Timothy 1:1-14, Luke 17:5-10
It is so important for each of us to find encouragement for our journey of faith as Christians and one of the most important ways is to keep in touch with your faith roots – after all, faith seeds will not grow if there are no roots sent into the ground to draw nourishment. Paul reminds the younger pastor he is mentoring to rekindle the gift of God, to recapture the spirit of courage, power, love and self-discipline in order that you might discover your grace filled purpose.
I was opening my mind and heart to remember those people who influenced my faith journey, who inspired in me a sense of where the spirit was at work in the world, and not just writers, of which there were many, but people who I encountered personally who were important in my formation as a Christian. Of course I was truly blessed by the people from my own family who come initially to mind, my grandmother and grandfather, my Mom and various aunts and uncles, but the person who rises to the surface this time was a woman named Shelley Finson, a British woman who taught at the Centre for Christian Studies and was the Supervisor for Field Education and taught a few courses. She terrified just about everyone, especially men, for she was not only very tall and a marathon runner (so very strong) but had a commanding presence with that British Accent, with the bluntness to match, but she was very focused in bringing the perspective of women to the forefront of the church, especially in leadership, in biblical interpretation and in addressing their experience of violence in their personal, academic and professional lives.
It was Shelley in the late 70’s and early 80’s that launched what was known as the Christian Feminist Movement, working alongside her Roman Catholic sisters who were fighting for the ordination of women as priests. We know how well that has gone as they are still debating even the presence of married male priests. But I think that Shelley’s work was quite successful in that she gave courage to many women to take their place in the leadership of the church, something that St Paul had also originally supported 2000 years ago.
I was deeply honoured when Shelley asked me to be one of the support people for her Doctor of Ministry Degree that she was completing at Boston University as it affirmed that even as a younger student she thought I had some wisdom to offer. I can’t say that I remember the topic of her project these many years later, but I remember being so awed not only by her intelligence but by her willingness to be vulnerable about her struggles, to be open about her insecurities in her life, to be willing to rely upon the insights of others (even me) and thereby listen for the direction that God was giving to her and her thesis.
I learned that she was not the monolithic, angry, Amazonian woman people thought her to be but was a very complex human person, seeking healing from a very painful and violent childhood, whose faith in the God who loved her was so deep. But she was always growing and reaching out to find the language and the actions that would be filled with integrity and truth and light, that expressed her faith. She gave courage to me and to so many other students to claim our sacred purpose and not to be afraid to get out there into the world to take some risks in speaking our own truth and being strong, even those of us who were women. Although she had been ordained in the early 60’s she did not feel she needed to wear a clergy collar to claim her authority, but instead always tried to find her worth in her relationship with God and Christ and those she respected and loved.
Years later she left Toronto to live in Nova Scotia where she taught at the Atlantic School of Theology, but a number of years ago she died after a lengthy fight with cancer. I felt her loss greatly even though I had not been in contact for many years. Not only when a loved one dies, but also when a mentor dies, you realize how important it is to hold onto the values, the strengths, the stories, the failings, even that they offered to you in their truth. It is so important to be intentional in holding onto those people in your hearts and the treasures of faith that they gave to you in order that you can keep holding onto your own God inspired purpose.
We know from our Indigenous brothers and sisters how important it is in their various spiritualities to honour their ancestors and the wisdom of the Elders as well as nature as a means for drawing strength for their lives and communities and for being in touch with the Creator. We know too well what happens to people, of any background who lose touch with those ancestral roots. This is the content of many of the stories I hear everyday from the people that I meet on the street who have become alienated from both their past and their own children and their own purpose.
St Paul was deeply concerned with the fate of those early churches that he had established, for they were in a time of enormous pressure and still had very tender roots. Paul is in prison, opposition is hot and furious, even within the church, and Timothy and the other church leaders are struggling to stay faithful to the gospel. It all sounds very familiar – arguments within the church over doctrine, people falling away from the faith, struggles by church leadership to remain faithful themselves and not to burn out from the conflict and struggle both within and without.
We all need a word of encouragement to keep on with our faith journeys, to keep believing that God is still with us. Paul was right there in the forefront offering words of encouragement from his prison cell in his final days that would equip Timothy and all the other church leaders to keep going forward, to keep remembering God’s great purpose for their lives which had been established since the beginning of time and were known through Christ.
I find that Paul’s words still reach across the generations with clarity and passion giving us some wisdom on how we might encourage each other on our own faith walk.
First of all, Paul lets Timothy know how much he cares about him personally, how much joy he feels in simply being in the relationship and he lets him know that he has been praying for him, night and day. I had a wonderful spiritual director in Pembroke that was Grey Sister, and after our time together where she was so very patient with my disappointments and questions, she would always tell me that she would be praying for me and my congregations. I can’t tell you how much confidence that gave me to carry on, knowing that the burdens of ministry were not mine alone.
Here at St Paul’s-Eastern you were in the past been deeply blessed with a group of people under the initiative of Ruth Stutt who prayed for all of us and for any special needs brought to their attention. Michelle Robichaud made an attempt but her leadership was not supported. It would be wonderful if that ministry could be re-initiated for our congregation. Never be afraid to let someone know that you are holding them close in prayer.
Secondly, Paul invites Timothy to remember the people in his life that have given him the gift of faith- his mother Eunice and his grandmother Lois. Even early in the life of the church, the faith of women was highly valued. Our faith doesn’t usually come out of a vacuum, but it is taught, shared and lived in our family living. Timothy evidently did have a father but he was a Greek and had either died or showed no interest in his son’s spiritual life. Paul instead became his spiritual father and guided him in the faith.
Hopefully many of us here can identify and remember the people who shaped our faith commitments, whose lives showed us the love and grace of our Lord. In some cases the seed of faith may have skipped a generation or perhaps it was an aunt or uncle, a foster parent, or a maybe even a minister, youth leader, a coach…..that opened the door to knowing the love of Christ.
I remember with great love in my heart the faith of my grandfather, John Wesley Keyes who was an elder at Wolfe Island United Church, how seriously he took his faith commitment, even at the risk of being stern, and how it was lived out in his commitment to being active in politics and local farm organizations. But at the centre of his busy schedule was his commitment to worshiping God on a Sunday morning. He took his eldership seriously.
Whether you are a single person, in a traditional family or a blended, modern family, or a student striking out on your own, Paul lifts up for us again how important the family and church family is as a place where faith is taught, practiced and lived out. And for those who had a real gap in their religious upbringing, something that is not unusual today, Paul’s relationship with Timothy reminds us how important mentoring and encouragement from another older adult or friend can be in our lives.
Paul then goes on to remind Timothy that he needs to rekindle the gifts of God’s Spirit that were given to him, not only through the faith of his family, but through the traditions of the church – his baptism or his ordination – we don’t know which. But at some point, Paul had laid hands on Timothy in order to pass on to him the spiritual gifts of God.
We all know many people who were baptized or confirmed, yet who have let their faith, and the knowledge of their faith traditions die or grow dim. But what a tragic loss, for how rich and varied are the gifts of God’s spirit. God gives us a spirit of confidence, power and discipline to meet the challenges in our lives – gifts of love, compassion and forgiveness to reach out to the situations and people that we will encounter each day. These are all gifts that we have within us, that simply need to be ignited, stirred up, called forth.
Finally, we are called to remember the one in whom we believe, the One in whose name we have been called and claimed for service in the world where suffering abounds – Jesus Christ. The life and ministry of the church began beyond the grave, beyond tragedy, beyond despair, to give us hope and strength to face the many challenges of living. This spirit of Christ has been passed from generation to generation and will not and cannot die until time is no more, until all people have been claimed by God’s gracious love. It is Christ who invites us to come to the Table for Holy Communion with him, to know and taste this love in our hearts and bodies so that we might be fed with the gifts of God’s eternal spirit.
May the God of the Cosmos and the Spirit within all living things, and alive throughout all generations, give each one of you, our families and our family of faith, the encouragement and the strength we need to live healthy, confident and courageous lives. May we sink roots deep into the love which will never give up on us, indeed whose mercies are new every morning, even on this new day.