Real Life

 A Sermon for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 21 – Year C – 29 September 2013
John Edward Miller, Rector

 There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will bring about at the right time– he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.

As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.

                                                                                           – 1 Timothy 6:6-19


The Collect

O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 Did you ever receive letters from your parents when you were away at summer camp or at college? I didn’t have the camp experience, but my college post office box got regular installments from home, especially during my freshman year, and particularly before big party weekends. There would be sermons from my home church, notes and cards, as well as the well-timed care packages filled with homemade goodies. All of these were my parents’ efforts to keep in touch, and to remind me that I was loved.  And to make me think before I did anything unwise or unseemly. In retrospect I’m thankful for my Mom and Dad’s long-distance guidance, which mostly worked.

I regret that today’s campers and students don’t have the experience of that daily trek to the post office. I know that mobile phones, social media, face time, and Skype are very heartening ways of keeping parents and children virtually present to each other. However, the presence of these media is not comparable to the impact made by a sealed, hand-addressed envelope or parcel. Looking through the tiny window in a post office box, and seeing a letter inside, got the pulse pounding. All mail was welcome, because we knew it took time and effort to write a letter. We would hold it in our hands and determine the identity of the sender by recognizing the handwriting or a return address.

One day, though, I pulled a small envelope from my box and noticed that my name and address were typed. Flipping it over, I read the typewritten return address. It was from my childhood home. This was a mystery, I thought. Who would type a letter to me from home? And then I knew. It was from Dad, and I got choked up just looking at the typing. Now that may not seem unusual in the least, but it was. In fact it was extraordinary. My father was totally disabled by polio, and because of paralysis, had no use of his arms and hands. But he was super smart and loaded with ingenuity. Dad figured out how to set up a typewriter on the footboard of a bed, and with the help of my Mom and brother, he was then able to sit up and type with his toes. Every letter he composed was a magnificent gift. He sent words meant to motivate, as well as to praise me. Dad had a great sense of humor, and with tongue in cheek he would joke about fraternity life and its excesses. He never got to see my college, or my fraternity house, but he let me know that he was with me, cheering me on to enjoy life, but to keep my head about me as I did. Along with Mom’s letters and sermon-enclosures, his short, pithy notes helped me do just that.      

The Apostle Paul did not have a son. But his letters to Timothy sound like epistles sent by a father to his son far from home. Paul’s correspondence to Timothy is filled with words of encouragement, loving exhortation, and pastoral advice. Paul was Timothy’s mentor in the Christian faith, yet his regard for his young colleague is not simply professional. Paul’s purpose was lovingly parental; he wrote to keep his protégé on track, and to shepherd him toward worthy pursuits.

In this effort he also sounds a great deal like Shakespeare’s Polonius, who imparts wisdom to his son, Laertes, who was preparing to leave Denmark to further his education in Paris. Polonius’ words in this monologue are some of the most often quoted from Hamlet.  He says:

 Yet here, Laertes? Aboard, aboard, for shame!

The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail,

And you are stayed for. There, my blessing with thee.

And these few precepts in thy memory

Look thou character. . . .

Give every man thy ear but few thy voice;

Take each man’s censure but reserve thy judgment.

. . . Neither a borrower nor a lender be,

For loan oft loses both itself and friend,

And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.

This above all: to thine own self be true,

And it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Farewell. My blessing season this in thee.[1]


 “To thine own self be true.” In other words, take care of yourself, and be mindful of your moral compass; there are many temptations that can lead you astray.

Our beloved Parson, Holt Souder, had his own version of that kind of encouragement in his youth. I remember him fondly recalling that his grandmother had a habit of snagging him just as he was leaving the family home for a date or a gathering of his Charlottesville buddies. She’d call out, “Holt, come here for a moment.” Her teenaged grandson would dutifully report to her chair in the living room. She’d look him in the eye and say, every time, “Holt, before you go out tonight, I want you to remember who you are and where you’ve come from.” That charge was her way of keeping her grandson on track with family mores and standards of conduct. Holt’s grandmother had the long range in view; she promoted his love of the Episcopal Church and his interest in the ordained ministry. Good shepherds have an eye on the future, as well as a realistic understanding of the devices and desires of the human heart. They know that all we like sheep have a remarkable tendency to wander.

Urgings of this sort are a parent’s privilege and sacred duty. You may have delivered some of your own from time to time. I hope so, because you have much wisdom and experience to draw upon as you counsel your children. Parental exhortations are calls to integrity, and honor, and virtue. They extol the ethics of the moral obligation and the doing of good. And they set the bar of kindness, respect, and civility at a height that exceeds our grasp, but inspires our best nonetheless. Sometimes I think that Holt recounted his grandmother’s admonition for my benefit too. You see, our relationship was not unlike that of Paul and Timothy. Like the Apostle, Holt’s fondest and most fervent wish is that his Timothy, John Miller, would always remember who he is, and whose he is.

Shortly before he died, Holt spoke almost those very words from his bed in the hospital ICU. In the letter Paul calls Timothy “man of God,” and that’s what my Parson wanted me to remember as well. It was his benediction, his “God be with you” moment, and I’ll never forget it.

Paul counsels Timothy to avoid the distractions that would lead him toward paths of self-gratification rather than the way of true godliness. He admonishes him to stay focused, to fight the good fight of faith, and to “take hold of eternal life.” But that begs the question, “What makes life eternal?” Timothy is urged to take hold of it, so it is clear that Paul is referring to something present. He is saying that the life eternal is now, and not simply somewhere over the rainbow. It is a dimension of our precious human experience, rather than a quest for immortality. Eternal life is transformed life, resurrected life – in the now. Eternal life is what we seek when we come to Church. Listening to Paul, hearing the parables of Jesus, we sense the nearness of eternity, and we wish to grasp it, to hold it close, and to live as God would have us live. Thy kingdom come, Lord; thy will be done on earth – in us – as it is in heaven.

But what about Paul’s reference to riches? What bearing does wealth have on the life eternal? Paul was a realist. He knew about the world, and he knew himself well. Money is a source of power. With it one can exercise control over certain aspects of life. It can promote pleasure, leisure, security, and personal welfare. It can also be used as leverage to manipulate, control, and rule people and property. So riches have the potential to foster self-absorption and acquisitiveness as ends in themselves. That is why Paul warns Timothy about the allure of wealth. He does not condemn wealth, branding it dangerous, but instead teaches that the love of money is the root of evil. Like Luther would later say, “Whatever thy heart clings to and relies upon is thy god.” When anything displaces God from the center of one’s life, it becomes the idol one worships.

However, the power of wealth is not restricted to self-serving ends. Paul wants Timothy to know that, because he had been commissioned to supervise the Church in Ephesus. His influence would affect and guide the community there, including those Christians who possessed wealth. Paul’s counsel not only advises Timothy to maintain his integrity as a man of God, but also to promote similar virtue among the Ephesians. He says:

As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.

 “The life that really is life.” That phrase resounds; it rings with truth today. Paul is clearly looking at the spiritual North Star, the point of God’s light that guides us toward the eternal now. For him that is the way, the truth, the life. But it is reasonable for us to want to share his view, and to ask him, “What is it that makes life real?” And if we’ll pause in our business and pay attention, Paul will tell us that he’s talking about the depth of our commitment to love God without reservation, and to love our neighbor (who is everyone) as ourself. He’s talking about being grounded in compassion, outreach, and service to others rather than spending our precious time in superficial pursuits that never finally satisfy our deepest longings. “That’s real life, that’s eternal life,” he says. “Take hold of it, and hang on for dear life. It’s risky, and people may call it foolish, but it’s God’s kind of life, the real life, the life of love.”

Frederick Buechner put it another way. He said:

 We become fully and undividedly human, I suppose, when we discover that the ultimate prudence is a kind of holy recklessness, and our passion for having finds peace in our passion for giving, and playing for keeps is itself the greatest fun. Once this has happened and our adolescence is behind us at last, the delight of the child and the sagacity of the Supreme Court Justice are largely indistinguishable.[2]

 We are all Timothy. And Paul is our mentor. May his counsel guide us this day toward the life that really is life. And may we always know who we are, and whose we are.

 In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.


[1] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act I, Scene III, lines 60-85.

 [2] Frederick Buechner, Listening to Your Life: Daily Meditations with Frederick Buechner (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), p. 184.