Sermons represent copyrighted material and are not to be reproduced, transcribed, or used in any form without the permission of Rev. Chris Moore or the speaker for that day.
2 Timothy 1:1-14
Scholars have significant disagreement about the authorship of this letter that is traditionally called 2nd Timothy – not “2” Timothy. The traditional take is that this is one of the last letters of Paul, but there are problems with that. First off, the vocabulary is different in this letter than in other, earlier letters of Paul. And the timing isn’t right, for the earliest manuscripts we have of 2nd Timothy arrive after the known death of Paul. It’s also hard to reconcile a Paul who praises women deacons and leaders and says, in a letter to the church in Galatia, that “in Christ” there is no male or female with a Paul, in 2nd Timothy, says that women must be submissive to men in the same church that is supposedly “in Christ,” too. So, most scholars these days believe that this was a letter written after the death of Paul but attributed to him, a letter written to a Timothy who seems weighed down by infighting and pettiness in the church, wondering deeply if his faith even matters.
So, while we have in some of the pastoral epistles like Timothy a collection of later church writings that demonstrate how the church was becoming more like culture in ways that are disheartening, this is also a letter about being faithful, or living faithfully in the midst of injustice, and maybe we don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. For this letter has something to say about the necessity of faith being more than respectability politics or “niceness,” but rather messy and disruptive transformation. And the call for us to claim what being faithful really means, even if we don’t agree with the letter’s later assertion on what that is, seems a quite poignant one, particularly on a World Communion Sunday where the whole church is supposed to get together to share a meal. And we all know what happens when the family gets together for a meal, right? So, instead of not talking about religion or politics, in the spirit of disruptive transformation, let’s talk about both. After all we have values as Christians, values that often get held up as line items, or weaponized against people, and it can be very confusing trying to discern how to live faithfully in this world.
Case in point – this week brought to us another critical verdict around the murder of an unarmed black man, this time in Dallas, Texas where the trial of former Dallas Police Officer Amber Guyger took place for the murder of Botham Jean, a man who was shot to death in his own home, eating a bowl of ice cream, by Ms. Guyger, who mistakenly entered the wrong apartment thinking it was hers and, within 5 seconds of seeing Mr. Jean, shot him dead without ever doing so much as announcing herself as a police officer.
Ms. Guyger, much to many’s surprise given the historical record of such trials, was convicted of murder and sentenced to 10 years in prison. What has been all over the news, however, is the remarkable act of Brandt Jean, Botham’s younger brother, who, in the family testimony portion of the trial post-verdict, forgave Ms. Guyger from the witness stand and then asked the judge if he could give her a hug, a hug she embraced as if it was the first time she’d had human contact in 10 years. The impact was immediate. Brandt Jean was lifted up almost as a hero, with dedications to him coming from many different avenues, and largely, I will note, from white people.
That’s one way that we often see things differently, or through different lenses, when it comes to so-called “justice.” There are many who might see the face of Jesus in black forgiveness from Brandt Jean or from the members of a Charleston, South Carolina church, but then fail to see the face of Jesus in black outrage at injustice, as if Jesus didn’t forgive people and also turn over the tables in the temple, driving people out with a whip…as if we can’t acknowledge an individual act of forgiveness as remarkable and important while also decrying the systemic oppression and injustice that gives rise to such an act. While we can remember the Jesus whose life is marked by forgiveness and non-violence, we must also balance that with the Jesus whose life was a threat for the powers that be, whose oppressed body spoke up and out against the religiously supported authority, and whose death came not because of hugs, but because of truth spoken openly and boldly in a crowd.
Brandt Jean’s forgiveness is just that – his forgiveness. It is not yours or mine, nor even his own family’s. Let us not forget, in the midst of this praise, to hear the words of Allison Jean, Botham and Brandt’s mother, who supports Brandt’s decision as something she and her husband are working towards, and also told the court, “While we walk as Christians, we still have a responsibility to ensure that our city does what is right.” She lifts up the need for both forgiveness and justice, for the work on this individual case of the murder of her son and the systemic, perpetual injustices that continue, a balance that seems challenging, particularly as forgiveness is highlighted so deeply, seeming to deliver a sense of shame to those of us who follow Jesus and aren’t yet ready to forgive, those who see grace as a critical goal, yet still feel deeply the need for outrage and resistance.
Maybe we find ourselves this morning trapped in some of the same atmosphere that this “Paul” exposes in his letter…twisted and tempted by the values of the culture up against our call to the Gospel, confused about what to do when it seems that a Church can lift up an individual act of forgiveness a coat it in sugary sweetness, but says nary a word about rampant, obvious and brutal injustice present in the systems which we have helped to build and support. As I have been a party to and a witness of the interpretation of this week’s events in Dallas, I have noted a few things. By and large, the justice-loving folk are confused by forgiveness and the forgiveness-loving folks are confused by justice, which leaves us all a little confused. In addition to a very real racial divide on interpretation, one that indicates the very long and very traumatic differences between white people’s general experiences with a so-called justice system and people of color’s general experiences with a so-called justice system, there seems to be a theological divide, too.
Is forgiveness something we’re supposed to do as a nice gesture, showing our good, clean, Christian hearts? Or is it a sign of our discipleship, an effort to push towards something that is difficult, the work of seeking God’s love in a world of suffering by leaning into it? Or is it, along with things like reconciliation and redemption, something that each of us must work out in our own hearts, as Paul also said, with fear and trembling? Forgiveness is not a punch-line, not an tranquilizing pill. It is not meant to silence nor suppress. Forgiveness, as Drew G.I Hart said on social media in response to this very event, “isn’t the suppression of genuine indignation or pain. Forgiveness…should be paired with truth. And the only path to restorative justice for the oppressed & the oppressor requires repentance,” he concludes, “and reparations from the wrongdoer.” Justice and forgiveness have a symbiotic relationship, but they are not necessarily connected. There can be forgiveness without justice, and there can be justice without forgiveness, at least justice in the way that we think of it. Justice is complicated, too. After all, what possible sentence could Ms. Guyger have received that would have righted the scales? How many years would it have taken to equal Botham Jean’s life? True justice, I am more and more convinced, comes only from God. But we ought to at least have accountability. And true forgiveness can only come where there is accountability.
I think one of the reasons the video of the hug is so widespread is that it supports the false sense of resolution. See, everything’s OK now. Only the Gospel does not tell us that everything is OK. It tells us that God is with us and we are to set aside our fear in the name of a Jesus who is reconciling the world to God. It asks us to take up our cross, being willing to stand in the darkness, presenting our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, knowing that if we numb the darkness we numb any chance of light as well. If we repost and praise and highlight when black folks show mercy, but are silent when they cry for justice, we are discounting the amount of work it takes to make forgiveness more transformative than a hug.
How will we heal if we don’t stay in that discomfort, at least long enough to learn what we need to learn about ourselves and one another? For we cannot just see this moment of forgiveness from a single person and forget all of the injustice present in the systems we have built. We cannot watch the tender moment, wash our hands and return to business as usual. Especially not THIS morning, where we come to this table to re-imagine the world, along with the rest of Christendom. Here, where Christ comes again to tell us the story of his strength from vulnerability, his power gathered and given away, his very body broken for us, his blood shed in an act of love that he asks us to repeat not by becoming another martyr, but by sharing this meal, by guarding, this good treasure given to us freely, a gift of grace given to us in Christ Jesus who, Paul writes, abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel…a Gospel, by the way, that Paul consistently says he suffers for, he wrestles with, he is afflicted by…for this is not easy work, this being a Christian. It if only reinforces your already held assertions, you might want to reassess. If it lifts up a moment of forgiveness, but never speaks of the weight of injustice, you might need to reconsider.
If it makes you entirely comfortable and at ease, you are likely doing it wrong.
We should be troubled by the injustice in the world, bothered by the brokenness we see around us, and maybe even feeling the same sense of confusion about our own faith family that Timothy apparently feels. After all, we belong to a much larger Church that often seems confused about what it means to be faithful. We belong to a much larger tradition that has supported, even created, some of the great injustices around us. Yet I will still suggest to us the same thing that this “Paul” suggests to Timothy from a jail cell…keep the faith. Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard…the teaching that demands we are our brother (and sister’s) keeper…the teaching that tells us that what we do for the least of these we do for Jesus. Guard this good treasure entrusted to you, Paul reminds us, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.
With this meal, remember again why it is that this way of Jesus is so compelling to you, renew in you that spirit of hope, love and solidarity. Come to this table and share a meal with not only the people here, but people everywhere, whose stories are different, whose experiences are contrary to our own, and whose lives – we are told in the breaking of the bread and the drinking of the wine – matter just as much to God as ours.
May God’s grace be with us all.