Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Trouble with Timothy

I have included the following sermon, delivered on Sept 19, 2010 at Caledon East United Church, which is one hour's drive north of Toronto, since it comments on my time in Didsbury -- Ian

Text: 1 Timothy 2: 1-7 (Prayers for those in high positions)

Last summer, when I was preparing to move to a small town in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in Central Alberta, I was nervous. Some of my fear came from  preconceptions about what such a town might be like. I wondered if I would be able to fit in. But in the event, most of my fears proved to be unfounded. And I loved my 10 months serving as supply minister and student intern at Knox United Church in the town of Didsbury Alberta.

One of my preconceptions was that everyone in a small town like Didsbury would be conservative, both in politics and religion. One place where I learned that this was not the case was a reading group that met at Knox every Thursday morning. And I thought of that reading group when I looked at the assigned Scripture readings for this week.

Caledon East, like most mainline congregations, follows the three-year Scripture reading list called "The Revised Common Lectionary" of 1992.  When I looked at the list for this Sunday a few weeks ago, I worried that I might have trouble relating to any one of the four suggested readings. So I decided to focus on the passage that I disliked the most. Perhaps this is an unusual choice, but the reading from First Timothy, which we heard before the last hymn, reminded me of my time in Didsbury.

Last September, as the Thursday reading group in Didsbury started up again, the book it read was called "The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church's Conservative Icon." Here's my copy. Published last year, it is the latest work by two of my heroes: Marcus Borg and John Crossan. And it is a book that provides all the background one needs to understand why people like me don't like First Timothy.

First Timothy is one of 13 letters in the New Testament of our Bible that claim to be written by the Apostle Paul. In fact, the reason the early Church included these letters in the New Testament is their status as the work of Paul. However, as Borg and Crossan point out, there is now consensus among Bible scholars that perhaps only seven of those 13 letters are actually written by Paul. And of the six letters that may not be by Paul, First and Second Timothy are two that scholars are most convinced to be wrong in their claim to be written by Paul.

Given that we are convinced that First Timothy is not by Paul, we can now say that First Timothy is in the Bible by mistake! And not only does First Timothy falsely claim to be written by Paul, many of the ideas in this letter are completely opposite to the heart and mind of the real Paul.

Perhaps these controversies explain why the creators of the 1992 Lectionary only include three short excerpts from First Timothy in its assigned readings. This means that a congregation that follows the Lectionary only has to deal with a few bits from First Timothy every third September.

The most notorious passage in First Timothy follows immediately upon the one read here this morning. Fortunately, the creators of the Lectionary did not include it in their list. But at the risk of offense, I will now read this passage. It says, "Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing." (1 Tim. 2:11-15)

Now, not only is this viewpoint not shared today by most people in a denomination like the United Church, it also runs counter to the life and work of Jesus. Jesus included many women among his closest friends and co-workers. And the high place of women in his work is clearest in the accounts of Jesus' death and resurrection. After his arrest, all of Jesus' male friends deserted him. But many of his women friends stood by him on Good Friday; it was to women such as Mary Magdalene that Jesus first appeared on Easter Sunday; and it was these women who first proclaimed the Good News that Jesus has been raised by God.

Paul is similar. Paul's authentic letters show that, like Jesus, many of his friends and co-workers were women. And the real Paul stands for the equality of men and women. For instance, in Galatians Paul writes, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

In their book, Borg and Crossan argue that Paul's message is anti-Roman, grace-filled and egalitarian. Paul, they argue, is a radical in every way.

The fake Paul, on the other hand, often has very different messages. Take our reading from this morning. In it, the author urges the Church to pray and give thanks for kings and all who are in high positions. But who were the kings in the First Century? The Roman Emperors, the Caesars, whose empire executed Jesus. Jesus' central message stands in opposition to worldly kings and their unjust rule. Jesus proclaims the kingdom of God in which the first will be last and the last first; and that message is probably the main reason why Jesus was executed by Rome.

Some people say they feel liberated by ideas about First Timothy as portrayed in the book "The First Paul." But others say they are disturbed by them. For years now, some Christians have argued that scientific criticism of Scripture such as that by Borg and Crossan might damage our faith. And I can understand this concern. The various books of the Bible are written by humans? Some of the books are included by mistake? There is more than one message on key topics in the Bible and these messages sometimes contradict each other? Are these really matters that we should be studying or talking about in church? There is even a stereotype that people like me who study in seminary are in danger of being turned off religion entirely.

Against such fears, I turn again to Marcus Borg. In another of his best-selling books called "Reading the Bible Again for the First Time," Borg talks about his own faith journey. In childhood, he naively accepted whatever his parents and church told him  including magical figures such as Santa Claus and supernatural tales about God and Jesus from the Bible. But as Borg grew up in our modern and scientific society, he adopted a critical point of view. Like many of us, in this second stage he discarded supernatural beliefs not only in Santa Claus but also in God. But later, Borg entered a third stage when he switched from his conservative Lutheran background to worship in a liberal Episcopalian church. In this last stage, Borg encountered the Living God again.

Borg calls this last stage post-critical naivete. The third stage didn't cancel out the critical stage that preceded it  -- the one where he had abandoned some of his beliefs in the supernatural. But in this third stage, Borg graciously found a deeper truth in biblical stories, church tradition, and rituals; and these truths had a profound effect on him regardless of any contradictions in the Bible or of any sins in church history. Borg remained a critical thinker even as he let his heart be open to a message of justice and love on the Way of Jesus.

I strongly identify with Borg in this. When I surprised myself by returning to worship in my local church, Kingston Road United, in east Toronto nine years ago, I did so as a thoroughly modern skeptic. But then I found myself swept up by the spirit of that congregation and felt my heart opening in worship. After my first Good Friday service there in 2002, I told the minister that it was almost enough to break an old atheist's heart. The choir had sung the chorus "Lacrimosa" from Mozart's Requiem Mass. And as we sang and prayed, I glimpsed how the stories of Jesus as a God-filled teacher who suffered and died for love of his friends could be a place where, with God's grace, we are given an opportunity to wake up in the midst of life. In a congregation like that and within our flawed Christian tradition and our Sacred Scriptures, we can find a place in which to take up our own crosses and follow Jesus on a path of faith, hope and love. And I have been trying to follow His path ever since.

So there it is -- First Timothy in our New Testament. And there also was the group in Didsbury last September reading Borg and Crossan's criticism of letters like First Timothy. And because of that group and their book, I felt relieved.

The reading group was led by two retired United Church ministers and their wives, all in their 80s, and all quite active in Knox United. I relied on these two ministers last year for support, advice, and to co-preside at communion and baptisms. We got along well, and I felt in tune with them on most issues.

Now Knox United, like other active and vital congregations, includes people with a wide range of views on politics and religion. But despite not sharing the same background or perspectives as everyone, I felt welcomed and embraced by the people of Knox. The spirit of the people at Knox in conjunction with the Spirit of God helped us to tell stories from the Bible and to relate them to our life together. And so we were able to worship God in a way that seemed to nurture us all, despite differences. In a year filled with a great deal of learning, this was perhaps the most hopeful thing that I experienced. At its best and with God's help, worship can unite us across great personal, political or religious divides.

Worship is the work of the people of God regardless of our beliefs. This morning, some of us here might believe in the literal truth of all the stories in the Bible. Others of us might be modern skeptics who basically believe nothing. Others might feel in tune with deep sacred truths in the hymns, silences, sermons and Scripture readings -- even readings from First Timothy! -- without being concerned about the historical accuracy of the stories. And all this diversity seems quite natural and wonderful to me. Together, congregations made up of diverse people like us can rely on God's Spirit to connect to sacred values of life and love in a broken world and in pain-filled lives.

Knox United in Didsbury, like all congregations, had its share of divisions and bad feelings. But I loved that community of faith and found it to be a place where the healing power of God's love abounds. I have no doubt that Caledon East is just such a place as well.

And so this morning we give thanks for places of worship -- mosques, temples, and churches of all kinds -- where mortal sinners like us relate to our troubled and grace-filled Scriptures and traditions, and where we again encounter the Living God whose Love enfolds and heals us regardless of where we might be on our journeys of faith, hope and love.

Thanks be to God.


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