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100 out of 100

Rev. Dan Smith
Sun, Sep 22

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Text: 1 Timothy 1: 12-17

Before I read our passage from Paul’s First Letter to Timothy a little context is in order:  Though our tradition attributes the letter to Paul, most scholars agrees that the writer is not Paul but rather an early Christian that was familiar with Paul’s writings and teachings.  Whoever may have written this letter, the relationship between the writer and recipient is clear.  The author positions himself as the older and wiser mentor to Timothy, a young church leader.  Timothy has been charged with building up an early church community, probably somewhere in Ephesus and early in the second century.  The letter begins with the customary salutations, Dear Timothy, etc, and continues into a series of instructions on church teaching and order.   Before the instructions, the writer offers a moment of heartfelt testimony.  Starting in Chapter 1, verse 12: 


1 Timothy 1: 12-17

1:12 I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, 1:13 even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 1:14 and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.1:15 The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners--of whom I am the foremost. 1:16 But for that 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.


So I struggled with this passage, far more than usual, and I did something I rarely do. I actually wrote out a full sermon, almost two really, and then bagged them both because I felt like I wasn’t going anywhere with them. I wasn’t connecting with our text in a way that felt even remotely satisfying.  I struggled and wrestled with these lines from Timothy in that love-hate kind of way I often engage scripture but this one was particularly rugged.  Every time I thought I had a handle on it, it would slip away from me. 

You’d think a text like this was low hanging fruit for a preacher.  After all, it’s a relativey straight-forward statement of Christian faith, a testimony of God’s and Christ’s mercy touching and transforming that least likely of subjects, St. Paul of Tarsus, a formerly infamous persecutor of the early Christians.  It’s got all the right elements – gratitude and humility, sin and salvation, grace and vocation.  It gives glory to God with an ancient, probably Jewish, doxology, to “God the King of the ages, immortal, invisible”! What’s more, it’s based on a if not the classic narrative of religious conversion and it offers a basic template on which countless other conversion stories have been modeled throughout centuries of Western religious experience. Paul or Augustine or Luther or even Malcolm X, it’s the same story, that story of encounter with God’s amazing grace, of being lost then found, of moving from sin and separation to healing and wholeness. It’s the story of the Christian experience of salvation, and with it always come a shift from one’s former life and ways to a new life and ever new days. 

William James, the great Harvard psychologist, noted just these elements of conversion in his classic study of the psychology of religion called the “Varieties of Religious Experience.”  In an effort to crystalize his findings and at the conclusion of his famous 1902 Gifford Lectures, James asks: “Is there, under all the discrepancies of creeds, a common nucleus to which they bear their testimony unanimously?”  He answers in the affirmative and goes on to contend that “the warring God and their formulas do indeed cancel each other, but there is a certain uniform deliverance in which all religions appear to meet. It consists of two parts:  1. An uneasiness and 2. A Solution. 

“The uneasiness”, he writes, “reduced to its simplest terms is a sense that there is something wrong about us as we naturally stand.  The solution is a sense that we are saved from the wrongdoing by making proper connection with the higher power.”  He hastens to add that such wrongness tends to “take a moral character” and that such salvation often “takes a mystical tinge”. 

I first read this in my freshman year of college in a Religion 101 class.  Not surprisingly at my very liberal, liberal arts college, some of my classmates revolted against James, saying his analysis was biased towards Western and specifically Protestant ideas of religion and religious experience.  I got that and I gave it to them – the charge was fair. But my beef with James was more personal.  While I could understand his every beautifully written word, I couldn’t connect with him either, not fully, not personally. I had that same unsatisfied feeling I had while reading 1st Timothy.  

 You see, I’d had and continue to have my share of highly religious and spiritual moments but a true conversion experience that connected all the dots, like that of Paul, like that which James describes, I’m just not sure I’ve known the pleasure.  I know all the elements, and maybe you do too, that sense that something isn’t quite right in my life, those failures of integrity, those times when I let myself down.  Mind you, I continue to feel these things with ongoing regularity!  I know or at least I think I know something of God’s grace as well, to the point where I’ve been terrified at the thought of being so loved so deeply despite all my faults.   I believe, really believe, I’ve received that bold love and mercy in my heart in ways that have felt both replenishing and true.  And what’s more, I’ve experienced Christ as well, in powerful moments of meditation, in and through his stories and teachings that have laid a genuine claim upon my heart.  I think I have some idea of what this divine love and peace feels like in my life and also in this community with all. Indeed, it’s a love and peace the world can neither give nor take away.  All of these are pieces and varieties of religious experience, no doubt, but never have they come to me on such a neat and tidy and linear arc as the one that Paul describes here.

 For me, maybe like some of you, when I sing Amazing Grace, when I belt out those lines “I once was lost and now am found”, I can mean it in that moment with all my heart, but that feeling of being found is not a lasting one.  Truth to tell, I’m often lost again before the service has ended!  I mean if only I once was lost!  I wish I was lost once!  But being lost tends to be far more my default than being found.  Its only now that I finally realize that texts like this one, any effort really to neatly package this kind of “before and after” religion elude me. The fact remains that I see my own connection with God, indeed my own salvation, as far more of a gradual and slow burn process, more a string of scattered moments.  For me, conversion takes a lifetime and its still going, not once, not for all.  So thus explains at least part of my lack of connection with this text, but that’s not all.

 I realized I was also frustrated that Paul, or maybe Pseudo Paul, makes this business of sin and salvation look so easy.  He makes failure and admitting it look easy. He makes mercy and receiving it, look easy.  He makes giving God all the credit look easy.  All of it makes me wonder.  I wonder if this might be because what he says about himself is true, that he was the foremost of sinners, the worst sinner.  Maybe he just had more and better material to work with than most of us!  Maybe.

 Even more deeply though, I’m pretty sure what lies at the heart of my dissatisfaction is the fact that I just haven’t wanted to look at or wrestle with the question of sin, what it means not merely in the world, not merely in “theological terms”, but what it means and what it looks like in my daily life.   Despite my reading and appreciation of the central place sin holds in most Christian theology, I confess.  I too have adopted some of that largely liberal aversion to the very notion of sin.  And so I’ve barely begun the hard work of recognizing the role of sin in my own life. I think that’s the rub I was missing in those first two drafts.

 You see, Paul testifies beautifully and profoundly about how the grace of the Lord overflowed for him, about how grateful he is for God’s mercy and patience. But that grace didn’t just happen!  His realization of that grace only came inverse proportion to his recognition of and repentance of his own sins!  Indeed, he realized in his heart or hearts that God’s forgiveness waited, as we sang earlier, it waited a long time for him, “like water on a stone, wearing” away those stones of his self righteous and violent ways.

 Let me stop there and say that if the word sin is problematic for you, I invite you to think of it not in terms of bad or immoral behavior but in terms of a condition of our being human.   Theologians have pointed out for years that at a most basic or root level, sin is a state of separation, a state of being separate from who we are called and created to be. Put another way, we all have moments when we live in ways that separate us and divide us from our best selves and our best intentions, when we act in misguided ways given just division and separation. We also live in ways that separate and distance us from our neighbors, and separate and distance us from God.  So if sin is too loaded a term for you, for now and suffice it to say, try thinking of sin in terms of separation!

 Some of us can and do still talk good game about the sins and even separations of things like sexism and racism and homophobia, the sins inherent in our systems that sustain economic inequality. There’s little to no offense in calling racism a sin!  But it’s far easier to talk about that it is to talk about our individual wrong-doing or the ways we live out of step with God’s love.  As the theologian Christine Pohl has noted, it just gets “too personal, too pious and too intrusive to name another person’s particular wrongdoing as sin” And, “even when faced with our own wrongdoing, we often find ways to distance ourselves, to shift the blame elsewhere or to conclude that it somehow just "happened." But, she says, “our unwillingness to face sin makes repentance irrelevant. And without repentance, there is no healing. At best we limp away or press on in the weak hope that things will ease with time.” 

 In Paul’s case, he had his work cut out for him when it came to repentance.  One could say he had a lot of practice in repenting for his hateful ways.  Much ink has been spilled over the irony of how he began as a chief persecutor of early Christians, Public Enemy #1, victimizing and causing violence to those first followers of the Way of Jesus.  But only out of this depth of his remorse, out of re-evaluation of his life and purpose, springs the confidence he now proclaims in God’s patience and love. Only from a careful reckoning and inventory of his past was he able to greet a day of new beginnings, able to move on with his life and work.  Those of us who are familiar with the narrative may well lose an appreciation for how incredible his story, and his change of heart is!  A modern day parallel might be a gay bashing preacher turned into a champion of gay rights!  Miracles like these are known to happen, and we may be seeing early signs and promises of just such repentant transformation coming out the Vatican, and Pope Francis in particular!  But even if our conversions are smaller in scale, and of a more day to day variety, the gift of the awareness of our sin is the same.

 Pohl goes onto say “There is no way to understand the depths of mercy and grace if we don't recognize the capacity for sin within ourselves. Of course, there are risks. We can be buried by a "worm" theology, but our present danger seems to run in the opposite direction. With little sense of our need, we take God's welcome for granted and have little appreciation for the grace that holds our lives.”

 First Church, I ask you, what would a robust awareness of our own sin look like?  What is your sense of your need for forgiveness, say beyond the sixty seconds a week of silent reflection after the invitation to confession?  I don’t know about you but for sixty seconds doesn’t being to cover what I need to be confessing!  How could we take Paul’s testimony as a model for our own vulnerability and humility and basic honesty?  And what could such risk taking, sin-bearing testimony do to strengthen our own resolve to share God’s grace with others.  What would it look like to sit and meditate upon your sins, to really take stock of where you’ve gone wrong, or where you’ve missed opportunities?  

 One idea is to pray them out, and if helps, after you’ve come up with one, pray “God have mercy on me a sinner”.  You could try it like this:  God, I haven’t done all that I can for the poor.  Have mercy on me a sinner. God, I’ve held myself to too high or too low expectations. Have mercy on me a sinner. God, I haven’t treated my body as a temple. Have mercy on me a sinner.  For others, it may be enough to just review your days, to examine your conscience along the lines of the spiritual practices of St. Ignatius.  The “examen” as its called it’s a daily cycle of questions and prayers you can use to review your days.   Whatever the method, I invite you to see what happens over time as you grow in your awareness of your sin!  You might just find yourself in the midst of a more grateful, humble, intimate and even joyful connection with God. 

 Indeed, there are risks in taking sin seriously, risks of over doing it.  Please know this is not an invitation to shame ourselves or one another. On the contrary, it’s an invitation to awareness, and to realize that God’s grace shines most brightly through the cracks of our often well-polished self images. We might find ourselves more sympathetic and less heartless to those whose sins have already been exposed.  A regular acknowledgement of our sin might find us far less susceptible to claims of being self-righteous. By the way, did you catch what it said in that reading from Luke:  “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance:.  And did you notice that in order to be found, we have to be lost first?  That’s a relief! And, did you notice who Jesus is eating with?  Sinners.  I can relate to that as well.   The overall message could not be clearer – be aware of the sinners all around and the sinner who is surely within you!  And turn to God for forgiveness and grace that will overflow your heart and blow your minds with love.  To do any less is to take for granted God’s grace, to take for granted God’s great welcome to the fold.

 The fact is we haven’t spoken a lot about sin around here lately, perhaps because we’re afraid we won’t like the conversations.  And yet, the rewards of knowing all the more deeply that grace that we can’t stop talking about will continue to beg the question.  To what extent do we know that we are sinners, every one of us?  To what extent are we willing to embrace and not shove under a rug the reality of our regular wrong-doing, our un-doing and our not-doing?  Note: for some, our sins may well involve self-shame, self-flagellation and self-doubt. For others, our worst sins come out is simply thinking, however unwittingly, that we Cambridge types know better and are better and can always do and be better.  This is just the beginning of the varieties of sin that can lead us to ever new varieties of genuinely religious experience, maybe even a mystical one.

 I’d like to close by sharing a favorite poem.  Some of you have heard it before.  It’s called “A Contribution to Statistics” by Wislawa Szymborska.  See if you can find yourself amidst this cast of characters, and amidst their sins and their graces.

 Out of every hundred people,

those who always know better —fifty-two,

doubting every step —nearly all the rest,

glad to lend a hand if it doesn’t take too long —as high as forty-nine,

always good, because they can’t be otherwise —four, well, maybe five,

able to admire without envy —eighteen,

living in constant fear of someone or something —seventy-seven,

capable of happiness —twenty-something tops,

harmless singly, savage in crowds —half at least,

cruel when forced by circumstances —better not to know even ballpark figures,

wise after the fact —just a couple more than wise before it,

taking only things from life —forty (I wish I were wrong),

hunched in pain, no flashlight in the dark —eighty-three sooner or later,

worthy of compassion —ninety-nine,

mortal —a hundred out of a hundred. Thus far this figure remains unchanged

Love that poem!  Whether you are part of the 52 that always know better, whether you are one of the happy or hunched, the cruel or the wise, perhaps the gift of today’s message is the knowledge that 100 of 100 of us, every single one of us, are also sinners! The more we can get used to that idea, the more joy there will be in heaven, the more overflowing God’s grace will be in our hearts.  Amen.




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