Sermon: Fight the good fight, finish the race, keep the faith

By The Rev. Bernard W. Poppe, Rector

From the second letter of Timothy, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith." Vocabulary and style differences prevent scholars from totally agreeing that the letters to Timothy are really from Paul. It was a common practice for students to write in their teacher's name or even the name of the person who inspired them. So it's possible that although the author of this Epistle claims to be Paul in the opening verses, that it is in fact someone inspired by Paul who wrote in his name.

Despite that, the importance of the Epistle is not in question. It is a faithful rendering of the issues faced by the early church and some of the practical advice and solutions offered. In the passage we read this morning, the author is writing from the point of view of someone at the end of their life or ministry. The Epistle is filled with tender words of encouragement and confidence in young man named Timothy. "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith" are words that affirm the authors life's work and by implication encourage Timothy to do the same.
This morning we Baptize two babies. In a short time we'll renew our own Baptismal vows and pledge our support of Elijah and Henry in their new lives in Christ. We're telling them that living a Christian life is sometimes "a fight", but one worth taking on. We promise to proclaim a Gospel of God's love in a world torn by war and battered by hate. It's not always popular Gospel, even among those who say they proclaim it. I spoke recently with a woman who attempted to apply her Christian commitment to how she managed her staff in a major corporation. Without using overtly religious language, she encouraged them to care for each other and help each other in their projects. It wasn't very successful, she said. Her suggestions were considered signs of weakness and out of place in a competitive, often combative environment. Where manners are considered signs of weakness, it's no wonder there are so few of them demonstrated.
But we're telling these babies to try. To persevere in the faith and the belief that Jesus' teaching of loving God and our neighbor is crucial to a healthy spiritual life. Against the odds, it's a life worth living. We renew our Baptismal vows several times each year, because we recognize liturgically that it's not easy and we need to be reminded often.
The Gospel lesson gives the illustration of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. It's not a story about righteousness, it's a story against being judgmental. To his credit the Pharisee did all the right things. He fasted and tithed - just like he was supposed to. Pharisees were teachers and he lived what he taught apparently. (One of my colleagues lamented that it's a pity how during Stewardship season the Tither appears as the bad guy in the story!) Never the less, what's called into question by the story is the motivation of the Pharisee for his scrupulous observance of the law. Was he following spiritual laws to enrich his spirit or just show off to others? Was his public image the important thing to him? It certainly seems that way. I think it's fine to be grateful for the strength to follow spiritual disciplines, such as fasting or tithing. Where he crosses the line is when he compares himself to others in a way that makes him superior, and by implication, more worthy of God's love and attention.
The Tax Collector may or may not have heard the boasting of the Pharisee. He didn't need to compare himself to anyone. He was aware of his short comings and yet still felt connected to God enough to ask for mercy. He didn't need to be better than anyone else, he just needed to do better himself.
That's part of the lesson we want to teach these babies. Don't compare yourselves to others as though that makes you better or worse, but seek to improve yourself based on your desire to be better young people in a world that really needs good people. Be grateful for the progress you make and seek to improve when you make a mistake. God's love is constant, no matter what. I know for my self, I've been good and I've been bad. Sometimes bad is more fun, but ultimately good is better! I was taking to a friend not long ago sharing stories of lesson we learned the hard way and we agreed that life's lessons are often learned through mistakes, and the biggest lessons are from mistakes that are expensive or embarrassing.
In last week's confirmation class the youth mentioned an interest in preaching. It was spurred by us coming in here to sing and pray at the start of the class. Sitting up here has an irresistible draw for youth to the pulpit. They love to get in here and speak into the microphone. So we talked about the scripture lesson for today and how they might preach on it. We had some extemporaneous examples, and some frank conversation on the shortcomings of my preaching. I was disappointed to discover how boring I am. I asked if I had ever caught their interest, by chance perhaps?
Stories came in first as the attention getters. Stories of my sabbatical got honorary mention, as did, surprisingly, a story from several years ago. These kids are listening, and they are remembering, even through the boring sermons. What else might make the sermons more interesting? Relating them to contemporary issues and topics, like iPods. Now, I had never thought of the spiritual efficacy of the iPod, but I'm open to learning and no sooner had we started the discussion of the iPod than the Gospel lesson was demonstrated. I thought I was going to impress them by saying I had an iPod. My momentary victory was dashed when it was reveled that my iPod was out of date. You see, I don't have the iPod Touch. I have the iPod classic. I can't mimic the attitude that accompanied the line, "You have the iPod Classic?" I felt like the Tax Collector, unable to raise my eyes in the company of my students. My shame was compounded by the Pharisaic attitude of the youth who brought out her iPod Touch and I imagined her saying "God, I thank you that I am not like other people who only have the iPod Classic, or God forbid, the Nano; or even like this priest who doesn't even know how to use it."
Teens can convey a lot by the unfiltered look of disbelief and the roll of the eyes. I was able to salvage a moment of teaching opportunity by assuring them that God loves me despite my technological shortcomings, and not only me, but all people who don't have the iPod Touch, the iPad or any of the other technological gods on the shelf. The lesson was great fun and it was apparent that we all have a bit of the Pharisee in us, as well as the Tax Collector. What we don't have, is the right to judge others based on who or what they are, or what they do or do not have. We all share similarly in the greatest gift that anyone can have, to be a child of God.
Hopefully we can bring that lesson to these two babies being baptized as well as remind ourselves of that which is simple to understand and often difficult to live out. Tell them in whatever way you can or that they can relate to -- they are definitely listening.
"Fight the good fight, finish the race, keep the faith." Amen.
©2010 St. George's Episcopal Church, Maplewood, NJ