Grace Presbyterian Church

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Sermon: Not Ashamed

Grace Presbyterian Church

October 2, 2022, Pentecost 17C

2 Timothy 1:8-14

Not Ashamed

{sing} I know whom I have belie-ved

and am persuaded that he is able 

to keep that which I’ve committed 

unto Him against that day

That’s one I remember from my childhood. I’m going to be honest with you; I had no clue in the world what that was supposed to be about. It made no sense to young me whatsoever. I know people get all sentimental and attached to the King James Version of the Bible (and some folks more than that, quite viciously combative about it), but had you showed the young me verse 12 from today’s reading and said that this was the verse that this old gospel refrain came from, I wouldn’t have believed you one bit. This is one case where I’m quite grateful for modern translations.

This comes to us in a strong and admirable bit of testimony from the author of this letter, acknowledging the struggles he has faced and yet declaring his continuing trust in God and encouraging his reader(s) to do the same. But getting to this testimony takes us through some challenging territory.

[Quick note: even though Paul’s name and Timothy’s are both on the letter, it is extremely unlikely that Paul actually wrote this letter or 1 Timothy. The roles of bishop and other church leaders described in 1 Timothy simply didn’t exist by the time Paul had died, and the writing style is frankly alien to the rest of Paul’s letters. This was not uncommon practice at the time. For the sake of convenience in the rest of ths sermon, I will refer to writer and reader as “Paul” and “Timothy” anyway.]

The author, who we’re calling Paul, seems to want to make a big deal of his imprisonment, and seems awfully concerned that his young reader might be feeling some shame over Paul’s situation, whether for Paul directly or for how it might reflect on himself to have his teacher and mentor in jail. Perhaps as a result, this dynamic duo of “shame” and “suffering” pops up twice in this brief passage. First, in verse 8, Paul is encouraging Timothy not to be ashamed of Paul’s testimony or of Paul himself, but to “join with me in suffering for the gospel.” Later, in verse 12, Paul, having spoken of his call to apostleship, acknowledges that he suffers for this, but again encourages Timothy not to be ashamed. 

For anyone who knew Paul’s career, suffering was almost a given. Paul had been jailed so many times that under modern marketing practices he would probably have earned a free stay somewhere. He had faced any number of arrests, tortures, and harsh punishments for his proclamation work. Speaking of suffering simply was talking about life for Paul. This business of shame, though, is something different. 

Paul’s most well-known statement on suffering came back in Romans, where he proclaimed that “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of salvation…“. In other epistle passages there is talk of others being ashamed for various misdeeds they might have done. This business of whether Paul might feel shame over his imprisonment is new, and frankly odd. 

The idea that Timothy (or whatever reader might see this) might be ashamed of Paul for this is still farther afield. Actually this might make a decent argument for why Paul did not write these letters, as such attitudes about Paul (while not unheard of in his lifetime) became much stronger after his death, as different leaders with different ideas and attitudes came to the fore in the church. 

Still, whatever its sources, this does raise some questions that it’s worthwhile for the church today to consider. What brings about shame these days? 

You would think that, say, reports of rampant sexual abuse and subsequent coverups by Roman Catholic priests some years ago, and Southern Baptist pastors more recently, would be the kind of thing that might provoke some degree of shame. But no, the only responses seem to be more coverup, more hiding, or sometimes “doubling down” and endorsing the leaders exposed for their wrongdoings. Somehow, shame at the abuse of other human beings doesn’t seem to enter the picture.

One might think the church’s past complicity in the eradication of Native American peoples from their lands and erasure of their Native identities might also be an object of shame. While some fitful and tentative gestures towards acknowledgement and apology – and Pope Francis even used the word “shame” to describe his feelings about such abuse on his recent trip to Canada – there isn’t a whole lot of evidence that any church so involved has experienced much shame for their actions in those times. 

So what do churches “get shamed” for these days?

Well, up in Birmingham, two campus ministry staffers – one PC(USA), one Episcopalian – were disinvited from a “Church and Ministry Expo” fair on the campus of Samford University, apparently over those denominations’ failure to exclude LGBTQ+ persons from their fellowship and ministry, specifically because both denominations allow same-sex marriage[1]. Admittedly I’m looking on from a distance, but it does seem odd for a church organization to shame another organization for not being “biblically orthodox” in a situation where those organizations are in fact being biblically Christlike. But that’s just me, I guess.

What else do churches get shamed for these days? 

Maybe for being small? 

You ever see that? Someone affiliated with a larger church maybe being a little bit pitying, a little bit patronizing toward someone who goes to a smaller church? What are the automatic assumptions about a small church, the default words used to describe it? Maybe “struggling”? Maybe even “dying”? Maybe the higher-ups in that church’s denominational struggle get into hushed conversations about how to gracefully ease that church aside and devote more resources to the bigger, more “successful” churches? 

Well, for one thing, small churches are trendy now. There’s even a book on the subject of the trend towards very small churches – even smaller than us in some cases[2]. For another,  small ain’t necessarily dead. I’ve been in small churches that crackle with activity and mission, and large churches that are – bluntly put – dead as a doornail. Seems from here that one church shaming another over size needs to worry less over the one finger pointing at the small church, and the three others pointing right back at them.

In short, there are reasons churches should be ashamed, but they seldom are. And there are things about which churches don’t need to be ashamed, but sometimes get told they ought to be. Neither is good – the first because something very bad has clearly happened, and the second because one church trying to shame another is, well, frankly, something to be ashamed of. 

Whatever shame was being experienced by Timothy (or whatever reader of this letter) was doing no good, and probably distracting from the work that needed to be done. The same can be said for us. Getting caught up in shame over being small or over being ostracized by some fundamentalist church types doesn’t help anything, and probably gets in the way of the work that is before us. So let’s not waste time with that, okay?

For not getting caught up in pointless shame, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns: (from Glory to God: the Presbyterian Hymnal): #307, God of Grace and God of Glory; #720, Jesus Calls Us; #840, When Peace Like a River



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