Pastor LouiseA Sermon by Louise Westfall
Fairmount Presbyterian Church
8 August 2010
I Timothy 6:11-19
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The scripture reading for today comes from one of the apostle Paul’s two letters to his young associate, Timothy, towards whom he felt great affection and responsibility.  Both letters are full of advice seasoned with love, as Timothy seeks to minister faithfully in a church with growing pains. The bustling cosmopolitan city of Ephesus was a hot-bed of religious and intellectual thought, a rich context for faith formation and community-building.   The morning text follows what may be the most misquoted verse in the Bible:  The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Paul makes that observation and then urges Timothy toward a different way.  Listen for God’s Word to the church in the reading from the first letter to Timothy, in the sixth chapter at the 11th verse. [I Timothy 6:11-19]

The story is told of four representatives of the world’s great religions gathered for an interfaith meeting at a large convention hotel. Following one of the sessions, they found themselves waiting for the same elevator.  To break the ice and the weariness of the packed schedule, one of the delegates suggested they play a little game:  “Let’s see if we can explain our faith in the time it takes the elevator to go from here to the first floor!”   The delegates agreed, and the Roman Catholic volunteered to go first.  On the trip down from the tenth to the first floor, he rattled off the Apostles’ Creed.   Next it was the Hindu’s turn.  Pressing the button for the 10th floor, she began:  “We believe in the great wheel of life.  All is a cycle, and what has been will be again.  It is for us to understand our place in this turning, to do what falls to us to do, and to celebrate our place in the scheme of existence.”    She was finished long before the doors opened.   Then the Zen Buddhist pushed the button for the lobby.  Everyone waited for him to begin, but there was only silence as the car descended the ten floors.  When the doors opened, they asked:  Why did you not say anything to us about your belief?”   The Buddhist replied, “In saying nothing, I said all there is to say.”     Scratching their heads a bit, they turned to the Presbyterian, the last to take a turn.  The elevator doors closed, and she reached out to push the button.  All were surprised when she pushed, “2,” and asked her curiously, “Why didn’t you push “10?”   “Because,” the Presbyterian replied, “there’s a great little coffee shop on the second floor where we can kick back and really discuss this!”

Presbyterians are sometimes admired, sometimes scorned, and sometimes ridiculed for professing a faith of many words.  Our theological perspective is deep and wide, and doesn’t translate into an elevator speech very well.   Maybe we have been leaders in ecumenical and interfaith dialog precisely because we value intellectual exploration and can imagine all sorts of nuance and a broad spectrum of religious understanding.   The “dark side” of this is, of course, that many of us don’t have an “elevator speech” that allows us to share the heart of our faith with others readily.

Yet language is what we humans have to share meaning.  For better or worse, people of faith have always felt the need to express their experience of God in words.  The Bible holds unique authority as our guide for faith and practice, but Presbyterians have also appreciated the Church’s attempts to tease out the meanings of biblical teaching in contemporary life. We have adopted a whole book of confessions – think of it as a collection of 11 faith statements – from the second century through 1991.      Some of these—like the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds and the recent Brief Statement of Faith provide short summaries of basic Christian conviction.  Others –like the Scots Confessions and the Westminster Confession of Faith—developed to distinguish Reformed theology from its Roman Catholic roots.   Still others emerged in times of crisis as the Church sought to witness to the true gospel.  The threat of Nazism, for example, led to the Theological Declaration of Barmen; the reformed church in South Africa responded to racism and apartheid by writing the Belhar Declaration, which has been recommended by the recent General Assembly to become our 12th confession.

This Summer, several questions for the sermon series dealt directly with phrases in the Apostles’ Creed.  Last week, Missy spoke about Jesus descending into Hell and how this terrifying reality transforms our own experiences of fear, despair, and death.   Today’s request came from someone who wondered why the person who actually signed Jesus’ death warrant is called out by name in the Creed, the only person besides his mother to be so mentioned.  Why does it read “suffered under Pontius Pilate” and not “betrayed by Judas Iscariot” or “confessed and denied by Simon Peter” or “witnessed to by Mary Magdalene” or “proclaimed by Paul”??? Interesting—something I’d never noticed.   But I jumped at the topic primarily because it provided opportunity to think about creeds and confessions generally.  More than one of you has expressed discomfort with affirming our faith in worship with one of these statements, saying you don’t want to say things you don’t personally believe.  Some object because the language is archaic, churchy, and male-oriented.  Still others believe these statements reflect a stale and ponderous institution emphasizing doctrines and dogma, in contrast to the immediacy of feelings and experiences of the Divine animating much contemporary spirituality.   Why do we still give “creedance” to the creeds?—teach them, in fact, to our confirmation youth, recite them when we baptize and commune, and often following the preached Word?  What good are they???!!!!

Well, first, they show us our “family tree.”  Family genealogy reminds us of our roots, the multitude of people and times and places that shaped who we are today.  The Book of Confessions reunites us with our universal Christian family and our particular Reformed branch of it.  We can see very clearly what the church has proclaimed as truth: Jesus Christ as the embodiment of God’s love who restores us to the “life that really is life.”   We can trace the development of key theological themes such as covenant, sin, grace, and stewardship, and learn how the church has expressed those concepts in its teaching and practice;  relying first upon Scripture—of course!—but interpreting those ancient words in light of changed social, educational, and cultural realities.  Some people who get into family genealogy discover some skeletons in the closet, so to speak— some relatives who acted in ways contrary to the values and perspectives cherished by current family members.  When one of my family members started nosing around about my maternal ancestors who had immigrated to southern Ohio, he discovered that they were hard-drinking, prone-to-fighting shanty Irish who weren’t much good at farming.  But boy did they love to sing and play baseball!     Our faith family tree has some of this too.    But the point is, this is our family.  We didn’t spring from spontaneous regeneration, but were born or adopted into this particular faith.  We may be far from the taproot—and even way out on a limb— but we belong to this tree, and are connected to all the other branches— past, present, and future.

The question posed about why Pilate? illustrates this.  The Apostles’ Creed reminds us that when we profess “Jesus Christ God’s only Son our Lord” we are not simply describing a theological concept, but are proclaiming loyalty to a human being who actually lived within human history, in Palestine, during the governorship of Pontius Pilate whose rule is attested to in secular histories.  We put our trust not in some Christological archetype, but in Jesus of Nazareth, an honest-to-God person, teacher, and savior.   It also recalls that Jesus was not immune from the suffering and injustice so prevalent in human life, and that his death was the result of human decision-making.  In this, the choice of a ruler, a government official in an oppressive and hostile regime, is interesting because the gospels portray him as believing in Jesus’ innocence, but acquiescing to crowd pressure in order to keep the peace.  It would have been just as accurate—but more painful to admit—that his suffering was initiated at the hands of his own people and fellow God-worshipers.  We have no reason to boast or feel superior to other faith traditions.  And for heaven’s sake, the creeds should never be used to draw the line in the sand about who is “in” and who is “out.”  They’re descriptive of this religion, not prescriptive about who belongs.

The confessions also provide a kind of spiritual gyroscope, locating our center of gravity in a spinning world.  They prevent us from imagining that faith is entirely an individual matter—that each one of us can simply cobble together a religious framework by picking and choosing from among many options until we construct something to our personal taste and liking.   Faith is personal, but it isn’t private; that is, we can’t be a Christian by ourselves.  We become Christian, and grow as Christians by participating in a Christian community—both a local congregation as well as the great cloud of Christians with whom we are in communion.  Do we have to agree with every word of these confessions?  Every interpretation and application, every framework and argument?   No, and in fact, one of the most important tenets of Reformed faith is that when all is said and done, God alone is Lord of the conscience.

Instead, these expressions of what the Church has felt called to do and to believe down through the ages extend an invitation to us to join the conversation.  These conversations are perhaps the most important we will ever have because they concern life’s big and persistent questions about identity and purpose and whether there really is some transcendent meaning in it.  They comprise the treasure that has been entrusted to us that provides a solid foundation for the explorations taken up by every generation to find an authentic lived faith for today’s challenges.

I think there’s one more reason to recite these creeds and confessions together in worship: to learn them by heart.  There are probably some here today who recall a time when learning the Westminster Shorter Catechism was required for Presbyterian Church membership.  Then there was at least a generation when memorization was regarded as an inferior teaching method.  But I’m not so sure.   I think of Ken, a long-standing, faithful member of the church who developed Alzheimer’s.  This cruel disease robbed him of his personality, his keen wit and intellectual vigor.  But as long as I live, I will never forget serving him communion and seeing his blank blue eyes fill with tears as he intoned “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth. . . . ”

As an elevator speech, you could do a whole lot worse.

Finally, friends, words will always fail us.  The truth of our witness is revealed by our actions;   by what we do, not what we say.   But words can inform and inspire us.  And they can point us toward the One who is able to accomplish in us abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine.   Thanks be to God!

Today, I invite us to sit for a time with the Apostles’ Creed.  Rather than recite it together, I invite you to hear its various parts and in silence consider how they might touch your heart and open a pathway to richer, truer faith.

I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ God’s only Son our Lord;

Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried; he descended into hell;

The third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit. . . . . . . the holy catholic Church. . . . the communion of saints. . . .  . .  the forgiveness of sins. . . . . . the resurrection of the body. . . . . . and the life everlasting. . . .