Church. What is it like to see leaders standing before us, not projecting "strength" and "confidence" but instead "humility" and "meekness?" For one thing, the first casualty is certainty. As I observe the current state of the many controversies that afflict us (most of them are SELF-inflicted, mind you), I am aware that it is out of posturing certainty that most actions are effectively bent to the will of the enemies of God. Burning a Qu-'ran in retaliation for the burning of American flags in retaliation for colonial exploitation in retaliation for....., does that do anything to ring in the kingdom of God? Or, instead, does it assault the very basic underpinnings of what it means to follow a savior in the person of Jesus Christ who exhorts us again and again to love one another above all else save love for God?
Too many times in my own life, when I have felt threatened or afraid, I have reacted with either overt or passive aggression. Punch it, manipulate it, avoid it or destroy it....because it scares me. That is not behavior that is faithful to my God, the one who creates, redeems and sanctifies me on a daily, and for my part undeserved, basis.
A good friend whose father was an Episcopal Priest spent her childhood on the front lines of "Christian" community. She remembers being a little girl and having her father's parishioners come up to her in order to criticize her dad's work as a leader, hoping that she would communicate displeasure to him in his work. When she expressed her frustration and sorrow to her father, his response was consistent..."Remember, honey, that the Church is a hospital for sinners." In other words, why expect a sinner to be a saint just because they are in a place of healing....sick people (sinners) take time to heal (experience and express grace).
Claiming our identity as Christians means, I am learning, to first recognize our plight and reality as sinners-as people who fail to or reject the will of God working in our lives and through us in the world.
Mercy means seeking solutions with your enemies...and being willing to model behavior we would rather see, both in others and in ourselves. It means recognizing when we come up short, again and again, while rejoicing in a God who is with us in success...and rejoices as we learn from our stumblings and defeats.
When will people begin to realize that the true enemy that threatens our "way of life" is not some outsider extremist who lurks at the borders of our homeland like a lion, roaring and slavering as it waits to devour. The true enemy is the lion of pride and certainty that prowls and stalks in and among us...that trait we have in assuming that we are first and foremost among humanity because we are worth it, because we deserve it or own it....
We are "first" only when we accept that prime place in the great line of humanity before God as sinners redeemed by the undeserved love of a savior who was willing to become the least of us in order to deliver us to the greatest of graces, the forgiveness of our God and creator.
So, today I rejoice. I am a sinner, a really, really bad sinner....and God loves me, no more or less than any other...and yet that love is without limit, infinite and never-ending. I pray that one day I might find it in me to surrender completely to its embrace. For now, I continue to repeat the Confession, to seek the Absolution and to attempt to live out the comfortable words that the BCP faithfully reminds me are my true heritage as a child of God.